RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A top administrator in Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s office asked the city’s independent auditor in January to consider making changes to a 2020 audit on school construction costs.

Nearly two months after the auditor declined, the city administrator sent him a text saying that the audit was “being used to beat us over the head on false premises.”

The messages that Richmond’s Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders sent to the city’s independent auditor Louis Lassiter, revealed through a public record request and first reported by Virginia Public Media, came amid debates between Stoney’s administration, the city council and school board over the construction of a new George Wythe High School.

The 2020 audit showed that Richmond had higher construction costs for two elementary schools compared to the state average and ones in Chesterfield County.

Saunders sent Lassiter an email on Jan. 26, more than two years after the audit was released, asking if his team would consider updating their findings by including other schools in the area using new data from the Virginia Department of Education.

Graph from Saunders’ Jan. 26 email to Lassiter. Saunders highlighted schools with comparable construction costs to E.S.H. Greene and George Mason, two elementary schools in Richmond. (Email from public records request)

“I was talking with a SB member about this data below recently posted by VDOE. He continued to cite the recent audit indicating that the city spent more than the region and statewide averages on our latest round of school construction,” Saunders wrote. “This data recently released by DOE indicates a change in values since your report. Can we consider an update to the audit findings?”

The data Saunders shared in the email shows other schools in Virginia, including two Henrico County high schools, with comparable construction costs to Richmond’s. Lassiter thanked Saunders and responded that his staff reviewed the information, but that the data was not comparable.

“Our audit focused on schools with contracts awarded in 2018-2019 for elementary and middle schools in region one. The data you provided for elementary and middle schools is for contracts awarded in 2020-2021,” Lassiter wrote in a Jan. 27 email to Saunders.

“We have checked inflation numbers from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics not only for regular inflation, but also for PPI industry data for new school building construction. Based on changes in inflation since 2018-2019, it would not be comparable.”

Saunders and Lassiter declined to be interviewed for this story and Saunders did not respond to a request for comment.

“The Dec 2020 audit used VDOE data for elementary & middle schools (not high schools) with contract award dates in CY2018 and CY2019,” Lassiter wrote in an email to 8News. “The City’s award dates were Feb-19 in this time range. This data came from several years of DOE reports.”

Members of Richmond’s School Board cited the 2020 audit to back their opposition to the city’s preferred plan for constructing a new George Wythe, saying the report showed that Richmond paid more than other nearby localities on rebuilding elementary schools.

The 2020 audit found that the square footage costs for Greene Elementary — renamed Cardinal Elementary — and George Mason Elementary — renamed Henry L. Marsh Elementary — in Richmond were above $300, and costs for Chesterfield ranged between $236 and $273.

Last month, Saunders sent a text message to Lassiter reading, “your audit on school construction is being used to beat us over the head on false premises.” Lassiter did not respond to the text, which came hours before Stoney and Saunders addressed the media about the ongoing battle over the George Wythe construction process.

In his email to 8News, Lassiter noted the collaborative nature of the city’s audit work between the Stoney administration, Saunders and his own staff. He added that audit recommendations are not commonly disputed by the city.

“From FY19-FY21 there were 309 out of 319 recommendations agreed with (97% agree) for 35 audits that had recommendations,” Lassiter explained.

Lassiter explained that adjustments are made to audits, including changes to the costs for Greene and George Mason.

His team’s original draft report had the contract award cost for Greene Elementary at $311.44 per square foot, which was adjusted to $308.23 in the final audit. George Mason’s cost was also changed, going from $347.19 to 342.99.

Lassiter said that a footnote was added to the report indicating that new relevant information was shared with auditors and the report had been updated since it was drafted.

Since Saunders sent the email and text message, the Richmond School Board has agreed to the city’s plan of building a new George Wythe for 1,800 students.