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Unfairness Alleged in Choice of Voc.-Ed Center

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Washington--The U.S. Education Department's bidding procedure on a contract to administer the National Center for Research in Vocational Education was tainted by political maneuvering, according to an official from the University of Tennessee. The University of Tennessee had bid unsuccessfully in competition with Ohio State University to win the contract to administer the center.

During a Senate subcommittee hearing last week on research in vocational education, Marla Peterson, dean for research at the University of Tennessee, claimed that last year's bidding process on the national center's contract was unfairly affected by "the direct political action" of the American Vocational Association, which lobbied to keep the national center at Ohio State, and by the "interplay" between top officials of the national center at Ohio State, federal vocational-education authorities, and the vocational association.

"In my opinion," Ms. Peterson told members of the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities, "the federal procurement procedure lost a great deal of dignity this past year." Under the current circumstances, she added, "I would not recommend that any university submit a proposal or participate" in future requests from the department for bids.

In defending his decision, Robert R. Worthington, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, referred to a U.S. General Accounting Office report that absolved the department of any wrongdoing in awarding Ohio State a $4.36-million contract to continue operating the center.

The General Accounting Office, which is the investigatory branch of the Congress, began its review of the office of vocational and adult education's bidding and procurement procedure in February at the request of Senator Howard Baker, Republican of Tennessee, and the two Republi-can Representatives from Tennessee, John J. Duncan and James H. Quillen. That review was completed in August.

The contract was awarded to Ohio State on Jan. 5 amid allegations of political favoritism. The University of Tennessee's proposal for administering the national research center initially received a higher rating from a review panel composed of department officials than did Ohio State's proposal, and would have cost the government about $1.2 million less in its first year of operation.

In September 1982, a second panel of nationally recognized experts from outside the department conducted on-site visits at both universities and issued a report that favored both the technical merits of Ohio State's proposal and its facilities.

Despite the initial review panel's recommendation that the University of Tennessee be allowed to administer the national center, the one-year contract was awarded to Ohio State University with renewable annual options through January 1987. The national center has been housed at Ohio State University since its creation in 1976, at an overall cost to the department of $25.3 million.

'Reasonable Basis'

In reaching its conclusion, the gao reviewed procurement regulations and interviewed department officials but did not evaluate the merits of the two contract proposals. According to the gao decision, federal officials can ignore the recommendations of appointed review panels as long as the selection has a "reasonable basis," and is "consistent with evaluation criteria."

During last week's subcommittee hearing, Ms. Peterson argued that the federal procurement procedures were contrary to the intent of the Congress and urged that future vocational-education legislation correct the inequities in the current procurement system and strengthen vocational research.

Ms. Peterson also said that voca-tional-education legislation should provide four to six research centers funded at $2 million each annually, in addition to a national center. She also recommended a thorough review by an "interagency panel" of decisions to award contracts to a higher bidder whose proposals are rated lower than those of another bidder.

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