Education contract manipulation

When a government agency head in Mississippi is making more than a quarter of a million dollars a year, the public has a right to expect a lot from that employee.

She should be a skilled administrator, hire competent people and hold them to high standards, and be above legal and ethical reproach.

Dr. Carey Wright, the $300,000-a-year state superintendent of education, is falling short of those expectations.

In the latest troubling reflection on her administration, both a legislative watchdog group and the state auditor claim that under Wright’s watch, the Mississippi Department of Education has been guilty of funny business in the awarding of contracts.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering goes so far as to say that MDE broke at least one state contracting law and may be guilty of violating another. This is a particularly sensitive subject because Mississippi, following a bribery scandal that produced criminal convictions for former Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps and a handful of his cronies, has been trying to crack down on the type of sole-source and no-bid contracts that MDE has been wantonly awarding.

This scrutiny of MDE admittedly may have some political motivations. Pickering is a Republican. So is nearly the entire Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, which directed its staff to look into MDE’s contracting. During her four-year tenure, Wright has gotten crosswise a few times with the GOP leadership. She stuck by more stringent Common Core education standards when Gov. Phil Bryant and other Republicans were trying to misportray them as federal overreach. Then she angered cultural conservatives when she said — temporarily, it turned out — that the state’s public schools would not buck a federal directive to allow transgender students to use the bathroom and locker room that matched their gender identity.

Still, what’s been uncovered so far by the two separate state probes — plus other digging by news organizations — suggests that this is not so much an orchestrated effort to run off Wright as it is a legitimate concern about her decision-making and the people around her.

According to both the state auditor and PEER, it appears that MDE has been trying to direct work to specific vendors and avoid oversight by coding similar contracts differently and by breaking up large contracts into smaller increments so as to keep them below the thresholds that would require competitive bidding.

Suspiciously, some of the beneficiaries of these alleged contract manipulations have been two former Maryland co-workers of Wright’s or their companies. One of those contract beneficiaries, John Porter, was later hired by MDE at a salary higher than legally allowable before Bryant blew the whistle on it.

Then there’s the dubious business relationship MDE had with Joseph B. Kyles, a Democratic activist in Memphis, whose company received over a two-year period more than $250,000 in no-bid contracts for information technology goods and services. In four of the six payments to Kyles’ company, the purchases were just under the $50,000 threshold that would have required MDE to get other quotes. Curiously, except for the invoices, there are no contracts or other paperwork to be found to back up these expenditures.

The only explanation that MDE has provided so far is that the employee who authorized the payments is no longer with the agency.

Meanwhile, MDE continues to dispute that any of the contracts being questioned were done illegally. We’ll see.

Even if these no-bid purchases were technically allowable because of loopholes in the state’s contracting laws, Wright can still be faulted for not taking steps to avoid the appearance of impropriety. She should have known that giving hundreds of thousands of dollars of work to former associates, for example, opened her up to accusations of cronyism. All she had to do to prevent that was put the work out for bid.

The recent revelations have contributed to the perception that Wright can’t be fully trusted either on finances or on academic performance.

 Although Mississippi has shown some academic progress under Wright, it’s hard to gauge how much. When she touts the increase in the state’s graduation rate, for example, she glosses over the fact that graduation requirements have been watered down. Later this month, the state will release the new accountability grades for schools and school districts. MDE has rigged the grading, though, to increase the likelihood that the number of F-rated districts won’t jump and the number of A-rated districts won’t fall.

Wright is one of the highest paid employees on this state’s payroll and the highest paid education superintendent in the nation.

It doesn’t look as though Mississippi is getting its money’s worth.

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