Standing in a shady corner of a sea-like expanse of sun-baked asphalt surrounding Ginter Park Elementary, Shawn Waters' face is flushed lobster-red as he takes measurements on the concrete near the school's side entrance.
"This is just wrong in so many ways," Waters says, his retractable measuring tape snapping back adding punctuation to his declarative.
Kneeling, he applies an electronic level to the ramp that cost Richmond Public Schools $41,746 to design and install. He lifts his head, and his Oakley shades catch the reflection of a man seated in a wheelchair next to him. "This is a non-ADA-compliant entrance. It's just all wrong."
"Oh, my goodness," says the other man, Michael Chenail, president of Compliance Alliance, a local company that specializes in providing consultation to businesses and governments trying to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
The ramp descends from Ginter Park's side stoop at too steep a gradient, a potentially costly mistake for Richmond Public Schools, agree Chenail and Waters, a commercial concrete contractor from Midlothian who specializes in ADA projects.
The district is deep into a years-long, federal court-monitored effort to bring its nearly 50 school buildings, including Ginter Park, into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990. And with a federal judge watching to ensure compliance with the 2006 settlement agreement, school officials are under pressure to get right what was ignored for 20 years. Projects began in 2008 and must be completed by 2013.
Richmond Schools spokeswoman Felicia Cosby responded to inquiries regarding the projects via e-mail, indicating that the district is working to be "as fiscally responsible as possible while meeting all necessary conditions" of the "approximately 240 ADA modification projects via the Settlement Agreement."
Cosby would not comment on specific projects, such as Ginter Park's ramp.
The Americans with Disabilities Act ensures that public spaces and businesses provide equal or at least adequate access to all. In the case of children and parents in Richmond schools, it is supposed to ensure that those who rely on wheelchairs or crutches can make it to class and school functions like parent-teacher conferences.
"I would have bid [the Ginter Park ramp] at $12,000 to $15,000," Waters says. A mischievous smile flits across his face: "We could do a $40,000 ramp, but it has gold-flecked stones embedded in it."
This ramp isn't alone in its sun-baked inadequacy, agree both Waters and Chenail.
Rolling back to his truck, Chenail spins his chair to the back of the building where contractors in charge of the district's construction and renovation efforts have restriped the pavement and added signage to create the mandatory two disabled-accessible parking spaces. The trip requires a person to cross a strange isthmus of asphalt that narrows to a noncompliant 30 inches wide between the side lot and the back lot. The walk should be at least 36 inches wide.
Rounding the building, Chenail stares, perplexed at two disabled-accessible parking signs.
"Those are the signs they paid $50 or $60 dollars for?" he asks, exchanging glances with Waters. Not only did Richmond pay premium through a contract with a local sign company for signs that are ADA-compliant, but commercially available for less than $25 apiece; the school system also paid a local architecture firm to create blueprints for the signs, according to blueprints obtained from the district through the Freedom of Information Act. Those plans also indicate designs were provided for common concrete-cast parking space tire stops and standard metal signposts to which signs are to be affixed.
Cosby responds that the district "has not paid for a ‘redesign' of parking signs, but a design of the parking lots."
Shortly after the ADA settlement agreement was signed, Chenail says he was called by Aisha Shamburger, then-Richmond Public Schools' ADA compliance coordinator, for his expert opinion on the years-long project ahead. After "sitting in on a few meetings so they could say they had someone there who represented the disabled community," Chenail says he was never called back.
He says that few if any of his recommendations were used. Nor was he given the opportunity to bid on a necessary second survey of required ADA work for the school district at "half the cost" of the $129,500 eventually charged by Fairfax-based McDonough Bolyard Peck Inc. and paid by the system. Among his suggestions, which he says would have been in his report, some of the projects deemed necessary by Trice Architects could be accomplished more simply and cheaply.
A spokeswoman with McDonough Bolyard Peck declined comment, referring all information requests to Richmond Public Schools.
According to Cosby, McDonough Bolyard Peck's contract with the district tasks them with the responsibility "to ensure completed ADA projects meet the required ADA [Accessibility Guidelines] standards of 1994 or state building code specifications. They conduct a site visit after each completed ADA project and before final payments are rendered."
