Monday, June 28, 2004

Inaction by the D.C. Council last week allowed the school board to move ahead on a multimillion-dollar contract with a private security company despite disclosures by the inspector general that the contractor was being overpaid.

Council member Adrian Fenty said Friday that the council’s decision to take no action by the deadline means automatic approval of Watkins Security Inc.’s $9.1 million contract to continue providing security guards in the schools through January.

The contract includes two option years worth $13.5 million in 2005 and $13.9 million in 2006, school board records show.

The D.C. Office of Inspector General has been conducting a series of audits into the school system’s security arrangements, including the backgrounds and qualifications of security guards.

The school system’s security came under heavy criticism after the Feb. 2 fatal shooting of James Richardson, 17, a student at Ballou High School in Southeast. Police charged Thomas Boykin, 18, another student, who reportedly smuggled a gun past security guards at the school.

In a June 11 draft report, the inspector general found that the school board had overpaid Watkins Security by as much as $8.8 million since it began employing the firm last summer. The final report is expected to be issued within the next few weeks.

The draft report states: “The award to Watkins Security apparently resulted from a lack of effective procurement operational policies and procedures, a flawed technical evaluation process and the absence of a clearly articulated rational basis for the selection.”

Mr. Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, who opposed the contract, said, “We shouldn’t have let this happen. I have no idea why no meeting was called on this.” The deadline for action was Friday.

Mr. Fenty and five other council members — David Catania, at-large Republican; Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat; Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat; Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat; and Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat — sent a letter last week to Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, at-large Democrat, requesting a special meeting to discuss the Watkins contract.

Mrs. Cropp was unavailable for comment Friday to explain why the meeting was not called. But her spokesman, Mark Johnson, said Mrs. Cropp “believes that the schools need to have security, especially with an eye toward everything that has happened in the schools.”

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who opposed the Watkins contract, said she understood the council’s decision.

“I don’t think they had much of a choice,” she said. “There wasn’t another contractor available, and they couldn’t [go without] security. I think we should take a look at getting somebody else in January, though.”

Mr. Fenty said the school board should have moved to hire somebody else months ago.

“There is ample evidence that the contract is wasteful, yet despite all of the evidence, the council has failed to act,” Mr. Fenty said. “I don’t understand. I’m disappointed in the council.”

The report also criticizes school board members for failing to have the contract reviewed before hiring Watkins Security. School officials told Watkins officials last July that the company had been awarded a three-year, $45.6 million contract.

However, school contracting officials never sought the council’s approval of the agreement. City contracting law states the council must approve contracts exceeding $1 million.

The inspector general’s report said the school system spent from $1.2 million to $8.8 million more than it would have if “a more technically competent and lower-priced offerer” had been hired.

The Inspector General’s Office also is conducting a separate audit into the Watkins contract on “security force attendance, professionalism, background checks, certification and diversity,” said Austin Andersen, interim inspector general.

Watkins Security, which is run by a former Metropolitan Police detective, Richard Hamilton, has sent letters to council members countering accusations made during a March council hearing about the poor performance of his security guards.

Mr. Hamilton said criticism of the company focused on events that took place before Watkins Security replaced Virginia-based MVM Inc. as security contractor.

Watkins Security hired hundreds of MVM guards last summer when it took over the contract, which requires almost 350 full-time personnel.

Company officials said at least 147 employees have been replaced through termination, resignation, military obligation and family leave.

A proposal to have the city’s police department oversee security in the schools, including private security guards, is expected to be considered next week by the council’s Committee on Education.

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