Credit: Jessica Willams / The Lens

Leaders of 20 New Orleans charter-school organizations pledged in February to hire outside monitors to oversee all four days of state-required testing, but it appears now that most will pay for only one day.

Further, none of the charter groups contacted by The Lens sought competitive bids for the work, which school officials said could run up to $4,250 per day per school.

Rather than shopping for the best deal, those we talked with are working with the two companies the Recovery School District identified: Caveon Test Security or local consulting group EMH Strategy that provides Caveon-trained staff.

The RSD itself is paying Caveon to monitor 14 schools that it will consider for renewal or extension. These schools have the most riding on the annual state exams, a major factor in RSD’s recommendation to the state school board on whether the campuses stay open.

The RSD did not seek bids before signing a four-month $49,500 contract — $500 below the threshold that triggers a competitive process.

[module align=”right” width=”half” type=”pull-quote”]The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools recommends that schools get three verbal quotes for contracts over $1,000 and three written quotes for contracts valued at $10,000 or more.[/module]

Caveon is a nationally recognized company in this field, but its reputation took a hit when it was asked in 2010 to review test procedures and results in the Atlanta school system. Caveon said it found no major problems. One year later, Georgia investigators said Caveon vastly underrepresented the extent of Atlanta’s problems. Actually, 250,000 answers had been changed from wrong to right. In 2013, 35 educators were indicted, as the widespread conspiracy blew up into one of the country’s biggest cheating scandals. More than half took plea deals, and 11 eventually were convicted of racketeering charges.

The Lens began asking questions three weeks ago about how the monitors were being selected.  We requested the Caveon contract from the RSD on March 30, which provided it more than a week later. The contract isn’t dated, and the RSD did not return multiple calls and emails asking to clarify when the contract was signed.

An effort to counter bad publicity

After two very public instances of testing problems at New Orleans charter schools — CEOs at the Algiers Charter School Association and ReNEW Schools were replaced within weeks of each other — leaders of Recovery charter organizations sent RSD Superintendent Patrick Dobard a letter on February 15 pledging to hire independent test monitors for state exams this year. They said adding this to their existing internal security measures was an effort to increase accountability and transparency.

The letter said the schools would hire an outside test-security company to monitor “all state exams, on an annual basis.”

“We’re doing more than any other school district in the state on this matter,” Dobard said Friday, after this story was initially published.

Dobard took issue with The Lens’ interpretation of “all state exams” and said school leaders never promised to monitor all days of testing. He said their intent was to monitor all types of tests, such as the PARCC, state-required ACT college admissions test and high school end-of-course tests.

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok shared that view: “When we wrote all state testing, that meant for all types.”

Dobard did acknowledge, however, “When they sent the letter they didn’t know what they were going to contract for at the time.”

Other than at one ReNEW school, where testing improprieties were found by state investigators, no school board contacted by The Lens has hired monitors for more than one day.

Testing expert Timothy Shanahan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said the monitors may only stop select kinds of impropriety.

He gave four examples of cheating: school staff gaining access to exams ahead of time, students cheating, school staff leading students during the test and staff changing student answers after the exam.

By hiring on-site monitors for testing days, Shanahan said schools are not addressing all types of cheating. And with just one day, monitors get just a partial view of the situation.

“If the teachers were intent on cheating, this would drive it underground more,” he said.

But in this case, the schools may be more focused on bolstering the public’s trust, he said. And after a year of gathering data, schools can decide if they want to increase or decrease monitoring based on what they find.

“My hunch is what they’re doing should reduce the amount of cheating, should increase the amount of trust that the public has in the system, and should give them information in the future to either increase or decrease monitoring based on what they find in the data,” he said.

Dobard and Mehok both said the move is proactive and should be applauded. Mehok said she knew of no other charter schools that paid for third-party monitoring.

Following the lead of the RSD

Only one network The Lens contacted had considered a company other than the two recommended by the RSD. However, officials there never issued a formal request and eventually went with a recommended monitor.

Even though Dobard is the superintendent of the Recovery School District, he has no direct say over such decisions by the independent schools within the RSD. Each charter board is responsible for its own policies and spending.

The district’s website makes that distinction clear: “The RSD is not responsible for procuring services on behalf of charter schools.”

The Recovery School District is involved only at a higher level, authorizing charters and bearing the ultimate responsibility for the continued operation of the schools.

Nonetheless, in a March 4 memo, “Re: Test Monitoring Next Steps,” Dobard explained how the RSD would conduct monitoring, and then gave the charters some advice.

“RSD has contracted with Caveon Investigative Services, Inc., an expert test security firm,” he wrote.

