Cade Brumley

Cade Brumley (AP File Photo)

BATON ROUGE, La. - State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley's push to award $342,000 in two "no-bid" contracts to a former top official of the East Baton Rouge Parish School school system has prompted questions and criticism, including from the president of the board that oversees him.

Critics say one of the contracts did not follow normal procedures, and both are going to a consulting firm that sprung up just weeks before the initial agreement was signed.

One of the two pacts, for $222,000, won final approval last month after it was recommended by Brumley and the state Department of Education.

But the other, for $120,000, has been in effect for nearly two months even though Sandy Holloway, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she was in the dark about an agreement that requires her review. "I was not aware of the contract," Holloway said, adding that she was surprised Brumley and others signed it Sept. 15, Sept. 17 and Oct. 26. BESE, which sets education policy, hires the superintendent of education.

Holloway said she got an unexpected call Friday from Brumley's chief of staff, Quentina Timoll, asking about the agreement.

She said she told Timoll contracts are typically supposed to go through the BESE office and that a written description of the agreement is prepared for her to review before making a decision. The delay means BESE will not vote on the agreement until its Dec. 14-15 meeting, about two weeks before the contract is set to expire.

Officials familiar with the process said the way the contract has unfolded is unusual and may be indicative of larger problems, including concerns that other agreements have been handled in haphazard ways that require changes.

Brumley declined comment.

The $120,000 contract is to review plans by local school districts to try to improve student achievement in the wake of the plunge in math, English and other key test scores amid the pandemic.

The issue is also part of a larger controversy after Brumley recommended both agreements to a newly-formed consulting firm run by Sharmayne Rutledge, former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction who resigned her post last week.

"I think a layman would ask for justification on any and all no-bid contracts and emergency contracts," said Brigitte Nieland, director of government relations for the advocacy group Stand For Children.

Others said that, when oversight legislation linked to the $120,000 contract was making its way through the Legislature, the view was that education department officials would be reviewing school improvement plans to ensure rigor, not someone hired from outside the agency.

Both contracts are going to Invicta Consulting LLC, with Rutledge, chief executive officer, the lone officer listed.

The firm was registered with the Secretary of State's office on Aug. 2, and less than four weeks later Rutledge signed the $222,000 agreement to help districts plan for how to handle some of the $4 billion in federal stimulus aid Louisiana is getting.

The $120,000 contract that caught Holloway by surprise runs from Sept. 13-Dec. 31.

The first of two $60,000 payments was made Monday, according to state records.

Rutledge initially referred questions to the state Department of Education but a few days later issued a statement that said her review process is underway and she is confident it will result in academic recovery.

The Louisiana Department of Education, in a written response to questions, said Rutledge has sterling education credentials that makes her ideal for the work. "LDOE conducted a thorough analysis of multiple vendors to determine who could diligently and thoroughly review the plans, ensuring federal funds were allocated toward activities that would accelerate student learning and ignite academic recovery," the statement says.

The $120,000 agreement did not require requests for proposals because of Gov. John Bel Edward's emergency procurement rules sparked by the pandemic and the need to quickly address learning loss, they said.

Department officials also said the $120,000 agreement was not on BESE's October agenda because of a delay in the procurement process.

They said RFPs were not required on the $222,000 contract because if fell below the threshold that requires RFPs. Rutledge's firm is set to be paid $74,000 per year, which is $1,000 less than the threshold that requires bids, officials said.

The agent for Invicta is Sharmayne Rutledge's husband, Domoine Rutledge, former general counsel for the East Baton Rouge Parish School District and now vice-president and general counsel at CSRS, a program management firm.

Sharmayne Rutledge and Timoll, Brumley's chief of staff, were colleagues at the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

One of the questions raised by critics of the contracts is the propriety of Sharmayne Rutledge's reviewing school improvement plans submitted by her former employer – the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

Department officials said initially there would be something of a firewall to ensure that no such interaction takes place. But Rutledge sent a five-page email to East Baton Rouge Parish school officials on Oct. 22 for revisions and clarifications to comply with rules to boost academic achievement.

Department officials called the exchange an oversight and that the work submitted by East Baton Rouge Parish officials was eventually reviewed by others, not Rutledge.