If I were a DeKalb schools taxpayer, this story would send me to bed with a sick headache: The 5-year-old legal battle between the DeKalb County School District and the Heery/Mitchell construction management company has cost the county’s taxpayers $37 million.
After reading the concerns of the grand jury over the school board’s actions in this suit, I have to wonder, as many of you already do, about the seeming reluctance of SACS to act on what seem like glaring “governance issues,” to use the accreditation agency’s lingo.
A grand jury highlighted those numbers and other issues in criticizing the school board — and reiterating a call by a preceding grand jury for a broad investigation. The grand jury, like another in December, asked District Attorney Robert James to convene a special grand jury to investigate the board’s activities, and James said he would ask the superior court judges to consider it.
The legal bills come from a lawsuit with former construction manager Heery/Mitchell. DeKalb fired Heery/Mitchell in February 2007, complaining that the company, which oversaw $1 billion in sales tax funded school construction, had problems with costs and delays.
Heery/Mitchell sued later that month for $1.5 million in unpaid invoices and damages. DeKalb countersued, claiming the company mismanaged more than $100 million and defrauded the district.
DeKalb has paid law firm King & Spalding $18 million for its work on the case, and owes the firm another $19 million, according to a summary of a discussion Monday between the nine members of the school board and the DeKalb grand jury.
The grand jury routinely investigates government efficiency, and the meeting did not cover criminal matters, board chairman Eugene Walker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The meeting summary, released in the grand jury’s presentments Thursday, says jurors were critical of the school system’s fee arrangement in the lawsuit, which hasn’t even gone to trial.
A spokesman said DeKalb board members had not seen the grand jury report and would issue a response after reviewing it.
Walker told the jurors that the school board had a verbal agreement on a contingency payment structure, and that it would be renegotiated at the conclusion of the case.
This troubled the jurors, who wrote: “This comment left the grand jury puzzled by why it had not previously occurred to the board to enter into a written agreement memorializing this understanding (if there is in fact such an understanding) … .”
Jurors were also troubled by this: board vice chairman Tom Bowen told them the counter-suit was for $110 million, but board member Paul Womack, who chairs the board’s budget committee, told them the actual cost of of repairs and construction related to Heery/Mitchell’s management could be more like $180 million.
“The grand jury’s obvious concern is that the board was advised to file a counter suit to fund the repair and build projects but the board did not consider the totality of costs before agreeing to the claimed damages,” the presentment said.
The presentment said the grand jury “strenuously urges” James to convene a special grand jury.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog