Legislators push transparency at state Education Department

To craft and implement controversial education reforms, the state Education Department has routinely turned to an organization not bound by public disclosure or competitive bidding requirements to do its work — an approach state legislators are poised to change.

“There were some very alarming issues,” said Sen. Andrea Stillman, the co-chairman of the Education Committee.

After passage Thursday night by the Senate, the bill now is before the state House of Representatives, where the House chairman is “quite optimistic” that it will be voted on before the legislative session adjourns at midnight Wednesday.

“We are well aware there’s a need for some action in this area,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the House chair of the committee.

State auditors in February reported that they “continue to be concerned” with the transparency of the Education Department over its use of the State Education Resource Center [SERC] to craft controversial changes to teacher tenureevaluation and collective bargaining systems on behalf of the administration. The education resource center also handled the contract of a new leader of Windham Public Schools after the state takeover.

The process used “greatly undermines the ability of [the agency] to be transparent and accountable to the people of Connecticut,” auditors John Geragosian and Robert Ward wrote.

The auditors’ report followed a series of articles in the Connecticut Post that disclosed these non-public, no-bid contracts.

“It became clear there are lots of different contracts. It’s not always clear … who is holding the contractors responsible, or whether there was a full fair competitive bidding process. We just want to make sure basic, good government processes get embedded in SERC moving forward,” Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, said during an interview.

The bill approved by the Senate requires the resource center that the education department ran its contracts through to be subject to public disclosure laws and clean-contract laws.

This lack of disclosure has also attracted the attention of open-government groups and teachers’ unions. They argue that the department has exploited a loophole 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.

“There are areas of concerns that need to be addressed… So we are pleased that the transparency and the oversight that is housed in this legislation is being enacted,” the leader of the state’s largest teachers’ union, Mark Waxenberg, said during an interview. The teachers unions adamantly opposed several of the reforms initially proposed by the governor’s education department.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said in a statement that he is pleased with the changes approved by legislators.

This “is an important step toward bringing transparency and a clarified governance structure to SERC. The Department has been a strong proponent for reforming and clearly defining the official structure of SERC in statute — including by proposing legislation to clarify SERC’s legal status. We are grateful to the General Assembly for their leadership and partnership in bringing more clarity where there has been ambiguity.”

The resource center, which employees about 100 people and receives about $15 million a year from the state, and the department will also be required to submit “a plan on how to create a more transparent process,” Stillman said.

“We can have the transparency and clarity in how they are spending our money,” the Democrat from Waterford said before the vote. “It needs this attention to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”