Seven On Your Side investigates questionable spending by Hattiesburg schools

Seven On Your Side investigates questionable spending by Hattiesburg schools

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - In 2015 the Hattiesburg Public School District awarded a $219,000 contract to educational consulting company P3 Strategies.

However, during the bidding process, the school district made a simple arithmetic error that may have cost taxpayers $164,000.

The contract was for a new strategic plan for the district; something that Superintendent James Bacchus said the district has not had in almost a decade.

"It was very clear to us that we needed to do that," Bacchus said. "Plus the state requires in the progress standings that a district has a working strategic plan."

Bacchus said the district decided to hire an outside consulting firm to help with the groundwork of a new strategic plan, and went through a Request for Proposal, or RFP, process to gather information and bids from companies and then rank them. Six companies, Calsoyas Group, Bailey Education Group, LLC, Public Consulting Group, Inc. (PCG), Millennium Educational Systems, LLC, Impact Education Group, LLC and P3 Strategies all submitted proposals for the district to consider. Those proposals included details like cost, how long the work would take, how their research would be conducted and what the district would receive as a final product to then use to create its strategic plan.

"Through the RFP process, we selected four out of the six vendors that submitted, and then we went through an evaluation process," Bacchus said. "We invited all four vendors in to present, and we used a rubric to evaluate them. Then we selected the vendor from the rubric, based on that information."

The rubric for the top four companies included scoring categories for experience, scope of work, execution of program and cost. According to the district's math and Bacchus, PCG and P3 Strategies tied as the winner.

"Well that's how it came out, and it came out on a tie. And then from that, I made a recommendation to the board to go with one over the other," Bacchus said.

However, when Seven on you Side checked the school district's math, not only did P3 and PCG not tie, P3 did not win.

"OK I don't know. I don't know," Bacchus responded when asked about the two companies not tying. "I can't. I can't answer that for you to be honest with you. I really don't know the gaps that you're speaking to."

Marcus Cathey, school board president, said the board was not involved in the decision process until the superintendent presented the final two companies to the board, and, again, he said he was told the companies tied.

"I think we were presented with both of them because I think they use a rubric or some type of scoring process," Cathey said. "And I think they both tied, if my memory is not failing me."

Seven on Your Side then shared the rubric and broke down the math for Cathey.

"Well I, I definitely don't like to be misinformed," Cathey said. "That's not something that I like, that I like at all."

Cathey said the board would not normally "get that down deep in the process" to check the scoring on a rubric.

"I don't think any of the board members actually took the time to add up these scores," Cathey said.

Bacchus said P3's "immersion" into the community to gather information was the reason he recommended P3 over PCG to the school board, but when asked if he ever checked the math to see if that recommendation was necessary, Bacchus said no.

"I'm sure we, people always double check math," Bacchus said. "Are you saying that we don't make mistakes? No I can't say that. No I'm not saying that we didn't make mistakes, but as far as we knew, we thought it was correct."

Of all six proposals, P3 Strategies was the most expensive costing taxpayers $219,000 for 73 days of work. PCG, the company with the highest score, presented a proposal about a quarter of that cost, coming in at $55,000 for 60 days of work.

Seven on Your Side noted in an interview with Bacchus that it could have been a $164,000 mistake for taxpayers if the district did that basic arithmetic incorrectly.

"You can always say that," Bacchus said. "You know, everybody always thinks that education shouldn't cost anything. That we should basically have people that do something for nothing when it comes to education. Many times, what you want, if you ask people to do something for you too that level that you want it, you have to pay for it unfortunately."

Both Bacchus and Cathey said that low cost is not the only consideration when looking at proposals, but $219,000  is significantly more than other school districts across the state spend on strategic planning. Desoto County, the largest in the state, spends nothing, and other school districts like Petal and Clinton only spend a few hundred dollars each year.

Meanwhile, taxpayers in Hattiesburg paid over $15,000 for each of 14 suggestions made by P3 about how to improve HPSD.

"That is, that is strategic plans," Cathey said.

Seven on Your Side asked both Bacchus and Cathey if HPSD compared P3 Strategies and PCG's costs with what other districts spend, and received conflicting answers.

"Yeah we did," Bacchus said. "We did, but we're only looking for what we needed for this district. We wanted more community engagement."

