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The Baltimore Sun

Spot checks by state inspectors found that Baltimore school employees falsely reported making promised building repairs and permitted shoddy work on multiple renovation projects, according to confidential documents obtained by The Sun.

The inspectors found new windows that were cut to the wrong size, leaving gaps at the top, and new doors installed in rusty old frames although new frames had been paid for.

Their findings have sent top school system officials scrambling to correct hundreds of problems ranging from a leaky roof to an empty fire extinguisher to a toilet not secured to the floor.

The city school system's chief operating officer, J. Keith Scroggins, has vowed to hold accountable the people on his staff who didn't make the repairs they said they had, and those who didn't check behind contractors. He said he has already taken disciplinary action against at least one person in management, though he could not offer specifics.

"Unfortunately, it was just a total breakdown," said Scroggins, who has assigned one of his top deputies to address the state's findings and is withholding money from two contractors. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong."

David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said he is pleased with Scroggins' response and confident that he wasn't knowingly conveying false information.

At the same time, Lever said, a lack of accountability is "very entrenched" in the culture of the city school system, which is slated to receive nearly $53 million in state money for renovation projects in the coming fiscal year.

"It's a huge problem that Mr. Scroggins has," Lever said.

Last fall, two employees from Lever's office performed routine maintenance inspections at 40 city schools, part of a program to ensure that schools throughout Maryland are well kept. About 230 of the state's 1,400 public schools are inspected each year.

The inspectors found 585 building deficiencies in the 40 Baltimore schools, some minor and others potential safety hazards. In the winter, the school system reported back to the state that many of the issues had been, or were in the process of being, corrected.

In February and March, the inspectors returned to five of the schools to see whether the corrections had, in fact, occurred. They discovered that nearly two-thirds of the repairs that the system said it had made -- 52 out of 82 -- were incomplete or not done at all.

At WEB DuBois High, for instance, the system said it had repaired cracked and broken windows, but the inspector noted that windows were still broken, some wouldn't stay shut and some were tied shut. Fire extinguishers remained locked in closets.

"This is an appalling discovery," Lever wrote in an April 16 memo to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, marked "confidential" but obtained by The Sun.

In the memo, Lever went on to say that he did not believe senior administrators knew they were submitting false information to the state, but rather that they were not auditing the data they received from their employees.

He said in a recent interview that Scroggins and the school system's new facilities director have been working hard to fix the problems since he informed them of the inspectors' findings in late April.

Grasmick echoed Lever's sentiments, saying that Scroggins and interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston are willing to work with the state to correct a grave and long-standing situation.

"Keith Scroggins took this very seriously," Grasmick said. "We don't doubt that. But, obviously, it has to be remedied. It can't continue."

Lever and Grasmick expressed concerns about how their confidential correspondence was provided to the media. The memo, along with other state inspection documents the newspaper reviewed, reveals a pattern of mismanagement involving city school buildings.

In several cases, contractors did not complete work they were paid to do at schools, or they performed the work badly, the documents show.

At Hampden Elementary, at least 12 new windows were left with three-quarter-inch gaps that allowed cold air into classrooms during the winter, and new doors were installed in old, rusty frames. At Garrison Middle, a new chiller still was not working four years after installation.

At Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle, site of a $148,000 door-replacement project, new doors came in the wrong color, clashing with existing doors beside them. "There are doors with no closures, doors that don't lock, locks with no keys, bathroom doors with no closures," said an April 13 memo sent to Lever by one of his inspectors. "The new auditorium doors have had no handles since [being] installed in September."

Writing to Grasmick three days later, Lever said: "These failures to properly complete work not only represent a waste of significant investment funds, but in some cases can lead to deterioration of the building fabric and potential harms to the occupants."

In recent weeks, senior school system officials have been meeting regularly with Lever and his staff. Scroggins has put his new executive director of facilities, Blaine Lipski, in charge of resolving the problems the state found.

Lipski said he's trying to visit one or two schools a day to make sure that work is really happening, rather than relying on information provided by school staff. "I'm checking and verifying personally," he said.

