HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – Horry County Schools’ deal with a contractor to build five new schools throughout the county prompted an investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the school district announced Tuesday.
Horry County Schools said the meeting between Superintendent Rick Maxey and SLED agents happened on Dec. 17, 2015, after First Floor Energy Positive was awarded the building contracts the previous month. This investigation was started at the request of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office based on citizen complaints.
According to the school district, communication between the CEO of First Floor Energy Positive and the school board’s attorney occurred as early as June 10, 2014. These emails about the proposed schools were taking place about four months prior to the presentation to the board.
The new schools include Ten Oaks Middle School, Myrtle Beach Middle School and Socastee Elementary School.
The district said they were not made aware of the communications until April 20, 2017. Maxey and board member and Facilities Committee Chairman Neil James shared the emails with the school board four days later. One day later, SLED was notified and provided access to the email exchanges.
WMBF obtained copies of these emails sent between First Floor CEO Robbie Ferris and attorney Keith Powell.
The emails from June 2014 show the pair discussing how to create a proposal to present to the district.
Ferris wrote in one email, “We were hoping that you could help us get the direction set so we could submit a ‘credible proposal.’”
They also discussed laws on how the district can award contracts without a competitive process.
One email from Powell attaches the district’s approach to sole source procurement and wrote, “So you can start thinking about how you would support one under this code section.”
Another email from Powell to the CEO said the administration doesn’t know anything about the proposal and asked Ferris who he made a proposal to – suggesting the company was also potentially communicating with another person on the matter.
On Tuesday, the district stated no one with the district or board members knew about this communication until 2017, however in one email from Ferris, he references being in contact with facilities manager Matt Dean.
Again, these emails date four months prior to when Ferris made a presentation to the board in October 2014.
Prior to the presentation, WMBF reported the board was reviewing plans for new schools but the board delay the final vote a few times.
After Ferris’ presentation, a new Request for Quotation (RFQ) was reissued by the district in October 2014 that focuses on energy-positive schools.
A year later, in November 2015, the district selected First Floor to build five new schools despite it being the highest proposal.
First Floor’s proposal estimated the construction of the schools to cost $219 million, which was $50 million over the district’s budget.
"They were all over budget, there was no way, no how anyone could build those schools for that budget that was set over a year and a half ago,” former HCO School Board Chair Joe DeFeo said in 2015.
At the time, DeFeo said the other companies didn’t guarantee the performance and energy positive structure the district was looking for.
“That’s to save electricity, and to save a lot of money. Millions of dollars over the years,” DeFeo said in 2015.
The district said SLED began an investigation a month later in December 2015.
Horry County School Board chairman Ken Richardson said the decision to release this information years later came after he received a Freedom of Information request to his home.
“When I got that I took it out to the district, and we talked about it. The combination of that and the SLED investigation, we decided the best thing to do was to come out and bring it out and get that behind us and move forward,” Richardson said.
Richardson said he became aware of the SLED investigation a week before he was sworn in as the chairman.
“I’m focused on the future not the past. I can’t do anything about the past. The people of Horry County elected me to go in there and move forward,” Richardson said.
He said he understands things like this make people wonder about the board, but he said citizens must trust the people they elect, and Horry County has a good board.
Horry County School District decline to comment further but said, “Horry County Schools has cooperated fully with SLED officials over the last several years regarding this issue.”
WMBF reached out to SLED, Ferris, Powell and other board members but has not heard back.