MCPS Responds to Seven Locks Report at Council Hearing

March 2, 2006
The Board of Education and the Superintendent of Schools issued the following statement during today's joint hearing of the Montgomery County Council Education and Management and Fiscal Policy committees. The statement was delivered by Board of Education Vice President Sharon Cox.

What brings us here this afternoon is a set of decisions, made collaboratively by the County Council and the Board of Education, to serve the interests of the students of Seven Locks and Potomac elementary schools. These decisions generated strong opposition from some members of the community with a special interest.

Before responding to any of the specific statements in the Inspector General’s report, we want to emphasize that a system of accountability is a critical component of the guiding tenets of the Board of Education and Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). Members of the County Council are well aware of our efforts to ensure financial accountability. These efforts include using nationally recognized standards as the basis for continuous improvement, having performance measurement systems in place to continuously monitor our progress, and involving the community in all aspects of our work. These are critical components of our strategic plan. The Board of Education provides oversight for this plan and the work of the superintendent and his staff. We expect the County Council to provide oversight, as well. This objective oversight of our public schools is the responsibility of both the Board of Education and the Council.

We welcome objective reviews of our operations and our work so that we can receive useful feedback for continuous improvement. Over the years, we have participated in many audits and reviews by the Office of Legislative Oversight, and we have welcomed their constructive oversight. At this time, we are preparing for an extensive audit by the state legislative auditors. The results of these audits are intended to help our organization improve. Please know that our response to the Inspector General’s report is not an objection to either oversight or audits. However, we do not see the Inspector General’s findings and recommendations as reflecting a fair and honest appraisal of our work that is intended to help us improve. Indeed, the Inspector General’s report omitted key facts concerning the Seven Locks replacement project, including several key decisions by the Board of Education and Council prior to the 2004 decision.

When the Inspector General first contacted MCPS, our staff welcomed this study as a way to affirm the joint decision of the Board and the Council—made in the best interests of children—to build the Seven Locks Elementary School replacement project. They thought that if the entire scope and context of this very complex project were reviewed in a fair manner, the facts would be presented completely. This did not happen. Instead, it appears that much of the information was either taken out of context or not considered at all, and the result was a report that put in doubt the honesty of the superintendent and his staff. There could be nothing further from the truth, and we stand by our staff and all involved whose integrity has been questioned by the Inspector General’s findings.

Nonetheless, we need to determine how to move forward. Moving forward constructively in order to serve the best interests of children is our primary goal. We are disappointed that this issue has risen to its current level of discord—no public good is being served. We agree with the Inspector General that his report is too incomplete to determine if adequate management controls are in place. However, we suggest either the Office of Legislative Oversight or a private contractor work collaboratively with MCPS staff to complete an analysis of this case with the purpose of using it to improve our processes, including the review of capital projects and the Capital Improvements Program (CIP) by the Board of Education and the Council.

In addition, we have to move forward on the Seven Locks Elementary School replacement project. It was the right decision when it was made, and it is the right decision now. The Seven Locks replacement facility at Kendale best meets the needs of students. It provides the students with a modern elementary school facility, relieves overcrowding at Potomac Elementary School, avoids having to bus children to a holding facility, and does not further delay the project into the next decade. It also is the safest option for children. Creating a larger school at the current site is not. The increase in classrooms at the existing building to accommodate the additional students would significantly increase traffic in an area already beset by traffic congestion and expose students to additional safety risks. Not only is the Kendale site safer, the plan to build there is more cost effective. And, if we do not move forward on this project, we jeopardize the $750,000 already committed to the project.

In regard to specific findings in the Inspector General’s report, we believe that:

• Costs and other related data supplied by MCPS were presented fairly to the Board and Council in all material respects, in accordance with generally accepted construction estimating principles.

• The difference in costs between the two-step option on the Seven Locks site and Kendale was accurate and reliable.

• It was appropriate not to present a one-step option for the Seven Locks site because this option was counter to policy decisions made by the Council in the adopted CIP regarding the separation of addition projects from modernization projects for the “little darlings” schools.

• There was a policy decision made by the Board and approved by the Council not to break the modernization queue and the order of projects in the CIP.

• MCPS is in compliance with state and county laws and regulations regarding the procurement of architectural/engineering services.

• There was and continues to be support in the Seven Locks/Potomac elementary schools communities for the replacement school at the Kendale site.

Our question is how can we move forward from this point in a more productive manner?

