Tom Joyce Staff Reporter
October 30, 2013
Officials of Millennium Charter Academy have awarded a construction contract for a high school expansion to a company submitting the highest bid for the project — one of whose officials sits on the academy’s board of directors.
Three local firms with experience in school projects were invited to submit proposals for the job linked to plans by the Mount Airy charter school to add high school students next year through the 12,000-square-foot expansion. They included Blue Ridge Enterprises, J.G. Coram Co. Inc. and Omega Construction Inc.
A bid breakdown obtained by The Mount Airy News shows that J.G. Coram submitted the lowest base bid for the project at $972,800, with Blue Ridge Enterprises’ bid listed as $1,068,336 and Omega’s, $1,072,609.
Although Coram’s proposal was nearly $100,000 lower than the highest bid from Omega, Omega still got the job, leaving the low bidder mystified.
“Just how the process was handled, it is unfortunate,” said Mark Hiatt, vice president of J.G. Coram Co., which is based in Mount Airy. “I mean, it’s a little sketchy, that’s for sure.”
Hiatt added of losing out on the contract despite being the low bidder, “We just felt like it had to be something with the board member (on Omega’s payroll), or his relationship with the board, to have that to happen.”
However, a member of the Millennium Charter Academy governing board denies that a conflict of interest was involved and said cost wasn’t the only factor in the contract decision. Christopher Willingham further pointed out that with final revisions, Omega’s bid ended up being $48,000 higher than Coram’s rather than the nearly $100,000 figure.
A key reason was the earlier completion time offered by Omega, added Willingham, a board member who served on a high school facilities committee that spearheaded the bid process for what will be the first phase of high school expansion plans.
“We have students showing up in August,” Willingham said of the new high school component, “and this thing has got to be ready to go.”
Willingham also acknowledged that the charter school’s past relationship with persons associated with Omega — who formerly were with John S. Clark Co. and thereby involved in previous construction projects at the campus — also played a role.
“There was an overall comfort level of the faculty and administration with the contractor,” he said of personnel involved in the school’s original construction on Old Springs Road in addition to middle school and gymnasium additions.
And while Greg Marshall, who is chief financial officer of Omega Construction, is also on the school’s nine-member governing board, he was not part of the selection process, according to Willingham. This included the board’s eventual vote to award the contract.
“And he was removed from any and all discussion that was associated with that,” Willingham continued. “We were very, very careful to avoid a potential conflict of interest.”
Willingham said that unlike a typical governmental body that almost always chooses the low bidder for projects unless a performance or other issue is identified, charter school directors have more flexibility in awarding contracts.
Yet that doesn’t mean the recent process was done in an unfair manner without consideration for the ultimate cost and an effort to be good stewards with the funding available, he said.
“We went through a very thorough process,” Willingham said. “We asked for a lot of details” from the contractors.
“The competitive bid process is a process I believe very strongly in myself,” Willingham continued. “At the end of the day, it was a very tough decision and one that was not taken lightly at all.”
Willingham, who said he has much experience with construction bids, is confident that even with paying $48,000 above the lowest proposal, the upcoming expansion will be done at a cheaper price than work on a public school would cost.
He added that Coram, which had noted a later completion date for the project than Omega, was given an opportunity to amend that to conform to the August school opening. But board members were not convinced, Willingham indicated.
Meanwhile, funding is being sought for the work, including grants from government institutions and private donations.
“To build the high school, we can use your help!” says a message on the Millennium Charter Academy website. “Any donation, from a quarter to a quarter of a million, is appreciated and will be well-used.”
“Tough To Swallow”
Willingham said the charter board invited the three companies, all based in Surry County, to submit bid proposals based on their track record with similar projects. “We did look locally first.”
But this is little consolation to Mark Hiatt, the J.G. Coram vice president, who said the bid process represented a substantial expense to the firm, as well as its potential subcontractors.
“We spent weeks on it — it would probably be in the $5,000 to $10,000 range,” said Hiatt, who suggested that such an effort to secure the contract wouldn’t have occurred “if we would have known we were not going to have a shot at it.”
He added, “But that’s part of general contracting.”
Hiatt also said charter school leaders have not supplied a detailed reason as to why Coram lost out on the contract. “They just told us we weren’t going to get the job,” he said. “We never received a formal letter.”
The company official believes “somebody needs to answer questions.”
J.G. Coram has a long record of successful school-construction projects in Surry County, including building Meadowville Middle School and Cedar Ridge Elementary, and renovation work at Mount Airy, North Surry and East Surry high schools.
The J.G. Coram representative mentioned that Millennium Charter Academy will be launching other construction phases in the future for its high school expansion, and hopes his company has better luck than it did with the recent project.
“Hopefully, things will be handled differently going forward — but it’s tough to swallow.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.