As an elected School Board member, the evidence presented to me thus far regarding the Polk District’s relationship with online education provider K12 leaves me with this inescapable concern:
I fear that one or more members of top district staff sought to circumvent the School Board — and School Board policy — to create a lucrative contract or relationship with a vendor that one of them went to work for shortly afterward.
I don’t know that this happened. I don’t even know if it’s technically illegal to try to circumvent an elected School Board in contracting. But on behalf of my constituents and my community, I would like to know. And I see an ongoing unwillingness, from anyone, to fully account for the K12 matter. My own School Board Attorney seems uninterested or immobile in addressing any of this. He has not said a word to the board about it. And he has not, to my knowledge, responded to any communication on which I’ve included him.
I have grown very very weary of playing a cat-and-mouse information game with district staff leadership on behalf of the public that elected me. I do think brand new Deputy Superintendent John Hill is attempting to restore some regular order to communication. And I appreciate that. But he is not who the public needs to hear from. And I don’t think he’s in any position to resolve this issue because he is not one of the players in it, from what I can see.
That’s why I will ask my fellow elected board members on Tuesday to request a State Attorney’s Office investigation of the entire K12 issue. More on the helpful precedent for that in just a moment. But here is my best, good faith description of the facts as I know them right now:
In May 2017, former Deputy Superintendent John Small directed his subordinate, Marc Hutek, to sign some kind of $1.8 million agreement with K12. It’s been called a “sales quote.” Within months, Small went to work for K12 and Hutek grew concerned about what he had signed. He expressed those concerns to Superintendent Jackie Byrd. The School District then had a meeting with K12 in Fall of 2017, in which newly retired John Small represented K12. It’s not clear what was discussed in that meeting.
In January, K12 provided Hutek with a press release that he “reluctantly” approved praising a K12 portal product. A few months after that, K12 provided the District with a payment schedule related to the “sales quote” or contract, which Hutek refused to pay citing the meeting in the Fall of 2017.
None of this — none of it — was ever brought to the attention of the elected School Board. The $1.8 million sales quote would be required to come before the School Board for approval, both by policy, and I suspect, by law. Moreover, John Small has said nothing about this. And district staff has provided a spotty and woefully incomplete account of what went on here. I remain unclear as to whether the District has paid K12 any money related to the May sales quote or contract. I have no idea what’s going on with the “portal.” Rather than try to clear this up, the key players have responded with silence, a vague overall statement from Sup. Byrd, or terse fragments of information in response to written questions.
If you want more detail and a collection of unanswered questions, please see this updated timeline on the K12 matter.
A useful precedent for an SAO review
Shortly after my election, then Chair Kay Fields and I had a very brief email exchange, which I immediately made public, about placing a matter on the School Board agenda.
When I made it public, a newspaper reader complained that the exchange might violate the Sunshine Law.
As a result, the State Attorney’s Office investigated, promptly and professionally. I welcomed the investigation. And it fully exonerated me and Kay, citing the obvious: the emails were about scheduling and sent with intent of transparency. See the summary here.
The K12 relationship is a much, much, much bigger issue than Kay Fields and I exchanging an email about how to get something on the agenda. I think district staff and the Board should welcome a similar investigation. If nothing illegal or contrary to policy happened, an SAO exoneration would help to remove the clouds and clarify precisely what did happen.
Unfortunately, in my role as a board member, I’m not able to offer that exoneration today. And our leaders aren’t making it easy for me to get to that place of comfort.