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L.A. Unified suspends 4 key consultants on school construction program

They had left the district only to be rehired as a group in a newly formed company to oversee a $7-billion program for construction and other planning at 580 schools.

November 17, 2010|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Four key consultants behind the nation's largest school construction program have been suspended from their work with the Los Angeles Unified School District pending an internal investigation into their recently formed company, The Times has learned.

The suspended consultants — Charlie Anderson, John Creer, Rod Hamilton and Edwin Van Ginkel — have held prominent roles in acquiring real estate and overseeing environmental reviews, planning and school design over the last decade. They received compensation that surpassed district employees, including that of Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.

District officials have ordered a reduction in the number of highly paid outside consultants during the ongoing budget crisis. The four consultants officially had left the district only to be rehired immediately this fall as a group in a newly formed company.

"It looks funny when we say we are reducing the number of consultants, then the consultants leave and we turn around and hire their consulting firm," Cortines said.

The superintendent said he would discuss the matter with the Board of Education next week after he has reviewed an internal investigation.

Critics of the construction program have praised the increased scrutiny, but its defenders say the district is eliminating the expertise that has made the $20-billion effort successful.

The four executives recently formed Consilia, the company that was to oversee how the district would spend $7 billion in bond funds authorized under Measure Q, passed by voters in 2008.

Their role involved construction and other planning at 580 schools, for which they would receive more than $3.7 million, at a rate of about $185,000 per month. The contract also includes a $40,000 fee for furniture and related office costs, according to a new district audit.

Beyond whether officials violated the directive to reduce consultants, sources said another concern is whether the contractors circumvented competitive bidding rules with the complicity of the senior district staff.

These sources, who asked to remain anonymous because they feared for their jobs or were not authorized to speak about the issue, allege that the consultants designed the scope of the work and then created Consilia to carry it out.

District facilities director James Sohn defended the integrity of the contracting process. He said Consilia won its contract after a request for proposals was sent to "dozens and dozens" of entities, from which three proposals emerged.

Attempts to reach the four consultants were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The four consultants had earned about $300,000 to $350,000 a year in their top facilities positions, according to the district. Cortines' salary is $250,000.

Over the last decade, Hamilton located property in the southeastern portion of the district, where combative city officials, dense neighborhoods and sometimes contaminated land exacerbated the challenge of building schools to relieve decades of overcrowding.

Creer headed the office of planning and development, which managed some of the district's most enterprising projects, including those that combined schools with other uses, such as housing. He also managed the process of finding space for independently managed charter schools.

Anderson analyzed whether the projects were on time and on budget.

Van Ginkel oversaw school projects in the San Fernando Valley and helped negotiate long-term leases.

Their departures would undermine future construction projects, said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who sits on the committee that reviews school bond spending.

"The public needs to be worried about the $7 billion they just gave the district because the people who know how to spend it have all just been fired," Rice said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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