Anne Arundel school officials first looked for a company to conduct a system-wide safety and security assessment last summer. They asked for proposals. They interviewed applicants. Then they called the whole thing off. Too expensive in tight budget times, they said.

Now, with a more recent contract for the same assessment drawing criticism, school officials are acknowledging that money was not their only consideration in canceling the initial solicitation. School Superintendent Eric J. Smith said last week that the evaluation of the bidders was improper.

Of particular concern, Smith said, was that two of the three people on the bid selection committee were related: J. Mark Black, school system security chief, and his wife, Diane, then a building administrator.

One of the bidders now says he complained about that issue in mid-August, before the solicitation was ended, and again in an Aug. 30 letter. "It just didn't pass the public integrity smell test," the bidder, Kenneth S. Trump of the firm National School Safety and Security Services in Ohio, said in an interview.

Drawing criticism now, from school board member Michael J. McNelly and a group of parents, is the $395,000 contract awarded in February, for the same services. That contract, $175,000 of which will be paid from a federal grant the schools received in September, was not reviewed by the board before the staff awarded it to the National Institute for School and Workplace Safety of Florida. District policies are not explicit on when board review must occur, Smith has said.

The director of the Florida company, Wolfgang W. Halbig, said in interviews that he met J. Mark Black at a conference in Washington before the school system asked for proposals last summer. The two also spent a day together in Florida discussing a hotline program that Halbig's firm markets, he said. But Halbig said his firm did not gain any edge in the bidding process as a result.

School system staff have been directed not to publicly discuss the matter, and messages left for Black last week were not returned.

Smith has asked for an outside review of the contract and said it would go beyond a recent, more limited review by the schools' outside lawyer and auditor. "We're going to investigate this inside out with everybody involved," Smith said.

The Florida company's proposal made it the second-lowest bidder, after the Reston-based Systech Group's $238,000 bid. Documents show that the selection panel relied heavily on technical judgments rather than cost, and Halbig's firm won on the strength of its experience and specific proposal.