The Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services Board voted 4-1 Thursday to authorize the state Department of Education an emergency exemption for several technology-related contracts that add up to nearly $89 million.
ITS regulations require that any technology contract is limited to one-year terms and the exemption awarded by the board allows the MDE to receive a three-year term instead.
The contracts include an upgrade of the Mississippi Student Information System data system, the school safety program, the Mississippi career continuum program and the College and Career Readiness platform.
MDE Chief of Operations Felicia Gavin said approval of the $88.98 million in contracts will allow the department to not have to go back to lawmakers for more money to fix the antiquated MSIS system. The MDE says federally-mandated deadlines attached to the money require an emergency authorization or else the money has to be returned to the federal government.
State Sen. Scott DeLano, R-Biloxi, and the chairman of the Senate Technology Committee asked MDE officials during the meeting if the vendor advising them on MSIS upgrade or replacement would be eligible to bid for the work for the MSIS replacement platform.
“We certainly hope that a company that would be hired for professional services to consult on the design of a computer system would have a fiduciary obligation to the state of Mississippi to reduce our cost and to cover our risks,” DeLano said. “And in doing so I believe there'll be an extremely valid concern for conflict of interest for that same vendor to then turn around and bid on the project.”
MDE’s Chief of Information Technology John Kraman told the board that it is not his expectation that the vendor consulting with MDE on the new MSIS specifications would bid for the replacement work. He also said the MDE hasn’t had any discussions on whether to exclude any vendors from consideration.
DeLano was also skeptical of the $14 million included for the school security software over commercial networks after the state spent more than $100 million for a statewide inoperable emergency communication system. The MDE said the system would allow district to manage layers of cameras and other sensors at schools.
The Mississippi State Board of Education voted on September 1 to allow the state’s superintendent to expedite several contracts involving $231 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds.
These funds are a 9.5 percent holdback by the MDE from $2.5 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund provided by the federal government that was disbursed to school districts for COVID-related expenses such as distance learning. The majority of these funds were issued to districts.
The MSIS system was the reason why the Legislature had to appropriate an additional $18.4 million in January 2020 for a $1,500 teacher pay increase that was passed in the 2019 session. MSIS — which has problems in its interoperability with district systems — didn’t have an accurate number of the eligible teachers and forced MDE officials to recount the number of raise-eligible teaching positions by hand.