TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida’s effort to build a website designed to help students, parents and teachers master new standards is falling apart over a bitter contract dispute.
Florida agreed last year to spend $20 million to hire a Tallahassee-based company to create a Web-based system to provide practice lessons and tests for the standards that will be phased in for math, English, science and civics over the next two years.
But Infinity Software Development on Monday filed a lawsuit in circuit court against interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart that charged that her agency violated terms of the contract.
The lawsuit states the company has been unable to complete its work on the website because the department did not review the work in a timely fashion or failed to sign off on work done by the company.
Jon Taylor, president of Infinity, said that his company made many attempts to settle the dispute before heading to court.
“Our goal was to reach a resolution that would be in the best interest of everyone, especially Florida’s students and educators,” Taylor said. “We were hopeful that we would have the opportunity to work together with the department as partners to figure out how to move forward, and we made many attempts to do so. Unfortunately, it now appears that an objective arbiter, in this case the courts, may be the best means to addressing our concerns.”
Taylor said Infinity has been forced to lay off 17 employees and stop work with 100 contract employees that it had hired to help do the work. Infinity now has 98 employees.
The Department of Education on Thursday did not respond to requests for comment about the lawsuit.
Infinity in September sent a letter to then-State Board of Education Chair Kathleen Shanahan where company officials asked for a payment of at least $3.23 million to cover completed work. The letter states that if lost profits were included the total due Infinity was $4.5 million.
The state back in early 2011 initially chose Microsoft to design and build the website. Infinity, however, challenged the contract by contending Microsoft should have been disqualified because the software company was unwilling to hand over ownership of the equipment and software to the state.
An administrative judge sided with Infinity and interim Education Commissioner John Winn agreed to hire Infinity in July 2011. But it took until December for a final contract to get signed.
Emails obtained by The Associated Press showed that one source of disagreement was over who should manage the contract. Those emails showed that Steve MacNamara, who was chief of staff for Gov. Rick Scott at the time, was involved in a push to give the governor’s office the ability to resolve any disputes related to the contract.
Then-Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson in November 2011 wrote directly to MacNamara to protest “your desire to have another party manage the contract.”
MacNamara told the AP earlier this year that while Scott and Robinson met once to discuss the contract that he was “not involved in the negotiations” and left all discussions to his deputy chief of staff.
MacNamara defended the decision by the governor’s office to get involved by saying parents consistently ask the governor about Florida’s education system and that the governor provides “advice, counsel and leadership” to the commissioner.
He said the idea to have the governor’s office mediate any disputes was suggested by his office because the state was behind schedule on the contract and it was being paid by federal Race to the Top grant dollars.
In its lawsuit Infinity states that the delay in awarding the contract shortened the time to get the work done by 10 months and required the state to meet tight timelines in order to keep the project on schedule.