Computer bid dispute in Arundel hits schools

Plans are disrupted as deliveries delayed

July 20, 2000|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

A legal battle over a major Anne Arundel County schools computer contract has delayed delivery of thousands of computers to classrooms and disrupted plans for new courses that were dependent on the technology.

The dispute reached the state Board of Education yesterday when the company that initially won the contract appealed a county school board decision to throw out the bids and start over because of a complaint by a spurned lower bidder.

At the heart of the fight is whether lowest price must be the overriding factor in how school systems buy information technology services - or whether expectations of quality of service may also be taken into account.

Caught in the middle are people like Northeast High School Principal George J. Kispert, who was counting on 75 of the new computers for two new courses when the school year opens at the end of August.

The system planned to obtain the computers under a lease-and-service plan devised to upgrade classroom technology and address concerns about computer inequity among schools.

Officials say the contract dispute could delay delivery by three to six months.

The dispute began last month when ISmart, the company that submitted the low bid of $23.8 million on the Technology Refresh project, challenged the award of the job to GTSI, whose bid was $1.2 million higher.

ISmart's complaint prompted the county school board to order rebidding of the contract - over the objections of school system staff who had recommended awarding it to GTSI, based on the evaluations of a technology review committee.

In the appeal filed yesterday with the state Board of Education, GTSI seeks to overturn the Anne Arundel board's rebid decision, arguing that cost is not the only determining factor for the purchase of information technology services.

The company warned that, if left standing, the county board's decision will force school systems across Maryland to adopt a "low-price-minimally-technically-acceptable-bid-wins" policy.

"In the complex area of information technology, it's not necessarily the best value if school systems are stuck with a low-bid win," said James H. Roberts, an attorney representing GTSI.

ISmart maintained that under Maryland's education procurement law, the job must go to the low bidder, but Roberts said the law is flexible enough to allow officials to take other factors, such as technical expertise, into account,.

The legal maneuver came as school officials scrambled to fill in the technology gaps created by the computer contract dispute. The delivery delay means that some schools will have to put on hold needed additional computer labs and make last-minute arrangements for classes designed around the new equipment.

"This has really affected us from an instructional standpoint," said Northeast's Kispert. School system officials have told the principal not to expect Northeast's new computers until January.

Over the past few weeks, Kispert said, school officials have had to "scurry around to do Plan B," making emergency purchases to assemble a makeshift computer lab for two new courses-"Computer Topics" and "Earth, Space Systems Science."

"We had earmarked those computers to be used for two new programs getting off the ground," Kispert said. "Both of these courses have brand new curricula, much of which is Internet-based."

The new computers allocated for Northeast High would have made it possible for each student to have a computer for the courses, but under the backup plan, Kispert said, they'll have to double up.

In the works for more than two years, the Technology Refresh program is the centerpiece of the Advanced School Automation Project, an initiative to install linked computer laboratories in each county school. The program seeks to establish technological equity among schools.

The goal of project organizers is a 6-to-1 student-computer ratio by 2003. On average, schools in Anne Arundel county have a 9-to-1 ratio now, according a state Department of Education study.

"At the end of three years, no longer will there be have-nots," Robert C. Leib, director of business services for county schools, said yesterday of the Technology Refresh goal, and referring to the fact that some schools have more computers than others.

The Technology Refresh contract calls for the school system to lease the computers over three years, then replace them.

"By leasing the computers our schools will never have a computer older than three years because it's a continual recycle," said Linda Williams, director of library, media and instructional technology.

Another goal of the program is to bring consistency to the computer equipment. "Some have half Macs and half PCs," Williams said. "We're trying to make sure all the labs are the same, so they can run the same software."

Under the Technology Refresh timeline, officials had planned to have 4,000 computers in middle and high school classrooms this summer. Schools with fewest computers were scheduled for the first deliveries, Williams said.

"The plan is still in place, and the allocation stays the same," Williams said.

Arundel High School in Gambrills was to receive 90 computers this summer. Principal William P. Myers planned a second computer lab in hopes of eliminating waiting lists for the existing lab.

Myers said he had also set aside some computers specifically for teachers to set up "electronic grade books" and have e-mail addresses at school. But those programs will have to wait.

"Is it really going to affect anything to the point of damaging the curriculum?" Myers said "Absolutely not.

"But all that enhancement is what we were eagerly anticipating, and we're in a holding pattern until we get it."

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