The Mississippi State Board of Education voted Thursday to allow the state’s superintendent to expedite several contracts involving $231 million in federal and state COVID-19 relief funds.
What the MDE terms “emergency procurements” for the delivery of “critical systems and supports” to school districts will last for three years and the board also granted State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright approval to ask the state’s Public Procurement Review Board for approval of waivers of state procurement laws and regulations.
The reason for the contracts lasting three years is because federal law sets deadlines for awarding contracts with the federal grants and when the money must be spent. Approval for an emergency declaration and three-year contracts (state law says commodities and repairs can only be for one-year terms) will be required from the procurement board.
The state received $2.5 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund monies in March, with most of the funds allocated to school districts. The Mississippi Department of Education set aside 9.5 percent of these funds and that is the portion that the state board addressed. Of that 9.5 percent, $225 million is federal COVID-19 relief funds and $7.6 million from state funds.
One of the projects is an upgrade/replacement of the MDE’s Mississippi Student Information System, which will cost about $13 million, with $7.6 million coming from state funds and the rest from ESSER funds.
Board member Ronnie McGehee, the former Madison County school superintendent, asked MDE officials if they intended to use federal funds for the MSIS upgrade. He was the lone no vote when the board approved the declaration.
Felicia Gavin, the chief of operations for the MDE, told McGehee that using federal funds for part of the upgrade costs was justified due to federal requirements due to COVID-19 when it came to student information.
The reason for the expedited process is the deadlines set by the U.S. Department of Education, which mandates that ESSER 2 funds (the funds are separated into three categories based on the deadlines) be awarded by January 2022 and March 2022 for ESSER 3.
Gavin told the board that other state agencies that received COVID-19 funds procured goods and services under the same emergency declaration that the board approved. She also said “competitive processes” will be used with the bidding and that the board will have to approve any contract over $50,000 despite the emergency authorization. That process, she said, will start in November.
“I think a lot of due diligence on our part has been done,” Wright said to the board. “We want to make sure we are good stewards of the money that the federal government has given us and expend those funds in an appropriate manner to help our children.”
These procurements involve technology products such as laptop computers and professional services. The funds can also be used for learning loss, after-school programs, mental health grants, school nurses and summer enrichment programs. The local districts have until September 2023 to spend the ESSER 2 and September 2024 for ESSER 3 funds.