Holmes County, Washington, is potentially among the school counties that exclude textbook deals


TALAHASI – Holmes and Washington counties could be among the most financially limited small school districts in Florida, which could pay thousands of dollars for textbooks more than their large counterparts, and local officials are asking state leaders to do something about it.

A whistleblower named “John / Jane Doe” recently accused government officials of potentially violating state law by providing free or discounted training materials to some districts but not offering the same offers in all 67 counties.

The state sets the price for each item in the list of approved training materials available for purchase by district.

But the informant claims that some districts received special deals that actually reduced the cost of materials per unit. The deals were not offered to all districts, according to letters sent to government officials by lawyers representing the informer.

The letters include details of the prices school districts paid for instructional materials, including some items provided free of charge or at the cost of a penny per unit. Free or very discounted goods have reduced the unit price, which is allegedly a violation of state law, according to letters sent by Dow’s attorneys, William Spicola — former Attorney General of former Gov. Rick Scott — and Adam Commissioner.

The Small School District Council Consortium (SSDCC), which consists of counties in 39 rural and fiscally restricted counties, has asked Governor Ron DeSantis and other state leaders to investigate whether some districts receive special benefits that are not available to others. School officials in some of the state’s poorest counties are also demanding compensation or loans for future purchases.

“If there is a special deal, it needs to be published, communicated and passed on to everyone,” said Chris Doolin, a lobbyist representing the consortium who warned the group’s school leaders about the problem in an interview with The News Service of Florida. .

Although neither Holmes nor Washington’s school districts know exactly whether they are one of the overpaid counties, they are both working with the SSDCC to provide documentation to find out. Holmes County School Superintendent Buddy Brown says there are requests for information.

“Over the past five days, we have received requests for information from the SSDCC,” he said. “The staff is working on fulfilling the requests so we can find out if we have overpaid. We can’t say for sure, because we don’t know what other districts could pay. “

Washington County Superintendent Joe Taylor says that if there is anything with the claims, he thinks the state will support the district. “If the informant’s claims are substantiated, I believe that the state will neutralize the area,” he said. “We will work with the state at any time to help with the investigation.”

Under Florida law, publishers are required to provide the state with educational materials that “may not exceed the lowest price at which they offer to accept or sell such educational materials to any state or school district in the United States.”

Publishers should also “automatically reduce the price of instructional materials for any district school to the extent that reductions are made” anywhere else in the country.

The law also requires publishers to “provide any training materials free of charge” to the same extent that they are free elsewhere.

Spicola and the Commissioner sent two letters in March outlining the allegations of the informant, the Chief Justice of the Department of Education, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

Lawyers, responding to requests for more information, provided additional details showing various discounts or freebies in counties.

“Some publishers of study materials outside the state … are involved in the model and practice of overcharging in many Florida school districts, leading to false claims against the state,” Spicola and the commissioner wrote on May 5.

For example, the letter said that in Franklin County there was an “overpayment” for English textbooks from first to fifth grade of $ 10,233.04 compared to the adjusted price paid by Miami-Dade County for the same products in 2021. after receiving free or discounted products. According to informant documents, Hamilton County paid $ 19,383.55 more for materials for kindergarten, first grade, and grades three through five.

Although $ 10,000 doesn’t seem like a lot of money in some areas, that amount is more than 10 percent of the total $ 89,000 that Franklin County receives for training materials.

The overall poverty rate in coastal North Florida schools, which serve about 1,200 students, is about 80 percent, Franklin County School Manager Steve Lanier told the News Service.

“We will take everything we can. I don’t think it’s fair that we’re going to pay for what a bigger school district can get (for free), ”Lanier said. “I look forward to what will happen. I appreciate someone being honest about the situation and let us know. … We hope it will be something positive for us. “

Hamilton County Schoolteacher Dorothy Wetterington-Zamora said the difference in price of about $ 20,000 is about 15 percent of her district’s total allocation of $ 130,000 for teaching materials. The difference in unit price of production directly affects our students, ”she said.

“So $ 20,000 obviously in such a small area that we serve could have a long way to go … if it really turns out to be something that was done,” she said.

The area “can definitely expand our purchasing power” if compensations or loans are available.

According to Education Department spokeswoman Cassie Palelis, government education officials are considering the informant’s statements.

“Textbook prices are set as part of state-approved curricula and are designed to fund districts and schools. We take complaints of violations of these processes very seriously. At this time, we are involved in a deliberate, detailed and thorough grievance process to determine whether Florida law has been complied with or violated, ”Palelis said in an email.

“If there have been violations of Florida law, the perpetrators will be brought to justice. At the same time, for the sake of fairness to all participants, it would be wrong to judge compliance or non-compliance with Florida law until the issue is fully addressed. ”

The practice of publishers providing some school districts with free books or books at big discounts is not new.

A 2003 report by the Office of Government Policy Analysis and Accountability, or OPPAGA, noted this problem. The next report two years later said that the Department of Education “took steps to ensure that all districts received the same free materials, but more could be done.”

“The ability of the education department to monitor compliance with this requirement is hampered by the fact that some publisher representatives are reported to be dealing directly with individual schools rather than school districts,” the 2005 report said.

Districts cannot find out what special offers are offered elsewhere because the deals are not made public, Doolin said.

He wants government officials to calculate the cost of benefits provided to some districts and not others, and seeks the return of benefits or forward credit for districts that have not received equivalent prices or free materials.

Doolin also suggested that the state may need to change the procurement process to ensure that all districts are provided with equivalent benefits and prices from publishers.

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