In a revote at the end of a heated meeting Thursday, the Kanawha County Board of Education approved an estimated over $2 million contract with a company headquartered in Kentucky.
A week ago, the school board had voted 3-2 to reject Kanawha school system officials’ recommendation to hire Louisville-based CMTA Inc.
A couple of the board members who voted down the contract at the time raised concerns about the company not being headquartered in-state. All three expressed a wish to give the work, or at least some of it, to other firms.
They also objected to letters the school system sent other companies that competed for the project saying they hadn’t been selected, before the board first voted on the issue last week.
CMTA had scored above the other firms on the Kanawha school officials’ rubric, but the board hadn’t yet signed off on the pick.
On Thursday, board member Jim Crawford switched sides, voting with board President Becky Jordon and member Tracy White to approve the contract.
“I think what we’ve got to do is get this settled today, we’ve dilly dallied around with it so long,” Crawford said.
Ryan White (no relation to Tracy) and Ric Cavender again voted no.
The contract is for architectural and engineering work regarding replacing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at 10 schools and three other school system locations, including the central office.
The schools are Bridgeview, Chamberlain, Montrose, Pratt, Ruthlawn, Sharon Dawes, Shoals and Sissonville elementaries and Elkview and South Charleston middle schools.
Thursday’s revote happened despite Cavender’s call for legal opinions on whether the current contract could be awarded to a company other than CMTA and whether geographic preference could be a factor in future company selections.
The school system’s general counsel again disagreed with Cavender, and the county schools superintendent revealed a letter backed by the state Department of Education’s general counsel saying geographic preference couldn’t be used.
Ryan White pressed the school system officials on how they came up with the contract, in which CMTA will charge 7% of what the cost of the HVAC work turns out to be. That work is projected to cost $32 million, so CMTA’s design fee would be about $2.2 million.
Schools Facilities Planning Executive Director Chuck Smith said 7% was the lowest CMTA would go and he thought that was a good rate, saying he had four decades of experience. He said he didn’t talk with the other firms about what they would charge.
“That doesn’t sound like negotiating to me,” Ryan White said.
Ryan White, an attorney himself, also pushed back against the school system’s argument that the work couldn’t be split among multiple firms. An “expression of interest” document soliciting firms to apply for the job said “the Board of Education considers the design and construction of these facilities as separate projects, and through the qualification process reserve their right to award to separate firms, or as a group of projects to one firm.”
He made a motion to table the discussion to another meeting, and Cavender provided the official “second” to his motion to bring it to a vote. But the other three members voted to keep the discussion going Thursday.
Cavender eventually said he was ready to move past the issue, but continued to ask for a legal opinion on whether “geographic location” could be taken into account in picking firms — at least in the future.
“Can we, No. 1, further research [state Board of Education] Policy 8200, and get a legal opinion that actually tells us that, ‘Yes, that since it is not in there that we can do it, that means we can’t?’” he asked.
Lindsey McIntosh, the school system’s in-house attorney, had already advised against rejecting CMTA last week.
“When you say a legal opinion, Mr. Cavender, I’m not sure who you’re asking for a legal opinion … because I have given it,” McIntosh said. “So I guess I need clarification. You want an outside lawyer to look at this?”
“We’ve already stated what we believe the policy is and how it should have been followed,” she said. “I don’t know what more we can give you.”
“The WVDE [West Virginia Department of Education] general counsel has already said that this is correct,” schools Superintendent Tom Williams said.
“County boards of education are not permitted to utilize resident vendor preference in the selection of architects and engineers, regardless of funding source,” education department official Amy Willard wrote in a letter dated Thursday. Williams had produced the letter earlier in Thursday’s meeting.
Willard, the department’s school operations officer, wrote that “I confirmed my interpretation of the applicable statutes with WVDE’s General Counsel, Heather Hutchens, and with individuals from the West Virginia Purchasing Division.”
A spokeswoman from the education department confirmed this was true.