Education, News

After a five-day hearing, a decision in Istation case is still weeks away

State Superintendent Mark Johnson

It’ll be more than five weeks before a decision is made on the fate of the controversial contract award to Istation to assess reading levels of the state’s K-3 students.

After a five-day hearing about the award, Jonathan Shaw, the general counsel for the Department of Information Technology (DIT) who presided over the hearing, granted the court reporter two weeks to transcribe recordings and attorneys three weeks to respond with proposed decisions.

On Friday, Tymica Dunn, procurement manager for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, spent several hours answering questions about the state procurement process, particularly about how the criteria for the reading assessment tool changed after a Request for Proposal (RFP) was cancelled and DPI entered directly into negotiation with Istation and Amplify.

A day earlier, Amplify CEO and co-founder Larry Berger testified that he believed the evaluation criteria for the state’s reading assessment tool was changed to disadvantage his firm.

Berger contended that during the RFP process an evaluation committee ranked Amplify above Istation and two other competitors for the lucrative state contract worth millions to the winning bidder.

Amplify CEO Larry Berger

But he said the evaluation criteria from the RFP to the negotiation phase was changed to make criteria less favorable to Amplify more important.

Cost, for example, was ranked highest in the negotiation phase but carried a lower ranking during the RFP process.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson eventually awarded Istation the contract, worth $8.3 million, Amplify’s bid was much higher, around $12 million. (Both firms eventually lowered prices during the negotiation phase but Istation’s remained low-bidder).

Amplify filed a protest after Johnson awarded Istation the contract. That led to this week’s hearing to determine whether DPI acted properly in the contract award.

Dunn was relatively new in her job as procurement manager when the reading assessment RFP fell into her lap.

DPI Procurement Manager Tymica Dunn

So, when the RFP reached the brink of cancellation after an evaluation committee formed to weigh proposals couldn’t reach consensus, Dunn asked officials with the state Department of Information Technology (DIT) for advice.

She said Pattie Bowers, director of procurement for DIT, told her and a colleague that the criteria could change in the negotiation phase because it would become a new procurement.

Mitch Armbruster, lead attorney for Amplify, said changing the criteria, and then not notifying his client about it, was unfair. Berger testified that he was never told about the changes.

One interesting development during hearing involved a discussion earlier in the week about the way DPI and State Superintendent Mark Johnson learned about an evaluation committee member’s breach of confidentiality, which played a part in the cancellation of one reading assessment RFP.

It’s been alleged that someone illegally monitored a former employee’s email that was still attached to her cell phone. The former employee received email messages discussing the procurement process from a member of the evaluation committee selected to evaluate reading diagnostic tools.

A printed copy of the exchange was slipped to DPI staffers who turned it over to Johnson.

DPI spokesman Graham Wilson confirmed in an email message that DPI is investigating the claim.

“We do not know where the text message came from,” Wilson said. “We are conducting an investigation to try to find out.”

Shaw’s boss, Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette, will make the final decision in the case, which dates to the summer.

Amplify, whose mClass assessment tool had been used in North Carolina’s K-3 classrooms for several years. After its protest over the summer, DIT granted a temporary stay halting the use of the Istation reading assessment tool. Istation countered by agreeing to implement the program and train teachers on its use for free.

Shaw upheld the stay in December, contending the “evidence and arguments of record” are sufficient to indicate that DPI failed to comply with state law and information technology procurement rules and “jeopardized the integrity and fairness of the procurement process.”

Johnson has claimed that the procurement process was tainted. He contends, among other things, that some committee members breached confidentiality and were biased in ways that tilted the evaluation in favor of Amplify and its mClass reading assessment tool previously used by the state.

Many teachers have been critical of the switch from Amplify’s mClass to Istation. They have questioned the procurement process and contend Johnson ignored the recommendations of an evaluation committee that ranked mClass over Istation.

The reading diagnostic tool is a companion to the state’s signature education program, “Read to Achieve,” which was launched in 2013 to ensure every student reads at or above grade level by end of third grade.

The results haven’t been great even as North Carolina has spent $150 million on the initiative. More than half of the state’s children in K-3 are still not reading at grade level.

Istation has been training teachers to use the reading diagnostic tool for free. It said last month that more than 180,000 North Carolina students in grades K-3 have been assessed using its reading diagnostic tool.

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