Otter rips state Ed Board, lawmaker over software contract

November 16, 2018

Wendy Horman

Gov. Butch Otter sent stern letters scolding the state Board of Education and state Rep. Wendy Horman for “attempts to steer” a $1 million state software contract to the current vendor in violation of state purchasing laws, a charge both Horman and the state board vigorously denied.

“I was doing my job as an engaged legislator throughout this process, to just see that the funds were being wisely spent,” Horman said Wednesday. “And in light of a number of contract problems that have happened under this administration, it’s important for legislators to ask a lot of questions.”

The Idaho Statesman first reported on the letters on Wednesday. State board spokesman Mike Keckler told the Idaho Press in a statement, “There was absolutely no intent nor any attempts to circumvent state purchasing law. The state board is committed to obtaining a software solution to facilitate both the submission and review of teacher evaluations, which is required under state law.”

The Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, on which Horman serves, allocated $1 million in 2017 for administrator training on teacher evaluations, as part of the state’s teacher “career ladder” program. Otter had requested $2.5 million.

The Idaho Department of Administration’s records show that seven bids were received, and the contract was awarded to the lowest and most responsive bidder, Frontline, for $490,000 over two years. Another firm, Silverback, which some Idaho school districts already had been using, bid $1.7 million.

“Silverback was the preferred choice of some school districts because they had been using that contractor,” said state Department of Administration Director Bob Geddes.

Frontline Education, which describes itself as “a leading provider of K-12 administrative software,” is based in Pennsylvania. Silverback Learning Solutions is an Idaho firm, based in Meridian.

According to the state board’s statement, the board staff contacted the state Division of Purchasing in April 2017 to “acquire a teacher evaluation software solution.” On Sept. 13 of this year, a year-and-a-half later, “board staff requested that the Division of Purchasing cancel the request for proposals after it became clear it would not be ready for deployment in time for the current school year.”

“The state board was saying there were problems with the RFP process,” Horman said. “I don’t care what vendor they choose.”

The state board’s statement said the board sought instead to either distribute the funds directly to school districts to purchase their own software, or to return the still-unused funds back to the state.

Otter’s Nov. 1 letter to every member of the state Board of Education said, “I know that the possibility of a single source contract with the preferred vendor and the ability to use the statewide Dell contract to award this business to that preferred vendor were explored.”

“Neither of those options complied with state procurement laws, and the board staff was advised to issue a request for proposals (RFP),” he wrote.

In Otter’s Nov. 1 letter to Horman, R-Idaho Falls, Otter wrote that he’d learned of “a series of discussions” between Horman and state board Executive Director Matt Freeman about the contract, including “attempts to steer the $1 million appropriation to a provider whose software is already in use by many districts in Idaho.”

“While there were delays,” Otter wrote, “a provider was selected. I am aware that it was not your preferred vendor.”

He wrote that after Freeman spoke with Horman on Sept. 13, Freeman “asked the Division of Purchasing to cancel the RFP.”

“I know that you had previously suggested to the executive director that the board could revert the $1 million appropriation for this software and a future appropriation could be redirected and distributed to the districts,” Otter wrote. “I have instructed the board to proceed with awarding the contract.”

“It is troubling to me that you have been involved in discussions that would circumvent the state’s procurement laws,” he wrote to Horman. “I trust this was inadvertent and that there will be no further dialog that appears to encourage such actions.”

The governor included identical language in his letter to the state board.

Horman said the letter came “completely out of the blue,” and said, “Neither he nor any of his staff members ever talked to me about this. I will vigorously dispute these allegations.”

The state board’s statement said Freeman signed off on the RFP on Oct. 23, 2018, at the direction of the governor’s office.

“The board received a letter dated Nov. 1 from Gov. Otter directing the board to award the contract,” Keckler said in the board’s statement, noting that after the board staff signed off on the RFP, it was actually the responsibility of the state Division of Purchasing, which falls under the state Department of Administration, to award the contract.

“The state Board of Education staff fully complied with state Division of Purchasing statutes and processes,” the board’s statement said.

Otter was out of the state on Wednesday, and his office had no comment, beyond providing copies of the two letters in response to a public records request.

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