Bid points to city-state split

Sun Follow-Up

November 12, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

When the Baltimore school board awarded a no-bid, $550,000 contract for software to track services provided to special-education students, officials said they were making a genuine effort to solve a problem that had gotten them in trouble with a federal judge.

But to critics at the state education department, it was just another example of the board misusing emergency contracts and a cause for serious concerns about its fiscal controls.

The software that the board purchased had never been tested in another school system, and the company that makes it was incorporated just four days before the contract was approved in July. Then in September, the board spent $3.6 million on another software package that can also track special-education services.

City school system officials say the software from the second package won't be up and running for another year or two, and they need something in the meantime to stop a breakdown in serving special-education students.

The emergency contract was one of 21 cases between March and September in which the school board bypassed competitive bidding -- something it is only supposed to do when circumstances are unforeseeable -- if a storm destroys a school's roof, for instance.

While school board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman acknowledged that, in some of those cases, the urgency of the situation might be debated, he argued that the special-education software was essential. And, he said, the state critics haven't been able to offer a better solution.

"We don't have the luxury of just being able to criticize," Hettleman said. "We have to produce for the students."

The Sun reviewed hundreds of pages of e-mails and other documents related to the $550,000 contract with the new company, Educational Tracking and Consulting. The correspondence highlights a deeply fractured relationship between the state and city officials who are supposed to be reforming special education together and have publicly pledged a renewed spirit of cooperation in recent months.

State officials were upset that their managers charged with overseeing special education in the city were not involved in the decision to use the ETC software, which tracks speech therapy, counseling and other services to which disabled children are legally entitled.

The state and the city are co-defendants in a class action lawsuit filed in 1984 by lawyers for students with disabilities, alleging the children were being denied an adequate education.

This summer, the city school board's approval of the ETC contract was contingent on the agreement of the other parties in the suit. But the system proceeded with the contract even though the state didn't sign off on it.

The system did have the OK of Amy Totenberg, the special master in the court case. In a memo, Totenberg outlined concerns about the contract, including the absence of competitive bidding, but concluded that the issues were beyond her jurisdiction.

Among the state's complaints about the deal: The school board broke state procurement regulations by approving a two-year contract with ETC. Contracts that are not competitively bid are not supposed to exceed one year.

The system discovered the problem before signing the contract and amended its term to one year, with a renewal option.

State officials were also upset that the software had not been tried elsewhere and that the clinicians who will have to use it weren't consulted.

System officials say that because the city is the first to use the software, it was customized for Baltimore schools. There has been a dispute over whether disabled children are receiving services or whether services are being properly documented.

At an Aug. 9 meeting of the parties in the lawsuit, the assistant state superintendent for special education, Carol Ann Baglin, demanded an explanation for the system's decision to contract with a two-week-old company.

"On the record, I want to say that I have serious concerns about your procurement process," she said, according to a transcript.

Hettleman told Baglin that system leaders understood her concerns about the software, but they had to take responsibility for fixing the problems tracking special-education services. "If we fail, you can say, `It's on the record, we told you so,'" he said.

Baglin replied: "It is going to be a disaster."

The events leading to the software deal began in the 2004-2005 school year, when the city schools had a breakdown serving special-education children. As a result, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ordered the state to send managers to oversee all city school system departments affecting special education.

Still, problems continued during the 2005-2006 school year. System officials argue that services often were provided but not accurately recorded in a cumbersome paper-tracking process.

Last winter, the system contracted to upgrade existing special-education software that would have included an electronic tracking feature, but the deal fell through in the spring.

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