Software upgrade vote stalls to allow for bid process

ALBANY -- Zora Allen thought she had prepared well for her meeting with the Dougherty County Finance Committee Wednesday morning at Dougherty Comprehensive High School.

The five-year director of the Exceptional Students Program was requesting approval from the Finance Committee to purchase the Web-based SEMS Tracker software for managing and tracking special education students.

Allen had put together an eight-page handout to help Finance Committee members David Maschke, the Rev. James Bush and Anita Williams-Brown of the Dougherty County School Board understand the need for the new system. The system would cost $70,000 the first year and $25,000 the second and third years of the contract.

"The reason SEMS Tracker is so wonderful is it can track so many programs," said Allen, who has worked in the special education field for 30 years. "We can keep track of our special education, home-bound students (and others). We'll train our staff to use this program."

Williams-Brown's biggest concern about the program was ensuring that it would be used to its full ability.

"I just want to make sure if we buy this program that it will be used to the max," she said. "I want to make sure everything is scanned into the system."

Then, Allen's presentation hit a major snag.

"Due to the economy in the Southeast, are there other firms, particularly in Georgia? I see this is from Massachusetts," Bush asked Allen. "Did you have a bid process? I'm just saying (let's) keep our money in Georgia, especially Alabama and Georgia."

"There is no Georgia firm here," said Allen of businesses that make similar systems.

"Is there any in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee?" Bush asked. "Is there anyone in the Southeast that can bid on this?"

"I don't know any," Allen answered.

"So you arbitrarily choose this?" Bush asked.

"There's nothing in Georgia," Allen repeated.

"Why did you not bid this?" Bush asked again.

"I just researched this," Allen said.

"Did you arbitrarily decide this one?" Bush asked.

"Yes, I talked to staff and this is the one they choose," Allen said.

Allen then told Finance Committee members the new system would be needed as soon as possible since state officials are visiting Dougherty County School System's special education offices in January.

"The first visit is January; they'll be here," she said. "All our compliance reports are based on tracking. Some people don't want their children in our program; some people don't want their kid in special education."

Allen said the school system has been using the computer-based system i-Plan for a several years, but started looking for a more reliable system two years ago since it was starting to become problematic. In fact, she said that it sometimes has lost information that took considerable hours to input.

"We've been fighting with this program," Allen said.

Bush then asked Allen about the timeliness of the need request for the SEMS Tracker software.

"If this is such a great need and you didn't do it, why now?" he said. "I don't want someone to say, 'You gave $120,000 to folks in Massachusetts.' I'm a representative for the people of the 5th District."

Exceptional Student Program Assistant Director Gwen Taylor then stepped in to help clarify the need for the system. Taylor, who was hired in July after working in the Terrell County School System for 19 years, explained the merits of the SEMS Tracker software. Taylor was familiar with SEMS as she used it in Terrell and noted it is the software of choice for school systems in Georgia.

"SEMS charges on a per child basis," she said. "If you asked for a file, it goes there. All of the systems like this are out of the North."

Taylor's quick explanation took the tension out of the room and Bush commended Allen on hiring her. Bush then made a motion to approve the bid, which the board voted unanimously to accept temporarily predicated upon if the school system hadn't violated any laws in the bid process.

However, DCSS Executive Director of Operations and Business Services Robert Lloyd said that one way that it wouldn't have to be bid is if SEMS could be purchased through the state bid list.

On Thursday, Lloyd informed The Herald that the SEMS Tracker software proposal was not on the state bid list.

"We'll have to bid it out," Lloyd said. "We'll have to contact all the companies that have similar software that deal with EIP (Early Intervention Programs) and RFP (Request for Proposals). Depending on the outcome of the process and once we get the answers, we should be able to turn it around pretty quickly."

On Thursday, Allen said she had never handled a bid process before.

"We've never had to do one of these before," she said. "We went through the process of who had the best price, the best company and the best product. (But), we want to make sure we follow board policy and to make sure everyone has a fair opportunity."

Maschke said the failure to bid the SEMS Tracker proposal correctly validates why the Finance Committee and Board of Education make sure to follow board policy so closely.

"This is an example of the board's interest in following proper procedures and policies in order to ensure fairness and effective expenditure of taxpayers' dollars," said Maschke, the board chairman. "This situation highlights the need for the board and the administration to review and properly apply existing purchasing policies and also highlights a concern that the consultant reviewing the organizational saw as well."