Miles Turner remembers coming to work in the morning and finding Cliff King asleep on the carpet, after working all night.
It was the early 1980s, when Turner was superintendent of the River Valley School District, in Spring Green. Cliff King and brother Jim had launched a company to design school information systems, out of a garage in Stevens Point.
Turner, now executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, agreed to let the Kings use the district's computer in exchange for the software they developed.
From these humble beginnings, the Kings' company, Skyward, became a leading provider of school information systems, with customers in more than a dozen states. Skyward, still headquartered in Stevens Point, does business with about 80% of Wisconsin's more than 440 school districts and provides the student information software used by roughly half of them.
"I like Skyward and I like what they've done for the state," Turner says. "They're hard workers. It's a good company."
But asked whether Skyward should get a multi-million-dollar contract for a new statewide student information system, Turner demurs, saying he doesn't know enough about the technical details. The software will track all student data, from admissions to attendance to testing to health.
Skyward has lodged a formal protest over the state's decision to pick a Minnesota company, Infinite Campus, for this task. It alleges "numerous irregularities" during the selection process, run by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, including overlooked costs and calculation errors. It estimates that using Skyward would be $14.5 million cheaper over a 10-year period.
"We have never before in 33 years of business filed a protest in a procurement process," says Ray Ackerlund, Skyward's vice president of marketing and product management.
Skyward is also appealing directly to state residents, via full-page ads in six newspapers: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (PDF), Wisconsin State Journal, Green Bay Press-Gazette, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram, La Crosse Tribune and Stevens Point Journal. It says the selection of another vender "will come at a great expense to the Wisconsin taxpayer."
And Skyward, which now has about 280 Wisconsin workers, has threatened to leave the state if the decision is not overturned.
An independent observer hired by DOA to oversee the selection process concluded (PDF) it was fair, but noted that one evaluator was removed after concerns were raised about potential bias. That evaluator, the protest says, was perceived as assisting Skyward.
Ackerlund also questions the state's decision to pursue a single-vendor system, saying the national trend is toward multiple vendors. (Turner would prefer a single vendor, to ensure consistency.)
Requests for information from Infinite Campus were directed to chief operations officer Eric Creighton, who did not respond. The company has elsewhere defended the process. DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis also did not respond to information requests.
John Johnson, spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, promises a diligent review of Skyward's appeal, which will come first to DPI.
"We would have preferred that a Wisconsin vendor win this bid," Johnson says. "But state law does not allow for preference to be given to Wisconsin firms." This is done to keep other states from adopting similar rules, which would hurt Wisconsin firms seeking contracts there.
Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are turning up the heat.
State Sen. Julie Lassa (D-Stevens Point) laments the potential loss of "very good, family supporting jobs" if Skyward departs. She says Skyward's roughly 50% share of school districts using its student information software, compared to Infinite Campus' 10% share, shows "the marketplace is choosing Skyward as the preferred vendor."
Meanwhile, state Rep. Scott Krug (R-Rome) is faulting the state's procurement process, arguing in a recent column that "Wisconsin workers and companies need to be given preference." And a bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking a bill to create a multi-vendor system, so districts can pick which provider they want.
Bill Lueders (email@example.com) is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership with MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Television, Wisconsin Public Radio, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.