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Fixing Schools is a Broken Process

DOE hired consultants, who supervised contractors, who supervised other contractors, who supervised subcontractors, who actually did the repairs

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Photo: Kevin Blitz

“It’s OK as long as it’s for the children,” says Marion Higa.

The state auditor smiles wanly to show she’s being sarcastic while commenting on her office’s two-part 2009 audit of procurement at the Department of Education. That’s because she’s a stickler for law and order, and the report describes a Wild West of procurement improprieties and contracting schemes. It’s a story of imperious leadership and old-fashioned cronyism. It may also be a parable for what’s wrong with state government. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning …

In 2006, the Legislature appropriated $160 million to the DOE for the renovation and repair of 96 schools, the final portion of the department’s Whole School Classroom Renovation Program. Years of neglect had left the public schools with leaking roofs and antiquated plumbing, and in desperate need of paint – facts well known to the DOE. Yet, when the department finally received the appropriation, it apparently had no idea how to spend that $160 million. It had no scopes of work, no budgets, and no timetables for the necessary construction and repairs. Instead, the state auditor’s report reveals that the department spent $18 million to $20 million of the Whole School appropriation to contract out these basic government responsibilities to consultants. The result is a baffling, multilayered system of program-management contractors and construction-management contractors that is the key to understanding how DOE went astray.

Pay attention, this part is confusing: The bottom layer of DOE’s system for orchestrating the Whole School program consists of the contractors at the individual schools, those coordinating the actual work of roofers, plumbers and painters. These contractors, however, are overseen by three companies with contracts ranging from $4.4 million to $7.3 million. These overseers are responsible for providing design- and construction-management services to the lower-level contractors. The construction management contractors, in turn, are overseen by yet another company, a long-time DOE consultant with a $2.3 million contract for primary management over the $160 million program. In all, the department has managed to insert three levels of middlemen between the subcontractors who actually perform the repairs and the DOE officials who are theoretically in charge.

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