A legislative watchdog committee is questioning the Mississippi Department of Education’s procedures for awarding contracts, especially those to a few vendors in Maryland that raise suspicions of cronyism, illegal invoice splitting, and lack of transparency and oversight, the Clarion-Ledger reports.
Multiple payments made by MDE for information technology and teacher training contracts have been called into question. The watchdog group, known as the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, or PEER, has made inquiries, but the MDE has offered little in terms of a satisfactory response.
Possible invoice splitting to circumvent sign-offs
When she got to Mississippi, she proceeded to award some of her former co-workers about $600,000 in contracts for revamping some parts of MDE’s I/T.
Normally, this amount would require approval by the state contract board or even a competitive bidding process. But, because the total may have been split into smaller amounts on invoices in order to thwart the oversight or competitive bidding requirement, that oversight never happened. And splitting costs up like that violates Mississippi laws.
Reclassification of I/T contracts as consulting services
In addition, an overhaul of the department’s I/T would have required oversight from the state’s technology department, the paper noted. That didn’t happen either, because MDE said the overhaul was classified as personal services or consulting, not as a major technology upgrade.
In many states, the technology or I/T department is much stricter about what sorts of work they will allow on the state’s computer systems than an individual department might be, and any need for approval from the technology department might have, in this case, meant that payments to former Maryland co-workers of the superintendent would not have been made.
Possible duplicate payments for the same projects
Finally, some payments to Joseph B Kyles of Memphis look suspiciously similar to other payments he received from MDE. Specifically, he was paid just under $50,000—the competitive bid threshold—on two separate occasions, PEER’s report earlier this week said, for what appears to be the same teacher training system.
“This does not pass the smell test,” the paper quoted state Rep Becky Currie, a PEER member, as saying. “We’ve asked many questions, and they have not been answered. This needs to be looked at thoroughly by the state auditor. Somebody needs to go in and look at this. PEER has done all we can.”
Other PEER members, however, suggested MDE was doing all it could to ensure these problems don’t happen again.
“The key point is that the person who was in charge of the procurements in question is no longer there,” said state Sen Terry Burton. “The auditor might want to go in and take a look, but I think PEER did a pretty good job on what the issues were, and I think those issues are being addressed, and Dr Wright and her folks have taken steps to avoid problems like this.”
Whether or not the problems can be corrected, though, doesn’t negate the fact that they may have occurred in the first place, wasting the state’s money on contracts that have no bearing on the education provided to Mississippi’s children, which, it must be said, has been proven creative and vibrant.
For example, one program, known as “Tiger Time” at Southeast Lauderdale High School in Meridian, motivates students to be in school by letting them practice a fine dance step or concoct some tasty dip during the school day, the Meridian Star reports.
Principal Russell Keene said the Tiger Time program was planned separately from the Lauderdale County School District’s drive this year to focus on attendance, but he said it complements that effort. For a half-hour every Tuesday and Thursday, students cook, dance, play strategy games, discuss their favorite books, design websites, write school news, and take part in a host of other activities, all intended to engage them on school grounds.
“It falls right into what the district is wanting to do to encourage attendance,” he said. “What it is, is a way to encourage kids to come to school. We’ve got a series of classes that students can take, and they’re fun. That’s the concept.”