Flint calls for internal probe

PARKERSBURG -Incoming Wood County Schools Superintendent John Flint says he will begin an internal investigation next month based on the findings of a construction audit on Parkersburg High School’s Stadium Field.

Flint said Thursday he had reviewed the audit by the state auditor of the more than $2 million bleacher construction and renovation project at Stadium Field.

The 18-page audit released Wednesday by Wood County Schools detailed oversight and funding issues, squarely placing most of the blame on the Wood County Board of Education.

In the audit, officials pointed to 27 of 28 change orders, either additions or increases in the cost of work, which were approved but not brought before the school board for consideration.

“The findings in that audit really warrant that we have an internal investigation at the central office,” Flint said. “The only way to move on from this issue is to lay all the facts on the table and let the chips fall where they may.”

Flint begins as superintendent July 1, and said the investigation will begin that day.

“I wasn’t here when all this happened, but it’s my mess to clean up,” he said. “We’ve got to clean it up.”

The Stadium Field renovation project became a source of concern and debate after the cost of the project increased to more than $2 million and concerns arose over whether the PHS Stadium Renovation Committee could raise sufficient funds to pay for the project.

The Wood County Board of Education put $700,000 toward the project, but as the project drew to a close the committee announced it could only draw $200,000 of a $600,000 loan from eight area banks. The school board was asked to pay an additional $445,000 in bills for work already completed.

Board members have called for the stadium committee to repay those funds to Wood County Schools, but no deal has been discussed.

The construction project ended with the home-side bleachers completed, but no work has been done on the visitor-side bleachers, which remain closed. The audit results follow several months of finger pointing by the school board, the committee and residents.

Board President Tim Yeater said Thursday he has not seen the final audit report, but had read a draft of the report.

“The audit report didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know already,” he said. “Really, it was just a matter of transparency.”

Yeater said what the audit did was point out the need for clear policies and procedures concerning construction projects, especially when outside groups are involved in the financing of projects.

“We’re going to try to put stuff in writing and policy to keep future boards from falling into these issues,” he said. “We don’t know if a contract would have changed anything. We won’t ever get into a situation like this in the future without a clear contract.”

Yeater took issue with the idea the project went significantly over budget, saying initial costs of $1.1 million-$1.3 million were based on estimates and when the project actually began the cost was placed closer to $1.9 million.

Yeater said if the banks wouldn’t have pulled back a promised loan to the stadium committee, the actual overrun would only have been around $40,000.

The auditors “don’t want to hear that you were promised money and it got pulled away at the end,” he said. “I’m not pointing at them (the banks); it’s just how it turned out.”

Yeater also disagreed with the idea the audit placed blame on the school board.

“To me, there is no story there; there is no blame there,” he said. “There is nothing to blame.”

Yeater said almost no past construction projects have come in at initially estimated costs, and the nature of those projects almost always means additional expenses occur or are found as they progress.

The audit “could have been written about any project in the county,” he said. “To me, there is no story here. This is everyday business.

“At the end of the day, nothing has changed. We have a stadium and we had to pay for it.”

Board member Jim Fox said the situation illustrates the need for greater controls and oversight at the central office and written policies and procedures to govern future construction projects. Fox said the board’s $700,000 pledge was based on the promise of the stadium committee securing a $600,000 loan, and he said it is as yet unclear how much influence the committee had over additions and cost increases in the project.

Pat McFarland, a Parkersburg attorney who represents a group of area businessmen who gave money to the Stadium project, took issue with one area of the report that said the board “may have allowed the Stadium Committee, a component of the Big Red Boosters, to authorize changes in the project.” McFarland said the committee is not a part of the boosters but is a stand-alone group and at no time did the school board give the committee the ability to issue changes or additions.

“The committee had no ability to approve or disapprove anything,” he said. “To suggest otherwise is just irresponsible. This is solely with the board of education and (construction management firm) Pickering Associates.”

The report states auditors were unable to determine what if anything was changed as a result of the committee’s actions due to the scope of the audit being limited. McFarland said nothing was changed because of the committee.

“Some of the members of the stadium committee have been thrown under the bus, which is totally unfair,” he said. “No where are you going to find any document or paper which says the committee authorized anything. The specifics of the project was 100 percent on the board and on Pickering Associates.

“To say the committee did this does nothing but tarnish the reputations of good people and impedes their ability to go to the public and raise funds for projects in the future.”

“Ultimately the board of education is responsible for renovations,” Fox said. “It’s hard to determine if the stadium committee’s input influenced the change orders. Ultimately a board employee had to approve these change orders. Whether the stadium committee had the authority to run this project or not is not the issue.

“I think the takeaway is for any construction project of this magnitude in this county, there has to be greater accountability, and that accountability has to be managed from the (district’s) central office,” Fox said.