Little’s education aide joins private firm — which received a $3.5 million no-bid contract

Greg Wilson, Gov. Brad Little’s point person on education issues, spent the summer of 2021 working on a multi-pronged K-12 student data management project.

He communicated with several potential vendors, including SAS Institute Inc., a Cary, N.C.-based data analytics firm.

Greg Wilson

In October, SAS signed a $3.5 million contract with the state — a no-bid contract. The state Department of Administration, Idaho’s purchasing arm, agreed to a State Board of Education request to speed up the process and consider only SAS.

In December, Wilson accepted a job with SAS.

Little’s office says it had no idea Wilson had applied for an outside job until he turned in his notice. And Wilson’s move from the governor’s office to SAS was legal, since Idaho has no “revolving door” laws regarding state officials.

The State Board is defending the no-bid contract, saying its goal was to speed up a “data dashboard” to allow Idahoans to assess student performance, analyze learning loss from the pandemic, and provide a platform to help teachers predict how their students will do in the future. The normal bidding process is designed to encourage private-sector competition, but it can take months to award a contract this way. The State Board wanted to expedite this process — and it believed SAS could get the first data visualization phase operational by Jan. 1.

However, this public dashboard is still not up and running.

To investigate the $3.5 million project — and Wilson’s role in the process — Idaho Education News has reviewed the SAS contract, the State Board’s application with the state Department of Administration to bypass the competitive bidding process, and internal and external emails from Little’s office. Idaho Education News has filed public records requests for additional emails to and from State Board staff and Little’s office.

The process began nearly a year ago, during the longest legislative session in state history.

Spring 2021: The project’s origins

A year into the pandemic, Little’s office, the State Board and the State Department of Education agreed on the need to better address learning loss. But State Board members were frustrated, Little spokeswoman Marissa Morrison Hyer said in response to written questions from Idaho Education News. As the 2021 legislative session stretched into spring, lawmakers spent much of their time focused on issues such as critical race theory, not student performance.

The State Board — a K-12 and higher education policymaking body, made up largely of gubernatorial appointees — expressed interest in May in a K-12 data dashboard.

And in May, the money became available: another round of federal coronavirus education funding. Little received an installment of the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, or GEER Fund, a portion of federal coronavirus aid that governors can spend at their discretion.

The money came with a deadline: the state had to award any contracts using GEER money by January 2022.

Summer 2021: The project takes shape

By late July, the State Board assembled a working group to figure out what a data dashboard should look like.

Wilson consulted with the State Board working group, and helped develop the data dashboard specifications. In July and August, Hyer said, Wilson “communicated” with SAS, Atlanta-based BrightBytes and “potentially other vendors” on the project.

By late summer, the State Board assembled a small team to review three proposals: from SAS, BrightBytes and from Meridian-based Silverback Learning Solutions (now known as EdPower). No one from Little’s office was on the team, including Wilson.

Little had no contact with the State Board working group or potential vendors, Hyer said. And she said he had no role in the contracting decision to follow.

September-October 2021: the no-bid contract

On Sept. 8 — as schools reopened, and the delta variant pushed a new pandemic surge — the State Board sought to speed up the data project. The board asked the state Department of Administration for permission to bypass the normal bidding process.

“With the latest wave of COVID cases in Idaho and continued disruptions in student learning for the fourth consecutive semester, it is even more vital that we target the use of (federal coronavirus education aid) funds and are able to pivot strategies based on the effectiveness of those uses,” State Board chief financial officer Todd Kilburn wrote in a request to the Administration Department.

The one-page request recommended SAS for the $3,482,946 contract.

State Board officials determined SAS could provide the most robust data analysis at the best price, spokesman Mike Keckler said. And in the no-bid contract request, Kilburn said SAS “can complete the first phase of the visualization project by Jan. 1, 2022.”

Little was not involved in developing the request to the Department of Administration for the no-bid contract, Hyer said.

State Board executive director Matt Freeman signed the contract on Oct. 8; SAS licensing operations director Victoria Clayton followed suit on Oct. 13.

In the first year of the three-year contract, SAS agreed to provide three main components:

  • The public dashboard, designed to provide multiyear data at the state, district and school level. The dashboard is supposed to cover many metrics, including scores on the Idaho Reading Indicator and the Idaho Standards Achievement Test; high school and college graduation rates; and financial data, such as per-pupil spending.
  • An analysis of student growth and what the contract calls “unfinished learning.” In the contract, SAS suggested analyzing performance by year, subject and grade; student demographics; and access to in-person or remote learning in 2020-21.
  • An internal portal, designed to help teachers measure student growth and project future performance.

