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School district fires facilities manager after IPSR investigation of bidding irregularities

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board began an investigation of Charles White after The Daily Memphian published an examination that found the district likely overspent millions of federal dollars on HVAC upgrades.(Courtesy Memphis-Shelby County Schools)
The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board began an investigation of Charles White after The Daily Memphian published an examination that found the district likely overspent millions of federal dollars on HVAC upgrades.(Courtesy Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

A senior facilities manager for Memphis-Shelby County Schools was fired in late July for “gross misconduct” in connection with construction contracts awarded to a school district vendor.

According to the school district’s internal investigation, Charles White awarded purchase orders to a MSCS vendor in exchange for business with his own company.

White was manager of general services for Facilities Management, which reports to Genard Phillips, the district’s chief of Business Operations.

On Thursday, Oct. 27, interim Supt. Toni Williams announced that Phillips will leave the district in December.

Williams also announced the district has hired an independent audit firm to review procurement processes.

Meanwhile, Williams said, the contract procurement process “will transition from reporting to Business Operations to reporting to Finance,” in part “to help avoid conflicts of interest.”

School district officials have yet to comment on any direct connections between those changes announced Thursday and White’s firing in July.

The board’s investigation of White began July 6, the day after The Daily Memphian published an  opens in a new windowin-depth examination of the district’s bidding and procurement processes.

The examination, conducted by the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, found the district likely had overspent millions of federal dollars on HVAC upgrades that benefited one company in particular.

It also showed how normal bidding processes and job specs had been changed in ways that limited bidders and favored the same local company, Ewing Kessler.

Last week, the Institute for Public Service Reporting obtained a copy of White’s personnel file, via a Freedom of Information Request filed in July.

According to the file, the school district’s internal investigation found that White awarded purchase orders to Mid-South Renovations (MSR). In exchange, MSR did business with C&B Company, which is owned by White.

In a July 27 letter to White, Kimberly Stovall, senior adviser for the district’s office of professional standards, said the investigation found “that you are the owner of C&B Company and conducted business with MSR, revealing that you have a personal relationship with the owner of MSR.

“The investigation revealed that you actively participated in the vendor selection process and had final approval authority to award purchase orders to MSR. Your company conducted business and MSR, resulting in your company receiving funds totaling $68,000,” Stovall wrote.

Stovall’s letter to White did not explain what the purchase orders were for or what work was done by MSR or by White’s company. A review of all MSCS construction contracts awarded in 2022 found none given to either company.

“It was reported that the vendor was under the impression that you received prior approval from your supervisor authorizing the approval of the outside business between your company and MSR,” Stovall wrote.

“Moreover, during your interview you indicated that you did not seek approval from your superiors and that you were aware that your company was not allowed to work on Memphis-Shelby County Schools jobs,” Stovall wrote.

Board policies require employees to “avoid any conflict or appearance of conflict between their interests and interests of the system in dealing with suppliers, customers and all organizations or individuals” doing business with MSCS.

Employees also “should avoid any situation resulting in direct or indirect financial or material interest in firms, corporations, or organizations doing business” with the district.

White began working for the school district in 2000 as a building maintenance trainee. He became a building engineer at Richland and Idlewild elementary schools.

He was promoted several times over the years and received good or excellent reviews in annual employee evaluations.

“I can’t express how much of an asset Mr. White is,” one supervisor wrote in 2015 when White was ASD and minor projects supervisor. “The SCS is a better place because of him.”

White was promoted to manager of general services in 2018.

According to its website, C&B Construction is a three-year-old general contractor with $75,195 in annual revenues that employs three. No one answered the phone at the company’s office.

White now works as Regional Building Manager for KIPP Memphis charter schools. He was hired by Dr. Antonio Burt, former chief of schools for MSCS who left in 2021 to run the local charter network.

“We were under the impression that Mr. White was forced to resign (from MSCS) because of a conflict of interest with one vendor,” Burt said Thursday.

Later Thursday, KIPP Memphis issued this statement: “KIPP Memphis does not publicly comment on individual personnel matters. However, KIPP has a rigorous screening process and holds its employees to the highest ethical standards. If KIPP determines that any of its employees has engaged in wrongdoing during his or her employment, KIPP will take appropriate action.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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