Detailed Response to Audit Findings:

The Inspector General indicated in correspondence to Dr. Weast on January 6, 2006, that he initiated the audit “to resolve credible complaints received by the OIG from several county residents concerning cost and other information presented to the Council prior to its approval of a revised Seven Locks Elementary School Project in May 2004.” We are not certain what the Inspector General meant by “resolving complaints” when he initiated his audit or how he intended to resolve these complaints. However, we believe that without considering and including in his analysis the full context of this very complex case, it was not possible for the Inspector General to resolve the complaints. We believe the individuals who shared their “complaints” with the Inspector General may have been the same people who filed unsuccessful appeals of Board decisions to the State Board of Education and the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction (IAC) concerning Board and Council approval of the revised Seven Locks Elementary School project. It does not appear that the Inspector General considered the appeals or, if he did, did not explain how this information was considered either in his decision to do the audit or in his findings.

By limiting the scope of his work to a narrow time frame instead of looking at the entire project, the Inspector General ignored a substantial body of information that was available on how and why the decision was made by the Council to approve the phased addition/modernization project at the current Seven Locks site. We have attached a chart which identifies the key decisions that were made that resulted in the final decision to build on the Kendale site. The Inspector General does not recognize the need to provide relief to Potomac Elementary School or consider the long standing policy decisions of the Board, supported by the Council, on not violating the order of the modernization queue. This policy decision obviated the option of a single-phased modernization/addition or replacement project at the Seven Locks site.

In addition, it appears the Inspector General did not consider the reason why the Kendale site came into the discussion. The request from the county executive and the Council PHED Committee to surplus the Kendale site (and others) created a potential funding opportunity. When the option was proposed for the Seven Locks replacement project on the Kendale site, the project was brought forward because of the potential to sell the Seven Locks Elementary School site and use the proceeds to fund the difference between the funds programmed for the addition to Seven Locks Elementary School and the Kendale project. At the time, this proposal provided a means to move forward with the new school without having to consider other deferrals or changes in the modernization schedule. Even if the site is not sold, it could be used for MCPS offices or leased and the proceeds used to pay for other MCPS office space that cannot be housed at the Carver Educational Services Center. Alternative uses of the current Seven Locks site and facility would provide a valuable revenue stream, which clearly makes the Kendale site the most cost effective and best for county taxpayers.

It appears that the Inspector General was confused on the issue of who from the community proposed replacing Seven Locks Elementary School at the Kendale site and who from the PTA supported the project before the decision was made by the Council to approve the project at the Kendale site. The individual who initially suggested the replacement project is not the same PTA person who testified at the Council hearing on February 12, 2004, contrary to what is said in the Inspector General’s statement prepared for today’s meeting. The first individual was the MCCPTA area vice president, while the person who testified at the February 12 Council hearing was the Seven Locks Elementary School PTA president. Whether or not the community now supports the replacement project is not material to the Board’s decision at that time.

The Inspector General indicated that one audit objective was to determine “compliance with requirements of State and County laws and regulations related to the expenditure of funds.” The Inspector General never indicates in his findings that MCPS is not in compliance with state and county laws. In fact, we are in compliance. It is unclear why he did not share this information when this was one of the objectives of the study. His statement that it is “not a sound business practice” to award Architectural and Engineering (A/E) service contracts without competing proposals is also confusing. The A/E selection process used by MCPS is a qualifications-based competitive process used by the state and county government, as well as other Maryland public school systems. Was this issue discussed with the county government, the IAC, or any other school systems? Did the Inspector General know before making this statement that the IAC does not support bidding architectural services and that the county government does not bid for these services?

Office of Inspector General Finding 1:

Cost data for the Seven Locks Elementary School project presented by MCPS to the Board and Council was limited to two construction options, even though at least two other apparently less costly options existed, including one studied by MCPS for the existing site.

As the president of the Board of Education at the time the decisions were made in 2004, I was aware of the full context of the decisions surrounding the Seven Locks project. This context is missing from the Inspector General’s report, and the lack of context distorts the evaluation. Had the Inspector General requested a meeting with me as the president of the Board at the time of these decisions, I would have been available to explain the totality of factors that went into our decision.

The Council approval of the FY 2003–2008 CIP recognized that it was more costly to phase certain modernization projects with capacity issues, such as Seven Locks Elementary School, rather than complete them as single-stage addition/modernization projects. This decision was necessary because of fiscal constraints and capacity issues that prevented both phases from being completed at the same time. The Council’s decision clearly directed that these projects be phased, with additions being completed before modernizations. Several of these projects, including Farmland and Garrett Park elementary schools, were designed, bid, and are now under construction.

