School Daze

Contractors working in the education field might be reminded of working with the military. The complex and often Byzantine bidding process that accompanies virtually every school facility A/V installation is pocked with regulatory and systemic potholes. That said, it's like any other bureaucratic encounter... you must accept that this is how this particular universe works. After learning the language, you can participate in what is an expanding sector of the A/V market.
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School Daze

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, Dan Daley

Contractors working in the education field might be reminded of working with the military. The complex and often Byzantine bidding process that accompanies virtu-ally every school facility A/V installation is pocked with regulatory and systemic potholes. That said, it's like any other bureaucratic encounter, from the motor vehicles department to the military. You must accept that this is how this particular universe works. After learning the language, you can participate in what is an expanding sector of the A/V market.

Distance learning alone is expected to increase A/V spending several tens of millions of dollars during the next decade, according to the U.S. Department of Education. However, even at the local K-12 level, the need for improved sound systems, flat-panel displays, wireless microphone systems, and other technologies can only increase. That is not only a reflection of the evolution of teaching in the digital age but also a bellwether of larger social and economic issues, particularly increasing class sizes.

“You can't underestimate the social and political forces that will be affecting how audio and video are used in the educational system in years to come,” says Cliff Dodge, educational sales consultant at A/V systems design and contracting company Alpha Video, in Edina, Minnesota. Dodge is a former special education teacher himself. “The technologies are going to get increasingly sophisticated. One of the biggest areas of growth now is in implementing central video server systems so that teachers no longer have to tape to play back visual materials. But the sound field in classrooms has to be enhanced, as well, and there are some interesting reasons behind that. Aside from better intelligibility enhancing learning, the growing size of classes and classrooms means that it's going to become an OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] issue in the near future. Teachers will begin complaining about losing their voices and developing nodes on their vocal chords, because they have to speak more loudly for longer periods of time.”

Dodge says the average class size is 35 students, and he's seen some classes with as many as 50 students in a single room. How much of an issue that will be is underscored by the ongoing defense by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) of its controversial ANSI S12.60-2002 Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools, which adds a classroom acoustics section to the International Building Code. The standard has been criticized as too strict and economically unfeasible. In the fall of 2002, two trade associations representing manufacturers of modular buildings and a small group of school business organizations requested that ANSI withdraw the standard. The ANSI board of standards review refused to withdraw the standard.

“It's a fairly aggressive standard, it has an ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliance aspect, and it's something that A/V and acoustical contractors should be aware of,” says David Prince, principal consultant at acoustical consulting firm Acoustic Expertise in Villa Park, Illinois. “It requires extremely low noise floors.”

THE LOCAL LEVEL

Those are some of the broader strokes. However, as Dodge points out, success in working with educational facilities for most contractors begins at the local level. “You need to be invested in the process, and you have to understand the issues at the school district level,” he says.

The bidding process seems straightforward, but each stage has its distinct twists. The first step is identifying a problem or a need. At this point, a consultant will be called in who will be paid to create a specification for addressing the issue but who will not be permitted to bid on it to avoid a conflict of interest. But even at this early stage, contractors can get a foot in the door by helping school districts find problems or make them aware of shortcomings in the district schools' A/V infrastructure.

“In between the initial identification of an issue and the second step, the call to action, there's an opportunity for a contracting company to do itself and the school some good,” Dodge says. “You need to be aware that teaching techniques are based on modeling. Schools will find other schools that are addressing things a certain way and will look to them as a model on which to base their solution. Contractors who have experience in dealing with a particular issue can offer previous solutions as models to the school district.”

Dodge offers his company's experience at nearby Egan High School, which had a school of technology built in 1989 and found that to avoid being the school of old technology, it had to update its A/V and other systems on an almost annual basis. “We are on the school's technical advisory team,” Dodge says. He says his company hosts informal seminars locally and throughout the five-state region in which area schools can compare notes on how they have responded to media needs and to hear about new ways of approaching issues. “This really moves the modeling process along and at the same time positions the contractor as an advisory resource,” Dodge says. “You don't create the specification, of course, but you are now part of the team that helps identify problems and solutions. It is a marketing strategy, but it's one focused less on selling and more on information. We're allowing teachers to network in a way they never could before.”

