Ed Dept. retiree contracts draw fire

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Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, asks State Superintendent Carey Wright about tracking how separate organizations spend state money at Tuesday's budget hearing.

Kate Royals, Mississippi Today

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, asks State Superintendent Carey Wright about tracking how separate organizations spend state money at Tuesday’s budget hearing.

Legislative leaders raised concerns Tuesday about the Mississippi Department of Education contracting with 114 retired employees, saying the practice could be considered “double dipping.”

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves said many constituents question the practice of former state employees “with very generous retirement plans” returning to the agency to work on a contract.

“There are a lot of people who look at that as … taking advantage of the system,” said Reeves, R-Florence.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, also questioned State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright about whether the department was hiring former educators who had not performed well.

“Hiring independent contracts or consultants who were in the education arena who were in a situation where they failed to perform — for example, a superintendent of a failing district then hired back as a consultant,” Gunn said. “I don’t understand that.”

It is not clear whether the example posed by Gunn was real or theoretical. Gunn’s spokeswoman Meg Annison did not immediately respond to that question Tuesday.

The feedback came during the latest in a series of budget working group hearings held by the Legislature. The groups are assessing the budgets of 13 state agencies, along with examining the state’s tax structure.

The department spent $35.3 million on independent contracts last fiscal year, according to information presented by the department to lawmakers Tuesday. The majority of that, or $27.6 million, was for personal services contracts awarded through the request for proposal (RFP) process. The remaining $2.9 million was spent on a wide range of contract workers.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright told the group that of the 16 different requests for proposals the department put out last fiscal year, four were awarded to Mississippi companies. Of the other 12, only two Mississippi companies submitted proposals, she said..

Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson, asked Wright why so few Mississippi companies were awarded bids.

“I can’t tell you why that is. We may simply not have companies that provide those services,” Wright said, noting she was not aware of any company in the state with the ability to provide a statewide assessment, for example.

Gunn also questioned whether there were any contracts mandated by the Legislature that Wright did not consider effective. Those contracts include conservators, assessments, and the ACT, which is now administered to all juniors.

Wright said all are necessary, but the department is thinking of changing its conservatorship model because what it has right now “isn’t working,” she said. Conservators run a school district for the state when local officials have failed to meet statewide standards.