The California Court of Appeal recently rejected a taxpayer group’s attempt to invalidate two no-bid contracts between a school district and vendor providing diversity and anti-bias training to educators. (Fair Education Santa Barbara v. Santa Barbara Unified School District (December 15, 2021; 2d Civ. No. B309248.) The Court held that the contracts met the requirements for two statutory exceptions to public bidding requirements; exceptions for “professional services” and “special services.” In reaching that holding and upholding the school district’s contracts, the Court reinforced and further clarified the standards for those two exceptions to public bidding.
Santa Barbara Unified School District (District) entered two one-year contracts with Just Communities Central Coast, Inc. (JCCC), a group that provides anti-bias training to schools. Each contract was awarded without a public bid. According to the parties, JCCC possessed specialized training and knowledge of the community and could draw on research in diversity education that no personnel at the District possessed in-house.
After the District contracted with JCCC, a taxpayer group sued, arguing the contracts were void because the contracts were not publicly bid per Public Contract Code section 20111.
Generally, Public Contract Code section 20111 requires public bidding for school district contracts, including contracts for services, over the bid threshold. However, there are exceptions to public bidding, and the Court discussed two in detail. First, Public Contract Code section 20111, subdivision (d), exempts contracts for “professional services” from the public bidding requirement. Second, Government Code section 53060 exempts contracts for “special services” from the public bidding requirement, in the areas of “financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal, or administrative matters if such persons are specially trained and experienced and competent to perform the special services required.”
The Court of Appeal found that both exceptions to public bidding applied to the contracts between the District and JCCC. First, the Court held that the contracts were for “professional services,” which the Court defined as “one that requires specialized knowledge, training, or skill, usually of a mental or intellectual nature.” The Court noted that a specialized license or certification is not necessarily a requirement for professional services within the meaning of the bidding exception. Second, the Court held that the contracts were also for “special services.” The Court reasoned that while JCCC’s services did not fall into the exact categories of special services listed in the Government Code (i.e., “financial, economic, accounting, engineering, legal, or administrative”), ”special services” are not limited to those specific categories, particularly where the services are not available from public sources.
Thus, the Court of Appeal held that the District’s contracts were valid, despite the lack of public bidding.
While Santa Barbara involved a vendor providing diversity training, the case reinforces and further clarifies existing standards for determining whether contracts fall within the “professional services” and “special services” exceptions to bidding.