Education contracts spark questions

Critic sees overuse of contracts

The state Department of Education’s heavy reliance on contracts rather than
doing the work in-house merits scrutiny, the chairman of the Louisiana House Appropriations Committee said Tuesday.

“I am wondering where the oversight comes,” said state Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro.

The issue, which Fannin has raised in the past, surfaced during a budget review of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policies for more than 700,000 public school students statewide.

BESE typically reviews department contracts of more than $50,000, and panel members can always request information on any such agreements, said Chas Roemer, president of the 11-member board.

Roemer, who lives in Baton Rouge, said lots of contracts employ federal funds required for specific services.

Those using state general fund dollars “get the most scrutiny,” he said.

“It is the general fund money that you are most sensitive to.”

How many contracts and what they total for the current financial year is unclear.

Department contracts totaled more than $60 million in one recent 12-month period and are expected to be well over that this year, officials said.

The work includes testing, architects, construction, after-school programs, staff training and other areas.

In 2010, amid questions by Fannin and others, officials said the department had executed more than 6,000 contracts in the past six years, including $342 million of agreements in that year.

Fannin repeatedly pressed Roemer and others for details of how the agreements are reviewed.

“There are lots of them, lots of them,” the lawmaker said. “How do you know if it is better to contract out rather than in-house?”

Fannin said the spending carries special significance amid budget problems, including a $1.3 billion shortfall to keep state spending at current levels.

State Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs and a member of the committee, questioned the number of contracts totaling less than $50,000, which he said “have no oversight by BESE.”

Pope said the spending warrants attention if the same people are being hired repeatedly.

Contracts costing $50,000 or more typically require advertising, requests for proposals and competitive bidding.

Roemer said BESE members typically request additional information on a handful of contracts of less than $50,000 before board meetings.

Heather Cope, executive director of BESE, said contract descriptions are made available online before meetings.

Fannin said he wants to pursue the issue again Wednesday when state Superintendent of Education John White appears before the committee.