The Scottsdale Unified School District took the next step in the rebuild process at Cherokee Elementary School when the governing board awarded a preconstruction services contract to CORE Construction.
CORE Construction will now work with architecture firm Orcutt Winslow on a feasibility study to determine the costs of either rebuilding Cherokee or renovating the existing campus.
The board approved the contract on a 4-1 vote.
Due to community desire to update the existing campus instead of rebuilding from scratch, the board is exploring whether that is an economically viable option. The results of the feasibility study will be presented April 11.
“Once the decision to renovate or rebuild is made by the governing board in April, the team will begin design efforts in earnest. This is when the (CMAR) Pre-Construction services provide the greatest value,” SUSD spokesperson Amy Bolton said.
At that point, the district will work with its selected contractors to create a school design and develop costs.
When those costs are finalized, a guaranteed maximum price, or GMP, will be presented to the board for approval.
“CORE develops the GMP and only if SUSD feels that it is fair and reasonable will we take it to the Governing Board for approval,” Bolton said. “If CORE cannot develop a GMP that is acceptable to SUSD, then we can reject their GMP and start the process anew.”
Besides CORE, companies that submitted proposals were Chasse Building Team, Concord General Contracting, Waltz Construction and McCarthy Construction.
The committee included Jeff Gadd, SUSD interim chief financial officer; Walter Chantler, Cherokee principal; Tiffany Fisher, director of Public Services at licensed contractor GCON; Tom O’Neil, licensed architect with Orcutt Winslow; and Dennis Roehler, SUSD director of Facilities.
The district’s decision to select a contractor using the CMAR procurement method instead of a low-bid method for the services was a point of some contention.
Through CMAR, a district committee evaluates potential contractors through a subjective scoring process and makes a recommendation as to which company should manage the entire construction process.
The other process calls for the district to award the contract to the qualified bidder with the lowest cost proposal.
Board President Patty Beckman asked the architect why the district should be using CMAR, noting not all in the community support that model.
The community skepticism of CMAR contracts may stem from a change in Arizona law that goes into effect in July that requires public school districts to award construction contracts to the lowest qualified bidder.
According to the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and KJZZ, then Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said the change, which was included in the state budget, was prompted by the now well-documented school rebuild procurement violations at SUSD.
The Arizona Attorney General filed suit against the district after it found that Brian Robichaux of Hunt & Caraway, the architecture firm hired by the district, was not a licensed architect in Arizona and illegally influenced the CMAR contractor selection process during previous rebuilds.
It was later found that then-Superintendent Denise Birdwell had received $30,000 from Hunt & Caraway.
“Yes, of course I hesitated,” Beckman said of her vote to approve the CMAR. “The use of (CMAR) has been a controversial topic within the SUSD community since the district’s procurement practices were investigated last year. This is why during our recent board meeting, I asked the architect … to explain CMAR and why he recommends it over a ‘low bid’.”
O’Neil defended the procurement method.
He said that a low bid contract could save the district money in the short term but may also result in inferior work as qualified general contractors bring in underqualified subcontractors to cut costs and win the contract.
O’Neil said the CMAR process helps ensure a project does not have unqualified subcontractors.
“(CMAR) is a wonderful working relationship between you, the owner, the contractor and the architect collaborating from the very beginning for best value,” O’Neil said.
O’Neil’s statements are backed up by a 2014 study by Clemson University of 137 public schools in the southeastern US It found that CMAR contracts had higher costs but also resulted in higher quality than design-bid contracts.
“Essentially, public school administrators were paying a significant premium to obtain perceived improvements in both service and product quality,” the study said.
O’Neil’s explanation seemed to satisfy Beckman, who voted in favor of the measure.
Still, she said she worries about how the public will perceive the continued use of CMAR in the wake of the district’s past issues.
“I will always be concerned about how the public views the use of their tax dollars,” Beckman said. “We have an obligation to spend these dollars with the utmost care and hold ourselves to the highest ethical standard while doing so.”
She added, “I was not serving on the SUSD Governing Board when the procurement issues arose. The current board is asking very detailed questions and trying to build the best schools for the least amount of money possible.”
The district said it is in full compliance with existing law in selecting the CMAR and that the bad actors responsible for previous issues are no longer with the district.
“The persons who have, in the past, unfortunately acted without the best interests of the district in mind are no longer associated with SUSD will not discourage the current administration from following the existing Alternative Project Delivery Methods Procurement Rules,” SUSD spokesperson Amy Bolton said.
“The Cherokee (CMAR) selection committee performed its duties with the utmost professionalism and integrity, understanding that any decision with a financial impact of a publicly-funded project will rightfully undergo scrutiny.”
The board action satisfied Mike Norton, a member of the district Bond & Capital Override Oversight Committee and administrator of the Respect Our Scottsdale Students Facebook page who was a frequent critic of district procurement processes under Birdwell.
Norton said he is confident the district followed proper rules and procedures but shared Beckman’s concerns.
“I have great faith in the people who are now serving on the board,” Norton said. “I am positive Allyson Beckham is all over that issue (and) she sits on the bond oversight committee with me. She is tightly inspecting the contract (and) she is deeply concerned where the spending is going.”
He added, “I don’t believe there is anything wrong with where that contract is going right now.”
Yet, Norton is concerned that the larger SUSD community may still be put off by the CMAR process and that perception could hurt the district’s ability to pass a budget override in the future.
“Here is my concern: I don’t know that we can get out to 100,000 people and let them know that the CMAR contract we just issued was done well and without any undue influence,” Norton said. “If we fail to get that message out to 100,000 people and lose the M&O override because of it … perhaps we have gone out and done a firm and fixed bid.”
Because the total costs of construction are not yet known, the value of the contract is also uncertain.
SUSD interim CFO Jeff Gadd said, based on current construction estimates, the award is likely worth about $130,000.
The uncertainty did not sit well with Allyson Beckham, the lone member who voted against the measure.
“I am supportive of this. The only reason I am going to vote no is because I don’t feel it is in best interest of the district to have a percentage based upon an unknown number,” Beckham said.