Federal probe in Florida should raise more than eyebrows in Arkansas

August 14, 2023 6:30 am
Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Education, presented various options available to the State Board of Education on Thursday morning, April 13, 2023, concerning the disposition of the beleaguered Marvell-Elaine School District. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Stacy Smith, deputy commissioner with the Arkansas Department of Education, presented options available to the State Board of Education on April 13, 2023, concerning the disposition of the beleaguered Marvell-Elaine School District. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

A kerfuffle in the Sunshine State stirred ripples in Arkansas last week when The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times reported on a federal grand jury subpoena.

Prosecutors served the subpoena to Jefferson County Schools in Florida, asking for documents involving bids for a contract in 2021 to help the low-performing district transition back to a traditional public education after having been managed by a charter school company for five years. 

Among other things, the subpoena asks for correspondence between school officials, charter school lobbyists and former top leaders in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Education Department, including Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva. He was Florida’s K-12 education chancellor when that state took over the Jefferson County district and turned its management over to Somerset Academy Inc., a charter operation. As the Florida district prepared to return to public control, Oliva’s agency planned to use $4 million in pandemic relief money to hire consultants to aid the transition. 

The federal bid-rigging investigation comes 18 months after a public scandal that prompted the resignations of a vice chancellor in the Florida Education Department and the former chair of the Florida Board of Education, who were part of one of the firms that sought the contract to help the Jefferson County School District with its transition away from charter school management.

Oliva’s name was on the firm’s articles of incorporation along with the two officials who ultimately resigned. Those names on the last-minute bid proposal prompted a conflict-of-interest investigation by the Florida Education Department’s Office of Inspector General.

Oliva told OIG investigators in mid-November 2021 that he had no involvement with the company and had not authorized the use of his name on the firm’s documents. The investigators concluded they had no evidence of wrongdoing by Oliva and closed the case.

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva
(John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

To be clear, Oliva hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing. Indeed, an Arkansas Department of Education spokesperson told the Arkansas Times Oliva was unaware of the new investigation and has not been subpoenaed. 

Politico, writing about the federal probe last Monday, reported that the DeSantis administration also promised an investigation by the state’s inspector general. “Nothing from this probe, if it exists, has been made public,” Politico reported. Now the case appears to be on federal investigators’ radar. 

What does all this have to do with Arkansas? For one, it shows how the best intentions of a state bureaucracy to help a disadvantaged school district can go awry when millions of tax dollars are up for grabs.

Second, the Florida scenario bears some resemblance to the struggling Marvell-Elaine School District in Arkansas. In Florida, the state education department took over the Jefferson County district, then hired a charter school company to run it for five years. As the end of the contract neared, the state sought proposals from consulting firms to provide guidance to the Jefferson County district, and that’s when possible insider dealing arose, The Tampa Bay Times reported in January 2022.

To date, the Jefferson County district was the first and only one that Florida has turned over to private management.

In Arkansas, the Marvell-Elaine district faced imminent consolidation with another district this spring when a possible lifeline appeared in the form of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ LEARNS Act. The new law allows a struggling school district to partner with a third-party organization in lieu of a state takeover through what’s called a “transformation contract.” The Arkansas Board of Education authorized the education department to pursue such a contract between Marvell-Elaine and Friendship Education Foundation, a charter school operator. 

But legal wrangling over whether the LEARNS Act could be implemented immediately upon passage delayed the process, and the state board ended up dissolving the Marvell-Elaine School Board, firing the superintendent and putting Oliva and his department in charge. The department has since signed a $200,000 annual agreement with the foundation on behalf of the Marvell-Elaine district, making it the first “transformation contract” school system in Arkansas.

The similarity here is that Florida held up its way of aiding troubled school districts as a model for the nation, a model that’s being replicated in Arkansas. There’s nothing inherently insidious about the plan. But when millions of dollars in public money become available to private entities, there’s greater risk for self-dealing and conflicts of interest.

Republicans seem to love the idea of turning every government responsibility into an opportunity for private enterprise, as though the profit motive can solve any issue. 

They should leave public education alone. I’m not saying there’s no room for business in public education. I’m saying if Florida’s showing us anything, it’s that we need to watch closely when politicians turn a government responsibility over to private enterprise.  

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.