State Auditor Stacey Pickering Credit: State Auditor's office

In the wake of two scathing audits released by the state auditor’s office, Mississippi Department of Education officials are highlighting the changes put in place to fix deficiencies in accounting and procurement procedures.

In September, State Auditor Stacey Pickering accused the Mississippi Department of Education of purposefully attempting to circumvent state laws regarding contracts and procurement in a report released by his office.

“They have blatant disregard at the Department of Education for procurement regulations,” Pickering said.

In September, the Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER Committee) concluded that department entered into multiple contracts in fiscal years 2014-2016 “having apparent similarities in scope of work and for amounts that collectively exceeded bid thresholds, rather than competitively bidding contracts for such services.”

At a state Board of Education meeting last week, education officials outlined the new policies and procedures the department has implemented in the last year to make sure the department is following the rules when it comes to procuring contracts.

Chief of Operations Felicia Gavin told the board she presented State Education Superintendent Carey Wright with several recommendations to improve operations, and Wright told her to implement them.

“After a thorough review, I found the accounting practices were too lax and procedures were not clearly defined,” Gavin said in an editorial released Monday.

Gavin said the department has made several changes to their policy for hiring contract workers:

• For contracts worth $5,000.01 to $75,000, there must be a request for application.

• For contracts worth more than $75,000 there must be a request for application or competitive sealed bid process.

Any contract worth more than $75,000 must be approved by the state’s Personal Service Contract Review Board, and contracts worth more than $50,000 must be approved by the state Board of Education.

“A lot of the internal controls that we needed she has put into place,” Wright told reporters at a Stennis Capitol Press Forum Monday.

The department has eliminated the “pool” method of awarding contracts and established a new grants management department “to provide oversight and accountability of all federal funds and management of all grants within the agency,” Gavin said in the editorial.

Under a practice in place since 2001, the department had been authorized to award contracts of less than $100,000 to any contractor in a “pool” of contractors that they have established for specific types of work. Those contract awards did not require a bid process, department spokesperson Jean Cook said in May, when questions arose about the awarding of a contract to former top Education Department administrator J.P. Beaudoin’s consulting company, Research in Action, Inc.

Gavin said in the past, the department did not have a specific employee whose job concerned compliance, so she hired a compliance manager in May. She also hired an accounting director during the same month who is responsible for streamlining the way contracts are reported and establishing clear lines of accountability, she said.

Gavin told the board her office also implemented a contract transmittal form that she and the procurement director need to sign. The form is attached to all contracts before it is added to the board agenda for approval, she said.

“That way my office is very well aware of any contracts that come before you and that they have followed the proper procedures as it relates to procuring any contracts.”

Pickering’s office released two audits in September; a compliance audit spurred by the discovery of red flags in routine financial audits from previous years, and a limited forensic audit done on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education after three employees were terminated for mismanaging federal funds last year.

Pickering’s office is currently auditing the department after his office requested copies of the contracts included in the PEER report.

“I’m not sure that that’s happening,” Wright said in a response to a question at the Stennis forum as to whether criminal actions occurred involving the misuse of money. “I think what we have to do is not get ahead of ourselves and I think it’s awfully hard to say this is happening when you haven’t even started the audit.”

“I’m open to whatever he’s (Pickering) saying is happening,” she added.

Wright noted her department is conducting its own internal audit.

“We want to make sure we leave no stones unturned and if there are things that we need to change we’ll absolutely change them,” she said.

Kayleigh Skinner joined the Mississippi Today team in January 2017 as an education and legislative reporter and advanced to a senior staff member in her four years with the company. Skinner most recently served as deputy managing editor before assuming the role of managing editor. Kayleigh has a bachelor’s in journalism from the School of Journalism and New Media from the University of Mississippi. Before joining Mississippi Today, Kayleigh worked at The Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat Tennessee, and The Commercial Appeal. She has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, and BBC Newsday Radio to discuss her reporting.