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Idaho laptop rollout slips further behind schedule

BOISE - The first round of more than 6,000 laptop computers, one for every high school teacher and administrator, was supposed to be out in Idaho’s schools this month under the controversial “Students Come First” school reform plan, but holdups in finding a suitable vendor have pushed that way back.

“At this point, the goal would be to get those devices into teacher and principal hands by the beginning of the spring semester, and then give them professional development throughout that semester and the summer,” said Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for state schools Superintendent Tom Luna. “That’s still within the law … it’s just a little bit later in the year than we anticipated originally.”

After canceling a bidding process in June for lack of competitive bids, the state is now negotiating with up to a half-dozen potential providers of the computers, with hopes of picking one in the coming weeks. At stake is an eight-year contract worth more than $100 million, under which the provider would supply and maintain laptops for every Idaho high school student, provide technical support, and set up and maintain wireless networks in Idaho high schools.

“It’s the whole ball of wax,” said Idaho Division of Purchasing Director Bill Burns. “It’s a pretty big contract.”

It’s unclear how long it would take to deliver the laptops after a vendor is selected. The state’s original Request for Proposals anticipated a four-month period, from July 1 to October. Said Burns, “It really depends on the supplier’s supply chain.”

The state has budgeted $2.56 million for the first round of laptops this year, an average of $391 apiece. But the bidder will set the price, and it’s unclear what will happen if the bid comes in higher than that.

“To be honest, I can’t answer that,” McGrath said. “We would have to work with the Division of Purchasing if that did happen.”

Meanwhile, a clause in the contract will state that the whole thing goes away if voters repeal the program on Nov. 6. “The contract would terminate,” Burns said. “We wanted to make that perfectly clear.”

That hasn’t stopped companies from expressing interest in the contract, Burns said. “They’re all aware of it. So I’m assuming that’s a risk they’re willing to take for the business.”

The plan to bring all of Idaho’s high schools to a “1-to-1 ratio” of computers to students is a centerpiece of Luna’s “Students Come First” reforms, which also include requiring online courses as a high school graduation requirement; rolling back teachers’ collective bargaining rights; and imposing a new merit-pay bonus system for teachers, tied to student test scores, among other factors.

The whole plan is up for a possible voter repeal in November, under Propositions 1, 2 and 3 on the Idaho ballot, with Proposition 3 including the laptops and online learning. A “yes” vote on the propositions would keep the laws; a “no” vote would repeal them.

Three companies responded to Idaho’s original request for proposals in June, but one was late and one placed conditions on its bid, which was specifically prohibited. “So we had only one true responder, so there was a lack of competition,” Burns said. “So I canceled the bid and we opened it up to negotiation.”

All three of the original firms have been among those in discussions with the state; the bidders aren’t being identified. But when the state held public meetings about the potential deal last spring, companies represented at those included Apple, Lenovo, Education Networks of America and telecom giant Century Link. Bids could come from groups of companies, because of the wide-ranging requirements of the contract.

According to the 79-page request for proposals, the contract would run for eight years and be renewable for up to 16 years. It would include supplying laptops the first year for 6,551 teachers, principals, counselors, media specialists and technical directors in Idaho high schools. In subsequent years, all 9th- through 12th-grade students would get the machines on a three-year phased-in basis.

The contractor also would be responsible for setting up and maintaining wireless networks in every Idaho high school, using the broadband connection already supplied to the schools by the Idaho Education Network.

The computers would have to run on battery throughout the school day and recharge overnight; and when batteries stop lasting all day, they’d have to be immediately replaced. The vendor would be responsible for technical support, some training, software, networking issues and ensuring that every student always has access to a working device.

Asked how a single company could accomplish that in a far-flung state like Idaho, where many high schools are in remote and rural areas, Burns said with a chuckle, “Welcome to our world.” But he added, “There’s lots of different ways and lots of different proposals. There’s lots of different ways these folks are going to accomplish that - it’ll be done, I can say that.”

The RFP requires the company that gets the contract to set up at least one staffed, physical “point of presence” in Idaho, including at least one in Boise.

It also requires the devices to allow teachers to be able to see all students’ screens in their classrooms at once, to blank out the students’ screens, and to be able to limit students’ access in the classroom to a list of allowable websites. Internet filtering also is required, as are specific capabilities for the laptops, from functioning as a scientific calculator and offering computerized mapping functions to allowing students to create video presentations and blogs.

Plus, the contract would require the approved provider to offer the same devices, at the same price, to any state-funded Idaho elementary or secondary education provider who wants to purchase them at its own expense, beyond the contract for high school students and teachers.

Burns said the negotiation process has been going well. “To really try to get the best value for taxpayers and do this right, we had to take our time and go through and have a lot of discussion with a lot of companies,” he said. A technical team from the state Department of Education and a business team at the Purchasing Division both are involved in the negotiations.

“The teams have really done a great job in trying to really look for good solutions,” Burns said. “For as complicated as it is, I’m very happy with how it’s going.”

He added, “We’re not there yet with this whole thing, but I’m hoping it’s soon.”

Said McGrath, “It has taken a little bit longer than we initially anticipated, but this is a long-term plan, and so we want to make sure it’s done right.”

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