It is a move that George Orwell would be proud of; Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, the State Board of Education and the Malloy Administration recently explained that they were proposing a new law to ensure transparency and force the State Education Resource Center (SERC) to follow the state’s bidding laws.
However, the proposed legislation is actually written in such a way as TO EXEMPT SERC from having to follow the state’s bidding laws.
To date, the media and observers have taken the Malloy Administration at their word, and while critical of Commissioner Pryor’s use of SERC to end-run Connecticut’s bidding laws, reports have been that Pryor was leading the charge to end the practice he, himself, had used to direct contracts to vendors that he had worked with in the past.
But I digress, let’s go back and start at the beginning of this story;
Upon arriving as Governor Malloy’s Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor used the State Education Resource Center (SERC) to avoid Connecticut’s bidding laws so that he could hire certain consultants to help him develop Malloy’s “education reform” bill.
He directed SERC to hire selected consultants and then transferred state funds to SERC to pay for those contacts. By using SERC he was able to skip Connecticut’s competitive bidding process.
As Wait, What? readers will recall, the issue generated a fair amount of media attention and criticism. A whistleblower complaint was submitted to the Connecticut Office of State Auditors by Tom Swan, the Executive Director of CCAG of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group. The complaint demanded a full investigation, claiming that the Education Commissioner’s actions were inappropriate and illegal.
As reported in CTNewsjunkie at the time, “The Malloy administration had no comment beyond what it told the Connecticut Post last Friday, when the governor’s chief legal counsel said Swan’s allegation was “reckless” and “devoid of any evidence.”
[As an aside, the governor’s chief legal counsel, Andrew McDonald, has since been nominated and approved as a justice on the Connecticut Supreme Court].
As the State Auditor’s investigation into Commissioner Pryor’s actions continued, and the evidence mounted that the contracts were illegal, Pryor and the Connecticut State Board of Education changed strategies.
Instead of continuing to claim that their contracting procedure was traditional and appropriate, they announced that they were going to propose changes to the laws governing the State Education Resource Center (SERC) to ensure that future contracts met the state’s contracting procedures.
At a special State Board of Education meeting on January 23, 2013 the State Board voted to adopt its 2013 legislative agenda that included a proposal that Pryor explained would hold SERC to “the same contracting and public disclosure standards as any state agency.”
According to an article in the CT Mirror at the time, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor addressed the State Board saying, “Recently some questions have arisen… Some of these questions are legitimate.”
The CTMirror went on to report that Pryor added, “The goal is to enhance confidence in SERC…It’s necessary to formalize the structure and end the ambiguity.”
State Board of Education members voting in favor of Pryor’s bill included the Board’s Chairman, Allan Taylor, Theresa Hopkins-Staten, Terry Jones, Ellen Camhi, Charles Jaskiewicz, Patricia Keavney-Maruca, Estela López and Joseph Vrabely.
Those voting in opposition to the bill? None.
Just last week, the State Auditors released their official report that determined that Pryor and the State Department of Education had acted illegally. The whistleblower complaint wasn’t as “reckless” and “devoid of any evidence” as Malloy’s chief counsel had claimed. (See Wait, What? post by clicking here)
Following the Auditor’s report blasting Pryor, the State Department of Education and SERC for their illegal contracting procedures, Kelly Donnelly, Commissioner Pryor’s Director of Communications released a statement to the CT Post that read;
“The State Department of Education is committed to resolving issues raised about the State Education Resource Center in a manner that promotes transparency and accountability…That is why, in January, the department, with the unanimous support of the State Board of Education, proposed new legislation to clarify SERC’s legal status, establish a board of directors as well as new hiring and procurement procedures, and ensure transparency in its operations, among other key reforms.”
A reasonable person would read Pryor’s statement to the State Board of Education and Donnelly’s statement to the media as evidence that the proposed legislation would require that SERC follow Connecticut’s bidding laws.
But alas, that isn’t the case.
In response to the State Department of Education’s statement, the State Auditors said that the “proposed language does not call for a not-for-profit entity and is not consistent with the provisions of quasi-public entities.”
Not consistent with the provisions of quasi-public entities?
So that required a return to the actual language of the bill Pryor and the State Board of Education approved at their special meeting and that the Malloy Administration submitted to the Connecticut General Assembly.
As expected, the proposed legislation modifies Section 10-4q of the Connecticut state Statutes, the statute that creates and governs the State Education Resource Center (SERC).
But what went undetected by the media and observers that day was a new Section (h) of the law which reads;
(h) (NEW) Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 4-98, 4-212 to 4-219, inclusive, 4a-51 and 4a-57, the Department, in agreement with the board of the State Education Resource Center, may allocate funds to the State Education Resource Center to allow the State Education Resource Center to provide professional development services, technical assistance, evaluation activities, policy analysis, and other forms of assistance to local and regional boards of education, State Department of Education, charter schools, technical high schools, school readiness providers and other educational entities.
The impact of the language “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 4-98, 4-212 to 4-219” means that when this proposed bill becomes law, the Commissioner of Education may ask SERC to provide services (hire consultants) and when doing that, SERC is exempt from Sections 4-212 to 4-219 of the Connecticut State Statutes.
That is, notwithstanding the law, SERC may sign contracts without having to go through the process required in 4-212 to 4-219.
So what do sections 4-212 to 4-219 of the Connecticut State Statutes cover?
The bidding procedures associated with personal service agreements including;
- Personal Service Agreements cost of not more than twenty thousand dollars
- Personal Service Agreements having cost of more than twenty thousand dollars but not more than fifty thousand dollars
- Personal Service Agreements having cost of more than fifty thousand dollars or term of more than one year.
- And amendments to personal service agreements.
The legislation proposed by Commissioner Pryor, unanimously approved by the State Board of Education and submitted by the Malloy Administration does “reform” the structure of the State Education Service Center.
However, part of that reform IS TO EXEMPT SERC from Connecticut’s laws governing the use of personal service agreements (aka the very contracts for consultants that got Pryor into trouble in the first place).
Instead, SERC would be given the authority to come up with its own process for hiring consultants.
No other state agency has that ability and no other quasi state agency has that ability.
But that is exactly what the bill submitted by the Malloy Administration does.
The Malloy Administration’s goal was to say one thing and do another…
The goal was to get the media to listen to what was being said and not what was being done…
And they just about got away with it.