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School district questions need to be answered

By: Liz Kellar
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Friday afternoon, Western Placer Unified School District Superintendent Scott Leaman dropped a bombshell in my lap. The district had filed a lawsuit against the architect and builder of Twelve Bridges Middle School, alleging fraud. The suit claims that NTD-Stichler, the architect, and its partner, Edge Development, had conspired to defraud the district by receiving double payments, and by failing to credit or repay monies to the district for work that was not done, for work that was deleted from the project or for work that was done with inferior materials. The allegations are not new, of course. One of the first stories I wrote for the News Messenger back in September 2007 involved many of these allegations, which had been brought to light by district employee Mike Thornbrough. Thornbrough turned his allegations over to district critic Steve Pounds, who filed a request for an investigation by the Placer County Grand Jury. In response, the district filed its own request to the Grand Jury and also hired an independent investigator. Over the intervening months since then, I called the district and the investigator, Bob Aaronson, several times to check on the progress of that investigation. To say that I was surprised that the district had taken on a lawsuit would be an understatement. None of the parties were very forthcoming, which is understandable, of course. But the bare facts of the case raise more questions than they answer. And some of the questions that are going unanswered are the same questions raised by Pounds and by Thornbrough – who currently is planning to appeal his recent termination by the district. His questions seem still relevant today: n Why were all of the recent schools built under a Guaranteed Maximum Price contract that was overridden by board action and change orders that exceeded normal cost overruns? n Did the district use proper due diligence when hiring someone to oversee the construction projects? n Why did the district ignore or not concern themselves with many issues brought to their attention by a state-certified project inspector? n How many hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost due to the district’s mismanagement of construction projects and acceptance of inferior materials and or workmanship without demanding proper corrective measures or financial credit? Pounds was unaware of the lawsuit, but told me he is fed up with the school district. “There’s still a bazillion unanswered questions,” he said Wednesday. “No one seems to give a straight answer ... I’m sure someone has the truth.” Pounds said a large part of his frustration stemmed from the fact that when confronted with the allegations of financial mismanagement, district officials were able to point the finger elsewhere. Since the time period in question, there are three new school board members and a new superintendent. “It’s pretty convenient,” Pounds said. Like many Lincoln residents, I have a vested interest in the facts revealed by this lawsuit. My son is currently a student at Twelve Bridges Middle School – and I am deeply disappointed in the financial decisions that have resulted in the district being unable to build the new high school. You could argue that the lawsuit confirms what some district critics have been saying all along. Western Placer Unified School District had ample opportunities to correct the abuses that the architect and builder were allegedly perpetrating – and did not do so. The documents compiled by Thornbrough show that concerns were being raised more than two years ago by some district personnel and project inspectors, but the district chose not to pursue their allegations. At what cost? The tab for Twelve Bridges Middle School came in at a staggering $39 million. We now know where the money went – but will we ever get it back?