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Grand jury report critical of WPUSD

Investigation focused on building projects
By: Liz Kellar The News Messenger
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Western Placer Unified School District made many errors and misjudgments in facilities construction and financing during the last decade, the Placer County grand jury said in a report released Friday. The district’s ongoing financial troubles, including an unexpected budget shortfall discovered in 2006 and approximately $189 million in facilities-related debt, had forced the postponement of the proposed new Twelve Bridges High School. Questions regarding district construction projects – compiled by district director of maintenance and facilities Frank Nichols and assistant director Mike Thornbrough — prompted Steve Pounds and Daryl Sanbeck to file an official request for investigation with the Placer County grand jury in September 2007. A request for investigation also was filed with the grand jury by district administration. The district also hired an independent investigator to investigate claims raised by district maintenance staff. That investigation has been curtailed in light of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the district against architect NTD-Stichler and builder Edge Development. District officials have 60 days to prepare a response to the grand jury report. The school board does not meet in July, but Superintendent Scott Leaman said it will meet in August to develop its official response. While Leaman said in a prepared statement that he did not want to make an “off-the-cuff response” to the grand jury report, he did offer a few comments. He noted the grand jury investigated the district “based on allegations and assertions by a few individuals in our community,” and added that the report “did not validate all of the claims leveled at the district by these critics nor did it vindicate their viewpoints about WPUSD management.” Leaman also said that “where the grand jury noted that district facilities management practices and policies needed improving, it commended the current district administration and trustees for taking decisive steps to change the way we do business … We are pleased to see that the grand jury believes we are on the right track.” In regard to the issues regarding the district’s architect and contractor, Leaman noted that the grand jury “appears to understand the ultimate responsibility for many of the construction-related problems raised by these critics is better handled through investigation, and ultimately by the courts. The district continues to intervene in a lawsuit concerning these matters. ”We appreciate the grand jury’s candor and objectivity and will take their observations and suggestions to heart,” Leaman concluded. The grand jury report lays the blame for many of the bad decisions made by the district at the door of former superintendent Roger Yohe, who was removed from that position in 2006. The report also is critical of the former district board, whose “lack of oversight and pattern of complacency did not meet its fiduciary responsibilities.” “Yohe influenced the board to follow a fiscally irresponsible path toward his overly ambitious vision,” the report said. “He initiated and approved design and construction of high-end, state-of-the-art facilities with no sound, achievable financing plan in place.” According to the report, the district and city did not negotiate aggressively enough with developers for fees and the district relied too much on risky debt for financing the building projects. Of the trustees that served during the period of time in question, only Paul Long and James McLeod still sit on the board. “I agree with everything the grand jury had in the report,” Long said Wednesday. “I really cannot find a whole lot of fault in there.” Long added that at the time, he had concerns about some of the funding mechanisms being proposed. “I came to my decisions based on the financial data that was presented to the board,” he said. Long also said that he was pleased the grand jury said the district was correcting its course. “I thought there were some positive things, that we’re on a good track right now,” he said. The grand jury report found the district administration had hired unqualified people to lead the aggressive new facility construction. Too, the report said, the district performed “little or no oversight” of the architect and the contractor and there was not appropriate administration of some contracts. According to the report, Yohe promoted former principal Ken Gammelgard to the position of district director of site development, although he was not qualified for the position. Later, Yohe was transferred to a new position of facilities superintendent, again with no experience or qualifications in managing construction, the report said. But the board also shirked its responsibilities, the report found. “The school board should have examined the costs and funding mechanisms more closely,” it said. “It did not insist on updates regarding construction contracts, negotiations with the builders and contract change orders.” The grand jury found continuing problems within district administration as to staff relationships and communication. Jurors “heard instances of dialog being stifled, warnings going unheeded or not being passed to the responsible parties and important questions being unanswered,” the report said. However, the report stated, the current administration has taken appropriate steps to address its financial situation and has “taken positive steps to be open and transparent.” The report did recommend that the district make better use of its Web site to communicate with the public, posting and maintaining any new district and project information. Among its conclusions, the grand jury said school trustees must clearly understand their responsibilities, including approving building costs and plans — and any changes to those plans. The report also recommended the district guarantee all building projects be tied to defined and specific funding sources. “Given its current financial situation, there is little margin for error,” the report said. “It should make no commitment to schools in the new developments until clear, firm and sustainable funding mechanisms are in place.” While the grand jury chose not to fully examine the allegations against NTD and Edge, the report stated that the school district should not allow partnerships between its architect and primary contractor. The grand jury recommended the district create a department dedicated to new construction that is separate from facility maintenance. “The district needs to make certain it has staff competent to oversee facility construction,” the report said. “This department must have qualified experts who can negotiate contracts, monitor construction and work actively with inspectors and architects, guarding the district’s interests.” The community came in for its share of recommendations, including supporting the district board. “There are specific past issues that deserve more detailed investigation, but the grand jury recommends that recriminations within the district stop,” the report said. “The community should use its energy to create a solid plan for the future.” Pounds, one of the district critics who had filed a request for a grand jury investigation, had not seen a copy of the report Tuesday. After reviewing the findings and recommendations, Pounds said he felt vindicated. “The district never would say Yohe or the previous board were at fault,” he said. “At least that’s something. The findings validate the suspicions we had, that we’re not just naysayers.”