LUS Fiber in jeopardy of losing LPSS' biz

by Patrick Flanagan

When the local school system sent out its recent RFP for Internet services, its current provider, LUS Fiber, was not included in the competitive bid process. But why?

When the Lafayette Parish School System sent out its recent RFP for Internet services, its current provider, LUS Fiber, was not included in the competitive bid process.

But why?

Based on the school board’s Feb. 4 agenda, the process seemed all wrapped up, with the school system’s technology department poised to change providers, switching from LUS Fiber — Lafayette’s nationally renowned and public-owned Internet service provider — to Detel Fiber Systems, a small — and for the most part, little-known — company out of Hessmer, La.

According to a summary of the four companies evaluated by a four-member team from within the school system’s IT department, Detel received the highest rating at 96.25. The second highest rating was given to the Metairie-based Hunt Telecom, 62.25, followed by Cox Communications’ grade of 60. And coming in last: LUS Fiber with a score of 47. According to the LPSS IT team, the evaluation was based on four criteria, including price of eligible services, quality of service and support, years of experience in service, and prior experience with the district.

And here’s a description from the school system’s IT team of the evaluation process as included in board member packets for the Feb. 4 meeting:

Lafayette Parish School System posted a Form 470 (Request for Services) on October 9, 2014 in accordance with USAC (Universal Service Administrative Company) guidance and program rules. There were three responses and four evaluations. Lafayette Consolidated Government (current internet provider) did not submit a response. However, as a courtesy, we included them in the evaluation using the latest invoice pricing. Evaluations were conducted in December, 2014. The evaluation committee was a team of 4.

Detel was the highest score and was awarded the contract. We respectfully request the Board’s approval of this contract award so we may continue to move forward within the E-Rate timelines.

The school system’s Internet service provider for the last 10 years, LUS Fiber seemed more like an after-thought in this year’s RFP process — one that initially resembled the school board's problematic insurance renewal from two years ago. Though LUS was included in the evaluation, it was based on an old pricing structure that would change if another contract is awarded.

The process immediately raised questions among some board members, particularly District 8’s Erick Knezek, who wonders about the potential subjectivity of the evaluation. And ultimately, the board voted to restart the process in a more objective fashion.

Justin Centanni

Though we were unable to reach Knezek for this story, we did speak to fellow board member Justin Centanni. Here’s what Centanni had to say about the board’s decision last week:

It’s not that anyone did anything wrong, but we feel we can do it better and that we need to put better processes around the way we make these types of decisions.

We felt the evaluation process was subjective by basing it on personal experience with each company — that’s what [LPSS IT Director] LaShona Dickerson said during the meeting. So now we’re going to publish how we’ll be scoring these companies before we actually score them to make it more objective.

Still, why was LUS not included in the process? Was it an LUS oversight not to submit a bid?

The IND reached out to LUS Director Terry Huval and LPSS’ LaShona Dickerson to find out.

LUS Director Terry Huval

“The process has changed significantly from the previous times we’ve been asked to respond to make a proposal to the school system,” Huval tells The IND. “It’s an online process, and the navigation to that site was not as logical as we’d seen in the past. The bottom line for us is we weren’t even aware the solicitation process was taking place. And an initial view of the website wouldn’t have enlightened us.”

Huval says in July a meeting was convened with Dickerson and several of her staff members to discuss the school system’s future Internet needs. At that meeting, says Huval, the coming end of the contract was also discussed.

“We talked about what they anticipated needing in the future,” recalls Huval. “And we talked about the five-year term coming up and let them know we were interested in continuing to provide services. We told them we could give them a better deal because the cost of providing broadband continues to drop. In general, I thought it was a very low-key, comfortable meeting. We felt comfortable when we left that we would be successful in getting another contract with the school system. But we never received any additional dialogue and were completely surprised to find out the request had even gone out.”

According to Dickerson, however, the July meeting with LUS included no discussion of the contract’s renewal. Dickerson also says that it would’ve been illegal for her to contact LUS with notice of the coming renewal process.

LPSS Technology Director LaShona Dickerson

“At the time of that meeting in July, we had no idea whether or not we would be putting out a 470 [RFP],” Dickerson says. “Plus, we’re not allowed to solicit bids or respondents for a 470. For me to give them a call would have been breaking the law. There’s clearly some confusion, but I had three vendors respond, so they clearly understood the process.”

And, she adds, vendors like LUS and Detel have the option to subscribe through the federal E-Rate website to receive notifications of all recently posted requests for proposals.

Despite the confusion, though, Huval hopes to continue what he describes as a good relationship with the school system.

“They’re an important customer; one of the first we started serving when we started in 2005,” he says. “It’s not just the price or the revenue though. We’re a local government, and the school system is a local government. It’s been a source of pride for us to serve LPSS and is something we’d like to keep doing. We have been very responsive with any of their issues, and if someone feels we aren’t responsive enough they know how to find me.”