Prop P Oversight Committee chairman wishes panel had denied projects presented over budget

By MIKE ANTHONY

The chairman of the Proposition P Oversight Committee recently told members of a panel reviewing the districtwide building improvement program that he wishes his committee had said no when projects were presented that were over budget.

Chuck VanGronigen, a former Board of Education member who served as chairman of the Oversight Committee, discussed the committee’s role during the fourth meeting of the Mehlville School District’s Proposition P Review Committee.

Voters in November 2000 approved Proposition P, a nearly $68.4 million bond issue funded by a 49-cent tax-rate increase. However, a final budget revision approved by the Board of Education in December 2005 raised the Proposition P budget to $89,137,440 — a roughly 30.3-percent increase — more than $20.7 million over the nearly $68.4 million building improvement program envisioned six years ago,

The Board of Education voted unanimously in June to approve a motion by Board of Education Vice President Karl Frank Jr. and seconded by board member Tom Diehl to establish the Proposition P Review Committee. In part, Frank’s motion states, “The Proposition P Review Committee will first seek input from the community by soliciting questions from the public in written form to be individually addressed in the final report. The submitted questions, as well as any other areas that the committee members should find necessary to review, will become the basis of this committee’s charge.”

Nearly 100 questions about the Proposition P districtwide building improvement program were submitted to the committee by the Oct. 18 deadline for questions. The majority of the questions were submitted Frank and his wife, Elaine. Two other residents also submitted questions.

At the Proposition P Review Committee’s Nov. 13 meeting, VanGronigen discussed the origins of the Oversight Committee and how eventually the panel “just atrophied.”

VanGronigen, who was Board of Education president when Proposition P was approved by voters, originally proposed the idea of the Oversight Committee.

“The idea of the Oversight Committee really occurred during the campaign to pass Proposition P,” he said. “The idea was to provide an independent, third-party group of residents the opportunity to just be a check and balance against architects and administrators and school board and trying to safeguard the way that the Prop P funds would be spent. The idea was to try to do what we could to help bring the building projects in on time and on budget. That was where we started.”

But it was difficult, VanGronigen continued, to find a model on which to base the Oversight Committee.

“… I could only find two other building oversight committees that were in the United States that did a similar sort of thing,” he said, noting he spoke with representatives of both school districts.

“I have to admit that my initial proposal to the board and to the administration was probably over aggressive. I had proposed that we would look at not only the building plans, budgets, change orders and have the ability to question that … I planned it to be more aggressive than it really could be because they reminded me very clearly that we didn’t have the authority to spend money or to authorize the expenditures, and really we were just an Oversight Committee and that we needed to keep it at that, which we did,” he said.

“The phrase that we kept going back to during the course of the Oversight Committee is: ‘Is this project or is this building effort, is it in the spirit of Proposition P?’ The reason why we kept going back to that is that we really didn’t have — the plans that were presented during the Proposition P campaign and the CACF (Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Facilities) effort were not at a level where you could do a direct line-item comparison to Proposition P. You had to really sort of interpret what the spirit of the plans were for that building and look at what the architect had presented, what the budget was and make some decisions.”

Most of the recommendations the committee made to the Board of Education were done “with some kind of reservation, and most of the time it was about budget. And we had some that were about room sizes and about standards and that sort of thing, but most of them had to do with really budgetary concerns,” he said.

In reviewing Oversight Committee meeting minutes, Proposition P Review Committee Co-chairman Kurt Witzel said he believed Oversight Committee members did a great job of asking questions, particularly after learning the 49-cent tax-rate increase was generating far greater revenue than originally anticipated.

Of the voter-approved 49-cent tax-rate increase, 41.6 cents was being used in 2003 to retire bond-like certificates of participation, while 7.4 cents was going into the district’s capital fund and being used for Proposition P-related projects. Revenue generated by the 7.4 cents was designated as “non-Prop P funds.”

Witzel noted that the Oversight Committee meeting minutes several times had referenced soliciting community input to decide, among other things, whether the seven cents should be returned to voters.

VanGronigen said, “It was brought up frequently that that was the plan … I can tell you from my point of view the way that they were spending the money on overages on the individual projects, it was clear that there wasn’t going to be much left over.”

From the very beginning, committee members were concerned about whether enough funds would be available to complete all of the projects, he said.

“… That was really the concern right from the start of the Oversight Committee and the projects that were brought to us, and it didn’t take a lot of math to figure out that they were going to spend it up because each project had a ‘non-Prop P’ category that said ‘non-Prop P funds,”’ VanGronigen said. “And when we finally got them to admit what non-Prop P funds were, it was pretty clear that was going to be spent.”

Witzel again raised the issue of soliciting community input to decide what to do with the excess funds.

“… It comes up periodically, but it’s just never — there’s never an answer there,” Witzel said.

VanGronigen said, “Right — and there never was an answer.”

