Jeffco’s CIP: Who is calling the shots?

Governance, transparency and oversight questions put to program insiders

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 4/30/21

Jeffco Schools’ Capital Improvement Program, on-track to cost more than three quarters of a billion dollars, has a relatively small number of people making the lion’s share of critical …

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Jeffco’s CIP: Who is calling the shots?

Governance, transparency and oversight questions put to program insiders

Posted

*Editor's Note: This version of the story has been edited for accuracy.  The former version included incorrect information, attributed to Tim Reed, executive director of facilities & construction with Jeffco Public Schools.

Jeffco Schools’ Capital Improvement Program, on-track to cost more than three quarters of a billion dollars, has a relatively small number of people making the lion’s share of critical decisions. 

Among those calling the shots are Steve Bell, the district’s chief operating officer, and Tim Reed, executive director of facilities & construction. Others, like Nicole Stewart, interim chief financial officer, members of Jeffco’s Board of Education and two committees — the Capital Asset Advisory Committee and the District’s Financial Oversight Committee have roles to play as well.

From nearly the beginning of the program, board member Susan Miller and some district watchers have voiced concerns about the way elements of the program are being run. Many of those criticisms have hinged on a perceived lack of oversight. Specifically, critics say the CAAC is not providing adequate oversight, something that led one member of the group to resign.

Ask district staff about this, and they say district staff and the CAAC have operated in unison by design. It’s the way the system, as it’s currently organized, was meant to function. The CAAC is there to advise, not oversee and control.

It’s right there in the name — advisory committee. 

But with this amount of taxpayer money, is the current level of oversight enough?

Audit oversight

One of the biggest oversight questions revolves around the need for an Independent Performance Audit of the CIP. When questioned about the subject, Reed said it was important to define what an Independent Performance Audit is and what it would do. 

He said what it would mean is the auditor would go through and look at every committed item and see if it has either been done or was in the drawings to be done. It would also allow auditors to go through all invoices, etc. 

“They’re very expensive. We had estimated that one would be more than a million dollars, and it would basically bring the program to a halt,” Reed said. “We brought it up at one of the CAAC meetings, and the committee voted no on it, with the exception of Jeff (Wilhite, former CAAC member) who kind of hedged his vote. But it was decided this was not a good way of spending district resources.”

Reed said the district is audited every year as part of the overall district audit.

“They select projects and then they go through and check them out,” he said. “And we come through with a clean bill of health — we’re not cited to improve process or anything like that.”

Typically, those audits happen after the end of the fiscal year, he said, and the CIP has been included in two or three of those audits since it started. 

When asked for her opinion on the need for an Independent Performance Audit, Board President Susan Harmon’s written answer was in line with Reed’s.

“Most of the projects are meeting their budgets. There are a few that, due to scope increases, market/bidding conditions, and complexity, are over budget,” her statement said. “For a program of this size, with costs having been estimated/projected three or more years ago, it is unrealistic to expect each project to be right on budget. The time and money a performance audit would cost is better spent on continuing the work that is underway.”

To be clear, when voters passed the 2018 bond initiative, they were placing their trust in the district to run this behemoth of a construction program. There was no clause on the ballot that said there had to be independent oversight. But there was an explicit deal with voters that the district would be a responsible steward of the money. In fact, in an op-ed published September 25, 2018, former Jeffco Superintendent, Jason Glass said “bond funds would also be monitored by a separate blue-ribbon oversight committee and be subject to an annual external audit,” and technically, it has.

But an interim bond program report prepared by the district’s own former chief financial officer that was commissioned in October 2020 had called for strengthening oversight of the bond program and identified millions in discrepancies between the flipbook that voters had approved of at the ballot box.

Also, there has been at least one member of the CAAC who also was not content with the current level of bond oversight.

CAAC Resignation

Jeff Wilhite resigned from the CAAC Feb 4, 2021. In his letter of resignation, he said “My decision to withdraw from the Committee is based on what I feel are significant differences between my professional experience in construction project budgeting and funds disbursements, and the processes being used by District staff that are accepted as appropriate by the Capital Asset Committee and the Board of Education.”

Prior to his resignation, Wilhite had suggested to Bell and Reed that he and two other members, Megan Castle and George Latuda, take a more in-depth look at spending, including money from the bond premium, and be more involved in oversight. 

Reed was asked if he remembered Wilhite making the suggestion.

“Yes, I do,” Reed said. “He simply proposed (the idea) at a meeting but hadn’t discussed it with the other members he suggested (take part). We believed that given the numbers of layers of financial people that look over our shoulder, that it really wasn’t necessary.”

Reed said at the time of Wilhite’s suggestion, there was a discussion with the CAAC to find out what information they would like to see. A report was developed, to be put out monthly on the CAAC website to show the original budget for a specific project, where it is today, what phase of work it’s in, etc. He said so far, the CAAC has been very appreciative of getting that information.

He said transparency and oversight concerns Wilhite brought up in his resignation letter were never expressed in CAAC meetings before he stepped down from the committee.

In an earlier interview with the newspaper, Wilhite was reluctant to go on the record about his time on the CAAC, but did say, “I don’t think you can find an answer of who’s doing financial oversight (of the CIP).”

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