The executive director of the State Board of Education and a prominent Idaho lawmaker are denying wrongdoing after being accused by Gov. Butch Otter of “being involved in discussions that would circumvent the state’s procurement laws.”
At issue is a $1 million budget line item to pay for school districts to use a software program for teacher evaluations.
The dustup also appears to represent a fight among some Republicans that has gone public the week after the Nov. 6 general election.
On Nov. 1, Otter wrote a letter to Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, complaining about discussions Horman and State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman had about the bidding and contract procedures for the $1 million software program.
In his letter, Otter says Freeman asked the Division of Purchasing to cancel the request for proposals (RFP) for the software program after speaking with Horman.
Teacher evaluations have become an increasingly controversial issue. In 2015, the Legislature tied teachers’ ability to earn a raise to performance on the evaluations. Since the Legislature passed the career ladder salary law, both Idaho Education News and the Professional Standards Commission uncovered inaccurate data and instances of school administrators violating Idaho law.
The program is designed to help districts with evaluations.
The Idaho Statesman first reported on Otter’s letter Wednesday afternoon.
In an Idaho EdNews interview, Horman strongly denied doing anything to circumvent purchasing laws.
“These are absolutely false allegations,” Horman said. “Public records of emails will bear out I was doing my duty as a legislator who serves on (the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee) to see that funds provided were wisely used.”
State Board spokesman Mike Keckler also issued a statement saying Freeman and the State Board fully complied with state purchasing statutes and processes. Keckler wrote that State Board staff did request the Division of Purchasing cancel the RFP “after it became clear it would not be ready for deployment in time for the current school year.”
Instead of proceeding with the RFP, Keckler wrote that State Board staff hoped to either distribute the funding directly to school districts to allow them to purchase their own software or return the money to the state.
In a Sept. 13 email between Freeman, Horman and a state purchasing agent obtained by Idaho EdNews, Freeman spelled out the reasons he sought to cancel the RFP.
- “The RFP required the software solution be deployed by August.”
- “We are now almost a month into the school year.”
- “Software demonstrations, selection of vendor, finalizing procurement paperwork, and 30 days to deploy the software (per the RFP) would take us deep into the first semester after teacher observations and evaluations have already commenced at the school districts.”
Freeman concluded his Sept. 13 email by writing, “… at this point we believe cancelation is in the best interest of the state and the best use of taxpayer dollars.”
However, Otter told Freeman not to cancel the RFP. Otter also alluded to the potential for a lawsuit in his letter to Horman.
“Beyond the legal requirement to award the contract to the successful bidder and potential litigation from the cancellation of the RFP, this is important in assuring that there is state-level administration and oversight of the teacher evaluation process,” Otter wrote.
On Oct. 23, Freeman signed a Division of Purchasing approval form to proceed with the RFP, at Otter’s direction, Keckler wrote.
Then the State Board received a Nov. 1 letter from Otter directing the State Board to award the contract, Keckler wrote.
“There was absolutely no intent, nor any attempts to circumvent state purchasing law,” Keckler wrote.
In a written statement from Horman, she pushed back against Otter and said she was undertaking her due diligence to make sure state funds were being awarded wisely.
“In light of the governor’s history regarding the state’s procurement process during the Idaho Education Network debacle, which cost Idaho taxpayers millions of dollars, legislators need to ask the hard questions to do their homework,” Horman wrote.
Horman also said Otter’s letter “appears to be the executive branch seeking retribution on legislators who do their job.”
Otter is retiring this year after three terms as Idaho governor. Last week, Horman was re-elected to a two-year term in the Legislature.
State records and emails show that eight potential vendors responded to the RFP. Two of the vendors involved are Frontline Education and Silverback Learning.
Fremont County Superintendent Byron Stutzman said his district and about 60 others already use Silverback Learning.
“I’m upset,” Stutzman said. “We already have a great product we purchased on our own. The state can finance it, but let us use what we’ve determined to be the best product.”
News of the contracting dispute was a hot topic at the Idaho School Boards Association conference in Boise. While attending the conference, Stutzman told Idaho EdNews he has concerns about how the state has handled some past statewide contracts.
“Look at all the things the state has purchased that has gone awry,” he said.
Click here to read Otter’s full letter to Horman.
Idaho Education News Editor Jennifer Swindell contributed to this report.