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Bids to build Edna Karr school scrutinized

23rd June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Susan Buchanan
Contributing Writer

The choice of a contractor to design and build the new Edna Karr High School in Algiers is delayed after a bid by one of three shortlisted firms was rescored this month. If a contractor isn’t selected by early July, existing bids will be tossed and the process will start anew. The shortlisted contractors are Woodward Design+Build and joint venture Womack-Tillage, both located in New Orleans, along with Florida-based Wharton-Smith, Inc.—which has an office in Baton Rouge.

In May, a review committee gave Woodward Design+Build the winning score but that number was revised on June 6 after complaints of favoritism surfaced over Nolmar Construction, LLC, a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise included in Woodward’s proposal. The Orleans Parish School Board’s goal is to have 35 percent participation by DBEs, or businesses run by minorities and women, in its design-build contracts.

edna-karr-high-school-06231“The Woodward bid was rescored, with their DBE score reduced, and that resulted in them no longer being the winning bidder,” OPSB interim Superintendent Stan Smith said last week. “If a contract isn’t awarded by July 10, bidding will begin under a traditional design-bid-build process.” A traditional process would also require DBEs.

OPSB member Leslie Ellison from District 4, which includes Algiers, said the board decided to use design-build for the new Edna Karr several years ago. “Design-build was chosen to find a solution based on community participation and technical qualifications, reflecting what we want to accomplish with the school,” she said last week. With design-build, the two activities are combined in a contract. Alter­natively, under design-bid-build, design and construction are given separate contracts.

Woodward was rescored this month because of concerns about Nolmar, Ellison said. The three shortlisted firms in early May made presentations to the OPSB Administration and Jacobs/CSRS, which manages grants and disaster recovery programs for the city. “On May 12, an OPSB staff member advised interim Superintendent Smith of a conflict with Nolmar Construction, a DBE in Wood­ward’s proposal, because Nolmar is owned by three half siblings of OPSB President Nolan Marshall Jr.,” Ellison said. Those half sisters are June Marshall, Allison Marshall and Robyn Marshall-Wallace. Nolmar is run by executive vice president Al Wallace, husband of Robyn. The DBE subcontract for Nolmar in Woodward’s proposal is valued at $7.5 million.

“Under Louisiana law and board ethics, it’s illegal for immediate family members of OPSB members to do business with the district,” Ellison said. “In late May, an OPSB staff member notified school board attorney Ed Morris that Nolmar is owned by OPSB President Marshall’s relatives.”

Ellison said the liaisons are even more complicated. “After further investigation, it was discovered that Woodward Design+Build, owned by Paul Flower, owns 49 percent of Nolmar Construction,” she said. “In essence, Woodward’s bid was to be the prime contractor and the DBE on the Edna Karr project.”

Ellison said OPSB attorney Morris sent a June 2 email to Nolan Marshall saying it was “problematic” that a DBE on Woodward’s proposal was managed by his relatives.

Leslie Rey, OPSB director of purchasing and ancillary services, last week said he received the first set of Karr contractor scores from the evaluation committee on May 22. “The revised scoring was done on June 6,” he said. “Woodward was the only firm that was rescored.” In technical scoring, Woodward in May received 15 points for DBE participation but that number was reduced to 11.97 points in June.

Rey explained that the three contractors’ final scores were reached by dividing each company’s bid price by the technical score for its contract. Under that process, the lowest final score—received by Woodward in May but now held by Womack-Tillage—is the top score. Womack-Tillage has a final score of 590,429.04, making it the apparent winner. Woodward’s revised final score is 610,160.01 while Wharton-Smith’s is 619,801.07.

On bids for the project, Woodward’s was lowest at $51.97 million, Wharton-Smith’s was next at $52.93 million and Womack-Tillage’s was most expensive at $53.67 million.

Last week, Paul Flower, president and CEO of Woodward Design+Build, said his company’s bid shouldn’t have been rescored. “We made our case opposing the rescoring at a separate hearing with OPSB Superintendent Smith and OPSB’s attorney on June 18,” he said, but declined to discuss details of that discussion.

Ellison said that Paul Flower worked on initial plans for the new Karr school more than two years ago but that wasn’t an issue because enough time had elapsed before Woodward submitted its design-build bid.

Meanwhile, OPSB President Nolan Marshall last Monday sent a letter to Kenneth Polite, Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, asking that his office investigate whether any improprieties occurred with OPSB members or employees in connection with the Edna Karr bidding process. “It is very important for citizens to have complete confidence that the Orleans Parish elected board members and the school system’s employees are above reproach in fulfilling their duties,” Marshall said in his letter.

Ellison and fellow OPSB board member Cynthia Cade both said last week that Woodward appeared to have support from Stan Smith even after questions were raised about Nolmar. “In early June, the OPSB superintendent was moving forward with Woodward Design although conflicts of interest with Nolmar had come to light,” OPSB board member Cade of District 2 said last week. “You can’t have favoritism, or the appearance of it, in a contract that uses federal money,” she said. Federal Emer­gency Management Agency is expected to fund the new Karr school, serving over 1,300 students.

“In addition to the issue with Woodward, we have received a protest regarding the scoring of Womack-Tillage,” Stan Smith said last week. “We’re dealing with this protest as quickly as possible. We’re giving the firms due process to respond to re-scoring and protests.” Smith couldn’t provide details on the Womack-Tillage issue, saying it was under legal review. Board members Ellison and Cade said they weren’t familiar with the matter. Tillage Construction didn’t respond to inquiries last week.

“Because of what transpired this spring, the integrity of the school district’s bidding process is challenged,” Ellison said last week. “Our DBE program is under assault. And worst of all, the children and families that we serve are hurt.” The OPSB has 20 schools under its jurisdiction, including six it runs directly, along with 14 charters.

This article originally published in the June 23, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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