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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Pinellas' auditor applications kept secret



Pinellas County school board members have been talking about hiring a performance auditor for years now. According to the request for proposals they hammered out, they want a certified public accountant who is able to take an objective look at the district's finances and make sure it is using its resources in the best way possible.

Last Tuesday, they finally got a hold of the responses to their RFP. According to the district staff, there were two.

But apparently the only people who can see those bids are the school board members themselves.

School board attorney Jim Robinson stopped district staff from bringing the bid packets into a public school board workshop on Dec. 13, saying a new law makes such bid proposals exempt from public record laws.

Robinson cited Florida Statute 119.071, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year.

"The Public Records Act was amended this past year to make sealed bids, proposals or replies received by an agency exempt from public records requests until such time as the agency provides notice of an intended decision or until 30 days after opening the bids, proposals, or final replies, whichever is earlier," Robinson wrote in an email he sent board members during the board meeting. "This is intended to enhance competitive bidding, to ensure bidders to not go to school on one another's submittals."

Usually, this isn't something the public pays a lot of attention to. That's because the district staff -- not the board -- is the party typically charged with assessing the bids then recommending a winner to the board before a vote. In this case, however, board members themselves will be doing the bid scoring and the hiring, making such public records issues particularly alarming to anyone (read: this Gradebook reporter) used to almost all board materials being open to the public.

Robinson suggested that the board members bring the proposals home and read them over. Then, board members said, they could possibly come back and discuss the merits of each proposal in a way that would exclude any details that could compromise the point of the law. Needless to say, it's unclear now exactly how that might play out.

It is possible, however, that the board would vote on a winning bid before the public ever knows any details about who applied or what the planned contract might entail.

Robinson did tell board members that they have the right to waive that exemption. But it didn't appear during the workshop that any board members were particularly inclined to take such a measure.

Asked after the workshop discussion about what the next board meeting on the bid proposals might look like, Robinson said it could be "awkward." In a subsequent email to The Gradebook, he wrote this:

While the bid documents themselves are exempt under the Public Records Act, that does not permit the Board to meet outside the Sunshine to make any decision concerning the bids, whether to accept one or reject all.  Thus, the Board will either have to go through the process of dealing with exempt records at a public meeting (which could prove awkward), or decide to waive the exemption.  Since the statute provides that the documents are exempt, not confidential and exempt (such as student records), the Board may waive the exemption.  Call if you need any further explanation.

[Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 10:02am]


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