The news coming out of the Department of Education just keeps getting worse.
Like $7.8 million worse.
Even as the Louisiana Department of Education and State Superintendent John White hunker down in efforts to deny the release of public information that might shine a less than favorable light on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education reform package, LouisianaVoice has learned that the Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans may be as much as $6.6 million in arrears on payments to an Illinois company contracted to provide transportation services to RSD students.
The company contracted to provide transportation services has submitted a bill of $7.8 million, of which $6.6 million is said to be nearly a year past due. Transportation costs are factored into the annual allocation to local school systems, leaving unanswered the disposition of the RSD’s appropriation for that purpose.
White was the RSD superintendent during much of that time, being promoted to state superintendent last January one month before Jones Walker sent the letter.
Additionally, a New Orleans television station recently aired a story that showed RSD’s $10.5 million contract with Durham School Services is costing the district up to three times as much per student for transportation of RSD students as in some other parts of the country.
LouisianaVoice has learned that Durham has retained the services of the politically-connect Jones Walker Law Firm of New Orleans and that Jones Walker attorney Michael DePetrillo in February sent a letter of demand to the Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) and RSD for payment of $7.8 million, of which $6,568,694 was said to be past due. The last payment made to the company was on September 20, 2011, and the past due amount is now said to be $6.6 million.
DePetrillo did not return a call to his office.
Former RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas said he inherited a “terrible” bus transportation system when he was hired in 2007 and he promptly hired Durham which, in the 2008-09 school year bused 7,500 children. For the school year just completed, only 5,700 children were transported by Durham, placing the cost at $1,800 per student.
That was the same Paul Vallas, of course, who took some three dozen personal trips to Chicago in a state vehicle and on one of those trips, wrecked the vehicle. His boss at the time, Paul Pastorek (White’s predecessor), said he didn’t realize the use of the state vehicle for personal out-of-state trips–including one during which he announced on a local television station that he planned to run for mayor of Chicago–was wrong.
The Hinds County (Jackson) Mississippi School District contracts with Durham to bus 4,000 students at a cost of $3.6 million, or $900 per student—half of what the RSD-NO pays, or is contracted to pay. Indianapolis also contracts with Durham, as does Memphis. In Indianapolis Durham transports 28,000 under a $15 million contract ($535 per student) and in Memphis, it buses 35,000 students at a contract price of $18 million ($514 per student).
In addition to its $10.5 million contract with Durham, RSD-NO also has a $500,000-a-year contract with Transpar Group of Memphis to design bus routes and to provide oversight.
Transpar, a Missouri company, worked with Vallas when he was chief of schools in Chicago and questions arose then about inflated contracts with the company.
Transpar, in addition to receiving $500,000 a year to draw up bus routes and to provide oversight, also is housed in the RSD New Orleans offices.
School officials in Memphis, Indianapolis and Hinds County, Mississippi, said oversight and route planning is either handled in-house or worked out with Durham and that the additional services of a company like Transpar are not needed.
In retaining Jones Walker, Durham sent signals that it is serious about obtaining payment of funds due the company. Jones Walker is a major player in Louisiana political circles. The firm itself contributed at least $22,000 to Jindal and Paul Cabon of Washington, D.C., the firm’s Director of Governmental Relations, and his wife Susan also contributed more than $28,000 to Jindal. Various other law partners also contributed between $500 and $1,000 each to the governor.
Jones Walker was also the firm retained by the Sabine River Authority in its aborted attempt to sell 600,000 acre-feet (196 billion gallons) of water from the Toledo Bend Reservoir to a group of investors that included Donald T. “Boysie” Bollinger of Lockport.
The controversy over the money Durham says it is owed by RSD raises an even bigger question about the state’s Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) funding for the Recovery School District.
Transportation costs are factored into the MFP appropriation for each school district, meaning the state appropriated funds to be used for the transportation of students in the RSD.
LouisianaVoice has submitted public records requests to DOE in an attempt to ascertain what happened to the funds appropriated to RSD for transportation and why those funds were not used to pay the Durham contract.
CNS previously requested copies of applications for education voucher/scholarships received by the department. DOE denied that request, saying that the applications were in the “pre-decisional status.”
No such exception for public records exists under the state’s public records statute.
The governor’s office does have an exemption that qualifies as part of his “deliberative process.” That exemption provision prevents disclosure of records that are intra-office communications of the governor, relate to the deliberative process of the governor, relate to the governor’s schedule or security (or that of his family), or contain “pre-decisional” advice and recommendations to the governor concerning the budget—none of which qualifies under the reason invoked by DOE.