By George Sanchez, Staff Writer | Daily News
Article Launched: 08/29/2008 11:30:17 PM PDT
August 30, 2008 - Even while grappling with funding shortfalls, the Los Angeles Unified School District is employing more than 800 consultants - paid, on average, more than twice as much as regular employees - to oversee school construction.
The Facilities Services Division spends about $182 million on its 849 consultants, almost $215,000 each. The division's regular employees are paid about $99,000 each.
The practice has prompted concerns and a growing number of inquiries from the district's board members and LAUSD's bond oversight committee.
"It's the big secret everybody knows and the taxpayers of L.A. County are paying for," said Connie Moreno, a labor representative of the California School Employees Association.
"It looks real good that they get all these schools built, but no one knows the real cost."
District officials defend the practice, saying use of consultants ebbs and flows with the various stages of construction.
And facilities chief Guy Mehula said employee salaries don't measure up to industry wages, so the only way to complete the work is by using independent contractors.
"In many cases, the expertise is more expensive than we can hire as an employee," he said.
Overall, consultants constitute nearly 20 percent of division personnel and account for 35 percent of personnel costs.
Senior Deputy Superintendent Ray Cortines agreed that consultants can get the work done quickly and correctly, but said he is also concerned about the district's reliance on outside workers. "We need to look at it, to reduce the number of consultants," he said.
A report on facilities consultants, including a recommendation, is expected next week.
While it may not be politically viable to offer raises to construction staff and management while teachers and other school staff members are laid off, reassigned or possibly forced to take unpaid days off, at least one board member insists a solution can be found.
"It's not an either-or," said board member Yolie Flores Aguilar. "It's about finding the balance and making sure we're in compliance."
In the seven main branches of the Facilities Services Division, there are 3,479 district employees who earn a total of about $347 million, according to district records.
The division employs 849 consultants who earn a total of about $182.6 million.
Most of the consultants work in two branches: new construction and existing facilities.
Consultants working on new construction number 379 - more than twice the number of their regular-employee counterparts, 178.
And 385 consultants work on existing facilities - about 12 percent of all personnel in the branch that includes nearly 2,600 regular employees in maintenance and operations.
Mehula said that to build on the scale of LAUSD's unprecedented construction effort - the largest of its kind in the country - the district needs to hire experts or it could end up with another debacle like that surrounding the Belmont Learning Center, now renamed Vista Hermosa.
Once a symbol of failure, the Belmont complex, built downtown atop an oil field and an earthquake fault, cost hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade of construction.
"In 2001, there was no in-house expertise," Mehula said. "That's what happened with Belmont."
While experts in real estate, environmental science, design and construction are key to projects that must be economical and innovative, most of them hold positions not necessarily needed in the long term, he said.
For existing facilities, Mehula said, 112 consultants were dropped in the past year. But if those consultants were needed as employees, he said, the district would not be able to afford them.
Los Angeles Unified's refusal to raise the wages for employees and management in the facilities division has long been a concern of the bond oversight committee, composed of parents, local government officials and representatives of special-interest groups.
The committee passed a resolution July 31 condemning the district for not paying higher wages, stating that the ability to attract and retain "top quality management" is being compromised.
The panel also said the district "is actually forced to pay far more for contractors to fill many positions."
Measure Y, the district's $4 billion construction bond measure passed in 2005, requires the district to survey construction firms across the country twice a year to ensure facilities management is paid comparable industry wages.
Multiple district surveys found that pay is lower, but raises are not feasible, according to Cortines.
"As you know, there is a budget crisis where some of our valuable staff members are losing their jobs," Cortines wrote in a letter to Thomas Rubin, the oversight committee's consultant.
"The board has some very tough decisions in the near future, including pay cuts and furloughs. It would not be responsible for the district to prompt pay raises for the very top levels of management in this environment."
Flores Aguilar agrees that facilities employees and managers should be paid more.
"We want the best that we can get because we want to get it right," she said, and to avoid Belmont-type problems. But she acknowledged the political problem of offering raises to facilities employees while cutting funding for teachers and other direct education expenses.
"Unfortunately," she said, "and this goes for Los Angeles as well as the nation, we have not really appropriately funded education."