The third step in the process is the bid specification itself, which can be the most complicated. Jerry Davis — principal at Jeremiah Associates LLC, a consulting firm in Chandler, Arizona — has done work for all four of Arizona State's sprawling campuses and for Midwestern University. Davis says he tries to steer a bid specification into a design proposal, a rubric he says offers less latitude for interpretation — thus, confusion — by allowing the consultant to add certain criteria such as installation methodologies, beyond just hardware components. It also allows decision makers to look at a larger picture from each bidder instead of simply the lowest price.

“If someone knows they're not going to lose out just because someone bid $50 lower, you're going to get a better class of contractor bidding on projects,” Davis says. “To do that, we specify not only the components but also system and contractor performance, as well as how the systems will be tested and evaluated. Proof of that is important, as is proof that a contractor has successfully run complex projects in the past. Project management skills are important and part of the design proposal, something that would be harder to spell out in a simple bid specification.”

This step of the process is subdivided into three phases, says Davis. Phase one involves listing all the manufacturers' cut (spec) sheets, a bill of materials, functional diagrams, and an overall game plan for executing the project. Phase two includes shop drawings, point-to-point wiring details, mounting details of any component that will attach to a structural element, panel layouts, and rack elevations. “This is where it gets most specific,” Davis says. “We want CAD drawings, not hand scribblings. A university tends to accumulate a large number of systems over time, and documentation is very important.” Phase three includes closeout documentation such as operator manuals and part numbers.

Both Davis and Dodge say making the design proposal stage more specific is useful when dealing with educators. As Davis points out, educators are used to layered bureaucracies, so it feels familiar. “It tends to weed out what, in the business, we call trunk slammers — vendors who are looking just to sell components and are not ready or able to offer after-sale support and service,” Dodge says.

THE BID ALTERNATE

Once a bid specification or design proposal is complete, it will need to be published, certainly for any public educational institution and often for a private one (if the school's charter or board requires it). This step raises the opportunity for the so-called bid alternate, an opportunity for vendors to offer or suggest alternative parts or design strategies that would meet the basic criteria of the bid proposal but would do so with less expensive components.

“It's a double-edged sword,” Dodge says. “We see it in a lot of types of projects and more and more in school projects. The school board might want the Taj Mahal of systems, and someone comes in through the bid alternate route and says you can achieve that for less money and still meet the specs. Sometimes you can, but sometimes it raises the possibility of dealing with trunk slammers.”

According to an article in the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce written by Bill Grubich, vice president of construction and project management firm KJM Associates in Spokane, bid alternates can have a damaging effect on projects. “At a minimum, the process leads to confusion, and at a maximum, it can result in a bid protest,” writes Grubich, who sits on the state advisory board for K-12 facilities, which creates guidelines for school construction and contracting. “Unfortunately, more and more projects are being bid using a significant number of bid alternates.” Grubich goes on to state that designers and architects might prefer the bid alternate approach because “it provides bid protection and sometimes relieves them from being required to redesign a project at no cost, a common feature in A/E [architectural/engineering] agreements with owners. Owners tend to like the approach because it gives them the ability to add desired — but not required — scope based upon the results of the bid.”

The wrinkle that the bid alternate puts into an otherwise straightforward process has attracted legislative attention. The California State Legislature passed legislation in 2002 that specifies the procedure for determining the lowest responsible bidders when alternates are included in the bid. “The Legislature recognized that when a competitively bid contract includes alternates, the awarding authority can pervert the process of selecting alternates in order to steer the contract to a favorable bidder,” Grubich says. “Yet public agencies have a legitimate purpose for including alternates in bid documents because a judicious selection of alternates can bring the cost of the project within the budget.”

The legislation provided public agencies four ways to deal with bid alternates: accept the lowest bid price on the base contract without taking alternates into consideration, accept the lowest bid price for the base contract and all alternates, select alternates according to a list of priorities published in the invitation to bid, or the lowest bid is determined after a “blind” selection of alternates so that the identity of the bidders is unknown to the person who selects the alternates.

Nonetheless, the attractiveness of alternate bids could have long-term negative effects, Grubich concludes. “With the cost of construction continually on the rise and the funds for facilities constantly being squeezed, the quality of the school construction projects can and has suffered,” he says.

