In its efforts to upgrade technology in the state’s school districts, the Massachusetts Department of Education’s technology department squandered millions of dollars on consultants and questionable expenditures—such as flowers, home internet connections, food, and parties—according to a state audit issued March 21.

The department was first criticized in an Administration and Finance Department review last year, following a report by the Eagle-Tribune of Lawrence, Mass., on the group’s accounting and hiring practices.

The audit released in March offers similar findings, but also new details, chronicling a series of questionable expenses and saying the group violated some state laws by prepaying consultants and allowing consultants to supervise state employees.

Meanwhile, Commissioner of Education David Driscoll said that Gregory Nadeau, who oversaw the group before being demoted last year, had resigned from the department “by mutual agreement.”

Among the findings by state Auditor Joseph DeNucci’s office:

  • The department wasted $3.6 million of the $14.3 million it spent on consultants during a two-year period by hiring consultants through private companies that marked up the price, rather than hiring information technology employees directly.

  • The department passed its own expenses—such as travel expenses and office furniture—on to the consulting companies, which then charged the department after marking up the price as much as 10 percent.

  • The department paid more than $194,000 for training and conferences for consultants who were “hired for their expertise and should already have been adequately trained.”

  • Nearly $5 million in expenses were undocumented or improperly documented. The audit also reported hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses—including nearly $50,000 for food for meetings; $677 for flowers for consultants and family members; and $227 in annual fees and finance charges on personal credit cards.

According to the Associated Press, Driscoll defended the decision to hire the consultants through their companies rather than individually, saying it was a sound business decision.

“At the time, working with consultants seemed like a good idea,” said department representative Jonathan Palumbo. It was an easy way to get around the state’s bureaucratic hiring process and to compete for expensive technology professionals, he said.

The next time the department hires technology consultants, officials will put more thought into the process, Palumbo said. “We are probably going to think about it more and examine it more before we decide to do it,” he said.

Driscoll added that he was disturbed by the procedural flaws discovered by the audit. “The expenditure of money, no matter how small, is a credibility problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Driscoll said, and the audit acknowledged, that the department had taken steps to prevent similar problems from happening again. Some of these steps include hiring an organizational consultant to assist in restructuring and staffing the department, setting hourly wage limits, retaining resumes and other paperwork, and limiting the hours reflected on consultant’s time sheets.

The technology department hired 126 consultants during the audit period to build a $19 million database to track students and help bring students and teachers online. Of those 126, the audit found, the department had no resume on file for 80 percent and no documented duties for any of them.

The audit’s findings are regrettable, because the money “might have been used more correctly for more services and resources for teachers and students,” said Isa Zimmerman, coordinator for Business and Education for Schools and Technology, a coalition of business, education, and labor organizations that lobbies for educational technology to enhance teaching and learning in Massachusetts schools.

“Some of the things that happened in the department were well-intentioned to move quickly to get technology in the [state’s] schools,” Zimmerman said. “I’m sorry that it happened, because it reflects badly on an important enterprise.”

Links:

Massachusetts Department of Education
http://www.doe.mass.edu

Business and Education for Schools and Technology
http://best.prospect.com