Below are descriptions of the key features of a standard RFP. The list of features corresponds to many of those found in the custodial and busing RFPs posted on the School Purchasing Pages Web site. Both of these SPP RFPs have been adapted and used to some degree by Michigan school districts.
Food service RFPs have many of the same provisions found in custodial and busing RFPs, but nonetheless require separate treatment. The federal and state role in food services is so extensive that it is not possible to incorporate a summary of a food service RFP into the following description without doing a disservice to the subject. RFPs for food services are discussed in “RFPs for Food Services.”
The Cover Letter
An RFP sent to potential vendors may be prefaced with an explanatory letter that sums up the district’s intent. The letter may also include such details as the length of the proposed contract, explicit instructions for responding and the requirement that vendors attend a pre-bid conference meeting to receive additional information and to raise any questions the vendors may have for district officials.
In 2005, Gobles Public Schools issued an RFP to partially privatize its custodial services. The district’s cover letter noted that the district’s school board had already voted to privatize and was now simply selecting the right vendor. It gave the date of a mandatory pre-bid meeting and the deadline for submitting bids. The signer of the letter also promised to outline for each vendor the district’s “current situation” and to arrange a tour of the district’s facilities. The cover letter was followed by a 22‑page RFP.
RFPs typically begin with the most important information and become more detailed as they progress. The opening sections emphasize vital information, such as contact data for the project manager and the deadline for a bid submission. The introduction will also tell vendors when proposals will be opened, an important step in which all the original bids are revealed to the public simultaneously to prevent a district official from privately opening the bids and informing a vendor how to alter its bids to ensure it wins. Items in this introduction may also appear in the cover letter and in the timeline discussed below.
One competitive contracting concept not yet addressed often appears in the RFP’S introductory section: “bid bonds,” or some other device for ensuring a bidder is genuinely committed during the bidding process. For instance, in the absence of a monetary penalty, a company might be tempted to draw up a proposal in haste with the idea of withdrawing the bid later if it becomes clear the bid was ill-advised. Such behavior would waste the district’s time and resources. By submitting a bid bond (usually equivalent to 5 percent of a total bid) in conjunction with the proposal, the company provides the district with some insurance against the company’s withdrawing its bid later. Bidders that did withdraw their proposals would then forfeit their bond to the district to compensate the district for lost time, while other bidders would have their bond returned.[xliv]
The School Purchasing Pages RFP for busing services mentioned above (see Page 44) contains a few differences from the outline provided here. First, the SPP RFP spells out up front how the proposals submitted by vendors will be “scored” by the district. For instance, the cost of the service will count for 45 percent of the overall evaluation in choosing a new vendor; experience will count for 15 percent; and so on. The authors of this RFP recognize that these criteria will be judged somewhat subjectively and say so in the text, but a degree of subjective judgment is hard to avoid in evaluating RFPs, because price is only one component of overall value. Second, the SPP RFP prohibits contractors with less than five years’ experience from participating in the bidding.
This section of the RFP is usually straightforward, and district business officers who have done any contractual work will be familiar with it and with most of the terms being defined. Definitions are placed into RFPs (and later into contracts) to ensure that all parties have the same understanding of the meaning of the contract terms. Nine words or phrases that appear in the SPP RFP for custodial services are “district,” “contractor,” “proposal,” “custodial service,” “properties,” “contract,” “accounting period,” “contract year,” and “district representative.”
The SPP RFP for transportation contains no such definitions, nor were these used by Tecumseh Public Schools when it adapted that RFP during a competitive contracting process. Instead, Tecumseh defined these terms later in its 2006 contract for bus services with the First Group of America Corporation. Some general words like “district” and “contractor” appear in the Tecumseh contract, but also appearing are more specialized terms, such as “bus driver,” “special trips” (like field trips), and “specifications.” These “specifications” encompass important details and may include items described under “District Demands and Specifications” below.
District Demands and Specifications
At some place in the RFP body or in a separate appendix, district officials need to lay out critical information that vendors will use to make price estimates for their bids. This can begin with general descriptions like the contract terms and the location of district buildings, but it will often go into more detailed demands concerning the equipment to be used and other bidding specifications (as it does, for instance, in the SPP RFP for custodial services[xlv]).
Some specifications sections will be less specific. In the Tecumseh Public Schools RFP, the district uses the specifications section to ask for information. For instance, the district instructs the vendor to describe how large the vendor’s bus fleet will be, what the vendor’s “processes for establishing routes and interacting with district personnel” will be and how the vendor intends to handle pupils who misbehave. By contrast, the specifications section in the SPP RFP for custodial services actually lists what requirements the district expects the vendor to adhere to in creating its bid.
Scope of Work
There is arguably no more important section of the RFP — and ultimately the contract — than the “scope of work.” In “Doing More With Less: Competitive Contracting for School Support Services,” Janet Beales described eight critical expectations that a district should explain in its RFP’s scope of work section. They are worth reprinting here:
“Service Parameters that provide a detailed description of the specific services requested. For example, a contract for custodial services might specify that the contractor provide cleaning equipment and supplies, a certain number of employee-training hours, and supervisory personnel.
Quality Standards that describe the level of quality which must be met by the provider. For example, a contract for food service would specify requirements such as minimum nutritional requirements for meals, sanitary conditions, and menu variety.
Backup or substitute requirements if the contractor is unable to provide a service.
Insurance and Bonding Requirements. Performance bonding is a type of financial insurance for schools should the contractor fail to perform and the school be forced to obtain replacement services.
