Brand-new consulting firm picked for $5 million state contract to reopen RI schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A brand-new consulting firm has landed a state contract worth over $5 million to help guide Rhode Island’s back-to-school policies, despite charging millions more than a rival with a lengthier track record, a Target 12 investigation has found.

The new company — ILO Group LLC — was incorporated on March 4, two days after Gov. Dan McKee took office. Its leaders are former executives at Chiefs for Change, a prominent education nonprofit whose CEO is longtime McKee ally and adviser Mike Magee, who served on the governor’s transition team last winter.

ILO Group won the seven-figure contract after the initial bidding process unraveled, in part due to the new firm’s vastly higher estimate of how much it would cost to do the work. ILO initially put in a bid of $8.8 million, while a competing firm that has served as a state education consultant for two decades — WestEd — said it would only cost $936,000.

Documents obtained by Target 12 show the bidding process was initiated by the governor’s office on March 23. The R.I. Department of Administration convened a four-member review panel the next month to examine the bids that included an unusual choice for such a group: North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi, who is close to McKee.

Lombardi told Target 12 he was approached about serving on the review panel by Tony Afonso, who was then serving as McKee’s senior deputy chief of staff and last week replaced Tony Silva as chief of staff. Afonso is listed as the contact on contract documents, as well, and the governor’s office confirmed he reached out to Lombardi.

“Being part of the board of charter schools, the [McKee] administration reached out and asked if I would serve on the committee,” Lombardi said. “It was my pleasure.”

The review panel’s members gave ILO Group and WestEd nearly identical scores, but they declined to go with the lower bid, saying the nearly $8-million gap between the two firms’ starting bids showed the original request had been too “broad and vague.”

ILO and WestEd then submitted revised bids of $6.5 million and $3.3 million, respectively, and by late spring the state settled on awarding two one-year contracts: $5.2 million to ILO, and $926,000 to WestEd.

“The Review Team believes that no additional time should be wasted on this procurement or a rebid,” the four-member panel’s final report said.

Documents show the contracts will be funded out of two pots of federal COVID-19 money: the $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund that was mostly used up during the Raimondo administration, as well as the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.

McKee downplays Chiefs for Change connections

ILO Group’s initial bid for the education contract made no mention of Chiefs for Change even though multiple ILO staffers worked there and Magee remains its chief executive. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit is known for helping recruit and promote up-and-coming school leaders, including Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.

Julia Rafal-Baer, ILO’s managing partner, served as chief operating officer at Chiefs for Change before leaving to found ILO in March. Another partner, Cerena Parker, was Chiefs for Change’s director of operations. A third partner, Rebecca Shah, was a fellow at Chiefs for Change, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Magee has been closely linked with McKee for over a decade, first working with him on education issues when McKee was Cumberland mayor and then leading Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, a network of charter schools whose board is chaired by a municipal leader. He took over Chiefs for Change in 2015.

Magee is also one of McKee’s top political donors, contributing $5,650 to his campaigns since 2008. His brother, Marc Porter Magee, leads a group called 50CAN whose political action committee spent six-figure sums supporting McKee’s campaigns for lieutenant governor in 2014 and 2018.

McKee told Target 12 he wasn’t concerned about the ILO team’s connections to Magee’s organization.

“We’ve supported people who get the work done that I just talked about,” McKee said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “So it didn’t matter who referred or who may have had a relationship. … I just want good people who can figure out how to help the state of Rhode Island and education, and that’s what we got.”

Magee said Chiefs for Change isn’t working with ILO on the contract.

“As a member of the governor’s transition team I shared my thoughts with the governor regarding what it would take to have safe in-person learning for all Rhode Island students and to accelerate learning for students most affected by the pandemic,” Magee said in an email, adding that he has shared those thoughts with many others.

ILO’s Parker also distanced the two organizations.

“Chiefs for Change has no role, in any way, with our work on this state contract,” she said in an email. “No ILO Group members are employed by Chiefs for Change.”

She also said, “While ILO Group’s incorporation papers were formally filed with the secretary of state’s office in March, the company had been in development for over a year. This is ILO Group’s first contract with the state of Rhode Island, and we have contracts in other parts of the country to support reopening efforts centered around health and learning disruption.”

