Panel Said Likely To Challenge Technology Center Contract
Washington--A Congressional subcommittee probably will conclude that the National Institute of Education acted improperly when it awarded Harvard University a $7.6-million contract to create a center for the study of educational technology, a source familiar with the panel's investigation says.
The Bank Street College of Education in New York, which also had sought the contract, last fall filed formal protests with the General Accounting Office and the House Intergovernmental Relations and Human Resources Subcommittee when its $4.4-million bid for the center was bypassed in favor of Harvard.
In their protests, Bank Street officials asked that the contract be taken away from Harvard and awarded to them.
The gao, the investigative arm of the Congress, does not have the authority to overturn the nie's decision, but it will make a recommendation to the nie in the next four to six weeks, said a gao official. The Congressional panel has not indicated when it would complete its inquiry, also begun last fall.
Bank Street's complaint focuses on two aspects of the bidding--the nie director's rejection of an advisory committee's finding that the Bank Street proposal was techni-cally superior, and the decision of institute officials to give Harvard and one other applicant, but not Bank Street, information about the funds available for the grant. nie officials have not disputed the Bank Street officials' assertion of those facts, but say they acted properly.
"Based on what I've seen, I would be shocked if [the subcommittee and the gao] do not find that the decision was made improperly," said the source familiar with the Congressional investigation. The Bank Street proposal appeared to represent "the ideal situation--it's better technically and it costs much less," he said.
The award for the technology center re-presented the first time that the nie has made a grant for a laboratory or research center based on competitive bidding. Funding for laboratories and centers, which were originally part of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, has been renewed without competition since 1964.
Educators say the grant is significant because it came at a time when the Reagan Administration and the Congress were moving to cut funding for the research agency and the Administration was seeking to revise the "missions" of the labs and centers.
Proposals Were Ranked
Papers filed with the gao show that a committee of experts assembled by the nie rated the Bank Street program as technically better than the Harvard program by a vote of 5-to-4. A 10th member of the panel rated the proposal by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the best. Those experts assessed only the proposals' technical strengths.
The collective evaluation of the top three proposals--which was computed on a scale of 100--placed Bank Street in first place with a rating of 88.4. mit was rated second with 82.1 points, and Harvard was rated third with 80.9 points.
The nie originally considered six applications. Bank Street, Harvard, and mit were the finalists.
Manuel J. Justiz, the director of the nie, overruled the committee because, he said at the time the grant was awarded, Harvard's proposal was more "comprehensive." Mr. Justiz's involvement in the bidding process was unusual, nie officials said; the chief contracting officer usually passes final judgment on grant proposals, they said.
The chief contracting officer, Victor Westbrook, said in a memorandum to the gao that he told Mr. Justiz he would have ruled in favor of Bank Street.
Mr. Justiz refused to consider the opinion of one of the reviewers who rated the Bank Street proposal highly, stating that the reviewer did not include "adequate comment," according to the papers filed with the gao
Harvard's original proposal would have cost $9.1 million, but the university revised its proposal when nie officials informed it that its bid cost $2 million more than the nie could spend on the center, according to documents filed with the gao The agency also told the Massachusetts Institute of Technology how much money was available, but it did not give any financial information to Bank Street, the documents indicate.
Robert Granger, vice president of Bank Street College, said receiving financial information might have changed the college's final bid if the nie had cited technical flaws in the proposal. But, he added, Bank Street officials were able to answer all of the nie's technical questions.
"If they had questions about any technical aspects of the proposal, we could have changed it, and ... there would undoubtedly have been dollar implications," he said. "I would have been not nearly as worried about keeping within [the nie budget]."
Mr. Westbrook of the nie said last week that government agencies almost never tell bidders how much money is available for research projects. Education Department regulations state that in "no event ... shall any [bidder] be told the number of proposals received, prices, cost ranges, or the government cost estimate."
"All we put out is an indication of how much work will need to be done. That level of effort should tell you how much money should go into it," Mr. Westbrook said. "When you make research grants, it tends to in-hibit [development] of creative projects when you attach a specific dollar figure."
But Mr. Westbrook said the Bank Street protest should not hinge on the funding disclosure. "At the time, the proposals were in the final stages of negotiation. There you have a more flexible attitude." He said the gao should not rule against the Harvard grant solely on the basis of the financial disclosure.
Vincent Knox, a lawyer for the gao, said the agency would consider the "reasonableness" of the nie's actions in determining whether there was any wrongdoing and what, if anything, should be done about it. He has been quoted saying that the Harvard grant should not be withdrawn if the university is "too far along" in establishing the center.
Mr. Granger of Bank Street said the college did not question the role of Representative Silvio O. Conte, the Massachusetts Republican who authored the legislation that mandated the creation of the center. Press reports have indicated that Mr. Conte was determined to see the center established in New England rather than in New York.
Bank Street's lawyer, Sarah C. Carey, said college officials decided to protest the decision when they received anonymous letters from nie staff members and were told by Mr. Westbrook that their proposal was both the least expensive and the most highly rated.