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Inspect School Contractors

July 04, 2002

Trust us. That's the message at the Los Angeles Unified School District from the people in charge of fixing old schools and building new ones. But trust has to be earned, built on a foundation of full and timely information. District officials flunked that test when they didn't do their homework on 3D/International Inc.--a company recently kicked off a Maryland schools construction project--before asking the school board to pay the firm millions to supervise repair work in Los Angeles. That's no way to protect public money.

Three weeks ago, school board member Mike Lansing asked the district staff to investigate a tip that one of the LAUSD's potential awardees had been terminated from a construction management project in another school district. He had the wrong company name, and LAUSD officials found nothing. They didn't look hard enough.

Times staff writer Doug Smith broke the story on the day the board was scheduled to vote on $33 million in contracts for a joint venture that included 3D/I. Last month, the Baltimore County school system terminated a contract with 3D/I because of possible asbestos contamination at two elementary schools.

That controversy may have no bearing on the work by a different team from 3D/I and URS Corp., its partner in the L.A. venture. But it must be checked in a district that wasted millions of dollars on construction of the Belmont Learning Complex and, long after Proposition BB bond money became available, still had not installed air conditioning in many San Fernando Valley schools.

At the June 25 board meeting, James A. O'Connell, the head of the district's construction management services, recommended an investigation. Mark him tardy.

School board members have asked LAUSD Inspector General Don Mullinax to scrutinize 3D/I before they vote on a contract. Mullinax will probe the firm's background, business practices, litigation history and any violations of regulations. But why stop at one company? The board should direct the inspector general to vet all applicants for major contracts.

The LAUSD has a history of disclosure problems, excessive management fees and work performance complaints involving firms that now are owned by 3D/I-URS.

Supt. Roy Romer says problems between the district and those companies are in the past. Fine. Then no one should object to the independent scrutiny that Mullinax will bring now and in the future to the LAUSD contracting process, because, goodness knows, this district needs all the help it can get.

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