Contract error delays Lafayette gym project

Progress building a new auxiliary gym at Lafayette High School is already delayed, just weeks after county and school officials agreed the project is sorely needed.

On Tuesday, James City County notified the Williamsburg-James City County School Division it was canceling the $222,151 architectural contract the School Board approved last month because the process selecting the company didn’t comply with state procurement law.

The School Board will now have to wait 30 days while the county solicits competitive bids from contractors.

Meanwhile, county and school officials are divided about whether the division should have understood the correct process in the first place.

School officials pointed fingers at the county, saying they were told by county staff they could award the contract to HBA Architecture and Interior Design without soliciting bids from contractors for the project.

And School Superintendent Steven M. Constantino said he was unaware of a rule requiring a open bidding for projects over $100,000 and did not know how the process works.

“I am not a finance guy. I go by what we’re told,” Constantino said. “I don’t know how (finance) does it, but I know they do it. I’m assuming it starts with phone calls and starts with documents. I don’t know what starts the process.”

But County Administrator Bryan Hill said it is common knowledge that any contract over $100,000 would have to be awarded with a competitive bidding process.

Hill said the county purchasing office approved the request from the school division to use HBA without knowing the price less than a month ago. The county maintains an open contract with HBA and several other firms in order to expedite the process of selecting a contractor for smaller projects, but state law requires public bodies to open competitive bids for contracts over $100,000.

Hill said when the county found out the cost of the gym contract, it informed the school division it would need to do a request for proposal.

“Unless you’re a brand new elected official, most elected officials would be aware of the (request for proposal) process,” County Supervisor Kevin Onizuk said. “Members of the School Board, without question, the school professionals, the administration and W-JCC leadership, I’m sure they are familiar with the process.”

What happened?

Instead of posting a request for proposal and soliciting bids, the School Board awarded the contract to HBA at its May 10 meeting.

At the meeting, Board member Jim Beers (Roberts) asked why the schools did not need to post a request for proposals. School Chief Financial Officer Christina Berta told School Board members HBA was one of several pre-approved contractors the school division and county keeps on open contract to expedite projects, and a request for proposal from other firms was not necessary.

Onizuk said the request for proposal method is used “to ensure it’s a fair and equal process, and that an elected body is not helping groups that have helped them politically. It’s to eliminate favoritism in projects.”

In an email to school board members on Tuesday, Constantino said the schools needed to post a request for proposal, leave it open for 30 days and then select a contractor.

“While this is not the end of the world, it does put us behind. We will do everything we can to minimize the delay,” Constantino wrote.

An honest mistake

Bill Lindsey, the purchasing agent for Gloucester County and a board member on the Virginia Association of Government Purchasing, said the complexity of procurement laws, combined with a rush to get projects done in the summer can easily result in mistakes like the one made by W-JCC.

“God help you trying to read the procurement act,” said Lindsey. “I do feel for the people that could have made the honest mistake. They are doing the right thing: canceling it and redoing it correctly.”

Lindsey added that it is likely the county frequently uses open-ended contracts for engineering services. Engineering services usually cost about 10 percent of the final project cost, so a purchaser can usually skip the request for proposal process on any project under $1 million.

“To me it was disappointing. Ultimately, it is still going to happen,” said School Board member Julie Hummel (Williamsburg), who has been a vocal supporter of the improvements at Lafayette. “It is a bureaucratic snag, but the project will remain on everybody’s priority list.”

Frustrated parents

As word spread about the delay in the project, advocates for the gym expressed concerned over its fate.

On Friday morning, Lafayette High School Booster Club President Kathy Woollum said while she was thankful for the collaboration of the city, county and school district to get the gym built, she was worried the district was disregarding some of the concerns members of the Lafayette community had about the project.

“We are uncovering things faster than they may have. They don’t have to do everything we bring forward, but gets a little frustrating,” Woollum said.

Woollum had requested a meeting with W-JCC Schools Senior Director for Operations Marcellus Snipes and Facilities Management Coordinator Alan Robertson in order to get an update. She was told to instead route all questions to Lafayette Principal Anita Swinton.

“We haven’t been kept in the loop as to how the process is unfolding. We requested that we would be so we can inform the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of interested community members,” Woollum said. “There is not a lot of transparency, and that makes people uncomfortable.”

Moving quickly

In a May 4 email to members of the School Board and Hill obtained by the Gazette under the Freedom of Information Act, Constantino stressed the importance of moving forward with the Lafayette gym quickly.

“Everyone, I believe, understands the need to do this as quickly as possible, however, that process and timeline also needs to be thorough and accurate,” Constantino said.

On Thursday, Sandy Young (Berkeley) said the process needs to slow down.

“It just seems to me we need to spend a little more time on this,” she said. “I do understand the necessity for another auxiliary gym because our students don’t have enough spaces to play, but I would just like us to quit being reactionary.”

McKinnon can be reached at 757-345-2341. Bogues can be reached at 757-345-2346.

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