Cathey said, "Not to my awareness. Not to my awareness. I don't know if it's apples to apples. I don't know if you can just take another school district and what they do and compare it to what we do. Seeing that the details of the districts are not the same and the needs of the district are not the same."

Bacchus also explained that P3 strategies only put forth the 14 recommendations, known as an executive summary, and the district then takes those tips to create its own strategic plan.

"P3 Strategies did not do the strategic plan," Bacchus said. "They only gave us the recommendations by doing the groundwork. Working 70 something days with the community interviewing, holding these sessions, getting the feedback, correlating all that and coming up with the 14 recommendations."

Bacchus did disclose to the school board during his presentation of the top two vendors that he knew people working in both P3 and PCG.

"It's always important to be upfront and very transparent, and I'm very transparent," Bacchus said. "I have nothing to hide about that, so it was nothing for me to hide."

Bacchus worked with P3 Strategies partner Irving Hamer in Memphis City School District, now Shelby County Schools, from 2008-2011.

"Irving Hamer was my direct supervisor," Bacchus said. "He was the deputy superintendent in Memphis at that time, and that was my person I reported directly to."

Cathey said, "We raised questions about that, and him knowing people, he knows a lot of people. But he did not have personal relationships with the people. He worked at a former school district where he had contact or connection with the pair. That's how he presented it to us."

However, Bacchus still works with P3 Strategies on a monthly basis.

"P3 Strategies, I'm a part of a MERC Collaborative, Mississippi Education Reform Collaborative, is where five superintendents we meet monthly to talk about how we can learn from each other, and they are our thought partner," Bacchus said. "They provide that opportunity to meet and talk and be able to do the things that we're doing that we think we need to do for students here in our districts."

Hamer lists on his LinkedIn that he is an "adviser to the Mississippi Ed Reform Collaborative," and P3 Strategies is listed as the mailing address on MERC's informational brochure.

Cathey said the board was unaware that Bacchus and Hamer still worked together, and said, at the time of the vote, the board was comfortable giving almost a quarter of million dollars to a company with close ties to the superintendent.

"We vetted that when that information was presented to us, and at the time, we did feel comfortable that there was not a personal relationship and there was not an overlapping and that there wasn't anything that would present a problem," Cathey said. "You're just telling me information that I'm just hearing, so it's hard for me to say how I would feel. I would have to even vet the information that you're saying."

Bacchus is also in multiple photos on P3 Strategies' website, but said it does not make him uncomfortable doing business with a company that uses his image on its home page.

Seven on Your Side asked Cathey if he felt there was a conflict of interest in the superintendent's recommendation of  P3 strategies to the board now knowing that Bacchus works regularly with the group.

"Not necessarily," Cathey said. "I would have to really vet to see if there's a conflict of interest, but if I'm tasked to do something, working with people that I'm familiar with at work, I'm not sure if that's, that anybody wouldn't do that. But if there's any crossing of a line of anything inappropriate, I don't know that to be, and I would have to vet the information that you said to make sure that that's not the case. But someone knowing people that can produce what I need, I'm not sure that that's a problem."

Less then a week after Seven on Your Side interviewed school officials about irregular calculations during the RFP process, Hattiesburg Public Schools said in a Facebook post that the district conducted an internal investigation into the basic math mistakes made during the rubric tabulation.

"After we were notified, we did an internal investigation into the error and were able to confirm that there was a mistake," the post read. "The error was in the calculation of the cost portion of the four vendors. Initially two of these scores were tabulated as a tie, but after recalculating all the scores and averages it was discovered that there was a difference of about 3/100ths of a point between the top two that was not caught. We apologize for the error. It was unintentional and the result of human error in the tabulation of multiple vendor scores collected from multiple committee members. We regret that it occurred."

Bacchus said he thinks P3 met his level of expectation for the amount of taxpayer money spent.

"We got our money's worth," Bacchus said. "We are happy with the immersions, pleased with the recommendations."

Cathey was less unwavering when asked if he was happy with the board's decision to award P3 strategies the contract.

"It was the decision that was made on the board at the time," Cathey said. "You come today and present information, and, like I said, I would have to vet your information, but to ask me, well we made a decision based on the information that we had, and I voted for the proposal."

The school district said in its Facebook post, "We believe that any mistakes in calculation made in the vetting process were simply unintentional errors and that nothing unethical took place in the selection process."