Lakeland educates the Polk School Board on technology bidding practices

This morning, Tuesday July 5, the Lakeland City Commission will consider a staff request to change its Disaster Recovery Facility Hosting provider. The current provider is DSM Technologies.

You may recognize DSM as the same company that received more than $100,000 in non-competitive contracts from the Polk School District in 2015 for technology strategic plan development and staff augmentation, among other items.

Last week, the School Board approved 7-0 with only cursory discussion more than $400,000 in additional contracts for DSM for the coming year.

Why is the Lakeland vote relevant to the Polk School Board vote? This is why:

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The image above documents the competitive bids that Lakeland city government received for its disaster hosting work. You will notice that DSM, which is the incumbent, is roughly 35 percent more expensive than anybody else. It's more than double all but one vendor.

If I were helping to run the Polk School District (which, of course, I hope to be), I would look at this list of vendors that provided Lakeland with bids and ask: Why doesn't the Polk School Board have a list of bids like this? And are we going to pay twice as much to DSM as we need to for the work we just approved?

By all appearances, my top School District staff would answer: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I don't have any particular beef with DSM. They may do great work. They may not. I have no idea. But the DSM case reminds us of the importance of government business and purchasing systems.

It's hard to blame any business for hustling to put itself in a position to catch money when it blows by. That's the point of business. I have no problem with board members and staff having conversations and relationships with vendors. They're almost impossible to avoid; and in some cases they can be valuable to everyone. The key is transparency and honest competition and fair systems. Thanks to the professionalism of Lakeland city staff, city commissioners have a transparent contracting choice to make. The School Board did not. And yet, it foolishly voted anyway, even after I raised clear concerns about it.

An individual vendor's business interests are not the same as the taxpayers' interest. They are not the same as students' or teachers' interests. The government organization purchasing services from a vendor has a solemn obligation to place the public's interest ahead of any vendor's. Lakeland seems to have done that in its dealings with DSM. The Polk School District has not. Why? The District should have learned from its catastrophic failure with a different vendor in the Local Instructional Information System (LIIS). Why did it not?

"All purchases will require a minimum of three vendor solicitations."

District IT staff claim that state contracting rules allow the District to bypass a competitive process for its DSM contracts. My reading of the state rules says the opposite.

Indeed, because of the size and scope of the DSM work, the state actually appears to require multiple competitive bids for all of it. There's every indication that's been true since 2012.

Use the two screenshots below to look for yourself. The corresponding links to state documents are here and here.

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You'll notice the term "staff augmentation" in both of those excerpts. Phase III of the Strategic Plan contract the DSM was awarded in 2015 is entirely for "staff augmentation." See below.

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I originally asked the District for the "request for proposal" that led to the DSM work. I was told there isn't one because state rules don't require it. In case there's some subtle distinction between "request for quote" and "request for proposal," I asked last week for the "quotes" that the state requires and that Lakeland received. I have received no indication that any competitive "quotes" exist.

I've also asked for the strategic plan that DSM was paid to develop. I haven't received that either. I am told it's being redacted. I do not hold the Polk PR staff responsible for this. In my experience, when there is something to provide, they provide it -- quickly.

[Late update, 1:50 p.m.: I have just received a draft form of at least some of the strategic plan. I have not had a chance to review closely.]

In any event, this is how our broken School District status quo functions. We must fix it.

If you want to help us, please consider contributing to the Billy Townsend campaign here.