School Officials Defend Bethesda Building Plan

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

Montgomery County school officials said yesterday that a report released by an independent investigator for the county unfairly labels them fiscally irresponsible for choosing to build a new Bethesda elementary school rather than renovate the existing school and fails to take into account the pivotal role County Council members played in the decision-making process.

Inspector General Thomas Dagley released the audit yesterday. It accuses the school system of withholding significant financial information and misleading the County Council about public support for the building project on Kendale Road.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast has been out ill and was unavailable to comment on the audit yesterday and the day before. Instead, other system officials responded to charges laid out in the 16-page document that also questioned the system's decision to issue an $817,500 no-bid contract to an architectural firm involved in the project.

"We're trying to look at everything that's been said and get the facts straight,'' said Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers. "A lot of information that we presented to the inspector general was ignored. The issues he raised were raised before the council. They had this information."

Dagley, speaking publicly for the first time yesterday, said he stands by his findings. He said school officials were given ample opportunity to share documentation they considered relevant to the audit.

"For the next couple of weeks, my plan is to have the report speak for itself as much as possible,'' he said.

Dagley's audit centers on the school system's handling of a construction project in the Seven Locks area of Bethesda. After originally planning to add to and modernize the Seven Locks campus, the school board and County Council decided in 2004 to build a school about 1.5 miles away along Kendale Road to deal with crowding. Residents who had pushed to keep the old school opposed the project.

Dagley's audit alleged that the school system failed to provide information about less costly options for the building project; did not offer complete and reliable cost data to the County Council or Board of Education; misrepresented public support for the project; and awarded a no-bid contract of more than $800,000 despite rules that require contracts of $25,000 or more to be competitively bid.

School system officials said that County Council members knew as early as 2002 that there were cheaper options for expanding Seven Locks and addressing crowding at nearby Potomac Elementary, but that ultimately it was the council that concluded it was more important to address space issues than to save taxpayer dollars.

Several County Council members said they did not recall such discussions.

Council President George L. Leventhal said he is reserving judgment on the audit until he is able to hear from school officials. "I do think it's fair for the school system to be able to explain their side," he said.

The Kendale Road campus is slated to open in August 2007, and some preliminary site work has begun. At least one County Council member is suggesting that the county consider nixing the plan to build a school in favor of a cheaper option suggested by the inspector general to rebuild the school on its current site. Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) said he would introduce an amendment March 21 that would offer that as an option.

Some said the audit's findings might have broader implications for Weast.

Since becoming superintendent, Weast has formed a close working relationship with council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large), chairman of the Education Committee. Subin is Weast's leading booster on the council, and some council members are starting to question whether there needs to be more aggressive council oversight of the school system.

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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