Auditors ‘concerned’ with Education Department’s transparency

When it came time for the state Department of Education to craft and implement controversial education reforms, the agency routinely turned to an organization not bound by public disclosure requirements to do its work — an approach state auditors challenged last week.

“We continue to be concerned,” auditors John Geragosian and Robert Ward wrote in their report, adding that the process the department used “greatly undermines the ability of [the agency] to be transparent and accountable to the people of Connecticut.”

At issue is the role of the State Education Resource Center, an agency created by the Legislature “to assist the (state education board) in the provision of programs and activities that will promote educational equity and excellence.”

The center awarded three contracts totaling $705,000 to various private entities — including an out-of-state, for-profit business — to craft changes to teacher tenure, evaluation and collective bargaining systems on behalf of the administration. The education resource center also handeled the contract of a new leader of Windham Public Schools after the state takeover.

But who decided to launch these initiatives, and who ultimately paid for them?

The center’s website notes that it is “primarily funded by the Connecticut State Department of Education.”

And the auditors wrote that while the education resource center represents itself on its website as a nonprofit agency, it “was never formally created” as one.

“The statutory language indicates that SERC was created as a state entity,” Geragosian and Ward wrote. “SERC has not acted in a manner that is consistent with state agency requirements for transparency and accountability.”

The center’s budget is not made public, it has no governing board and holds no public meetings, the auditors wrote, adding that this needs to change.

This lack of disclosure has also attracted the attention of good government groups and teachers’ unions. They argue that this arrangement is a loophole that has been exploited by the education department for the last 20 months to hire consultants without having to publicly justify they are needed or to conduct open bidding.

The state enacted a series of “clean contracting” laws in 2007, largely in response to bid-rigging tied to former Gov. John G. Rowland’s administration.

“The use of state tax dollars should be open for examination,” said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Connecticut Education Association. “The potential influence of outside groups should not proceed unchecked. And, the public should be aware of who may be influencing public policies, especially those affecting Connecticut’s children.”

“Some suspected SERC to have received private funding from undisclosed sources,” Waxenberg testified Friday before a legislative committee considering changes to state law in the wake of the education department’s recent actions.

The $705,000 for the three contracts came from the state department’s “other expenses” account, a spokeswoman wrote in an email Monday night.

The Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, an open government organization representing more than three dozen news organizations, also testified before the Government Administrations and Elections Committee Friday.

“CCFOI has long been concerned over the outsourcing of public functions to private or quasi-public agencies without assuring the transparency that allows the public to determine if it being well served,” said Claude Albert, the legislative chairman of the organization. The organization “should fit anybody’s definition of a public agency. It was created by the legislature; it is primarily funded by the State Department of Education; it is housed in a state office building; and it deals on behalf of the education department with issues of vital public concern. … The public has every right to insist on transparency.”

As the legislature considers a bill that would compel SERC to follow state disclosure and contracting laws, the education commissioner has said it is a priority to make this entity subject to the same laws as any other public agency.

“This issue that you raise is a priority,” Stefan Pryor testified last week, adding, “transparency is a hallmark of the new SERC.”

The State Board of Education last month also recommended changes to SERC to improve transparency at the organization, which is to receive $15 million in state funding this fiscal year.

Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe