El Paso Independent School District’s board was close to selecting two New Mexico companies as the leading contenders for $93.8 million in contracts.

It was October, and the contracts were for the reconstruction of Coronado and Burges high schools – the first major projects to move forward in EPISD’s $669 million bond proposition.

But late questions led to the postponement of board action.

Those questions concerned the fairness of the evaluation process and came from the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, the El Paso Association of General Contractors and Ted Houghton, chair of the school district’s bond oversight committee.

For local construction companies, contracts and jobs worth millions of dollars are at stake.

“I am not saying this is about local versus out of town or to prefer one against the other,” Houghton said. “I’m concerned about creating a level playing field for all those that want to participate, and I’m not sure it’s level.”

On Dec. 19, EPISD trustees will again consider which companies to enter talks with for the construction contracts for Burges, Coronado, Jefferson and Silva Magnet high schools.

At issue, among other things, is whether the committee evaluating proposals for the Burges and Coronado contracts had accounted for the advantage the board could give to Texas bidders over New Mexico bidders.

The advantage could be the difference between the contracts going to local companies or New Mexico companies.

Years ago, New Mexico gave in-state companies a competitive advantage. They allow five points to be added to the score for an in-state company competing with one from out of state.

In response, Texas passed a reciprocal law that allows school districts and other public entities in the state to give the same advantage to Texas companies.

“Texas law says we can do to New Mexico whatever they do to us,” said Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, a member of the evaluation committee for the school bond projects and the district’s finance chief.

It was EPISD Trustee Susie Byrd who first asked if reciprocity had been applied to the competing New Mexico companies. She brought up the issue at the October board meeting. The initial shortlist of bidders put El Paso-based Jordan Foster Construction second behind Albuquerque-based HB Construction for the $53.2 million Coronado project. Jordan Foster was third behind HB and Albuquerque-based Janes Construction for the $40.5 million Burges project.

El Paso-based Arrow Construction’s proposal was scored the highest for the $28.4 million reconstruction of Jefferson High and Silva Magnet School.

But the fact that two New Mexico companies were in line for the contracts for Coronado and Burges set off alarm bells in the El Paso construction community and at the chamber of commerce.

When complaints started rolling in, EPISD administrators pulled the item off the school board’s Nov. 6 agenda for further review.

EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera could not be reached for this story.

“We decided to take a step back to look at all the questions and be sure they are answered before we move forward with a final recommendation at the December board meeting,” Arrieta-Candelaria said Tuesday. “It was the concerns we got from the community.

“These are our first three major projects coming out. Now, we’re still in the process of evaluating.”

Adam Pacheco, the El Paso director of Associated General Contractors, said it’s clear the district failed to apply bid preference reciprocity to the New Mexico proposals.

But that wasn’t the only problem with the initial evaluations.

“There were numerous issues, and we raised hell,” he said.

For local contractors, millions of dollars are at stake because New Mexico companies are likely to hire the New Mexico subcontractors they know, Pacheco said.

Also at issue were two other measures in the evaluation process. One adds up to 15 points to a score on a 100-point scale if a bidder had experience and a relationship with the school district. The other adds up to 10 points more if the evaluators approved of the bidder’s personnel.

For HB Construction and Jaynes to rank higher than Jordan Foster, Pacheco said, they had to receive close to 25 points for the familiarity categories in the initial evaluation.

Arrieta-Candelaria would not discuss those scores and Byrd said she never saw the evaluators’ individual score sheets, only their rankings.

“Our issue is how could the evaluators determine that if HB had not done business with the district in the past 13 to 15 years?” Pacheco said.

The Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce had the same questions.

The chamber’s outgoing president and CEO Richard Dayoub described a meeting between chamber officials and EPISD Superintendent Juan Cabrera, trustees Bob Geske and Al Velarde and board President Trent Hatch last month.

“We’re not part of the process, so it’s hard for us to be critical when we’re not sitting in on the actual presentations, but we have had numerous expressions of concern from the community – a lot of questions,” Dayoub said.

At the November meeting, he said, the chamber asked that Houghton, the former chair of the Texas Transportation Commission and a businessman with extensive experience, be added to the evaluation committee along with someone picked by the chamber.

In addition to Arrieta Candelaria, that committee is composed of the project architect; the district’s project manager, Mauro Monsisvais; the district’s director of facilities, Irene Ramirez; and the principal of the school involved in the project.

Dayoub and Houghton wondered why a school principal should have a vote.

“Where is the expertise of a principal in overseeing an evaluation of proposals for spending millions of dollars?” Dayoub asked. “They don’t have any.

“This is Dec. 6, one month and three days after our meeting and we have yet to get an answer to our requests,” Dayoub said. “We were told, ‘We’ll get back to you.’”

The chamber, he said, endorsed EPISD’S $669 million bond proposition with the district’s assurance that it would make every effort to see that the contracts went to taxpaying El Paso companies if possible, Dayoub said.

Voter’s approved the bond in November 2016.

“All we’re asking is that the local business community be given a fair shake. That’s all,” he said. “No one’s asking for special treatment here, but those are our tax dollars they are spending.

“They have an obligation to ensure that every possible step is taken to provide transparency and avoid criticism of the process.”

Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at dcrowder@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.