The oversight processes in place, including the use of a construction-management firm and the district's own ADA coordinator, all were put in place by the Richmond School Board as safeguards to ensure the process ran smoothly, says board Chairwoman Kimberly Bridges. Additionally, the various parties to the settlement have "regular and ongoing" meetings to ensure projects are moving toward the 2013 deadline.
"With all those various levels of oversight, we're trying to make sure we're doing it right, doing it efficiently," Bridges says, noting the importance of maintaining yearly funding from City Council. "We're not just committed to doing these projects, we're committed to doing them right."
Bridges says the school system's auditor, Debra Johns, also has been asked to include ADA projects in her schedule of regular audits this year.
A 2005 report by Trice Architects put the total cost to renovate Richmond's schools at $18.3 million.
Beyond the survey, McDonough Bolyard Peck, MBP for short, has been contracted by the district to provide construction oversight for the entire ADA-mitigation project. Invoices submitted to the district show that, so far, they've billed more than $700,000. Details in those monthly invoices indicate that MBP employees directly oversaw most if not all of the ADA projects completed so far.
It's a hefty price tag, considering the district still has some projects from year one of the settlement agreement left to complete. Some projects from years two, three and four have also been done, but the school system still has a tight window for finishing the projects in the allotted five years.
The fact of MBP's presence further frustrates Chenail. "There's no excuse for that even if they didn't have an overseer," he says of the Ginter Park ramp. "If they had an overseer and didn't pick that up … people aren't doing their job."
That's precisely the worry of a group of local-government watchdogs and advocates for people with disabilities who have come together in recent months in a loose confederation to compare notes and share documents obtained from Richmond Public Schools through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. (This reporter also participated in the information sharing after obtaining a large stack of ADA project invoices and contracts through FOIA.)
Former Richmond School Board member Carol A.O. Wolf, local blogger John Butcher and former School Board candidate Jonathan Mallard have put their heads and Excel spreadsheets to the task, examining file boxes full of blueprints, invoices and awards of contract to reconstruct what they say is a disturbing narrative.
David Goldfarb is president of ADA Compliance Specialists Inc., a Miami-based company that does for major corporations like Marriott Hotels, Simon Properties Group and McDonald's Restaurants what MBP is doing for Richmond. He was not involved in the review, but he says he's surprised at how oversight is being implemented by Richmond Public Schools.
"Part of the service that the project manager should be providing — and it's usually in their contract — a post-compliance inspection should be required by an independent body [that is] supposed to verify ADA work done to code," he says. "The final draw won't be paid unless the independent body signs off on what the contractor has done to ADA compliance."
He says he's surprised MBP appears to be acting both as the project manager and the independent-assessment body. He's also surprised by the price tag thus far.
His own fee, he says, is closer to $2,000 per site. The projects for McDonald's, where the average fee for all ADA-related design and construction was in the $40,000 range, each entailed a full ADA-mitigation for each site, including bathrooms, parking, sidewalks and doors.
To date, according to Cosby, Richmond Public Schools has spent more than $5.24 million on ADA projects.
Of that, almost $1.8 million went toward architectural designs — that's 21 percent of the total amount spent — also according to the RPS Web site.
Separate from that is MBP's $706,504 bill to oversee all aspects of the projects; that includes awarding contracts through open bidding, approving designs prepared by a half-dozen architectural firms, providing sometimes-daily site supervision over each construction project and declaring when each project is completed to ADA standards.
Additionally, the district is paying the salary of an in-house ADA coordinator, Valerie Abbott-Jones. Her predecessor was Shamburger.
Cosby confirms that MBP has been paid $706,504 through its contract with Richmond between March 2008 and March 2010. That amount does not include the project study, which was contracted separately, and Cosby confirms that the amount paid MBP for construction management is separate from the $5.24 million spent on all ADA projects.
However, Cosby defended the cost for MBP's services. "Industry averages for project-management oversight fees vary depending on the size of the program with variances reflecting economies of scale," she writes. "We understand that for programs larger than RPS' ADA projects, the percentages range anywhere from 7 to 10 percent. Other estimates for construction-management fees range from 2.5 to 18 percent, depending on program size, as well as the variety/mix of projects and owner requirements."
