State education superintendent Carey Wright said all of the IT work performed by two companies with ties to her former coworkers in Maryland was necessary, and there was no duplication of work.
Wright came under fire this week for the awarding of hundreds of thousands of dollars to Blue Sky Innovative Solutions, LLC and DataOne IT Solutions to work on a new data system and a reorganization of the IT department over the past three years.
Wright also hired John Q. Porter, the past president of Blue Sky and a former coworker from her time in Maryland, as deputy state superintendent in 2015. The Mississippi Department of Education had contracted with Blue Sky in 2014 for more than $200,000, including one 2014 contract that was modified from $29,050 to $69,450, adding only “continued review and oversight” and “development and implementation of a plan of action” to the scope of work.
“There is no way that we could be doing some of the things we are doing now around data if we had not had the work of Dr. Porter and his team,” Wright said.
The blog Jackson Jambalaya first reported on the contracts Tuesday, raising questions about issues with Porter’s salary and the companies’ contracts with the department.
Calls to Porter and Elton Stokes with DataOne were not returned.
A spokeswoman for the state auditor’s office said it was aware of the media reports about the contracts but could not confirm or deny any ongoing audits or investigations.
Wright said the department is currently undergoing a compliance audit by the state auditor’s office, which the spokeswoman confirmed is routine.
The auditor’s office did get involved in May when Stacey Pickering wrote a letter to Wright. It stated Porter’s salary was a potential violation of the law that states certain employees’ salaries cannot exceed 150 percent of the Governor’s salary. As a result, the board voted at its May meeting to decrease Porter’s salary from $195,000 to $183,000 after receiving the letter, according to The Clarion-Ledger.
The Education Department also contracted with Elton Stokes, who’s currently listed as an administrator in the Montgomery County School District in Maryland where Wright worked as an associate superintendent before coming to Mississippi. According to meeting minutes from January of last year, the board voted unanimously during executive session to hire Stokes as a consultant for an amount not to exceed $93,009.60. The board also voted to award one of Porter’s contracts for the same IT work the same day.
Wright said where Porter’s company focuses on IT infrastructure, Stokes is a “data warehouse guru.”
“There’s nobody inside the department that had the data warehouse skills … We advertised and advertised and advertised for that position, and no one that’s got the skill set to do it was willing to come to Mississippi,” Wright said. “… Part of your integrity as a department is the quality of data you produce.”