Tensions ran high at Monday night’s Clarke County School Board construction meeting as School Board member Robina Bouffault (White Post) challenged Clarke County Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy and Joint Administrative Services director Tom Judge over a recently issued request for proposal that Bouffault says the School Board knew nothing about.
Under intense questioning, Bouffault went so far as to raise the question of whether the deal was being “fixed” for a particular vendor.
“Two weeks ago when we had our School Board meeting we were discussing the various elements of our renovation project and I was very surprised when I got a phone call from someone the next morning saying something about an RFP and starting to ask questions about it,” Bouffault said.
“I said, ‘What RFP?’”
Bouffault said that the caller told her that the school division had issued an RFP for construction management services. Bouffault said that she responded to the caller, “No, the School Board doesn’t know anything about that.”
But to Bouffault’s later surprise, a construction management RFP had been issued.
At Monday’s meeting Bouffault agreed that the School Board had previously discussed a renovation RFP several months earlier but had also decided that the RFP could not go forward because the scope of the project hadn’t yet been decided.
“And as you just heard from Dr. Murphy here tonight, the scope is still under discussion,” Bouffault said referring to the Monday meeting’s previous discussion topic where Murphy had mentioned that school administration was still working with Virginia Department of Education school space planners to consider various options for configuring the future use of the current Clarke County High School, DG Cooley Elementary, Berryville Primary, and other buildings.
“What is a construction manager going to manage?” Bouffault rhetorically questioned.
Bouffault said that she later went online and found the RFP mentioned by her caller. She then issued a series of questions by email to Dr. Murphy. Bouffault said that the most of her questions had not been answered as of Monday night, including who authorized issuing the RFP.
“Since it was not authorized by the School Board, in my view, it is an invalid RFP,” Bouffault said at Monday night’s meeting. “Secondly, it contains no scope of work for the project, something that we have been trying to achieve here for quite a number of months.”
Bouffault then said that the most serious issue with the RFP is that it has raised concerns in the vendor community about fairness in the County’s procurement process.
“I have been accused of the School Board doing a ‘fixed deal’, a locked in deal, with only one person being able to respond because this RFP has no information that would give any project management firm sufficient information on which to base any kind of a bid.”
Bouffault added that she had heard from two or three people who have expressed concerns about the procurement and said to her “The fix is in on this one”.
“There’s no information in this RFP that would allow anyone to come up with a fixed fee bid that is coherent,” Bouffault said. “I really don’t like being on the phone and having people accuse me of ‘fixing’ anything. I take that as a personal offense, but given the text of this particular RFP I can see why they would say so.”
Bouffault asked that the RFP be re-evaluated and presented to the newly elected School Board which takes office in January for a recommendation.
Joint Administrative Services director Tom Judge replied to Bouffault’s concerns saying that the RFP was not a request for a bid.
“We’re not requesting a bid here so we’re not requesting a price…” Judge said.
“That’s not what it says!” Bouffault interjected. “It says that the work will be performed for a fixed fee.”
Judge replied that by bringing in an expert the schools will be assisted in making a decision on what the contract’s scope should be.
“So the RFP wasn’t to prejudice any decision making by the new board because we’re simply gathering the qualifications of firms at this point,” Judge said “Ultimately, any contract that would result from that would be dealt with by the new board.”
Judge told the School Board that the RFP was basically a request for resumes from people or firms who may be interested in managing the $7.2M renovation effort. Bouffault, however, continued to contend that the RFP was more than a request for resumes.
“I think that this is getting the cart before the horse,” Bouffault said and repeated her assertion that the proper approach would be to withdraw the RFP in its current form and then define a minimal project scope before it is reissued.
“These people have to know whether you’re talking about three 300K square foot building or three 300 square foot buildings,” Bouffault implored. “The 38 people that received this RFP have no idea what we are talking about. There’s no pre-bid conference, there’s no information provided to them.”
