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Civil grand jury criticizes MCOE's past business practices

Merced County Office of Education has strengthened its oversight of construction projects after the cost of building an automotive training center dramatically went over budget.

"(The office) agrees that there were areas where better oversight could have been provided," Superintendent of Schools Lee Andersen wrote to the Merced County civil grand jury last week.

The civil grand jury's annual report was released last week and included two investigations surrounding the relationship between the Merced County Housing Authority, MCOE and Firm Build, the nonprofit that went bankrupt three years ago.

One report focused on the automotive training center, a project that went over budget and failed to pass building inspection. It was built by Firm Build.

The other report criticized three of the Merced County Board of Supervisors' appointments to the Housing Authority.

It urges the supervisors remove the people from the board and take care to make sure no one is appointed who has previous problems with the authority or who has a conflict of interest.

Close relationship blamed

In 2005, MCOE decided to build an auto training center (ATC) after hearing that Merced County needed such a vocational school for students.

The office chose to renovate part of Castle Commerce Center, which it believed would cost $559,000 and funded through a federal bond to refurbish buildings.

MCOE and Firm Build had already been working together, as the office would send students to the nonprofit to learn construction skills.

The office never put the project out to bid and instead named Firm Build as the general contractor. No contract between the office and the nonprofit was ever written up.

The ATC coordinator was Patrick Bowman, an MCOE employee who also served as Firm Build's board president.

The project's cost grew to $1.25 million during construction, which lasted from summer 2005 to October 2006.

Firm Build declared that the project was done and students began using it.

The next summer, county inspectors found construction defects, forcing MCOE to spend another $10,000 to bring it up to code.

In its response to the report, the office agreed the project should have gone out to bid. Under new guidelines, all projects must go through the office's facilities department.

The office faulted its close relationship with Firm Build as causing the problem with the center. It agreed that more oversight of its dealings with the nonprofit were needed.

The office adopted a resolution to prevent further conflicts of interest between its workers and its projects.

Board overhaul suggested

The civil grand jury also called on the Board of Supervisors to remove three Housing Authority commissioners.

The authority's board should be free from anyone who was associated with Firm Build or previously worked for the authority, it recommends. Though it doesn't name anyone, its suggestions target Patrick Bowman, who served as Firm Build's president, Mary Stillahn, who worked as a secretary, and Charles Reyburn, who worked as the human resources director. The board already has two positions open.

Stillahn said she wasn't interviewed by the civil grand jury or contacted for an interview. She declined to comment.

Katie Albertson, county spokeswoman, said the board takes great care with its appointments, adding that there are 150 boards or commissions under it. The interview and appointment process is open to the public and broadcast on television.

She couldn't say whether the supervisors would follow any of the recommendations. A formal response will be approved next month.

The jury asks that the board pass resolutions to prevent it from "stacking" boards, though there's no evidence presented by the jury of that happening.

"The democratic process is the safeguard against any sort of stacking," she said.

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.

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