Finally, the decision-making part of the bidding process is generally done at the local district level. However, it will follow state guidelines and will also have to conform to federal guidelines if federal funds are involved.

USING TECHNOLOGY TO SELL TECHNOLOGY

This is where paying attention to and getting involved in local school board activities can pay off, says Dodge. “If I can't attend them, I'll watch them on [local access] television,” adding that those same meetings, which take place in the schools, are often broadcast with cameras, microphones, and other equipment he had sold the schools in the past.

An insightful and comprehensive assessment of a situation can make a difference in getting the bid, even if it's not the lowest bid. “A lot of contractors stay away from school projects because they think it's always the lowest bid that wins,” Dodge says. “But that's not the case if you can prove your case to the board.” Winning without putting in the lowest bid has one cardinal rule: make the added value that you as a contractor can bring to a project as clear and apparent as possible. “If they can understand that we're not just selling them a box but that the box is just part of a package that includes careful and knowledgeable design and installation, then it doesn't have to be the lowest bid that wins,” he says.

Part of that package should be maintenance services. Dodge estimates that the cost of a service contract generally follows this formula: 5 percent of the contract's total cost for the first year, 7 percent for the second year, and 10 percent for the third.

Another point to keep in mind is that the time of year a project commences has a significant impact on its cost. A survey conducted last year by CTA Architects Engineers of Billings, Montana, concluded that a premium of as much as 10 percent is paid by projects that bid construction work in the middle of the year rather than at the beginning of the year. This survey, which polled many Northwest general and specialty contractors, documented that projects bid in February tend to get the most competition and, consequently, the lowest bids, whereas projects bid in July get the least competition and the highest bids. The midyear impact can be attributed to several factors, including the fact that the local contracting community does not have enough time to focus on the bid because of existing active construction work and that the price on materials is higher in the demand season (summer) than in the nondemand season (winter).

“Most universities want to get a good portion of their work done over the summer,” says Davis, “not just the A/V work but the fixtures, as well. The FF&E [furniture, fixtures, and equipment] manufacturers get staged for this onslaught well in advance. It's predictable. Education is growing as an overall percentage of the A/V business.”

PUBLIC VERSUS PRIVATE

Are public and private schools different animals to deals with? To some degree, yes. Private schools are shielded from some of the bureaucratic maze that publicly funded schools are subject to, as well as scrutiny of their decision-making processes. On the other hand, all educational facilities are under increasing financial pressure; public schools are at the mercy of state and local property taxes at a time when taxpayers are strongly resisting rate increases and when tuition tax credits threaten to further erode school funding. Private schools, which depend heavily on legacy donations from alumni, experience similar pressures in bad economic climates and also have advertising costs to justify. One change Davis has noted is that public schools are starting to think more like private schools in that they are becoming more performance oriented. “That goes for how they view contractors and systems as well as how they evaluate teachers,” Davis says.

Another point of sensitivity is that although schools are demanding increasingly sophisticated A/V systems, they want commensurately simpler interfaces. “They don't want what they call ‘hang and bang’ rooms,” says Davis.

A little bit of psychological insight never hurts, either. “Understand who you're dealing with when you work with schools,” says Dodge. “The level of knowledgeability is different from the level of intelligence. You're dealing with highly educated people who have master's degrees and Ph.Ds, but they need to rely on outside sources to explain a lot of the technology and its benefits to them.”

Dodge says the emphasis on diversity has put a premium on reflecting the entire range of student bodies through the school's media systems. “Schools today want to show more than the sports teams,” Dodge says. “Understanding that can help in achieving a bond with educators you want to work with.”

Dan Daley is a veteran freelance journalist and author, specializing in media and entertainment technology and business sectors. He lives in New York, Miami, and Nashville and can be reached at danwriter@aol.com.

Timing Is Everything

CTA Architects Engineers of Billings, Montana, conducted a survey that demonstrated distinct advantages and disadvantages associated with when bids are let.

Good timing:

  • January: Fewer plans are ready — contractors/subcontractors need work.
  • February to April: Likely to obtain lowest bids.

Bad timing:

  • May to June: Common time for material suppliers to raise prices.
  • July to October: Busy time, and bid markups typically get larger. Likely to obtain highest bids.
  • November: Lack of attention owing to the holiday season.
  • December: Holidays and the concern over winter work.

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