Louisiana Governor, Ed. Agency Spar Over School Contracts

Managing Editor

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration is feuding with the state’s top education agency over the awarding of dozens of small state contracts, in what some see as spillover from a broader fight over the common-core standards.

The state’s interim director of the office of procurement, Paul A. Holmes, this week fired off a letter to state schools chief John White, implying that the department of education’s granting of 66 small contracts worth between $1,500 and $2,000 was flouting the legal process.

“Artificially dividing contracts to avoid the bid process is a violation of procurement law,” Holmes wrote. “To ensure that these contracts do not circumvent bid laws, we are requesting copies of all 66 contracts for review.”

A list of the awards was attached to the letter. A lawyer for White’s agency issued a terse response, stating that the small contracts were for payments to individual educators for “discrete pieces of work.”

“I understand that you are new to your position, but the insinuation that these small individual contracts were ‘artificially divided’ to ‘avoid the bid process’ is false, baseless, and without merit,” wrote Joan E. Hunt, the department of education’s executive counsel, who described the accusations as “ludicrous.”

A spokesman for the education department told Education Week that the contracts paid for teachers designing sample lesson and unit plans, professional development sessions, and sample test questions. Hunt argued that the small contracts were flowing to educators who “already struggle to make ends meet.” Asking those teachers to defend those contracts is “offensive,” she wrote.

This is hardly the first standoff between Jindal and White over education contracts.

The governor and state schools chief have been publicly at odds over the common-core standards and tests. The Republican governor was once a supporter of the standards but has since emerged as a dogged critic of them and has urged the state to abandon the academic guidelines. White, whose appointment was supported by Jindal, has refused to back away from the standards, and the state board of elementary and secondary education has continued to back them, too.

Earlier this year, Jindal suspended contracts the education department intended to use to carry out tests associated with the common core, arguing that they hadn’t abided by Louisiana’s procurement laws and needed to be competitively bid.

A state judge disagreed, and in an August ruling lifted the suspension so that the contracts could go forward. (Louisiana is a member of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two main consortia creating tests aligned to the standards.) 

The chairman of the state’s board of education, Chas Roemer, told the Associated Press that the Jindal administration’s effort to challenge the small contracts amounted to an attempt to needle the education department over its stance on the common core.

These guys are the most absurd people I’ve ever seen running government, and it’s a joke,” Roemer said. “The last time I saw this many clowns I was at the circus…we need to get on with educating the students of this state, and this guy is wasting our time.”

It hasn’t ended there. 

Despite the judge’s ruling, Jindal’s administration sent a letter this month to White and the board of education arguing that the state’s current testing contracts with a vendor, the Data Recognition Corporation, cannot be used legally to cover the procurement of PARCC questions.

An attorney for the board, Charles M. Gordon Jr., responded by saying that the administration’s letter was violating the state court judge’s ruling. (Gordon also pointedly warned the administration to stop trying to write to his clients directly, saying that Louisiana’s rules of professional conduct for lawyers mandate that  all legal correspondence go through him.)

Gordon called the administration’s letter a “heavyhanded effort” to derail the common-core assessments slated to occur this academic year.

Stay tuned to see whether these fights fade from view—or intensify, and disrupt efforts to implement the common-core tests in Louisiana.

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