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Idaho school reformers cancel visit to Microsoft

Mon., Sept. 12, 2011, 12:42 p.m.

BOISE - Idaho officials on a task force planning for the state’s purchase of computers for every high school student have had to cancel a trip to Redmond, Wash. to meet with Microsoft officials, after concerns were raised that the trip would violate state purchasing rules.

“There was too many gray areas in what we would be doing while we were there, who we would be visiting with,” state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the “Students Come First” school technology task force on Monday.

The 39-member panel, which will help determine how a request for proposals from computer vendors is written, was taken aback.

“Certainly the members of this committee are not the experts and need to be looking to the outside community, whether it be schools or vendors or research,” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, the Senate education chairman, told state purchasing officer Sarah Hilderbrand. “I think you’re suggesting that we put on blinders.”

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, said the task force is a policy-making group; it’s not the office that will sign a contract with a vendor to purchase millions of dollars worth of new computers.

But Hilderbrand told the committee, “Don’t discuss this procurement with vendors. We want to make sure everybody has the same information. … It could potentially stop the whole project if there is misinformation out there.”

She explained that if a particular senator met with two vendors, but not with any others, that wouldn’t be acceptable in the purchasing process. “We want to make sure that it is above board, we want to make sure that there isn’t any appearance that we’re getting certain information, but we’re not talking to this vendor over here,” she said.

Melissa McGrath, Luna’s spokeswoman, said, “The tentative agenda was for several task force members to visit Microsoft offices, meet with Microsoft officials and then visit a local school district that is utilizing Microsoft products in the classroom.”

Luna told the task force the planned trip offered members a chance to hear from “a parade of these international experts” on online education. “We were invited by a vendor to go to that vendor’s location,” he said, “to basically be their guests. We would travel at our expense, not at their expense, but it raised a lot of red flags to the point where we at the last minute canceled it. I think they understood. I think they were frustrated, we were frustrated.”

He asked Hilderbrand, “How do we do the homework to make sure that the recommendations that we move forward are going to, that the water’s going to get to the end of the row?”

  She responded, “I can tell you from a procurement perspective, we discourage site visits when we are even at the beginning of the procurement process. In the last 15 years I’ve seen too many projects derailed by just the appearance of preferring one vendor over another.”

  Luna invited Hilderbrand to address the task force on the “do’s and don’t’s” of the purchasing process after the trip cancellation. He said the committee needs to know “what kind of vendor contact you as a committee member can have, what is appropriate for vendors in their relationship with us. … I don’t want there to be any gray area.”

Luna said, “I’ve had more than one vendor make it clear to me that they are watching this very, very closely, and they’ll take action” if they think they’re not getting a fair shot at “providing products and services to the state.” Luna said he doesn’t want the task force to go to all this work, only to end up in a protracted lawsuit over the procurement process.

Luna persuaded lawmakers this year to pass his “Students Come First” school reform legislation, which shifts state school funding from salaries to technology boosts, limits collective bargaining rights for teachers, imposes a new merit-pay bonus system and calls for new emphasis on online learning. The plan includes phasing in the purchase of a “mobile computing device” - a laptop computer, tablet, or similar device - for every Idaho high school student and teacher, using funds that now go to salaries.

The entire plan is up for a referendum vote in November of 2012 to ask if voters want to dump it, after opponents gathered thousands of signatures to qualify the measure for the ballot. In the meantime, Luna is continuing with starting up the program. The task force meets through tomorrow; it has additional two-day meetings scheduled each month through December.

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