‘Ad hoc’ committee recommends minor changes to School Board policy on awarding construction contracts

Expanding the number of firms that can compete for projects was among the suggestions

Mary Dougherty-Slapp (right) talks with the School Board members on April 19. Rachel Hackney photo
Mary Dougherty-Slapp (right) talks with the School Board members on April 19. Rachel Hackney photo

Given that the Sarasota County School Board has had only one protest of a construction-related contract in 25 years, the chair of an ad hoc committee that reviewed the school district’s policy for awarding such contracts has recommended only minor changes to the process.

From the outset, Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Xchange, told the School Board during an April 19 workshop, the members of the ad hoc committee “agreed not to let that one experience drive our decision-making.” They reminded themselves repeatedly, she said, that the district’s selection process “[is] not broken; we really don’t have to fix it.”

As a result, Dougherty-Slapp told the board, the committee ended up with just a few recommendations. Among them was a proposal for expanding from six to eight the number of design/build firms the School Board contracts with in each three-year period to compete for construction contracts; putting more emphasis on qualifications instead of “showmanship” in the interview/presentation stage of the process; and adding a new scoring element that would recognize innovation and creativity during the interview/presentation stage.

The ad hoc committee met four times this year to settle on its recommendations, Mark D. Smith, director of the district’s Construction Services Department, told the board.

Taking into consideration those suggestions and School Board members’ comments this week, the document will be revised and returned to the board for a vote, Superintendent Lori White said.

Contemplating changes

Superintendent Lori White. File photo
Superintendent Lori White. File photo

Last year, a firm protested White’s recommendation of Willis A. Smith Construction of Sarasota as the top-ranked firm to build the Suncoast Technical College (STC) in North Port. The Professional Services Selection Committee had ranked A.D. Morgan Corp. first, but White exercised the prerogative accorded her in School Board policy to recommend an alternate ranking to the School Board. The committee had ranked the Willis A. Smith firm second.

The School Board approved White’s recommendation, allowing district negotiations to proceed with Willis A. Smith. As a result, the School Board in November 2015 approved a contract with the company for pre-construction services involving the STC North Port project; the board is scheduled next month to approve a contract with the company for site work on that campus.

The Professional Services Selection Committee’s scores that ranked A.D. Morgan and Willis A. Smith first and second were very close, White pointed out in a guest column provided to area newspapers. She also noted, “Ultimately, the … [STC] project will be negotiated to provide the highest-quality facility at the lowest cost,” and that the expense “would be very nearly the same no matter which construction management company were to be chosen ….”

Morgan has offices in Bradenton and Tampa. Smith handled the rebuilding of both Booker High School in Sarasota and what was then the Sarasota County Technical Institute — also in Sarasota — which has been renamed Suncoast Technical College.

On Oct. 1, 2015, Administrative Law Judge J. Bruce Culpepper signed an order, upholding White’s decision.

Regardless of that protest and its aftermath, Smith explained on April 19 that School Board Policy 7.71 — which guides the work of the Professional Services Selection Committee — requires that an ad hoc committee review the policy every five years and suggest modifications.

The changes

One recommendation the School Board made to the ad hoc committee, Dougherty-Slapp noted, was for it to consider allowing first-round scores — which produce the so-called “short list” — to carry over to the interviews — which comprise the second round in the process of selecting a firm for professional services. However, the committee did not feel that change was warranted, she added; instead, it proposed scoring changes.

These scoring changes will be made part of the revised policy. Image courtesy School Board
These scoring changes will be made part of the revised policy. Image courtesy School Board

Dougherty-Slapp said the committee members believed that since the selection of a firm is a qualifications-based process, budget considerations are not appropriate in scoring firms during the interview stage. “After considerable discussion,” she continued, the members agreed “that the critical part of this … that we did not want lost in the evaluation was the information regarding cost controls.”

Therefore, Dougherty-Slapp added, the committee recommended that the heading for one column regarding the awarding of points be changed from “Points obtained from evaluating the Timelines and Budget” to “Points obtained from evaluating the Timelines and Cost Control portion of the interview/presentation.”

