Columns » Max Brantley

The smell of the swamp

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has been ravaged by the industry-wide decline in circulation and advertising, but it continues to invest in important state Capitol reporting.

A good example came last Sunday, when veteran statehouse reporter Michael Wickline delved further into a no-bid education consulting contract that had raised at least a few legislative eyebrows. My summary, taken from a post on the Arkansas Blog:

The push for the contract came from Bill Gossage, deputy chief of staff to Gov. Asa Hutchinson and a former legislator. He is also an alumnus of another powerful lobby, the good old boys club of school superintendents that forms one of the Capitol's most powerful lobby groups. They've even defeated the Walton charter school lobby a time or two. That isn't easy.

Gossage put in a good word for the consultants with House Speaker Jeremy Gillam. Gillam said Gossage's endorsement gave him the "confidence" to OK taxpayer-financed junkets for 14 legislators and assorted bureaucrats to get a look at the work being done by the would-be consultant, Solution Tree.

Solution Tree wanted to get a contract for its "professional learning community at work" program. Sen. Linda Chesterfield, a former teacher, said this is just a euphemism for team learning for teachers. Nothing wrong with the concept, but Solution Tree is neither the inventor nor sole seller of such programs.

Forget Chesterfield, who may be a teacher but who is also a Democrat and they are not in power currently. With a push from Gossage, the House speaker and Gov. Asa Hutchinson's education czar, Johnny Key, the deal was done. Solution Tree got approval from the legislature for a $4 million pilot project this year and another $8.5 million worth of consulting work next year.

Education Commissioner Key was at work with Solution Tree on implementation before the legislature had approved the contract (over scattered objections). Key, a veteran legislator, had to know this pie was pre-baked. Key pushed back aggressively when Ed Armstrong, the state procurement director, bravely suggested some other vendors might be able to provide the same sort of consulting. Perhaps some competing proposals should be sought.  With a gubernatorial deputy chief of staff behind the deal and the governor's hand-picked education czar expressing "frustration" at the holdup from procurement, however, Armstrong got the message. He went along with a "sole source" provider contract. Putting all this together was a great piece of reporting by Wickline, though such deals tend to be clouded by all the details. Straight reporters can't always connect the dots without appearing to be opinionated. I have no such impediment. Whenever I read a story like this I'm reminded of my drives in the humid evenings through the coastal marshes of my boyhood home in Louisiana. The decomposition of organic matter was ongoing. It created a persistent stench. We called it swamp gas. Swamp gas comes with absolute power in a political ecosystem, too. Strong leadership can combat it. Hutchinson, who I've heard might have even raised questions about a no-bid deal, seems unwilling to act when his appointees demonstrate a lack of fitness. Gossage isn't the first. I also note that the governor — who professes a belief in Arkansas's ability to match the world in technology – often seems to find an out-of-state consultant necessary for advice, whether the subject is health, lottery, insurance, education or even football stadiums.

PS: Do a Google search on Solution Tree and the multi-million-dollar Professional Learning Communities at Work program it just sold to Arkansas. It has supporters and critics. Nobody thinks collaboration among teachers to share strategy is a bad idea, but many factors can influence the results. Arkansas is about to put their model to a $12.5 million test.

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