Construction bidding process becomes campaign issue
Candidates for the De Soto USD 232 Board of Education have mentioned reform in the district's construction bidding process as a way to save money. But some officials say the bidding process is already as open as possible.
Files in district facilities director Denis Johnson's office are filled with bids from the Mill Creek Middle School construction project. He says state guidelines require a strict bidding process to make sure the district receives the best price.
"For every scope of the building we receive several bids," Johnson said. "Each scope is a different part of the building from carpentry to electric to masonry. Our construction manager puts the bids together."
Johnson said projects of more than $20,000 must go to bid, those more than $40,000 must go to a contractor bonded with the state and those exceeding $1 million go to the construction manager, JE Dunn Construction.
The USD 232 board selects a construction manager each summer at the same time it approves annual contracts for other professional services, such as district architect and bond counsel, Johnson said Dunn has had the construction manager contract since 1990.
That's the problem, said at-large candidate Kevin Straub.
"JE Dunn works with specific subcontractors," Straub said. "Not just anyone can bid. I like Dunn, but he couldn't win a bid as a general contractor in Kansas City because he's too high."
Straub, along with candidates Bob Dyche and Bill Fletcher, have said opening the bidding process to other construction managers and contractors could save the district millions of dollars.
According to state law, the district must receive all bids, open them publicly and accept the lowest responsible bidder. The state also requires a yearly audit by an outside auditor. Bids from contractors are sometimes received by the district and sometimes received by the construction manager, but they must remain sealed until the bid opening. Johnson said this prevents the construction process from favoring certain subcontractors above others.
"As long as all the paperwork is filled out correctly, the contract always goes to the lowest bidder," Johnson said. "We do get contractors who rebid. They have a lot of advantages to working with a school district because it's efficient."
Position 3 candidate Bill Fletcher has suggested the district needs a business manager to oversee the process and stop overage costs.
Johnson said that many overage costs are included in the budget.
"Typically on every project we carry a contingency," Johnson said. "There are always items on site that you can't account for."
On some recent sites for district projects, that has included an increase in construction costs after Hurricane Katrina, water and rock removal. These contingencies are built into a contractor's bid, Johnson said.
"As part of the bid, the contractors include a price for contingencies, in case you hit rock or something," Johnson said. "[On the last bond] we knew we didn't have $17 million for another elementary after all that inflation from Katrina, so the board voted to make the middle school 750 students instead of 500."
Board president Don Clark said the advantage to the district in having an architect and construction manager was having experts who knew the needs and buildings in a district without paying for those people on staff.
"If we get to a stage where we are building a school every year, we could afford a staff to do that building process," Clark said. "The analogy is like when you build a house, you don't get the cheapest person to build it. You hire a builder, who gets subcontractors."
Clark said the idea the district does not send contracts out to bid is a misconception. Board member Randy Johnson stated at the last board meeting he won't vote on a new bond until the bidding process changes.
"Our superintendent wants to get a new bond before the next election," Randy Johnson said. "I have a big problem with that without looking at the entire construction process."
Johnson said the district is growing too quickly to not have a construction manager on staff.
Board member Rick Walker said it would be too expensive for the district to hire a staff person who could match the experience of JE Dunn.
"Dunn has the most experience of any construction manager in the area," Walker said. "They are not permanently affixed to that position. Since I've been on the board, we have looked at whether or not we wanted them to be our construction manager a couple of times, and we kept them."
Representatives from JE Dunn Construction did not respond to requests for an interview.