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DPI defends Istation pick in final day of hearing

In the last day of a hearing on which assessment tool the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) will use to test K-3 reading, Tymica Dunn, a DPI project manager, said she does not feel Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson attempted to influence the procurement process.

Dunn, who advised the procurement through its final stages, took the witness stand Friday as DPI responded to a case made by Amplify, a company that DPI previously contracted with to test young readers but which lost the state’s most recent bidding process to Istation last summer. Amplify then petitioned DPI’s decision.

A ruling on the case will take several weeks. All parties must submit proposed decisions in the next five weeks before Department of Information Technology (DIT) General Counsel Jonathan Shaw can make a recommendation on a decision to DIT Secretary Eric Boyette.

Dunn said she felt the evaluation team’s vote in January 2019 was “tainted” by comments made by Abbi Whitford, a team member. Dunn said Whitford shared concerns that Amplify wouldn’t win the contract before the vote, which resulted in six members voting for Amplify, three for Istation, and one for both. Dunn called Whitford’s comments inappropriate.

“I think that these people were team Amplify,” Dunn said, referring to Whitford and her colleagues. “They never gave any other vendor a standing chance.”

Amplify, throughout this week’s proceedings, has aimed to prove that the procurement process was unfair and that Istation does not meet the state’s dyslexia screening requirement. Amplify’s attorney, Mitch Armbruster, has argued the evaluation criteria the final team used to rank the vendors during the negotiations process changed without notifying vendors and disadvantaged Amplify.

Dunn said she and other DPI staff leading the procurement process were told by DIT staff that they were allowed to change the evaluation criteria once the second procurement process was canceled and the negotiation phase began.

Dunn said Melinda Williams, a DIT procurement team lead, was later concerned about the switch in criteria.

In an email to Dunn, Williams wrote: “The evaluation criteria should be the same for all vendors from the beginning.”

Dunn said that Williams said she would check with DIT Chief Procurement Officer Patti Bowers about the change in criteria. Williams later wrote in an email, after talking to Bowers, to disregard her former concerns.

Bowers testified earlier this week that she did not know how or when the criteria changed.

Both DIT officials and Dunn said there are no DIT rules that specifically address the process of direct negotiations. Dunn agreed that in a normal procurement process, vendors would be required to be notified of changes in criteria. In this case, she said it was not clear.

“There were no processes and procedures in how to conduct negotiations,” Dunn said. “It was pretty much explained to us, you just work your way there.”

DPI also brought Nathan Craver to the witness stand, a DPI consultant who was a voting member on the evaluation panel in the final negotiation stage.

Craver said he was asked to be on the final team in March and received an email from Dunn with negotiation points by which he understood the proposals would be evaluated.

Craver said he felt Istation represented the best value for the state. During April negotiation meetings, he said the team compared Amplify’s low-cost proposal with Istation’s proposal and found that Istation’s proposal had more benefits like in-person professional development, lesson plans for teachers, and a parent portal with resources to help students at home.

Craver said the decision to choose Istation was unanimous and one he still sticks by.

“When I came into the process, it was my understanding that we were presented with two valid reading assessment tools that could both meet the criteria of Read to Achieve,” Craver said. “… And based on the fact that we had two quality reading assessments, it was our job then to determine which one was the best value, and based on our determination, Istation was the one that I felt and still feel like was the best option.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.