Education

Audit: Iowa City schools failed to follow competitive bidding process

2018 project involved testing of playgrounds for accessibility

Accessible playground equipment in shown in August 2019 at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City. A state audit rel
Accessible playground equipment in shown in August 2019 at Horace Mann Elementary School in Iowa City. A state audit released this week said the Iowa City Community School District broke its own policy when it hired a firm in 2018 — without seeking competitive bids — to test school playgrounds for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Community School District broke its own policy in not seeking competitive bids in 2018 when it signed a $158,876 contract with Terracon Consultants to test school playgrounds for accessibility, according to a state audit released this week.

In the report, state Auditor Rob Sand found the district did not follow its policy that requires competitive bids for contracts exceeding $135,000.

The audit recommended the district strengthen its bid policy and consider lowering the threshold for competitive bids.

The Iowa City district hired Terracon from a list of contractors preapproved by the district, and the school board approved the contract February 2018.

The district considered the contract a waiver from established policy, although district policy does not allow for such a waiver or exception to competitive bidding, the audit stated.

Concerns about the no-bid contract were reported by the media after the contract was signed, the audit stated. An unnamed district official contacted the state auditor’s office about those concerns, leading to the special audit, the report stated.

A parent contacted the U.S. Department of Justice about accessibility problems with the playground at Shimek Elementary, and federal officials surveyed the district’s playgrounds in November 2017 for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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The Justice Department released its survey results in February 2018, after the Iowa City district had hired Terracon.

In May 2020, the Iowa City district agreed to hundreds of changes to its playgrounds, settling with the Department of Justice.

In 84 site visits, Terracon tested playground accessibility, how hard the playground surfaces were and the playground resilience if a child fell.

Terracon bought the testing equipment, and, under the contract, the district agreed to pay Terracon for the equipment over the next two years.

As of Wednesday, the district has paid approximately half the equipment cost to Terracon, the audit said. The district will own the testing equipment when it pays off Terracon.

Per the contract, the district paid Terracon $6,097 to train personnel to do the testing correctly, the audit stated.

District representatives met with Terracon three times — between Aug. 31, 2017, and Jan. 26. 2018 — before signing the contract. Those meetings cost $1,814, the audit stated.

The audit said the public benefits from competitive bidding by ensuring the district gets the lowest price. State government requires competitive bids for projects in excess of $50,000.

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Also, the audit stated, of the 36 vendors on the district’s list of preapproved contractors, only 16 were within a 50-mile radius of Iowa City. Fifteen were 50 miles or more away, and five were out of state.

The audit, released Wednesday, said that distribution was “an unreasonable number from locations outside the immediate vicinity of Iowa City.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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