If Utah wants to save on school construction costs -- a vital goal in a state that will need more and more schools -- then school districts must be vigilant in making sure bids are competitive, according to a state audit released Tuesday.
The audit on school building construction found that while most of the 21 school districts did bid construction services competitively, 43 percent did not when it came to paying for architectural services. Among the flaws: districts failed to bid a new project, used an architectural firm they had used in the past, used an architectural firm pre-qualified under outdated criteria, or used an architectural firm able to bundle several projects, the report found.
Only 21 of Utah's 40 school districts were included in the audit because they were building schools between 2006 and 2008.
While not pointing to districts by name, the report found instances when several school districts missed the opportunity to save on payments to architectural firms. Of those that failed to bid architectural services properly, the report stated, "seven of the nine school districts are located in rural areas of the state, and two school districts are in urban areas." In one case where a district used an architectural firm pre-qualified 10 years ago, auditors concluded the district might have saved $117,000 in architectural fees if it had bid with a firm offering a fee lower than average.
Auditors also found that some districts need to refine the processes by which they evaluate bids. Districts can improve the way they choose contractors with better decision-making processes, called "decision matrixes," and by making sure selection committees for services and materials include someone qualified in architecture or engineering. Auditors also found that selection committees for three school districts failed to include those qualified members as required by law.
The report said a handful of districts should improve oversight of subcontractors. While traditionally hired by construction managers and general contractors hired by the districts, the report said it's time districts monitor and bid for subcontractor services, citing the example of one school district that required three bids for all subcontracted jobs. "Some rural school districts find it difficult to get three bids for all subcontracted areas, but school districts should continue to try and get at least three bids for each subcontracted area to obtain quality service for a reasonable cost," the report stated.
While Utah tends to build less expensive schools than its counterparts in nearby states, and slightly larger schools for the cost, the audit stressed that proper competitive bidding by school districts is critical in light of rapidly increasing costs. Over the audit's two-year period, Utah's total costs for new school construction increased 40 percent "on a per-square-foot basis," the report found.
The audit said some districts have cut down the construction cost of schools through selective use of materials, forgoing more expensive glass for less expensive brick, or teaming up with other local municipalities to share space with city parks.