Questions spur review of school service contracts
TAMPA - Questions about a contract for a teen mentoring program have spurred a top-level internal investigation and possible changes in how future agreements are approved and evaluated by Hillsborough County schools. Assistant Superintendent Ken Otero is reviewing two contracts with Black Girl Speaks, paid for with $150,000 in federal money for improving academic achievement at schools with the poorest students. School board members also have called for a workshop to look at how the district approves and monitors all its contracts with service providers, known as technical service agreements. The moves came after the board learned that the only evaluation of a service provider's performance is often conducted by the provider."I do have some concerns,'' board Vice Chairwoman Candy Olson said during a school board meeting last week, where the reviews were announced. With a push at the national, state and local level to make teacher and principal evaluations more rigorous, Olson asked whether service providers shouldn't be subject to a similar process. "Can we at least look at evaluations from two perspectives?'' she asked. "Are kids benefitted, and do teachers see a change?'' The questions arise as the board is poised to approve a third contract with Black Girl Speaks founder Talitha Anyabwele, this one for $35,000. That vote has been postponed until the next board meeting Nov. 8. Meanwhile, it appears Anyabwele failed to fulfill the requirements of her previous contracts as written and approved by the board. A January 2011 agreement required Anyabwele to conduct summer tutoring and mentoring, following an initial workshop for 300 girls from three high schools. Her program, open to girls of all ethnicities, uses spoken word poetry, writing in journals, and one-on-one discussions to improve behavior, self-esteem, attendance and other issues that affect learning. Board member Susan Valdes questioned the district staff three weeks ago about whether the $75,000 contract had been satisfied after hearing Anyabwele didn't hold her program at one of the schools, Chamberlain High. In addition, Valdes said, there didn't appear to be a summer program at all. Principals from the other two schools, Blake and Middleton, told Valdes they thought there had been a summer program but attendance had been sparse. They were mistaken. In an interview with The Tampa Tribune, Anyabwele said her contract did not require her to provide mentoring or tutoring this past summer. At the time, she said, she was pregnant with her first child and unable to do the work. She also said her agreement with the district covered only Blake and Middleton, and that somehow, language from the January contract became mixed up with language from her earlier contract, from December 2009. It is possible that part of the second contract was cut and pasted from the first one, said Assistant Superintendent Gwen Luney, who oversees federal programs for the district. That's not likely, though, a Tribune review of the documents shows, because the earlier contract makes no mention of summer meetings. Still, Luney, who signed off on the three contracts, said she is confident Anyabwele did all the district asked of her. Some service providers have to go through a competitive bidding process to work with the district, but Black Girl Speaks did not, Luney said. Bidding is not always required, she said, especially with services difficult to measure, such as mentoring. "There are a lot of facets of children in high poverty schools,'' Luney said. "It's not just math, reading and science. It's getting them to come to school.'' Anyabwele's contracts were vetted through the district's procurement office and approved by Luney and Jeff Eakins, the district's general director of federal programs. Eakins also was listed as the "individual requesting the provider,'' though he said later he was not familiar with the terms of Anyabwele's contracts. After the board votes on the agreements, they also are signed by a top board member. The 2009 Black Girl Speaks contract was signed by Valdes and the 2011 contract by Chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb. Federal money – including Title I funds and stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – accounted for $93 million of the Hillsborough School District's $3 billion budget last year. Nearly $900,000 of that $93 million went to service providers of all sorts, Eakins said, from those who do mentoring to parent education to outfitting a digital classroom. Among Hillsborough's 270 schools, 140 have enough poor students to qualify for federal money. The money can be used to improve student learning in a number of ways, including hiring highly qualified teachers or paying for programs like Anyabwele's.
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