Performance Over Price

The cost for professional services (i.e., educational consultant, construction manager, architect, engineer, financial advisor or lawyer) usually represents less than one percent of the total lifetime cost of planning, designing, constructing, maintaining and operating a facility. However, the selection process for these professionals can have a major impact on all other costs related to the project. Whether that impact represents a saving or loss for the school district can be affected by the process used to select and contract for professional services.

When seeking the services of outside professionals, the first step often is to obtain price quotes and go with the lowest bid. After all, that is how administrators procure copy paper, pencils and many other supplies. However, as with hiring staff, administrators should select an outside contractor based on competence, experience and reputation.

Professional services should be viewed as an extension of the school staff and be selected with similar criteria, specialized experience and qualifications. Selection based upon the lowest-price standard most often results in bidders concentrating on cost rather than on service. A better approach when selecting professional services is for administrators to utilize a qualifications-based selection process to obtain the best firm at the least overall cost.

Price check Shopping price only for professional services eliminates desirable give and take. In so doing, the district denies itself access to the most valuable assets the professionals have to offer--creative technical knowledge and experience applied to develop functional, cost-effective, solid solutions.

Further, the request for proposal (RFP) written solely by the district regarding the scope of work to be performed frequently contains insufficient detail to determine an accurate price. In fact, firms bidding on the same job in cases where price quotations are mandated usually come up with differing interpretations of presumably adequate scope of work, with variations in cost estimates and even greater variations in loss of quality.

Price competition for professional services has additional drawbacks. For example, it frequently limits the professionals' resources to undertake a detailed analysis of the problem and search for innovative solutions. While

the district may save a few dollars on initial services, this process can carry a huge price tag, including the often-hidden cost of public denial and rejection. In addition, this could result in a significant increase in construction costs, as well as the long-term maintenance and operating costs.

Qualifications-based selection Using a qualifications-based selection method, professional-service proposals are weighted on competence, creativity and performance, and then on negotiation of a fair and reasonable price. When this contracting procedure is used, several professional firms submit qualifications and performance records for the district's review. Key elements to consider include:

-Technical qualifications. -Experience with similar projects. -Reputation with existing clients. -Current workload. -Performance-incentive fee. -Compatibility.

There are different consultants and services available, including:

-Educational consultant (facilities or technology). Determine if this candidate has an educational background. Maybe they have been a teacher or administrator; or published articles, manuscripts or books regarding the topic. Also, check if they belong to any professional educational organizations. There are no specific educational or registration requirements for educational facility and technology consultants; therefore, some consultants may not be very qualified.

It is important to make sure the consultant understands that a school environment is different from a business environment. The consultant, who provides expertise instead of a product, should not be associated with an architectural firm, construction manager or vendor.

-Construction manager. Ask if they have a background in planning, managing, construction and cost estimating. Evaluate if they have a track record of successful performances of services for other districts.

-Architect and engineer. Technically speaking, architects and engineers specializing in educational facilities are qualified to design and engineer most school buildings. If the firms do not include an educator on the team, be careful about putting them in charge of leading the educational-programming phase. Professional registration protects districts from unqualified practitioners in these fields.

-Lawyer. Education, registration and code of ethics protect school districts from unqualified professionals in this field.

-Financial planner. They can conduct an intensive search for all possible sources of revenue and try to determine whether or not the district can afford the capital-improvement program and its impact on taxpayers.

Working toward completion Appropriate training and related experience are basic factors in determining whether the professionals have the technical expertise to complete a project.

Ask if they have recent experience with similar tasks, as well as with projects of related scope and budget. What is the professional's reputation with current and former clients? A good barometer of these professionals is respect among colleagues. Additionally, look at their track record of sharing knowledge and expertise through publications, workshops and seminars. Make some calls and check their record.

Never forget to ask whether these professionals are available to do the work when you need it done. You do not want the professional services of someone who does not have time to give the services desired. Ask for a list of current work, and make some calls to determine the firm's availability for your project.

Determine if members of the professional team are committed to the school to the extent that they are willing to set aside a portion of their fee based upon performance. The performance-incentive fee is paid at agreed upon milestones of the project. If the milestones are not met, a portion of the fee is forfeited.

It is important that school officials and staff be able to work with these professionals. When making this determination, consider how carefully the professional responds to the RFP and other requests for information. Always look for thorough, precise, targeted responses, written or oral.

Conducting the interview Superintendents and school-board members generally are not very sophisticated at conducting interviews for professional services. Lack of experience with hiring these types of professionals can make it difficult to determine what type of questions to ask. Also, knowing what follow-up questions to ask is even harder. Interviews are everyday occurrences for these professionals and without proper guidance, school districts can be at risk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars can be saved in professional fees as long as the appropriate steps are taken and the right questions are asked.

Take control of the entire selection process. From the pre-qualification questionnaire to the recommendation to the school board, the district should establish the framework and format for each interview. The interviews should be controlled by the district and the majority of the time should be spent on questions from the district. The emphasis always should be on what the professional is going to do for the district and how it is going to accomplish the goals. The interview team should have an interview guide and evaluation form to ensure that each firm has an opportunity to react to a series of identical questions. This also will provide a better means of comparison among firms.

Final step On the basis of the gathered information, the district ranks the most qualified firms or individuals numerically in order of preference. Then the district and the top-ranked firm or individual negotiate a scope of services, which specifies the range of services the firm will provide, the personnel it will commit to the project and the schedule for completion. When agreement is reached on the scope of work, the district and professional negotiate a fee that is fair and reasonable to both parties. If an agreement on compensation is reached, a contract is consummated. If an agreement cannot be reached, negotiations with the first firm are terminated, and the district attempts to negotiate a contract with the second-ranked firm.

In this professional-selection process, price becomes a factor only after the most qualified professional firm has been identified and the district has come to an agreement on the scope of services. School officials, the general public and the contracted professionals all benefit in an environment where selection is based on competence and innovation followed by negotiation of fair and reasonable costs that results in quality planning, design, construction and cost-effective solutions to facility issues.

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