By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
In advance of spending what will likely be millions on desks, tables and chairs to furnish schools currently under construction, Joplin administrators have visited three furniture manufacturers on trips — paid for by the companies — to see their products firsthand.
Administrators say the trips, including a three-day visit to a manufacturer in Germany, were necessary in scouting furniture options for the new schools being built because of the destruction of the May 22, 2011, tornado. They say the trips were paid for by the manufacturers, and that such arrangements won’t skew the consideration of bids later.
“It’s great for us,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said. “It doesn’t cost us anything, No. 1, and No. 2, it gives us the chance to see where this stuff is coming from. We’ve got to do our due diligence and research to make sure the quality is there before we spend millions on furniture.”
The first of the three trips was in early 2012 to Steelcase, a furniture manufacturer based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer; Jason Cravens, director of instructional services; Kerry Sachetta, the high school principal; and Traci House, the district’s director of technology, were provided transportation and food costs by the manufacturer for a one-day trip to its Michigan headquarters to view its furniture showroom.
At the end of August, Cravens took a similar two-day trip to KI, a furniture company based in Green Bay, Wis. Transportation, food and lodging were paid for by the manufacturer, he said.
At the beginning of October, Besendorfer and Cravens visited VS America, a Charlotte, N.C.-based company whose parent manufacturer, VS Vereinigte Spezialmoebelfabriken GmbH & Co., is located in Germany. Besendorfer said the manufacturer invited them — and paid for their trip — to its German headquarters because that location had a bigger showroom of furniture than its American counterpart, as well as an educational conference. She said their spouses also went on the trip but paid their own way; they also used two vacation days to stay for sightseeing in Germany, she said.
Cravens said the three-day conference offered by VS was another reason for the trip to Germany. The manufacturer brought in researchers and guest speakers to talk about how ergonomically designed furniture — which the company makes — affects students’ health, concentration and ability to learn, he said.
Besendorfer said the intent of the trips was to test the furniture for durability and flexibility, and to see the manufacturers’ tests on it. She said that in many cases, she and others tested the furniture not only by sitting in it, but also at times by flipping it over, by jumping on it — actions that could happen in a school setting, she said.
“We want to really see more than just the picture in the catalog,” she said.
Besendorfer said she thinks it was cheaper for the manufacturers to fly administrators to their showrooms than to ship their furniture models to Joplin. A trip to the Kansas City area to visit an enterprise that is completely furnished by a fourth manufacturer is now being discussed, she said.
In selecting new furniture for the schools, administrators want pieces that are comfortable, ergonomic and durable, Besendorfer said. She’s also eyeing mobile furniture that can foster collaborative classroom settings where students can build such skills as critical thinking and problem solving through working with their classmates, she said.
“We’re learning we can do a better job (of selecting different types of furniture) that will fit a variety of the learning-type activities that we do,” she said.
Huff said the district has already experimented with this type of furniture and nontraditional classroom configurations at the 11th- and 12th-grade campus of Joplin High School.
“Going back with the wooden desks — we’re past that point,” he said.
Administrators will eventually create a list of the furniture options that they prefer based on criteria such as ergonomics, flexibility, mobility and durability, Besendorfer said. That list will go to the schools’ design teams, which are groups of parents, teachers and administrators who have been involved in the designs for the new schools.
The design teams will ultimately select which options and styles — and how many of each — they want for the schools. The district would then solicit bids for the furniture; those bids would be tailored to the design teams’ choices, Besendorfer said. Companies that do not manufacture items as listed specifically in the bid could submit bids for items they think are similar or an acceptable replacement, she said.
The Board of Education would have final authority in selecting and awarding bids. When asked whether the bidding could be compromised in any way by the administrators’ trips, Board President Randy Steele dismissed any such notion.
“It (the paid trips) has no bearing on the case whatsoever because that bid comes to us, so we as the board make that decision, not the person who went on the trip,” he said.
Huff said the district is obligated to accept the lowest qualified bid. Taking trips to the manufacturers is a step in determining whether those products are of quality, he said.
“Say a company comes in with the low bid and the quality is not there; we could be spending millions of dollars on furniture that we would have to replace in a few years,” he said. “Furniture purchasing is a long-term capital investment, and we want to make sure we do this right.”
Besendorfer said the bidding will be “the leveling of the playing field” among the companies.
“There’s not anybody that has a better or worse chance than others” during the bid process, she said. “I’m confident we haven’t done anything inappropriate. We’re absolutely doing what we think is best.”
Administrators bought furniture for temporary school sites largely based on what was available or what could be available by the time school started in August 2011, said Angie Besendorfer, assistant superintendent. Much of that furniture was used or donated, she said.