BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s top school board has rejected a $120,000 no-bid contract pushed by state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley that helped spark a legislative auditor’s investigation and drew complaints it was mishandled.
The Advocate reports that the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education refused to approve that contract and two others, with four members supporting approval and five members opposed.
The agreement, entered into by the education department in September, has been financing the review of academic improvement plans by about 190 public school districts and schools in the wake of classroom problems triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
Those reviews could be halted indefinitely even though state officials hoped to have them finished and posted for the public by the end of the month. Also, the state has already paid $60,000 of the amount due and the other $60,000 is due shortly.
The $120,000 contract didn’t require a public bid process, according to the education department, because it fell under emergency contracting rules issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards because of the pandemic.
The issue has sparked controversy for weeks because board President Sandy Holloway said she was caught off guard by the emergency agreement and should have had a chance to review it before it was finalized.
After learning about the contract, Holloway and the full board asked Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack to investigate emergency contracts issued by the state Department of Education. That probe by the auditor is expected to last at least until January, according to the newspaper.
Board member Jim Garvey, from Metairie, said he did not think it was a good idea for the board to approve the contracts in dispute in the middle of the investigation by the legislative auditor. But Ronnie Morris, a board member from Baton Rouge, said it made no sense to delay action on the agreements because it could impact needed services for students.
Beyond the lack of notification to the board president, the contract also is controversial because it went to a newly formed company, Invicta Consulting LLC. The firm’s CEO is Sharmayne Rutledge, a former top official of the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.
Rutledge was formerly supervised by Quentina Timoll, chief of staff for the education department who was heavily involved in the contract process, according to The Advocate. Timoll defended Rutledge’s hiring, saying she’s well-suited for the job of reviewing school turnaround plans because of her 17 years as an educator.
“We have been faithful stewards of public funds,” Timoll said. She added that the contract followed “standard operating procedure.”
But Shan Davis, executive director of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she determined the board had approved up to 40 emergency contracts that should have first been reviewed by board president Holloway.
Department officials replied that before Brumley became superintendent, contracts were handled in a similar fashion, without controversy.
Other agreements rejected by the board were a $2.8 million amendment to an existing accounting firm contract that involved working with non-public schools grappling with the pandemic’s academic impact and a $68,500 agreement with a consulting firm to help review Louisiana’s accountability system.