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Messages reveal mayor's office asked Richmond auditor to change school construction cost report

Posted at 10:12 PM, Apr 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-17 15:36:39-04

RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney's Office asked Richmond City Auditor Lou Lassiter to change his findings on school construction costs in Richmond, according to text messages and emails obtained by the CBS 6 Problem Solvers.

The revelation comes as the mayor's office, Richmond City Council, and Richmond School Board debated who should be in charge of building new schools — George Wythe High School in South Richmond.

One issue some Richmond School Board members raised during the debate was a city audit that showed the City of Richmond overspent tax dollars when building the last round of new city schools.

Richmond's Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders sent Lassiter text messages and emails in an attempt to update the auditor's findings on school construction costs.

"Your audit on school construction is being used to beat us over the head on false premises," one text read.

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The text, obtained through a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request and first reported by Virginia Public Media, was sent on March 22.

That was one day after a CBS 6 Problem Solvers report detailed the findings of Lassiter's 2020 audit.

IN-DEPTH: Audit: Richmond overspent millions in taxpayer dollars building new schools: 'It's unacceptable'

It showed Richmond "needs improvement" on middle and elementary school construction costs.

It also said Richmond spent more taxpayer dollars building Cardinal Elementary, Henry Marsh Elementary, and River City Middle when compared to the statewide average in 2018 and 2019.

The statewide average was $283 per square foot. Richmond spent $324 building those three schools.

"I think that there's been a lot of misrepresentation, particularly by a couple of school board members, continuing to say that school costs were out of line with statewide averages," Saunders said when asked about his text message to the auditor.

Saunders claimed some Richmond School Board members were "manipulating the data" as justification for the board taking control of school construction and not wanting to collaborate with the city on future projects.

Richmond School Board member Jonathan Young countered that the city spent too much money on those new schools.

"The reality is that we spent more money than was requisite on the last round of schools," Young told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers. "There's just no way around that. I'm sorry if it's an inconvenient truth."

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In a January email, Saunders also asked Lassiter to update findings to factor in new Virginia Department of Education data from 2020 and 2021, after the audit was completed. Saunders claimed the data showed a more fair comparison in construction costs across the state.

Saunders showed CBS 6 that same data in an effort to dispute the findings, days after the Problem Solvers' first report on the audit.

"It's certainly the only time I've asked him to go back and look at a prior published audit," Saunders said. "But again, just given the importance of the conversation, simply asking for it to be updated with additional info that's relevant to the current conversation we're having as a city today, was the goal."

Lassiter said his audit focused only on elementary and middle schools with contracts awarded in 2018 and 2019. He said the data Saunders provided was not comparable.

In an email to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers, Lassiter said it was not common to be asked to change an audit. He said he would only ever update the findings if something was factually incorrect.

Lassiter also pointed out he conducted 35 audits between 2019 and 2021. The city, he said, agreed with 97% of his recommendations.

Young called Saunders' request to change the audit "highly unorthodox."

"I'd trust an auditor over a politician every day of the week and twice on Saturday," school board member Young said.

While the city maintains it disagreed with the audit, Saunders said the city did find some room for improvement based on the report.

"Yes, we continue to learn and have that dialogue," he said. "What I can say confidently is that the city built three high-quality schools in short order to meet the needs of our students.

Saunders also addressed factors that could have played a role in higher school construction costs — such as building in a historic neighborhood, land constraints, and moving with urgency.

He said the city continues to look forward to working with the school board on future projects.

Watch for Problem Solvers Investigations Tuesdays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Click here for more of our investigations or to submit a tip to the Problem Solvers.

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