Metropolis: Wednesday, August 1, 2002
A Lesson in Problem Removal

Staffers suspect retaliation is the reason for a plan to close the Learning Center.


Staffers at the Fort Worth school district’s Outdoor Learning Center at Eagle Mountain Lake have been scratching their collective heads, trying to figure out why Superintendent Tom Tocco has put the 30-year-old center on his budget chopping block.

“It makes no sense, financially, academically or from a public relations standpoint,” said John Toone, a teacher and on-site caretaker at the center, which has received financial support from such luminaries as Richard Rainwater and Ross Perot. He and others, such as longtime chief custodian Bill Fox, believe the proposed closure has little to do with the budget crunch and everything to do with the FBI and an outside auditor’s investigation into the district’s favorite concrete contractor and earth-hauler, Brooks Construction Company.

Accusations against Brooks kicked off an FBI public corruption investigation two years ago. The contractor has received close to $30 million from the district since 1997, mostly for large jobs that should have been put out for competitive bids but instead were broken into multiple smaller packages, each just a hair under $25,000 — thereby bypassing state-mandated bidding policies. Early this year, after much foot-dragging, the district hired an outside auditor to open its own investigation.

One of the first places the FBI, and later the auditors, looked for fraud was in the work Brooks did on the septic tanks and sewage treatment ponds at the OLC between July and October of 1999, Toone said. According to the district’s financial records, Brooks got the job with a bid of $40,000 but may have been paid as much as $420,000 for the work.

Even at that price, center staffers question whether Brooks did the job right. The contractor was allowed to dump sewage sludge from the center on the ground about 300 yards uphill from Eagle Mountain Lake, a water source for Fort Worth and other communities. “When it rains,” Toone said, “that stuff runs into the lake.”

Toone, Fox, and others close to the project said they told the FBI and outside auditors what they knew about Brooks’ work at the OLC, and the involvement in that work of Eldon Ray, then the district’s associate superintendent for maintenance. Ray has since retired but is still working as a consultant on building projects for the district. For months, as news media investigations of Brooks’ contracts pointed suspiciously toward favorable treatment for the contractor, Tocco continued to defend both Brooks and Ray publicly.

Toone does not think it is a coincidence that since “the director [Bob Reed], the caretaker [Toone] and the custodian [Bill Fox] at the OLC all talked to the FBI about this fraud, they are losing their jobs and the center is being closed.” Making the pill even more bitter, he said, is the fact that Brooks has since won two more contracts from the district, even as the audit and the FBI investigation of the company continue.

The center’s involvement with Brooks started following a break in an earthen dike surrounding one of the center’s five sewage evaporation and oxidation ponds. Engineering consultants, Toone said, gave the center an estimate of $40,000 to fix the dike and to dig out and haul all the sludge that had accumulated at the bottom of the two largest ponds over the last 25 years. Toone said the engineers told him the sludge would be hauled to a licensed hazardous waste facility, as required by state law. Herman Earwood, an assistant to Eldon Ray, was assigned to oversee the project for the district. He, too, has since retired.

The work began on July 21, 1999, Toone and Fox said, with one guy, a truck, and a backhoe. “He only showed up three or four days a week,” said Toone, who lives in the caretakers’ house on the center and was there the whole three months that the work continued. Eventually, Toone and Fox said, the single worker was joined by one other.

In addition to the berm work and sludge removal, Brooks’ two men did some concrete work, Fox said, pouring slabs for a calf barn, an outdoor covered picnic spot, and a metal building that Fox erected himself. Brooks eventually billed the district for more than $400,000. While that amount didn’t seem to raise any concerns with the district at the time, it did red-flag the OLC job to the FBI and the auditors, when they ran across Brooks’ invoices, almost all of which were for hauling dirt.

Toone said FBI investigators and auditors told him that Brooks would have had to haul about 1,080 trucks worth of dirt and sludge out of the center to justify the invoices they reviewed

“I told them I saw no trucks go out with any dirt” during that time, Toone said. “If they hauled out that much dirt, they must have done it with a helicopter, because they sure didn’t come down the road in front of my house” — the only road in and out of the center.

Fox said he gave the investigators the same information, based on what he observed during working hours. “At most,” Fox said, “Brooks’ trucks hauled about five loads of dirt around the site for us. I didn’t see any dirt leave the premises.”

The most egregious thing the two witnessed, they said, was the way Brooks disposed of the dug-out sludge. “It was never hauled off to a licensed facility,” Toone said. “It was dumped on site, not far from the ponds and on a slope that leads downhill to the lake.”

Both Fox and Toone said they witnessed Brooks’ workers covering the sludge with dirt. One staffer, who asked not to be named, said Earwood defended the sludge dumping as being done “at the instructions of Mr. Eldon Ray.” Earwood was disturbed about the dumping, but felt he had no choice, the staffer said.

Neither Earwood, Ray, Tocco, nor Brooks returned calls seeking comment.

Tocco raised the hackles of many OLC supporters in mid-July, when he included closure of the nature center as one of several measures intended to remove a $17 million deficit from the district’s proposed budget of nearly half a billion dollars. The center now provides the only setting in which Fort Worth students can do the field investigations that state standards require for science instruction. And while administrators have claimed the entire $640,000 of the center’s budget as potential savings, OLC director Bob Reed said $450,000 of that sum represents salaries, which will continue to be paid, because workers’ contracts require that other positions be found for them.

In the meantime, the bad effects of Brooks’ work at the center have long outlasted his presence on site, Toone said. The new dikes were built too low and wastewater repeatedly overflowed, adding to whatever pollution was already flowing into the lake from the dumped sludge. In November 2001, a full two years later, maintenance employees with rented equipment finally repaired the work for which Brooks had been so highly paid, Toone said.

“I don’t know what will happen to me for speaking out,” Toone added. “But I believe too much in this program to remain silent about what I know.”

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