Witzel said, “So, it was sort of an answer of — the answer was no answer …”

VanGronigen interjected, “Right.”

Witzel continued, “… More or less, and it just, they just kept spending it rather than ask, we just utilized it for other things.”

Committee member Greg Hayden asked, “… During that time, did they — the extra funds or the overspending, was that identified to you as just underestimating the project or was it: ‘Oh, we can add a new ventilation system in here because we got extra money?”’

VanGronigen said, “It was really we underestimated the project — lack of knowledge about the conditions of the site. There were additions that were flat-out additions — while we’re there and, you know, there’s an opportunity to do something. We think it’s the best use of the funds at the time. There were unseen conditions, the asbestos in some cases, and so it was really all of those things. I think some of the initial surveying of the conditions of the buildings were not particularly well done.”

For the future, he said, “… This is with perfect 20/20 hindsight … if you are going to plan a building, you need to do better legwork in advance to understand exactly what you’re getting into. I think they did as much due diligence as they could given the scope of what CACF was really — what they set out to do. And probably could have foreseen some of the conditions and should have asked some of the questions, but they should have surveyed conditions probably more exhaustively before that happened.

“And I think the other thing is that even though some of the projects were beyond the stated scope of the building project, there was very little inclination to say no. And somewhere, somehow, somebody has to say no if you’re going to stay within a budget …,” VanGronigen said.

Committee member Ed Ryals asked, “Do you know if the committee made any recommendations not to do something and the board went ahead and did it …?”

VanGronigen said, “No. I have to admit looking back, the first project that we were presented was something that was over budget. It was within the spirit of Prop P, but it was over budget and if I had it to do over, I would have been much firmer on lobbying to say no to something. But the committee did not bring a no recommendation, a not-recommended opinion to the board. What they brought was either recommended or recommended with reservations.”

Personally, he later said, “I would have rather said no to something early on, basically to say that we were going to be taken seriously and that there were consequences to bringing in something that was over budget or out of scope. That didn’t happen and that’s the way that went.”

Witzel later said, “From having been involved in this thing, one of the sort of impressions that I’m getting from a district standpoint from when this thing started, the CACF, Oversight Committee, administration, board and the building project — it started to be a $68 million project (and) ended up being $85 (million), $88 (million), wherever we’re at now. But there was nobody in charge, per se, in the district that I’ve been able to find … there’s no one guy to sort of say: You’re the guy that’s in charge of the construction … It’s your job to work with the contractors or McCarthy (the construction manager) or whatever, and it seemed like McCarthy was the guy. They were the construction managers in charge of everything, but at times they may not have been working in our best interest … If you had to do this thing over again, is that something you think that would be of value of hiring one person that would be …”

VanGronigen said, “To ride herd. Yeah … I guess I always envisioned that the superintendent was the one that was really running — whichever superintendent it happened to be at the time — was really running the project … For the most part, they were the liaison with McCarthy. It seemed like that was where the reporting relationship was. But having somebody whose full-time responsibility it was to manage the X-million-dollar project? Absolutely … Somebody accountable to make sure that what was promised, was delivered, was paid for as expected, that really challenged, on a first level challenged whether or not change orders should have been done, could have been done. Was there an alternative to the whole value-engineering kind of thing? Because it was part McCarthy, part Dickinson (Hussman), part administration. It was really — it was quite a carnival.”

Witzel said, “… (Co-chairman) Phil (Barry) said it last time: It seemed like there was nobody with construction knowledge representing the district.”

VanGronigen agreed, adding that another thing he “definitely” would do differently involves the makeup of the Oversight Committee.

“… One of the things that I definitely would do differently is the makeup of the Oversight Committee itself should have been different. We ended up allowing administrators and school board members to sit on the committee. I voiced it at the time and I continue to believe that was wrong,” he said. “It’s an Oversight Committee, and having the people who you’re providing oversight to on the committee just seems like not a good idea.”

At one point, Witzel said, “… The two takeaways of this thing, I am not sure anybody in this district or anybody on this board ever did anything illegal or sought to deceive from a financial standpoint, nor do I think anything was poorly done as far as the buildings go. I think the product that we got was a great product, it was just the aspect of $68 (million) to almost $90 million.”

VanGronigen said, “Yeah, I would agree with that. Nobody knowingly set out to do something that was inappropriate. Their hearts were all in the right places, but it was a big project. This is a big district with a lot of buildings and a lot of projects, some projects inside each one of those buildings, and it was an awful lot to chew …”

In response to a query about Northstar replacing McCarthy as construction manager, VanGronigen said, “You know what? The Oversight Committee, in my opinion, was left to atrophy …. Once the plans all went through us, it was pretty much where we’re an afterthought. We did not have ongoing budget review authority and so we really just atrophied …”

The Proposition P Review Committee is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6, at the Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.