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Council buys local on computer training contract

Friday, March 2, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council rejected the advice of city staff and awarded a technology training contract to a local group over a national nonprofit that only recently arrived in Austin.

Staff had recommended that the city contract with Community Technology Network to manage seven computer labs and provide a range of digital literacy services. The programs are aimed at helping those without access to or experience with computers acquire skills that they need to find and keep jobs in an increasingly digital economy.

CTN’s bid for the solicitation scored higher than the group that the city has contracted with for years, Austin Free-Net. While the latter had earned points due to its local presence, CTN was graded higher in terms of training experience, staffers explained.

Free-Net leaders urged Council not to kick a local group to the curb in favor of one that – like so many Austin transplants – had only recently arrived from California. They argued that the newcomers lacked the deep knowledge of the community and partnerships with other organizations, from homeless shelters to retirement communities, that Free-Net uses to connect with those in need of its services.

Elizabeth Quintanilla, a member of the Free-Net board, also pointed out that the group serves 31 sites, compared to the seven that staff had recommended hiring CTN to serve.

City staffers, however, replied that the city wasn’t offering to pay for services to 31 labs and suggested that Free-Net’s current offerings were spread too thin. The service requested by the city was aimed at providing more robust training at fewer sites, explained Rondella Hawkins from the Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs.

Margo Dover, the former executive director of Skillpoint Alliance, a job training group, said that Free-Net was made up of “good people with good intentions” but that she had never been impressed by its performance, including “lots of sites without a lot of people there, and lots of programs that don’t have outcomes.”

Council members were clearly conflicted, torn between respecting staff’s recommendation and loyalty to a well-established local group. In the end, most sided with Free-Net.

Council Member Ora Houston said she would support Free-Net, saying that they had the local connections and the “Austin flavor.”

Houston also asked Dale Thompson, one of CTN’s leaders, about the demographics of their leadership. “We’re a bunch of white ladies,” replied Thompson, but noted the group had one person of color and was intending to hire more.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo also said she would support continuing the existing relationship.

“I really support Austin Free-Net’s work, and I think they have a solid plan going forward,” she said.

Council ultimately voted 7-2-1 to award Free-Net the contract.

Dissenting were Council members Jimmy Flannigan and Ellen Troxclair, both of whom urged their colleagues not to stick by a contractor just because it had been around the longest. Council Member Alison Alter abstained.

In an interview after the vote, Austin Free-Net Executive Director Juanita Budd conceded that the organization was “spread too thin” and said she was eager to make changes to bring the group’s services in line with the city’s expectations.

“We’re going to kick butt,” she said.

Kami Griffiths, executive director of CTN, told the Austin Monitor that she was disappointed but that the group would continue to provide services in Austin, including through an existing partnership it has with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin.

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