County Manager Rick Morris appeared before the school board Monday to ask them to hold off on making any decision on who their next internet provider would be until the County Board of Commissioners could provide input on the proposals offered by three internet companies.
The choice of an internet provider for the school system has been an ongoing debate after Wilkes Communications, operating as RiverStreet Networks, announced plans in March to move into the county to provide service to un-served and under-served communities in the northern part of the county.
At the time, RiverStreet Networks CEO Eric Cramer said the business model for the project depended heavily on getting the business of both the county offices and the school system.
The Stokes County Board of Commissioners offered the school system a one-time special funding allotment of $60,000 in the spring to cover the difference between the cost of a one-year and three-year contract with Time Warner for internet service to allow RiverStreet Networks a chance to offer a bid when it came time to renew.
School Technology Director Sarah Wood told the school board Monday that the next round of bids had come in and Time Warner was the lowest bidder for a three year contract at a price $217,680 per year. RiverStreet Networks came in second at a cost of $320,400 and BroadPlex came in third at a cost of $358,800.
“My request is that you do not take any action on this agenda item until I have had an opportunity to analyze the proposals that were received and discuss my analysis with the Board of County Commissioners,” Morris told the school board Monday. “I would also ask that after I meet with the BOCC on this subject that they be allowed to formally submit information, probably in the form of a letter to the BOE, for you to consider before taking action to select a vendor.
“Two of the three proposals you received were relatively close on the scoring using the evaluation criteria contained in the request for proposals,” he added. “However, the proposal content based on the assignment of points to the two proposals was quite different in the approach that was offered to provide the best value for the Stokes County School System and Stokes County at large. If my request to you is agreed upon, it will allow the Board of County Commissioners to provide input and assist you in making the critically important determination on what the overall best value is for the school system and the county.”
Wood noted that the bids had been evaluated using a bid matrix that gave the biggest weight to the cost of the bid.
“When we look at the price per month, Time Warner had the lowest bid,” she said. “The difference in their bid for one year is $102,720.”
She noted that since the RiverStreet proposal was almost 50 percent higher, she assigned them only half the points in the matrix for cost. She assigned equal points to each company for stability, the extent to which the vendor fulfills the school system’s requirements, and their service level agreement.
“RiverStreet had given the county a proposal that they are willing to expand services to un-served areas which could be important to us so I gave RiverStreet extra points on that,” said Wood. “But we are required to consider the lowest responsible bidder.”
Wood noted that she had checked with the state Department of Public Instruction and, while they used a different matrix, they agreed that Time Warner was the top choice.
The school system gets 80 percent of the cost of internet service rebated to them through the federal government through a program called E-Rate.
“E-Rate is very specific of what they require of us,” said Wood, noting that the program heavily encouraged going with the lowest bidder. “This past year we had to do a lot of work wehn we went witha one-year contract instead of a three-year contract to let them see that Time Warner was the only provider at that time and now we have three vendors competing so that is to our advantage.”
She noted that last year the school received $376,000 in funding through the E-Rate program.
“We can’t possibly jeopardizing losing the E-Rate,” said School Board Member Pat Messick.
“I don’t see a way, unless the difference is made up somehow, that we could even consider Wilkes Communication,” agreed Board Member Jamie Yontz. “I don’t know how we have gotten to the point of looking at this or how it makes fiscal sense to even consider.”
“My request is to let me make a case for you,” replied Morris. “This is going to come down to what is the best value for the county and the school system. It is not all based on cost, there is some value to connecting the citizens out in the county. Ever since I have been county manager we have been trying to figure out a way to get some connectivity out into the county. We will provide you some thoughts and then you can do what you need to do.”
Wood said the school board needed to make a decision on the bids in November.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.