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OP-ED | It’s Past Time for Transparency at the State Department of Education

by Sarah Darer Littman | Aug 22, 2014 9:24am
(12) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion, Transparency

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:

Hi Sarah,

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.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(12) Comments

posted by: RogueReporterCT | August 22, 2014  12:46pm

RogueReporterCT

Save Our Schools from Salesmen

Listen up, folks. Yeah we’ve got trouble. Right here in our city. It’s a really hot mess, which rhymes with “S”, and that stands for School!

Teachers? Hah! Take away their tenure, I say. And their unions, too! Who are they to say what should be taught and what should not? They and their free speech just causing trouble, trouble, trouble…

Let billionaires rule what’s learned in school; capitalism is the golden rule. Textbook companies are people, too, so let them do that thing they do.

It’ll be okay. Wipe off that frown, and party down with Campbell Brown. Charters ring that ka-ching sound. Pass “Doctor” titles all around!

posted by: ABC | August 22, 2014  4:58pm

The New Orleans Recovery District in 7 years has dramatically turned around the academic fortunes of thousands of low income African-American children and their families by creating an all-choice, virtually all-charter district.  New Orleans is now on pace, over the next few years, to be the first sizeable urban district which outperforms the state average academically. 

Bottom line? Taxpayers will end up spending less per pupil than they used to and kids will finally get the education that they deserve. 

Now that’s transparently great!

posted by: Castles Burning | August 22, 2014  6:28pm

Thank you for taking such efforts to TRY TO FIND OUT where our money is being spent, particularly by the SDOE, which loves no-bid contracts.  Malloy must be held accountable for the lack of policies and oversight.

I loved your comment that “screenshots are forever” because it exposes the lack of accountability in political commentary as well as fiscal responsibility.

I wish that your hope for greater transparency comes to fruition.  It will require much will and dedication to the task.

posted by: Bluecoat | August 22, 2014  8:51pm

I have an unanswered e-mails for going back for over two years now asking State of CT DOE employees how much personal and private information is being purged from my kids without my permission. How big is the State Wide Longitudinal Data System, and how big is their budget. All I get is crickets.
We all know now or should know that even health information taken in school is not protected by Federal HIPPA laws, but fall under the protection of FERPA! Which has been gutted to be meaningless by Obama and the Feds. Here in CT, we have State Legislators that know of this problem, but have refused to act on it. We need to immediately pull out of The Smarter Balanced Assessments, which is the vehicle by which any and all personal info is stolen from kids as they log into the stupid computers that are now needed to take the idiotic computer based testing. We are the dumbest people in the world for letting this happen. There are no adults in the legislature, the DOE, or in the local press that will really investigate this issue. None.
I want our legislature and any other State employee to have to take periodic psychology exams and personality assessments, retina scans, palm scan, wear heart rate monitors, and sit in pressure sensitive seats, and make them part of their permanent records, and available to the taxpayers for review on the State website for everyone to see, then maybe someone would pay attention to the invasion of privacy that is going on. But nothing will be done about it,nothing.

posted by: Bluecoat | August 22, 2014  9:01pm

Here is a great post from a Cheshire Mom on the idiotic Smarter Balanced Tests we are being told our kids have to take thanks to Malloy and Pryor, seems though that this isn’t true:
http://commoncoreinct.blogspot.com/2014/08/written-parental-consent-is-necessary.html

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | August 23, 2014  12:03am

ABC once again makes clear that he or she is a complete charter school shill. As the Washington Post reported in May, the New Orleans Recovery School District has now completed the process started by Paul Vallas post-Katrina, and the district is now 100% charter schools. As for the “improvement” that’s a matter of dispute: http://educationopportunitynetwork.org/the-dishonest-case-for-the-new-orleans-school-reform-model/  And it’s the weekend, so I’m not going to list all the corruption cases, but needless to say, there are many.

posted by: ctperson13 | August 23, 2014  7:26am

ABC—you’re joking, right? You’re holding up the NOLA recovery district as an example we should follow? I didn’t realize there were actually people who were still fooled by the smoke and mirrors employed by the ed “reformers”—and the NOLA recovery district is the poster child for this approach. All juking of stats, my friend. The NOLA recovery district is in shambles. A quick Google brought up a couple of articles for your edification. I doubt you’ll pay attention, so I won’t bother with more.

http://educationopportunitynetwork.org/the-dishonest-case-for-the-new-orleans-school-reform-model/

http://deutsch29.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/new-orleans-recovery-school-district-the-lie-unveiled/

If by chance you actually care to learn the truth, there is plenty more out there, very easy to find.

posted by: Parent and educator | August 23, 2014  11:10am

ABC is a one-trick pony.  Even if charterizing the entire district had any academic merit, the fact that New Orleans was once home to a union with the largest percentage of African Americans, and that the district employed one of the largest percentages of people of color, who also resided there and who almost all lost their jobs as a result of this charter experiment, is enough to taint any progress cited by ABC.  But the progress is illusory.  The catastrophic losses from Hurricane Katrina coupled with the devastation of neo-liberal privatization schemes have reduced New Orleans to a neo-colony of private interests—a “bantustan” of disempowered people who cannot even work in the district where they live.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | August 23, 2014  2:16pm

Any else wonder if ABC has a financial relationship with TFA? https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/07/no-excuses-in-new-orleans/

posted by: Bronx | August 25, 2014  6:53am

My suspicion is ABC probably works in the marketing department of a charter school chain. Our hard earned tax dollars at work. Part of his/ her job description is to troll on line with phony stats…The RSD has been an utter failure and ranked 50th out of 50 districts in LA…take your snake oil elsewhere

posted by: ABC | August 26, 2014  8:05am

More comments about the comment than the actual post! (Sorry about that, Sarah)

I guess the union-istas get all riled up when confronted with the uncomfortable truth.

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | August 26, 2014  10:49am

Oh ABC - if your comments weren’t so illogically pathetic they might be amusing.

The reason there are so many comments on your comment is because your comment isn’t “the truth.” If you actually bothered to click on the many links in the comments you would see something that in the education field we call “evidence of argument”. This is something that you never seem to be able to provide when you grace us with your ceaseless reformy platitudes.

As for me being a “unionista”...let me see - in the many jobs I work am I in a union? Oh yes, I guess I pay dues to the AAUP as part of being an adjunct at WCSU, but since the income I derive from that is the lowest percentage of my annual income, I hardly think that qualifies me as a “unionista”. As a columnist for CTNJ and now others I am freelance, ie/ self-employed. As an author I am self-employed. When I do school and library visits I am self-employed.  When I teach for Writopia I am employed, but not unionized.  Ergo, hardly the “union tool” you’d like to paint me as.

If your ability to construct logical arguments is an example of what we can expect from corporate education reform, then I would suggest it is example A of why we should NOT have corporate education reform.