New Whistle-blowers Step Forward In Leon County Schools Construction Controversy

Jun 18, 2014

Leon County Schools Superintendent Jackie Pons has faced allegations of favoritism for certain contractors since last December.
Credit WCTV

Two new whistle-blowers have stepped forward in the Leon County Schools construction controversy. The whistle-blowers are both  Leon County Schools employees.

Sandra Davis, a worker in the Division of Facilities, Construction and Maintenance, filed for whistle-blower protection on June 4. In a letter to Leon County Superintendent Jackie Pons, Davis claims school construction projects have been deliberately undervalued to avoid a competitive bidding process. According to Davis, contracts appear to be awarded to construction companies that made donations to Pons’ campaign.

Davis’ claims are corroborated by Patricia Nichols, a former secretary who disclosed the information to human resources earlier this year. Nichols claims the school board eliminated her position in retaliation and gave her two options: She could either accept a severance package or transfer with a higher wage.

When she filed for whistle-blower protection in March, Nichols says the board rescinded the offers for both the package and transfer, forcing her to retire before she could receive full benefits. Nichols has since filed a lawsuit against the Leon County School Board seeking damages.

In a written statement, school district spokesman Chris Petley calls Nichols’ lawsuit misleading. He says sworn law enforcement officers interviewed Nichols and Davis, and neither claimed to have knowledge of any wrongdoing.

The allegations made headlines in April when an anonymous group sent documents to the FBI, state agencies and the media claiming that construction projects were broken into phases to avoid competitive bidding. If the projects exceeded $2 million, the school board would have to award the contract to the lowest bidder. Since then, former Leon High Principal Rocky Hanna and Woody Hildebrant, former principal of Lively Technical Center, have filed for whistle-blower protection.

The school board claims, however, the projects went to a bidding process through construction managers. Construction managers allow the school board to pick vendors offering the cheapest price for the highest quality of work.

So far state-level reviews of the district’s contract policies indicate no foul play, but the case is still ongoing.