For lack of competition, middle school bid goes to Pepsi


After the sides weighed in and the Havre school board cast a rare split vote Tuesday night, the victor was clear: Pepsi, not Coke.

It wasn't a difference of opinion over taste that sparked the debate and 5-2 vote, but a question of whether the board should reject a late bid, or reject both bids and call for new ones.

The proposals for a five-year contract to stock four soft drink vending machines at Havre Middle School and supply fountain drinks at HMS activities were due on Jan. 6 by 10 a.m. The bid from the Havre branch of the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Great Falls was the only bid that arrived.

Pepsi offered to stock the vending machines and give HMS a 25 percent commission on all products sold in them, which it estimated would mean $67,780 for the middle school by the end of the five years. Coke has had the contract at HMS for the last seven years.

At 10:19 a.m. the bid from the Havre branch of Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Great Falls arrived. It was not opened.

Havre Public Schools district clerk Ric Floren asked the Montana School Board Association for advice. The association said the district had two options: reject both bids and begin the bidding process again, or reject the late bid and accept the Pepsi bid.

That was the choice Floren presented to the school board on Tuesday night.

Trustees debated whether the issue came down to a matter of fairness, financial savvy, or even the health of the students.

"I think we need to stick by the guidelines we set down," said school board vice chair Kathie Newell, who made the motion to accept the Pepsi bid. "We have set down that this is the time we're going to open the bids, and if a business can't abide by those, I'm not sure we need to be doing business with them."

School board member Joe Marino, who cast one of the two dissenting votes, wanted to know if there had been significant price differences between the vendors' bids in the past.

Floren said there is no good comparison because the content of the bids was different last time the contract was awarded at the middle school.

"No, we don't have apples to apples," Floren said.

Marino said he thought the district should reject the bids and ask the companies to rebid, possibly leading to better bids.

"Why penalize Pepsi because Coke was late?" said school board member Jim Heberly, who said he was concerned that rejecting the bids could get the district into "some pretty big legal issues."

"I don't want to give away any bid without competition," Marino respondwithout competition," Marino responded.

HPS Superintendent Kirk Miller said he doubted the companies would come back with better bids.

Marino countered that he didn't know how many thousands of dollars different the Coke bid might be.

"If we pass this motion, we signify to everyone a certain naivete about this board," Marino said. He added that part of his responsibility as a board member is to try to save as much of the district's money as possible.

"Bid openings and bid workings are the places where they come to feed on us," Marino said.

"To not allow us to lose one dime for our kids and our staff ... I say we throw both of them out, set a new date, and have them come back. I'll vote against," he said.

School board member Todd Hanson also voted against awarding the bid. After the meeting he said he couldn't tell from a single bid whether the district was being adequately compensated by the Pepsi proposal.

"For me it's really a question of inadequate information. ... I didn't feel there was enough information to actually support the motion," he said.

For school board member Teresa Miller, the issue was not which vending company to have, but whether they should be there at all.

"I would like to see us get rid of the vending machines," she told the board. She said some other districts in the state have pulled the machines because soft drinks have negative affects on students' grades and ability to concentrate.

HMS students can purchase drinks from the machines only during lunch hour or after school.

"I have a real problem with taking choices away from anyone," said Newell, who added that she prefers to educate her children about what good choices should be.

"There are some parents who don't," Teresa Miller said.

Board chair Denise Thompson told the board she wants the district to have the flexibility to determine the prices in the machines so it can set the prices in a way that encourages students to buy juice and water.

Floren said that after the first year, the prices of the products in the machines are negotiable.

After the meeting, Kirk Miller said that in his experience, bids from soft drink companies are comparable, and he suspects there would not have been much difference between the bids.

"If we reran the process, I don't believe there'd be much difference" between the bids, Miller said.

Keith Johnson, district director at the Havre branch of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Great Falls, said today he had not heard the bid had not been accepted.


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