Lawmakers mum on EdBuild school funding contract

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Details of how legislative leaders selected a company to analyze the funding formula for public schools remain cloudy — and may never be known — but conversations with several key people involved who spoke to Mississippi Today help to shed some light on the process.

House Speaker Philip Gunn details a plan to reassess the current public education formula. Behind Gunn, from left, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. John Read.

Adam Ganucheau, Mississippi Today

House Speaker Philip Gunn details a plan to reassess the current public education formula. Behind Gunn, from left, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, Sen. Buck Clarke and Rep. John Read.

Earlier this week, top lawmakers announced that the nonprofit, New Jersey-based EdBuild Inc., would receive the $250,000 contract to examine the Mississippi Adequate Education Formula, or MAEP.

Mississippi Today has requested a number of records detailing how the decisions was reached. However, the Legislature has in the past exempted itself from some provisions the state’s open meeting and public records laws.

The lack of transparency has raised eyebrows of government observers, especially in light of the fact that special committees of the Legislature have spent the late summer and early fall scouring working budgets of nine different state agencies in search of, as Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, have called “unnecessary expenditures” and “ways to spend our money more effectively.”

On Tuesday, lawmakers summoned agency heads to the Capitol, asking pointed questions about the agencies’ contracting procedures – why they were spending “X” number of dollars on “Y” service, why out-of-state contracts were awarded instead of in-state ones, and how open the bidding process was.

Then Reeves and Gunn took a break from those sessions to make the surprise announcement of the EdBuild contract.

They said the nonprofit company will evaluate the state’s much-discussed school funding formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. Both raised the prospect that a new formula could be developed by EdBuild, with proposed changes presented for approval by the Legislature as soon as the 2017 general session.

The EdBuild contract did not go through any bidding process, Gunn said Tuesday. A bidding process for a contract commissioned by the Legislature is not necessary under state law.

Mississippi Today has requested a copy of the contract, both informally and following the procedures set up in the state’s open-records law.

In reply, Reeves’ spokeswoman Laura Hipp and Gunn’s spokeswoman Meg Annison indicated that the public records request for the contract was forwarded to the Senate Rules Committee and House Management Committee for consideration.

Neither office directly responded Thursday to a question about whether the Legislature should follow the same contracting procedures state agencies are required to follow.

During the Tuesday press conference in which the contract was announced, Gunn was asked how the group was discovered and chosen.

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

“We looked around the past few months and did a search for what’s out there,” Gunn said. “As I recall, there were only just a handful. It wasn’t like there was a whole host of people to pick from. They are the ones we felt like were the best.”

EdBuild chief-executive officer Rebecca Sibilia told Mississippi Today that she was contacted “a couple weeks ago” by Reeves, Gunn and their staff members. They had an “in-depth conversation,” and then were told they wanted to move forward.

Talk of closed-door meetings – that a small group of lawmakers were considering a rewrite of the formula – swirled around the Capitol the second week of September. Mississippi Today asked directly about the meetings to several officials, including Reeves, Gunn and Rep. John Moore, chairman of the House Education Committee.

Reeves’ spokeswoman responded on Sept. 15, noting that the lieutenant governor has long wanted “to spend more money in the classroom and less money in the district office.”

That same day, Gunn’s spokeswoman, Meg Annison, also responded by noting efforts to revise the funding formula.

“In this session, you saw bills pass both chambers that looked at updating Mississippi’s nearly 20-year-old funding formula,” Annison wrote in an email. “Since then, an informal group of members has met with national experts to talk about ways to put more money into the classroom. These conversations are ongoing.”

When Mississippi Today asked Annison for more information, she replied: “I imagine there will be more information soon. There is no set schedule of meetings, and no work has been done other than looking into seeing who is out there who can assist in examining the formula.”

Moore, a Republican from Brandon, said there was “nothing official going on” when contacted on Sept. 19. In a telephone interview on Thursday, Moore told Mississippi Today that he attended “some of the meetings,” but did not stay for the entirety of all of them.

Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon

“The meetings themselves were basically informal discussions of other stuff,” Moore said Thursday. “I think this was done very similar to any other process that was done. There are a few that look at information. You can’t have 200 people in the room deciding who gets the contract, to be perfectly honest. At end of the day, the speaker and lieutenant governor made the call on this.”

He was unable to estimate how many companies were considered in addition to EdBuild. Eight different lawmakers who sit on House or Senate Education Committees told Mississippi Today Thursday they were not included in discussions about the contract.

The contract was approved Tuesday morning in Senate Rules Committee and House Management Committee meetings. Notices of the Senate meeting was posted to the Legislature’s website sometime last week, and the House Management Committee typically meets every Tuesday.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Hinds

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, who sits on the Senate Rules Committee, did not know about the EdBuild contract until the Rules Committee met Tuesday morning. He was informed of the called committee meeting “the middle of last week,” but he did not know the subject matter. Despite being left out of the loop, Horhn said he supported efforts to change the formula.

“I’m all for anything that will approve and provide additional funding for public education in Mississippi,” Horhn said.

Others, from groups such as the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents to Empower Mississippi, have applauded the review as well.

The day after the announcement, Mississippi Today asked Hipp and Annison: “How many meetings of lawmakers were there and what lawmakers were included in the decision making process? When did they occur?”

“Senate Rules Committee and House Management Committee voted on Tuesday, Oct. 11, to hire EdBuild in an open meeting posted on the Legislature’s website,” Hipp wrote in response. “The Lieutenant Governor and his policy staff have participated in dozens, if not hundreds, of meetings over the past five years to discuss ways to improve educational achievement in Mississippi.”