ST. CHARLES COUNTY (KMOV) – The handling of a $244 million bond issue approved by Francis Howell School District voters is under fire ahead of the district’s school board race in the week’s election next.
Voters approved Proposition S in June 2020, giving the district the go-ahead to complete a variety of maintenance and repair projects, improve elementary school safety, and build a new Francis Howell North High School.
The district announced the cost of the new high school was approximately $83 million during its Proposition S campaign. Construction on the new site, which sits behind the current high school, began in May 2021.
But last fall, the district revealed bids for the project were $165 million, a nearly 90% overrun.
“We were as shocked as anyone,” said Mike Hoehn, a board member for 12 years. “We were the first major construction project of this type to be post-pandemic. We’ve had a number of people say you’re irrelevant, you need to stop, you need to review or whatever and one of the things I’ve always advocated is that if you’re going do something, do it once and do it well.”
Hoehn said the district failed to communicate with the public after the proposal passed. The district changed its plans for the new high school, increasing its footprint from 350,000 square feet to approximately 410,000 square feet. The upgrade came with a price that Hoehn estimates to be closer to $110 million.
“We should have communicated the fact that the 83 (million) that we knew was going to be extinguished because it was not the 410,000 square foot building,” he said. “We have already taken steps and put measures in place to ensure this does not happen on any of the prop S projects in the future.”
Hoehn is up for re-election, along with five other candidates who are all swearing for two seats.
Some of the nominees expressed frustration, adding that little discussion had taken place when approving several nomination papers presented to the board over the past year.
“We don’t see a lot of discussion, a lot of questions from the board around this,” Randy Cook Jr. said. There was an explanation of what the CMRA process was, not really any questions and there has been approved.
The district used the “Construction Manager at Risk” contracting method, which offers a guaranteed maximum price and, according to the district, would save time on the construction process.
Critics of the district’s approach said it should never have started construction without knowing what the final cost would be.
“You should have big financial checks in my mind to manage this, to make sure things are on schedule, to make sure things are being tracked as they should be,” said Adam Bertrand, a candidate for the school board. “You have to hit your goals and your estimates and if you’re not hitting those estimates, you have to start wondering why. None of this has been done as far as I know.
Hoehn said pandemic-related issues, like labor shortages and supply chain issues, played a role in the overshoot. However, he said the district did not budget or discuss inflationary factors.
“It’s a model of how not to spend $244 million,” candidate Rick Rice said.
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Christine Hyman, also a school board candidate, has a first grade daughter at Francis Howell North. While she’s excited about the prospect of her daughter being part of the new school’s first class, she disagrees with how the process went without the public knowing.
“I understand that we were in a pandemic and I understand that things are happening, but I also think that it wouldn’t have exploded in everyone’s face if there had been a little more transparency,” he said. she declared. “It passed and then they stopped talking about it. These conversations need to happen in public, not in a vacuum.”
District parent and school board candidate Justin McCoy said he was surprised to learn that the Francis Howell North project was overrun.
“I think they could have been much better at keeping us informed,” he said. “I just watched it and thought to myself, surely someone must have known this was going on and could have hit the pause button before it got to this point.”
Bertrand, McCoy, Hyman and Cook Jr. all support an audit or review of the bond issue’s money management.
“It’s not about pointing fingers or saying this person is responsible, it’s about understanding what happened so we can put the right processes and controls in place so it doesn’t happen again. more,” Bertrand said.
Rice said at this point he wasn’t sure how useful an audit would be.
“I don’t think it’s necessary because there’s water under the bridge and they’re just going to find out that mistakes have been made and maybe they can figure out a way not to go through that process. they’re in right now,” Rice said.
Hoehn said he supports audits, but would have asked for one if he thought there had been mismanagement.
“I would be in favor of any audit, I would not be opposed to an audit that exists,” he said. “I don’t believe a statewide audit or any type of audit is going to come up with anything. If I thought there was the slightest suspicion of irregularities or mismanagement, I would be the first to request an audit.
Going forward, the candidates agree on transparency and increased communications with the public, parents, and taxpayers, particularly regarding conversations about Proposition S. The district has started a new practice consisting to provide an update at the start of each meeting and post updates on the progress of its site-related projects included in the proposal.
The school board election will be on the ballot next Tuesday, April 5, for voters in the Francis Howell School District.
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