October 3, 2013

‘Misstep’ troubles some De Soto school board members

The superintendent violated board policy by making an almost million-dollar purchase without taking bids or getting board approval, some board members say.

The De Soto School District set out this summer to pull its classrooms into the 21st century with the latest in wireless technology.

Then things got complicated.

The superintendent, some board members say, violated board policy by making the almost million-dollar purchase without taking bids or getting board approval.

The district has scrambled to try to return the equipment and start over, but the manufacturer has told district officials that its 30-day window for returns closed a month ago.

The school board has set an emergency meeting for 7:15 a.m. Friday. District spokesman Alvie Cater said officials have determined the board essentially has two options: Keep the equipment and pay for it, or don’t keep the equipment and pay for it.

Superintendent Doug Sumner declined to comment on the purchase, but Cater acknowledged a “misstep.”

“We are not going to do this again,” Cater said. “Any purchase is going to be taken to the board, especially if it is over $20,000.”

The De Soto school board, like many school districts in Kansas, requires that bids be taken if a product’s cost exceeds $20,000.

But that policy wasn’t followed in August when Sumner cut a check for $926,624 that two vendors used to buy the equipment from Cisco Meraki, part of Cisco Systems.

Brad Sandt, president of K12itc, one of the two vendors, said the district can’t just cancel the purchase.

“The manufacturer has return policies; those aren’t dictated by us,” said Sandt, whose Kansas City area company has a five-year contract to service the district’s computer system.

Cisco officials declined to comment.

In a meeting Monday, the board hired JMA Information Technology to be a third-party consultant for $150 an hour. The firm estimated that it would take 40 to 50 hours to review the school district’s technology infrastructure plan and make recommendations. A report is scheduled to be delivered to the board Oct. 14.

The project became a problem soon after a July 29 board meeting.

At that meeting, board members were excited as they discussed an “infrastructure acceleration project” to bring the district’s computer system up to date. The equipment would allow students to use their own iPads, cellphones and laptops at school. The purchase included the wireless hardware, projectors for many classrooms and a new phone system.

On unanimous votes, the seven-member board approved the project and voted to use funds from capital reserves to pay for it.

Eleven days later, K12itc and the second vendor, Ingram Micro of Santa Ana., Calif., delivered the equipment to the district.

On Aug. 15, board member Scott Hancock, an electrical engineer and business owner, started asking whether bids had gone out.

That’s when he learned the equipment had already been purchased and was in a warehouse.

“Unfortunately, there was a mistake made,” Hancock said. “$20,000 is the limit and there was a million-dollar purchase. It was poor decision-making at the very least.”

Board member Bill Fletcher notified the Johnson County district attorney’s office because he was concerned the district might have violated state law.

By the board’s Sept. 16 meeting, Sumner had sent a report to board members saying there had been a misunderstanding and he had voided the check. After much debate, the board voted 7-0 to approve that action.

Cater said Sumner thought the initial board approval in July meant he could immediately buy the technology equipment without bidding it.

Both the board policy and a state law prohibit expenditures over $20,000 without bidding.

The board policy states: “The superintendent is authorized to execute contracts on behalf of the district for the purchase of goods and services if the amount is less than $20,000.”

But the state law includes an exemption for “incremental products” for services, such as maintenance of a computer system.

Sumner and the board attorney were following the state law, Cater said. Three board members agreed with their interpretation, but four did not.

“There was confusion,” Cater said. “Obviously not everyone (on the board) was on the same page.”

After the check was voided, Fletcher said, he called the district attorney back to say he thought the school district was moving in the right direction.

Kristi Bergeron, the district attorney’s spokeswoman, said she had no comment.

Fletcher wasn’t the only person who called the district attorney’s office. Cater said he had called to “self-report” after a patron raised questions about a potential violation of the state’s open meetings law.

Cater said a training session had been scheduled for the board on Oct. 14.

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