The Louisiana Department of Education has responded to recent criticism and news reports of what has been perceived to be a glut of professional service contracts, claiming that it was unfair to use outdated contract lists as a basis of that criticism or to include federally-required contractual spending.
Department public information officer René Greer responded to a news story by LouisianaVoice that cited contracts such as one for $94,000 for a contractor to teach children how to play at recess and dozens of contracts to church organizations to take care of children after school.
The story cited data from a printout of department contracts for fiscal years 2006-2007, 2007-2008, and 2008-2009, the latest documents available. Those documents were provided by Treasury Secretary John Kennedy’s office. Kennedy has been a vocal critic of professional service contracts for several years.
State Rep. Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told LouisianaVoice that one of his biggest concerns is in the area of professional contracts awarded by the state, particularly by the Department of Education. “It’s absurd to have so many professional service contracts out there,” he said. “Kennedy has been raising this as an issue. Many agencies get around the requirement to obtain approval of contracts of $50,000 or more by awarding a lot of contracts for just under the required reporting level. There’s a tremendous amount of waste in those contracts.”
Greer said the department is equally determined to cut waste. “We’re deeply committed to the same principle expressed by Treasurer Kennedy and Representative Fannin– to ensure that every tax dollar dedicated to education is spent thoughtfully to achieve the best outcomes for our students,” she said. “But we’re disappointed by the continued focus on contracts that are no longer current and haven’t been for several years. In many cases, the criticism centers on contracts issued five or six years ago, to community organizations and churches for the federally funded afterschool programs. And the process that awards these contracts was revised by BESE and the current administration more than two years ago, as it now requires grant applicants to provide students with a high quality academic component in order to be eligible for these federal dollars, and the Department monitors and measures the effectiveness of grant recipients to ensure only successful providers are funded.”
For example, this year alone, the agency will dispense an estimated $32 million for the federal 21st Century Grant Program which funds after-school tutoring programs for at-risk students, she said. Greer says on the surface it might be tempting to label these professional service contracts as bad. But she said that until the state is successful at resolving some of the critical needs that are supported by these funds and contracts, ending these programs and services would be a setback to the education community, and most importantly to students.
“It’s oversimplifying the issue to decide the number or amount of contracts issued by the department is a gauge on our commitment to fiscal responsibility,” Greer said. “We need to put this into context. First, most of the contracts are supported by federal dollars. And federal dollars that flow to districts and communities, such as FEMA, TANF and USDOE grants must first flow to state agencies prior to being distributed through a contractual process. These dollars are based on measures of a state’s needs, which are determined by federal regulations. And while it might sound good to say we need to decrease the number of contracts and the amount of money the Department is allocating for contracts, in actuality that would mean that districts and schools would not receive critical funding for rebuilding projects, after-school programs and other very vital needs. The question we should be asking ourselves – regardless of whether the funds are local, state or federal – is whether we’re making the biggest impact we can make for students, and if not, what spending reforms should we put in place to achieve better outcomes? That’s the aim of Superintendent Pastorek and the Department.”
Greer also pointed out that the State General Fund budget for the agency’s direct activities, which is about $57 million, is shrinking.
“From Fiscal Year 2010 to Fiscal Year 2011, contractual allocations are expected to decrease by more than $5 million or 15 percent. The largest contractual expenditure for the agency, the testing contract, accounts for nearly half the agency’s total annual budget. So there is very little left in the way of discretionary funds for the department to spend. Regardless, total State General Fund expenditures for the agency’s direct activities have declined by $6.8 million, or 10.7%, from Fiscal Year 2008-2009 to Fiscal Year 2010-2011. In fact, the number of employees employed by the agency, including the Special School District, has drastically declined from 857 during the 2007-2008 Fiscal Year to 682 during the 2010-2011 Fiscal Year, which is a 21% decrease.”
Greer last week pledged to provide LouisianaVoice with an updated contract printout and on Tuesday did provide a partial list that contained printing and copier lease contracts. The professional service contract printout, however, was not included among those documents.