Sunday, February 17, 2013

Looking Skyward

Author's note: The following was done with the assistance of many people, most notably the good folks at PolitiScoop.

The story of Skyward, an information technology company that sells software programming to school districts around the country, is a long and convoluted one.  It is made even more so due to the machinations and lack of transparency which are hallmarks of Scott Walker and his administration.

Currently, the each school district contracts with the vendor that they feel offers the best deal.  Currently, Skyward has contracts with more than half of the 425 public school districts in the state.

Back in September 2011, Scott Walker decided that he was going to forgo the free market system that Teapublicans like him usually hold so near and dear to their hearts.  Instead of having each school district do what was best for them, he thought he'd force all 425 of them to go with the same vendor, which, of course, he would pick out.

Even then, as Tom Still of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out, Skyward would be the likely choice:
At first glance, Skyward would appear to be a logical candidate. It already provides student information systems to more than half of Wisconsin's 425 public school districts, as well as 1,442 school districts in 18 states and five countries. In fact, Skyward is one of the largest providers in Texas and has most of the school software business in Washington. King proudly notes a 98% retention rate for school districts that use Skyward's software, and adds that customer feedback shows it's easy to learn and use.
Cliff King, CEO of Skyward, offered a more logical solution:
King said his company's track record means he's not afraid to compete for the job of coordinating statewide student data, but he questions why Wisconsin would hire one manager instead of multiple firms to manage the same platform. That's how it is done in many other states, he said, which use "preferred" providers rather than a sole provider.

"Unlike the Wisconsin proposal, states such as Texas and Washington use a multivendor system for their (student information) plan to allow for competition and avoid increased costs, training time and aggravation of forcing schools to give up systems that have been successfully working for them," King said.
As an added bonus, Skyward, which is based in Stevens Point, would keep all 275 jobs here and would likely add 600 over the next 10 years. That is something this job-starved state should be fighting for.

Kin had warned that the current and future jobs would be moved out of state if they didn't get the contract. They just couldn't stay in a state that didn't want their business.

Things got more complicated in the summer of 2012, when it was discovered that Walker's WEDC (Walker's Economy-Destroying Cronies) had actually offered Skyward a tax break even as they were bidding for this winner-take-all contract:
WEDC offered a tax break to the company in March, then rescinded it in June after Walker's administration deemed it inappropriate because the company was bidding on a $15 million project to run a statewide school information system.

"We did not feel it was appropriate," Werwie said. "As soon as our office learned of it, we put a stop to it."
I would be remiss if I did not point out that Walker is the Chairman of WEDC.

The bidding process then continued behind closed doors and apparently with even more shenanigans.

At the beginning of this month, Walker announced that the $15 million contract was being awarded to a company called Infinite Campus, which is based in Blaine, Minnesota. Infinite Campus has contracts with only ten percent of the state's school districts, but according to Walker's "independent consultants," they also had the best technology and the lowest price.

Skyward called foul and said that the evaluation system was rigged and that the panel had removed on of the consultants and did not take into account the fact that more than half the schools already have the software, meaning that they did not need to pay extra to have their systems overhauled. Local leaders also joined in the outcry, saying things stunk to high heaven:
Portage County Executive Patty Dreier said Thursday that a county review of the selection process this week revealed “obvious flaws,” and as a result, Skyward’s protest should be seriously considered.

“All of Portage County is behind Skyward as they submit their appeal to the Department of Administration,” Dreier said in a news release. “Every Wisconsinite wants the initiatives and processes in government to make sense, be fiscally responsible in the shorter and longer term, and have unquestionable integrity. As Portage County executive, I believe this DPI/DOA case fails the test on all three counts.”
Walker's panel defended their process and trotted out their scoring chart, but then refused to explain how they did their evaluations, what the numbers mean or how they came up with such a screwy system to gauge the companies in the first place. Not exactly a confidence booster there.

People from around the state, especially from the Stevens Point area, have been calling on Walker to stop the contract until the disputes could be resolved. Walker passed on this and tried to foist the blame on Tony Evers, who is running for reelection to head the Department of Public Instruction:
The Governor says a Department of Public Instruction panel picked Infinite Campus based on procurement laws that have been in place for the state long before he was Governor. Walker says the calls and letters demanding answers and an investigation should be directed at them. "It's not a political process. The whole reason the law is in place is so that you have procurement decisions made on behalf of the people of the state of Wisconsin, not based on political pressures, but based on objective criteria, so from our standpoint, we've in the past worked with them (Skyward) to help them, but the letters should really be directed to the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, who is the person whose agency ultimately makes the pick on that."
Of course, Walker is lying. First of all, when this process started, Walker had control of it through Act 21, which consolidated all the power in his hands. Secondly, even the non-partisan legislative lawyers are saying that the only way to stop this is through Walker's Department of Administration.

