Stimulus dollars yield mixed results in EBR schools

Federal stimulus stretches further in some cases, falls short in others

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system has managed to spend $40 million on school construction and repairs during the past three years thanks to the 2009 federal stimulus act, producing more results than originally planned in some cases and less in others.

The School Board on Thursday heard two presentations that told much different stories on the federal largesse, partly because the money was overseen by different construction management companies tackling different kinds of work.

The upshot is that money for classroom additions that CSRS/Garrard Program Management oversaw went much further than the roughly equal amount of money for school repairs and improvements that Volkert Inc. oversaw.

The $40 million was generated through the sale of no-interest federal construction bonds offered through a program called Qualified School Construction Bond. The bond program was expanded as part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The school system sold two rounds of QSCB bonds in 2010. The money from both rounds had to be spent by late 2012.

CSRS/Garrard Program Management is a joint partnership, which has overseen most school construction in the school system since 1999. It oversaw the spending of $21.1 million of the $40 million raised through the sale of bonds. Taxpayers will have to repay investors who bought the bonds over time.

CSRS was originally slated to build a new temporary classroom building, as well as 12 classroom additions, but managed to stretch that money to build 16 such additions with $356,000 left over.

Earl Kern, program manager with CSRS, said two of the additions were larger than originally planned and the money available also allowed expansion of a few school parking lots.

Volkert, however, cut back the number of projects it was originally tasked to do and spent its entire allotment.

Volkert representatives reported Thursday that the firm had managed $18.3 million and completed 182 school repairs and improvement projects at almost 50 schools.

“We really take pride in the work we’ve done and have really had a chance to impact many of your facilities,” said Phillip Russell, a vice president of marketing for Volkert.

That 182 school repair project total is up from the 130 projects the firm had expected to complete when Volkert reported to the School Board in September 2011, but fell well short of the 266 jobs the school system had originally estimated that amount of money could cover.

Volkert did its own estimates of how much all the work would cost after taking on the project in the summer of 2011 and found the school system’s numbers were $5.9 million short of what would actually be required. School official have never said who conducted the estimates or why they were at odds with Volkert’s estimates.

Volkert’s selection for the QSCB work caused controversy at the time.

In April 2010, the School Board chose Volkert to handle the first round of work paid for by QSCB bond proceeds. Volkert edged out six other firms.

Volkert had sought unsuccessfully to land a 2008 program management contract, but the School Board voted narrowly to retain CSRS, which had overseen school construction since 1999. On Thursday, the School Board deadlocked, 5-5, on whether to extend CSRS’s contract through 2018; the board plans to discuss the issue again at its Feb. 21 meeting.

The board chose Volkert in April 2010 even though three other firms, including CSRS, asked for significantly lower fees.

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber urged the board to hold off on signing the contract to allow for an outside investigation. General counsel Domoine Rutledge conducted an internal inquiry that found the process was within legal bounds. Board President Jerry Arbour then signed the contract.

Between summer 2010 and the end of 2012, Volkert shepherded a series of mostly smaller projects, including repaving, exterior painting, new doors, new intercoms and security equipment, resurfacing and new tracks, and new and replaced canopies.

Clay Slagle, senior program manager with Volkert, told the board that projects were changed because original estimates were so off, but also to meet additional needs. He cited as an example a new fire alarm system for Lee High, which was reopened in August.

“Projects locations and project scopes were adjusted by EBR to best meet school needs as we moved through the program,” Slagle told School Board members Thursday.

When it was hired in 2010, Volkert promoted its efforts to recruit contractors and subcontractors owned by minorities, women and or business defined as “disadvantaged businesses.” Volkert said almost 13 percent of its management fees went to a diversity subcontractor, the Baton Rouge-based Mel Inc.

“We are pleased to report a 19.14 percent participation overall by minority firms in the construction,” Slagle said.

“We packaged the work to allow them to compete for that work,” Russell said.

Board member Evelyn Ware-Jackson asked Russell how Volkert was able to repackage the work.

Russell responded that “sometimes you break it into smaller pieces.” He said those efforts were successful when it came to paving and door replacement, with participation rates of 47 and 38 percent respectively.

Volkert, however, reported no minority participation when it came to replacing windows, working on tracks and stadiums, and installing fire, security and intercom equipment.