Vote on chemical bid contract a wash

Differing dishwashing costs spark debate
By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Aug 05, 2014
Photo by: Donated photo Bruce Johnson, president and owner of Champion Supply, has been voicing his concerns after Haywood County School officials have recommended using another chemical company for its dishwashing cleaning products.

When it comes to determining a true cost of cleaning chemicals used in Haywood County’s school kitchens, there’s no easy solution.

That could explain why Alison Francis, director of child nutrition at Haywood County Schools, and Bruce Johnson, president and owner of Champion Supply, are wrangling over a recent bid process for products.

For more than a decade, Haywood County Schools has contracted with Champion Supply to purchase its dishwashing chemicals — dish detergent, rinsing agent and lime remover. The rest of the school’s cleaning chemicals, such as floor and glass cleaner, have been purchased from SFS Pac.

But this year, Francis opened the bidding process to other companies and has recommended — much to Johnson’s dismay — that the Haywood County Board of Education contract with the national company Ecolab, based in Minnesota, for all its chemical cleaning products for the 2014-15 school year. Champion Supply and Ecolab were the most serious bidders after SFS Pac declined to bid and Green Bamboo couldn't provide all requested products.

The rejection of Champion Supply’s bid has left Johnson both confused and skeptical about Francis’ calculations, and he contends that Champion's cleaning products cost less than Ecolab, based on his own financial analysis. Johnson holds an engineering degree from Duke University and holds a master’s degree from UCLA. He is also currently a board member of the Haywood County Schools Foundation.

“That is the most abysmal, unbelievably bad financial analysis I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said after reviewing numbers Francis used to calculate the use of chemical costs per gallon of water. “They don’t even compare the same products.”

Francis, however, says that Ecolab is the more affordable option based on a dilution ratio per gallon of water, and she contends Ecolab offers more efficient cleaning products.

“My staff has been incredibly impressed with it. They see a lot cleaner dishes and they dry faster,” Francis said, adding that she never heard any complaint about Champion's products before. “But they had been using the same products for 13 years and never had anything different.”

Since Francis announced her recommendation, Johnson has been probing Haywood, Buncombe and Henderson County school officials about not choosing his company. The three school systems together form a cooperative to purchase chemicals every year as a way to save money.

“I’m just looking for the numbers,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. I’ve never had any complaints before.”

Muddled math

To determine the most affordable chemical bid, Francis compared chemical dilution ratio figures, which measured how much the chemicals cost per gallon when diluted the same way.

After adding up the cost per gallons, Francis’ calculations determined that it would cost $2.25 per gallon of water to use Champion’s products, and $1.73 to use Ecolab’s products, thus making Ecolab the cheaper option.

“It’s very hard to determine what the actual use is,” she said. “We took the 10 items that were used most frequently by the school districts and calculated a unit price for those 10 items and determined which was the cheapest way. But it wasn’t just based on price — that was only 20 percent of the criteria.”

But Johnson claims that Francis' numbers do not reflect a true cost because she didn’t take into account the weighted averages of the amounts of cleaning products used each year — instead she calculated everything equally.

According to Johnson, products such as dish detergent and rinse agents are the most frequently used and should not be weighted the same as a cleaner that is used a few times a year.

“That’s basic rudimentary guessing,” Johnson said. “The concept of weighted averages is not that hard to do.”

In doing his own calculations, Johnson estimated how many ounces of cleaner that was purchased from his company last year (he used figures he collected from Buncombe County), and multiplied that by the dilution ratio cost per gallon that both companies submitted on their bid sheets. Champion’s cost per gallon was listed at $0.003 and Ecolab’s cost per gallon is $0.017.

The results added up to dollar amounts that were vastly different between Champion and Ecolab. According to Johnson’s math, the cost to purchase dish detergent from Ecolab would be $11,106 vs. spending $27, 765 with Champion — based on an estimate using Buncombe County numbers since only partial numbers were available in Haywood. The second most-used cleaner, the rinse additive for a dish machine, was calculated to cost $30,720 from Champion and a whopping $174,080 from Ecolab, also using estimated costs based on Buncombe County figures.

“It’s because their cost per gallon is five times ours,” Johnson said about Ecolab's rinse additive cost.

Ecolab Efficiency

Francis didn’t just look at dollar amounts to make her decision. In fact, the criteria used to choose the contract were based on five things: quality of cleaning materials, service provided by the company, knowledge of the school programs, past performance and price.

Francis believes that Ecolab would be cheaper in the long run because its cleaning products have lasted longer and didn’t create as much lime build up in the machines.

She said one reason it was difficult to compare the chemicals was because some products, like detergents, are sold in different forms, such as 1-gallon blocks of powdered detergent vs. 5-gallon jugs of liquid.

“The number of racks of clean dishes per case may not be the same for the competitor's product,” Francis explained.

And while chemical costs might be confusing, Francis said there’s no denying previous positive experiences her kitchen staff has had with Ecolab products.

Since chemicals are so difficult to calculate, Francis decided to complete a pilot experiment during the first semester of the 2013-14 school year.

During the first semester of the school year, Francis put Champion Supply products inside eight of Haywood County school kitchens and Ecolab products in the other eight remaining schools. This way she could directly compare the products.

The results showed that not only was Ecolab cheaper, but the eight schools using Ecolab didn’t use as much cleaning product.

“I was able to look at those invoices and see it had been cheaper,” Francis said, adding that she saved $4,198. “At the end of that term, Ecolab was several thousand dollars cheaper.”

After the pilot was over, Francis went before the school board and asked them to approve the use of Ecolab for the second semester of the 2013-14 school year.

“So as of Jan. 1, Ecolab has been used in all of our schools,” Francis said. “So my question is, why didn’t (Bruce) come forward before?”

In response to the pilot experiment, Johnson said he had never had any complaints from the schools he’s sold chemicals to for 13 years, including the Buncombe and Henderson County school districts.

“I can’t believe in these years of financial crisis, with so much pressure on schools financially, that they wouldn’t give business to a local company that’s only half the cost,” Johnson said.

Decision dilemma

The Haywood County Board of Education will ultimately make the decision on which contractor to use for its cleaning products. Though Francis already recommended the board contract with Ecolab, the decision was tabled during the July 14 school board meeting after Johnson reached out to school officials and board members to ask them to table the vote until he could hear an explanation about why his company was not selected.

Halting the vote has made it more difficult for Francis to prepare for the approaching school year, and because Meadowbrook Elementary — Haywood’s year-round school — is already in session, the kitchen staff is using the same cleaning products left over from last year, Francis said.

The school board will be discussing the chemical bid contracts with Francis during a work session at 6 p.m on Thursday Aug. 7 at the Central Office, and the vote will be taken during the monthly meeting at 7 p.m. on Aug. 11 at the Haywood County Education Center.