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Special-Ed. Group, E.D. Square Off Over Contract

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Washington--The U.S. Education Department "abused its authority" by awarding the contract for a special-education resource center to the University of Kentucky, the rival bidder for the center charged last week.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which also submitted a bid to operate the proposed Federal Resource Center for the Education Department's office of special education, said the university's proposal had been selected even though it was rated lower than that of the state directors by a review panel of experts.

The association, which is challenging the contract award, squared off with the department in a hearing last week before an official of the General Accounting Office.

Elizabeth Heffernan, a lawyer representing nasdse, charged that the department ignored the review panel's ratings and helped guide the university to a winning proposal. By failing to adhere to its own regulations governing contract awards, Ms. Heffernan said, "in this case, the department of education has crossed the line."

But Barry Puschauver, a department lawyer, countered that the contract was a "negotiated procurement" that allowed the department leeway to work with bidders to improve their proposals. In addition, he said, the law did not require the department to follow the recommendation of the experts' panel.

Lawmakers authorized a national resource center two years ago to provide guidance to the special-education office's network of regional resource centers, which work with the states' programs.

'Merit' Said No Factor

The state directors' group said in an Oct. 21 letter of protest to the gao that the Education Department had sought to prevent the awarding of the contract to the association for "reasons wholly unrelated to the technical merit of nasdse's proposal or its competence to perform the work."

Nasdse's original proposal earned a higher technical score than that the University of Kentucky's, but the department included the university in the "competitive range" for further review, according to testimony at last week's hearing. A subsequent Kentucky proposal scored higher than nasdse's and the contract went to the university.

The department had announced and then canceled three previous competitions for the resource center, according to the state directors' letter to the gao

The association made proposals in two of the three previous competitions, including one in which it was the only bidder, the letter says. But the department disqualified its proposal in that instance as technically unacceptable.

The association argues that the university's proposal should nothave been included in the "competitive range" for further review after its initial lower rating. The department in effect "directed Kentucky to a winning proposal," Ms. Heffernan charged.

Kentucky Plan Called 'Superior'

But Mr. Puschauver said it was clear the decision to include the university's proposal was proper because it was eventually selected as the best.

"The proof is in the pudding," he said. "Indeed, this proposal was ultimately lower-cost and technically superior."

Both sides were asked to supply written arguments to the gao's office of general counsel. A decision on nasdse's request that the university's contract be rescinded and awarded to the association is expected by late January.--mw

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