Vendor claims state’s purchasing process was flawed

One of the unsuccessful bidders vying for a teacher evaluations software contract has accused the state of running flawed and biased purchasing process.

The Legislature approved $1 million in funding two years ago for software designed to streamline evaluations reporting and still districts are without the state supported software and a contract has yet to be finalized.

A Department of Administration program specialist has said the apparent successful vendor for the software contract was Frontline Education Technologies Group, or Frontline Education.

But, on Oct. 31, Rudi Lewis, CEO of Meridian-based Silverback Learning, wrote a letter to Division of Purchasing Administrator Sarah Hilderbrand seeking administrative review of the bidding and contracting procedures. Lewis wrote that Silverback scores, received after submitting its contract proposal, were “both biased and inaccurate.”

Teacher evaluations have become increasingly important and controversial in Idaho because the Legislature tied a teacher’s ability to earn a raise to performance on evaluations. Over the past three years, Idaho Education News and the Professional Standards Commission have uncovered inaccurate teacher evaluation scores and instances of superintendents not following Idaho law.

In the letter, Silverback and Lewis expressed concern that Silverback was originally selected the finalist for the contract but was removed as a finalist after those scores were tossed out because one of the evaluators may have had a conflict of interest. Lewis and Silverback also expressed concerns that Silverback was not invited back for a “do-over” software demonstration during the second round of scoring. Because Silverback was not invited to the “do-over” demonstrations, Silverback received a score of “zero” for its software demonstration, which cost them a top ranking. Lewis said Silverback was able to demonstrate its software before the original scores were tabulated.

“As is clear by the series of events and the questions that arose from those events, an independent, unbiased review of the process is appropriate,” Lewis wrote.

The state responded six days later, with Department of Administration Director Bob Geddes denying Silverback’s appeal and request for a determinations officer to review the case. Geddes wrote that the original scores were scrapped after the apparent conflict of interest was observed because the state worried the scores would be viewed as tainted and that an unsuccessful bidder could have challenged the process. Thus, new evaluators were called in and new scores were issued, this time resulting in Silverback not being among the finalists. Because Silverback wasn’t among the finalists, it wasn’t invited back for a do-over software demonstration.

Issues with the evaluations software contract procedures came to light last month when the Idaho Stateman published a letter from Butch Otter accusing Rep. Wendy Horman and SBOE Executive Director Matt Freeman of attempting to circumvent state purchasing laws by steering the contract to a preferred vendor. Otter did not name the alleged preferred vendor in his Nov. 1 letter, but an Idaho Education News review of hundreds of pages of emails and state records suggest the vendor in question was Silverback.

In response, Horman and Freeman vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

According to emails, several State Board of Education employees expressed concerns with Frontline’s ability to do the job.

Meanwhile, 54 Idaho school districts already use Silverback’s software, having opted to purchase it on their own dime.

Lewis told Idaho Education News that Silverback worked with Idaho school leaders to develop its software program, Teacher Vitae, to interface seamlessly with Idaho’s teacher evaluations system. The software has prompts for each of the 22 components of the teacher evaluation framework, allows teachers to save evidence of the progress and helps principals store and organize their observation notes from throughout the year.

“When you get the input of users, you can build what they feel is almost a custom product,” Lewis said.

It’s not clear what happens next with the software and contracting mess. Department of Administration Program Specialist Diane Blume said Wednesday that the software contract still has not been awarded — and the school year is nearly half over.

This isn’t the first time Idaho leaders have dealt with a dispute over statewide contracting issues. In the wake of the Idaho Education Network contracting collapse, the Associated Press estimated in 2017 that the fiasco cost the state $40 million between paying to keep school districts from going dark, settling with project vendors and the feds and paying lawyers.

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