The Proviso Township High Schools District 209 school board approved awarding a contract to Walker Quality Services (WQS), a Texas-based LLC, to consult with the district to get in-house food service up and running by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

The recommendation to use WQS came from Supt. James Henderson, who in the action item before the board wrote that a consultant was necessary to ensure that district facilities are properly equipped and staffed with appropriately trained individuals and that menu, ordering and inventory software programs are implemented.

Henderson did not mention during the April 13 open board meeting that, while superintendent in his previous job in Holmes County Consolidated School District in Mississippi, he had tried to award a contract to WQS there. Online minutes from the June 11, 2020 Holmes County meeting show WQS on the agenda, although the motion failed and WQS was not hired.

In D209, six board members voted unanimously in favor of the contract on April 13. Board member Claudia Medina had left the meeting immediately prior to the vote.

The agreement between D209 and WQS is for $6,600 per month until at least the end of September, when the contract can be extended in writing by both parties, for a total of at least $33,000, assuming a start date of May 1.

The $6,600 per month includes a consultant from WQS on-site four days each month. That figure includes lodging, meals, travel and transportation. If additional on-site time is needed, WQS will seek approval from district staff. In that case, WQS will charge $1,600 per day per consultant plus costs for lodging, meals, travel and transportation.

According to the contract, WQS will work with the school food authority (SFA), who was not identified in the document, to consult with the district on getting in-house food service set up. This includes creating a timeline and budget, providing recommendations on necessary remodeling and equipment, coordinating bids and hiring of contractors, and giving input on hiring programs for staff to run the in-house food service.

The total amount of the contract is over the $25,000 threshold above which state bidding procedures must be followed, requiring necessary legal notices of a request for proposals (RFP), sealed bids and selection of the lowest responsible bidder.

However, Henderson’s recommendation for WQS pointed to Board Policy 4:60, which allows exceptions to state bidding procedures, such as “contracts for the services of individuals possessing a high degree of professional skill where the ability or fitness of the individual plays an important part.” This wording is pulled directly from state code ILCS 5/10-20.21.

In such cases, according to the board policy, “when possible, the district will solicit at least three (3) written quotations.”

The district did receive two other written quotations, from Chicago-area-based firm Training Solutions, LLC and Louisiana-based School Food and Wellness Group, a well-known company with two full-time team members based in the Chicago area, according to the proposal sent to the district.

Training Solutions, LLC quoted a total cost of $13,500 for their consulting services. School Food and Wellness quoted $150 an hour for between 70 and 115 hours, a range of between $10,500 and $17,250.

Both firms’ quotes were significantly lower than the minimum $33,000 proposal from WQS, but since the district claimed the “professional services” exemption, they are not under any obligation to choose the cheapest consultant.

The proposal from WQS included this: “In the pages that follow, we have addressed the district after our walk through of the facilities …”

The Review reached out to the two other firms that submitted proposals to see if they’d also done walk-throughs of the facilities. One of the firms responded, stating that they had not done a walk-through and, in fact, had been given less than 48 hours’ notice to prepare a proposal if they wished to be considered for the contract.

However, by using the state bidding law exemption, D209 was under no legal obligation to hire the lowest bidder, nor does there appear to be any requirement that equal opportunity, time, or tours are required to be given to consultants providing quotes.

In March, the D209 board approved payments of $7,500 to Ernest Clark, former CFO of Holmes County Consolidated School District, and $16,000 to Mississippi-based Samac Technology Networking Solutions to assist in the internal audit of technology. These payments were between $5,000 and $25,000 so were not subject to official RFP policy. According to board regulations, in such cases three competitive quotes should be sought. But the district identified Clark and Samac as sole source providers and was thus exempt from the need to seek additional quotes.

The Review reached out to Henderson prior to writing this article, with specific questions about the contract and bids, and received the following response from the district’s public relations coordinator, Nicole Wilson: “The Superintendent will NOT be offering any further comment(s) to you, or any other reporters at the FPR, until you are ready to turn your pen to actual issues that impact the experiences, opportunities, and academic performance of students within this district.”