WESTBROOK, Maine – The Westbrook schools have hired an attorney to help navigate a legal dispute with an equipment consultant who has accused the district of violating the terms of a service contract.
A Westbrook school official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the legal matter is ongoing, said the district has hired a law firm to help settle its dispute with Specialized Purchasing Consultants (SPC), a New Hampshire-based consulting firm that serves as a middleman between photocopier vendors and clients, such as school districts.
SPC President Skip Tilton also confirmed the existence of a legal dispute.
“They broke a contract,” he said. “Are lawyers involved? Yes.”
Tilton said Westbrook’s alleged breach of SPC’s contract occurred, in part, because of a change of personnel at the school.
“A new business manager came in and decided he didn’t want to honor the contract,” said Tilton. “Well, they shouldn’t have signed the contract,” he said. “I need to get paid.”
Over the past decade, Tilton has contracted with more than 70 Maine school districts and the University of Maine System to help the institutions take bids for photocopier equipment and service. His proposal is an attractive one: Why go through the hassle of taking bids for your photocopiers when SPC can assess your needs, take bids, deliver photocopiers and ensure proper service and repair — all for only 11 percent, plus additional fees?
The school official said accepting competitive bids from Maine’s photocopier companies, rather than paying SPC to take bids on its behalf, will save the district $15,000 per year over the life of a five-year lease.
Tilton, however, maintains that, despite the 11 percent commission his company charges, the services he provides save money for Maine’s schools.
According to a district business managers, school superintendents, and industry leaders interviewed for this story, Westbrook is but one school district that has had trouble with SPC and a contract many say is onerous and costly.
Scott Vaitones, business manager for the Rockland school district and former president of the Maine association of School Business Officials, has encountered Tilton on three separate occasions, and each time he has quickly sought the fastest route out of SPC’s contracts.
Vaitones first met Tilton as a business manager for SAD 52. He was not satisfied with Tilton’s presentation and declined to do business with him. Vaitones’ subsequent interactions with Tilton occurred when he took jobs in other Maine school districts that already had a contract with SPC, first Westbrook, then Waldoboro, and finally Rockland.
Vaitones said each time he successfully navigated a path away from SPC’s leasing contracts he was able to save a school district a significant amount of money.
“A conservative estimate would be 30 percent of spending on photocopiers,” said Vaitones.
For SAD 52, a district that includes the towns of Turner, Leeds and Greene, he said he was able to save about $30,000 – nearly the per-pupil cost of four students – by negotiating photocopier leases himself, rather than using Tilton as a middleman.
Vaitones said every time he attempted to stop doing business with Tilton, Tilton threatened to sue him. Although Tilton denies ever threatening legal action against Vaitones or one of his school districts, other school officials told similar stories of SPC’s overly litigious nature.
According to some reports, SPC was involved in a legal dispute with the Poland schools. However, the details of that dispute cannot be confirmed, as parties to the matter signed a gag order preventing them from speaking about the issue.
Darrell Mitchell, the business administrator for the Skowhegan schools (MSAD 54), said he does not do business with SPC because he considers handling photocopier bids part of his job. He said he spends roughly 40 hours per year managing the district’s photocopiers.
Asked why other school officials might opt for SPC’s services rather than doing the work themselves, Mitchell said the reason was simple. “It makes life easier,” he said.
“Paying a consultant to do the work makes it easier for administrators to focus on other things, but it ends up costing taxpayers more in the long-run,” he said. “As a public employee, I believe I have a responsibility to the taxpayers.”
School districts are not the only entities who have become dissatisfied with SPC.
Paul Robichaud is the director of service for Portland-based Business Equipment Unlimited, a Xerox-owned company that provides photocopiers and service to more than 40 school districts and numerous businesses in Maine. Robichaud said his company stopped bidding through SPC about eight years ago as matter of good business.
“We will not deal with SPC,” said Robichaud. “When we did bid through SPC, it seemed like an opportunity to get into some new districts. But as we saw how it was evolving, we couldn’t sustain that model,” said Robichaud.
“We didn’t stop dealing with Skip because what he was doing was malicious or underhanded – he could have had the best of intentions,” he said.
“There was a sense that SPC left equipment out beyond its reasonable life-cycle. The constant need for repairs shifted costs on to vendors,” said Robichaud. “Our problem was cost. And we thought we had a better approach by dealing directly with schools.”
Dean Parent, vice president of Bangor Computer Copy Inc., also refuses to do business with SPC. He said that SPC’s contracts are designed to keep school districts trapped in a system of Tilton’s creation and the result is that taxpayers wind up footing the bill.
“How can he [Tilton] say that he is saving school districts money when he’s taking an 11 percent cut?” said Parent. “Every time you hit the ‘copy’ button, Skip Tilton makes 11 percent of the usage fee.”
At a time when lawmakers in Augusta are fretting over the rising cost of public education, said Parent, school officials can save money by dealing directly with vendors.
“Districts can get a better deal and save taxpayers money if they’re willing to put in the work,” he said.