July 26, 2012The Guilford County Board of Education's ill-fated airport area high school is on the agenda for the school board's Thursday, July 26 meeting.
School board member Paul Daniels said that he has been approached by a contact for an owner of two properties totaling about 90 acres in a good place for the high school, and will bring it up Thursday. If Daniels pulls it off, he will be doing for free what Guilford County Schools couldn't do for almost a half-million dollars. But most likely the Facilities Department will rule out the land as unsuitable, as it has most of the other land it has considered.
That's not why the airport area high school is on the agenda.
The reason is school board members Kris Cooke and Darlene Garrett have broken ranks to question the $488,737 attributed to the phantom high school, and school board member Ed Price has suggested scrapping the airport area high school project altogether and using the money to fix the county's already existing schools, some of which are in disgraceful shape.
School board members have rarely had to question spending during the current $457 million construction program, which is financed with school bonds approved by Guilford County voters in May 2008, because the budgets for the schools were well padded and the school board had the advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime construction market.
Spending too much money on building a school is something most of the school board members can live with. But spending too much money on not building a school is another thing altogether. The almost half-million attributed to the airport area high school, for which Guilford County Schools tried and failed twice to buy land, got the attention of at least Cooke and Garrett.
The $488,737 figure alone probably wouldn't have caused a public rift in the school board. But only $179,910 was the actual cost of the land search for the high school. The rest of the money – $308,827, was for payments to outside consultants, who may or may not have even worked on the high school project.
It's hard to get financial answers out of Guilford County Schools right now. The retirement of longtime Chief Financial Officer Sharon Ozment has apparently thrown the Financial Department into chaos.
According to documentation of the airport area high school costs prepared by Ozment, $102,112 of the $488,737 was paid to Construction Contract Administration LLC, the company through which Dennis Cole billed the county.
Other consulting fees stick out in the Guilford County Schools records of the airport area high school spending. The school system paid $8,550 of the $488,737 to the New Orleans school planning firm Planning Alliance.
The biggest unexplained cost of the airport area high school land search is the money paid to consultants Sandra Taylor, her husband, Richard Taylor, and their company, Imperial Construction and Development LLC. Both Taylors are real estate brokers.
The Taylors and Imperial Construction and Development are listed as having been paid a total of $83,827 attributed to the high school project – $48,982 for Imperial Construction and Development and $34,845 for Sandra Taylor.
According to Guilford County Schools financial records, Sandra Taylor and Imperial Construction and Development worked for the school system under a series of contracts in which the school board would pay her or her company up to, at various times, between $8,000 and $8,500 a month.
If that amount was paid out over four years, Sandra Taylor and her company would have made about $400,000 during that period. Guilford County Schools has not confirmed how much Taylor and her company were paid in total – and may not know.
Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Andy LaRowe has said Taylor was paid for specific work done, not a monthly salary or retainer. And some invoices from Sandra Taylor do seem to be for specific amounts attributed to specific work for specific land acquisition projects.
Numerous invoices, despite LaRowe's statement, appear to be more in the nature of a salary or retainer. That is, Taylor invoiced the school system for the full amount allowed under her contract – for at least part of the program, between $8,000 and $8,500 for the month, and the school system billed the invoices to 27 account numbers – the exact number of projects on the project list for the construction program.
In other words, it appears that Taylor was maxing out her contract amount each month and the school system was distributing the cost among the 27 projects on the list for the construction program.
If that was so, you would expect Sandra Taylor's payments on the airport area high school program to be regular and for the same amount – and they are, at least when she was billing the school system under her own name.
At first, the school system hired Sandra Taylor as a consultant under her own name. Then, for a short period of time, it contracted separately with Richard Taylor, who operated a company named Imperial Construction. When Sandra Taylor's contract was renewed, it was renewed under the name of Imperial Construction and Development.
During much of that period, the invoices from Sandra Taylor/Imperial Construction and Development simply list the largest amount allowed by the current contract, and bill them as "2008 school bond projects." The "capital outlay" document that accompanies the Guilford County Schools checks to pay the invoices breaks the amount down among the 27 projects.
Other invoices are more specific, and the "capital outlay" document assigns them to specific projects.
The 2008 contract with Sandra Taylor specifies that her pay will be calculated "on an hourly basis, not to exceed $8,000 per month or the annual budgeted allocation of $72,000."
The 2009 contract changes Sandra Taylor's payment method, with the school system agreeing to pay her "on a monthly basis, not to exceed $8,250 per month or the annual budgeted allocation of $99,000.00."
The 2010 contract, the first with Imperial Construction and Development, is far more specific. It obligates Guilford County Schools, "To pay consultant on a monthly basis as invoiced by Consultant, not to exceed an annual budget of $99,000.00. Consultant's fee will be calculated at $47.60 an hour, not to exceed $8,250 per month from October 1, 2010, through September 30, 2011, or the annual budgeted allocation of $99,000.00."
LaRowe was promoted to COO to replace former COO Leo Bobadilla in September 2010, inheriting the tangle of payment systems and poorly kept records left by his predecessors. He has said that one of the first things he did was to rewrite consulting contracts to make them more specific and financially accountable. The 2010 contract with Imperial Construction and Development seems to demonstrate that change.
Despite the change to the contract requiring the consulting fees to be calculated at $47.60 an hour, the invoices from Imperial Construction and Development continued to roll in listing simply the month the work was done and the total amount for the month – almost invariably the $8,250 allowed by the October 2010 contract.
There are $8,250 invoices for Imperial Construction and Development for October and December of 2010, and for January through June of 2011, the last available when the records request was made. The only change in the paperwork is that the Guilford County Schools "capital outlay" document accompanying the payment checks books the payments to the five, six or seven school construction projects for which there was land acquisition work at the time, instead of to all 27 projects.
There are two atypical payments. One is a Dec. 3, 2010 "direct payment" for $8,250 signed by Ozment. Direct payments are payments for which there is no purchase order but which must be paid quickly.
The other is a purchase order and purchase requisition for $57,750 for a payment to Imperial Construction and Development. The purchase requisition is for "2008 bond projects," of which the accompanying purchase order lists 27.
The purchase requisition is signed by LaRowe and Guilford County Schools Director of Facilities Planning Donna Bell, and is assigned to the Planning Department, which is part of the Facilities Department. The purchase requisition states that it covers seven months of work, from Dec. 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011.
The purchase requisition has a line for "Indicate reason if quotes are not documented."
That line bears only the signature of former Guilford County Schools Director of Purchasing John Mann Jr.
Mann's signature is dated Dec. 7, 2010, but is accompanied by no indication as to why any quotes were not documented.
Richard Taylor said he could not comment on his, his wife's or his company's relationship with Guilford County Schools because of confidentiality clauses in the contracts.