Sometimes, though, Lipski said, situations vary by the day. A broken window can be repaired, only to be broken again by vandals. The doors at Dunbar Middle have been vandalized multiple times.

Lipski also said the state has not always provided him with the same information contained in the documents the newspaper obtained.

At one school, according to Lever's memo, a neglected roofing problem was "producing heavy leaking" in a closet containing electrical equipment. But state officials later realized that the memo identified the wrong school, and they weren't able to determine until yesterday which school really had the roof problem: Harlem Park Elementary, where repairs have already occurred.

On a tour of Harlem Park Elementary last week, Lipski pointed out a variety of problems that have been or are in the process of being corrected, while jotting down some flaws the state hadn't noted: hanging wires, a missing light switch cover, a dripping faucet.

The contractor for the Harlem Park window project, Clyde McHenry Inc., is one of two from whom the system is withholding money. Officials said the last $170,000 of Clyde McHenry's $3 million contract will be paid after the final windows are caulked, something that can't happen until a crack in the building is repaired.

Significant structural damage elsewhere in the building has been fixed, and new windows have been replaced to eliminate two-inch gaps between the windows and the brick.

Fred Peters, the project manager for Clyde McHenry, said he had to wait for the school board to approve change orders and hire subcontractors to fix the structural damage to the building before the window project could be completed.

The system is also withholding $500,000 in a $3.9 million contract with NORESCO, which did a window replacement project at the Samuel L. Banks/Thurgood Marshall high school complex. A state inspector found windows missing, window frames that were not caulked, windows that were installed improperly, and interior windowsills that were damaged during construction. No work had been performed on the windows in several months. "Water is leaking into the building," an inspection report said.

Randy Clark, NORESCO's vice president and general manager, said some of the problems, such as the windowsill damage, were caused by another contractor hired to demolish the old windows, which contained asbestos materials. He said his company was waiting to caulk the new windows during non-school hours, so as not to disrupt classes.

NORESCO is performing $46.4 million of work in city school buildings that is supposed to cut the school system's energy bills by the same amount spent on the upgrades.

Scroggins said the window repairs at the Banks/Marshall complex are nearly complete now. But for other projects done inadequately, such as the one at Hampden Elementary, he said, the contractors were already paid in full before he was hired.

Scroggins took over a year ago after the system's former chief operating officer, Eric Letsinger, was fired amid questions over whether he tried to use public funds for a fishing trip for his staff. Letsinger's departure prompted high turnover among the top officials overseeing city school buildings. Scroggins said many who left were "qualified people who we would have loved to have kept," but at the same time, more turnover might be necessary.

"There may be more bodies left in our wake because we're not going to continue business as usual in the school system," he said.

He said he has tried to curb wasteful spending by taking away employees' city vehicles and cutting back significantly on overtime, which he felt was being abused.

The city school system has had a long history of neglecting and mismanaging its buildings. In recent years, several people faced criminal charges in at least two schemes in which the system paid inflated invoices for boiler work. A former system employee and the owner of a boiler company were convicted of stealing $3.3 million from the school system between 1991 and 2004.

At the same time, the state has threatened to withhold money for school construction and renovation if the system doesn't start operating more efficiently. That has led to the system closing schools, implementing a program to service boilers and other building equipment regularly, and eliminating a backlog of previously approved construction projects.

In 2005, the system implemented versions of CitiStat, the statistics-based government management program that Gov. Martin O'Malley created as mayor. The goal was to monitor building conditions and construction projects, to create a culture of greater accountability.

But for such tracking mechanisms to be effective, accurate information is essential.

"We all know the statement, 'Figures don't lie, but liars figure,'" Grasmick said. "You can put anything in that kind of tracking system, but it's garbage in, garbage out. It's only as good as the credibility of the person and the information that's placed in that data system."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Read The Sun education blog at www.baltimoresun.com/classroom.

A photo caption in Wednesday's editions that accompanied an article about Baltimore school buildings incorrectly reported when the photograph was taken. The photograph of Blaine Lipski at Harlem Park Elementary School was taken May 31, more than a month after he started his job as executive director of facilities for the Baltimore school system.The Sun regrets the error.
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