“We’re getting into the seven o’clock meeting time,” School Board member Jennifer Welliver (Berryville) interjected. “Aren’t we supposed to meet on time?”
Acting School Board chairman Emily Rhodes (Buckmarsh) allowed the discussion to continue despite Welliver’s comment.
Judge then affirmed that some proposals have already been received in response to the RFP.
“So you’re talking about reviewing these proposals in January when you don’t even have a board?” Bouffault asked.
“They’ll have a Board,” Welliver interjected.
“No, between the 19th of December and the 17th of January there is a change in the guard.” Bouffault replied. “And you’re asking a new board, that’s wet behind the ears, to do what? Without even a scope of what they’re supposed to be doing and you’re going to engage $7M worth of work here?”
“This should have been brought before the Board,” Bouffault repeated. “All RFPs should be brought before the Board as part of what needs to be done.”
School Board member Janet Alger replied to Bouffault “Just to add a comment, we have discussed this before and, if I recall correctly, you said before that the process was too slow.”
“But you’ve got to follow the process,” Bouffault replied.
“To me, it is going to be January and we need to have someone interested,” Alger replied. “It’s not a final thing.”
“Did the County issue this RFP or did the School Board issue this?” asked Rhodes. “Because it sounds as if the County issued it.”
Judge replied that the RFP was issued by the Joint Administrative Services board.
“They can do that without consulting the School Board?” Rhodes asked.
“No, they can’t,” interjected Welliver.
Judge explained that JAS does many RFPs for both the School Board and the Board of Supervisors but the ultimate executive authority to approve any contract rests with the respective board members.
“It comes down to the executive or the board to approve the contract or purchase,” Judge said
“We’ll it comes down to a lot more than that,” Bouffault said. “The construction committee has been discussing thisad- nauseum for 18 months. We had estimates done by Crabtree on all of these renovations. And this same construction committee was not informed that this was even going on. And that is improper. So in the future I would like – and I am going to be sitting out there in the audience, believe me, this is taxpayers money – this board needs to be informed about all of this ahead of time.”
Rhodes, appearing to attempt to bring the discussion to a close, pointed out that School Board-elect members James Brinkmeier and Beth Leffel were in attendance at the meeting and were now aware of the status of the RFP.
Bouffault then called again for the RFP to be withdrawn but Alger disagreed.
“I’ve just reviewed Roberts Rules of Order,” Alger said. “If something has gone out and there’s a date on it I don’t think that we can rescind it.”
“We didn’t vote on it so we don’t have to rescind it,” Bouffault replied. “If you had simply asked for qualifications that would be one thing, but that’s not what you said. That’s what has people calling up and saying, ‘The fix is in.'”
“There is no ‘fix,’” replied Judge.
Dr. Murphy, who had been silent during the discussion, then asked Judge how many people had called for information about the RFP.
“About ten,” Judge replied.
“Dr. Murphy, why didn’t you get approval for this?” Bouffault asked.
“I did not believe approval was necessary,” Murphy replied. “This is an administrative function.”
“Why didn’t you inform the board about it?” Bouffault asked.
After Murphy did not respond to Bouffault’s query, she repeated the question again to Murphy. However, prior to response from Murphy, School Board member Welliver called for a point of order. The discussion then devolved into a heated exchange between Bouffault and Welliver.
Murphy ultimately did not answer Bouffault’s question of why the School Board had not been informed about the RFP prior to it being issued.
After the meeting, JAS director Tom Judge explained that when contracting for services from professionals, such as lawyers, engineers and doctors, the presumption is that the professional has an expert understanding of technical tasks that exceed that of the procuring agency. As such, municipal agencies are restricted in their ability to specify certain types of tasks in an RFP. Rather, Judge explained, a municipality is required to seek qualifications from professionals and the select the most qualified vendor.
Judge said that once the most qualified professional is selected, the specific scope of the procurement can then be determined with advice from the selected consultant.
“That’s the process that we’re using here,” Judge said.