When the Harford County Board of Education cancelled plans to build Red Pump Elementary School last December, the school board was just days away from approving nearly $23 million in construction contracts that would have put shovels in the ground. The decision sparked a public debate over the fate of the school.
Now The Dagger has learned that contractors who bid on Red Pump before it was cancelled filed an unusual number of protests over the bid process, raising the potential for legal action against Harford County Public Schools in the weeks leading up to the decision to scrap the school.
Was the specter of legal action the real reason Red Pump was ditched? And if it was not a factor, why wouldn’t the possibility of a court battle have been among the board’s considerations? More importantly, were the allegations of impropriety surrounding the bid process true? And if so, were they the result of one-time errors, or ongoing, systemic problems within HCPS?
At issue was the handling of a stage in the process of awarding contracts known as the bid opening. When contractors are invited to submit sealed bids to compete for public school construction projects, State law requires all bids to be opened and read aloud or be otherwise made public at a specified date and time known as the bid opening. The bid opening for Red Pump Elementary School was held on November 3, 2008, for construction packages including the site work, roofing, flooring, masonry, plumbing and carpentry work, worth about $23 million in all.
One contractor who bid for work on Red Pump told The Dagger that the bid opening was “the worst I’ve ever seen”. The contractor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he plans to bid on future HCPS projects, said there were multiple problems involving several bid proposals and that he believed Red Pump was scuttled to avoid the legal fallout. The contractor said he thought the school system intended to bid the project properly but “they totally screwed it up…[and] they had to cover their ass somewhere.”
The contractor said the HCPS official who conducted the bid opening failed to read all of the opened bid proposals out loud, and also improperly altered bid forms by filling in the blanks on some proposals for contractors who had not totaled their bid amounts. He said he had witnessed a similar alteration of bid forms at another HCPS bid opening prior to Red Pump.
The contractor also said that there was controversy over whether some supplemental affidavits were required on the day of the bid opening or whether they would be waived, for submission at a later date. He said bid proposals that were missing affidavits were opened, but the bid amounts were not read out loud and the proposals were set aside. Weeks later, HCPS decided to waive some of the affidavits and the contractor said the failure to announce all bid amounts at the bid opening called into question some anticipated contract awards, because the bid documents had been under the control of HCPS from the time they were opened.
Harford County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Operations Joseph P. Licata characterized the number of contractor protests over Red Pump as “more than usual”. He also said there were calls to re-bid the project, which he said HCPS generally does not do because bid amounts have already been disclosed.
Licata also said the cancellation of Red Pump was “not connected in any way” to the protests. He said school board members and the superintendent were aware of the protests at the time, but he said they were “not a factor that I was told in any of the conversations” with former Board President Patrick Hess, late Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas and with Harford County Executive David Craig. Licata said the protests were “no secret”.
Licata said there were protests over Red Pump involving waivers, but said the school system had the right to waive some affidavits and did so after a routine evaluation of the bids conducted in the weeks following the bid opening identified potential cost savings. Licata did not recall the exact amount of the savings.
Licata said that if a bid proposal was accepted at a bid opening it would have been opened and read aloud. He did not attend the bid opening for Red Pump, but he said that a review in response to the protests, conducted by Board Counsel Patrick Spicer, determined that the school system had acted properly. Licata said the protesting contractors were told “we’ll proceed with the project and you’ll have to go to court”.
Licata acknowledged that if contractors did pursue legal action, injunctions could have stalled the Red Pump project, but he said the courts would have considered the best interests of the school system and offered a quick ruling in order to limit delays. Licata said that he was not aware of any legal action pending over Red Pump at this time. Although he acknowledged that once the school was cancelled, such lawsuits would no longer be viable.
As to whether or not the problems with Red Pump were an anomaly, Licata said confusion over waivers had occurred during the bidding for the new Bel Air HS, prompting HCPS to clarify which affidavits could be waived and which could not. Bel Air High was bid in 2007.
Regarding the revised procedure for opening bids, Licata said “we will open every bid that comes in the door”. He said the failure to read an opened bid aloud “could be a problem”, but the school system was under “no obligation to read a bid that wouldn’t be opened”.
In a November 20, 2008 letter in response the contractor’s concerns, which The Dagger was allowed to review, County Executive David Craig said that “significant” changes would be made to the bid process as a result of the problems with Red Pump. Craig’s letter also said that he had overall concerns about having the school board in charge of large construction projects and that he had been seeking greater oversight by county government.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Craig said that he did not recall the contractor’s concerns in detail. Craig said he thought the concerns were of a general, rather than a specific nature and added that he did not determine what happened at the bid opening. But he asked his liaison to the school board, Bob Thomas, to look into the matter at the time and Thomas got assurances from Board President Hess that unspecified changes would be made. Hess resigned from the school board on July 6th.
So, were all of the problems with the bid process fixed after the new Bel Air High School was bid, or after Red Pump was bid? Are they fixed now?
It matters because plans to build Red Pump were put back on track in May, when it became clear that another school at Campus Hills would not be forward funded by the Harford County Council. Contracts for Red Pump were re-solicited earlier this month and another bid opening is planned for September 1st.
This is a developing story.