Eleven school maintenance contracts are going out to bid again, the Board of Education decided.
The board unanimously made that decision on Monday night at its regular meeting at Celentano School, with a last-minute addition to the agenda.
The 11 proposed renewals were all for on-call repair workers, who submit prices ahead of time to jump on emergencies that school employees can’t handle. Some of the agreements covered lock-outs, plumbing backups, shattered glass, crackly speakers and broken sidewalks.
In total, the renewals would have drawn $555,000 from next year’s operating budget and $560,000 from next year’s capital project fund. Six of the businesses that had the gigs are locally based; one is female-owned, one minority-owned.
With the board’s vote, all of them will now go through the city’s procurement process. First, the work will be shopped to local contractors who participate in the city’s Small Business Initiative. If no one there bites, the work will be opened up for anyone to submit a bid. The 11 contractors who submitted the lowest bids last year can participate again, though they’re not locked in at the same price.
School board member Frank Redente said that the bidding process will send a message: “Do the job or leave.”
Last week, Jamell Cotto, the committee chair, brought in pictures of peeling paint, exposed ceiling, rusted bleachers and moldy showers at Wilbur Cross’s pool and locker rooms. He questioned why the same repairmen should get the job again if the pool was in such bad shape.
Joseph “Pepe” Barbarotta, the school’s facilities director, said his in-house team is over-extended with only a dozen tradesmen covering 4.2 million square feet across 50 buildings.
Later in the week, Will Clark, the district’s chief operating officer, said that all the problems at the pool were fixed within two days of Cotto’s display of the pictures.
(One exception: the pool still needs a new coat of paint, a $15,000 project that must go out to bid.)
Clark said in an email that the building managers had not put in and prioritized work orders as they should have. “Managers were not on top of it,” he wrote. But after the committee meeting, the work was completed quickly, he noted. In other words, the problem wasn’t with the contractors’ performance itself, but with their management.
On Monday night, the board members disagreed.
Redente, who oversaw the bidding process as Finance Committee chair last year, asked for the contracts to go out to bid.
He said the maintenance was “nonexistent.” He said he’s heard about reported problems at other schools, like the lights being out at Hill Regional Career High School for two years and the sidewalk being cracked at Beecher School.
No lighting contract was up for debate on Monday, but one was for concrete.
At Career, Clark said, there may have been some “bulb and wiring issues now and again,” but they are routinely fixed. As a whole, the district is moving toward LED lights, which is projected to save $2.15 million in utility costs over five years.
At Beecher, Clark added, sidewalk repairs are being held up by funding, not the contractor’s unwillingness. The $25,000, on-call contract with White Owl Construction, the one black-owned business among the renewals, usually pays for repaving two entrances, like the company did last year at the Field House and Hooker.
“The budgets simply do not match the need,” Clark said. He projects it would cost $1.25 million to repair all the broken sidewalks, a huge sum he’s trying to make up with other grant funding when he can secure it, rather than drawing down from a budget that’s already $6.9 million in the red.
In total, a 2010 study found that the district would need to spend $41 million annually on maintenance costs to maximize buildings’ life cycles past 50 years. Back then, the district had a deferred maintenance bill of $185 million at just five schools, the study said.
“Facilities and Operations divisions well understand that their role is to be cost-effective and efficient. To get as much done within the available means ... to allow for as much of our resources as possible to support schools,” Clark said. “I also understand that is not enough and that is why I work so hard with my team to secure grants, lobby the state and obtain other sources of funds and leverage programs to get work done without needing General Fund support.”
Redente said he’s also seen employees slacking off. “It’s like a coffee-klatch,” he said.
Tamiko Jackson-McArthur seconded the motion, saying she’d felt “uneasiness” with renewing the current contracts.
Clark tried to dissuade the board from going out to bid, arguing that the district probably wouldn’t get a better deal than the one it had now. While a renewal would have guaranteed the same price next year, a bid would likely lead contractors to raise their prices, keeping pace with cost-of-living increases.
“It could be lower, but more than likely, it would be higher,” Clark said.
Redente said that extra cost didn’t matter.
“The reason we’re doing the bid is these guys are stale. They’ve been out there for years, they’ve become accustomed,” he said. “If they do the work, I don’t mind paying them more.”
Some board members, including Mayor Toni Harp and Ed Joyner, said they worry that not taking a renewal could mean a lapse in service. Clark said the bidding would take “several months” to complete. Board members took that to mean that it would be wrapped up by July 1, when the current contracts expire.
Darnell Goldson, the board’s president, said the bidding process would also offer the transparency that parents have demanded from the school district. “We’ve had these debates over and over again. We’ve had these groups come up to us and said, ‘Be transparent,’” Goldson said. “We’re doing something proactive to do that. We’re rebidding these because we have a right to do it. I’d be surprised that anyone would vote against this motion, since this is what we’ve been asking for on this board, at least since I’ve been present.”
Joyner had originally voted against a motion to amend the agenda with this last-minute proposal, but he joined the rest of the board in unanimously voting to send the contracts out to bid.
Makayla Dawkins, one of the board’s non-voting student representatives, said the debate about facilities had kicked off a discussion among student leaders. They proposed taking board members and the incoming superintendent, Carol Birks, on tours of other sites to help them “get a feel for school climate and building conditions,” she said.