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Leon School Officials Explain District Policies On Construction

Dr. Barbara Wills, Assistant Superintendent of Leon County Schools

For weeks now, the Leon County School district has been facing allegations of wrongdoing when it comes to how officials award construction and maintenance projects. The primary target of those claims, is Superintendent Jackie Pons. The district is trying to push back against those claims but that's proving hard to do, when the group making the charges remains anonymous.

The Leon County School Board has hired a lawyer to look into the allegations against the district. Superintendent Pons has also hired a lawyer using his own money. Rocky Hanna, a former principal at Leon High School who now works in the district office, has claimed whistleblower protection in the issue, and hired his own lawyer as well.

The allegations aimed at Pons have raised questions about the district decides where and on what to spend construction money. Contrary to what some may think—when it comes to making those decisions, it’s not the superintendent who has the power. Each year the district reviews all school property to decide what the needs are.

“That information is taken to our capital outlay committee, made up of district and school administrators, a board member and citizens," says Assistant Superintendent Barbara Wills. She is also a part of the group that signs off on school construction and maintenance projects.

The list of recommendations is sent to the school board for approval of the budget, then goes back to the district’s facilities department to work out the logistics. If projects come in under $2 million, the district can select a company to do the work. If the project is over $2 million, the district has to open the project up and let companies bid for the work. And according to allegations from an anonymous group, several projects between 2010-2014 that were initially above the $2 million threshold were intentionally    broken down into smaller amounts to avoid the competitive bid process. Wills says, that’s true: sort of.

“We did that predominately because that was QSIB dollars," Wills says. That’s money the district has used that are backed by federal bonds. Those come with deadlines for spending the money and getting the work done and Wills says, "by doing the project work in phases, which at the time we thought was allowable, it helped us meet those deadlines. It helped because you have multiple contractors on the same site doing work at the same time. It helped us save time.” 

Wills says had the district went through the competitive bid stage, the projects may not have been done in time, and the district could have had to pay more in interest on the federally-backed loans it took out. The district did work at two schools in this manner. The second project was already underway when the state auditor cited the district in 2012 for shirking the bidding system and dividing the projects up. Wills says the district hasn’t done any more projects in that manner.

Furthermore, when the district does award projects to contractors, those contractors bid the job out to other subcontractors, and if a project comes in under budget--the district saves that money.

Superintendent Pons is also the target of personal charges he steered some of these projects to those who contributed to his campaign fund. Many of the companies that received district contracts are the same ones that have also gotten numerous county and city contracts as well. But there’s one issue the district is struggling to explain-- what happened to documents associated with another construction project at Griffin Middle School—one that started to go through the bidding process, but was later revised because the district decided against demolishing a wing of the school. Wills says, the documents associated with the bid are missing.

 “We’ve been looking for them...but they were never opened and we did get statements from staff involved with them that they were never opened.” 

The documents detailing the allegations against the district have been sent to the FBI, The Florida Department of Education and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. DOE doesn’t control how districts spend their construction money and has declined to respond to the issue. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says it received the documents, and is still reviewing them. Should the FBI were to get involved, it would do so because of the projects that have been backed by federal money—but there’s no word on whether that’s happening or not.

Meanwhile, The district says it plans to release the findings of an internal investigation into the issues ahead of the next school board meeting set for Monday the 19th.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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