By John Higgins
Beacon Journal staff writer
Akron will have to rebid its $1.4 million furniture package for the new Buchtel High School project because a state agency wants to review bid specifications.
The Ohio School Facilities Commission, which oversees school construction co-funded by the state and local districts, called for the review in response to intense political pressure involving its executive director's union affiliations.
That has resulted in heightened scrutiny of local bidding procedures.
At issue in Akron is $46,000 in items that represent about 3.3 percent of the furniture package for Buchtel. The whole furniture budget represents about 3 percent of the total $45 million project.
Despite the small amount, the state wants a closer look because the specifications didn't include at least three approved manufacturers for each of the items under review.
The state has allowed exceptions to the rule when warranted.
''It doesn't matter what the price of the particular component is. If we're going to do our job, we've got to be concerned about all of these things,'' com
mission spokesman Rick Savors said.
''We'll be as flexible as we can, but we want to make certain that the bidding the local school district is doing is as competitive as possible.''
Here's the problem:
Ohio generally says the districts must write specifications that give bidders a choice of at least three approved manufacturers for similar or equal products.
Akron didn't offer potential bidders three choices for supplying plastic wastepaper baskets and other specialty furniture items. Instead, Akron offered two choices for the school's 425 wastepaper baskets and some other specialty furniture.
Akron has approved two manufacturers for plastic wastebaskets since the beginning of its $800 million school construction project, which is funded by the state and a voter-approved city income tax increase.
The state had not objected before, said Paul Flesher, the district's executive director of facility planning and capital improvement.
Akron also needs five hospital beds for Buchtel's health clinic, but has approved two manufacturers instead of three.
Some single items in the bid package — a special chair that trains music students to keep the right posture for playing their instruments and a tool workbench for a shop class — have only one approved manufacturer.
Akron sent the bid package to Columbus at the end of May for commission approval. The state approved the package, which was then released to potential bidders in early July.
By the time the district knew the state wanted to take another look at the specifications, it was too late to call off the bids, which the district received Aug. 6 but returned unopened.
Because of the state review, the entire $1.4 million furniture package will have to be rebid, which could cost a few thousand dollars, Flesher said.
It should not delay the overall schedule, however, because the furniture won't be needed until the building is almost done.
Akron appears to be caught in a broader political mess in Columbus.
Earlier this month, a state watchdog released a report saying commission Executive Director Richard C. Murray showed favoritism to unions.
Inspector General Thomas P. Charles determined the commission lacked a uniform process for evaluating bidders that enabled Murray to ''impose his pro-union biases where there should have been better-defined policies and procedures,'' according to the report.
Akron is not mentioned in that report, but state Rep. Kris Jordan, R-Powell, named Akron, along with the Hubbard, Elyria and Liberty Union school districts, in a letter Monday to Charles.
Jordan urges Charles to investigate allegations that the districts' specifications are being written ''backward'' to ''exclude certain vendors from offering competitive bids for loose furnishings and other office furniture.''
Jordan said further investigation is warranted based on a review of thousands of commission documents.
''In light of your recent report, Richard Murray's refusal to resign and Governor Strickland's refusal to remove him, I believe this issue should be examined in greater detail to ensure there are no other questionable practices by the commission or its director,'' Jordan wrote.
A call to Jordan's office for comment on Tuesday was not returned.
Flesher chafed at the implication that Akron's bidding practices were questionable.
''That's crazy,'' he said. ''We take great exception for somebody making disparaging remarks without any basis in fact, or maybe just off some manufacturer's rep's complaint. But then, we'll see what they say.''