Fourteen state representatives and a House staff member attended an Indiana-based company's educational conferences in Atlanta and Phoenix at state expense of more than $25,000 over the past two years.
The firm is Bloomington, Ind.-based Solution Tree, to which the state Department of Education awarded a $4 million contract, without taking bids, before the conference in Atlanta.
Officials for legislative agencies said they're unaware of lawmakers attending any other private company's conference at state expense in the past few years. The Atlanta conference also was attended by four education officials at a cost of more than $4,300 to the state.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, who authorized the state-paid travel for his colleagues, said he learned about the success of a particular professional development program provided by Solution Tree in Arizona through former Arizona House Speaker Dave Gowan. Gowan could not be reached for comment by telephone Friday.
Gillam said then-Rep. Bill Gossage, R-Ozark, who now works for Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, "gave me extra confidence in my initial feelings" about the program based on Gossage's experience in the Ozark School District.
The speaker said he later authorized several representatives to attend the conference in Phoenix last year to help determine whether Arkansas should dive into it as a potential "game changer" to boost educational attainment. He then authorized several lawmakers to attend the conference in Atlanta in late June to learn more about the program.
According to the company's website, Solution Tree has helped educators in kindergarten through 12th grade in schools across the world raise student achievement through a wide range of services and products including conferences, customized school district solutions for long-term professional development, books, videos and online courses. Last year, more than 25,000 educators attended Solution Tree events on professional learning communities, assessment and other topics.
The Department of Education's contract with Solution Tree from Aug. 1, 2017-July 31, 2018, is for a pilot project in the Prescott School District and 11 other schools.
The pilot project is designed to provide professional development training based on Solution Tree's Professional Learning Communities at Work model, according to the contract. The schools will receive up to 50 days of training, coaching and support to build and sustain a strong culture of collaboration, according to the department. Under its terms, the contract may be extended until June 30, 2022.
Professional learning communities "operate under the assumption that the key to improved learning for students is continuous job-embedded learning for educators," the Education Department's website says.
The website also says: "Members work together to clarify exactly what each student must learn, monitor each student's learning on a timely basis, provide systematic interventions that ensure students receive additional time and support for learning when they struggle, and extend and enrich learning when students have already mastered the intended outcomes."
"What the PLC does is to bring [the teachers] all together and, if little Johnny is having a problem in one area in math, the English teacher can say Johnny is having a problem with this and he probably needs to read a little better, so she can fix that up and pick that up on that end," the House Education Committee chairman, Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said in an interview. "It's collaboration [among teachers] about students and they come together and they talk and they figure out what's wrong and how can we fix this."
But Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, who is a retired teacher and a member of the Senate Education Committee, said in an interview that Solution Tree made a presentation to the Legislature's Education Caucus last year and "what I heard was basically team learning."
"And I still have not been given an answer that tells me how that's different," she said. "We have had team learning for a long time."
In this year's regular legislative session, Cozart sponsored a bill on educational professional development that became Act 427 of 2017. The law states in part: "Additional funding provided for professional development above the amount in subdivision (b)(5)(A) of this section shall be used by the Department of Education for the development and administration of professional learning communities for the benefit of public school districts."
Act 427 sailed through the Senate in a 31-0 vote and the House in a 90-1 vote with only Rep. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, casting a "no" vote on the measure before Hutchinson signed it into law. Act 427 reflects a recommendation by a legislative education adequacy committee, Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis pointed out.
During a recent meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees, a few lawmakers raised questions about the Department of Education contracting with Solution Tree without seeking bids. A few of their colleagues defended the department's decision.
Rep. Charlotte Douglas, R-Alma, told fellow lawmakers that it seemed as if the language in the law "was manipulated to make sure that we gave it to a certain company."
But Cozart said his Act 427 of 2017 wasn't drafted with the aim of requiring the Department of Education to hire Solution Tree.
"I am tired of Arkansas thanking God for Mississippi. I think it's time we raise our education in Arkansas. I believe this is one way we can do this," Rep. DeAnne Vaught, R-Horatio, told committee members in their recent meeting.
The selected schools for the pilot project include Ballman and Spradling Elementary Schools in the Fort Smith School District; Bragg Elementary School in the West Memphis School District; Douglas MacArthur Junior High School in the Jonesboro School District; Eastside Elementary School in the Greenbrier School District; Frank Mitchell Intermediate School in the Vilonia School District; Joe T. Robinson Middle School in the Pulaski County Special School District; Monticello Middle School in the Monticello School District; Morrilton Intermediate School in the South Conway County School District; Premier High School, a charter school in Little Rock; and Rogers High School in the Rogers School District.
State officials said the state expects to have $8.5 million for the pilot program in fiscal 2019, which starts July 1, 2018, and the department expects to select more schools to participate in the pilot project in the coming school year.
Solution Tree provides professional development through the Professional Learning Communities at Work program in all 50 states, said Solution Tree President Ed Ackerman.
Beyond the pilot project, the company's other work in Arkansas includes professional development through this program to 15 school districts, an educational service center and an educational renewal zone, Ackerman said. "Regarding your question about a list, we don't provide client information without their permission,"Ackerman said in an email last week.
He added that Solution Tree has recognized Kirksey Middle School in the Rogers School District and Fouke Elementary School in the Fouke School District as national model Professional Learning Communities at Work schools.
NO BID CONTRACT
Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said in an interview last week that he didn't realize, until the recent meeting of the Legislature's education committees, that the Department of Education contracted with Solution Tree without first seeking bids.
He said he wants department officials to provide a more thorough explanation about that decision. "Since we had a push to avoid sole-source contracts, I would like to hear that answer," Clark said.
