Grand jury report slams Broward schools’ mismanaged efforts to replace roofs

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | August 22, 2022

When a roof collapsed last year at Rickards Middle School in Oakland Park, a grand jury saw it as a visual symbol of everything wrong with Broward’s $800 million school renovation bond program.

The construction program — approved by voters in 2014 — has been years behind schedule and more than $500 million over budget largely because of roofs, according to an April 2021 report by a statewide grand jury that was publicly released Friday.

According to the report, the school district:

  • Prepared cost estimates in 2014 that were “absurdly low.”
  • Maintained overly stringent inspection standards that led to years of delays.
  • Favored one roofing vendor over others.
  • Failed to maintain its existing roofs.

Although an engineering report later found the March 5, 2021, roof collapse at Rickards was the result of a building structure flaw, not the roof itself, it still represented a district administrator’s broken promise that high-quality roofs could protect decaying buildings, the report said.

The grand jury report lays much of the blame for the roofs and other failures of the $800 million bond referendum with former Superintendent Robert Runcie, five School Board members who supported him, and roofing inspector M.L. Rouco, who contractors complained would perform inspections so strict that only one preferred vendor could routinely pass.

The report calls for Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove Runcie’s supporters. Runcie resigned in August 2021.

The problems started in 2014 when Runcie and the School Board decided to ask voters for $800 million, a number that Runcie has said was manageable for taxpayers, to renovate decaying facilities.

Administrators wanted to make the referendum attractive to the entire county without raising taxes too much, so they used bogus cost estimates to develop the plan, the grand jury report said.

The district had spent $12 per square foot for roofs in 2007, but its 2014 estimates were $6 to $8 per square foot, the report said.

“It is difficult for us to overstate the ridiculousness of this amount,” the report said. “Literally every single witness that has testified, from industry professionals to [Broward County Public Schools] employees to maintenance staff to general contractors to the roofers themselves have all asserted that this price is absurdly low and would have been absurdly low even by 2014 standards.”

The report said former facilities chief Derek Messier came up with the estimates, likely with the blessing of Runcie. Messier “specifically denied manipulating these roofing costs in a 2021 interview with grand jury investigators, and Superintendent Runcie claimed to be completely unaware” of who set the estimates. Grand jury members didn’t believe either of them, the report said.

“The ‘scope of work’ the District has promised is not $800 million in projects, and it was never going to be $800 million in projects,” the report said. “Those promoting the bond who said that work could be done for that price were not telling voters the truth.”

The bond easily passed in November 2014, but the district faced delays getting projects moving due to its struggles to hire an outside management company and find good leadership for the facilities department, the report said.

The report also slammed the district’s building department, which inspects construction projects. Rouco, the sole roofing inspector for much of the period reviewed, received especially harsh reviews.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Rouco’s performance as roofing inspector has single-handedly cost the District and the vendors tens of millions of dollars and has set the timetable back by literal years on numerous SMART projects,” the report said.

District officials praised Rouco as “a tough inspector who goes the extra mile to ensure quality roofs are being put on top of schools.” But many contractors say she sends plans back to roofers multiple times with little guidance on how to correct deficiencies. A roofing audit found that there was an exception: plans by Fort Lauderdale based-Atlas Apex Roofing nearly always got approved quickly.

The company also had financial ties to a roofing product that for years was required for Broward schools roofs, regardless of who installed them, the report said.

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that Atlas Apex is the primary beneficiary of this broken process, which appears to be tilted significantly in favor of approving Atlas Apex … without undue delay, all while the District’s own Design and Material Standards force other roofers to buy products vended by individuals connected to Atlas Apex,” the report said.

“Meanwhile, the pattern of rejection and resubmittal affected by Rouco and her supervisors in the Building Department adds years of delay and millions of dollars in additional cost to SMART Program projects, all of which benefits a roofer who certainly does not do bad work, but also does not do significantly better work than other roofers around the state.”

Atlas Apex issued a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, saying it “categorically denies” receiving any favoritism or improper benefit from the school district.

“It must be stated that Atlas Apex’s established record of performance on School Board of Broward County Roofing Projects is due entirely to Atlas Apex’s superior knowledge, reputation and years of quality roofing work,” the statement said.

The statement said the company is hired by general contractors who competitively bid for work in the district. Building inspectors “have in no way any direct or indirect control over which roofing contractor is chosen to complete a particular project’s roofing scope of work.”

The grand jury report said some of Rouco’s actions were “beyond the pale.” As an example, the report quotes an email she sent to district administrators that said if she were to give roofers details about what needs to be fixed, it would be like “giving a student the answers to the test, without going through the course or sitting for the exam.”

“No wonder they can’t get anything done,” the grand jury report said. “Not one of us can fathom a management environment where a communique such as this does not merit outright firing if not, at the very least, a serious counseling session.”

Rouco, who denies any wrongdoing, told the Sun Sentinel she was removed from inspection duties in early 2021 and retired in July. She said the problems with the district’s bond program are the result of management failures.

“The only thing I tried to do in my position of inspector was compliance, and I did my job according to the law,” she said. “They found a scapegoat at the very lowest position. I found the report extremely unfair and one-sided.”

Rouco said she was the subject of a criminal investigation that questioned whether she had improper ties to Atlas Apex. She said she was never paid by the company and was happy to show law enforcement her financial records. A spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, which led the grand jury investigation, said no public records were available related to the case.

“Atlas has some of the best workers in the field and the best-prepared documents,” Rouco said. “It’s not a matter of who favorites are. It’s who does the work correctly.”

Rouco, who earned a reputation as a whistleblower who exposed shoddy roofs in the early 2000s, said the roofs she approves serve the district well.

“When there’s a hurricane or major wind event, the M.L. roofs are holding up,” she said. “That gives me great satisfaction.”

But there was one high-profile exception. Rouco inspected the Rickards Middle roof, installed by Atlas Apex, that collapsed in March 2021, a few weeks before the panel finished its work.

An engineering report, which was released after the grand jury completed its work, found fault not in the roof, but a structural failure involving brittle bolts used to connect L-shaped brackets from the wall to the roof joists. Experts say it’s not something a roofing inspection would catch. The district demolished the damaged building and is rebuilding the campus.

The report said that Chief of Staff Jeff Moquin had previously testified that the district’s stringent roofing standards resulted in higher-quality roofs that would extend the life of aging facilities that the district didn’t have money to replace.

“When pressed on this issue, Superintendent Runcie disagreed with Mr. Moquin,” the report said. “This Grand Jury disagrees with Mr. Moquin; and perhaps most importantly, the Rickards media center disagrees with Mr. Moquin.”

Current Superintendent Vickie Cartwright joined the district after the grand jury report was finished.

She’s made numerous changes, spokesman John Sullivan said. Cartwright “has already implemented changes to improve school safety, as well as the management of the SMART Bond Program,” Sullivan said. “Earlier this month, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission commended changes made by the District and noted it is becoming a model for other school districts.”

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