Another Contract Controversy

July 30, 1994

Once again, the Schaefer administration has created a contract controversy in which the state's cable companies charge they have been effectively excluded from bidding on a project to create an interactive telecommunications network linking the state's schools and colleges.

These same charges were made last year, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer announced a statewide "distance-learning" network -- without seeking competitive bids. Only when the attorney general raised concerns did the governor back off.

Recently, the state set out bid specifications for the project that cable companies say are beyond their capabilities. When the deadline for bids arrived earlier this month, only one company offered to build the entire system -- Bell Atlantic. Two other phone companies tendered bids for the long-distance portion of the network.

From the start, the governor and his aides have been enamored of the distance-learning concept. Giving Maryland's schools and colleges the most modern linkages became a rallying cry. Early comments from officials made it clear they wanted to get on with the job so the system would be functioning before the governor leaves office in January. The contract will be awarded by the fall.

Maryland's procurement system has taken a beating. There was never a level playing field. There is the added question of the educational value of distance learning. Is the cost to schools (annual fee, teacher support and training, etc.) worth the price? Would a cheaper system be a more sensible approach? The goal is to sign up 300 schools within three years. The cost in the fourth year could be nearly $10 million in tax dollars. And if the state's "expanded scenario" of 1,800 wired sites is realized, the cost could top $50 million a year.

Distance learning appears to be a worthy objective. Yet it raises a host of knotty questions. For this reason, the contract should have been awarded through the normal government procurement process.

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