“No. No. No.”
That’s former Harford County Board of Education President Patrick L. Hess reacting to allegations that Red Pump Elementary School was cancelled after problems with the bid process led to protests, and the potential for legal action against Harford County Public Schools. Hess told The Dagger that the school board cancelled Red Pump last December “because it was the financially correct thing to do.”
Asked about the Red Pump protests, Hess said he got a call from an upset contractor whose bid proposal on one of the construction packages had been deemed non-responsive at the bid opening held on November 3, 2008. The contractor told Hess that Harford County Public Schools could save half a million dollars by waiving some non-essential affidavits that had been required on the day of the bid opening and allowing lower bidders to be considered for contract awards.
Hess declined to identify the contractor, but he said the phone call led to revisions to the requirements for all affidavits at future bid openings. Specifically, he said any affidavits required by the State, such as the Certified Minority Business Enterprise Utilization and Fair Solicitation Affidavit, would be required at future bid openings. Any other affidavits would be waived on bid day, but had to be delivered to HCPS within 24 hours.
As for Red Pump, Hess said the school system cancelled all bids for the affected construction packages and was planning to re-bid them. He said that out of fairness, the school system could not waive affidavits and grant awards without first canceling the related bids and starting over.
Hess said HCPS had the right to cancel those bids because the contract awards had not yet been approved by the school board. But Hess could not recall if the re-bidding was done prior to the decision to cancel the school.
Hess’ statement stands in contrast to that of Assistant Superintendent for Operations Joseph Licata, who has said waivers were granted after savings were identified through a routine evaluation of the bids conducted in the weeks following the bid opening. Public documents obtained by The Dagger seem to support Licata’s view that waivers were granted after the fact and also show that HCPS stood to save a significant amount of money by doing so.
The Bid Tab Sheet for Red Pump Elementary School, which is undated but includes information revealed at the bid opening, includes the names and amounts bid by each contractor for each of 13 different construction packages. A shaded area identifies the apparent low bidder for each package under the heading “Recommended Award”. In three cases, for the site work, carpentry and electrical packages, an asterisk by the name of the recommended award winner denotes the following: “Failed to submit Affidavit for Qualification to Bid – waived as an informality”. The three packages involve a total of $10 million worth of work, or nearly one-half the total value of the construction contracts. When combined, the packages where waivers were granted show a savings of $651, 855 in base bid amounts over what HCPS would have otherwise paid without the waivers.
Depending on your point of view, $650,000 is a lot of money to save, or a lot of money to lose. In fact, for the contractors who had all their paperwork in on the day of the bid opening and who were announced as the apparent low bidder for their respective packages, the decision to waive the affidavits would have cost them contracts worth millions. The decision to completely re-bid the packages would likely have done the same.
Whether any of these contractors pursued legal action is unknown, especially since the school board cancelled all bids when they cancelled the school last December. But the failure to read all the bid amounts out loud at the bid opening would have enhanced the contractors’ claims, according to one contractor involved in the bidding. He told The Dagger that the contract proposals which were missing affidavits were set aside, and their bid amounts were not publicly announced. He said that omission, combined with the fact that all bid documents were kept in the custody of HCPS from the time of the bid opening, would have called into question any subsequent re-awards. The contractor spoke to The Dagger on the condition of anonymity, because he plans to bid on future contracts. Former Board President Hess said he couldn’t say for sure if the all the bid amounts had been read aloud, but he said they may not have been in cases where affidavits were missing.
Even if HCPS had to fend off lawsuits from angry contractors, Hess adamantly denies that Red Pump was cancelled for that reason. The former school board president explained, “I can fight a lot of lawsuits with half a million dollars.”
If Schucks Road was the “financially correct thing to do” because Red Pump wasn’t, who was going to pay for the road improvements at Route 22 and Schucks Road?? Would that be the local taxpayers or the State of Maryland (see Dagger article about budget cuts)? Why does it cost so much to build a school anyway?