School districts: Lisbon low-bidder decision may affect future projects

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LEWISTON — School superintendents are discussing a recent court decision ordering the Lisbon School Department to take the lowest bidder to build a new $5 million high school gym.

Two weeks ago, Cumberland County Superior Court Justice Nancy Mills ruled that since all of the bidders seeking that contract had prequalified in the Lisbon bidding process, state law requires that the job goes to the lowest bidder.

“This is upsetting to many of us,” said Farmington Superintendent Tom Ward, whose district just completed a $64 million renovation of Mount Blue High School.

Ward is a member of the construction committee of the Maine School Management Association, the association for school superintendents.

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For years, school districts had to go with the lowest bidder, “but that created a number of problems for school construction,” Ward said.

The state regulations were tweaked, which gave school departments some flexibility on not taking the lowest bidder, “as long as we could justify it. It was a positive change,” Ward said. “We fought very hard so we didn’t have to automatically go with the lowest bidder.”

He now expects the issue will be on future agendas for a host of groups, including school committees across Maine, the Maine School Management Association and the Maine Department of Education.

“We’ll have to have it clarified as school construction goes forward,” Ward said. “This certainly doesn’t help.”

Poland School Superintendent Tina Meserve said Regional School Unit 16 watched the Lisbon decision “with interest. We have an overcrowding issue at Bruce Whittier Middle School that has been partially addressed with two portables.”

If the Poland school district’s facilities review committee recommends building, and taxpayers support that, “we could be impacted by the Lisbon decision,” Meserve said.

Cost is always a priority, she said, “but that can’t be accomplished at the expense of quality,” she said. “The low-bid expectation can force bidding companies and school districts to make decisions that may not be in the best interest of the school district.”

RSU 4 Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said his Sabattus, Wales and Litchfield schools may eventually have to consider building. The court decision will likely prompt his district to review policies on which bid to accept.

Lewiston schools operate on the premise that in the bidding process, the job goes to the lowest bidder, Superintendent Bill Webster said.

When an addition was constructed last year for the McMahon Elementary School, “we had a low bidder we were not enthusiastic about. But they were on the qualified list” and got the job. Clarification Lewiston received from the Maine Bureau of General Services “meant accepting the lowest qualified bid,” Webster said.

The court ruling may mean “school districts need to pay attention to the qualified list, and maybe challenge some on there if we don’t feel it’s appropriate.”

Lewiston was happy with McMahon school expansion general contractor, Ganneston Construction. The issue was with one of the electric subcontractors, Webster said.

“We reluctantly accepted their lowest-price bid, even though we had heard concerns about” the subcontractor’s work. The company was on the list of approved vendors.

“As it turned out, they did not complete their work,” he said. “We had to work with their bonding company to get it finished. It was a struggle from beginning to end. I do think we can challenge the Maine Bureau of General Services more going forward on how companies are vetted for the qualified list.”

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said when Auburn finally builds a new high school, there could be lessons learned from the Lisbon case.

But it’s not always the lowest bid that’s the best choice, she said. Auburn reviews bids “in a way that best meets our need.” Auburn tells bidders what the school district wants, then grades or awards points for specifics in the proposal.

“If all the scores are the same, low cost may be the tie-breaker,” Grondin said.

In the situation with the Lisbon bid, seven companies were prequalified to bid, which means they each provided documentation that they were qualified to do the work, and the School Committee awarded the contract to the second-lowest bidder. The lowest bidder, Landry/French Construction, filed for an injunction in Cumberland County Superior Court to prevent Lisbon from awarding the contract to the second-lowest bidder under Landry/French could pursue further negotiations with the Lisbon School District.

In her ruling, Mills ordered the injunction and ruled that the School Committee award Landry/French the contract under state law. That contract was awarded on Monday.

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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