Another year in Idaho, another contracting scandal.
This time, it surrounds a relatively small contract issued by the State Board of Education.
A core feature of the Career Ladder, which has significantly boosted teacher pay, is a set of extensive teacher evaluations performed by administrators. In the early stages, these evaluations created an enormous administrative burden. Lawmakers appropriated funds for a centralized software system to ease the burden.
The bombshell came Wednesday when two letters of admonition written by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to board executive director Matt Freeman and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, made their way into the news. In those letters, Otter accused Freeman and Horman of attempting to steer the contract to a particular vendor.
There are no currently known facts to support the assertion that Horman or the board attempted to steer a contract. With this matter squarely in the public eye, it’s incumbent on Otter to publicly explain his reasoning for issuing those two letters.
Both Horman and the board have categorically denied Otter’s claims and offered additional evidence.
The account given by Horman and the board is backed up by internal emails. Those emails show that during the legislative session Horman, who carries the public schools budget, was involved in discussions with Freeman and others about how to reduce the burden of evaluations. Different notions were kicked around, including letting districts choose vendors for themselves or implementing a centralized system for the state.
Those emails do give favorable mention to a system widely used by local school districts, Teacher Vitae, created by Silverback.
The centralized option was ultimately picked, setting in motion an open bidding process, but problems arose through the course of this year.
Freeman clearly outlined the problems in a Sept. 13 email, where he asked that the request for proposals be withdrawn. The system was supposed to be up and running by August, he noted, but a month into the school year there wasn’t even a contract in place. It would be months before there was a functioning system, and schools already would be well into the evaluation process. It was too late to move forward.
He notified an official with the Division of Purchasing that it would better serve taxpayers to either send the money back to the state or out to local districts, who could then each select their own vendor. Otter wouldn’t have it, and he directed Freeman to move forward with the purchase.
On its face, this is not steering a contract. This is canceling a contract.
If more facts come forward to support the idea that Freeman or Horman did try to steer a contract to a particular company, we can be convinced that there was wrongdoing. But the currently available facts do not support Otter’s conclusion. And his decision to force the board to move forward with the contract raises important questions.
Otter has had a number of major achievements during his time at the helm of state: pushing for teacher pay raises, driving through a major infrastructure funding package and establishing one of the most successful insurance exchanges in the nation.
But the Otter Administration’s most glaring black eye has been its contracting scandals — including the collapse of the Idaho Education Network after Otter’s close friend, Mike Gwartney, steered the contract away from a local low bidder to a higher bid from a campaign donor, and the Corrections Corporation of America scandal, where another donor was found to have bilked taxpayers by billing the state for prison guards who weren’t on the job.
The generous interpretation of Otter’s letters, absent further factual support, is that scars from those scandals induced a kind of hypervigilance, that the Otter Administration is seeing ghosts.
Another interpretation could be that someone in the Otter Administration is looking out for the best interests of a contractor instead of taxpayers. After all, the Board of Education wanted to simply drop the contract for reasons that appear quite reasonable. The Otter Administration forced that contract to be awarded. Why should it have been awarded at all?
More facts will have to come out before it’s possible to fully understand what went on with this contract, and dedicated reporters around the state are seeking answers. We look forward to learning what they find.