The city of Richmond spent about $60,000 on fanfare surrounding the opening of the new Huguenot High School, much of it for work by a private marketing company that wrote press releases, arranged tours, bought balloons and crafted talking points for students.
Johnson Inc. was paid about $50,000 between August and February for work related to Huguenot’s opening, according to invoices obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch through a Freedom of Information Act request. The local company is owned by Ken Johnson, a political supporter of Mayor Dwight C. Jones and a member of Jones’ church.
Johnson Inc. planned tours of Huguenot for the mayor, faculty and students, orchestrated the Jan. 5 opening ceremony and oversaw a digital time capsule project designed to capture the lives of Huguenot students on a hard drive that will be kept in a display case until 2035. The time capsule alone cost roughly $20,000.
“My issue is with the people in the city who thought this was a good idea,” said School Board member Kimberly B. Gray, 2nd District. “I don’t fault Johnson Inc. for bidding on a contract and billing whatever the market will bear. I think the city has a responsibility to ensure its money is being spent wisely.”
City Councilman Parker C. Agelasto said the city has lost sight of the value of a dollar and what costs seem reasonable to average Richmonders.
“I think we’ve got to come back to the reality of the value of things,” Agelasto said.
Johnson Inc. did the work as a subcontractor for AECOM, a global engineering and design firm hired by the city to manage the construction of two elementary schools, a middle school and Huguenot.
For Huguenot’s opening, the city paid $10,000 for equipment and services from other vendors. That included $660 for plaques, $800 for balloons, $2,166 to rent an audiovisual system and $3,000 to produce a video urging students to submit material for the time capsule. Johnson Inc. was paid for arranging those services. For example, the company billed $93.70 for a half-hour phone call with the balloon vendor.
Johnson and AECOM declined to comment, saying their contracts prohibited them from doing so.
Despite Johnson Inc. billing for nearly 100 hours of work related to the time capsule, the project hasn’t drawn strong interest at the school. Organizers could not say how many students have submitted digital content for the capsule, and the invoices show Johnson Inc. scrambling to find ways to gather material.
Johnson Inc. received roughly $16,000 for planning and coordinating the project, which was given the name “Hugh-E.” The display case for the capsule cost $1,202. The metal trunk that sits inside the case cost $147.
Under the terms of the contract, a 5.9 percent markup is applied on reimbursable equipment costs. For the $1,202 display case, that meant the city paid AECOM an additional $70 for making the purchase.
The Huguenot opening was paid for with money budgeted for the mayor’s school-building program. Since work started on the program-management contract in November 2009, AECOM has been paid roughly $12 million. As a subcontractor, Johnson Inc. has been paid a little more than $3 million, roughly $735,000 for public-relations work and $2.3 million for providing three staff positions to the city.
Huguenot, the city’s first new high school since 1968, cost roughly $75 million to design and build, according to city documents. The original budget was about $83 million.
Johnson Inc.’s invoices are paid by AECOM. They go to the city for review because the city reimburses AECOM for Johnson Inc.’s work. Johnson Inc. was a part of the AECOM team that won the contract to manage the school projects through a competitive process in 2007.
City officials have said outsourcing oversight of the projects has paid off because the school facilities have come in well below the $175 million budgeted to build them. But some have questioned the necessity of paying private companies to perform work that the city could do on its own.
Both the mayor and the school system have communications staffs. The mayor’s press office has six positions and a general fund budget of $492,811 for the current year. The school system’s public-information department has five positions, though only four are filled, and a budget of $433,557.
School systems spokespersons in Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties said they could not recall ever having private marketing companies assist with school openings.
Johnson Inc. held 16 weekly planning meetings for the opening ceremony between early September and late December. The meetings typically involved two employees gathering for half an hour, at a cost of $154.
A Johnson Inc. employee with a billing rate of $193 per hour listed 8½ hours of work on Jan. 2 to prepare for the Jan. 5 ceremony, according to the invoices. That day’s work — which included an internal walkthrough, development of a press kit and the creation of talking points for student participants in the ceremony — cost the city more than $1,600.
In September, a Johnson Inc. employee billed $305 for 2½ hours of work visiting a trophy shop to research commemorative plaques for the opening.
For the mayor’s press tour of the school a month prior to the opening, Johnson Inc. billed for 48 hours of work, which cost more than $7,200. That included almost $2,000 for writing and designing a save-the-date and invitation for the tour, roughly $1,700 for on-site work performed the day of the tour and $676 for an hourlong prep meeting involving five employees.
The tour, however, had to be rescheduled because the mayor was called out of town for the funeral of a family friend. Johnson Inc. spent an hour on Nov. 24, the originally scheduled date, canceling orders with vendors and rescheduling the services. That hour cost $187.
School Board Vice Chairwoman Kristen N. Larson, 4th District, said she was concerned that the money came out of the city’s capital budget when the school system has identified $30 million in needs at school facilities.
“We have to be mindful of every penny we’re spending,” Larson said.
Johnson is a longtime member of First Baptist Church of South Richmond, where Jones serves as pastor. He has contributed $2,040 to Jones’ mayoral campaigns, according to online campaign finance records from the Virginia Public Access Project. Jones’ political committees spent $24,220 with Johnson Inc. in early 2009 for services related to his inaugural events.
A spokesperson for AECOM deferred comment to the mayor’s office, saying the company was “contractually obligated” to its client.
In response to an emailed set of questions about the Huguenot expenses, the mayor’s office gave a general statement. Tammy D. Hawley, the mayor’s press secretary, said “Community engagement is a part of the scope for the project and the vendors have consistently come in under budget.”
The city doesn’t appear to have set budgets for specific initiatives such as the Huguenot opening or the time capsule. The city also did not authorize a specific amount for communications work in the latest extension of the AECOM contract. The agreement simply set a cap of $1.8 million for all AECOM services related to school projects.
The monthly invoices did not list cumulative amounts spent on specific efforts such as the tour or the time capsule. The Times-Dispatch reviewed Johnson Inc.’s supporting documentation and added the costs in each area.
For the duration of the AECOM contract, which has been repeatedly modified, the city has authorized up to $16.7 million of work. In 2010, the AECOM contract was projected to cost $7.5 million to $9 million.
The time capsule concept was an idea proposed by Johnson Inc., according to Hawley.
The goal was to have students submit videos, photos, music and other digital offerings to show future students what life was like in 2015.
The time capsule concept was proposed in August. In December, Johnson Inc. met with Huguenot officials to propose a revised strategy of announcing the time capsule at the opening ceremony to allow more time to gather material.
“This new strategy was developed because HHS did not follow through with obtaining content,” states the Johnson Inc. documentation for a Dec. 18 meeting.
The mayor’s office also nudged students to participate.
“Every student needs to be a part of this project,” Jones said in a news release on the day of the school’s opening. “This is our first foray into a time capsule project of this nature, and it may set a trend for other schools to follow. I’m very excited about using technology this way to capture what is important to this student body at this time.”
The release from the mayor’s office said submissions would be accepted until April 30, and the capsule will “officially close for good” in September.
On Feb. 17, four Johnson Inc. employees held a “brainstorm meeting to determine marketing strategies for student time capsule submissions and strategies for content collection.” That meeting cost $856.
The new school in South Richmond has room for 1,400 students in a technology-rich environment.