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State auditor says department of education circumvented state procurement laws

PROCUREMENT: State Auditor Stacey Pickering's office blasted the Mississippi Department of Education's policies on contracts. Photo by Steve Wilson

A report by State Auditor Stacey Pickering's office says that the Mississippi Department of Education has circumvented state procurement laws and has wasted taxpayer funds with duplicative service contracts.

The auditor also accused the state Board of Education of not exercising sufficient oversight over the department when it came to procurement.

The auditor's report accused the MDE of not being able to verify the receipt of goods provided by contracts and some payments were not provided by the MDE within 30 days of receipt. Several MDE bank accounts were not approved by the state Department of Finance and were not listed by the agency.

According to the report, the MDE used a "pool" method to select bidders. The MDE had a pool of three providers with similar cost rates and services in lieu of three written quotes. Also, some of the pools hadn't been updated since 2012.

The auditor said that in more than one instance, the same vendors were selected for multiple contracts in the same fiscal year despite the opportunity to award contracts to other firms in the pool.

The report also said the MDE couldn't provide auditors with established fee schedules and characterized the pool procurement method used by the MDE as "circumventing the competitive bidding process."

Felicia Gavin, MDE's chief operations officer, said that the agency hadn't read the auditor's report before a news conference.

Gavin said the agency is no longer using "pool" procurement methods even though the Personal Services Contract Board gave them authorization to use the method in 2009.

"We do not acknowledge that we've done anything improper or wrong," Gavin said. "We've followed the guidelines of the state procurement board. We've not violated any laws to our knowledge."

The Kyles Company

According to the report, the Kyles Company received a more than $214,000 contract for IT related commodities, which was never approved by the state Department of Information Technology Services. Also, the MDE couldn't provide a contract or provide the whereabouts of the purchased items, which it said it distributed to various school districts. The MDE also couldn't provide any documentation that it had received the contracted items and approved the invoices without verifying that the items were received.

The Kyles Company is owned by Memphis community activist Joseph Kyles, who leads the Memphis Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Blue Sky Innovative Solutions

One of the big targets of the auditor's report was MDE assistant superintendent and former contractor John Q. Porter, who worked with state Superintendent Carey Wright when she was employed at the Montgomery County (Maryland) school district in suburban Washington. Porter's firm received more than $293,000 in contracts from the MDE before he was hired by the agency as its chief information officer.

On his LinkedIn page, Porter listed himself in 2016 as both the interim chief information officer for MDE and the president of Washington, D.C.-based Blue Sky Innovative Solutions LLC, which he said "offers turnaround services, consulting and professional development for teachers and administrators."

Now, there is no mention of Blue Sky Innovative Solutions or the MDE.

Perusal of the board’s minutes and agendas from 2014 didn't yield any record of a contract with Blue Sky Innovative Solutions.

Blue Sky's deal was later altered at a board meeting on May 16, 2014, by unanimous vote in open session to provide an additional $69,450 from the original $29,050 for a total of $98,500 for a term of March 12, 2014 to June 30, 2014.

The contract was for "organizational review and oversight of the Office of Management Information Systems" and included "day-to-day management; evaluation of current staffing, position classifications, and organizational structure; and a high-level examination of current systems."

On June 19, 2014, the board approved 7-0 a contract to Blue Sky for "organizational review and oversight of the Office of Management Information Systems." The contract was for $98,500, beginning July 1, 2014, and ending June 30, 2015 and was approved in executive session, out of the public view.

On Jan. 15, 2015, the board approved 7-0 in executive session a more than $96,000 contract to Blue Sky to provide "consultative services" to assist in an "organizational review of the office of technology and strategic services."

DataOne Services

On Jan. 16, 2015, Elton Stokes Jr. and his company DataOne Services LLC received a more than $93,000 contract — approved in executive session by the board — to provide "consultative services" to aid in the ongoing "organizational review" of the office of technology and strategic services.

According to the report, Stokes' firm was listed under three different names in the "technology consultants" pool.

The contract, according to the auditor's report, was approved by Porter, his former co-worker in the Montgomery County, Maryland school district and is still listed on his LinkedIn page as Blue Sky’s chief solutions strategist. The report says that represented a conflict of interest.

Stokes' wife, Sharon Semper-Stokes, was given a $48,240 contract for "IT governance strategy" that ran at the same time as one awarded to her husband. She was also listed as co-owner of DataOne Services.

Research in Action

JP Beaudoin's firm Research in Action was given three contracts between July 2014 and June 2015 and the report says the contracts overlapped and were concurrent. According to state law, any contracts totaling more than $100,000 require competitive bids and the three contracts issued to Research in Action were, in total, above the threshold.

The auditor said the MDE artificially divided the contracts to circumvent the competitive bidding requirements.

He was hired in August 2015 as deputy superintendent in charge of student assessment and accountability. His salary was $158,000 and the vote by the board to hire him was also held in executive session. He later left the MDE in October 2016, dogged by claims of sexual and racial discrimination in a federal lawsuit by another MDE employee.

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