This is the costliest phase of the three-year contract, running close to $1.5 million.

In years two and three, SAS agree to maintain and refresh the dashboard, and provide “project management” — support work of up to 250 hours per year, at a cost approaching $1 million per year.

December 2021: Wilson’s departure

Wilson said he applied for a job with SAS in mid-November, when he saw a job posting for a government analytics account executive. SAS was looking for someone who could sell its products to government agencies in the Rocky Mountain region — someone with eight years of experience in state or local government, and someone with “current contacts” in state government in Idaho or Colorado.

Wilson applied. But Hyer said the governor’s office had no idea Wilson was looking for a new job until Dec. 10. That’s when Wilson turned in his notice via email to Zach Hauge, Little’s chief of staff.

“Overall, I have worked for the governor for eight years,” Wilson wrote. “This decision has not been easy. Knowing there is much work left unfinished and that the governor has much to achieve for Idaho and its citizens has weighed heavily on my mind. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing what the governor and his team can accomplish in the near future and will be available to assist in any way I can.”

In the email, Wilson referred to his new job at SAS — but makes no mention of the data contract.

In a Dec. 13 email, Hauge offered congratulations and added, “We will have to get the staff together for happy hour to celebrate.” But then, Hauge set ground rules for the transition.

“Moving forward, please do not communicate with (State Board) board or staff regarding issues that involve SAS, more specifically, any items that may result in a state contract being issued that SAS could bid on,” he wrote. “The governor feels strongly about transparency, so please forward any emails you receive from SAS or issues regarding SAS, I will be the point of contact for those issues until your replacement is selected.”

The same day, Little’s legal counsel, Brady Hall, sent an email to Susan Carr, an attorney for SAS. In her LinkedIn profile, Carr identifies herself as the company’s director for ethics and compliance.

“The governor’s office has notified the State Board of Education and has taken appropriate steps to ensure Greg is walled off from any official matters that involve SAS projects or any future contract that SAS may wish to bid on,” Hall wrote.

Carr responded a day later. “I confirm that for the remainder of Greg Wilson’s employment with the state of Idaho and the governor’s office, SAS will not communicate with Greg regarding either the recently signed Idaho State Board of Education agreement or any prospective agreements with the Idaho State Board of Education.”

In a written response to Idaho Education News, Wilson said he will work for SAS across six states, and much of his work is in Colorado.

“I am not working on any education initiatives for SAS, including the K-12 data dashboard project in Idaho,” he said. “I’m excited to broaden my expertise across many different policy areas, including natural resources, transportation, criminal justice and public safety, healthcare and fraud prevention.”

The new job, he said, “was too good to pass up for my young family and as the next chapter in my career.”

Wilson’s last day on Little’s staff was Jan. 3.

December 2021: A second opinion

Little’s legal staff consulted with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s office about Wilson.

Wasden’s office found no evidence of wrongdoing. The state has no “revolving door” law preventing a state employee from going into the private sector. The law does prohibit public employees from using confidential information for personal financial gain. “It appears the governor’s office took steps to prevent this from occurring and our office is unaware of any conduct that would indicate otherwise,” Wasden spokesman Scott Graf said Monday.

Graf pointed to another degree of separation — the contract was awarded by the State Board, not Little’s office. However, seven of the State Board’s eight members are gubernatorial appointees.

February 2022: project status

The State Board and Little’s office say the no-bid contract was necessary to expedite the data project.

Due to the state’s workload and staffing shortages, going through the normal bidding process would have taken at least six months, Hyer said.

But despite Kilburn’s written assurance in September to the Department of Administration, SAS did not launch its Idaho data dashboard by Jan. 1. The project still hasn’t gone live.

Delays in data transfer caused part of the slowdown, Keckler said last week. And after the state bypassed the bidding process, contract negotiations took longer than expected.

“Board staff will review the prototype within the next few weeks and we expect the public dashboard to be online by the end of (February),” Keckler said.

Disclosure: BrightBytes is an Idaho Education News vendor; the company provides support for EdNews’ EdTrends project.

 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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