Technology directors in area school systems are closely watching a legal battle over a major computer contract in Anne Arundel County that pits low cost against quality in the purchase of information technology services.
GTSI, the company that initially won the computer leasing contract, has asked the State Board of Education to overturn the Anne Arundel school board's decision to throw out the bids and start over. The county school board's action was in response to a challenge from the low bidder, ISmart, which claimed that under state purchasing laws, it should have gotten the job.
The legal squabble has delayed the delivery of thousands of computers to classrooms and disrupted plans for new courses that were dependent on the new technology. But the dispute could have broader implications.
In its appeal to the state board last week, GTSI warned that if the ruling of the county board stands, school systems across Maryland will be forced to adopt what it calls a "low-price-minimally-technically-acceptable-bid-wins" policy.
"In my opinion, if that is the implication here, I think we're going to be in trouble," said Patsy Monteleone, the Baltimore County school system's manager of computer and network support.
"You want to get the best product for the best money," he said. "And the best product is not always the cheapest product."
In March, Anne Arundel County school officials awarded the contract for its Technology Refresh project to GTSI, which had bid $25 million. ISmart's proposal was $1.2 million less.
Among the four finalists for the job, ISmart ranked lowest in the technology category and GTSI scored the highest. In the cost evaluation, ISmart came in first for submitting the low bid and GTSI was the next-lowest.
Technology supervisors in Howard and Harford counties said price is not their only consideration when buying information technology services for schools.
"I really prefer going to quality vs. cost," said Richard Weisenhoff, coordinator for technology and media for Howard County schools.
When buying some of that school system's first computers 20 years ago, Weisenhoff recalled, he followed the same philosophy.
"I went with Apple because of the quality of the product," he said. "While I may have spent a little bit more on the machines, it was worth it."
When Howard County schools started buying personal computers, Weisenhoff went with Dell.
"There are certainly lower-priced machines out there," he said, "but when I'm using taxpayer money I want to make sure I'm buying quality systems."
ISmart argues that under Maryland's education procurement law, the job must go to the low bidder. The company appealed to the Anne Arundel County school system's purchasing office and the director of business services, and was denied at both levels. Last month, the Anne Arundel County school board granted ISmart's request to rebid the contract.
"It really gives [ISmart] a second bite at the apple," said James H. Roberts, an attorney representing GTSI. "They bought into the procurement scheme and throughout five months of discussions didn't raise any concern about the process until they didn't receive the award."
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.
"The [education procurement] statute says that the contract must be awarded to the lowest responsible bidder who is able to conform to the specifications of the job," said Christopher J. Heffernan, a lawyer representing ISmart.
He said that Anne Arundel school officials erred by weighing technical ability more heavily than cost in awarding the Technology Refresh contract.
Under the Technology Refresh contract, the school system plans to lease 4,000 computers each year over the next three years to upgrade classroom technology and address concerns about computer inequity among schools. The contract calls for the computers to be replaced every three years.
"Frankly, I think that Anne Arundel County is being very forward-thinking by going with a lease on this," instead of buying the computers, said Weisenhoff, the Howard County technology coordinator. "We're still using machines we purchased back in 1985 and 1986."