The Mississippi Department of Education’s request for emergency authorization to spend more than $89 million in COVID-19 relief funds on IT-related services is down to its last obstacle.
With the state Board of Education and the governing board of the Mississippi Department of Information Technology Services now having approved the emergency declaration, all that remains is approval from the Mississippi Public Procurement Review Board.
This board reviews state contracts and can approve exemptions from state procurement laws for agencies and local governments.
The MDE says it needs the declaration “because undertaking a competitive procurement for these products and services would cause delay that would threaten the health or safety of any person, or the preservation or protection of property.”
The big emergency for MDE are the deadlines attached to the federal funds, with award deadlines of January 2022 for the first round of funds and March 2022 for the second round. The department also must show federal officials that the funds are obligated through September 30, 2023 (first batch) and September 30, 2024 (second batch), which requires an extended contract.
At the September 23 SBE meeting, State Superintendent Carey Wright told the board that MDE had been able to pare down the emergency request to IT-related goods and services only, reducing it from $231 million to more than $89 million. The rest, Wright said, would be done through standard procurement processes.
In a letter to the ITS Board, ITS executive director David Johnson said the staff’s role is to be neutral while providing the board with the facts, options and an understanding of its authority in such a matter. He said the staff didn’t have a specific recommendation to endorse or deny approval.
The SBE approved the emergency declaration with one dissenting vote on September 2 and the ITS Board voted by a 4-1 margin on September 16 to allow MDE an exception on ITS regulations that require that any technology contract be limited to one-year terms. Instead, MDE will be able to issue three-year contracts for the items, which the agency says is required by federal conditions with the money.
MDE wants to spend $49.5 million on digital learning software for grades Kindergarten through eighth grade mathematics, second through 12th grade English language arts and other areas such as science and social studies.
The replacement of the Mississippi Student Information System data system will cost $14.65 million. The MSIS 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. Issues with interoperability with MSIS and district systems forced MDE officials to recount the number of raise-eligible teaching positions by hand.
Lawmakers appropriated $7.65 million in 2021 and $500,000 in 2019 for MSIS replacement.
A school safety platform ($14 million) is also part of the declaration that the MDE says would help with crisis management plans and response to crises. MDE officials also told the ITS board that this single-source platform would provide “enhanced capabilities to epidemic/pandemic response.” The MDE said during the ITS board meeting that the system would allow district to manage layers of cameras and other sensors at schools without offering any specifics.
The state would also spend $9.3 million on the Mississippi Education Career Continuum Archive (MECCA) system, which is part of teacher learning and licensure.
The College and Career Readiness Platform would cost $1 million, with this platform devoted to informing students on educational and career choices.
The MDE would also spend $500,000 to a vendor to test and validate both the MSIS upgrade and the MECCA system.
These federal 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. Most of these funds were issued directly to districts.