Texas’ online purchasing system suffers major setback: Technology provider pulls out of state’s electronic procurement service for schools

One of the nation’s first statewide electronic procurement services for school systems suffered a major setback at the end of January, eSchool News has learned.

The BuyBoard, a secured web site designed “to centralize the purchasing activity and increase purchasing power” for schools and other government entities in Texas, is losing its corporate partner. Austin-based Ambac–the parent company of the servicing contractor that has provided the BuyBoard with its system, servers, and software–has announced plans to end its involvement with the purchasing cooperative.

Ambac’s decision came after it posted an after-tax operating loss of $4.5 million for fiscal 1998, according to The Bond Buyer.

The statewide purchasing cooperative is administered by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) and endorsed by the Texas Municipal League and the Texas Association of Counties.

The BuyBoard’s simple format was designed to allow purchasing agents point-and-click access to detailed product descriptions, commodity codes, part numbers, and images.

The online service “allows members to make confident buying decisions and streamline the purchasing process,” a description on the TASB web site says. “Buyers simply select products that best fit their needs.”

Ambac’s decision means TASB is scrambling to find ways to continue offering the online ordering service to the 376 Texas school districts TASB says are participating. The association is considering hiring some of the 47 Ambac employees who were laid off, said Gerald Brashears, chief financial officer for TASB.

Ambac Connect Inc. provided software that allows Texas schools to use the internet to obtain everything from calculators to grounds maintenance supplies. School buyers can browse an online catalog of items to purchase via Ambac’s automated system.

The system allows easy soliciting, collecting, and tabulating of bids from vendors competing to provide services and products, TASB said. As a result, TASB could help schools save on large purchases by getting low bids for consolidated purchases, it said.

According to Brashears, “several large school districts” relied on the service, which allowed them to place orders without having to call vendors individually.

Very slow transition

But, according to insiders, a big part of the reason for the pull-out is that not enough schools were using the system. This reportedly caused Ambac to doubt that its investment would pay off.

Brashears acknowledged the service could take two or three years to catch on with school buyers. But that’s too long for companies to wait, said Sabra Brinkmann, a financial analyst for Advest Inc.

Ambac’s decision exemplifies the “very slow transition to online procurement,” Brinkmann said. The company couldn’t justify the $20 million to $30 million investment that would be necessary to develop the online bidding process, she said.

“I think what it means is that the municipal market is not yet ready for internet commerce,” Brinkmann told The Bond Buyer. Many schools have long-standing relationships with vendors they buy from, she said, and they fear losing good deals by participating in a group bid.

The urge to go it alone might be especially strong for big districts that enjoy plenty of buying power. Lester Mays, executive director of purchasing for Dallas City Schools said he has never used the TASB online service because he can do better by contracting with vendors on his own. He can find a vendor to beat the TASB price “nine out of 10 times,” he said.

For smaller school districts that lack the staffing and clout of Dallas, online purchasing might make sense, Mays said. The cooperative can get a small district in West Texas the same low price for instructional supplies that bigger buyers can demand.

Brashears said the online purchasing cooperative is “a great service and we will do whatever we can to maintain it.”

Ambac

http://www.ambac.com

Texas Association of School Boards

http://www.tasb.org

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Teacher who donated his own money to school tech purchases suspended without pay: District says that journalism/yearbook teacher created havoc with inventory

A high school teacher who talked Microsoft Corp. into donating $20,000 of software for his students and then contributed another $20,000 himself for school projects has been handed five days’ suspension without pay.

School district officials said Desert Vista, Ariz., High School teacher George Alper failed to follow accounting procedures for the gifts and failed to submit proper purchase requests. In addition, officials said, Alper discarded, sold, or traded equipment belonging to the school.

They asked the Tempe Union High School District’s governing board to suspend Alper without pay for 20 days because of “unprofessional and insubordinate conduct.” The governing board reduced the punishment by a vote of 3-2.

Following the rules

“We believe these violations are serious. We need to send a message to Mr. Alper,” said Janis Merrill, the district’s attorney. “He is a fine teacher. But there are many factors as to what makes a fine teacher–and following rules and regulations are one of those.”

Alper admitted not following certain district policies, but said helping students was his only goal.

“School district funding procedures . . . are not set up to handle any issues in a timely fashion,” he wrote in a Nov. 8 letter to Desert Vista Principal Joe McDonald.

“School districts are paralyzed by their inability to change with the times and the net result is a paralysis in the learning process and students are not prepared to function in the world they will soon enter,” Alper wrote. “My only intent was to provide my kids with the best equipment, the best opportunity, and the best education.”

