Bluffton schools' design goes to NC firm familiar to superintendent

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comNovember 22, 2013 

Two schools to be built in Bluffton could house more than 2,500 students and cost the Beaufort County School District more than $60 million -- large projects that belong in able hands, Board of Education Chairman Bill Evans says.

The schools will be designed by North Carolina-based architectural firm Hite Associates, which has worked with superintendent Jeffrey Moss before but was bidding on its first Beaufort County project.

"Although Hite was a new company for us, there was certainly some impact that Dr. Moss had worked with them before in North Carolina, and he has been very satisfied with their work and feels they bring things in on time and on budget," Evans said.

Hite Associates will get $1.2 million for its work on a school to serve students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and another $2.1 million for a high school. The contract amounts are 5 percent of the projected costs of the schools, Moss said.

The company was one of 21 firms that applied to work on the elementary school and one of 15 that vied for the high school.

Six candidates for the elementary school and four for the high school were interviewed and graded by a selection committee that forwarded its recommendation to the school board for approval. Its grades were based on predetermined criteria that included experience and knowledge of the local project.

The committee included Moss, a district facilities planning and construction officer, a high school principal, an elementary school principal and a Bluffton planning official.

This will be Hite's debut full construction project in South Carolina, said facilities planning and construction officer Robert Oetting.

Attempts this week to reach Hite Associates for comment were unsuccessful.

AN IMPERFECT PROCESS?

Moss worked with Hite when he was superintendent in Lee County, N.C., and in Beaufort County, N.C. He gave the firm high marks for finishing projects under budget and on schedule or ahead of schedule.

The company earned the contract over some in-state companies, including ones that have worked for the district.

Representatives of several of those S.C. firms, who asked not to be identified, said much of their work comes from repeat clients and that they hoped to be considered again for future projects.

A long track record with a particular district can have its advantages and disadvantages, those familiar with the process say.

On the one hand, a company that has done good work for the district can score high on past performance.

On the other , the district tries to give contracts to a variety of qualified firms, which can work against companies that have already done a lot of work for the district.

The district's process is similar to the state of South Carolina's procurement code, according to Delisa Clark, state director of school facilities. One of those guidelines prohibits preferences for local firms, she said.

Oetting said he has heard arguments for and against that guideline -- with opponents saying school expenditures should stay in the local economy whenever possible and supporters saying it prevents cronyism.

Ben Thompson, principal architect at Beaufort-based AAG, said the process in Beaufort County is similar to those he has encountered in other districts. He said the criteria allows for a fair process.

Moss and Oetting say they simply want the best architect for the job.

"I think there is no such thing as a perfect procurement process, and there probably never will be, so every time we bid work out, we see what could be done better," Oetting said. "But having said that, I believe we do have a very good process in place and do feel confident in our process."


Criteria for selecting architects

A committee used a grading system to determine which company would get a contract to design two public schools planned for Bluffton. Here is the criteria the panel used:
  • Company's past performance (20 points)
  • Ability of professional personnel (20 points)
  • Ability to meet time and budget requirements (20 points)
  • Location and knowledge of locality of the project (10 points)
  • Firm's recent, current and projected workload (10 points)
  • Creativity and insight related to the project (10 points)
  • Experience on similar projects (10 points)
  • Volume of work awarded by the district to the person or firm during the previous five years, with the objective of equally distributing contracts among qualified firms (5 points) (Firms that haven't worked with the district previously will get more points in this section.)
Source: Beaufort County School District

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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