Something stinks at the Orange County schools.
An auditor found troubling evidence to suggest a contractor may have been paid for work he didn't do.
And the district responded with talk about booting him — not the contractor, mind you. But the auditor — the guy who was trying to watch out for the public's money.
School officials say the two things aren't related, which makes this one amazing coincidence.
Also a coincidence: The contractor accused of not playing by the rules is a friend of the same School Board attorney targeting the auditor.
It looks like small-time politics — except we're talking about a governmental agency with a big-time, billion-dollar budget. All of it public money.
The April audit raised a lot of questions about accountability in the school district's construction and building programs. But many of them centered on a single company: Hodges Brothers Roofing.
The Orlando Sentinel reported this year that auditors had been unable to find warranties for more than 170 of 182 jobs that Hodges had performed and that Hodges had been paid for several jobs without district officials verifying that the work was even done.
Then this past weekend, Sentinel reporter Erika Hobbs detailed several more findings from auditor Jan Skjersaa related to a $74,000 roofing project at Evans Ninth Grade Center. Among them:
Hodges Brothers had trouble proving it had applied a leakproof coating. … No warranties for the project were on file. … Some of the purchase orders were created long after the company had completed its work. … The manufacturer had no record of selling Hodges its product for this job.
Oh, and school staff were still reporting leaks on all the roofs.
With such findings, you might expect Skjersaa, a five-year employee, to get a raise.
Instead, he got word that his job was on the line.
Why? When contacted Tuesday, school-district attorneys essentially portrayed Skjersaa as an auditor gone wild.
They said he violated all kinds of auditing and bureaucratic protocol by testing roofing materials on his own and by violating his chain of command when he spoke up about perceived improprieties.
But were his claims about Hodges true? That is, after all, what matters most.
The answer I got was a mishmash.
In some cases, they said no — that Hodges' reputation had been unfairly smeared.
In other cases, maybe yes — but not in a manner that really matters.
In a few cases, well, they just weren't sure.
And was School Board Attorney Frank Kruppenbacher friends with the owner of Hodges?
Well, yes, Kruppenbacher said.
But Kruppenbacher said he was friends with many of the contractors with whom the School Board does business — a claim in which he seemed to find far more comfort and solace than I.
I suggested to Kruppenbacher that, because there were questions about his personal relationship with the contractor at the center of all this, he shouldn't be involved in the case.
"I've already recused myself," he said.
"No, you have not," I responded, noting that Kruppenbacher had publicly badgered Skjersaa at a School Board meeting, held up the reappointment of the auditor's job and had just told me that he was preparing to offer advice to Superintendent Ron Blocker about Skjersaa's future.
Kruppenbacher thought about that and then said he would remove himself from everything connected to this audit and auditor from here on out.
About 20 minutes later, he sent a memo to that effect.
This decision came about two months after it should have. But at least it came.
Now the district needs a thorough investigation.
District leaders, including Kruppenbacher, say that they have already called for an audit. But this investigation needs to encompass both this specific project and the overall construction divisions. And it needs hard-hitting independent investigators — the likes of which other governments have used when probing their own contract dealings.
School-district attorney John Palmerini says he now thinks Hodges did all the work it was supposed to. He said, for instance, that subsequent research turned up warranties and confirmation of services provided by other companies involved. It would help to hear that — and see the proof — from someone who doesn't work with or for Kruppenbacher.
School Board members also need to be more plugged in. Members I spoke with this week weren't even aware of the situation at Evans until they read it in the newspaper this past weekend.
If I were an elected official, I would have serious questions about why that was.
Board members should also keep in mind that, though staff members seem eager to pooh-pooh Skjersaa's audit now, his report was approved by the district's auditing committee months ago.
In short, if the district has a rogue auditor who is making false claims and causing the district legal problems, then of course that should be addressed.
But when claims about an auditor's unprofessionalism don't surface until he starts digging up dirt, it raises serious questions.
Scott Maxwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6141.
2009 AUDITOR GENERAL'S REPORTCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun