One of the hallmark refrains of the corporate education reform movement is “accountability.” Strangely, their zeal for the concept does not extend to those who implement reforms. Let’s look at two key figures in Connecticut and see how accountable they have been to the state’s taxpayers.
First up, State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor. Shortly after being appointed to his post, Pryor started hiring consultants to work on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education reform package. Like most reformers, he had preferred consultants. State bidding procedures? Why bother when he could funnel contracts through the State Education Resource Center (SERC) by claiming it’s a nonprofit?
That was until Tom Swan of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group (CCAG) filed a Freedom of Information request on state Education Department contracting procedures in Feb. 2012, drawing the ire of Malloy’s legal counsel, Andrew McDonald. “This is one of the more reckless efforts I’ve seen by Tom,” McDonald told Hearst newspapers at the time. “His complaint is devoid of any evidence to support his sensational conclusions regarding the governor. If not today, then sometime soon, he’d better be prepared to put some substance behind these thin assertions.”
Fast forward a year, when the State Auditors office released an interim report on the matter.
In the report, the auditors state:
“SERC represents itself as a nonprofit organization on its website. However, the statutory language indicates that SERC was created as a state entity. SERC has not acted in a manner that is consistent with state agency requirements for transparency and accountability.”
On the next page but within the same section of the report, the auditors also state:
“On at least two recent occasions, SERC entered into an agreement to employ individuals who would report directly to the commissioner of the Department of Education or a designee … In each of these cases, the commissioner instructed SERC to employ specific individuals. In each case, the employment contract (personal service agreement) was between the individual who was employed by SERC and either the State Board of Education or the State Department of Education. On two other occasions, contracts were entered into with private companies to provide various consulting services … Again, the contracts were executed by the State Department of Education, SERC and the private company. The contracts state that the Department of Education selected the vendor and SERC was not responsible for directing or monitoring the vendors’ activities. In each of these cases, the state’s personal service agreement procedures and its contracting procedures were not followed.”
It looks like Mr. McDonald, who is now a Supreme Court justice, has some explaining to do.
And so does the state Department of Education, which proposed changing the makeup of SERC earlier this year with SB 1096. The original language of the bill tried to codify SERC’s ability to engage in sole-source bidding, but the legislation which passed out of the Education Committee last week appears to require SERC to engage in competitive bidding, which is a step in the right direction toward resolving the state auditor’s concerns.
Yet, has Pryor been held accountable? Not a chance. The contractors, who claim they haven’t been paid, are now suing the state. In all three lawsuits, the plaintiffs allege they “relied on the repeated assurances from Department of Education, including the Commissioner Stefan Pryor, CFO Brian Mahoney, and Project Manager Emily Byrne, and continued to provide services through June 2012 on the basis of these assurances.” And who is going to bear the cost of defending the suit? Hint: You and me, fellow taxpayers.
Let’s travel now to Bridgeport, where, as former Mayor P.T. Barnum once observed, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
Back in 2011, Paul G. Vallas, or as Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch likes to call him, the “national celebrity,” was named interim superintendent of Bridgeport’s schools by a Board of Education that was, according to the State Supreme Court, appointed illegally by the state. Like Pryor, Vallas had favored consultants and was apparently of the opinion that rules regarding competitive bidding don’t apply to reformers.
In April 2012, contrary to the Bridgeport code on municipal procurement, Vallas signed a no-bid contract with Public Consulting Group for a new special education software system called Easy IEP, to replace Clarity, the program in use at the time. Vallas justified the sole sourcing on the basis that 1) Easy IEP was the most comprehensive system that had unique features; 2) PCG could “deploy its local teams and products in an immediate fashion,” and; 3) Bridgeport was to “receive the services of the largest and most successful Medicaid reimbursement vendor in the country in a timely and efficient manner.”
Are you laughing yet? If eight months to complete implementation is Mr. Vallas’ idea of a “timely and efficient manner,” we do business in very different ways.
But wait, there’s more! I’m a simple journalist (albeit with a tech analyst background), yet I was able to find IEP Direct and Medicaid Direct, products from Centris Group that appear to perform the same functions as Easy IEP and which are used by more than 70 percent of school districts in Connecticut. Excent.com is another company offering similar products. Even Spectrum K12, provider of the current IEP software, Clarity, has an alliance with Accelify to provide Medicaid claims tracking and processing.
Are Bridgeport’s problems so profoundly unusual that it wasn’t even worth putting out a RFP? It appears Vallas’ justification for sole-source procurement is, to put it kindly, a bit of stretch.
Perhaps, Mayor Bill Finch and the city’s state-appointed Board of Education were too star struck to hold their “celebrity” Superintendent accountable? Or is this another example of Corrupticut’s business as usual? Perhaps now that both Mr. Pryor and Mr. Vallas are the subjects of lawsuits, they’ll realize that rules apply to reformers, too.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.