The Columbia County school board legally changed its own rules to save money on a $11.26 million school-construction contract. And trustees were within their authority to waive a rule that each bidder include a list of subcontractors.
That's what Superior Court Judge Neal Dicket ruled Monday, rejecting R.D. Brown Construction's challenge to the winning bid from McKnight Construction.
"It is not the job of this court ... to substitute its judgment for the political judgment of the school board," Judge Dickert wrote, tossing out a request to stop McKnight from building the new Evans Middle School. The school board's bid award stands because it didn't violate state law, the judge wrote.
The end? Well, not quite. An appeal is underway, and ex-school board trustee Lee Muns, a contractor by trade, accuses school board members and Superintendent Tommy Price of engaging in unethical behavior.
Poor judgement? Yes. School board members should have listened to their architect, who said McKnight should be disqualified for failing to include a list of subcontractors in its bid. By accepting McKnight's bid even though the company filed its list nearly two hours late, board members feed the perception that they are open to manipulation.
But unethical? No. Such a charge would have teeth if there was any evidence that McKnight and school officials traded favors in exchange for the big job. The only "favor" from McKnight is that its bid is $59,000 lower than R.D. Brown's, and only the taxpayers benefit from that savings.
Still, board members have themselves to blame for Muns' heated charge. No one could accuse them of loose ethics if they hadn't exercised a loophole in their bidding rules to allow McKnight to stay in the running. Legal or not, it just doesn't look good.
A final point: Some folks have made a big deal out of the subcontractors list that is at the center of the controversy, but here's a critical point: Before this bid, the school system has never required major contractors to include a list of their proposed subcontractors -- not even during the four years that Muns was on the board. If the list is so critical, how on earth has Columbia County managed to build or renovate half a dozen schools during Muns' single term without it?
Requiring such a list may be a good idea. Allowing one bidder extra time to turn in his homework isn't. Even so, while the school board deserves a lousy grade for judgment, they don't flunk for cheating.
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