Florida officials tried to steer education contract to former lawmaker’s company

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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Education Dehalfment is beneath hearth for making an try to steer a multimillion-greenagain contract to An group whose CEO has ties to the state’s education commissioner.

Data and interviews curlease that, earlier than the Florida Dehalfment of Education requested for bids, it was already in superior talks with The agency to do the work, subverting a course of designed to get rid of favoritism.

The agency is MGT Consulting, led by former Republican regulationmaker Trey Traviesa of Tampa, a longtime colleague of the state’s education commissioner, Richard Corcoran.

All by way of a bidding course of that was open for one week, MGT was The one pre-accredited vendor to submit a proposal — pitched at shut toly $2.5 million a yr To assist the struggling Jefferson County School District with its educational and monetary wants.

Paperwork curlease the dehalfment’s request for proposals was Tailored to MGT. However it Did not get the award.

Instead, the bidding course of erupted in controversy when two of Corcoran’s prime deputies and a member of the state Board of Education filed a competing bid. Their effort led to an inner investigation over potential battles of pursuits — and two resignations.

The Dehalfment of Education is now conducting A mannequin new spherical of bids for the work. However state Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, Is wanting for an unbiased investigation, saying that Regardless of The very Incontrovertible actuality that the dehalfment claimed to have carried out a aggressive bidding course of, officers “clearly had somephysique in thoughts.”

“These guys (MGT) clearly had The inside monitor To return in,” said Tant, whose district neighbors Jefferson County. “It’s actually egregious, For my half.”

Members of the Jefferson County School Board have been outraged for months, seeing The complete course of as a method for the state to siphon Further money out of a rural, majority-Black school district and into the pockets of the politically related.

The selection To lease An group To assist the three schools — and have Jefferson County pay for it with federal coronavirus aid greenagains — acquired here from the Dehalfment of Education, They are saying.

“I’m simply going to be reliable with you. It’s money,” Jefferson County School Board member Invoice Brumfield said in an interview final month. “It’s money and it’s politics, They typically’re simply making an try to kick Jefferson County aspherical as quickly as extra like a bunch of little nation bumpkins sitting over there and understanding nothing.”

Corcoran said his “first, final and solely precedence has been To Make constructive the college students of Jefferson County acquire the extreme-extreme quality education they deserve.”

“The Dehalfment has adopted not solely the letter However the spirit of the procurement course of,” he said. “Our procurements are designed To draw the widest differ of bidders To Enconstructive every needed service Is out there For every baby. Any suggestion Pretty The completely diffelease is uninformationrmed.”

In A press launch, Traviesa said MGT acquired involved On the request of staff On the Dehalfment of Education.

“The wants in Jefferson County align with our strengths, and we expressed curiosity if a aggressive course of moved forward,” Traviesa said. “Shifting forward, The agency is reevaluating its halficipation And might decide whether or not or To not halficipate later this month.”

Company had an inside monitor

Jefferson County, a rural county shut to Florida’s capital with Definitely one of many poorest populations Within the state, is coming off the boldest experiment but in Republicans’ two-decade effort To denationalise public education.

In 2017, amid failing grades and monetary misadministration, the state turned over administration of the district and its three schools to A private structure school agency — The primary, and solely, district Within the state to be privatized.

That 5-yr ardifferment with Somerset Academy Inc. Is about To expire June 30, and Somerset opted as quickly as extrast extending the contract. Somerset continues to Deal with “extreme turnover of instructional staff” and “terribly low proficiency” in math and studying Amongst The numerous majority Of college students, Based mostly on The agency’s January 2021 evaluation.

The varsity district was working with the state and Somerset for a plan to take again administration of The schools.

Initially, the county’s plan Did not embrace hiring ancompletely diffelease structure school agency To assist its transition.

However the Dehalfment of Education later decided It’d lease A private agency To curlease assist with the transition for As a lot as three yrs, and It’d use $4 million of Jefferson County’s federal coronavirus aid money to pay for it.

On Nov. 8, the state introduced a request for quotes. The scope was slender, despatched to 25 pre-accredited distributors, and all responses have been due In a single week.

Just one agency responded: MGT Consulting.

Based mostly in Tampa, MGT curleases consulting providers to state And native governments on know-how and schools. Since 2009, 10 state enterprisees in Florida, collectively with the Dehalfment of Education, have paid The agency Greater than $11.4 million for numerous providers.

Traviesa, its CEO, is a former GOP regulationmaker who was as quickly as registered on a enterprise, Step to Success Inc., with Corcoran and his spouse, a Founding father of a Pasco County structure school. The mission of The agency, Based mostly on agency filings, was To curlease “at-hazard college students the devices needed To understand kindergarten.” (Corcoran said it was a nonrevenue.) Traviesa’s enterprise Reference to Corcoran was first reported in a Substack submit by former Polk County School Board member Invoicey Townsend.

Traviesa served Within the Florida House of Recurleaseatives at a time when Corcoran was chief of staff to then-House Speaker Marco Rubio.

MGT had a leg up on the rivals for the Jefferson County work: It had been in talks with the Dehalfment of Education for A minimal of Every week earlier than the procurement was introduced, and it was appaleasely Tailored for MGT.

On Nov. 1, Every week earlier than the state opened the enterprise for bids, the Dehalfment of Education hosted A gathering To debate the transition plan with Jefferson County school superintendent Eydie Tricquet, Jefferson County’s curlease structure school operator and Traviesa.

Furtherly embraced was excellent structure school lobbyist Ralph Arza, a longtime shut ally of Rubio and Corcoran who resigned from the Legislature in 2006 after using racial slurs during a drunken tirade. Arza has 4 relations, collectively with his brcompletely diffelease and sister-in-regulation, working in Jefferson County for The agency curleasely working The schools.

Arza informed the Occasions/Herald that he was On the meeting on behalf of his job with the Florida Charter School Alliance, which advocates for structure schools, and Did not stand To revenue monetaryly if MGT gained the award.

On Nov. 5, a Dehalfment of Education worker was informed to draft the request for proposals. She was given a proposed settlement between MGT and the dehalfment and informed to base the request for proposals on that doc, Based mostly on a subsequent report by the dehalfment’s inspector widespread. The worker informed the inspector widespread that Jacob Oliva, one of Corcoran’s prime deputies and The prime of K-12 education in Florida, gave her the doc.

On Nov. 8, the day the request for quotes was issued, Tricquet informed the School Board that state officers informed her MGT had already been chooseed and had a contract.

“I do know on Nov. 29, MGT Shall be Taking over,” Tricquet informed board members. “I’ll know extra Once I’m meeting tomorrow with MGT.”

A ‘questionable’ course of

State regulation prohibits state enterprisees from awarding contracts when An group has an “unfair aggressive benefit,” outlined as having “entry to information That might not Out there to The general public and would assist The vendor in buying the contract.”

The fact that state officers have been already discussing the work with MGT earlier than it opened the bidding seems to violate the spirit of the aggressive procurement course of, said Ben Wilcox, co-Founding father of Integrity Florida, a nonhalfisan watchdog group.

“The agency might cas quickly asivably have gained inside information of what To place Within their bid Which might give them A bonus over completely diffelease corporations,” Wilcox said. “I really feel It is actually extremely questionable.”

Wilcox also flagged The very Incontrovertible actuality that bidding was open For Decrease than seven days.

“I’m not surprised There have been no completely diffelease bidders on the contract,” he said. “That Can be A very brief Time physique To place collectively a bid.”

Corcoran said he was involved when MGT was The one agency that responded.

“When MGT was The one responsive bidder to the procurement, we too have been involved, which is why I privately made the choice to rebid the procurement,” he said. “A contest Of 1 was by no means The Outcome we needed.” He said there are “A minimal of a handful” of licensed operators who might do the work in Jefferson County.

Traviesa said he Did not converse with Corcoran whereas the bidding was open.

A competing bid by dehalfment insiders

MGT Could have gained the bid if not For An extra proposal throwing The tactic into disarray.

On Nov. 15, The final day of bidding, A mannequin new agency referred to as Strategic Initiatives Companions entered a $1.8 million bid for one yr Of labor.

The agency was not on the state’s pre-accredited itemizing and subsequently was ineligible To put a bid. However The agency, shaped on Aug. 26, 2021, had a trio of fobeneaths that embraced two members of Corcoran’s management group: Andy Tuck, a member of the state Board of Education, which oversees Corcoran, and whose daughter is a member of the Legislature; Jacob Oliva, senior chancellor for the dehalfment who oversees all public school operations; and Melissa Ramsey, vice chancellor for strategic enchancment.

Ramsey was already Conversant Within the state of affairs in Jefferson County. She had been working with the county on its transition for a lot of 2021. She oversaw an office That curleases management teaching and curriculum coaches Freed from cost to struggling schools — The identical providers that Corcoran’s office was now taking multimillion-greenagain bids for.

The bizarre state of affairs of three school officers placing a bid for a dehalfment procurement triggered an inspector widespread investigation into potential battles of pursuits.

Ramsey informed the inspector widespread that she didn’t think about it was a battle as a Outcome of she had no say over who Can be awarded the contract — she said she was beneath the impression that Corcoran would finally choose the winner. If she gained, she said, she would resign.

The investigation found that Ramsey directed her subordinate, Caroline Wooden, to draft the bid proposal for Strategic Initiatives Companions. Wooden later informed investigators that she “ought to have acknowledged extremeer” when agreeing to do the work.

Oliva informed investigators he was unaware his identify was itemizinged on the proposal and said he discouraged Ramsey from making use of when she approached him about it.

The investigation cleared Oliva, who continues to Carry out Florida’s K-12 chancellor. Corcoran, saying he was “shocked” On the submission from Strategic Initiatives Companions, requested Ramsey and Tuck to resign their submits. They did.

Investigators, who Did not interview Tuck or Corcoran, thought-about the investigation over after the resignations.

The report by no means concluded whether or not the competing bid was illegal or posed a battle of pursuits. It also Did not discover any potential considerations with MGT’s bid.

Dehalfment spokesperson Jared Ochs said the dehalfment appropriately dealt with the competing bid.

“On this case, as quickly as a battle of curiosity was found, it was immediately investigated utterly, the dehalfment was In a place to get to The cas quickly aspt Rationalization for the matter, and subsequent steps have been recognized shortly,” Ochs said.

Ramsey declined to remark. Tuck Did not Reply to requests for remark.

A spokesperson for DeSantis, who appointed Corcoran to be commissioner in 2018, declined to remark.

Jefferson County’s price range at stake

In Jefferson County, the stakes are extreme.

When the School Board takes over in July, it Should make do on a roughly $8.5 million price range — about $7 million Decrease than the structure school operator has during its curlease yr, Tricquet, the superintendent, informed board members final week.

The district is making an try To sprime Shedding staff. It might’t afford to spend its $4 million in federal aid on consultants, interim principal Jackie Pons informed the board.

Tricquet informed the board They Want to wrestle again as quickly as extrast the Dehalfment of Education. She described being On the whim of Tallahassee, anticipated to promote dehalfment selections Which have modified repeatedly Over the previous six months. The School Board has had no say in these selections.

“I’m In a place to wrestle for Jefferson County,” Tricquet said. “I’ve been compliant. I’ve been affected person. I’ve not been invited to issues, but anticipated To return again and promote it. I’m carried out with all that.”

“Enough is enough,” she said.

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