Children taking high-stakes tests in school are told repeatedly that they must put their name on the test and use the right pencil, or the whole thing can be thrown out.
Shouldn't we expect the same commitment to the rules from school officials when handling high-dollar construction bids?
That's the question confronting school trustees this past week. In considering bids for construction of the new Evans Middle School, board members had to decide whether to accept the lowest qualified bidder, or save nearly $60,000 by awarding the job to a contractor who didn't do his homework.
At issue is a new clause in the county's bid documents requiring all bidders to include a list of major subcontractors on the job.
The reason for the clause, says School Superintendent Tommy Price, is to prevent contractors from lowballing a bid and then using the figure to extract price concessions from subcontractors, with none of the savings passed along to the school system.
The lowest bid for the project came from McKnight Construction at $11.26 million -- but they were disqualified for failing to include a list of subcontractors. That meant R.D. Brown Construction, at $11.32 million, was the apparent low qualified bidder.
Soon after the sealed bids were opened, however, Price says McKnight Vice President Mason McKnight III called to acknowledge the "oversight." Nearly two hours later, McKnight faxed over his list of subcontractors.
Board members were in a forgiving mood. "Everybody makes mistakes," shrugs board vice-chairman Wayne Bridges. Freshman trustee Mike Sleeper disagrees, worrying openly about the precedent-setting act of letting McKnight slide on a technicality. "Something wasn't necessarily compliant, and we're just saying 'O.K.'," Sleeper said.
Sleeper was the lone vote against the award, which saves the school system just under $60,000. Brown's attorney, former Augusta city attorney Paul Dunbar, accuses the board of setting rules for students to follow, yet being hypocritically unwilling to abide by their own rules.
Actually, there is another clause in the same bid package that gives the board the right "to waive technicalities" in any bids. In this case, it meant giving McKnight extra time to meet the bid requirements. So -- technically -- the board followed its rules simply by changing them when they became inconvenient.
Is it worth it? To avoid any appearance of impropriety, such projects must be conducted by the book. Contractors like McKnight know "technicalities" are rules to be followed as strictly as safety codes and building standards. Tossing the bid would have cost the county far less than the expensive lesson it would have taught McKnight.
Changing the rules in the middle of the game saves a tiny fraction of the overall cost of this project. In the long run it may cost the school system more by casting doubt on their commitment to playing by the book.
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