Wis. Data-Contract Fight Goes Public With Ad Campaign
A fight over a lucrative contract to create a statewide student data system in Wisconsin has generated an official protest, public campaigning, and a dispute between two companies over which is better suited to create and manage an electronic warehouse of information for schools.
Earlier this month, the state announced its intention to award a contract to Infinite Campus Inc., a Minnesota-based company, to build and administer the system for more than 440 school districts and charter schools.
That decision has drawn the objections of a losing bidder, Skyward Inc., a Wisconsin company that recently took out advertisements in the state's largest newspapers warning readers that the contract decision could result in the business being "pushed out of the state."
The battle underscores the high financial stakes for companies attempting to secure the rights to operate statewide school information systems, which have become increasingly essential to state governments over the years, as states and districts attempt to collect and manage reams of education data. Wisconsin has initially budgeted $15 million for its system. The overall size of the contract could run as high as $90 million over time, Skyward officials said, though an Infinite Campus official offered a lower estimate.
"Information technology systems tend to be the big-ticket items in most states" today, said Jack Gallt, the executive director of the National Association of State Procurement Officials, based in Lexington, Ky. States are making major investments in those technology systems for not only education, but also health care, public safety, and other areas.
In one sense, disputes over the awarding of those contracts are not unusual. "Everybody thinks they should win. That's just human nature," Mr. Gallt said. Yet "the magnitude of this contract is what's drawing more attention," he pointed out. "That's a pretty big number."
Wisconsin's legislature approved the creation of a student-information system in 2011, in what was described as an effort to streamline and simplify the collection of data on student test performance, attendance, health records, discipline, and special education services. The idea was to establish a faster, more consistent, and less costly model for gathering and storing that information than having individual districts do it on their own.
Last year, the state issued a request for proposals to undertake the project. A panel reviewed seven proposals and eventually gave the highest-scoring proposal to Infinite Campus, beating out Skyward and other vendors. On Feb. 1, the department of administration issued a notice of intent to award the student-information contract to Infinite Campus.
Skyward later filed a protest with state officials, arguing that a "non-Wisconsin company" had been awarded the contract after a process that was "plagued with irregularities" and scoring errors.
Specifically, the company said evaluators had made mathematical mistakes that gave Infinite Campus too high a score, and improperly inflated Skyward's cost proposal—which the Stevens Point, Wis.-based company said was in fact $14.5 million lower than Infinite Campus' over the life of the contract.
Skyward officials noted that they currently operate student information systems in about 220 Wisconsin school systems, and forcing those districts to incur expenses by switching to a different vendor—Infinite Campus—would bring new costs to taxpayers.
The Wisconsin company also took issue with the removal of one of the evaluators during the review of company proposals. That individual was removed after a subject-matter expert observing the process warned that the evaluator could be perceived as coaching or assisting one of the vendors during a question-and-answer session. An independent report commissioned by the state found that the decision to remove the unnamed evaluator was made out of an "abundance of caution," and was "reasonable under the circumstances."
That report, produced by a Wisconsin law firm, concluded that the overall evaluation process revealed "no bias in favor or against any bidder."
Skyward officials disagree. In addition to filing a protest with the state, they're taking their case to the public. The company took out ads in a number of Wisconsin's largest newspapers urging residents to contact the state's elected schools superintendent, Tony Evers, and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, presumably to take action on Skyward's behalf.
"We felt it necessary to get a message out to the state," said Raymond Ackerlund, Skyward's vice president of marketing and management. "Because we're based in the state of Wisconsin, this is more personal to us."
The extent to which state officials could help Skyward is unclear. Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for the department of administration, said the vendor selection process is purposely designed to be "shielded from the political process," and based on which company can provide the best services at the best price.
But this month, a bipartisan group of state legislators, including Sen. Julie Lassa, a Democrat who represents Stevens Point, filed a bill that would require the state to choose at least two vendors to operate its student-data system, on a competitive basis.
The legislation would "save school districts millions and prevent the loss of hundreds of good-paying jobs in Wisconsin," the lawmakers said in a statement.
Skyward's complaint will go to the department of public instruction, and if the response does not satisfy the company, it can appeal to the department of administration, said Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for the state education agency. The agency will conduct a "fair and comprehensive review of their protest," he said in a statement.
Eric Creighton, Infinite Campus' chief operating officer, said the idea that his company's work would cost millions more than Skyward's is "not based in reality."
"They're cherry-picking the information and using it to support an otherwise unfounded claim," Mr. Creighton said. The process of awarding the contract was "fair and open and transparent."
The operations of both Skyward and Infinite Campus extend well beyond Wisconsin and the Midwestern United States. Skyward provides services to about 1,600 school districts nationally and internationally with student-information and human-resource systems, Mr. Ackerlund said. It currently has 280 employees in Wisconsin, and if its future growth occurs out of state, "it is only prudent to locate our company in an optimal location to better support that growth," he said in an e-mail.
Infinite Campus, located in the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine, describes itself as the largest American-owned manager of student-information systems, and estimates its products serve 5 million students in 43 states. While its presence in Wisconsin districts is smaller than Skyward's, it operates statewide student-information systems, similar to those envisioned in Wisconsin, in a number of states.
While Infinite Campus supports its rival's right to protest the state's contract decision, Mr. Creighton said Wisconsin officials created a sound process designed to obtain low-cost services without political interference. State lawmakers did not envision the student-information system as "a jobs bill," he said.
Vol. 32, Issue 23, Page 10Published in Print: March 6, 2013, as Wisconsin Data-Contract Fight Goes Public With Ad Campaign