The Hesperia Unified School District school board's decision to award the contract for the construction of Oak Hills High School was handled in such a way that "an outside party looking in may well conclude that this award was decided long before the vote," according to one of the other bidders.


The comment was made in a letter to the HUSD from Barnhart, Inc., the San Diego-based construction management firm the HUSD staff ranked the best choice to oversee building the high school, based on references and an evaluation of the company.


Barnhart vice-president and general counsel Eric Stenman sent the letter on June 29 requesting the HUSD reconsider their decision to award the bid for the $105 million project to Rancho Cucamonga-based WLC Construction Services. The school board chose WLC to oversee the construction of Oak Hills High School in a special meeting on June 19.


"I base this request on the stunning outcome of your board meeting," Stenman's letter reads in part. "I used the word 'stunning' due to the fact that Barnhart's fee was lower and thus more competitive, Barnhart had more experience as evidenced by its portfolio of projects completed and Barnhart's presentation and submission was characterized as 'perfect' by the district."


School board member Hardy Black called Barnhart's presentation "perfect" at the June 19 meeting.


"I looked at the proposals. Barnhart's proposal was arguably the most impressive," Black is quoted as saying in the HUSD's minutes of the meeting. "I thought they really had their act together and as I thought about it some more, I thought this was too perfect, it's just too perfect. I don't know; there was just something about it that gives me an eerie kind of queasy feeling, I don't know."


"Well, we do more of this type of work than anyone in California and we're ranked number five in the nation in this sort of project," company CEO Douglas Barnhart said Tuesday. "So, yeah, our proposals are good."


Part of the reason for the proposal's quality, Barnhart said, was because they've built this high school before: Using the same plans from the same architect, the company built Great Oak High School for the Temecula Valley Unified School District. The school opened in August 2004 after 18 months of construction.


"We built that high school in the time frame mentioned" in the Oak Hills proposal, Barnhart said. "And we got a pretty good idea of what it's going to cost to do it. If you've done it before, you've got a pretty good idea of what it's going to take. So we were kind of looking forward to working with the design team and working with the district."


Barnhart said the company's not interested in legal action, but "on behalf of the Barnhart people who worked so hard on the Great Oak project and [the Oak Hills proposal] ... I felt compelled to ask" the district to reconsider their decision.


"I'm not interested in forcing myself in an owner that doesn't want us," Barnhart said. "I just thought it was strange that, you know, if you have a better price, and you are rated better on the qualifications, you would hope that a different decision would be made. And we were suggesting that maybe the board would do the interviews with a short list of maybe three firms."


On the HUSD facility department's chart of the 10 companies that had submitted bids to oversee the construction of Oak Hills High School, Barnhart earned the top proposal evaluation score from department staff and was in the middle of the pack on price, charging a maximum of $6,562,500 for the project. WLC provided no maximum cap on price, and will instead charge the district 7.5 percent of the total project's cost, or $7,875,000 if the housing market does not rebound before the project's completion and increase the cost of materials and labor. And Barnhart's estimated completion date of August 3, 2009 for the high school is a full year earlier than WLC said students could begin using a portion of the school.


But although Barnhart says he does not intend to pursue legal action, his company's general counsel outlined a case for pursuing it in his letter.


"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," Stenman's letter 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. Given the fact that WLC has less experience, scored lower than Barnhart in the interview process, and is charging a higher fee, it is difficult to understand how the intent and spirit of Government Code 4526 is carried out with an award to WLC. In fact, I cannot recall a selection process that actually awarded to the less qualified and more expensive consultant."


WLC, which spun off of an architectural firm with decades of experience, has been doing construction management for seven years, compared to Barnhart's 24.


Both companies were trumped on cost by Lundgren Management, the Valencia-based firm that district staff made their top recommendation on price. (The facilities staff made two lists of three recommendations, one based on price, the other based on evaluations and references.)


While Barnhart would charge $6,562,500 to oversee the construction and WLC would charge an estimated $7,875,000, Lundgren would charge $2,979,551 for the same project.


"Put simply, the school board chose to spend an additional $4.5 million of the district's and taxpayer dollars for the exact same services we were proposing," the June 26 letter from company president Dale Lundgren reads in part. "This decision is most perplexing to us."


Lundgren also took issue with comments made by school board vice-president Robert Kirk in an interview published in the June 26 edition of the Hesperia Star.


"Mr. Kirk made seemingly slanderous statements that 'the cheapest companies are just paper-pushers and they will charge you for every thing you do, every phone call, every change order that you do. They will charge you if the project goes beyond the [estimated] date,'" Lundgren wrote. "The [company's] proposal was quite clear on how the fees were to be proposed and we reiterated this in conversations with the district that there were no 'hidden' fees in our proposal and that our fees were all-inclusive, as requested.


"Getting back to the 'paper-pusher' statement, Lundgren Management takes great pride in being a hands-on, proactive construction manager in leading our construction programs. School building is what we do and we have been extremely successful in delivering quality services to all of our clients for over 20 years."


As Stenman did in the Barnhart letter, Lundgren expresses a desire to have representatives meet with HUSD staff and the school board to discuss their bid and answer any questions they may have. Unlike the Barnhart letter, the Lundgren letter is also a formal protest of the board's decision.


HUSD legal counsel Tristan Pelayes met with district Superintendent Hank Richardson regarding the letters on Tuesday, along with George Landon, the HUSD's Assistant Superintendent of Business Services.


"We look at all concerns. We take them very seriously," Pelayes said. "We're going to look into the merits of that letter, and ultimately the district will do the right thing."


Whether this means an additional delay to the opening of the high school beyond WLC's target of August 2010 remains to be seen.


"Conceptually, the letters might delay it if the board has to do things to correct it," Pelayes said.


In the meantime, "we're going to continue moving down a path as quickly as we can to [follow] the direction to have kids in Oak Hills High School by 2009," Landon said.


"Opening any school, there's always going to be some bumps in the road," Richardson said. "We don't know what the merits [of the complaints] are until we have looked at the letters."


Pelayes will be reporting back to the school board regarding the Barnhart and Lundgren letters, and what -- if anything -- the board and district should do about them, later this month.


"By the latest, I'm hoping by the [meeting on the] 23rd," he said.


"Welcome to the world of construction," Barnhart said. "The only thing that bothered me a little bit was that the good folks up in Hesperia should make the best decision they can make. They should be striving to build the best housing for their kids' education.


"In a perfect world, that's what happens."


The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Hesperia Unified School District is a budget workshop on Saturday, July 14, 9 a.m. at Sultana High School. The next regular board meeting will be held July 23 at 6 p.m. at Sultana High School.


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