5 things school districts need to keep in mind before the RFP

by Sharon Fisher

December 12 2011

These 5 guiding principles help the state of Maine's school system navigate what can be a fairly arduous process

As an increasing number of states are looking at providing laptops, tablets, and other computing devices to their public school students for the first time, some early adopters are starting on their second and third rounds. The advantage is that they can provide useful information to others just starting out.

The state of Maine, for example, has been providing Apple devices to some of its students since 2001, said Jeff Mao, learning technology policy director in the state’s department of education in August. There, all students in seventh and eighth grade have laptops, as do about 55% of high schools.

There’s a statewide negotiated contract and program for grades 7 and 8, as well as wireless Internet, and for teachers in grades 7-12, where the state pays for services, equipment, and support.

As the department is preparing for its third series of contracts, which will be implemented in 2013, Mao has a number of pieces of advice for other schools, districts, and states starting the process.

1. Start with your goals.
“The goal isn’t computing devices—the goal is learning,” Mao says. For example, rather than being too detailed about the specifications of the device in the RFP, define the problems you have and the solution you’re seeking.

“Let the vendors respond with how they think they can do that. The more prescriptive you get, the less you have a proposal and the more of a price quote you get.”

Moreover, by being too specific, you’re not giving vendors enough space to innovate. This opens you up to an appeal process if you go with something other than your specification, and also offers the risk of lock-in if only certain vendors can provide that feature.

2. Look at the language in your contract.
For example, give vendors the opportunity to make exceptions to a proposal if they can offer the same functionality in a different way—such as a touch device rather than a keyboard. And have them restate the RFP in their own words rather than saying they’re responding to Section 3.1.2.4.

Similarly, since Mao doesn’t always know whether the product will be a laptop, tablet, or something yet to be released, he uses the term “personal digital device” rather than “laptop.”

3. One throat to choke.
Maine is also sticking with its “one throat to choke” strategy of hiring a single vendor that is responsible for the different components rather than juggling multiple vendors who will finger-point if there’s a problem, Mao said.

“What schools struggle with is that they don’t have project managers,” he said. “Corporations put a project manager in charge to make sure deliverables are met.” In schools, teachers and administrators have other jobs to do. The more administrators can get the vendor community to do, the better, he said. “Let them come up with the solution.”

4. Plan for repairs.
Remember to plan for repairs even if you have a warranty, Mao warned. “If it’s under warranty, it’s covered,” he said. “But they forget we’re a rural district and there’s no dealer nearby. How are you going to get them fixed, ship them to Tennessee?”

In a previous position, Mao had to pack up computers and take them to the repair center himself—in a Mazda no less, which meant he could take only two computers per load.

Now, after the first few years, Apple set up a repair center in Maine specific to his program, and meets with the department weekly.

5. Finally, periodically revisit the contract.
This gives you the opportunity to consider advancements in technology, as well as asserting new or different priorities, he said. Moreover, it creates a known deadline and a regular schedule to give vendors time to respond and your department time to negotiate and implement the new contract at a convenient time, he said.

Also, pick a length of time that balances the capital expenses of the equipment with the increasing support costs as the equipment ages, Mao advises.

Sharon Fisher is a Kuna, Idaho-based freelance writer specializing in technology and public policy.

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