Contracts, Conflicts and Questions

On the day before Connie Hall earned a decisive victory for the District 5 seat on the Duval County School Board, she asked the School Board to withdraw consideration of a $459,000 contract for a company she owns. Despite her win and the removal of the contract from the Board’s agenda, questions remain about the tutoring program Hall has provided to Duval County schools through two companies in a no-bid contract since January 2011, conflicts of interest with a current School Board member and income reported on financial disclosure forms.

Since January 2011, companies Hall owns or has been affiliated with have provided tutoring and mentoring to students at three high schools and an elementary school placed on the state’s intervene list, because of failing FCAT scores. Duval County Schools paid $97,400 in 2011 and $270,400 in 2012 for intensive tutoring and mentoring at Raines, Ribault and Jackson high schools and North Shore Elementary.

One of Hall’s opponents in the School Board race, teacher and education advocate Chris Guerrieri, raised questions when the School Board considered a new $459,000 contract for Hall’s company for the 2012-’13 school year. At an Aug. 7 meeting where the contract was on the agenda, Guerrieri said School Board member Betty Burney shouldn’t have voted on the 2012 contract and shouldn’t vote on the new one, because Burney’s sister works for Hall. He also noted that Burney’s husband donated to Hall’s campaign. The School Board postponed the vote on the contract from Aug. 7 to Aug. 14, before Hall asked for it to be withdrawn from consideration. Guerrieri still questions why Hall didn’t include income from the 2011 contract for her company, Ready for Tomorrow, in financial disclosure documents.

“It’s conceivable that she didn’t make one penny, that all the money was spent on salaries or on supplies,” Guerrieri said of Hall’s 2011 financial disclosure. “But even if she’s Joan of Arc and very noble and out to benefit mankind and the children of Duval County, she should still report that income.” He said he filed a complaint with the Election Board on Aug. 14. He said he also planned to file a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, but he didn’t give a date for that action.

In the packet that she gave to the School Board detailing background for the $459,000 contract for the 2012-’13 school year, Hall detailed how Ready for Tomorrow offered daily tutoring to 127 students at Raines, Ribault, Jackson and North Shore for five months, from January through May 2011. On her financial disclosure covering that year,

Hall only reported that she owned $5,000 in stock in the for-profit as an asset, but no income. Also, Ready for Tomorrow was not registered with the state Division of Corporations until Aug. 3, 2011, after the contract period had ended.

Duval County Public Schools director of communications Jill Johnson explained that the original contract with DCPS was with the nonprofit Achieve Instill Inspire Foundation Inc. Hall was president of that nonprofit from 2009 until Jan. 1, 2011, when she was removed from company documents filed with the state Division of Corporations. Her husband Kevin Hall is listed as having been the company treasurer in 2011, and the couple’s home is listed as the company address. Johnson said that Superintendent of Schools Ed Pratt-Dannals awarded the $97,400 contract to Achieve Instill Inspire Foundation Inc. for a five-month period in 2011. The superintendent can award contracts for less than $100,000 without going to the School Board for approval. Hall did report $8,000 in income from the foundation on her candidate report for 2011 but didn’t list her relationship to the nonprofit.

On its 990 tax return for 2011, Achieve Instill Inspire reported $86,450 in grants and contributions from July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011 — which covers the period it provided tutoring. But its total income for that year is $10,950 less than the nonprofit received from Duval County Public Schools for that work. The tax return doesn’t list any specific payments to Hall. It merely reports $71,213 paid to independent contractors.

After working with the nonprofit, DCPS contracted with Hall’s for-profit Ready for Tomorrow to provide tutoring from January through June 2012 at the same four intervene schools — Raines, Ribault, Jackson and North Shore. The Duval County School Board approved the second contract, which paid $270,400 for six months of tutoring services.

In the proposed contract for the 2012-’13 school year, Ready for Tomorrow would have provided tutoring and mentoring at three high schools — Ed White, Ribault and Raines — and at North Shore Elementary. DCPS would pay Ready for Tomorrow up to $459,000 for the entire school year, or 10 months.

In its background material, Ready for Tomorrow didn’t give figures on the number of students it would serve, but the company promised to amp up involvement with each student. An academic adviser would work with a student in the program for three hours a day, reviewing his or her work and providing in-class support. The adviser would also work to involve parents and guardians more in students’ education.

A woman who answered the telephone at Hall’s company, Ready for Tomorrow, took a detailed message for Hall. A second message was left later the same day, but neither call was returned. Reached at the same number on Aug. 16, the woman said she had emailed Folio Weekly’s contact information to Hall but declined to provide a number for her. “Thank you very much,” she said, as she abruptly hung up. The contact number Hall gave to the Supervisor of Elections was disconnected on Aug. 15. Johnson said she didn’t have a current number for Hall and none of the schools where Ready for Tomorrow staff tutored had a telephone number for the company. Ribault declined to give the magazine Hall’s personal telephone number. Folio Weekly also emailed, texted and called School Board member Betty Burney, but she was in an all-day meeting, discussing the hiring of a new superintendent, and did not respond immediately.

Ready for Tomorrow touted its past accomplishments in making its pitch to the Duval County School Board. In background material, it said North Shore had gains in fourth-grade reading and fifth-grade math in 2011. At Jackson High School, 63.8 percent of students helped by the nonprofit showed learning gains that same year. And North Shore moved its grade from an F to a B.

Chris Guerrieri notes that the cost of the program increased from $19,480 a month, when the nonprofit served three high schools and an elementary school for five months in 2011, to $45,000 a month when the for-profit provided the same service at the same schools in 2012. Guerrieri also questioned why the contract had not gone out to bid. After all, this year’s contract was worth almost half-a-million dollars. Johnson explained that Florida statute doesn’t require competitive bids for educational services, according to FL Administrative Rule 6A-1.01(11)(b). The first contract fell below the $100,000 limit by $600, for the Superintendent of Schools’ independent decisions.

“We were getting a much better deal when we were dealing with a nonprofit run by the same lady,” Guerrieri said.

This year, six of Duval County’s seven intervene schools were taken off the list of lowest-performing schools. That included A. Philip Randolph Academy of Technology High School and Edward White High School, which never received Ready for Tomorrow tutoring. Andrew Jackson High School, whose students have benefited from intensive tutoring since the program began in January 2011, is now labeled a “priority” school, which is the new name for the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Susan Cooper E

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