story by Michael Tilley
The Fort Smith Public School Board of Education went against the urgings of school administration and a project architect to reverse its previous vote and instead award an almost $1.9 million contract to Turn Key Construction Management for work at Darby Junior High School.
Turn Key was the initial low bidder on work to expand the locker rooms and band room at Darby, but the Board approved a recommendation by project architect Galen Hunter to give the work to Beshears Construction after a subcontractor with Turn Key withdrew from the project.
At issue is a disagreement about a requirement that the plumbing subcontractor on the project have 10 licensed workers. Turn Key had listed Fort Smith-based Chamberlain Mechanical who at the time of the bid process had less than 10 qualified workers for work that includes moving a large “chiller” from the Darby roof.
Sandy Dixon, owner of Turn Key, told the board that Chamberlain handled a $5 million project at Woods Elementary and a $10 million project at Chaffin Junior High with no problems. Dixon said Chamberlain volunteered to withdraw from the project rather than run the risk of losing future business with the school district. Dixon said she soon realized that allowing Chamberlain to withdraw was a mistake because Hunter would then use that against Turn Key.
“I didn’t want to rock the boat. … But I was blindsided. I didn’t expect this to happen,” Dixon told the board.
Hunter, who is a principal with Fort Smith-based MAHG Architecture, was the focus of questions from several board members who believed Turn Key and Chamberlain were not treated fairly. During the initial questions, Fort Smith Public Schools Superintendent Benny Gooden was quick to advise the board “against negotiating with individual contractors.” He suggested that “if we’re not going to follow our architect” and his guidance, then it did not make sense to pay a professional for their services.
But that did not quiet the board.
Board members Deanie Mehl and Susan McFerran said they doubted it was made clear to all in the bidding process that having the 10 qualified plumbers was an immediate requirement. They noted that five of the seven general contractors used Chamberlain in their bids.
“If this is so clear, then why did five of seven miss it,” Mehl quizzed Hunter.
Hunter responded by saying it was made clear in a pre-bid conference, and that he could not answer as to why the majority of general contractors listed Chamberlain as a subcontractor.
Board member Rick Wade said he did not think it right that the Board require a subcontractor to staff up to a certain number just to bid on a job. His understanding was that companies will staff up to meet the requirement once they get a contract. Wade asked Hunter that if Chamberlain came back with a list of 10 qualified workers, would he accept the bid.
“I have no problem with Chamberlain,” Hunter responded. He noted several times during the meeting that he had no problem with Chamberlain, but was just trying to ensure that the process was fair to all general contractors who submitted bids.
A few minutes later, Sandy Dixon, owner of Turn Key, asked a more pointed question.
“Can 10 work on that chiller at one time,” Dixon asked Hunter.
“No,” he quickly responded, adding that “I think the 10 number was pretty much just arbitrary.”
Wade moved that the Board reconsider its vote to award the Darby work to Beshears. That motion was seconded by David Hunton and approved unanimously. Wade then moved that the work be awarded to Turn Key. That motion was seconded by Mehl and also was unanimously approved.