“The idea that we’re talking about whistleblower protections is sad,” Ashton Powell, a newly elected CHCCS school board member. “If you’re talking about a culture where folks are even worried about whistleblower protections, that’s when you’re talking about bad behavior.”
Powell said he wants the district to become a system where they have good, healthy communication that allows for situations to never get to that point. During the meeting, members of the board apologized to the public for the lack of oversight and said they would be working to regain trust in the community.
A CHCCS Board policy states that any contract that exceeds $90,000 must be approved by the school board.CHCCS had paid almost $340,000 in a series of smaller payments ranging from $38,000 to $87,370by February 2020.
Jennifer Bennett, the former assistant superintendent for business and finance who announced her resignation of Feb. 24, was the customer contact listed on the contract with the education consulting firm. Emails between Bennett and Jason Bedford, an Education Elements official, show this was done intentionally.
“Need to get you guys to modify the SOW/Contract if you can since if we include the whole potential payment value then we have to take this to the Board since over our $90K threshold,” Bennett said in an email. “We can sign the overall SOW for the intent of what we are doing without the addendum that has the full costs. Then we would do POs and can do individual addendum's for each chunk as we discussed earlier.”
Sally Merryman, president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Association of Educators, said she was part of a committee that examined personalized learning in the school district at the start of the school year. She said officials in the association began to investigate the district’s contract with Education Elements after they realized the committee discussions were being led by the firm’s officials.
She said the members of the association who were investigating found the money was dispersed in violation of school board policy.
“So, that’s when we brought it to District’s administration attention,” Merryman said. “We did not go public with that information at all. Other people eventually found out about it, but it is not something that we made public.”
The school board raised questions about this contract during a meeting in November, during which the discussion about the contract was moved to a closed session. On Dec. 5, the Board of Education released a statement that said the work with Education Elements aligned with the district’s Strategic Plan, but the Board would be evaluating the process and instituting additional control procedures.
Kari Hamel, a parent in the school district, contacted Jeff Nash, CHCCS executive director of community relations, and made a public records request for the contract. Hamel attended the school board meeting on Feb. 13, 2020, where she requested an audit, asked for a third-party to process records requests and presented the contract she received in her request.
“Transparency and accountability require that people be given voices,” Hamel said. “Governing principles should not be discussed and implemented in the dead of summer. We are Chapel Hill-Carrboro community schools, everyone should have the opportunity to come forth.”
Nash said school district officials would be declining all interviews, but provided a statement that outlines changes that have already been made as a result of the questions raised about the process regarding this contract.
The statement said the school board would be overseeing the search for the new finance chief and plans to engage a third party to review contracts and processes and to make recommendations on financial oversight and transparency.
“We appreciate that each person who has written, asked questions, or voiced concern about this issue comes to this place with concern for our staff and students,” the school board said in the statement. “Similarly, our Board is committed to each and every student in this district, and we will continue to work to ensure that our schools are places where our staff and our students can thrive.”
Education Elements officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Merryman said although the speakers during Thursday’s board meeting were successful in voicing their concerns about the contract with civility, she could not call the meeting a complete success. She said trust in the board and district administration would take time to rebuild.
“Things haven’t been resolved,” Merryman said. “There has been a dissolution of trust in our school board and with our district administration.”
During Thursday night’s meeting, the board said nothing done during the meeting would be a final vote and said there would be future discussions about all proposed changes.
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