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Testimony on DOE contracting and procurement
Testimony of Joseph Colletti, before New York City Council Committees on Education and Contracts
April 1, 2009
Thank you Councilman Jackson, Councilwoman James and members of your distinguished committees for this opportunity to testify on behalf of United Federation of Teachers.
Today’s topic takes on added meaning in the context of the economic downturn. As you know, the UFT has been battling to protect classrooms from massive budget cuts. The fragile state budget may be in place and federal stimulus funding may be headed our way, but a lot of work now needs to be done to ensure that money is spent wisely and efficiently. The last thing any of us wants is to see kids lose out on direct services because funding was misused. Today’s scrutiny of the Department of Education’s contracting and procurement process is therefore particularly important and timely.
That process has been the subject of much speculation and debate in recent years, and for good reason. While many projects, initiatives and programs have gone through the proper channels in terms of bidding, many more contracts have been entered into outside of the bidding process and away from public scrutiny. In fact, citing exceptions to normal competitive bidding rules, the DOE has doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts without competitive bidding, often with mixed results. The City Comptroller and the Public Advocate have both done extensive work to shed light on these practices.
When it comes right down to it, there is still a lot we do not know about many of the contracts the DOE has entered into. Getting information can be a challenge, as I’m sure some of you on the Council have experienced. Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests are frequently necessary to gain even the most basic of details, and the turnaround time on requests for information can be excessive.
As a result, the DOE contracting process has unfortunately been shrouded in something of a mystery. Most contracts are probably entirely appropriate because the companies hired are uniquely qualified to do certain work, but the lack of bids on so many occasions raises issues of secrecy, transparency and accountability. The issue has subsequently exploded into controversy when the public learns about questionable vendors and expensive consultants.
Part of the mystery surrounding the contracting process also has to do with how private money is being used, and how those privately-funded programs and initiatives such as the Leadership Academy are then integrated into the general budget. Again, information on such changes can be hard to come by.
The issue of transparency, when it comes to contracting and procurement, is a critical one, made especially important in the wake of the fiscal downturn we are now experiencing. Above all else, classrooms and core services must be protected because kids do not get a second chance. That means every dollar is more important than ever. The public must know how money is being spent.
We therefore strongly recommend an independent review of all DOE contracts, to evaluate which vendors are under contract and what services they are delivering. We need to be smart and strategic about what contracts and vendors we keep, and what contracts need to be put on hold or cancelled entirely. For example, in light of news that we thousands of layoffs could still be possible, does it make sense that the New Teacher Project is being paid more than $10 million to recruit new teachers? Other contracts should be scrutinized as well. For example, by using the existing New York State data systems in lieu of ARIS, the DOE could save up to $20 million. Eliminating the McGraw Hill “Acuity” program of periodic assessments could save another $25 million.
External consultants should also be reevaluated. Consultants and contract agencies employed by schools provide services such as professional development and special education related services, both of which are areas that DOE in-house staff can provide more cheaply and efficiently.
Again, transparency really is the key here, so we can make informed decisions. As far as we’re concerned, the more information, the better. As strong advocates of more checks and balances and more accountability at the top, we believe that a public contracting process is necessary. It’s worth noting that as part of our school governance proposals, we have suggested that a reconfigured and strengthened Panel for Education Policy should hold public hearings on the proposed expense and capital budgets, in addition to those held by the City Council.
The UFT embraces President Obama’s calls for shared responsibility and transparency, and I implore the Department of Education to follow the President’s lead. President Obama said the stimulus finding “cannot and will not be an excuse for waste and abuse,” and made it clear that plans to spend the stimulus must be based on the merits of preserving and creating jobs, and helping reverse the economic downturn. We applaud him on that front. Teachers want to make a difference in kids’ lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen.
That same rationale should apply to all of the DOE’s contracts. We should not be laying off people and cutting direct services to kids until we have exhaustively and transparently reviewed every contract and maximized our savings by modifying or dropping those that are unnecessary during these difficult times.