Is the Clark County School District preparing an economic bailout for its five favorite architectural firms?
Known as the district's "prototype" firms, these local companies have long monopolized new school construction in the district. The reason, according to the school district, is that these firms own the "cookie cutter" design templates that the district uses for all new school construction.
Historically, this has made the five firms by far the top earners from district projects. Since 1999, as a group, the five have received more than $145 million from the district.
According to Ken Small, of SSA Architecture, "There are two avenues to make it big in this town — design casinos or design prototype and large schools for the Clark County School District."
In comparison, the 30 other companies on the district's architectural listings — authorized to do only smaller projects — earned from the CCSD only $10 million during the same 10-year period.
Right now, however, large new schools are not being built, because new school construction money and population growth in Southern Nevada is leveling off.
For the prototype firms, this means lower revenues. And that, in turn, has led to an effort by at least one of the firms — and at least one school board member — to change the district's rules governing which architects can participate in which projects.
Those rules, however, had resulted from efforts by the CCSD facilities department to clean up its image. Long perceived by numerous Southern Nevada architects as a fount of favoritism and back-door deals, the department in May 2007 announced that it wanted to "be viewed as exemplary in terms of fairness and impartiality." Therefore, it explained, it was establishing a complex architect-selection process based on multiple tiers.
At the top, of course, would remain the prototype firms. However, as they had exclusive access to district funding for new school construction, as a show of fairness the prototype firms would not be able to compete for the smaller projects.
Those smaller projects — including individual buildings, school replacement and remodeling jobs — would be divided among other architects, categorized into three tiers determined by project construction value and firm experience.
In the fall of 2008, CCSD launched further efforts to revamp the architect/engineer selection process, stating its goal was to create more transparency and objectivity within the current tier project assignments. In a presentation to the school board, Tim Strucely, director of the district's planning and design department, noted that the new process would deal "with the architect/engineer firms that would be participating in the modernization program," and was not "so much geared towards the new school selection process."
Responding to trustees who asked about the pros and cons of placing prototype architects in the modernization pool, Strucely said that giving modernization projects to prototype architects would be unfair.
However, at least one school board trustee and one prototype architect have made clear their desire to accomplish exactly that change.
Terri Janison is the one trustee who has voiced support for the move, saying that at least one prototype architectural firm does not have any projects right now and should be allowed to compete for the tiered-level work.
Brad Shultz, of JMA Architects, told the school board that while he agrees with much of the new proposed selection process for modernization projects, he doesn't like the continued exclusion of the long-privileged prototype firms. He said that, because new school money is down and modernization money has increased, he wants to be placed on the Tier One list – that's the category handling projects worth $15 million and over – to bid for other work. Prototype architects shouldn't be excluded just because they may be able to do one or two schools over the next five years, he argued.
According to the CCSD's 2008 prototype elementary school proposed budget, "one or two" new schools over the next five years would yield architect revenues of $1.8 to $3.6 million. On the other hand, the three firms competing in the Tier One category have barely made $3 million dollars since 1999 — collectively.
The four other prototype architectural firms are Domingo Cambeiro Professional Corporation; SH Architecture; Pugsley, Simpson, Coulter Architects (formerly known as Welles Pugsley Architects); and Tate Snyder Kimsey Architects, Ltd.
During Trustee Janison's most recent campaign for reelection to the school board, she received $1,000 from Schultz's JMA Architects, $1,000 from Tate Snyder Kimsey and $1,000 from Domingo Cambeiro (DOS Construction).
Over the next few weeks, the district's bond oversight committee and board of trustees will consider the new architect/engineer selection process. Several members of the Southern Nevada architectural community have been advised by CCSD staff that, "due to current economic conditions there may be a renewed interest to opening up the tier pool to all firms regardless of prototype status." Administrators have suggested that all interested parties attend the April 16 bond oversight committee meeting and the April 23 school board meeting to let their views be heard.
Since 1999, the privileged prototype firms have raked in 93 percent of all monies disbursed among the district's 35 participating architectural firms.
If CCSD officials and trustees now allow the prototype firms to also compete in the tier pool, perceptions of district favoritism and back-door deals will return with a vengeance.
Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.