Auditor Mike Waguespack

Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack.

Louisiana's top school board Thursday asked Legislative Auditor Michael Waguespack to investigate emergency contracts issued by the state Department of Education amid controversy over two no-bid agreements that went to a former top official of the East Baton Rouge Parish School District.

The request covers contracts for 2021 and 2022, said Sandy Holloway, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which hires the state education superintendent. It says the 11-member board "has reasonable cause that warrants an investigation" without spelling out details.

"BESE is required by law to report any possible concern we have," Holloway said in an interview. "And that is the reason we are requesting the legislative auditor."

She added in a statement, "We have no actual evidence of any specific wrongdoing, which is why BESE has called up the legislative auditor as a precautionary measure."

Later in the day state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, who pushed both contracts, took the unusual step of demanding that Holloway produce any evidence of wrongdoing by 5 p.m. on Friday.

"Let me be clear, I have no knowledge of any improper behavior or wrongdoing by LDOE staff," Brumley said in his message, a reference to the state Department of Education. "If something unethical has occurred within my agency, I need to know immediately so appropriate measures can be taken."

BESE hired Brumley 16 months ago, and a public spat between a superintendent and board president is highly unusual.

BESE spent part of Wednesday and Thursday discussing how broad the request should be, and Holloway said she signed the request on behalf of the full board.

The board did so after The Advocate | The Times-Picayune reported Brumley had pushed two no-bid contracts totaling $342,000 that went to Sharmayne Rutledge, who recently resigned as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

One of the contracts she received, an emergency agreement, is for $120,000 to review academic improvement plans submitted by Louisiana's 69 school districts and others. However, it has not been reviewed by BESE and caught Holloway by surprise even though she is supposed to sign it and the first $60,000 payment has already been approved for Invicta Consulting LLC, where Rutledge serves as chief executive officer.

Department officials said it was a no-bid agreement because it was covered by Gov. John Bel Edwards' emergency procurement rules sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.

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BESE last month approved another, $222,000 no-bid contract for Invicta that also has sparked scrutiny. It was not an emergency contract but was a no-bid agreement because the annual payments, $74,000 per year for three years, barely fell below the threshold that would have required bids, officials said.

That contract has raised ethics questions on how and when the agreement was made.

Rutledge did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

A statement issued Thursday by her attorney Gray Sexton says, "The contracts were properly administered by the Department of Education and as Dr. Rutledge has never been employed with the Department of Education, there is no concern that those contracts run afoul of any state ethics provision or other law."

Michael Melerine, a BESE member and Shreveport attorney, said Thursday he is not accusing anyone and the request stems from an abundance of caution. "Hopefully, it is something that will be worked out quickly and we can get the focus back on education and improving education and our kids," he said.

Preston Castille, a BESE member who lives in Baton Rouge, was described as unenthusiastic about the request.

"My caution was that we limit it (the request) to making sure we truly have a good understanding about whether both BESE and the Department of Education have a good process and are following it," Castille said.

Asked if he has any concerns about the contracts that went to Rutledge's consulting firm he said, "I know Dr. Rutledge. I think she is incredibly qualified to perform the services I understand she has been asked to provide."

"Based on the information I have received in the last couple of days there is no reason she should not have been awarded the contracts," Castille said.

Before Brumley was notified of BESE's request the department asked the legislative auditor to expand the scope of its current, routine audit to include a review of how emergency contracts are being handled.

The flap has gotten the attention of some legislative leaders, including House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.

"Every state agency should be responsible and accountable with the tax dollars they spend," Schexnayder said in a statement. "Additional oversight in this regard is not a bad thing."

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