The blame for this mess lies solely at Walker's feet and he's the only one that can clean it up.

As I'm sure the gentle reader would agree, this whole thing just doesn't sit well.

Indeed, once you actually start taking a look at Infinite Campus, red flags start popping up everywhere.

First, there was this article celebrating the success of Infinite Campus, but the language that CEO Charlie Kratsch uses is markedly similar to that touted by education profiteers:
“(We need) to get rid of grade levels and have each student learn at his or her own rate,” Kratsch said. “We can still do this in the public setting.”
Instead of teachers lecturing students who go home and ask mom and dad for homework help, G3 encourages students to listen to lectures at home, and then come to school for help and consultation from teachers.
Kratsch likens G3 to a music playlist. Whereas CDs decided the sequence of songs a listener would hear (the old model), new models should allow students to create their own “learning playlists.”
“With text books, (students) are stuck at the end of the year if they don’t pass the test,” Kratsch said. “Then next year they’re studying the same text they already failed at. That to me is the definition of insanity.”
Infinite Campus also has a questionable track record.

In South Dakota, one of the contracts Infinite Campus lists as a "success" on their website, they totally failed to meet a critical deadline:
State records show the state Office of Finance and Management engaged the Blaine, Minnesota-based company in a new contract for $5.3 million that runs from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2014.

Three state officials’ signatures on the contract are dated from a five-day period in September 2010. None are still in their positions from that time.

Infinite Campus was hired to run the student information system at the statewide level and at the district level for all South Dakota school districts.

Schopp disclosed the problem Monday afternoon during a meeting with the state Board of Education.

School districts were promised the data would be delivered to them Monday but that wasn’t possible, she said.

“Due to a number of issues with our vendor, we’re not even close,” she said. “Bottom line, we don’t have the data ready.”

She said DOE staff worked throughout the weekend trying to clear up the latest problems.

Schopp revealed that the department faced problems with the vendor in past years but nothing to the degree of the current breakdown. She said she will “explore” the contract with Infinite Campus going forward.
Digging deeper, and using the wayback machine, it appears that Infinite Campus' programming was originally obtained from The Miller Group, a company that is now defunct, which had very similar programming available as an open source. Now, there's nothing illegal about Infinite Campus taking this programming, tweaking it and making tens of millions of dollars off of it, but still...

Another issue with Infinite Campus is that they contract with Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESA) to do their IT work. So now there's an additional cost for the 90% of the school districts who don't already contract with Infinite Campus. But this issue is actually much larger than just additional money being spent.

The CEO of CESA 6, located in Central Wisconsin, is Joan Wade, who was very happy that Infinite Campus got the contract:

The thing is, Ms. Wade is the wife of State Senator Luther Olsen, who sits on the Joint Finance Committee as well as the Committees for Workforce Development, Finance and, you guessed it, Education. It should also be noted that in 2011, the good folks at One Wisconsin Now slapped Olsen with an ethics complaint, since he was using his position to help out his wife's business:
Wisconsin State Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) knowingly authored legislation that will benefit his spouse and himself and even joked about it in committee, according to a complaint filed today against Olsen with the Government Accountability Board by One Wisconsin Now. The complaint asserts Olsen violated Wis. Statutes 19.45(2) which states, “no public official may use his or her public position or office to obtain financial gain…for an organization with which he is associated.”

“Sen. Luther Olsen believes he is above the law and that he can use his office to benefit himself and his wife,” said Scot Ross, One Wisconsin Now Executive Director. “Not only did Sen. Olsen know the implications of the vote he was taking, but also he joked about it as though it was a laughing matter.”

One Wisconsin Now’s complaint involves Olsen’s votes on 2011 Senate Bill 22, which would allow Cooperative Educational Service Agencies (CESA) to establish independent charter schools. Olsen, an original co-sponsor of the bill, authored a substitute amendment that would eliminate the prohibition on CESAs running charter schools outside of their geographic territory.

The state is divided into 12 CESAs and every school district is a part of one. CESAs receive the majority of their funding by providing services for a fee to those school districts. Olsen’s wife, former Republican Assembly Representative Joan Wade, is the CESA 6 agency administrator. Comments made during the hearing strongly suggest a number of school districts are seeking to have CESA 6 operate a charter school outside its area, something that would have been prohibited under current law without Olsen’s direct intervention and action.
By the way, Wade wasn't CEO at that time. Curious how that works, eh?

