Stevens Point's Skyward Inc. is appealing the state's decision to award a massive student information services contract to a Minnesota-based company - as well it should. There remain a number of unanswered questions around the state's granting decision, and whatever the outcome, the review will be worthwhile.
The state's Department of Public Instruction is in the midst of massive reforms to the way public education is administered. Part of that process is an overhaul of the state's patchwork system of tracking student data.
So far, so good. Let's not lose sight of the reason for the overhaul: Everyone from parents to policymakers will benefit from having a statewide data system that allows apples-to-apples comparisons among school districts. Having a single vendor will significantly reduce bureaucratic bottlenecks at DPI, making that data easier for the public to access.
But the process by which the state has decided the $15 million grant has been a mess, and if Skyward's allegations are correct, the final decision seems hard to justify.
At a bare minimum, we need more transparency about how the grant was awarded. And the state needs to account for some of Skyward's key claims:
? Was Skyward's bid lowest? According to the company, its bid was $2.6 million less per year than the winning company, Minnesota's Infinite Campus.
? Were implementation costs considered? More than half of the state's districts use Skyward's software now; only 10 percent use Infinite Campus. Changing the systems will be costly for many districts, and those costs very likely will be footed by taxpayers.
? Was the value of Wisconsin jobs considered? Certainly, if a Wisconsin firm were unable to provide necessary services, the state would be forced to look elsewhere. But in a situation where multiple vendors are able to offer similar services, surely a Wisconsin-based firm should be given additional weight.
According to information released by Infinite Campus, that company received the highest technical score in the state's assessment. That certainly should carry some weight.
But it also cannot be the sole consideration, especially if scores were close. The simple fact is that Skyward is a pillar of the local economy. The company provides good-paying jobs and has been growing. A 2011 economic impact study by the Portage County Business Council showed that losing the company - a real possibility if it loses its state contract - would mean the loss of more than $209 million in the local economy, and with it 825 current and projected jobs at the company and 2,215 jobs overall.
Based on current information, there appears to be little evidence that Infinite Campus's product is so much better as to justify the upheaval and economic consequences of the decision. But if it is, the state should provide thorough, transparent information about how it came to its decision.
A review is certainly justified, and it's one all Wisconsin taxpayers should watch closely.