Sunday, June 02, 2002

School contracts overturned

The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — A judge ruled the head of the state's school construction program acted without authority when he personally approved contracts for more than 1,700 projects worth more than $2 billion.

        The competitive bidding process used by the Ohio School Facilities Commission in awarding work to construction companies has been a “sham,” Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Jennifer Brunner ruled Thursday.

        The decision could open the door for contractors whose bids were rejected to challenge school construction contract awards statewide.

        The ruling was harshly critical of Randall Fischer, the three-member commission's executive director, who approved the contracts on his own without taking them to the commission.

        “The final word on all these contracts has lain with an individual who is not a public officer, has not taken an oath of office, nor is bonded,” Judge Brunner wrote.

        “The public education of the state's children, an essential gov ernment function, is threatened by the unbridled discretion unlawfully placed in the hands of one person, Randall Fischer. This is unconscionable.”

        Mr. Fischer said he wasn't sure whether the commission would appeal. He also said the commission would retroactively approve all contracts in July at its next quarterly meeting.

        “We're disappointed. I'm dismayed,” he said. “If the commission had to approve every one of these contracts, they'd have to meet on a daily basis.”

        He also defended the contracts he has awarded, saying that only about eight of 1,800 did not go to the low bidder.

        The Legislature established the commission in response to a 1997 Ohio Supreme Court decision that declared the state's school funding system unconstitutional.

        Since then, Mr. Fischer has approved distribution of $2 billion spent to renovate and rebuild schools in 73 of Ohio's 612 school districts.

        Commission members gave Mr. Fischer authority to approve contracts unilaterally.

        “From our perspective, we delegated authority to Randy and we delegated appropriate authority to Randy,” said Michael Spino, who was appointed to the commission by state school Superintendent Susan Zelman.

        “Obviously, we have full confidence that the commission is acting appropriately in granting the contracts,” said Joe Case, a spokesman for Attorney General Betty Montgomery.

        Judge Brunner said state law doesn't allow for such a transfer of authority.

        Her ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Cincinnati-based Monarch Construction against the commission, the Tri-Village Local School District and others in April. Monarch said it submitted the lowest bid for work on a new school in the western Ohio district, but didn't get the job.

        Tri-Village Superintendent Lucian Szlizewski said the district's school board was dissatisfied with Monarch and endorsed the second-lowest bidder, Peterson Construction of Wapakoneta, in its recommendation to Mr. Fischer.


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- School contracts overturned