School Board Okays Management Firm for $98 Million Bond Project

Mayor Mahmud Expresses Concern

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In a unanimous decision, the South Pasadena Board of Education last Saturday approved a management agreement with a construction firm for Measure SP, a $98 million bond measure passed by local voters in November.

As noted in a resolution, the school board has selected Balfour Beatty Construction, a leading U.S. commercial builder, to manage the project. The company has a “30-plus year reputation of building award-winning K-12 schools throughout Southern California,”, South Pasadena Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Geoff Yantz said in a statement released by the district on Tuesday. “Consistently ranked among the top K-12 education builders in California and across the nation, Balfour Beatty is known for maintaining long-term, trusted relationships with districts, including Tustin, Redondo Beach and Santa Ana Unified. With Balfour Beatty’s history of safety and care for the environment and the communities where they work, we feel confident that the various projects will be implemented with transparency, integrity, timeliness, teamwork, excellence and respect for all stakeholders.”

The news release indicates the district completed interviews, reference checks, site visits, and a financial review and discussed the results at length during a regularly scheduled board meeting on December 13.

During Saturday’s special morning session, billed as a bond workshop, the board formally approved a resolution with Balfour Beatty, giving the superintendent authority to negotiate, finalize and award a contract for construction management services. Funds through  the bond will be used for a multitude of projects throughout the district, from  restoring and modernizing the auditorium at South Pasadena Middle School to removing  six portable classrooms at South Pas High and constructing new permanent classrooms. Major upgrades are earmarked at everyone of the district’s five campuses to enhance 21st century instruction.

SPUSD Board President Elisabeth Eilers explained that Saturday’s meeting was “an overview of moving forward on our priorities in terms of construction.”

While the agenda item initially appeared only as a rubber stamp endorsement by the board, in attendance was South Pasadena Mayor Diana Mahmud, who expressed concern during visitor comments, questioning how the board got from the  successful passage of the measure to the present. “There’s no explanation as to how you got to the point where you are being asked to make today, which appears just to approve a form contract and to engage in a fairly raw delegation of authority to your superintendent,” she told the board. “That’s a real concern to me because there are real big dollars that are associated with those decisions.”

The mayor believes it would have been much better to provide the public with a staff report that showed “your thought processes, what was the decision making in what you’re being asked today that has significant impact,” she continued.

Mahmud explained she had 25 years experience as a public works construction lawyer and litigated very large projects, some in the $100 million range. At one point in her career, she worked for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, noting:  “We would have never arrived at the decisions you’re being asked to make here without a paper trail that explains how you got here,” she told school board members. “Moreover, what really concerns me is public trust, which is really important to the community. The fact that this is an 8:30 meeting (on a Saturday), and the fact that I’m the only member of the community here, I think should raise some concerns for you.”

Mahmud, who technically was joined at the meeting by her husband, Richard, added, “You’re being asked to provide a delegation that is extremely broad and will have far reaching consequences with respect to at least your initial implementation of Measure SP.”

Mahmud stressed, “Without a paper trail, I don’t know how you got to making these decisions.”

At one point during her statement, Eilers interrupted the mayor, pointing out that public comments are only three minutes, adding: “I think a lot of this was covered at a previous board meeting.”

Board member Jon Primuth told the mayor that a lengthy session was spent on the item at the Board of Education’s regularly scheduled meeting four days prior, Tuesday, December 13.

Mahmud interjected, “Your reso (resolution) already says you selected Balfour Beatty. Is that true?”

SPUSD Superintendent Dr. Geoff Yantz then cautioned the board from getting into a dialogue with Mahmud since the matter was a visitor comment, not on the regular agenda, in an effort to avoid a Brown Act violation.

The mayor went on, saying: “There’s no explanation if you undertook requests for proposals? Were other firms considered? There’s nothing to give the public confidence in the decisions you’re being asked to make here. There’s no transparency, which is ultimately the problem.”

Thanking her for the input, Eilers urged Mahmud to look at a tape of the December 13 board meeting “to see how thorough the process has been,” she insisted.

Mahmud responded, “The problem is you’re being asked today to make a decision on the selection of Balfour Beatty and there’s no transparency, no information. This isn’t an attack on Balfour Beatty. This is an expression of concern regarding process of how you got there. If you look at the resolution, I quite frankly don’t know what it says. I’m concerned that it’s way to broad.”

Eilers then told the mayor that the school board needed to proceed with the meeting, noting that her three minutes for visitor comments had ended.

“Please understand that I’m trying to prevent future problems from occurring,” said Mahmud in closing. “I don’t get involved in your school policy. I have no expertise in that area. But this is an area where I do have expertise.”

During Saturday’s discussion of the action item, Yantz said the board had spent 90 minutes to two hours developing the resolution. He stressed that Balfour Beatty is a “highly reputable firm.”

Primuth called the presentation made by Balfour Beatty on December 13 as “really outstanding. I’m really happy to move forward. I know Geoff (Yantz) has had success with Balfour Beatty. I entrust his testimony on that, so I’m happy with this resolution.”

Balfour Beatty official Gill Fullan, in attendance at the Saturday’s session,  told the board that his firm places risk mitigation as a top priority while answering concerns from board member Julie Giulioni, who  wanted to know what safeguards are in place should something go wrong with the project, also asking how the district is protected. Fullan pointed out that Balfour Beatty has worked with more than 80 school districts in the state and “we do about $6 billion a year,” he said. “I don’t mean to brag, but we’re up there among the best.”

Yantz agreed that Balfour Beatty is “the best in the business through my personal experience,” adding he liked the firm’s level of professionalism, financial backing, reputation and commitment for doing what’s right for a school district as key components to their success. “They are not problem makers. They are problem solvers,” he said.

During a break in the meeting, Eilers said Balfour Beatty has “an amazing reputation” in the school construction business with “a real heart” for students. “They go the extra mile.”

Eilers stressed that the firm will be evaluated on each of the projects under the umbrella of the $98 million bond measure “to ensure they are the best fit,” she said.

In response to Mahmud’s concerns, Eilers said she was saddened the mayor didn’t see the December 13 board meeting. “There was a very thorough analysis and presentation by Balfour, and our legal counsel showed the method for our actions,” Eilers explained.

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