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Governor denies school district's waiver request

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The Tomah School District won’t get permission to use its student information software system after all.

The Department of Public Instruction informed the district that Gov. Scott Walker has denied Tomah’s request to continue using the Infinity system, a database which tracks student achievement. Infinity was developed by the district’s Director of Technological Infrastructure Paul Potter and also is used by the Royall School District.

The DPI earlier had told the district that a waiver would be granted.

Superintendent Cindy Zahrte said the decision imposes an unnecessary financial burden on the district. She said switching to a private vendor would cost $50,000 in the first year and $30,000 annually for licensing fees after that.

“Being forced to purchase this makes no sense,” Zahrte said. “The decision has been made that there will be one supplier even though ours costs us no money and it works.”

Department of Public Instruction Communications Officer Patrick Gasper said his office requested the waiver during a meeting with Walker’s staff. Gasper said Walker’s two representatives at the meeting indicated they would take the request under advisement and later informed DPI of the denial via e-mail.

The 2011-12 budget appropriates $15 million to establish the student information system. It’s part of a school accountability task force headed by Walker and DPI Superintendent Tony Evers (see related story).

DPI is prohibited from from spending the $15 million without the governor’s approval. Gasper said the governor’s office also has final say on any waivers.

“We were supportive of the waiver request, and it was denied,” Gasper said.

He said some of the $15 million will be used to assist school districts with transition costs.

Gov. Walker’s Press Secretary Cullen Werwie said uniformity is necessary for the system to work.

“Our office indicated the priority of the student information system should be uniformity across the entire state so that information can be appropriately tracked and comparisons can be quickly compiled between all school districts,” Werwie said.

Potter rejects the uniformity argument.

“I’m all for uniformity, but it doesn’t necessarily mean one piece of software,” Potter said. “It means setting the same standards for communication, and it shouldn’t matter which system is used.”

He said banks conduct successful transactions with each other despite different software systems.

“The business community would laugh at us if they knew we were making this such a big deal,” Potter said.

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma) said the legislation was rammed through without firm cost estimates.

“They don’t say how much it will cost each school district,” she said. “There is no clear estimate in terms of dollars in what it takes to maintain the system.”

She said the legislature “circumvented the usual process” by keeping control of the $15 million away from DPI and added, “We should have spent the $15 million for something else.”

Vinehout said maneuvering for the contract has already begun. Software manufacturer Skyward, Inc., of Stevens Point has hired Madison lobbyist Peter Kammer, and Vinehout expects Skyward to bid on the contract.

Skyward describes itself as “ a leading provider of administrative software solutions for K-12 schools,” and its website says it serves 375 Wisconsin school districts.

Kammer said he was retained by Skyward to monitor the legislative process.

“Skyward is in the same boat as Tomah,” Kammer said. “We don’t know what’s allowed or not allowed. We’re waiting for directives to come from the DPI.”

An attempt to reach a Skyward executive for comment Friday was unsuccessful.

Werwie said the contract process will be open, fair and subject to the state’s “rigorous competitive bid process.”

Zahrte and Potter traveled to Madison Aug. 25 to speak with members of the state Legislature, including state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine), chair of the Joint Finance Committee. Zahrte said Vos was sympathetic to the idea of competition among vendors.

Potter said the legislation creates a “monopoly.”

“It’s going to cost a lot of money and stifle innovation,”he said

Vinehout agreed.

“My cynical mind tells me this is going to be a good contract for someone,” she said.

Zahrte and Vinehout vowed to keep the issue alive.

“Why in heaven’s name can’t Tomah keep its own system?” Vinehout said. “At $50,000 per school district, that’s $21 million (statewide) on top of all the other cuts that have been made. This is worth fighting for, and the time to fight is now.”

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