OP-ED | It’s Past Time for Transparency at the State Department of Education
As soon as the Hartford Courant reported that a state grand jury had issued a subpoena for “all emails of Commissioner Stefan Pryor since January 2012,” it was obvious the controversial head of the state Department of Education was on borrowed time. Frankly, I’m surprised he survived this long.
From the start, Pryor presided over a culture of cronyism and opacity, rather than the transparency Gov. “Dannel” P. Malloy promised.
Take his funneling of $255,000 in no-bid contracts through the State Education Resource Center, for example.
Back in 2012, Tom Swan, Executive Director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, filed a whistleblower complaint regarding these contracts after learning about them through emails he’d obtained through an FOIA request.
Gov. Malloy’s legal counsel at the time, Andrew McDonald, who has since been elevated to the bench as an associate justice of the State Supreme Court, called Swan’s complaint “reckless” and “devoid of any evidence.”
Except that it wasn’t.
According to the interim report released by the state auditors: “. . . contracts were entered into with private companies to provide various consulting services. Again, the contracts were executed by the State Department of Education, SERC and the private company. The contracts state that the State Department of Education selected the vendor and SERC was not responsible for directing or monitoring the vendors’ activities. In each of these cases, the state’s personal service agreement procedures and its contracting procedures were not followed.”
Pryor’s Education Department has been strong on accountability for teachers, but did it hold itself to those same standards? Not so much.
While the pro-corporate education reform Hartford Courant editorial page waxed lyrical about Pryor’s accomplishments, let’s not forget that these are the same folks who were singing Michael Sharpe’s praises and wanting to give him more taxpayer money only hours before the FUSE/Jumoke scandal blew up. Of course they’ve since scrubbed that embarrassing little detail, but as we warn our kids when we teach them about Internet safety, screenshots are forever.
Pryor’s reign at the state Department of Education has certainly been great for consultants. It’s hard for the average Nutmegger to know exactly how great, because of his administration’s opacity. But I have high hopes that the transparency initiatives of our state comptroller, Kevin Lembo, and our legislature will eventually yield some answers on this and so many other issues that concern taxpayers, be they Democrats, Republicans, or unaffiliated.
When Comptroller Lembo’s office first launched OpenConnecticut — http://opencheckbook.ct.gov/ —I wrote to congratulate him on providing a much needed dose of sunlight into our state’s financial affairs.
But the site isn’t perfect yet, and Lembo’s office acknowledged that it’s still being developed.
When you visit OpenConnecticut and click on “Follow the Money” and then the “Contracts” tab, you are sent to the legislature’s Transparency.ct.gov page where you can search for state contracts.
However, while a search under the keyword “education” for 2013 gets us 242 results, it’s hard to know from this search — unless you actually know about the contracts — if they are all related to the state Department of Education.
What did strike me from that search (although it didn’t entirely surprise me) were the numerous contracts awarded through non-competitive bids.
But if I try to drill down in the search through the state Department of Education category, it only gives me the category totals. There’s no way to cross check the data.
I asked if I was missing something.
Joshua Wojcik, Policy Director for Lembo’s office, provided the following answer:
I don’t know if anyone has given you a response yet, but the issue you are having is something we seeking to solve in the next iteration of the site. Right now contracts and the General Ledger expenditure data are stored in two different databases without the ability to crosswalk the information. We are looking at adding contracts to [OpenConnecticut] site so you will be able and filter by agency, thereby solving the issue you describe below. It may be a few months before we get there, but we are moving in that direction.
Unfortunately we’re left thinking that because of our state’s byzantine accounting system, it’s appears to be difficult for anyone — including those who are responsible for fiscal policy — to figure out how our money is being spent. Witness the roller coaster deficit and surplus predictions. It’s too difficult to keep an accurate eye on how our money is spent — although how much of that difficulty has to do with political maneuvering and how much of it has to do with the antiquated accounting systems remains to be seen.
I’m looking forward to the day, hopefully in the near future, that OpenConnecticut has cross-functional transparency. Sadly, this state has done much to earn the “Corrupticut” moniker, and until we shine light into Hartford’s dark funding crevices, we’ll never be able to get rid of it.
Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.
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