Last year's corruption scandal involving longtime state Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps might have resulted in improvements to the state contracting process, but thanks to the Mississippi Senate, holes remain.
After Gov. Phil Bryant called for contract reform in the wake of the MDOC scandal, the Mississippi House of Representatives took action. But, Republican Rep. Jerry Turner of Baldwyn, chairman of the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, said Monday that the Senate watered down House Bill 825 by removing provisions to prevent large contracts from being broken into smaller pieces to avoid scrutiny.
The Senate also removed requirements that public officials file annual ethics reports disclosing gifts from people who are not relatives or friends.
Testy About Standardized Testing
State lawmakers are seeking to revive efforts to force the Mississippi Board of Education to consider using standardized tests written by the ACT organization.
The move comes as State Superintendent Carey Wright defends the process by which the state Department of Education sought proposals for a contract to administer tests in grades 3-8 and high school. ACT sent a letter earlier month saying it wouldn't bid because it found Mississippi's requirements too restrictive.
Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, announced Wednesday that he wanted to introduce a late-session bill to ban Mississippi from using tests that were developed by Pearson PLC for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a multistate group that Mississippi once belonged to. New Mexico hired Pearson to develop tests for the PARCC consortium, and Mississippi officials sought to adopt the PARCC tests for multiple years last fall. But a Mississippi contract review board said it would reject the contract because officials didn't consider other vendors.
Mississippi then signed a one-year, no-bid $8.4 million emergency contract with Pearson, adopting the tests for this spring only. That set up a competition to choose a new vendor for future years' tests.
The Mississippi Association of School Superintendents and others pushed the selection of Iowa-based ACT, which makes other tests, in addition to the college test of the same name.
To introduce a new bill late in the current session, Baker will need a two-thirds vote of the House. But in January, the House voted 116-3 to mandate the use of ACT and ban Pearson's PARCC test. Baker's new bill would still ban Pearson's test and would mandate that the state Board of Education consider ACT, even though ACT declined to bid. The superintendents' association sent an email to members urging them to contact their local representative to support Baker's bill.
Wright said Thursday that there are several bidders, but would give neither a number nor their names, saying the department would deny the Associated Press' public-records request for the names. A spokesman for Pearson confirmed the company had bid. Both Pearson and ACT have hired lobbyists to advocate with lawmakers.
Wright said news stories naming the vendors could unduly influence the outside evaluation team that will recommend a choice to the state.