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BESE must improve vetting of education contracts

Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, as part of his duties being on the Commission for Streamlining Government, made a good observation about the necessity of the dollar amount of contracts being let by the state’s Department of Education. However, the situation is more complex than many realize for the possibilities of savings in this area.

Kennedy observed that since 2005 $615 million of these have gone out, with $130 million of that in the most recent year available, fiscal year 2009. (Note that 36 percent of this entire amount went to the entity that deals with standardized testing of state pupils.) One would hope that when they go out, they would go for classroom purposes, or at least for activities related to instruction and its quality, but trawling through the 2008-09 list shows not all of them seem to do so. Some that don’t meet this criterion do seem necessary, such as for paying litigation, architects, medical, etc. But of the remaining of the 1,009 listed, from their titles it appears that only 46 obvious cases totaling $773,000 existed that did not really add anything potentially to classroom performance.

(This doesn't include many which appeared related to these matters, but seem rather inefficient. Does the state really have to spend approaching $200,000 to enhance the chances of candidates “of being successful in achieving national board certification and aid in future recruiting?” Or spend over $30,000 on the “Cecil J. Picard Educator Excellence Symposium?” Or over $20,000 on presenters at the “Gifted at Center Stage: Building a World-Class Education System” conference?)

While the purposes of some monies listed may appear necessary, the actual distribution of them seems does questionable at times. For example, is there not a better process of providing after-school tutoring than paying over five dozen entities, just about all of them churches, almost $700,000 to do so? Or why does the Urban League of Greater New Orleans get $250,000 to develop materials for parents to use in “school choice,” meaning whether to send their child to a traditional school or an alternative like a charter school or even private school through the state’s quasi-voucher program, when its parent the National Urban League in the past has opposed especially vouchers (even as a few local chapters support them)? Or why pay $579,700 to about a dozen entities to lead committees on high school redesign, when the CSG itself is paying less than $50,000 (raised privately) for similar direction in reviewing all state spending?

It’s also important to note that almost $15 million was spent on items apparently mandated by the federal government, often using federal dollars – much of which seems to go to what many would describe as classic “pork barrel” items. Thus, the state has no choice on these in terms of expenditures, although perhaps in the choice of contractor, and there seemed to be millions of dollars more in other items on the list that were not clearly designated for this purpose but are for required federal government programs and that state dollars.

Finally, when searching for accountability for all of this, ultimately it would extend to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and secondarily to the Legislature. This is because BESE controls the money to disburse, but the Legislature provides the bulk of it through the Minimum Program Foundation formula the product of which it only can accept or refuse from BESE. Further, the Department, overseen by BESE, controls the applying, reception, and spending of federal grants. Thus, it is hyperbolic and largely inaccurate to claim, as one normally prescient observer does, that “over $130 Million was handed out to individuals [sic] presumably favored by The Rhodes Scholar-in-chief” – Gov. Bobby Jindal’s only real control over this is through his three appointments to BESE who constitute a minority of BESE of which its eight other members are elected.

Legislators may be more to blame by steering money to nongovernmental organizations such as those listed above, and others, by informal lobbying of the Department of Education. (And other state officials may be to blame here as well – what’s up with Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu’s office getting a contract around a half million dollars?) With the Legislature’s leverage limited because of its very indirect control over federal grant disbursal and the MFP procedures, and perhaps with it lacking any real will to do so, it’s up to BESE to practice greater accountability in terms of dollars spent and by ensuring the best contracting entities are found to fulfill the purpose of the arrangements. In the final analysis, the savings through lopping off the unnecessary and in awarding to more efficient providers may be just a small portion of the overall contracting, but every little bit helps in these times of state fiscal difficulty.


Anonymous said...

Professor Sadow,

You may want to double check your point about Governor Bobby Jindal not having control over these contracts. Many, if not most, of these contracts are approved, not by BESE, but by the Division of Administration which is a part of the Governor's office.

BESE Watcher

Anonymous said...

To clarify, the DOA only reviews for reasonablness and adherance to the law. They have their role but BESE really does need to be the "policy" check on this process.

Anonymous said...

BESE actually is the final check on the process. The Board reviews every DOE contract over a certain dollar amount--I believe $25,000--after DOA looks at them. Which means this potential scandal falls into BESE's lap.