BY BUDDY NEVINS
Broward School’s $800 million bond program is in trouble with costs skyrocketing by as much as 40 percent.
Many of the projects promised by School Superintendent Robert Runcie and the School Board cannot be done for the original estimated costs.
Robert Runcie: Broken promises
To finish the renovation and repairs of the 236 schools in Broward, it will take more money than the bonds provided.
And you know the source of that new money: Your wallet.
Broken government promises are a sad, old story.
Here are the six signs that the bond program is broken:
Clue One: Internal school documents indicate the original cost estimates are off by 25 percent. Another internal document is gloomier. It predicts that the $800 million bond project could be as much as $464.4 million in the hole.
A January 10th memo from Atkins to School Construction Chief Leo Bobadilla notes that 16 projects under design have been reestimated. “…Comparing them to budget allocated for construction has resulted in an approximate average increase of 25 percent…”
A January 27 memo from the school system’s construction consultants Atkins North American Inc. has worse news. It warns that the bond program estimates could escalate by as much as $464.8 million when more future construction is recalculated.
Clue Two: School staff and Runcie are already ducking the blame.
Staff has been singing from the same hymnal – Don’t blame us, blame inflation.
Yet it was the staff and Runcie that signed off on building into the estimates an inflation rate of 3 percent. The inflation rate, staff says, is now 5 percent.
It gets worse.
Some the estimates were missing key elements. One item (See above) cited in the January 10th memo is that new water mains were left out of the original price of sprinkler repairs.
Clue Three: Runcie’s construction chief is recycling the same excuse he used in the Houston schools for faulty construction cost estimates.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
Blaming unexpected inflation is an excuse school construction chief Bobadilla used in the past.
A 2015 audit of the Houston school system $1.9 billion bond program found that Bobadilla’s mismanagement was partly responsible for a $211 million budget shortfall.
Bobadilla, Houston’s chief of facilities, slammed the audit as “reckless and irresponsible.” He argued that a 38 percent inflation rate in construction was to blame for cost increases.
The Houston media and education activists weren’t buying it. Here is the Houston Press’s comments on Bobadilla’s tenure and the audit that found him responsible for the out-of-control costs:
“Bobadilla said the audit report used ‘flawed methodology, including insufficient data review, limited and biased research, an a profound lack of understanding of the Houston economic climate.’
“But in terms of methodology, it’s Bobadilla’s work that comes into question involving what appears to be a very loose definition of “inflation” that seems to include construction delays, extra architectural designs and companies wanting more money to build things than was originally in the budget. Sure those things cost more, but they are not inflation. Poor management, maybe.”
Bobadilla’s argument, however, got him a new job. Just days after the audit’s release, in October 2015, Runcie hired Bobadilla.
Flash forward 15 months.
Cost increases are again plaguing a bond program that Bobadilla manages. So if using inflation as an excuse for cost increases worked for Bobadilla in Houston, why not in Broward?
Clue Four: Runcie is trying to publicly downplay the problem.
Bureaucrats like School Superintendent Robert Runcie are masters of attempting to hide the truth.
Witness this exchange January 24th at the School Board:
“Has our staff informed you of any reports on cost overruns?” School Board member Robin Bartleman asked.
“No, Mrs. Bartleman, I have not received reports on cost overruns on the project,” Runcie said.
“So no one has given you any information about a draft of overruns by Atkins?” Bartleman said.
“Oh, that memo that went out…that’s a change in the cost. Those are not necessarily overruns of projects,” Runcie finally answered.
Runcie was using semantics to hide the truth.
Yes, cost overruns are technically actual costs added after projects are bid. But Runcie definitely knew what one of his School Board bosses was asking.
Instead of being straight with her, he first attempted to avoid the facts. The one unmistakable fact: The public will not get what they were promised in 2014 for $800 million.
Clue Five: Embarrassed School Board members don’t want the public to know the truth about the bond program’s growing costs.
Some member of the School Board apparently believe the public’s business should be discussed behind closed doors.
Bartleman attempted several times and several different ways at the January 24th meeting to discuss the catapulting costs.
School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood first tried repeatedly to stop the discussion.
To her credit, Bartleman would not be silenced.
Finally an exasperated School Board member Laurie Rich Levinson jumped in, advising Bartleman to avoid discussing the issue in public.
“There is another way to get your questions answered. Send an email to Mr. Runcie…He’ll respond to your question. That’s how the rest of us do it,” Levinson said.
It was an amazing admission of how the Board discusses matters out of the Sunshine by Levinson.
Laurie Rich Levinson: Hiding the truth
Clue Six: Broward is running far behind the much bigger Miami Dade schools bond program.
Miami Dade voters approved a $1.2 billion school bond program much larger than Broward’s in November 2012.
By October 2014, two years after the bond issue passed, 300 projects were being built or had been completed, according to Miami Dade schools.
Broward’s $800 million referendum passed in November 2014.
As of November 2016, two years after the bond issue passed, just $9.4 million worth of projects were under construction and $14.2 million were completed.
In the current 2017 fiscal year, the schools expect to spend roughly $30 million of the bond money, most of it on computers and other technology. Many of the computers purchased are low memory models that many believe were outdated the day they were purchased.
The $30 million represents roughly 4 percent of the total money voters approved in November 2014.
Runcie and his staff don’t get it.
The costs have zoomed. Consultants, the staff and Runcie didn’t anticipate it.
Estimates should have expected the increasing cost of construction. Otherwise, why pay for estimates?
Runcie and his staff say the inflation increased because of competition for workers and materials from other projects.
But South Florida’s construction business was already waking up from the recession in 2014 when the estimates were being prepared. Condominiums and rental housing sprung up like mushrooms. Government projects like the Interstate 595 widening, the Fort Lauderdale airport’s new runway, the new Broward courthouse and the Port of Miami tunnel employed thousands.
Instead of covering up discussions, the School Board needs to ask why consultants, staff and Runcie couldn’t see what was happening outside the School Board’s headquarters window?
If it is the consultants fault, sue them. If it is the staff’s fault, fire them. And since the buck stops at Runcie’s desk…..
Here is my prediction. Unlike the bond project cost estimates, that you can take my prediction to the bank:
It won’t be long before Runcie is whining that he needs more money to complete the projects.