Almost every time the Pinellas County School District needed to print thousands of test booklets this year, the same thing happened.
It asked three vendors to bid. The first put in the low bid. The second, run by the same family as the first, put in a higher bid.
And the third put in no bid and wrote this about the job: "not suited for our equipment."
Time and again — for up to two decades — many of the biggest print jobs for Pinellas schools have gone to one company, Web Offset Printing of Clearwater. And in nearly every case, the second bidder has been Newspaper Printing Co. of Tampa, run by the same family.
No, said the district official who picked which vendors got a shot. No, said officials for the two companies — one of whom said he didn't even know his companies were bidding on the same district contracts.
Brian Chepren, the supervisor of central printing services, said he cleared the two companies' ties with the former purchasing director, Mark Lindemann. But the former director doesn't recall the conversation.
"I would not have told him that was permissible," said Lindemann, who is now retired.
The district would not have allowed it "because there's potential collusion," he said. And the district would want to avoid even the appearance of that, he said.
After the Times began asking about printing contracts in April, the district changed its bid process. Now printing jobs are posted on a website, and 10 to 15 vendors are notified and given a chance to bid.
Chepren, a 30-year employee, is no longer involved with selecting vendors. And an unspecified review is under way by the district Office of Professional Standards.
Through late April of this fiscal year, Web Offset was awarded at least 24 contracts, ranging from $750 to $17,098 and totalling $128,432. That's on path to the roughly $150,000 a year that Chepren said is average for the company.
In all 24 cases, Newspaper Printing was the second vendor. In 23 cases, Gentry Printing of Clearwater was the third.
Gentry submitted bids in four cases. In 14 others, it indicated it was not suited for the project.
Chepren said the pattern has been rolling along for 15 to 20 years, though many vendors besides Gentry have been asked for the third bid.
The reason: Few, if any, vendors can do the same work as cheaply or effectively as Web Offset, he said. Many vendors didn't want to fill out the bid paperwork, knowing they couldn't compete. Yet he had to request at least three bids, which is required by state law and district policy for contracts between $6,000 and $25,000.
"It's more convenient and it's more cost-effective" to ask the same three vendors, Chepren said.
Both Web Offset and Newspaper Printing have won bids from the Times for small print jobs.
Some Tampa Bay area printing companies agreed only a handful in the area can handle the types of big district jobs — test booklets, codes of student conduct — routinely won by Web Offset. Even fewer can do it as cheaply, they said.
"They pretty much smoke me," said Roy Vice, general manager of Precision Litho Service in Clearwater.
But others in the industry said while there's not much competition, there is some. And though printing contracts are a tiny piece of the district's $1.4 billion budget, the process makes them wonder whether taxpayers have been getting the best deal.
"I don't think they're going to get the best prices" when they limit bids, said Wes Mullins, chief executive of M&M Printing in Ruskin.
"We can compete with these," Mullins said after the Times faxed him contracts awarded to Web Offset this year.
M&M is on the district's registered vendor list, but hasn't been asked to bid since 2001, he said.
Chepren said Pinellas contracted with the Ruskin company years ago but "it was some of the worst quality I had seen." He did not ask it to bid again.
In Hillsborough, the school district is satisfied with M&M's work. The company often wins similar contracts from that district, at times in competition with Newspaper Printing.
Hillsborough has a more expansive bid process. It posts the vast majority of jobs on a website so many vendors can see them and bid.
"That gets us the best price, every single time," said print shop manager Ozzie Ordaz.
For the new process in Pinellas, the purchasing department identified 10 to 15 vendors based in part on whether they responded to past bid requests. "If we're contacted by a vendor, and they want to participate, they will be added to the list," said purchasing director Linda Balcombe.
Chepren said he no longer wanted to select vendors after the Times began requesting contract information. He said he turned over that responsibility to the purchasing department.
"I said, 'You know what? I'm not going to be involved in this anymore,' " he said. No one ever told him there was anything wrong with the process, he said, yet "I feel like I'm being grilled."
Any questions about money for Pinellas schools come at a sensitive time. The district is all but scrounging under sofa cushions to find money to offset budget deficits.
John Tevlin of St. Petersburg, the president of both Web Offset and Newspaper Printing, said he did not know why Pinellas only solicited certain vendors. He said his companies were related but separate.
"They have their own way of operating over there (at Web Offset) and over at Newspaper Printing it's a completely different thing," said Tevlin, 62. "Each one has its own sales staff. Each one has its own manager."
His son, John Tevlin Jr., is vice president of both companies. He said he did not know, until the Times told him Friday, that the district had been asking both companies to bid on the same contracts.
"I don't deal with that day to day," he said.
Both father and son said the companies have no idea what each other is bidding.
"There's never been any funny business with us," said the elder Tevlin. "It hurts us that there might be that insinuation."
Lindemann said Web Offset proved over many years that it was the lowest-bidding, most competitive vendor. But he also suggested there may be consequences to limiting competition.
"If the vendor gets the idea that they're the only game in town," he said, "the prices tend to rise."
School Board attorney Jim Robinson said the long-standing practice involving the two companies didn't break the rules.
"The fact that two corporations share a common shareholder or officer would not by itself disqualify them from quoting for the same job," he wrote in an e-mail.
Still, he continued, the district decided to change the process because it wanted to "conduct its purchasing program in a manner that builds confidence among our business partners and the general public."
The elder Tevlin said he doesn't care if the district asks more vendors to bid.
"They can send it to the whole damn country," he said. "We'll probably end up with it anyways."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.