‘Gray areas’ cancel trip for Idaho lawmakers
BOISE – Idaho officials responsible for making sure every high school student gets a state-provided computer have canceled a trip to Microsoft offices in Redmond, Wash., after concerns were raised that it 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,” state 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.”
State 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.” She said, “We want to make sure that it is above board.”
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.”
Hilderbrand told the task force, “I can tell you from a procurement perspective, we discourage site visits when we are … 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 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.
The task force meets through today; it has additional two-day meetings scheduled each month through December.