CASD questioned over IT bids

Lower bidder calls foul, but district says security, training, specs a factor

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

A Cisco Catalyst 4500-X Series Switch, which forms the backbone of a winning bid for the Coatesville Area School District's Information Technology upgrade plan.

A Cisco Catalyst 4500-X Series Switch, which forms the backbone of a winning bid for the Coatesville Area School District’s Information Technology upgrade plan.

CALN — The Coatesville Area School District is coming under public scrutiny for awarding an Information Technology (IT) contract to the highest bidder — more than $200,000 more than the losing bids — but district administrators say the other bids met lower technical specifications and could have ultimately cost more to operate and maintain because of training, security and other concerns.

The net difference in costs between the bids will likely be much lower, district officials said, because of a federal program, E-Rate, that helps to fund technology upgrades in public schools. Those figures were not immediately available from the district at the time of this report. Industry estimates suggested the final differential would be closer to $100,000 after the federal rebates — which also doesn’t account for the costs of additional staff training that would have been needed for the losing bidders.

Christopher Carr, a Coatesville-area attorney, addressed the Board of Education Tuesday night, on behalf of Alcatel Lucent Enterprise, one of the losing bidders in a bid process to upgrade data switches for the school district’s Internet access — as a school district technology upgrade, the project is eligible for rebates from the federal E-Rate program, which bundles tech projects on a statewide basis.

Carr argued that the decision to award the bid to a Cisco violated state bidding laws by awarding the contract to Cisco for about $620,000 while Alcatel/Lucent bid $400,000 for the project. Carr argued that the Alcatel Lucent proposal met or exceeded all specifications for the original “Request For Proposal” (RFP) for the project. A second lower bid from Hewlett-Packard was also rejected.

“A score sheet was used to rate the bids which lacked correct information to justify the award,” Carr said during his presentation, noting that Alcatel Lucent, a successor company to both Bell Labs and Western Electric, the latter of which originally invented network switching gear for AT&T and the national phone system last century, earned a seemingly unreasonable “0” grade for reputation by district evaluators. Carr also called the decision one of the most “egregious” he’s seen in his career of working on bid proposals.

District officials, though, say the story is a bit more complicated than that. They say the Cisco proposal offered enhanced security — particularly against Denial Of Service attacks (DDOS) which can be used to flood web servers with millions of requests, effectively shutting them down — a bigger data pipeline and/or better peak data speeds and better configuration options than the losing bidders.

Additionally, the district’s current IT staff has multiple employees with Cisco IT certification, which will greatly smooth transition to the new equipment and keep it in top running condition, they said. Also, the district cited the fact that there are many more Cisco-certified techs available to hire, an issue of late with personnel turnover in the district’s IT department. These factors were detailed in the evaluation matrix district administrators used to make their decision, Superintendent of Schools Cathy Taschner said.

“The responses were evaluated by the Technology Department based upon a number of criteria including cost, which received the highest allocation of points,” Taschner said. “Other criteria included the existing staff’s familiarity with the product, confidence level in troubleshooting and configuration, ability to train staff, the current network capabilities and future infrastructure needs, security and contributing non-E-rate eligible costs such as the administration and facilities buildings.”

Taschner also took issue with the idea that there was any bias in the bidding process — an area she and her administration have taken pains make more transparent and fair, she said.

“The competitive bidding process is necessary to prevent fraud and favoritism which has plagued the district in days gone by,” Taschner said. “The district has implemented many changes over the past two and a half years and many of the changes have been aimed at correcting/preventing further abuse and misuse of resources and authority. Some have been directed toward restoring propriety and trust. Others have been focused on student achievement and increased and improved communications.”

Taschner shared the evaluation matrix produced by the Technology Department, which notes the specific issues cited, she said.

“Overall, the primary reason Cisco was chosen is that they consistently scored better on the evaluation matrix, even facing the obvious fact that individual equipment costs were higher,” said. “The department made its determination based on the price and the overall interests of its students, faculty, staff and business operations of the district. We appreciate the interest of the unsuccessful vendor and hope that they will continue to participate in the mini bid process as the District continues to upgrade technology resources.”

But Alcatel Lucent seemed to reject those arguments — asking the district for what it called a “Bake off,” with the top two bidders making presentations to a panel for review.

Lacking that opportunity, Carr suggested that the company would challenge the bid with state and federal authorities.

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