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Multi-Year Contract Despite Pending Audit?

Multi-Year Contract Despite Pending Audit?

By David Ferguson

State Legislators have concerns about Solution Tree’s education services contracts with the state and voted to audit the contracts.  But the Department of Education is pushing through a long-term contract with Solution Tree before the audit is complete.

Solution Tree is a company that provides professional development services for teachers. The initial contract with the state was $4 million in 2017 but has grown to a total of about $140 million in contracts, when you add together contracts with the state, school districts, education cooperatives, and higher education.

The initial state contract was a no-bid contract. It was claimed taking bids were not needed because Solution Tree was the only company to have the Professional Learning Communities at Work program, which by the way is a program trademarked by Solution Tree.

State legislators are concerned that the other contracts also may have been awarded as no-bid contracts.

A bipartisan group of state legislators requested the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to conduct an audit of the contracts with Solution Tree and its affiliates. Two of the key questions they want answered are how much money has the company received from all state sources, and whether all the contracts have been awarded as no-bid contracts.

Solution Tree is known for hiring educators as consultants or for other roles. Some legislators want to know if any of the educators hired by Solution Tree are also involved in decisions on awarding contracts to Solution Tree.

In addition to Solution Tree paying educators to be on team Solution Tree, the Department of Education paid for even more educators to be on team Solution Tree. The state did this by awarding $5 million in grant money to the Arkansas Association of Education Administrators (AAEA), which some see as putting the Association on team Solution Tree. Under the contract, the AAEA was to forward most of the grant money to Solution Tree, use part of the money to pay educators to work with and promote the Solution Tree program, and part of the funds were kept by the AAEA as a fee.

Some legislators on the committee also want to know if there is any evidence Solution Tree’s program has made a difference in the quality of Arkansas education. Are we getting any bang for the bucks? Senator Linda Chesterfield (D) said, We continue to hear about, ‘Oh, they’re really doing a great job.’ But I can’t find out how many school districts have moved from an “F” school to a “C” school.”

It may not matter what the legislative audit finds. According to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, the Department of Education anticipates awarding a long-term contract to Solution Tree in early May. Perhaps the Department has already done so. The contract is to be a seven-year contract with the cost in the first five years being in excess of $16.4 million per year.

Unlike the first state contract with Solution Tree and the funneling of state money through AAEA to Solution Tree, this multi-year contract was put out for bid and eight companies submitted bids. Even with the bid process, it is likely legislators will want to know if Solution Tree is being preferred based on its trademarked Professional Learning Communities at Work program. In other words, was the final selection criteria skewed in favor of Solution Tree.

Legislators may want to question Department of Education representatives about the selection process. Solution Tree’s bid was much higher than the other bidders. However, Solution Tree scored only two points higher than another bidder (750 to 748). The narrow two-point margin was achieved after the selection committee gave Solution Tree a perfect (10 out of 10) score in every category.

Again, why would the Department of Education move forward with such a long contract (seven (7) years), knowing legislators are in the middle of an audit. With questions swirling, wouldn’t a short contract or a delay in awarding a contract have been more appropriate?

Has the Department of Education even made the Governor aware of legislators’ concerns about Solution Tree?

If the Department of Education awards a seven-year contract before the hearings on the legislative audit are conducted, the audit may be a wasted effort, other than to focus on the relationship of some state employees to Solution Tree.

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