2018-03-07 / Featured / Front Page

School officials post floor plans online, raising security concerns


Eight days after a gunman opened fire at a Florida high school last month, killing 17, a Chesterfield resident was dismayed to discover that detailed architectural drawings for all Chesterfield County Public School buildings had been posted on the local government’s procurement web portal for the past three weeks.

Brenda Stewart, a longtime citizen watchdog who regularly scrutinizes documents pertaining to the school system, came across the online plans and recognized them as a security risk. She brought the issue to the attention of school and county officials via email on the evening of Feb. 22, hoping they would recognize the seriousness of the situation and immediately remove the floor plans from the public domain.

But the drawings were left up on the county’s website until Feb. 28, leaving Stewart furious about both the security breach and the lack of urgency in the school system’s response.

“It’s worse than sloppy. It’s irresponsible. Where is the accountability?” – Brenda Stewart “It’s worse than sloppy. It’s irresponsible. Where is the accountability?” – Brenda Stewart “This is the kind of mistake that can cost people their lives,” said Stewart during an interview on Sunday. “It’s worse than sloppy. It’s irresponsible. Where is the accountability?”

It’s not the first time this has happened. In March 2015, Stewart noticed the floor plans had been posted online as an attachment to the school system’s solicitation for custodial vendors.

The School Board decided in 2014 to outsource custodial services at eight schools as a cost-saving initiative following years of recession-era budget cuts.

The school system went through the public procurement process again one year later to expand the outsourcing program to 28 schools. Because school officials had not yet decided which schools’ custodians would be outsourced, the floor plans for all school buildings were included in the solicitation to assist vendors in bid preparation.

In 2015, Stewart saw the floor plans on the county website and became concerned that such information could fall into the hands of someone planning an attack on a Chesterfield school.

After being alerted to the situation by Stewart, school officials immediately notified the county’s Purchasing Department, which handles most procurement duties for the school system. The floor plans were removed within 24 hours.

The school system managed the situation differently this time.

Stewart didn’t get a response until the morning after her initial email, when Joe Tylus, executive director for constituent services under Superintendent James Lane, told her they were “actively reviewing this question” and would be back in touch later that day.

By early afternoon, after failing to reach Tylus with two phone calls and a follow-up email, Stewart contacted the county administration office and was told to expect a return call from Deputy County Administrator Bill Dupler.

According to Stewart, Dupler called after 4:30 p.m. and said the school system had “carefully considered” the situation before deciding to leave the floor plans online until the custodial services solicitation closed the following Wednesday. Dupler also advised Stewart that under the county Purchasing Department’s new procurement system, the school system didn’t have the option of removing only the attachments containing the floor plans. It would have had to take down the entire solicitation and re-advertise it.

That wasn’t an option because the bid period was set to close on Feb. 28 and the school system already was significantly behind schedule in its transition to a hybrid insourced-outsourced custodial services model.

At a School Board meeting last November, Chief Operating Officer Nita Mensia-Joseph told the board she hoped to advertise the solicitation for new custodial vendors before Thanksgiving. It wasn’t posted on the county website until Jan. 26.

In a series of emails between Purchasing Director Keith Gagnon and school officials, which were obtained from the county via the Freedom of Information Act, Gagnon acknowledged “political sensitivity” regarding disclosure of the school floor plans during the 2015 custodial solicitation.

“We wanted to ensure that the distribution of floor plans is as controlled as much as is feasible this time,” he wrote to Lane.

Shawn Smith, a spokesman for CCPS, noted in a Monday email to the Observer that school officials also “recognized the desire to minimize the public access of these floor plans.”

The emails, however, clearly show that those same officials realized they were under a time crunch to have new custodial vendors selected by the time the school system’s contract with SSC Service Solutions expires on June 30.

When the development of a secure portal for electronically transmitting the floor plans to interested vendors became, in Gagnon’s words, an “impediment” to that process, he eventually gave school officials three options:

• Release the floor plans publicly as part the solicitation with no access controls.

• Advertise the solicitation without the drawings, but indicate to potential bidders that they could obtain copies at a pre-bid conference.

• Don’t include the drawings at all; instead, provide vendors with school building data (square footage, number of rooms, etc.) for use in bid preparation.

“I fear that waiting to sort out all of the necessary pragmatic details for using the portal will hold up [the solicitation],” Gagnon wrote to Mensia-Joseph on Jan. 24.

Smith suggested the school system followed Gagnon’s recommendation to post the drawings on the county website.

But as she did three years ago, Stewart said it’s ultimately the school system’s responsibility – not the Purchasing Department’s – to ensure the security of its building floor plans.

“There is no excuse, but they’ll try to find one,” she said. ¦

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