By JT Long | Engineering News Record
12/28/2010 - Los Angeles Unified School District is once again wrestling with its construction contracting and project delivery procedures. LAUSD canceled a pair of contracts in its $19.2-billion construction program in November when the LAUSD board citied violation of a no-subcontractor rule.
One contract was for $3.7 million to Consilia LLC for construction planning and the other for $90,000 to Kathi Littmann, former LAUSD chief of school construction for education specifications work. Littmann says staff told her that the contract had been awarded, cancelled and put back in place before LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines stopped it for good. Littmann is now president of City Prep Education consulting and charter management in Los Angeles. She won Engineering News-Record’s 2003 ENR Award of Excellence for her work at LAUSD before she left in 2002. She sees the controversy as a bad sign for the school’s contracting environment.
“It’s just like 1999 [when Littmann started in the midst of a scandal over an $87-million high school being built on a toxic site]. There is no trust; the [school] board doesn’t understand the process and is interfering in contracting,” Littmann said. “It’s amazing how quickly it all unraveled.”
Littmann also expressed concerns that the board is attempting to shift risk to outside contractors. “That requires a sophisticated facilities manager, but too many of the experienced people are now gone,” Littmann said.
LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines saw the confusion over the contracts as a miscommunication during a transition in the construction process. He explained that as the construction process is slowing down and the district is dealing with budget issues. The board wanted to emphasize using employees rather than contractors, he says, and made a no-subcontractors rule. “We didn’t do a very good job communicating board policy about not allowing subcontractors so the people who let the contracts were not aware of it,” Cortines said. “The contracts weren’t illegal, but they didn’t follow policy.”
Cortines emphasized that LAUSD still needs experienced contractors. “We just need to do it the right way,” he said.
The subcontractor debate was not the first time in 2010 that LAUSD came under scrutiny for contracting practices. In October, Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel released the first-ever audit of LAUSD’s construction program at the request of Cortines. The auditors’ report found that from 2002 to 2005, LAUSD’s policies and oversight for how contractors was selected were “weak.” The program led to potential conflicts of interest, including 225 instances where a regional director sat on a panel that selected the person’s employer as a contractor. However, it noted that from 2006 on, the district had “undergone a dramatic improvement and has done a good job ensuring the integrity of the selection process.”
This article is from a building trades and engineering publication with admittedly, a small and issue-specific audience – neither educators nor parents. However the message is clear and resonant to it’s audience – building and construction management firms that operate by contract building and modernizing public and private infrastructure – in this case our children's schools.
The message is this: LAUSD and its board of education unilaterally revokes legal contracts because of District contracting staff ‘s failures to adhere to internal guidelines and policy.
No allegations have been made that the contractors in these two contracts (Consilla and Dr. Littman) misbehaved or acted unethically – the misbehavior was by internal folk who cut corners, miscalculated or misperformed.
Yet it is the outside contactors who have been punished and had their contracts terminated and their good names dragged through the press.
Cortines: “We didn’t do a very good job communicating board policy ….” We’ve heard that line before … it’s from an old familiar score. [Jules Styne/Sammy Cahn]And so it goes, the refrain that haunts LAUSD: - 'been there, done that', - deja vu, redux - repeats itself again. Coda :|
Contractors rely on the good faith of their contract partners – and their own good hard-earned reputations to engender future work - and LAUSD has violated that faith and trust. The District has almost $6 billion in building and modernization contracts yet to award under Measure Q – and it has compromised its own good name as a ‘partner-of-choice’ through this unilateral action. This ultimately will cost the district dearly as some contractors will not bid on future LAUSD projects – and those that do will factor-in contingencies against this sort of thing.