Education executive questioned on contracts will resign
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi Department of Education executive at the center of questions about the department’s contracting practices is resigning.
Chief of Technology and District Transformation John Porter is leaving the department at the end of November for “personal reasons,” spokeswoman Jean Cook told The Associated Press on Friday. Cook said Porter’s departure had nothing to do with the contracting criticism.
State Superintendent Carey Wright has said she hired Blue Sky Innovative Solutions, a company owned by Porter, because she found the state department’s computing functions in disarray. Blue Sky was paid $99,000 in 2014 and $243,000 in 2015. State agencies at the time were supposed to take bids for service contracts worth more than $100,000, and take quotes from multiple vendors for contracts worth more than $50,000.
Porter once worked with Wright in a Maryland school system, as did another man who got computer work from the state Department of Education, Elton Stokes. Stokes and Data One IT, a company run by his wife, were paid $263,000 for data management work.
State Auditor Stacey Pickering and a legislative watchdog agency have questioned the multiple contracts signed with Porter, saying they may have been structured to avoid the bid threshold. Department officials have said the contracts were allowable because they were for different kinds of work. Pickering has said he believed the contracts were for “very much the same work.”
Splitting contracts to evade bid laws is a crime under Mississippi state law.
The Republican auditor didn’t immediately respond Friday to an email and text message seeking comment.
The Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, the legislative watchdog agency, judged that the Blue Sky and the Stokes contracts should have been combined and overseen by the state’s Department of Information Technology Services, which is meant to centralize computing purchases for maximum efficiency.
Pickering has accused the education department of “blatant disregard” for purchasing laws, saying department officials broke state law when they set up an alternate method of selecting contractors from a pre-qualified pool. The department said the pool method had been approved, but has since stopped using it.
After a failed search for a chief information officer, Porter was hired to fill that position. Wright has said that Porter never recommended himself for it.
Porter, who began work as a department employee in June 2015, was making $183,240 a year.