The story of Skyward, an information technology company that sells software programming to school districts around the country, is a long and convoluted one. It is made even more so due to the machinations and lack of transparency which are hallmarks of Scott Walker and his administration.
Currently, the each school district contracts with the vendor that they feel offers the best deal. Currently, Skyward has contracts with more than half of the 425 public school districts in the state.
forgo the free market system that Teapublicans like him usually hold so near and dear to their hearts. Instead of having each school district do what was best for them, he thought he'd force all 425 of them to go with the same vendor, which, of course, he would pick out.
Even then, as Tom Still of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out, Skyward would be the likely choice:
At first glance, Skyward would appear to be a logical candidate. It already provides student information systems to more than half of Wisconsin's 425 public school districts, as well as 1,442 school districts in 18 states and five countries. In fact, Skyward is one of the largest providers in Texas and has most of the school software business in Washington. King proudly notes a 98% retention rate for school districts that use Skyward's software, and adds that customer feedback shows it's easy to learn and use.Cliff King, CEO of Skyward, offered a more logical solution:
King said his company's track record means he's not afraid to compete for the job of coordinating statewide student data, but he questions why Wisconsin would hire one manager instead of multiple firms to manage the same platform. That's how it is done in many other states, he said, which use "preferred" providers rather than a sole provider.As an added bonus, Skyward, which is based in Stevens Point, would keep all 275 jobs here and would likely add 600 over the next 10 years. That is something this job-starved state should be fighting for.
"Unlike the Wisconsin proposal, states such as Texas and Washington use a multivendor system for their (student information) plan to allow for competition and avoid increased costs, training time and aggravation of forcing schools to give up systems that have been successfully working for them," King said.
Kin had warned that the current and future jobs would be moved out of state if they didn't get the contract. They just couldn't stay in a state that didn't want their business.
Things got more complicated in the summer of 2012, when it was discovered that Walker's WEDC (Walker's Economy-Destroying Cronies) had actually offered Skyward a tax break even as they were bidding for this winner-take-all contract:
WEDC offered a tax break to the company in March, then rescinded it in June after Walker's administration deemed it inappropriate because the company was bidding on a $15 million project to run a statewide school information system.I would be remiss if I did not point out that Walker is the Chairman of WEDC.
"We did not feel it was appropriate," Werwie said. "As soon as our office learned of it, we put a stop to it."
The bidding process then continued behind closed doors and apparently with even more shenanigans.
At the beginning of this month, Walker announced that the $15 million contract was being awarded to a company called Infinite Campus, which is based in Blaine, Minnesota. Infinite Campus has contracts with only ten percent of the state's school districts, but according to Walker's "independent consultants," they also had the best technology and the lowest price.
Skyward called foul and said that the evaluation system was rigged and that the panel had removed on of the consultants and did not take into account the fact that more than half the schools already have the software, meaning that they did not need to pay extra to have their systems overhauled. Local leaders also joined in the outcry, saying things stunk to high heaven:
Portage County Executive Patty Dreier said Thursday that a county review of the selection process this week revealed “obvious flaws,” and as a result, Skyward’s protest should be seriously considered.Walker's panel defended their process and trotted out their scoring chart, but then refused to explain how they did their evaluations, what the numbers mean or how they came up with such a screwy system to gauge the companies in the first place. Not exactly a confidence booster there.
“All of Portage County is behind Skyward as they submit their appeal to the Department of Administration,” Dreier said in a news release. “Every Wisconsinite wants the initiatives and processes in government to make sense, be fiscally responsible in the shorter and longer term, and have unquestionable integrity. As Portage County executive, I believe this DPI/DOA case fails the test on all three counts.”
People from around the state, especially from the Stevens Point area, have been calling on Walker to stop the contract until the disputes could be resolved. Walker passed on this and tried to foist the blame on Tony Evers, who is running for reelection to head the Department of Public Instruction:
The Governor says a Department of Public Instruction panel picked Infinite Campus based on procurement laws that have been in place for the state long before he was Governor. Walker says the calls and letters demanding answers and an investigation should be directed at them. "It's not a political process. The whole reason the law is in place is so that you have procurement decisions made on behalf of the people of the state of Wisconsin, not based on political pressures, but based on objective criteria, so from our standpoint, we've in the past worked with them (Skyward) to help them, but the letters should really be directed to the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who is the person whose agency ultimately makes the pick on that."Of course, Walker is lying. First of all, when this process started, Walker had control of it through Act 21, which consolidated all the power in his hands. Secondly, even the non-partisan legislative lawyers are saying that the only way to stop this is through Walker's Department of Administration.
As I'm sure the gentle reader would agree, this whole thing just doesn't sit well.
Indeed, once you actually start taking a look at Infinite Campus, red flags start popping up everywhere.
First, there was this article celebrating the success of Infinite Campus, but the language that CEO Charlie Kratsch uses is markedly similar to that touted by education profiteers:
“(We need) to get rid of grade levels and have each student learn at his or her own rate,” Kratsch said. “We can still do this in the public setting.”Infinite Campus also has a questionable track record.
