August 09, 2012After a turbulent tenure that began only in September 2010, Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Andy LaRowe announced that he will retire effective Sept. 4, 2012.
LaRowe was hired by Guilford County Schools as executive director of facilities in September 2007, shortly before Guilford County voters approved $457 million of school bonds in May 2008.
In the chaos that followed, three men in sequence headed the Guilford County Schools Facilities Department to manage the construction program funded by the bonds: longtime school system consultant Joe Hill; former Chief Operations Officer Leo Bobadilla, who left in April 2010 to become chief operating officer for Houston Superintendent Terry Grier, who was the superintendent of Guilford County Schools from 2000 to 2008; and LaRowe, who succeeded Bobadilla in the top spot after a five-month search.
LaRowe inherited the tangle of construction projects, ethics problems, byzantine payment systems and poorly kept records left by his predecessors. He showed signs of trying to clean up the Facilities Department while managing 27 construction projects, but the juggling act took a toll on his relations with the Guilford County Board of Education and LaRowe's boss, Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green.
On Nov. 8, 2011, the school board voted unanimously, after a closed session, to terminate its contract with Miles Builders Inc. of Charlotte, the main contractor on the $5.3 million renovation program at High Point Central High School, which had fallen more than a month behind schedule. But the school board also used the closed session to discuss LaRowe's management of the school system's $457 million building program. The result of the discussion, for which LaRowe was not present, was that Green would monitor LaRowe's work more closely.
At another closed session on March 6, 2012, LaRowe's relationship with Green and the school board had deteriorated to the point that the school board, on Green's recommendation, renewed LaRowe's $135,000-a-year contract – but for only one year, rather than the two-year contracts given to central office administrators or the four-year contracts given to principals and assistant principals.
Nonetheless, LaRowe said there was nothing behind his retirement other than a desire to retire. In other words, he jumped, instead of being pushed.
"I have made my announcement, and I am at a point where I had planned to retire," LaRowe said. "It has no other factors than my own plans where I could be at a place to retire. I am ready to spend more time with my five children and six grandchildren."
LaRowe said he discussed his plans with Green two weeks before the school system announced his retirement on August 2.
"We went through a process," LaRowe said. "Obviously I made my intention known to the superintendent. Obviously we went through a process of telling my superintendent when I would leave and then informing the school board. It was pretty normal. It was purely a decision based on my own personal plans."
LaRowe's exit comes at an odd time. The school board has finished many of the 27 construction projects on the list presented to voters before the bond referendum, but some major ones remain, including the southeast area elementary school that is planned to be built on Lee Street and the $72 million airport area high school, for which the school board has never found land and which may never be built.
On the other hand, LaRowe may be timing his exit well. He's finished the bulk of the projects. Some of the remaining projects are problematic and probably won't cover whoever manages them in glory . And his indirect boss, the school board, is an 11-headed hydra that alternates between ignoring construction projects, complaining about them when there are delays and even causing delays by stopping bidding on projects in an effort to squeeze a few more percentage points of minority contracts from them.
When the school board tried unsuccessfully to get Kernersville to rezone land in a business park for the high school, the school board left LaRowe twisting slowly in the wind. Not a single school board member showed up to make the argument for the zoning change to the Kernersville Planning Board or Board of Aldermen.
LaRowe said he didn't consider the timing of his retirement odd.
"I am at a confident place to leave," he said. "Certainly we want to get schools done. But at any time someone leaves, there is likely work to be done in school design and construction."
LaRowe's departure will add to the organizational chaos at Guilford County Schools. Longtime Chief Financial Officer Sharon Ozment, to whom LaRowe reported, retired on June 30.
Until Green finds a new chief operations officer, Chief Information Officer Terrence Young will be in charge of the Facilities Department. Executive Director of Facilities Planning and Construction Robert Melton, Construction Director Julius Monk, Transportation Director Jeff Harris and Maintenance Director Gerald Greeson will report to Young.
Young's title will remain unchanged. His usual job is managing the school system's Technology and Student Information departments.
Young said he is inheriting some of Ozment's mantle.
"Sharon Ozment had a broad role," he said. "Part of those roles are now my responsibilities, because she wasn't a traditional CFO. She had some other responsibilities. Facilities reported to her. That's one of them.
That has been one of the problems with the Facilities Department – that it was overseen by Ozment, who had no experience in construction. Various heads of the Facilities Department paid consultants millions of dollars using dodgy and incomplete systems of invoices, purchase orders and contracts that Ozment, who had the final say on payments, didn't properly monitor. The Facilities Department badly needs to be reorganized to include a crackerjack construction finance expert.
Exactly why Young wound up in charge of the Facilities Department is unclear. Guilford County Schools has an odd command structure in which Green is protected by circles of administrators – the "cabinet," the "council," the "joint chiefs of staff," the "college of cardinals" and the like. The cabinet is the inner circle, which may be why command of construction fell to Young for the interim.
"Yes, I'm on the cabinet," Young said. "I'm not sure if that is an essential element, but I am a seasoned administrator with the school system, and there is a skillset involved. I may not be able to fill Sharon Ozment's capabilities totally, but being a member of the team and a longstanding member of the team, I'm here to help."