Capitol News Service
BATON ROUGE -- When Buddy Roemer was elected governor in 1987, one message that he seemingly never tired of repeating was that if elected, he would board up the top three floors of the Louisiana Department of Education.
Had he been successful on that one promise, he might still be governor.
The Department of Education has long been criticized by lawmakers as being far too top-heavy in administrative personnel while short-changing students in the classroom.
And while the number of administrators and bureaucrats in the department may indeed be high, when it comes to creative ways in which to spend taxpayer dollars -- federal or state -- there doesn’t appear to be any agency in state government that match Education.
In Fiscal Year 2008-2009, the last year for which figures were made available, the department handed out 1,009 contracts totaling nearly $130.1 million. The previous year was even worse. In the year ending June 30, 2008, it issued 1,395 contracts totaling $162.2 million. That comes to more than 2.400 contracts worth over $292 million in just two years.
The contracts, issued to individuals, state and federal agencies, non-profit groups, churches, and corporations, ranged from as little as $500 to more than $8 million.
Granted, much of the money was federal dollars and some of the contracts were inter-agency pacts, meaning money was simply transferred from one state entity to another.
But a $94,000 contract to Sports 4 Kids that ran from Aug. 18, 2008 to June 15, 2009 that calls for the contractor to provide a program to help students learn “valuable social skills through organized play on their recess and lunch periods” has to raise a few eyebrows. How did we ever learn to play as kids without Sports 4 Kids?
Or how about the back-to-back contracts issued to Joy Corporation of Zachary? One nine-month contract from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, 2007, for $220,000 and paid with 100 percent federal funds called on Joy to provide students in grades K-12 with “high quality youth development services that support student learning, including tutoring and recreation.”
The next year Joy, founded by Ron Jackson, a former state employee who was recently fired as interim Superintendent of Schools for the City of Baker after only 17 days on the job, did even better, receiving a 10-month contract running from Oct. 1, 2007 through Aug. 31, 2008, was for the same services but the amount was increased to $263,295.
Some of the contracts were with individuals. One such 11-month contract for $48,800, called for the contractor to provide consulting services to the New Orleans Recovery School District Central Office “to assist with the creation of sustainable relationships with professional unions.”
The $341,465.48 contract to Peter A. Mayer Advertising was simply for a six-month public relation campaign “to establish a positive image of high school redesign.”
CN Resource, LLC, received a contract for $850,000 that ran from May 1, 2006 through April 30, 2007 “to assist the state in ensuring program integrity and assessing compliance of specified participating agencies with USDA Child Nutrition Program.”
That, however, apparently was not sufficient because an individual contract for $32,900 was then awarded an individual from Oct. 1, 2007 through September 30, 2008, “to review program records and (to) conduct nutrient analysis of one week of menus to report on compliance with state and federal dietary program.”
Nine contracts of $76,000 each ($684,000 total) were awarded to three separate non-profit organizations. Seven of those were to various chapters of Families Helping Families. The other two were awarded to Bayou Land Families and Northshore Families and each of the nine contract descriptions called for providing resources, direct support, materials, and training to families, educators and service providers of students with disabilities.
Sixty-eight contracts of $11,644 each ($791,792 total) were awarded to various churches in locations that were virtually impossible to determine to operate community-based tutorial programs from September 2008 through June 2009.
Others were simply eye-popping in their size and the description of services:
$3.2 million to Catapult Learning, LLC to “provide high quality research-based professional development opportunities, materials, and services” that support schools, families, and students;
$558,000 to an architect for an environmental assessment for demolition of multiple schools in the New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD);
$1 million for architectural services for construction of new schools and repair of existing schools;
$1.5 million for demolition of an elementary school;
$2.18 million for an architect to design bid documents for demolition of a school;
$2.1 million for architectural services for school construction;
$2.33 million for architectural services for school construction;
$2.5 million for architectural services for school construction;
$4.1 million for architectural services for school construction;
$8.1 million for architectural services for construction of modular school sites for New Orleans RSD.
There were other, of course, hundreds and hundreds. Whether it is for workshops, presentations, keynote addresses, leadership training, meeting planners, redesign, enhancements, mentoring, if it can be imagined and justified, it would appear to be a candidate for funding of some description.
With all the rhetoric about cutbacks to higher education and public health, the money it seems, seems to flow through the labyrinth that is the Louisiana Department of Education.
And no one appears to be minding the store.
When the Louisiana Legislature convenes on April, lawmakers may well wish to ask State School Superintendent Paul Pastorek some uncomfortable questions that go beyond the mere approval of RSD Superintendent’s use of a state vehicle for a few dozen personal trips to Chicago.
Gov. Bobby Jindal, meanwhile, may wish to consult with Roemer for a refresher course on the former governor’s plans for the Department of Education way back in ’87.