The Money Shuffle

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Posted September 12, 2007 by LINDA LABEAU in News

Gov. Perry’s web site touts his commitment to public education. So why is the governor considering, for the top spot in the Texas Education Agency, a guy who is under investigation on allegations that he improperly directed millions of taxpayer dollars – education dollars – to his friends?

Robert Scott, currently the acting commissioner of TEA, is under a cloud. On June 27, a report from the TEA inspector general cited then-Deputy Commissioner Scott as the prime suspect in steering “sweetheart deals” worth millions of dollars to insiders, via contracts for special education services.

Scott hasn’t been very forthcoming about his conflicts of interest on this, but I will be: I have been deeply interested in the topic of special education in Texas for years and have served as a mediator between parents and school administrators on the subject of special education services that public schools are required to provide – an often contentious subject between concerned parents of kids with very specialized needs and administrators who must make their budget cover many bases. So on this particular issue, I have a personal involvement: I was one of contractors who lost work so that Scott could reward his friends.

Here’s how it worked in my case: In August 2000, I won a contract through competitive bidding to provide special education mediation for TEA. Simultaneous with the renewal of my contract in August 2003, the TEA was “reorganized” – essentially a power grab within the agency. The legal department scrapped a dozen contracts with non-lawyer mediators, including me, and within a month had turned around and handed out contracts to 20 attorneys on a sole-source basis – meaning no public bids. Only three of the new contracts were for mediation; the other 17 lawyers are supposed to handle due-process hearings.

What this means, besides exchanging publicly bid contracts for insider deals, is that parents who used to have access to a dozen mediators at TEA now have only three. Mediation is a far better tool for resolving conflicts in the best interest of the students. Due-process hearings, which parents resort to when they feel all else has failed, are adversarial proceedings with one winner (usually the school district) and one loser (usually the student and parents).

Part of the inspector general’s report explains in detail how, as part of this fruit- basket turnover, a $200,000 contract was awarded to a friend of Scott’s, “to review the Due Process Hearings Procedures in Texas.” The state’s handling of these hearings has become a major issue for students, parents, and educators. The effects of what Scott’s friend decides and what the inspector general finds will eventually filter down to local school districts.

This is what Scott seems to be saying in his responses to the inspector general’s allegations (with apologies to esteemed attorney Racehorse Haynes):
1. “Our staff did their best. This contracting stuff is complicated and hard.” Translation: My dog doesn’t bite.
2. “The IG has me confused with a lowly agency employee at an education service center. … It wasn’t me.” Read: My dog was tied up all night.
3. OK, maybe we didn’t follow all TEA contracting policies and procedures, but everyone who was awarded a contract was well qualified for the job. (Meaning: I don’t believe you really got hurt.)
4. We’ll make sure TEA employees are trained in contracts and grants procedures. (There was no dog.)

It’s a masterful version of the old Austin sidestep. Scott and the TEA award millions of dollars in “sweetheart deals,” then pretend not to understand what all the fuss is about. If you care about public education, have a child with a learning disability, or pay property taxes, I encourage you to go online to read the TEA inspector general’s report for yourself. It shines a bright light on a dysfunctional system of sweetheart deals in Texas government and, more specifically, on an agency rife with dysfunctional relationships.

State Auditor John Keel may resolve the issue of how contracting is abused at TEA. But the greater issue at hand is, who will lead the agency and who will be looking out for our children’s right to the “fair and appropriate public education” to which they are entitled? Linda LaBeau is a special education mediator. She can be reached at
lindalabeau@sbcglobal.net.

 


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