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Audit Shows Greenwich Public Schools' Fire Safety Was Compromised

Lulow: 'There are no safety issues now.'

The 23-page internal audit report of Greenwich Board of Education service contracts show that the all 17 of the school district's buildings had not been inspected for fire safety during 2011.

According to the audit, "... internal controls for selected procurement and accounts payable transactions failed. The second part of our summary opinion is that unnecessary potentially significant risks were incurred due (to) the lack of proper fire suppression system inspections." The audit also states, "Our overall opinion is closed tied to the BOE's administrative initial assessment that internal control practices were weak and in need of improvement."

Interim school Superintendent Roger Lulow said that in some cases, the fire alarms were not functioning. "There were potential problems tht we didn't become aware of until the audit," Lulow said. "If we had kids who pulled fire alarms, they wouldn't have worked." However, Lulow said that if there had been an emergency, there were other alarms and personnel within the buildings that could have been triggered to summon emergency crews. The schools were not identified.

According to the audit, "full inspection by the Greenwich fire Department's Fire Marshal's Office had not taken place during calendar year 2011. According to Connecticut State Fire Safety Code, these inspections are required to be conducted on an annual basis. Our inquiries lead us to the conclusion that the inspections did not take place for any of the 17 BOE buildings."

Lulow conceded that student safety was compromised, however, "there are no safety issues now. We had an unfortunate situation and we fixed it and put into place measures to make sure" it doesn't happen again. Asked about the severity of safety compromise, Lulow added, "We really don't know how serious they were because we didn't have paper trails."

Lulow added, "We don't pay people who don't do the work they're paid to do. I believe we have fixed the problem."

The audit by Ron Lalli, the town's risk manager and internal auditor, was issued Feb. 9, following a request last fall by Lulow when discrepencies in Board of Ed contracts and payments were uncovered during a review of documents. After receiving the audit, Lulow said he asked for and received the resignation of schools facilities director Susan Chipouras.

Chipouras resigned the next day, Feb. 10, and received payment of 3 months of her base salary of $137,114, according to Lulow. "In essence her letter said 'I am resigning as requested,' " Lulow told Greenwich Patch. Whether she was terminated or resigned, the terms of Chipouras' contract mandated the 3-month salary payment, Lulow said.

The audit was made public at the March 8 meeting of the Board of Estimate and Taxations audit committee.

Lulow said that although student safety may have been compromised previously, he is confident that all fire safety systems are functional. The annual inspections were to have been done by the town's fire marshal and it is the facilities director's responsibility to ensure they were complete, officials have said.

According to school and town officials, all fire safety inspections and reports will be complete by month's end. The audit did not include an explanation of why fire inspections were not done. The town's former fire marshal Joseph Benoit retired Feb. 1.

Other findings of the audit, (which is available by clicking on the PDF document at right), included

  • The subcontractor hired Life Safety Service and Supply LLC,  the schools' inspection vendor, did not perform all quarterly inspections of fire suppression systems including sprinklers, hood systems and individual extinguishers during the fiscal years of 2010 through January 2012, even though Life Safety Service and Supply was paid. The audit did not indicate the amounts paid.
  • Carbon monoxide detectors in school buildings were installed without obtaining building department permits and inspections.
  • The kitchen hood system at Greenwich High School was flagged for having violations in April 2011 and were shut down following the audit for 10 days until repairs were made during the mid-winter vacation.
  • More than $21,000 in change orders to the $99,900 contract for installation of WiFi at Greenwich High School pushed the total cost of the work above $100,000 threshold for a performance bond and meeting prevailing wage requirements. "It is difficult for audit personnel to accept any plausible explanation that these transactions took place without the knowledge of these requirements," auditors wrote.

The audit made 13 specific recommendations regarding contract and inspection procedures including requirements that the school superintendent sign off on any change orders to awarded contracts. The Board of Education has agreed to implement all of those recommendations.

Chipouras, who was hired in January 2010, oversaw approximately $22 million in capital construction projects, supervised the maintenance and custodial staff, and acted as an ex-officio liaison for the district on the Greenwich High School MISA Building Committee.

Before coming to Greenwich, Chipouras was the owner and founder of a project management and construction consulting company where she managed the $78 million renovation and expansion of Staples High School and the $22 million conversion of Bedford Middle School to Saugatuck Elementary School for the Town of Westport. She also worked for Turner Construction Company as a senior project manager and purchasing agent.

Lulow said the district intends to fill the facilities manager position and possibly reorganize the department.

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