Gov. Bill Lee defended Thursday the state’s decision to award a no-bid, over-the-budget contract to an outside vendor for the implementation of school vouchers.
The controversy comes after the Tennessee Department of Education awarded Florida-based ClassWallet a $1.2 million deal to manage the early rollout of the program and track expenses. Earlier this week, Republican lawmakers expressed strong criticism of the move.
The amount of the contract is nearly twice what legislators budgeted. The agency told lawmakers the contract was covered by unspent money from another program that’s now defunct.
Lee told reporters Thursday the department didn’t do anything wrong, and he is not concerned about its actions.
“I care more about kids in the state than I do about a process — that it’s trying to be hampered by those who are detractors,” Lee said. “I don’t think the status quo has served us as it should. I think children in our state and parents in or state need choices about their kids’ education.”
Lee said the department’s decision to use unspent money was an “efficient” way to use taxpayer money.
Lee’s comments are at odds with some Republican legislators. During a legislative hearing with the Department of Education on Wednesday, House GOP Chairman Jeremy Faison said it’s become harder for him to assure constituents the program should begin this fall, as the Lee administration wants.
“I voted for the (school voucher) bill,” Faison said. “Since that day, I have probably regretted that vote more than any vote I’ve taken.”
Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has been told to appear next week in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee to answer more questions and present evidence that the department followed protocol when awarding the contract to ClassWallet. The agency stands by its decision.
“We followed every single law [and] policy set out in statute,” Schwinn said.
Top Republicans Want Review Of Grant Process
One reason the department is under fire is the way they funded the contract with ClassWallet. The agency told lawmakers it used a grant that was created with money from an old teacher-pay program. They said that if the money remained unspent, it would have returned to the general fund.
But the department made the decision without consulting with the legislature’s joint Fiscal Review Committee. Senate Speaker Randy McNally told reporters he has asked the Governor’s Office to explain their authority to make such decisions, and he said they have promised to have a response by next week.
House Speaker Cameron Sexton said the legislature is going to try to keep the department from avoiding Fiscal Review. He, along with Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is sponsoring a bill that would required no-bid, no competitive contracts to go before the committee.
“This isn’t the first time that a no-bid grant contract was approved, and they (Fiscal Review) said it’s happening more frequently,” Sexton said.