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DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION PRESSURED REVIEWERS TO “REACH CONSENSUS” ON QUESTIONABLE GRANTS

FITSNews – December 16, 2007 – Completely violating the whole notion of a “competitive” grants program, S.C. Department of Education officials pressured reviewers of the controversial “Public Choice Innovation School” grants to coordinate their scoring of proposals in an effort to “reach consensus” on which grants would be funded, according a grant reader who spoke with FITSNews on the condition of anonymity.

Also, a former S.C. Department of Education employee (turned agency consultant) who reviewed several grant applications lashed out at one of his fellow grant readers for questioning the process, calling the reviewer a “pompous ass” and saying “next time why don’t you just follow instructions.”

In addition to speaking with one of the reviewers directly, FITSNews has exclusively obtained several dozen internal e-mails related to the controversial program, which came under fire last week for awarding money to partnerships associated with an infamous government boondoggle as well as two key legislative allies of Democratic State Superintendent Jim Rex.

Aside from showcasing the outright hostility of career educrats toward the use of a legitimate, merit-based analysis to determine how they should spend your tax dollars, these e-mails also reveal a flawed RFP (request for proposals) from the State Department of Education concerning the $2.6 million fund, a confusing and disorganized system of rating the responses and an inherently non-competitive recommendation that grant readers “consult with each other” in reviewing the proposals.

The e-mails also provide the public with their first look at the nine (9) school districts that were not awarded grant money, including the only two Public Charter School Districts that applied to the program.

TROUBLE FROM THE START

After the issuing a request for proposals in early October of this year, applications for the Public Choice Innovation School grants were due to be received by the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) on November 19, 2007, at which point the grant says that a “program officer at the SCDE” would determine whether or not the grant applications met “completeness and eligibility” requirements. At that point, the fifteen applications that met these requirements were to undergo their “competitive” review.

Due to various unexplained delays, the original deadline was extended to November 27, but it was not until November 30 (a week before the grants were ultimately awarded) that the State Department finally got around to recruiting grant reviewers to rate the proposals according to its own pre-established “rubric,” or formula.

Deputy State Superintendent Elizabeth Carpentier accepts responsibility for this delay in an e-mail she sent to prospective grant reviewers on November 30.

“Due to a misunderstanding on my part, SCDE has not yet made any contacts with potential readers, and I apologize for the short notice of this request,” Carpentier wrote in her e-mail.

Later that afternoon, Carpentier send grant readers another e-mail providing them with “the criteria to be used in reading and scoring the applications.”

This e-mail is also littered with confusion, and demonstrates how easily the Department of Education can internally modify proposals already approved by the State Board of Education.

“The RFP for this grant was approved by the State Board on October 10,” Carpentier writes. “After publication, we received many questions, which led to publication of amendments, answers to FAQs (frequently asked questions), and a technical assistance session. We went with an amendment because re-presentation to the State Board would have necessitated additional delays in getting these money (sic) distributed; however, that makes harder the compilation of rules among the various documents.”

Carpentier, who was responsible for determining which of the fifteen grant applications went to the nine different Department-selected reviewers (each reviewer only scored three applications, apparently), also “created a document for readers (only) that compiles the original and amended documents … as a possible tool for (reviewers’) use.”

So in effect, the State Department picked which applications would be considered, picked who would review them and on top of that provided the reviewers with criteria to review the applications from an RFP that had been modified without the approval of the State Board.

THE SCAM THICKENS

As if all of these maneuverings weren’t enough to call into question the legitimacy of the grant selection process, the State Department on repeated occasions urges its grant reviewers to collaborate with one another on their scoring.

In an e-mail sent to the reviewers on December 3 entitled “Co-readers,” Carpentier writes:

“The PCIS RFP permits readers to consult with each other after individual scoring of applications.”

In another e-mail sent later that same day, Carpentier again reminds grant readers of this fact:

“You can confer with your co-reader after you’ve completed your individual scoring.”

Understandably, one reviewer took exception to this decidedly non-competitive coordination, and e-mailed Carpentier to that effect on December 6.

“I have not contacted my fellow readers as trying to align scores seems to undermine the basic spirit of independent review,” the reviewer’s e-mail says, before going on to recommend additional changes to the State Department’s “confusing and subjective” process.

SPARKS FLY

Although the individual reviewer who raised these concerns sent this e-mail exclusively to Carpentier, the Deputy Superintendent proceeded to blast it out to all of the reviewers, sparking a firestorm.

One grant reviewer, former State Department of Education employee Leon Temples, responded angrily to the suggestion.

“What a pompous ass you must be,” Temples e-mailed his fellow reviewer on December 6. “And apparently you know little about grant review … next time why don’t you follow instructions …”

Just a day earlier, however, Temples had contacted this same reviewer and offered to change his scores on a Richland School District Two grant proposal (which was ultimately awarded $388,747 from the program).

“If we need to get closer then I can certainly adjust my scores,” Temple wrote in a December 5 e-mail.

Another grant reader, Sumter School District 17 Social Work Coordinator Margaret Hutchins, also e-mailed this same reviewer on December 5 concerning her scoring of an application, saying “I can adjust (the scores) if necessary.”

FALLOUT

Given the attention devoted to “competitive grants” this year in the wake of previous scandals (also broken by FITSNews), the Department of Education’s questionable administration of this program (to say nothing of the questionable awards themselves) will no doubt result in calls for reform.

The highly-suspicious methodology and ratings process may also result in appeals from the nine school districts who applied but were not awarded grants through this program, a list we are publishing here for the first time:

*Allendale County School District
*Charleston County School District
*Clarendon County School District 1
*Clarendon County School District 2
*Fairfield County School District
*Jasper County School District
*Lee County School District
*Public Charter School District (Jonesville)
*Public Charter School District (YEVA)

Our bet is that many – if not most – of these districts would have no trouble making a compelling case against the fairness and validity of this fundamentally-flawed process …

In the meantime, Superintendent Rex needs to explain how these grants were ultimately awarded to districts that include partnerships with some of his closest political allies, not to mention the home counties of South Carolina’s top two budget-writers, Anderson’s Dan Cooper and Florence’s Hugh Leatherman.

The State Department of Education did not respond to an e-mail sent Friday by FITSNews seeking further clarification of the grant review process.