$342K in no-bid Louisiana education contracts draw criticism

Education

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley’s decision to award $342,000 in no-bid contracts to a former top Baton Rouge schools official who started a consulting firm only weeks before striking the deals is drawing scrutiny.

The Advocate reports that one of the contracts did not follow normal procedures, and the head of the state education board that hired Brumley said she was in the dark about an agreement that requires her review.

The contracts were for $222,000 and $120,000 with a newly formed consulting firm run by Sharmayne Rutledge, former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction with the East Baton Rouge Parish school system, who resigned her post last week.

The larger contract with Invicta Consulting LLC was to help school districts plan for handling some of the $4 billion in federal pandemic aid Louisiana is receiving for K-12 education. The other contract involves reviewing plans by local school districts to try to improve student achievement in the wake of the plunge in math, English and other key test scores amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Rutledge’s consulting firm was registered with the secretary of state’s office on Aug. 2, less than four weeks before the $220,000 contract with the state education department was signed.

That $220,000 deal won final approval from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last month after it was recommended by Brumley and the state Department of Education.

But the second, smaller contract has been in effect for nearly two months, even though Sandy Holloway, president of the state education board, said she didn’t know about the deal, which requires her review.

“I was not aware of the contract,” Holloway told the newspaper, adding she was surprised about it.

Because of the paperwork that still must be submitted, the board won’t vote on the agreement until its December meeting, about two weeks before the contract is set to expire on Dec. 31. The first of two $60,000 payments already has been made to the company, according to state records.

“I think a layman would ask for justification on any and all no-bid contracts and emergency contracts,” said Brigitte Nieland, director of government relations for the advocacy group Stand For Children.

The education department submitted written responses to questions from The Advocate and defended Brumley’s contracts, saying Rutledge has sterling education credentials that make her ideal for the work.

The department “conducted a thorough analysis of multiple vendors to determine who could diligently and thoroughly review the plans, ensuring federal funds were allocated toward activities that would accelerate student learning and ignite academic recovery,” the statement said.

Rutledge and Quentina Timoll, Brumley’s chief of staff, were colleagues at the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

Rutledge initially referred questions about the contracts to the Department of Education but a few days later issued a statement that said the review process required under the $120,000 contract is underway and she is confident it will result in academic recovery.

The $120,000 contract didn’t require a public bid process, according to the education department, because it fell under emergency contracting rules issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards because of the pandemic. The larger deal will pay Rutledge’s firm $74,000 per year, which is $1,000 less than the threshold that requires a public bid, officials said.

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