DeKalb hires new school construction firm

DeKalb County Schools will pay a California company up to $11.5 million to oversee school construction over the next six to seven years.

At a hastily-called meeting Friday morning, two school board members expressed concern there was too little scrutiny before picking URS Corp. The board voted 7-1 in favor of the contract.

The San Francisco-based company has offices in Atlanta and has done construction-related work around the world. It will oversee DeKalb’s half-billion dollar school construction program, which will be funded by a voter-approved, five-year Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

The decision comes as the school system girds for a court battle with its last program manager, a joint venture known as Heery/Mitchell.

DeKalb kicked the group off the job in 2006 and fired them the next year. Heery/Mitchell sued, DeKalb countersued, and the two sides have been locked in legal combat ever since, with the cost of the public’s side of the battle reaching at least $38 million so far.

E.R. Mitchell & Co., has settled, but Heery International, part of a global conglomerate and the larger partner in the venture, is fighting for money and its reputation. A trial could come in February, with Heery seeking undisclosed damages and legal costs. DeKalb wants more than $100 million, claiming Heery engaged in a pattern of fraudulent billing and mismanagement.

Board member Nancy Jester of North DeKalb, who cast the lone vote against the URS contract, asked school staffers whether they vetted the company’s history of litigation.

“Do we know their patterns over time?”

Stephen Wilkins, the district’s chief operating officer, said the company submitted a list of its litigation but that his staff didn’t review every case. Responding to another board member, Sarah Copelin-Wood of South DeKalb, Wilkins said his staff also did not check the references provided by URS Corp. during the bidding process.

“We would have to call every school system to see how they performed,” Wilkins said. “That is beyond our capacity to do.”

Wilkins said company officials vouched for the records submitted in their application. If they prove false, there will be consequences, he said.

Copelin-Wood retorted: “We’re talking about $11.5 million. I don’t know how many staff members you have in your department, but I would think you would have checked that out.”

URS Corp. will work with three companies — Brailsford & Dunlavey, EGM Services and Corporate Environmental Risk Management — to oversee about 200 projects, including eight new schools.

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