A little more than a month after the Hesperia Unified School District school board voted to go have an outside firm oversee the construction of the district's new high school, the school board reversed direction Monday night, voting unanimously to hand the project back to district staff.


During a special Tuesday meeting on June 19, the board voted 3-2 to build Oak Hills High School in a manner new to the district. Instead of hiring a single firm to build the project, the board voted to go with a construction management model, which would put a single firm in charge of a group of subcontractors, each of whom would bid on individual portions of the project, such as electrical work, plumbing or other aspects of construction. Although board members predicted the model would ultimately save the district money, the firm chosen, Rancho Cucamonga-based WLC Construction Services, would charge an estimated fee of $7,500,000 on top of the estimated $105 million cost to build the school.


The choice of WLC was a controversial one, as the firm had received the lowest rating of all the firms that had responded to the district's request for proposals (RFP), would charge the highest fee (and without a maximum fee cap in place), had the fewest years of experience and had never completed a high school project. WLC also said completion of the project would be finished a full year after the other responding firms said they could complete it.


Three construction management firms -- Barnhart, Lundgren Management and Vanir Construction Management -- each of whom had received higher rankings by the district staff, questioned the decision at the school board's Saturday, July 14, budget workshop. Letters of protest from Barnhart and Lundgren had previously been received by the district, and the letter from Barnhart's general counsel laid out a course of potential legal action against the district.


"California Government Code Section 4526 governs the selection of professional service firms and the adoption of procedures to select those firms which include, but are not limited to, construction management firms," the letter from Barnhart vice-president and general counsel Eric Stenman reads in part. "A local agency such as Hesperia Unified School District must use procedures that assure that construction management services are engaged on the basis of demonstrative competence and qualifications for the types of services to be performed and in a fair and reasonable price to the public agencies."


As a result, school district attorney Tristan Pelayes recommended at the budget workshop that the board reconsider their decision.


"They've raised at least the appearance of impropriety," he said.


At Monday's meeting, the board did just that, voting unanimously to have staff oversee the Oak Hills High School project and have staff work with the Wagner and Pelayes law firm on future construction management services contracts.


During the meeting, board members blamed the massive amount of information board members must digest in a limited period of time before making decisions.


"Part of the issue was that we didn't have all the information available to us when we began the process," board member Lee Rogers said.


"We had no advisement on the [California Education Code]," board member Hardy Black said during a break in the meeting. "We were told we could pick who we want. ... The concept of construction management still makes sense."


The construction management system is used by multiple school districts in the High Desert.


Black also said a number of the firms that had responded to the district's RFP were no more qualified than WLC.


"We're really comparing apples and oranges and they throw a banana in there."


In addition to WLC losing out on an estimated $7.5 million contract, the decision also meant no work for freelance project manager Margaret Sepp. The board had voted for Sepp to oversee WLC's work, for a monthly fee of $10,000, which would have added an estimated $360,000 to the cost of Oak Hills over the course of the site's construction.


The next meeting of the Hesperia Unified School District school board will be a facilities workshop held on August 15 at 4:30 p.m. at Sultana High School. The next regular board meeting will be held August 20 at 6 p.m. at Sultana High School.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.