Reading from the proposed policy revision, she continued, “Timelines refers to timeliness in the execution of the work in an effort to meet the project schedule. Cost control is defined as estimating project construction cost control and value engineering.”

School Board members Caroline Zucker (left) and Bridget Ziegler prepare for the start of the workshop. Rachel Hackney photo
School Board members Caroline Zucker (left) and Bridget Ziegler prepare for the start of the workshop. Rachel Hackney photo

At the same time, she said, the committee believed the maximum number of points should be reduced from 20 to 10 in regard to the overall interview and presentation of a firm. “The committee felt this would diminish the opportunity for points to swing significantly due to perhaps a more polished presentation or what might be referred to as ‘showmanship,’ and keep the focus on qualifications and more substantive criteria,” Dougherty-Slapp told the board.

The new category for “Innovation/Creativity” would award up to 10 points, she continued.

In the event of a tie score at the end of the interview/presentation process, Dougherty-Slapp said, the ad hoc committee recommended that the firm that scored highest on the short list win the top overall ranking. In the event of a tie, she read from the proposed policy language, “a coin flip conducted by the Director of Construction Services shall determine the number one ranked firm.”

She laughingly told the School Board that she called the tie-breaking method the “Mike Bennett selection process.” She referred to the Manatee County supervisor of elections — and former state senator — who used a card draw to determine the mayor of Bradenton Beach last fall after the vote total for each of the two candidates proved to be the same.

School Board member Frank Kovach voiced disapproval of that recommendation: “That seems like a pretty poor way to make a decision on a $100-million project.”

When he asked if the district ever had had a tie occur, Smith, the construction services director, replied, “No, we have not.”

Kovach suggested a joint venture by the tying firms would be more appropriate.

School Board member Frank Kovach. File photo
School Board member Frank Kovach. File photo

“We can’t force a shotgun marriage, so to speak,” Smith told Kovach.

The ad hoc committee members discussed the fact that no tie ever had been recorded, Dougherty-Slapp added, though she laughed and said the next time the Professional Services Selection Committee members consider a project, a tie probably will result.

Kovach did not ask for the deletion of the tiebreaker language.

As for expanding the list of design/build firms approved to compete for district contracts, Dougherty-Slapp said the ad hoc committee recommended that a company’s direct experiences with the school district be considered, but the group advised, “Don’t close the door to new qualified candidates.”

If the School Board accepted that change, she continued, the ad hoc committee had been told that it could be applied the next time a firm is selected for professional services.

Finally, her committee addressed what is referred to as the “Cone of Silence.” She read the suggested change for that part of the policy: “To foster fair and open competition throughout the selection process, all firms who attend the mandatory … meeting [prior to the submission of applications] shall communicate solely through the Director of the Construction Services Department or the designee noted [during the meeting]. Such communication restrictions start at the mandatory pre-submission meeting and [terminate 72] hours after notification of the rankings are posted. All communications regarding the solicitation will be via email.”

Any violations of the above could be considered cause for immediate disqualification of the company or individual ranked first on the list, she noted.

The ad hoc committee members recognize that the School Board members “act as the decision-makers in this process,” Dougherty-Slapp said.

“The School Board has a reputation of hiring qualified firms in a process that is fair and supportive of the local economy,” she pointed out, “and we appreciate that.”

Further modifications

Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe. File photo
Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe. File photo

Board member Caroline Zucker offered two suggestions for further tweaks. First, she said she felt the members of the Professional Services Selection Committee need to undergo specific training, as the district has new employees who will be participating in the process of ranking the companies that apply for design/build projects. Their backgrounds in hiring and firing employees is not applicable to choosing a construction manager, for example, she pointed out.

Smith told her staff could handle that undertaking.

“That training would be very valuable,” Dougherty-Slapp concurred.

Zucker also asked that when firms are asked to submit information about past projects, they be allowed to go back 10 years — because of the negative impact of the Great Recession on construction — instead of five, as noted in the current policy.

“It’s certainly a valid issue,” Dougherty-Slapp replied.

After Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe asked for clarification about making that change to the policy, the other board members offered their consensus.

In response to another question from Kovach, Superintendent White said no further workshop discussion is planned on the recommendations.

Smith noted that the changes also would undergo a legal review before the modifications were completed.