Permits and Licenses.
Reporting and data requirements.
Quality Assurances. This is often expressed as a guarantee to the school district by the contractor that certain expectations will be met. For example, a food-service contract may specify that the contractor will absorb any losses related to the operation of the schools' cafeterias.”
It should be added that the scope of work is sometimes more general, with details left to specifications provided later in the document. For instance, the Midland Public Schools recently awarded Grand Rapids Building Services a contract to provide custodial services, and in soliciting potential bidders, the district assembled what may be one of the most detailed sets of work specifications extant in Michigan’s public school system today.[xlvi] These specifications appear, however, in exhibits appended at the end of the document. Regardless, such precision greatly decreases the possibility that any detail is left to chance or rests on differing assumptions. The resulting clarity can help ensure against future disagreements.
In the mid-1990s, the Pinckney Community Schools found itself at least temporarily liable for charges its contractor submitted for doing work that was allegedly outside the scope of the contract to which the contractor had agreed. Even if this was just a misunderstanding between the district and the contractor, it amounted to an expensive and sometimes embarrassing misunderstanding.
Some RFP authors choose to include a timetable like the one listed in Graphic 6, (see 3. Employ a Timeline.) These are optional, however, because RFPs usually include important dates, such as pre-bid meetings and vendor presentations, somewhere in the document. The table is simply a helpful summation.
Requirements of Proposal
This section explains what information a vendor must put in its proposal and the manner and format in which the proposal should be submitted. These requirements may span a few pages of the RFP and include (but not be limited to) the following:
Prepare a proposal that can be easily converted into a contractual agreement;
Demonstrate that the vendor understands the job necessities, and detail the vendor’s experience in the field;
Spell out the precise length of the contract as stipulated by the RFP;
Detail a transition plan that includes a description of staff;
Describe the company’s management philosophy and organizational chart;
Describe training employed for the vendor’s management-level staff.[xlvii]
List vendor-owned equipment to be used throughout the district;
Include a description of costs for everything from staff salaries and wages to insurance and banking costs.
Provide a cover letter that highlights the main features of the proposal;
List at least one vendor client who has parallel service needs to the district issuing the RFP; and
Submit a stipulated number of copies of the signed proposal.
In the SPP RFP for custodial services, the vendor is also told to update the equipment list as the equipment changes or face stiff penalties: “This information will be constantly updated and all equipment not listed will be considered District property.”
This section describes the process that will be used to judge which bidder has the most attractive proposal after the submitted bids are opened by the school district. Steps can and should be taken to ensure this process is as objective as possible, and district officials should explain in this section of the RFP what those steps will be.
For instance, as noted earlier, the SPP RFP for transportation services puts 45 percent of the emphasis on price, 15 percent each on “experience,” “reliability” and “operational plan,” and 10 percent on “expertise of personnel.” These factors are weighed only if all the other bidding mandates in the RFP are met.
In contrast, the SPP RFP for custodial services lists vendor experience and the price of the service as two of nine criteria, but does not explain how much each will be valued.
The specifications in this section describe service performance mandates to which the winning contractor must adhere. This section is often used to anticipate and thwart any performance problems that may arise once the contract is signed.
The mandates in this section run from the mundane, such as the wearing of staff uniforms and prohibitions on disturbing the personal property of school staff, to more extensive requirements, such as meeting all applicable health and safety laws or conducting thorough background checks and drug screening of contractor staff. The SPP RFP for custodial services even requires a description by the contractor of the company’s “corporate commitment to recycling.” This RFP also includes details meant to facilitate contract monitoring, such as asserting the district’s right to conduct inspections of the custodial work; requiring the contractor to provide financial data; and prohibiting the winning contractor from using the district in the contractor’s advertising without the district’s express permission.
The SPP RFP for custodial services concludes with a detailed list of “general terms and conditions” containing warnings that the contractor must comply with government laws and regulations. They include such items as the following:
obtaining all permits and licenses necessary to perform such duties;
paying any taxes on the equipment used (and any other taxes) in the discharge of contractor responsibilities;
adhering to equal employment laws, rules, regulations and government employment mandates;
satisfying all applicable provisions of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act; and
complying with requirements of the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.
This section also includes very important specifications about the type and value of insurance that the contractor must maintain throughout the contract period for everything from worker’s compensation to auto liability and property damage.
Note that exhibits and addenda can be added to an RFP to spell out any additional contract specifications that are not covered in the main body of the RFP. Exhibit 2 of the SPP RFP for custodial services, for instance, details cleaning frequencies and is followed by the specific physical addresses of each building that must be cleaned. The effect is to leave as little as possible to chance.
[xliv] A bid bond is not the same as a “performance bond,” which is essentially an insurance policy in which the insurer guarantees to find a new service provider if a contractor is unable to continue providing the service for the entire term of the contract. Flam and Keane, Public Schools Private Enterprise: What You Should Know and Do About Privatization, 110.
[xlv] The term “specification(s)” actually appears twice in the SPP RFP for custodial services — once in Section III (“Specifications/Scope of work”) and once in Section VIII (“Contract specifications”). In contrast to the specifications in Section III, the specifications in Section VIII focus on the expected service quality.
[xlvi] See “Appendix 2: Sample RFPs, Company Responses and Contracts” for the Web address of the Midland Public Schools RFP.
[xlvii] For instance, the SPP RFP for custodial services mandates that the custodial staff be trained in handling biohazards and asbestos. “School Purchasing Pages Custodial RFP,” 9.