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EDITORIAL: Lawmakers miss the grade on school bidding

When voters went to the polls on Tuesday and approved more than $500 million worth of school-construction projects, most no doubt believed school officials would have to let the work out to the lowest bidders.

After all, that’s what state government and counties, cities, villages and towns throughout Wisconsin must do. But anyone who assumed schools would be required to follow suit would be mistaken.

Many states throughout country do require school districts to let out contracts to low bidders.

Not Wisconsin.

Because of a somewhat convoluted series of court decisions, Wisconsin schools have been excluded from the sorts of low-bid requirements that have otherwise been extended over time to almost every other type of governmental entity in this state. The result? Taxpayers who now take comfort in knowing that competitive bidding will help hold down construction costs for everything from the massive Zoo Interchange project to an addition to the local police station aren’t getting the same assurance when it comes to schools.

SEE SCHOOL BUILDING REFERENDUM RESULTS FROM TUESDAY

This seems especially perverse given that school projects are among the biggest and most expensive in the state. Tuesday’s referendums, for instance, included a passed referendum for $65 million worth of building projects in the Chippewa Falls Area School District, $21.1 million of which will be used for a new elementary school.

Lawmakers took a stab in the recently ended legislative session at subjecting school districts to low-bid requirements. Their attempt — embodied in Senate Bill 236 — was passed by the state Senate in October but was never taken up by the Assembly.

Its adoption was strongly opposed not only by some of the biggest contractors and trades organizations in the state, but also various school organizations and officials. Throughout the debate, the common complaint about the low-bid system was that it offers no guarantee of quality. In other words, if you want to go cheap, you’ll end up getting what you pay for.

Such arguments ignore the various checks and balances governments have adopted to prevent cheap work from necessarily being equivalent to shoddy work. Contractors have to put up surety bonds to ensure projects can be completed should they become unable or unwilling to do the job themselves. Companies that leave behind shoddy work can be put on a “blacklist” preventing them from bidding again.

If these methods have been good enough to prevent city and state buildings from falling down around us, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t also work for schools.

Some will argue that a low-bid system will impose additional costs and administrative burdens. To ensure bidding procedures are being followed, they say, schools will have to hire new employees.

Why not, though, outsource this function to some sort of centralized office? The state Department of Public Instruction or, even better, Department of Administration — with its current oversight of state construction projects — are the two state agencies best equipped to take on this task.

School officials will also say they have at times been able to save taxpayer money precisely because they have not been bound by the design-bid-build system’s hard-and-fast rules. Some have used what essentially amounts to a design-build system to let contractors start working on a project even before the designs are completely finished.

There’s no doubt that these methods can help save time and, as a result, money. There’s also a good case to be made for letting not only schools but also local governments and the state experiment with design-build.

But there should be a consistent system. What we have now is essentially the Wild, Wild West. Some districts have voluntarily decided to bid out projects — although not necessarily always to award them to the lowest bidder. Others essentially use design-build. Still others seem to simply go with general contractors they’ve worked with in the past, without taking the time to consider competitors’ proposals.

Who can doubt that when the rules are unclear, some contractors simply choose not to pursue projects rather than risk wasting time and money on work that they might have had no chance of winning anyway?

Perhaps the strangest reason given for keeping the status quo is that it lets school districts ensure work goes to local contractors. This argument might have something to say for it if small- and medium-sized companies were regularly winning school contracts.

But most school work instead goes to a handful of big generals that have proved they can compete throughout the state and even the country. Many of these companies no doubt favor the status quo because they are used to it and are reluctant to change rules that have allowed their businesses to thrive.

But these same contractors have also shown time and time again that they can win contracts that are awarded to the lowest bidder.

Yes, if schools were required to bid out projects, these contractors would face more competition. That’s a small price to pay, though, to make sure taxpayers are getting the best deal possible.

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