North Carolina Rejects Contract Challenge to School Software

State education officials said the tech company failed to file a protest letter on time. At issue is the ongoing battle over what software should be used to track reading progress in grades K-3.

by Annie Ma, The Charlotte Observer / July 8, 2019
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(TNS) — State education officials rejected a challenge from a company that claimed it was improperly passed over for a multimillion-dollar contract to test young students’ reading progress, arguing that the company missed the window to lodge a protest against the contract.

In a letter sent Wednesday, the state Department of Public Instruction said that New York-based Amplify failed to submit a protest letter in a timely fashion, on the grounds that the company missed the 15-day cutoff to lodge a complaint about the contract process.

The contract was awarded to Texas-based iStation on June 7, and Amplify submitted its challenge on June 24, a Monday. The state contends that Amplify’s dispute should have been filed on June 22, a Saturday and the fifteenth calendar day after the contract was awarded. However, Amplify cited a state statute which says that when calculating any period of time, if the last day falls on a weekend or holiday when the courthouse is closed, the deadline should count as the next business day.

“We disagree with their assertion that this letter is untimely,” said Mitch Armbruster, North Carolina counsel for Amplify. “State law has been clear for 200 years. If the deadline falls on a weekend, it rolls over to the next Monday.”

The state, in its rejection letter to Amplify, said that this particular dispute did not fall under the statutes the company cited regarding whether a weekend should count toward meeting the deadline.

“I cannot emphasize enough the fact that the Department followed all laws, policies, and rules related to the RFP and contract award,” State Superintendent Mark Johnson wrote in the letter.

A DPI spokesperson said that people who could comment on the rejection were unavailable Friday. Armbruster disputed the state’s argument that this contract is exempt from the holiday rules and said that case law supported the company’s position on the deadline.

The state has offered to meet with Amplify to discuss the contract, which Armbruster said is the next step in the process. If the dispute cannot be resolved between the two parties, he said, then the state Department of Information Technology will make a decision on the procurement.

The rejection of Amplify’s challenge is the latest in an ongoing battle over what software should be used to track reading progress in grades K-3. Amplify, which makes the mClass assessment program, has argued that State Superintendent Mark Johnson chose Istation over the recommendation of his evaluation committee.

In June, Johnson signed a three-year, $8.3 million contract to switch all elementary schools to the Istation program, which tests children’s reading skills on a computer three times a year and prints out a report for teachers. mClass, in contrast, has students read aloud to teachers, who then assess their skills.

Statewide, teachers have publicly questioned the choice of Istation, taking to social media to urge people to contact state lawmakers and the state board to reverse the change. They’ve raised concerns about the use of a computer-based program to test reading skills and the short timeline for implementation before school starts in August.

Amplify asked for DPI to suspend or terminate its contract with Istation while the protest is reviewed. The State Board of Education agreed to Johnson’s plan to not count Istation results in teacher and school evaluations until January, using the six-month delay to train teachers and acclimate students to the program.

Superintendents across the state, including in the state’s two largest districts, raised concerns about how they would implement the new program on such short notice. While the state granted a six-month period where the metrics won’t count towards evaluations, the district leaders had specifically asked for a one-year delay.

©2019 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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