She writes that MBP's construction-management oversight price tag "is roughly 13.5 percent of the total cost of funds expended and/or encumbered for program construction and design purposes to date."
And Cosby indicates that Abbott-Jones acts as a stopgap, going behind MBP to consult "with the architects, engineers and RPS consultants in monitoring implementation of projects from design through construction to completion; and, where warranted, [make] recommendations as to whether modifications are needed."
With so many safeguards in place, Butcher, a retired state bureaucrat who describes his qualifications as consisting of owning a working Excel spreadsheet program and a reliable Internet connection, says he wonders why city money still is being wasted for inadequate work.
"I've been looking at School Board numbers for years now," says Butcher, who has chronicled everything from the district's misuse of alternative testing to skirt state school-achievement requirements (a new law passed by this year's General Assembly will phase out the alternative tests) to its excessive use of expulsions. All are detailed at his blog, crankytaxpayer.org. Richmond is under a standing Richmond Circuit Court order to provide Butcher with all Freedom of Information Act requests after he sued two years ago to force the district to disclose information related to the departure of its former chief financial officer, Thomas Sheeran.
This latest issue, Butcher says, takes the cake: "My impression? These data show, I think, that the folks in charge of the RPS procurement process are squandering money wholesale. There's a little hyperbole, of course, but in terms of the facts, they speak for themselves."
Where the numbers echoed loudest, says Butcher, was in those acres of parking lots.
"The first thing that leapt out when I looked at the spreadsheets was remarkably high design costs for disabled parking spaces," he says. "I wanted to see what we were spending all that money for."
Rarely did the actual construction involve restriping entire lots, meaning that design work typically was restricted to no more than a half-dozen spaces or so per school. Sometimes fewer.
In some cases, design costs equaled or exceeded the cost to restripe the spaces. Schools spokeswoman Cosby says she was unable to speak to specific projects, and was not familiar with specific cost breakdowns.
At schools like Blackwell Elementary annex, where architects were paid $2,764 of the total $6,024 needed for the project, or Broad Rock Elementary ($2,764 of $5,145), or Carver Elementary, where the $3,014 in design costs exceeded by hundreds of dollars the cost to actually do the work, Butcher saw a pattern: four-digit costs to redesign two-dimensional spaces.
Cosby writes that the district's construction-management firm, MBP has "sign-off approval on blueprint designs being used prior to construction."
At other schools, like Martin Luther King Middle on Mosby Street, missing signage for disabled van parking is compounded by the need to add accessible spaces to meet ADA guidelines. Those guidelines stipulate parking requirements based upon the total number of spaces in a lot: One designated handicap spot for every 25 spaces, two for 26 to 50 spaces and so on.
The King parking project cost $6,500 to design, Butcher says. Again, MBP oversaw completion of the project.
Cosby did not respond to questions regarding specific projects but wrote, "In our efforts to make sure we are ADA-complaint, we are following best practice standards by appropriating renderings for each site. One size does not fit all, and there are several factors that have to be considered in the design including traffic patterns, grading, the condition of the concrete, access hazards, etc."
But if the work completed is as far from ADA compliance as her own review of the projects suggests, Carol Wolf takes it to heart.
During her last year on School Board, Wolf pushed fellow board members to undertake the ADA mitigation they'd agreed to; in turn, she was appointed the sole member of a subcommittee tasked with finding the money. It was a way of shutting her up, she says, but instead Wolf came back with money she found squirreled away in the district's budget. She also helped convince City Council to commit $5 million a year toward the settlement agreement.
"When I have to go beg money from people, I'm putting my name on the line," says Wolf, who will post her own ADA findings on her blog, saveourschools-getrealrichmond.blogspot.com . "The architects … should be ashamed of themselves. MBP should be ashamed of itself. Nobody should be paying for that."
"Nobody seems to understand that this money is not limitless," adds Wolf, who also fought public sparring matches with then-Mayor L. Douglas Wilder over providing funding, which he'd tried to withhold citing past schools waste. "Doug [Wilder] was right, they wasted [money] the first time, and they're doing it again. And you know how hard it is to say that. This is about the civil rights of children and families with disabilities."