October 7, 2017 10:16:20 PM
What exactly is going on with the Mississippi Department of Education?
The Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, a state government watchdog agency, issued a report this week indicating MDE has issued contracts without taking bids and that contractors were paid more than the bid requirements from 2014-2016.
The state auditor's office is reviewing the PEER report and agreed Thursday an investigation into the matter is needed.
According to the Associated Press, the MDE issued five contracts to Research in Action, a company associated with former department employee J.P. Beaudoin, in the 2015 budget year. Collectively they were worth more than $200,000. All the contracts involved school assessment and accountability, but State Superintendent Carey Wright said they were for different things and that some expenses couldn't be foreseen when the first contract was issued. The state's accounting computer system should have flagged the contracts for review, but PEER wrote that it didn't because of a system flaw since corrected.
Research in Action was hired earlier this year, after Beaudoin left, to do $48,000 more worth of work on annual reports.
John Q. Porter's company, Blue Sky, was paid $342,000 in 2014 and 2015. That included $243,000 in 2015, well above the $100,000 level. Porter was then hired as the department's chief information officer. Wright wrote that Porter, with whom she worked in Maryland, never recommended himself for the position.
The department also hired Elton Stokes and a Data One IT, a company run by Stokes' wife, for $263,000 of data management work. Stokes also worked in the same Maryland school system as Wright. PEER judged that the Blue Sky and the Stokes contracts should have been combined and overseen by the state's Department of Information Technology Services, which is meant to centralize computing purchases for maximum efficiency.
Finally, the department wrote it has no contract for $215,000 it spent with the Kyles Co. in 2015 to provide hardware, services and training to schools through a federal grant program.
The department spent more than $1 million with the contractors.
Wright responded that the MDE chose contractors from a pool of vendors, and that it didn't purposefully set contract amounts just below thresholds.
"While it may appear to a layperson that the contracts in question are similar in the scope of services, it is the position of the MDE that these contracts are distinctively different in scope," Wright wrote in response to the PEER report.
It also appears to a layperson that the bid process was ignored and contracts were doled out to "good ol' boy" contractors.
Public education in Mississippi has numerous serious issues, justified or not, to overcome and the stink of corruption does not need to be one of them.