School projects report raises lingering doubts; Carroll officials, jury await explanations on oversight, billing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Past the baseball diamonds and beyond the stadium at Liberty High School, an athletic field stretches across an expanse that used to be a steep slope.

The ground is soft. A thin layer of grass is growing. The girls' lacrosse teams practice there in the shadow of a hulking water tower.

The transformation from precipice to practice field was supposed to be free. But in Carroll County, where the school system's construction department is embroiled in lawsuits and a grand jury investigation, "free" comes with a $76,762 price tag.

Liberty High also has a storage "shed" with a five-digit cost to the school system. No bigger than a three-car garage, the modest cinder-block and brick building has two garage doors, no plumbing, no heating, no electricity.

The Carroll school system budgeted $40,000 for the building. School officials paid $56,000. A schools construction assistant said it could have been done for $3,500.

The field and storage building are being examined as part of an independent investigation into bungled construction projects that school officials hoped they could put behind them with the release of a 100-page report two weeks ago.

"The bottom line is that none of these expenses was ever authorized by the Board of Education -- not that it's the contractor's fault for getting paid, but the board of education never authorized one penny," said Richard D. Bennett, a former U.S. attorney who was hired by the school board to conduct the independent investigation. "The taxpayers of Carroll County were never supposed to pay for this."

He said the expenditures are "illustrative" of the school system's troubles and described them as "an example of a total overrun that was never projected."

Bennett's report -- compiled by a team of lawyers and former FBI agents -- has raised more questions than it has answered. After its release, Carroll County State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes intensified the grand jury's inquiry, broadening its scope to include possible kickback schemes, thefts, perjury and misconduct in office.

The county commissioners voted yesterday to hire an independent consultant to oversee construction of a high school being built in Eldersburg -- a sign of their distrust of Carroll's troubled school system. And Superintendent William H. Hyde is expected to present an "action plan" at tonight's school board meeting in response to Bennett's report, in which the storage garage and field are cited as examples of "a pattern of wasted funds" that cost county taxpayers at least $2.6 million.

The principal and athletic director at Liberty High didn't know how expensive their field and storage garage were.

"I'm not one to judge, but I think of the first house I bought and I don't know," said Principal Randy J. Clark, who paid $25,000 for his first home in Glenville, W.Va. "I just don't know what construction costs are around here."

Work on another athletic field at Liberty began in November 1995. School administrators, including the superintendent, refused to be interviewed for this story. But in partial, written responses to a list of questions from The Sun, school officials said there were no written specifications for the project, which was not put out for bid and was not officially budgeted.

For about three years, construction crews doing work in the area dumped extra dirt at the school to fill in and level the sharp slope.

The school system's construction department arranged to have the dirt hauled to the high school, where it was to be compacted and graded -- all at no expense to the school system.

Then-construction supervisor Lester Surber wrote in a February 1996 construction report that Carroll schools would be responsible only for a silt fence, seeding and planting of trees on about a 10th of an acre of the site, according to the Bennett report.

"Every now and then we would walk out and say, 'Oh wow, they're dumping more dirt,'" recalled Liberty High Athletic Director Ken Johnson. "It was fairly drawn out and seemed like forever, and then it was done quickly."

The dumping accelerated when Stewart Meekins of Meekins Construction in Finksburg began trucking extra dirt from a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. construction site in Owings Mills to the Sykesville high school.

But by July 1998 -- two months after the 65-by-120-yard field was finished -- a school system administrator found about $22,000 in unpaid bills from the project. Those unsettled invoices represented less than a third of what the school system ultimately spent on the field, spreading $76,762 worth of work across 21 billing statements.

One contractor told a school administrator that Surber asked him to keep the amounts low -- ostensibly, the report notes, to prevent the project from having to go to bid. Only three invoices were for amounts greater than $5,000. Three fell less than $25 short of $5,000.

Surber declined to comment for this story. In an interview with investigators, he denied instructing the contractor to keep amounts low but could not explain why the contractor submitted multiple invoices on the same day on several occasions.

Assistant Superintendent of Administration Vernon F. Smith Jr. told investigators that he authorized Surber to take money from a construction department emergency fund after the school's booster club could not raise enough money for the field. And although Smith said he believed the project would require no more than $20,000, he told investigators that he "probably OK'd all of the payments because he would get stacks of requisitions from several department heads and did not scrutinize each request," according to the report.

Asked whether the cost of the field was unreasonable, Meekins said, "Oh, no. As far as the size of the project it was, they got a darn good value." He would not say how much the school system paid him for his work.

Less is known about construction of the high school's storage building, which is described in the Bennett report as a 240-square- foot shed that could have been built for a fraction of the $56,000 school officials paid for it.

Michael E. Luers, president of South Carroll Contractors Inc., took exception to that characterization of the 1,120-square-foot facility.

"I tell you, it's not a damn shed," he said. "It's a hell of a nice building."

Bids for the project ranged from $66,000 to his estimate of $42,800.

With the addition of a gravel driveway not included in architectural drawings, the school system owed Luers $43,144 for his work.

According to the Bennett report, school officials paid a retired school construction employee $2,500 for design and drawing services on the project. That leaves $10,356 unaccounted for in the school's expenditures from the project.

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