If the option to build a replacement school on the Kendale site had not been evaluated as part of the FY 2005–2010 CIP, the Seven Locks Elementary School addition project would be under construction now. However, when MCPS evaluated whether a new school on the Kendale site was a better option, the evaluation was limited by the Council’s previous action on how the “little darlings” schools were to be completed as a phased addition/modernization. This was understood by the Board of Education and Council and is corroborated by the events that occurred during deliberations on this issue as part of the FY 2005–2010 CIP. The same issue was revisited in the spring of 2005 and was reaffirmed as part of the amendments to the FY 2005–2010 CIP in May 2005.

These considerations are important in understanding that decisions about school construction are not always about cost and efficiencies. In the decisions concerning Seven Locks, for example, the Board and Council weighed a number of factors, including educational and safety interests. The school is located at a busy intersection. As noted in previous community testimony, opening a larger facility there, with a significant gain in enrollment, was seen as increasing traffic congestion and safety hazards. Similarly, the disruption of moving the school to a holding facility during construction and transporting students daily out of the community also was seen as having a negative impact on the students.

Office of Inspector General Finding 2:

A quality control process that ensures the use of complete and reliable cost data to analyze facility construction options and present recommendations to the Board and Council is needed to improve fiscal accountability.

The audit’s second finding fails on three major points. First, by conducting an incomplete comparison of two different school projects, the report distorts the applicability of the findings. Second, by not including the life-cycle cost analysis completed in the fall of 2004 that was used to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of the replacement school for state funding, the audit ignores a major step in the decision-making process. The life-cycle cost analysis provided additional justification to the Council for a replacement school and gave an accurate comparison of the entire cost stream for both options. This is a widely accepted and proven business model used to evaluate capital budgeting options. Third, by not including the IAC and related State Board processes, the audit further distorts the review process. Indeed, the state review provides significant oversight and accountability for all school construction projects statewide. In this case, moreover, the approval of state funding for the replacement school underscores state concurrence with MCPS cost comparisons in evaluating the Seven Locks Elementary School project.

Office of Inspector General Finding 3:

Evidence does not support MCPS statements to the Board of Education that the Seven Locks Elementary School community proposed or supported a Kendale replacement school option.

The attempt to distort the superintendent’s recommendation and imply an effort to mislead the Board and the Council is without merit. The public record on the Seven Locks project is filled with testimony from the community. During February and March 2004, alone, both the Board and Council heard considerable oral testimony and received numerous written documents from community members. The various viewpoints of the community were well known in advance of the Council’s work session on the Board of Education recommendation. The Inspector General’s suggestion that the Board and Council relied only on the superintendent’s statement to make this decision is inexplicable. Again, if the Inspector General had taken the time to contact me, I would have explained this.

The Council did not base its decision on statements that the community supported or opposed the Kendale site. Instead, the Council based its decision on facts that revealed the Kendale site to be the best option to relieve overcrowding at Potomac Elementary School and provide a new facility for Seven Locks Elementary School with the least disruption to students. It is clear from public hearing testimony, which the Inspector General possessed but did not include in his report, that the Board and the Council were aware of community concerns. These included existing traffic problems affecting Seven Locks Elementary School, the complexities and costs of a phased modernization, the impact on other facility projects, the disruption of students being sent to a holding school while construction was under way, and the need to relieve overcrowding at Potomac Elementary School. Indeed, these are among the reasons the Kendale option was originally proposed.

Office of Inspector General Finding 4:

Procedures used to award an $817,500 architect contract for a Kendale Road replacement school were inadequate and may have violated Board requirements.

MCPS complied with state statutes governing the selection of an architect for the Seven Locks Elementary School project. State law does not require local school systems to bid for such professional services. In addition, the intent of the Board procedures was followed in selecting the architect for the Seven Locks Elementary School replacement facility.

The process currently used has been in effect since the late 1990’s as part of an effort to streamline the selection of architectural design services and meet the intent of Board of Education procedures. The process is consistent with procedures in other school districts. The selection process reflects the goal of achieving potential cost savings associated with retaining professional services from qualified architects for continuing projects, as well as the managerial efficiencies associated with the repetitive nature of school design programs, the number of projects completed annually, and the timing of funding for planning services.

This process was used to select the architect for the replacement school on Kendale because the educational specifications were the same as those used for the Seven Locks Elementary School addition/modernization, with the exception of the larger core that was approved for the new school design. Once the feasibility study work was completed, a majority of the architectural selection committee members, including the principal of Seven Locks Elementary School, voted to recommend that the feasibility architect continue with the architectural design phase. Subsequently, a fee was negotiated and submitted for Board approval.

The audit report pointed out that the Board procedures contain a five-step process that should be used for each individual project and that this differs from current practice. This recommendation will be reviewed further with the Audit Committee of the Board of Education to ensure current practices and procedures are consistent.

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