After debating the matter for nearly five hours, the Jefferson Parish School Board late Thursday night selected an Elmwood-based company to carry out about $33 million in upgrades meant to modernize the wireless computer system used by teachers and students in the district.
Universal Data Inc. had been recommended by the board’s Executive Committee after a closed-door session Tuesday.
The vote Thursday to confirm Universal was 6-2.
It occurred after multiple vendors who submitted bids to perform the work expressed concerns about what they called anomalies in the selection process.
One recurring theme was that a “load test” the bidding vendors were asked to complete supposedly featured problematic equipment and software and did not adequately simulate the real-world environment that would be created by students trying to use the district’s computer resources wirelessly at random times.
“Take a strong look at how this process has untwined itself,” said Jim DuBos, the chief technology officer of Baton Rouge-based Transformyx. “And take a serious look at how this decision has come about.”
Universal Data founder Jim Perrier later said his firm succeeded despite the test’s challenging conditions because “we have the right people ... (and) we are the right company.”
The vote to award the contract to Universal came at about 11 p.m. Board President Cedric Floyd and member Ricky Johnson dissented; Melinda Bourgeois was absent.
The board then voted 7-1 to approve a contract with Universal without further negotiation. Floyd was the lone dissenter on that vote.
Floyd on Tuesday had opposed discussing the pricing plans submitted by the companies bidding for the work behind closed doors, but he was outvoted by members who said they feared the process would be tainted if the debate were held in public.
On Thursday, Floyd repeatedly said he thought the bidding process lacked adequate transparency, in part because the various companies participating couldn’t watch their competitors do their load tests to ensure that all conditions were equal. He also contended the technology the contract was paying to install soon would be obsolete. However, his motion to defer Thursday’s vote until April 9 to give the board time to see wireless setups at campuses outside the district was defeated.
Board member Mark Morgan said the panel was doing something uncommon by allowing public debate on a company recommended for a contract before voting to award the work. Such discussion typically occurs after a contract is awarded, in part to deny companies the opportunity to take verbal shots at one another in an open session, said Morgan, who made the motion to give Universal Data the contract.
Meanwhile, the school system’s technology director, Vincent DiCarlo, said the much-maligned “load test” was conducted as fairly as possible.
The wireless upgrade will be funded by the proceeds from the planned sale of $27.5 million in bonds plus about $7 million from the federal E-Rate program. The hope is that the upgrade will increase usage speed and eliminate issues of spotty coverage from classroom to classroom.
The $27.5 million sale will be the final portion of a $50 million bond issue approved in 2013, generally for technology upgrades. The board already has sold $22.5 million in bonds to finance things such as the installation of security cameras at schools.
Also on Thursday, the State Bond Commission approved the sale of $52 million in sales tax refunding bonds for the School Board, a move that should save taxpayers $2.5 million, according to a news release from the commission.
That’s separate from another $50 million in bonds the School Board last week voted to ask the commission for permission to sell. The proceeds from that sale would go toward capital improvement projects at schools throughout the parish.
The board has a list of $128 million in repairs, renovations and construction projects. Higher priority will be given to work that addresses life-safety issues and ensures compliance with the building code.
The bonds in the $50 million issue awaiting approval would be backed by an existing half-cent sales tax.
The Bond Commission is expected to decide April 16 whether to authorize the School Board to sell those bonds.