The Board of Education has ordered school officials to repeat the bidding process on a major computer project, a move that will delay the installation of thousands of new computers in county schools by at least several months.
The board issued the ruling yesterday in response to an appeal filed by an Elkridge firm that had submitted the low bid on the project. ISmart, which submitted a bid of $23.8 million, alleged that school officials acted improperly in recommending that the contract go to GTSI Inc., whose bid came in at $25 million.
"The ruling will save the taxpayers over $1.18 million," said Marc A. Ominsky, general counsel for ISmart. "Clearly, the board saw some problems with the process and procedures."
Through a spokeswoman, GTSI of Chantilly, Va., declined yesterday to comment on the board's decision.
School officials said that repeating the bidding process for the computer project is a significant setback for the program. Called Technology Refresh, the initiative is the centerpiece of an effort to upgrade technological capabilities throughout the school system.
Under the original timeline, the first new computers were to have been delivered last month, with installation scheduled before students return to class in August, said Robert C. Leib, director of business services for county schools. Now, he said, the first computers won't arrive in classrooms until October or November at the earliest.
"We're going to be working with principals and teachers to reassure them that we are committed to this," Leib said. "This has been our brainchild for almost two years."
In a statement yesterday, the board said it will issue a written opinion on the ruling by June 21.
The Technology Refresh program calls for 12,000 new computers to be provided to county schools over a three-year period. The computers would be replaced every three years with state-of-the art-models, Leib said.
"We're surprised and disappointed that the board has elected not to go with the vendor that was proposed as the best-qualified to meet the school system's needs," said Darren Burns, the school system staff attorney.
He and Leib said they're awaiting guidance from the board before drafting another set of bid specifications.
In its appeal before the board, ISmart argued that under state law the Technology Refresh contract must go to the low bidder.
Burns said price was not the only factor considered by the selection committee that reviewed the bidders. It also evaluated the bidders' ability to provide related services, including project management, technical support and training and equipment testing. In rating the bidders, Burns said the technical score was rated more heavily than cost.
Board member Janet Bury said she "didn't buy" ISmart's argument that the lowest bidder must get the contract. But she sided with the company because of its claim that school officials did not tell them why the company received a low score on providing technical services.
She said the board's ruling "has the potential to delay" the Technology Refresh program.
"It's not something we wanted to do," Bury said. "But I felt they needed to be given an answer."
Board member Joseph H. Foster said members did consider possible program delays during their deliberations.
"But it wouldn't do any good if we went ahead and tried to start it and got tied up in a major court battle," he said.
ISmart and GTSI were among the five final bidders - chosen from 15 respondents - evaluated by a committee that reviewed the Technology Refresh proposals. One of the finalists was rejected for incorrect preparation of a bid worksheet.
Although ISmart submitted the lowest bid, the committee ranked it last on technical services and next to last in overall ranking.
The other companies submitted bids of $26.1 million and $32.7 million.
Ominsky, general counsel for ISmart, said his company is capable of providing the technical services required by the school system.
"I think GTSI kind of impressed the county [with its presentation]," he said. "They gave it to them like a brochure with pictures."