Taxpayers in several school districts across the state will be paying off bonds used to fund large school construction projects for several years under questionable contracts.

A three-story report from Illinois News Network that posts Sunday to details how schools districts across the state entered into energy-efficiency projects with performance contractors under the auspices of Article 19b of the state school code. 

Under this little-known school code, projects approved under Article 19b must be equal to their measured energy savings in 20 or fewer years. However, the state does not monitor the progress or require documentation on the accepted projects, leaving that responsibility to the local school districts. 

Some of these agreements that INN reviewed included substantial cost increases through change orders that expanded an initial contract. This work, in some cases, was not re-bid. 

In a video tutorial about bonds and school construction contracts posted to the Illinois State Board of Education website, Susan Weitekamp said change orders of more than 10 percent to Article 19b-related projects must be rebid. 

“This is to discourage contractors from submitting low bids to get the bid in hopes of getting the extra work without giving the other contractors a chance to bid,” Weitekamp said. 

In one example INN uncovered, the school board in Taylorville approved a change order that boosted a $181,000 contract to $12 million. The additional work was not rebid. The district’s taxpayers will be paying bond debt for the project until 2033. 

Mike Elliott, project manager with Kluber Inc. and a past president of the American Institute for Architects Illinois, said there’s a larger, growing issue, whereby, in some cases, after a contractor secures a deal and develops a relationship with the school district, a change order broadens the scope well beyond a performance contractor’s ability to measure the energy savings.

Several of the projects that INN reviewed as part of its reporting included improvements to infrastructure incapable of yielding energy savings. Such change orders have included sidewalks, parking lots and other projects in which no energy consumption or savings could be measured. 

“I’ve seen examples where they’re doing school additions, they’re doing upgrades to an artificial turf on a track or a football field,” Elliott said. “Tell me where there’s energy cost savings going on. The law is so prescriptive, and it’s just being totally violated. It’s being totally ignored.”

The report on Article 19b projects, the latest from INN, also includes a look into the Health/Life Safety Bonds that are required to finance these projects, as well as potential legislation aimed at curtailing such programs.
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