There's one other thing.

The Chief Operations Officer for Infinite Campus is Eric Creighton. Creighton is an interesting fellow, to say the least.

Creighton used to work for former US Senator David Durenberger (R-Minn), who was denounced in 1990 for unethical conduct and convicted in 1995 of misuse of public funds.

Much more recently, it appears that Creighton worked for the American Energy Alliance:
FD's clients include other oil and gas lobby groups with one in particular that stands out, the American Energy Alliance, run by former Republican staffers Eric Creighton, Kevin Kennedy and Laura Henderson. The Energy Alliance ran an "Energy Town Hall" bus tour last summer attacking the Obama administration's Clean Energy and Security legislation. As FD explains on their website:
"we have managed successful public affairs campaigns for clients on complex energy policy issues such as climate change, increased energy exploration and production, carbon capture and storage, electricity deregulation, natural gas prices, renewable energy development, and business and consumer energy efficiency."
As the gentle reader might have guessed, the American Energy Alliance is funded by the Koch Brothers and is involved with all sorts of things, like trying to prevent wind farms to falsely blaming Obama for their gouging at the gas station to defending gas and oil companies.

That might explain the rumors I heard that Infinite Campus was using these guys for their lobbying effort, although we could find no proof of that.

Now, we're not saying that anything untoward is going on with this bidding process or how Infinite Campus got the contract in some mysterious fashion.  What we are saying is where there's moles, there's weasels.


  1. I loathe and abominate Scott Walker with the fire of a thousand suns. This John Doe thing can't happen soon enough. In the meantime, there's a pile of damage to Wisconsin that's going to take YEARS to undo, if ever. Next up? Trans-vaginal probes.

  2. Unbelievable that Scooter is getting away with stealing this state one barrel of Koch-oil at a time.

  3. You would think they would have given more weight to Wisconsin companies.

    1. They did. The problem is one vendor had a sub-contractor sleeping with a WI Senator and the other did not.

  4. Why the one company mentality.

  5. You have totally jumped the shark -- at the time you griped that skyward won a rigged bid -- they did get tax breaks to help them win that contract and you called it a pay-for-play then.

    Now you want to say they should have gotten the contract.


    Your morning hit piece on Sen. Lena Taylor was misleading and entirely based on the relative position of priviledge and entitlement you have as a white male with connections to public service and unions.

    Taylor stands up for her consitutents that do not have the priveledges you obviously take for granted.

    Taylor DID NOT say she would vote for walker's mining bill and she has been one of the most vocal opponents at hearings -- but you didn't intend to say anything truthful about an African American that has overwhelming support of her consitutents and represents the experience of many African Americans in the most racist state and city in America.

    Nowhere else in America is segregation to strictly enforced as Milwaukee -- the public schools are totally dysfunctional, the union has a role in this, and after multi-generations of being underserved in Milwaukee's public schools; the African American community there suffers the highest unemployment and poverty rates in the country.

    And you would rather Taylor just shut up about it and support UUUUUUUUUUUUNION rights -- organizations that largely do not represent African Americans and can be shown to be institutional racists.

    Shame on you -- this post shows me you have nothing to say that is actually progressive or liberal -- Skyward is not an innocent victem here.

    And your hack attack on Taylor today is disgusting but proves you don't have a clue.

    1. If you think that signing on to the destroy the milwaukee county board legislation is "stands up for her consitutents that do not have the priveledges" ,... then you better recheck what standing up means...

    2. That anonymous commenter is named "Jim." He's a buddy of Dan Cody's, which is probably why he is so confused about things, like what post is about what topic, etc.

    3. BTW, Jim, or whatever your name is, state senators are thanking me for my work. Yeah, I think we know who jumped the shark here. I just hope you're wearing your life vest and shark repellent.

    4. Hey Jim, if Sen. Taylor is so committed to her constituents, why didn't she marijuana/hemp legalization on the ballot in return. If the GOP suddenly embraces Democracy, let's let the people decide that. Kentucky Senate just voted to legalize hemp.

      According to Bice, she got a road sign, in return for letting Rep. Sanfilippo call his legislation "bi-partisan."

      "No taxation without representation." That's what Sen. Taylor's appears to be giving up in Milwaukee County, for a road sign. She doesn't appear to be getting a very good deal.