But that intent could land the district in hot water, according to district spokeswoman Veronica Osmers.

Osmers told eSchool News that purchasing protocol has become a hot-button issue in the area, sparking a heightened sensitivity to procurement procedures. Nearby Scottsdale Unified School District, for example, is currently under intense scrutiny for alleged violations, according to the Arizona Republic.

Osmers pointed out that Alper was using unlicensed Microsoft software in his classrooms for six months and had sold equipment without the proper paperwork. That could lead to the kind of financial inconsistencies that would make the district vulnerable in an audit, Osmers said.

Intentional disregard

Alper’s troubles began in 1997, when he donated $20,000 of his own money to benefit the school’s yearbook, television production program, and computer lab.

About $3,000 bought food for his students when they worked late, according to the letter. The rest was used to purchase computers, electronic equipment, cameras, lenses, and supplies.

According to district policy, all donations must be presented to the district governing board for approval and recorded in property records.

District officials also allege Alper bought computer items with student activity funds.

In his letter, acquired by eSchool News, Alper admitted to selling and trading computer equipment for new equipment. Alper has no records of the transactions, district officials said.

“This is not a situation caused by a ‘lack of awareness’ of, or ‘ignorance’ of, district procedures,” according to the charges against Alper. “You have intentionally disregarded district procedures because you find them ‘cumbersome.”‘

Because of this, Alper created serious inventory control problems that has thrown the district’s financial records into chaos, Merrill said.

But Alper’s attorney, Susan Sendrow, said the teacher attempted to get the proper paperwork.

“All things considered, his students were better off. And when confronted, he readily admitted his actions and cooperated with the administration,” Sendrow said.

Alper is working with district officials to arrange his suspension, Osmers said.

Tempe Unified High School District

http://www.tusd.k12.az.us/

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The ‘First State’ is first to wire all classrooms, says Delaware governor

Maybe the odds were in the tiny state’s favor, but Delaware is claiming to be the first in the nation to connect all of its public schools and classrooms to the internet. Its classroom wiring project, completed last fall within budget and in less than the three years originally projected, was funded entirely by the state.

Launched in Feb. 1996 by the Delaware Center for Educational Technology (DCET), the project wired more than 6,400 classrooms in 181 buildings with voice, video, data, and fiber optic lines. The project gives each classroom at least one data port connected to the internet through the Delaware Education Network, a statewide intranet owned and operated by the state’s Office of Information Systems.

According to Wayne Hartschuh, executive director of DCET, the project was completed in three phases at a total cost of $23 million. Walsh-Lowe Engineering and Bell Atlantic Network Integration were the contractors.

The first phase wired the state’s district offices, high schools, and smaller elementary schools with the most immediate needs. Phase two wired the state’s middle schools and more elementary schools. The final phase completed the wiring of elementary schools.

Most of the work on each phase was done in successive summers, Hartschuh said, though work on some of the smaller elementary schools continued in the afternoons and evenings during the school year.

Each building is connected to the Bell Atlantic backbone through a T1 line. Internet requests travel over the backbone and are routed through a central state office. The data lines and routers are all paid for and maintained by the state.

Every classroom has a multimedia box connected to the building’s server. The box is the terminus for a telephone line, a coaxial cable for video distribution, and two fiber optic lines for future growth, Hartschuh said.

Funding for the project came from Delaware’s 21st Century Fund, which was created when Delaware won a huge settlement from New York state over securities payments. DCET received $30 million for the school wiring project, and the rest paid for other capital investment projects like improving the state’s roads and bridges, Hartschuh said.

Delaware Governor Thomas R. Carper and Education Secretary Iris T. Metts joined business leaders and educators at Lulu Ross Elementary School in December to celebrate completion of the wiring project.

“It is imperative that we give our students every opportunity to be successful when their academic careers have ended and their employment careers begin,” Metts said. “Making internet and multimedia technology available in every public school classroom will help us ensure that every teacher and every student has access to these exciting and important learning tools.”

Lulu Ross Elementary, with 580 students in grades 1-4, was chosen as the site for the celebration because of its innovative approaches to using technology, Gov. Carper said.

The school uses an instructional management system for all second-graders; compiles attendance online every day; hosts a Family Technology Night each Wednesday so parents can see how technology is being used in the classroom; and provides a multimedia library for students and staff.

DCET will now focus its efforts on purchasing and supporting hardware and software for the classrooms, as well as staff professional development to make the most of its investment, Hartschuh said.

Delaware Education Network

http://www.dpi.state.de.us

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