Fla. scuttles deal to build education website

AP News
Posted: Oct 31, 2012 10:02 AM
Fla. scuttles deal to build education website

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida is terminating a $20 million contract to build a website intended to help students, parents and teachers master new academic standards.

The Department of Education officially ended the contract on Tuesday, or roughly a week after the Tallahassee technology company hired to build the website filed its own lawsuit against state education officials. Florida has already spent nearly $2.5 million on the project.

The bitter contract dispute leaves in limbo the fate of the Web-based system that was intended to provide practice lessons and tests for the standards that will be phased in for math, English, science and civics over the next two years.

A spokeswoman for the department said that the state is committed to getting the website up and running. But the letter that terminated the contract makes it clear that the state plans to rebid the contract — a process that could take months.

State education officials in early October warned Infinity Software Development that it was six months behind schedule in building the website. Letters sent to Infinity by the department also assert the company did not turn in acceptable lessons and tests in areas such as math, civics and biology.

One example cited by education officials is Infinity employees used the phrase "pursuit of happiness" to discuss the preamble to the U.S. Constitution even though the words appear in the Declaration of Independence.

Jon Taylor, president of Infinity, strongly disputed this in an Oct. 15 letter back to the state. He stated that the inclusion of the phrase was based on a lesson looking at the philosophical ideals related to the founding of the country as part of an activity comparing the two documents.

"To address this, Infinity simply added more explanation for reviewers to that part of the specifications," Taylor wrote. "That you've apparently forgotten this, and are providing this as an example of Infinity's failure to perform, is troubling."

The money to pay for the website is coming from the federal Race to the Top grant that Florida received.

Back in early 2011, the state initially chose Microsoft to design and build the website. Infinity, however, challenged the contract by contending Microsoft should have been disqualified because the software company was unwilling to hand over ownership of the equipment and software to the state.

The state agreed to hire Infinity in July 2011, but it took until December for a final contract to get signed. Emails obtained by The Associated Press showed that one source of disagreement was over who should manage the contract. Those emails showed that Steve MacNamara, who was chief of staff for Gov. Rick Scott at the time, was involved in a push to give the governor's office the ability to resolve any disputes related to the contract.

Then-Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson in November 2011 wrote directly to MacNamara to protest "your desire to have another party manage the contract."

MacNamara told the AP earlier this year that while Scott and Robinson met once to discuss the contract that he was "not involved in the negotiations" and left all discussions to his deputy chief of staff.

Infinity's lawsuit against interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart states the delay in awarding the contract shortened the time to get the work done by 10 months and required the state to meet tight timelines in order to keep the project on schedule.

But the lawsuit contends the company has been unable to complete its work because the department did not review the work in a timely fashion or failed to sign off on work done by the company.

Taylor said that his company made many attempts to settle the dispute before heading to court. He also said that Infinity has been forced to lay off 17 employees and stop work with 100 contract employees that it had hired.

Infinity in September warned state officials about the problems and asked for a payment of at least $3.23 million to cover completed work. The letter states that if lost profits were included the total due Infinity was $4.5 million.

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