And the stadium makes seven.

Monroe County school board members on June 8 awarded Ajax Building Co. a seventh consecutive contract — this one at $15 million for Key West High School’s new athletic stadium —  despite a state law and RFQ provisions that require government agencies to spread the wealth among qualified firms. 

Ajax’s seven school district contracts total $140 million.

The state statute aims to discourage government entities from giving large contracts to the same companies over and over again. Public entities must “consider the volume of work previously awarded to each firm … with the object of effecting an equitable distribution of contracts among qualified firms,” the law states.

In the case of the stadium project, the other qualified firm is Gulf Keystar, a joint venture between Gulf Building and the Key West-based Keystar, which is owned by the prominent Spottswood family.

No one, including the Spottswoods, has questioned Ajax’s reputation, qualifications or past successful projects. But prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Gulf-Keystar had asked the school board to reconsider giving Ajax its seventh consecutive contract. 

Keystar co-presidents Charles “Chas” Spottswood and Robert Spottswood Jr. sent a letter last week to the school district outlining their concerns. Robert Spottswood Jr. reiterated those concerns at the school board meeting, where, he said, he expected the board to discuss and consider staff’s recommendation of Ajax, not simply award the contract to Ajax.

“My reading of the statute is when you have multiple qualified firms, the intent was to require an equitable distribution of work to avoid the appearance of favoritism,” he told the board, emphasizing that his letter was not implying any wrongdoing.

“In looking at the scoring parameters of the RFQ, I didn’t see anything about the equitable distribution of work,” he said. “I just want to know that the board has considered the fact that the last six consecutive projects have gone to the same firm — and this one being the seventh is still not going to another qualified firm. I was hoping to hear counsel’s position and staff’s outline of how this was considered.”

Spottswood also emphasized that Keystar is a local company that employs local workers and keeps its proceeds in the county. 

No board members responded to Spottswood’s comments, which were made during the public input segment of the meeting, before consideration of the stadium contract. During the specific public hearing on the contract, Spottswood was not permitted to speak again.

School board attorney Dirk Smits told the board members that Keystar’s letter did not constitute a formal bid protest, “which is the proper way you attack something that is inappropriate in a bid,” Smits said.

“We issued a notice of intent to award, and the time period to challenge that expired without a challenge,” Smits said. “Therefore, staff brought it forward with a recommendation to approve it as it is.”

Smits told the board members they had the option to “put a pin in this” and they could decline to approve the bid until they reviewed the selection process themselves.

No board member moved to do so, and chairman John Dick said, “The actual challenge of a bid should have been done the way our attorney just described.”

Spottswood, Jr. told the Keys Weekly Wednesday morning that he disagrees with Smits’ advice to the School Board and said the RFQ language gives him 72 hours to file a protest from the time the contract is awarded and noticed.

“All we were looking for was an open dialogue about our question and what I heard last night loud and clear was that in order to have an open discourse we have to file a formal protest and we’re evaluating that right now,” Spottswood, Jr. said.

Home field advantage?

In the days preceding Tuesday’s board meeting, the Keys Weekly fielded more than a dozen calls from local residents questioning several elements of the bid and selection process.

A selection committee from the school district ranked the responses to the district’s Request for Qualifications. Ajax was ranked first and Keystar was ranked second, 17 points behind Ajax out of a possible total of 400 points.

One source speaking anonymously to the Weekly on Monday, said he is most concerned that a local company — and local employer — with similar qualifications was being passed over.

“We have a local company with local workers,” said the caller. “We continue to preach about kids coming back to Key West after college, but when they do, we continue to farm bids outside of the county. I have no issue with Ajax. They seem to be a good company. But with a bid this close, why give them another job that will literally take tens of millions of dollars out of the local community?”

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.