Editor’s note: The following is in response to the March 12-18 guest column “Rockford Public Schools: In the land of milk and honey,” by Watchdogs for Ethics in Education member Jane Hayes. Hayes was responding to the Feb. 12-18 guest column “Celebrating the progress made in Rockford Public Schools,” by Rockford Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Ehren Jarrett.
By Tim Rollins
Rockford Board of Education member, Subdistrict B
As the chairman of the School Board’s Operations Committee, which oversees the district’s facilities plan, I want to take issue with Ms. Hayes’ latest innuendo of impropriety with respect to the award of contracts to Stenstrom Companies, Ltd. Here are some relevant facts for the community.
1. This is old news. We discussed these issues fully and publicly at our board meeting before we awarded the first contract to Stenstrom back on June 11, 2013, and before we awarded it the contract for the Auburn Fieldhouse in July 2013. In addition, Ken DeCoster asked me to go on his (now sadly defunct) radio talk show to answer any questions people in the community might have about it. I did so. I explained the process for awarding contracts, Mr. DeCoster asked for people to call in with their questions, and no one called in.
2. Prior to awarding any contracts to Stenstrom, we obtained an opinion both from internal and external legal counsel that there was no conflict of interest that would preclude Stenstrom from bidding on projects for the school district.
3. I was a member of the not-for-profit com-
-mittee formed to advocate for the passage of the referendum that has made the school renovations possible. In that role, I spoke to many community groups about the facilities plan. I was asked many times by people in the community whether we would ensure that the dollars that were spent would stay local. State law prevents us from including “local preference clauses” in our bid documents, so we cannot guarantee that all contracts will be awarded to local companies. But I share the preference that we keep local dollars local as much as possible.
4. By state law, construction contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder. Specifications are issued for the project, and everyone bids based on the same specifications by submitting sealed bids that are opened in a public meeting. That meeting typically is attended by representatives of every contractor that submitted a bid. They are all very interested in each other’s bids, and often make copies of the other bids to scrutinize.
5. The more competition we get, the lower the bids seem to be and the better we do against our pre-bid estimates. I’ve seen time and again that, on projects where we have many bidders, the bids tend to come in significantly below our pre-bid construction estimates. On projects where we only have a few bidders, we end up awarding contracts closer to (and in a couple of cases, above) our pre-bid construction estimates. We have had very good competition so far, and after awarding 31 construction contracts for $51million, we are $5 million below our pre-bid estimates for that work. That means we will be stretching our dollars further, and can do more to improve the schools.
6. I am also happy to report that, although we have had out-of-town companies bid on some of the projects, every contract that has been awarded to a general contractor has been awarded to a Rockford-based company. The Rockford contractors have sharpened their pencils and beaten every out-of-town contractor that has bid. Both the local economy and the taxpayers have been the winners.
7. In the largest project won by Stenstrom, the Auburn Fieldhouse addition, Stenstrom’s bid was approximately $1 million lower than the bid of the highest bidder (from a different local contractor). We’re getting the same work done for $1 million less than if we had to award the bid to the company that submitted the highest bid. That’s competition at work.
8. Contractors are not shy about complaining if they think a contract is being awarded to someone who should not have won the bid. Yet, even after awarding 31 contracts worth $51 million, we have not received a single complaint from any contractor.
9. There are a limited number of Rockford-based general contractors, and the number continues to shrink. One of the general contractors that recently completed an elementary school addition for the district has announced that it is closing its construction business and winding down its operations.
Those are the facts. If competition is good for the taxpayers and is lowering our costs, and if we want to keep our dollars local, but we have a limited pool of Rockford-based contractors who can bid on the work, it would be a reasonable question for someone to ask Ms. Hayes why she is so gosh-darned interested in decreasing competition. Here’s a better idea for her: The more contractors we get to bid on our projects, the better. Perhaps Ms. Hayes could use her considerable time and energy to make sure other contractors in town bid on the district’s projects, that they sharpen their pencils and that they underbid Stenstrom. That would be a “win-win” for everyone — Ms. Hayes can satisfy her personal animosity against the superintendent and his family, and the taxpayers will win with even lower bids. We’re about to issue invitations for bids for the East Field House addition, which will be another multi-million-dollar contract, so I wish her well as she takes on this important task.
Finally, and on a slightly different topic, I just want to note that I’ve lived in both small towns and large cities during my life, and Rockford is much more like the former than the latter. There are only one or two degrees of separation between pretty much everyone in town, particularly if you limit the field to college-educated professionals and/or those who care about and are engaged in the community. Playing the “Kevin Bacon game” in Rockford may be fun for Ms. Hayes, but it’s not particularly challenging or enlightening for others.
Tim Rollins is a member of the school board for the Rockford Public Schools, representing Subdistrict B, and he is chairman of the board’s Operations Committee.
From the March 19-25, 2014, issue