Florida education contract stinks of insider advantage | Editorial
How were so many bad decisions made about one contract?
Ron DeSantis, left, listens as Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a news conference at Bayview Elementary School on October 7, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Ron DeSantis, left, listens as Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a news conference at Bayview Elementary School on October 7, 2019, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 13, 2022

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is never shy about telling other public officials where they come up short. So it’s only fair to wonder why his department tried to steer a multimillion-dollar contract to a company whose CEO has ties to Corcoran. The fate of struggling school children in one of Florida’s poorest counties is involved, and if the governor won’t order an investigation, the Legislature should.

As the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported, the Florida Department of Education was already in talks with MGT Consulting, a company led by former Republican legislator Trey Traviesa of Tampa, before it sought bids for a contract to work with the Jefferson County School District. That contact made a mockery of the competitive bidding process designed to eliminate favoritism in government contracting.

Documents show the department’s request for proposals was tailored to MGT, but the company did not get the award. Instead, the bidding process erupted in controversy when two of Corcoran’s top deputies and a member of the state Board of Education — which oversees Corcoran — filed a competing bid. In other words, ethical problem No. 2.

Some background: In 2017, amid failing grades and financial mismanagement, the state turned over control of the Jefferson County School District and its three schools to a private charter school company. That five-year arrangement with Somerset Academy Inc. is set to expire June 30. The school district was working with the state and Somerset to take back control, and DOE decided it would hire a firm to help with the transition.

As the Times/Herald reported, MGT had a leg up on any competitors, having been in talks with the DOE before the procurement was announced — a contract apparently tailor-made for MGT. On Nov. 5, a DOE employee was told to draft a request for proposals, and given a proposed agreement with MGT as a model document for the bid request, according to a subsequent report by the department’s inspector general. The employee told the inspector general she was given the document by Jacob Oliva, one of Corcoran’s top deputies.

MGT might have won if not for another proposal throwing the process into dispute. On Nov. 15, the final day of bidding, a new company called Strategic Initiatives Partners entered a $1.8 million bid for one year of work. The company, formed in August, had a trio of founders that included several members of Corcoran’s leadership team: Andy Tuck, a member of the state Board of Education; Melissa Ramsey, vice chancellor for strategic improvement; and Oliva.

The unusual situation of three school officials placing a bid for a department procurement triggered an inspector general investigation into potential conflicts of interests. Ramsey told the inspector general that she didn’t believe it was a conflict because she had no say over who would be awarded the contract, and that if she won, she intended to resign. Oliva told investigators he was unaware his name was being used and said he discouraged Ramsey from applying. The investigation cleared Oliva, who continues to serve as Florida’s K-12 chancellor. Corcoran said he was “shocked” by the submission and asked Ramsey and Tuck to resign, which they did. A department spokesman said the agency handled the bid appropriately; it is now conducting a new round of bids for the work.

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But hold on. The conflicts of interest here are so glaring, the department’s management so questionable and the stakes so incredibly high that it’s time for the governor to intervene. Investigators did not interview Tuck or Corcoran. The report never concluded whether the competing bid was illegal or posed a conflict. And it did not explore any potential concerns with MGT.

What kind of investigation is this? Answer: An internal one, by an agency that’s both the suspect and the judge. And who’s caught in the middle? A rural, majority-Black school district still struggling to find its footing after being graded a D or F for seven of the last 10 years.

State Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee, is right to call for an independent investigation. Taxpayers deserve to know: How could department officials even conceive of communicating with a potential vendor? Who wrote the proposal that served as a template for the bids? Why was the bidding timeline so brief? Who was poised to make the final decision? And why did the department’s inspector general not fully pursue the leads?

It’s indefensible that a contracting scandal has further distracted from the academic achievement of children who’ve already languished too long. We can just imagine Corcoran’s hectoring if Jefferson County was the culprit instead of the other way around. The DeSantis administration talks big about accountability. This episode cries out for much more.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.