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State Dept. of Education seeks more than a $1 million in outside contracts

Josh Moon

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The Alabama State Department of Education will request approvals this morning for contracts totaling more than $1 million, almost all of which will be spent on legal services.

While the majority of the contracts before the state’s Legislative Contract Review Committee are routine — mostly dealing with issues related to students with special needs — included in the contract requests were more than $400,000 in contracts for the Adams & Reese law firm and the nearly doubling of a contract — from $43,275 to $84,275 for an organization to review charter school applications.

The Adams & Reese contracts are noteworthy because they mark the first time, according to payment records kept by the State of Alabama, that the firm has been paid for ALSDE legal work. ALSDE spokesman Michael Sibley said Adams & Reese previously held a $30,000 contract with the Alabama Charter School Commission.

The firm will continue working on charter school matters, but Sibley said a $300,000 contract for Adams & Reese will cover their work on the Baldwin County-Gulf Shores school system split. According to the contract, former Robert Bentley staffer Blake Hardwich will handle that legal work.

In addition to those contracts, a contract extension for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers will also be on the committee’s agenda. When the charter school commission was first formed, lawmakers promised that the NACSA would be the backstop that ensures only the best, most financially sound charter school proposals were approved by the commission.

But in one of its first tests — approving a charter for LEAD Academy in Montgomery, the state’s third-largest school district — the commission ignored the advice of NACSA, which had found LEAD failed to meet basic standards in each of the categories it measured.

Still, in what was viewed as decision driven by political pressure, the commission approved LEAD — a decision that has led to a lawsuit that’s now before the state Supreme Court.

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So, why give more money to an entity whose advice the commission ignores?

Sibley said the NACSA’s guidance is “only one part of the application process,” and that the commission considers other evidence.

But that’s not the way the NACSA’s role was sold to hesitant lawmakers three years ago, when the charter schools bill passed. Hesitant GOP Senators, who threatened to kill the bill, were assured that Alabama’s charter school approval process wouldn’t be dominated by politics, but would instead be guided almost exclusively by the impartial input from NACSA.

And yet, the commission ignored a report from NACSA that found LEAD to lack the experience in leadership, a feasible financial plan or an educational plan.

Now, ALSDE wants to pay more than $84,000 for advice it ignores, and the Contract Review Committee can do very little to stop them. The Committee lacks the authority to kill a contract, but can put a hold on a contract for up to 45 days.

 

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