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Idaho to negotiate for laptops after call for bids fizzles

BOISE — Citing insufficient competition, Idaho officials have abandoned their original bidding process meant to equip public school teachers with laptop computers starting this fall.

Instead, the state will negotiate directly with providers of computers and services, in hopes of keeping this five-year estimated $60 million piece of public schools chief Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” reforms on track even as he tries to fend off repeal measures on November’s ballot.

State purchasing officials say only three private groups submitted bids following a request for proposals, or “RFP,” earlier this year.

One missed the June 11 deadline and was excluded. Another was on time, but failed to meet state requirements. Only one actually met the qualifications.

As a result, the Department of Administration said Tuesday it will negotiate with suppliers of mobile computing devices and accompanying services to get the best deal for taxpayers. The state says this isn’t entirely unexpected and believes devices will still be on teachers’ desks by September or October, as planned.

“Any time you go beyond just an RFP, it’s more complicated, it takes a little more time,” said Bill Burns, Adminstration’s Division of Purchasing head. “But I think we’re going to get through it and we’re going to find the best solution for the state.”

Burns declined to identify companies or consortiums that submitted the three bids, saying that was confidential. Among the requirements of providers: They’ll have to provide computing devices, maintain and track them and help teachers and students use them.

Companies that attended meetings this spring over the contracts included Apple, Lenovo, Education Networks of America and telecom giant Century Link. It’s likely that multiple companies will join forces to provide the services necessary, Burns said.

The first wave of students aren’t due to get their laptops until 2013, after teachers.

Last year, foes of Luna’s reforms including the Idaho Education Association teachers union gathered enough signatures to put them to a recall vote this November. Combined with the laptops and new online course requirements, the 2011 law limited collective bargaining talks, promoted merit pay, ended teacher tenure and shifted funding from salaries to help pay for the education changes. That money was restored by the 2012 Legislature.

Still, the battle to preserve the reforms is bitter, with Luna just last Friday accusing the union of lying to its members about what the changes entail.

Foes marked their symbolic kick-off of efforts to defeat the reforms Tuesday morning.

“Mandating online courses for all students regardless of their learning style, language proficiency, educational needs and motivation level is irresponsible,” Maria Greeley told people attending a rally of 125 people outside Boise High School. “This one-size-fits-all mandate hurts our students and diminishes the quality of education.”

A spokeswoman for Luna’s agency, Melissa McGrath, said agency officials are forbidden from contact with potential bidders on the laptops, so nobody there is certain whether the looming November ballot question discouraged more companies from competing.

Still, she said resolving the winning group through negotiations, rather than the RFP, won’t likely cause this component of the reforms to stumble.

Negotiations over a provider of computers for teachers still be overseen by the same state task that would have been vetting competitive bids, she said.

“We have every confidence in the Division of Purchasing’s process, and we are very confident that teachers will have devices in their hands this fall, as scheduled,” McGrath said.