According to state records, Education Commissioner Johnny Key and Ackerman signed an agreement on May 10 for Solution Tree to provide consulting services to the department for $2,500 to support the planning and implementation of the pilot project for Professional Learning Communities under Act 427 through June 30 of this year.
This step came before the state executed the $4 million contract with the company.
Key, a former Republican state senator from Mountain Home, said in an email to this newspaper Friday that professional learning communities weren't a new topic. He recalled legislative committees hearing a staff presentation on the topic in 2012.
"Members of the Arkansas Legislature investigated a variety of strategies and determined PLC at Work process most effectively meets the needs of schools in Arkansas," Key wrote in a letter dated May 12 to the state's procurement director, Ed Armstrong, in which Key made a pitch for awarding a sole-source contract to Solution Tree.
"Solution Tree is the only vendor that can deliver the PLC at Work process. The resources are copyrighted and the intellectual property of Solution Tree. The validity of the program would be compromised, and consistent evaluation, impossible, if another, concurrent vendor was implementing a separate program," Key said in his letter to Armstrong.
In an email dated June 12 to Armstrong and copied to several state officials, including Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, Key asked Armstrong to explain why Armstrong's office suggested there appeared to be a couple of other potential providers of the "PLC At Work" program and for Key to identify other potential providers that the department contacted.
"We have determined that since Solution Tree researched, developed and trademarked the Professional Learning Communities at Work, there could be no other provider that meets the 'research-based' requirement of Act 427," Key wrote.
Key wrote that Armstrong's office's request for more documentation to justify the request for a sole-source contract "is quite frustrating and seems completely unnecessary given the substantial justification we already have provided."
"It also creates the potential for delays to this program that has substantial legislative support and has been reviewed by the Office of the Governor," Key wrote in his email.
"I am specifically requesting that this be reviewed again for approval. If this is not possible, I will ask for a meeting with the appropriate personnel of [the Education Department, Office of State Purchasing], the Office of the Governor, and legislative leadership, so everyone can have a clear understanding of why this procurement can't move forward and what must be done to meet the requirements for approval," he said.
In response, Armstrong wrote, "Good morning Commissioner Key. Do you have a few minutes for a phone call?"
Rather than allowing Key's department to issue a sole-source contract, Armstrong authorized the department in a letter dated June 13 to initiate "special procurement" of a contract with Solution Tree, starting July 1, 2017, without seeking bids.
The Legislature authorized the department under Act 427 to hire a contractor for the implementation of a research-based process for professional learning communities and the limited amount of time that the department has to implement the mandate of the law in time for the school year presents the department with "an unusual and unique situation," Armstrong wrote in his letter to Key.
"It could frustrate the public interest for the [department] to be unable to implement professional learning communities as required by [Act 427], which could 'impede the efforts of schools in the school improvement process,'" Armstrong said.
Asked about his role in the governor's office in connection with the contract, Gossage said, "I was very familiar with Solution Tree and the positive effects it had on the Ozark School District during my time as an assistant superintendent with the district and through my subsequent work on the Education Committee later as a legislator."
But Gossage said, in his written statement issued through Davis, that "to be clear, while I was not part of the decision-making process that awarded the contract to Solution Tree, I was available to answer questions, if needed, from members of our staff and legislators."
Gossage served in the state House of Representative from 2013 to Aug. 30, 2016, when he resigned to become Hutchinson's deputy chief of staff for external affairs.
Ackerman made a presentation about professional learning communities to the House and Senate Education Committees in September 2016, according to legislative records.
TRAVEL TO CONFERENCES
According to records, eight lawmakers attended a Solution Tree conference in Phoenix in February 2016 at state expense with Gillam's approval.
They included Vaught for $1,984; Eubanks for $1,942; Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, for $2,040; Gossage for $1,969; Cozart for $1,895; Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, for $1,822; Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, for $1,613; and the late Rep. Sheilla Lampkin, D-Monticello, for $1,549, according to state records. In addition, then-Director of House Operations and Special Projects Katherine Vasilos went to the Phoenix conference at a cost of $2,020, according to state records. The total cost was $16,834.
Eight lawmakers attended the conference in Atlanta in late June this year at state expense with Gillam's approval: Vaught for $1,316; Eubanks for $1,429; Douglas for $2,078; Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, for $1,681.; Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, for $1,588; Rep. LeAnne Burch, D-Monticello, for $1,508; Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, for $1,369; and Rep. Sonia Eubanks Barker, R-Smackover, for $1,006. The total cost was $11,975.
Eubanks, who is the House speaker pro tempore, said he attended both conferences at the request of Gillam and he doesn't believe that too many representatives attended them.
"You know how this process works. You got to build coalitions, you got to educate people," he said.
In addition, four state Department of Education officials attended the Atlanta conference at state expense and were collectively reimbursed with about $4,300, according to department records. They include Key, Deputy Education Commissioner Ivy Pfeffer, Assistant Education Commissioner for Accountability Deborah Coffman, and Director of Policy and Special Projects Tina Smith.
Rep. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said he used about $1,000 of his campaign carryover funds to attend the conference in Atlanta because taxpayers shouldn't have to pay for him to attend conferences if campaign carryover funds are available.
""I was impressed with their people when I was there and their presentation, but I don't know whether they are the best vendor to provide the service," said Tucker, an attorney. "I am not qualified to say Solution Tree is the best."
The Senate Education Committee chairman, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, who sponsored Act 427 in the Senate, said, "I was asked to go to the one in Atlanta, but I couldn't go."
Asked about her views on the pilot project with Solution Tree, "I am all about professional learning and what I have seen of it, I like."
SundayMonday on 11/12/2017