Florida’s 3,700 schools could lose their internet access this year if the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co. doesn’t reverse its decision to deny the state’s eRate application, warned Florida Education Commissioner Jim Horne.

The SLD, which oversees the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program, denied Florida’s request for more than $7.4 million in 2003 eRate discounts because the state’s three applications allegedly did not show that price was the primary factor in selecting a service provider.

“Price doesn’t need to be the only factor [in selecting a service provider], but price has to be the primary factor,” SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. “We didn’t have evidence that price was the primary factor in their selection.”

In appeals filed by Horne on behalf of the Florida Department of Education Aug. 21, the state argues the SLD misinterpreted Florida’s “evaluation criteria” for selecting vendors. State procurement laws “mandate that price be the primary factor in the [department’s] selection of a successful vendor,” the appeal said. Contracts also must be awarded to the bidder offering the “best value.”

“The evaluation process … clearly and convincingly shows that the department fulfilled this mandate,” the appeal said.

To find the most cost-effective solution, the state reportedly developed a rubric that assigned points to the various parts of the bids to help evaluators easily compare them. The category for “Overall Project Concept, Design, and Cost” was weighted the highest, accounting for 35 percent of a bid’s total score. The company selected by the state, Hayes E-Government Resources Inc., received the highest score of 83.6 percent. The next highest were Fijitsu (74.6 percent), AT&T (72.4 percent), and ITC Delfacom (41.6 percent).

Among other services, bidders were asked for their plans to provide help desk functions, end-user support, and security against hackers, viruses, and other threats, according to the appeal. Based on its overall approach, Hayes’s proposal offered the best value for the state, officials said.

The Gainsville Sun reported that the main lobbyist for Hayes, J.M. Stipanovich, is a former campaign manager for Gov. Jeb Bush. Frances Marine, a spokeswoman for the state education department, told eSchool News the contract “had nothing to do with the governor’s office” and noted that the procurement process was “protest free.”

Losing $7.4 million in eRate discounts will have a devastating effect on the state’s network, known as the Florida Information Resource Network, state officials said. The state had set aside $5.6 million to pay for the system but also counted largely on eRate dis-counts.

“In the tight budget year we just had, and with districts tightening their belts, I think it would be very difficult for districts at this point to come up with an extra $8 million [on their own],” State Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, chairwoman of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, told the Sun.

Another problem is that the state already turned over the operation of its network to Hayes in July (through a contract signed in January) and since then has shifted employees and equipment over to Hayes, the Sun reported.

The state had negotiated in its contract with Hayes that if eRate funding were to fall through, the contract would terminate automatically, but that still would leave the state’s schools without internet access, according to the Florida newspaper.

Marine said the department is considering “multiple options” to continue internet service to the state’s schools. “However, we do believe that with the additional information provided to the SLD on the procurement process, a favorable appeal will result in the end,” she said.

The Florida Information Resource Network links all of Florida’s public schools to the internet and provides eMail access to thousands of the state’s teachers. It’s also used by all 11 public universities and the state’s 28 community colleges. State officials last year decided to transfer control of the network over to a private company.

See these related links:

Florida Department of Education

Schools and Libraries Division