We went with the RSD’s recommendation to use Caveon, thus, we did not issue an RFP for this process.— ReNEW spokesman Scott Satchfield

Its monitors will visit for one day the 14 RSD schools up for regular review, according to the agreement.

“The RSD has identified two options for how CMOs [charter management organizations] can secure third-party test monitors for the rest of your schools,” he continued.

Option one: Hire Caveon directly for $4,000 to $4,250 per school per day. However he cautions Caveon’s staffing limitations mean “all schools will not be able to select this option.”

Option two: Hire local consultant EMH Strategy to “recruit, screen and organize third-party monitors who will be trained and supported by Caveon.” That’ll cost $2,000 to $2,500 per school.

This means monitoring across all RSD charters in New Orleans will likely cost more than $100,000 for the spring. Normally a price tag like that would cause a public entity to put out a request for proposals, soliciting the best price for taxpayer-funded services. But with nearly two dozen public entities splitting the costs in various ways, it’s not likely that will happen.

At the rates Dobard cited, a larger network with several schools would see a bill of more than $25,000.

The Recovery School District did not issue a formal RFP or seek other quotes, nor was it required to do so given the cost, Dobard’s chief of staff Laura Hawkins said.

“Essentially, schools that agreed to this additional monitoring were going to do it with a department-approved vendor,” she said. “So we worked with Caveon and EMH to organize it on the schools’ behalf if they choose to go with those.

“They’re free to go with a different vendor as long as it meets LDOE criteria.”

Some schools believed RSD found the best deal

Not all board members believed they had that freedom.

The New Beginnings Schools Foundation’s board questioned its administration’s plans to use Caveon at a mid-March meeting.

New Beginnings CEO Sametta Brown told the board monitoring will cost $2,500 per day per school. She also said the state Department of Education recommended Caveon.

Member Sheila Danzey had concerns, noting the school appeared to have little choice in the vendor.

“Is this just to give somebody a contract?” Danzey asked.

Another board member was concerned that all the testing wouldn’t be monitored.

“They’re doing only one day of the whole testing period?” board member Wanda Brooks asked.

”I don’t feel like we were forced to go with either of these options. I feel like it may have been convenient to, since the RSD may have done some research and screening already.”— Christopher Hines, Crescent City Schools.

Brown said network staff members will go out to schools to help monitor on the other days, as they’ve traditionally done.

Sharon Clark, head of Sophie B. Wright Charter School, said she assumed the RSD had already researched the best choices.

A woman answering the phone at Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence Academy, who declined to identify herself, said it was a straightforward proposition: “The RSD did it and we just went with what they picked.”

Others, though, took the RSD memo as a suggestion.

“I don’t feel like we were forced to go with either of these options,” said Christopher Hines, the chief operating officer of Crescent City Schools. “I feel like it may have been convenient to, since the RSD may have done some research and screening already.”

The three-school network has contracted with EMH for $2,300 per school per day, he said.

Mehok said the network selected one day of test monitoring to mimic what the RSD was planning to do for renewal and extension schools.

Though state law does not require shopping around for professional service contracts under $50,000, many entities consider it good practice.

The Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools recommends schools issue a formal request for proposals for contracts between $25,000 and $150,000. It also recommends three verbal quotes for contracts over $1,000 and three written quotes for contracts valued at $10,000 or more.

The Orleans Parish School Board guidelines call for a request for proposals for any professional services contract over $50,000. They also recommend getting three quotes for any purchases over $10,000.

Caveon getting work one way or another

Though their possible costs run much higher than that in some cases, it appears charter networks are selecting one of Dobard’s two options without doing any shopping.

The networks whose testing security measures were publicly questioned, ReNEW Schools and Algiers Charter School Association, both negotiated with Caveon.

The Algiers group described Caveon as “an RSD-approved vendor” but had not yet signed a contract last week.

Asked Thursday which company they were working with, Algiers spokeswoman Tammi Major said “Whatever company that they recommended” and then confirmed it was EMH.

ReNEW signed a $28,000 contract with Caveon on March 8.

ReNEW’s state-prescribed corrective action plan does say the network must hire test monitors, but does not specify the company, only that it must be approved by the state. ReNEW spokesman Scott Satchfield said the network followed Dobard’s suggestion.

“We went with the RSD’s recommendation to use Caveon, thus, we did not issue an RFP for this process,” Satchfield said.

Selecting option two, Collegiate Academies, New Orleans College Prep, Arise Schools and Firstline Schools have all been negotiating with EMH.

ReNEW’s contract states each school will receive one visit. That is, except for SciTech Academy, which had the documented problems last year.

They will receive two.

Staff writer Amira Francis contributed to this report.

This story has been updated with reaction from Recovery School District Superintendent Patrick Dobard and Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...