Instead of teachers lecturing students who go home and ask mom and dad for homework help, G3 encourages students to listen to lectures at home, and then come to school for help and consultation from teachers.
Kratsch likens G3 to a music playlist. Whereas CDs decided the sequence of songs a listener would hear (the old model), new models should allow students to create their own “learning playlists.”
“With text books, (students) are stuck at the end of the year if they don’t pass the test,” Kratsch said. “Then next year they’re studying the same text they already failed at. That to me is the definition of insanity.”
In South Dakota, one of the contracts Infinite Campus lists as a "success" on their website, they totally failed to meet a critical deadline:
State records show the state Office of Finance and Management engaged the Blaine, Minnesota-based company in a new contract for $5.3 million that runs from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2014.Digging deeper, and using the wayback machine, it appears that Infinite Campus' programming was originally obtained from The Miller Group, a company that is now defunct, which had very similar programming available as an open source. Now, there's nothing illegal about Infinite Campus taking this programming, tweaking it and making tens of millions of dollars off of it, but still...
Three state officials’ signatures on the contract are dated from a five-day period in September 2010. None are still in their positions from that time.
Infinite Campus was hired to run the student information system at the statewide level and at the district level for all South Dakota school districts.
Schopp disclosed the problem Monday afternoon during a meeting with the state Board of Education.
School districts were promised the data would be delivered to them Monday but that wasn’t possible, she said.
“Due to a number of issues with our vendor, we’re not even close,” she said. “Bottom line, we don’t have the data ready.”
She said DOE staff worked throughout the weekend trying to clear up the latest problems.
Schopp revealed that the department faced problems with the vendor in past years but nothing to the degree of the current breakdown. She said she will “explore” the contract with Infinite Campus going forward.
Another issue with Infinite Campus is that they contract with Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESA) to do their IT work. So now there's an additional cost for the 90% of the school districts who don't already contract with Infinite Campus. But this issue is actually much larger than just additional money being spent.
The CEO of CESA 6, located in Central Wisconsin, is Joan Wade, who was very happy that Infinite Campus got the contract:
The thing is, Ms. Wade is the wife of State Senator Luther Olsen, who sits on the Joint Finance Committee as well as the Committees for Workforce Development, Finance and, you guessed it, Education. It should also be noted that in 2011, the good folks at One Wisconsin Now slapped Olsen with an ethics complaint, since he was using his position to help out his wife's business:
Wisconsin State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) knowingly authored legislation that will benefit his spouse and himself and even joked about it in committee, according to a complaint filed today against Olsen with the Government Accountability Board by One Wisconsin Now. The complaint asserts Olsen violated Wis. Statutes 19.45(2) which states, “no public official may use his or her public position or office to obtain financial gain…for an organization with which he is associated.”By the way, Wade wasn't CEO at that time. Curious how that works, eh?
“Sen. Luther Olsen believes he is above the law and that he can use his office to benefit himself and his wife,” said Scot Ross, One Wisconsin Now Executive Director. “Not only did Sen. Olsen know the implications of the vote he was taking, but also he joked about it as though it was a laughing matter.”
One Wisconsin Now’s complaint involves Olsen’s votes on 2011 Senate Bill 22, which would allow Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESA) to establish independent charter schools. Olsen, an original co-sponsor of the bill, authored a substitute amendment that would eliminate the prohibition on CESAs running charter schools outside of their geographic territory.
The state is divided into 12 CESAs and every school district is a part of one. CESAs receive the majority of their funding by providing services for a fee to those school districts. Olsen’s wife, former Republican Assembly Representative Joan Wade, is the CESA 6 agency administrator. Comments made during the hearing strongly suggest a number of school districts are seeking to have CESA 6 operate a charter school outside its area, something that would have been prohibited under current law without Olsen’s direct intervention and action.
There's one other thing.
The Chief Operations Officer for Infinite Campus is Eric Creighton. Creighton is an interesting fellow, to say the least.
Creighton used to work for former US Senator David Durenberger (R-Minn), who was denounced in 1990 for unethical conduct and convicted in 1995 of misuse of public funds.
Much more recently, it appears that Creighton worked for the American Energy Alliance:
FD's clients include other oil and gas lobby groups with one in particular that stands out, the American Energy Alliance, run by former Republican staffers Eric Creighton, Kevin Kennedy and Laura Henderson. The Energy Alliance ran an "Energy Town Hall" bus tour last summer attacking the Obama administration's Clean Energy and Security legislation. As FD explains on their website:As the gentle reader might have guessed, the American Energy Alliance is funded by the Koch Brothers and is involved with all sorts of things, like trying to prevent wind farms to falsely blaming Obama for their gouging at the gas station to defending gas and oil companies.
"we have managed successful public affairs campaigns for clients on complex energy policy issues such as climate change, increased energy exploration and production, carbon capture and storage, electricity deregulation, natural gas prices, renewable energy development, and business and consumer energy efficiency."
That might explain the rumors I heard that Infinite Campus was using these guys for their lobbying effort, although we could find no proof of that.
Now, we're not saying that anything untoward is going on with this bidding process or how Infinite Campus got the contract in some mysterious fashion. What we are saying is where there's moles, there's weasels.