  6. Just to clarify...Skyward may serve 50% of the districts in Wisconsin, but they are the SMALLEST districts serving the fewest number of students. Infinite Campus serves 10% of the Districts (all in SE Wisconsin), BUT MOST OF THE STUDENTS because they service the biggest districts. If you're looking for a company to service the entire state, you should be looking at a company that has been able to serve the interests of the biggest districts. I'm sure Infinite Campus will be hiring many IT professionals from Wisconsin to service area school districts.

    1. More districts mean more money. Skyward would still be hiring lots of people - Wisconsin people - and cost a lot less money.

    2. We use Skyward in the Racine Unified School District and we are not a small district.

    3. If you do your research, Skyward has districts of up to 80,000 students across the US.

    4. Did you actually find how many Wisconsin students fall under Skyward vs infinite campus? It's difficult to imagine infinite campus's 10% has more than skyward's 50%.

  7. The "one-company" setup is my question, too. I don't as much have a problem with Infinite Campus winning (although Skyward's complaints show this bid seems to have a whole lot of sketchiness associated with it), but the whole "1 system for the entire state" idea has failed miserably with Logisticare, and yet they keep trying the same system which has so much of a bigger chance of being corrupt as the stakes and $$$ go up.

    I can see it totally failing here, given that you have 400+ school districts throughout the state with very different levels of info and technology.

  8. I had mentioned somewhere that I thought that CESA was going to figure prominently into this. And I wasn't even aware of the Olson link.

  9. If, as I believe, Walker's goal is the destruction of the Wisconsin public school system, then the selection of the more incompetent but politically connected and Koch brothers endorsed company makes perfect sense. Perhaps he thinks gifting the contract to a Minnesota company will gain him Tea Party support in that state for his quixotic 2016 Presidential bid.

    This was most excellent reporting. I am heading for the tip jar right now.

  10. Given that the Conservative movement started their assault on democracy at the local / school board level, I wonder if Walker has burned enough Republicans yet for them to stop voting R?

  11. Although it's possible that scandal took place, I believe Infinite Campus won the bid properly. Additionally, I don't think it should have been a surprise to anyone, given that over the past five years, nearly every district purchasing a new Student System chose Infinite Campus, including Green Bay, Wausau, MAdison.

    Regarding the hundreds of jobs, I'm not sure where Skyward would come up with those numbers, they currently have about 325 employees,have been in business for over 30 years, sell and support both a finance and student system, and cover numerous states. How would they ever need an additional 600 employees over ten years or hundreds due to this project.

    Skyward is a very good company and offers a solid solution, but in this case, they were beat.

    1. They were only beat because the game was rigged. If Infinite Campus was truly the better company, there wouldn't be the secrecy, the manipulation and the outright lies regarding the scoring.

    2. Skyward will add 600 jobs in the next 10 years, but not just do to this contract. If they are banned from doing business in WI however, these jobs will be added somewhere else. Skyward is growing very fast around the country.

    3. As much as i would like to believe that, there is no way Skyward is adding 600 jobs. What for, it's not like they're creating a new business.

  12. This is a great article, however i believe it lets DPI and Tony Evers off the hook too easily. Evers is the one who has been pushing for the single vendor solution, even when it was put up to vote a year and a half ago. Also, if you look you will see that Evers gets his political backing from the CESAs, who as you say, openly support Infinite Campus. Also Assistant State Superintendent Kurt Kiefer can be easily be found promoting Infinite Campus.

    1. Evers didn't introduce, sponsor or vote for the bill that made it a one vendor state. That was Luther Olsen, whose wife is CEO of one of the CESAs.

    2. I wish you were correct, but unfortunately you are not on this issue. Although I'm a Democrat, I cannot overlook Ever’s and DPI’s roll in this process. You can listen to Evers here:

      Not only does he say he supports a single vendor system, he claims that the 15,000,000 in funding for the conversion process is adequate. Anyone following this knows that is a ridiculous statement, and it will be closer to quadruple that on the low end. He also makes other claims which are borderline ridiculous with today's technology.

      There is more text and audio available of Evers promoting a single vendor system, and many articles about Evers and the CESAs relationship. I’m also quite sure DPI is who had picked the evaluators who awarded Infinite Campus more points than possible on 73 different occasions in the review.

  13. This is an ill informed load of crap.

  14. Used Skyward before. It sucks. Powerschool is much more flexible and able to construct custom reports. What the State wants to do is gather student information into a single depository. Let it be so. Specify the data structure, then provide a gateway for all schools to import information no matter what system they have.