The review team’s final report noted that while ILO’s staffers “have significant experience, on paper, as a group it appears this team has been only together for a short time and recently incorporated.” But it went on to say they “addressed this concern and stated that the team has worked together for the past decade, albeit with other entities.”

Goal is more K-12 offices modeled on Cumberland

An itemized breakdown of ILO Group’s planned expenses under the contract shows the largest part of its work — roughly $2.5 million — will involve an effort to emulate the municipal education office that McKee and Magee created when they were in Cumberland.

The state’s original request for bids says the McKee administration is looking to set up “municipal learning programs … including municipal programs not directly administered by LEAs [local education agencies] and/or traditional school committees.” The goal would be “to address lost learning and catch up and long-term learning programs.”

In its initial bid, ILO staffers wrote: “The Cumberland Office of Children Youth and Learning (OCYL), a municipal office created during Governor McKee’s tenure as mayor of Cumberland, is a powerful example of how municipal (i.e., non-LEA) resources can support early childhood education and youth civic engagement while fostering a deep sense of belonging among young people that research shows is critical to their long-term success.”

Cumberland is currently the only community in Rhode Island with such an education office outside the school system, but McKee expressed enthusiasm Tuesday about expanding the concept. That includes opening five such municipal education offices for the state-run Providence school district run out of the governor’s office, he said.

“It’s going to take a great deal of skill and effort to do that — you just don’t wave a wand and have that happen,” McKee said.

ILO Group and WestEd “are both positioned in a way that they’re going to help the reopening of schools and also some long-term strategies that I believe could be very successful in terms of in particular Providence,” he said.

The governor emphasized that a significant part of the work required under the contract is related to the safe reopening of schools amid the COVID-19 surge this fall.

“I was down in Westerly the other day and we set up the ILO Group with the Westerly School Committee,” he said. “So I invite any school committee out there that is working their way through safety issues or any reopening strategy in the state, they’re available there.”

‘Significant disparity’ between top-qualified bidders

The initial bidding process for the consulting contract began about three weeks after McKee was inaugurated and ILO was incorporated. The Department of Administration issued a six-page request for proposals (RFP) seeking bids for assistance with both COVID-related reopening issues and more general education policy planning.

Responses were due April 13, and five consulting firms submitted bids: Direct Safety Solutions, Empower Schools Inc., ILO Group, MGT of America Consulting LLC, and WestEd.

The four-member review team began reviewing the bids days later. Along with Mayor Lombardi, the other members of the panel were Kristen Danusis, director of the Department of Education’s Education Operations Center; Tom McCarthy, executive director of COVID-19 response at the Department of Health; and Daniel Majcher, a lawyer who is the Department of Administration’s assistant director of special projects.

Asked about Lombardi’s role, Department of Administration spokesperson Derek Gomes acknowledged that “it is not common for elected officials to serve in this capacity.” But he said the mayor was selected “to provide insights from a municipal perspective” in light of his position as president of the board at the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns.

A technical evaluation gave top marks to ILO and WestEd; out of 70 possible points, ILO earned 63 and WestEd earned 62. MGT scored 51, with Direct Safety Solutions scoring 16 and Empower Schools scoring nine. Only the first three moved on to the next round.

The reviewers noted that ILO was proposing to spend 35,700 hours on the contract, compared with just 4,000 for WestEd. They blamed that on state officials who wrote the initial document, saying “the broad and vague nature of the RFP created a fundamental misunderstanding among the vendors.”

Even after the consulting firms were asked to provide revised bids, there remained “a significant disparity.”

“WestEd’s fully blended rate is more than 50% lower than the other two vendors and is lower than originally submitted,” the review team’s final report stated. “Such a significant difference is troubling for two reasons: 1) it is unclear whether WestEd understands the requirements; and 2) such a lower rate may mean that lower level staff would be completing the work.”

At that point, the review panel opted to abandon the bidding process and instead recommended that contracts be awarded to both ILO and WestEd under the state’s so-called “Master Price Agreement,” which allows state officials to award contracts to pre-approved vendors.

WestEd received a $926,000 contract to advise the state on reopening colleges and universities, while ILO Group got a contract of $5.2 million to help manage the reopening of K-12 public schools and advise on broader policy questions.

Lombardi said he didn’t recall a COVID component to the review of ILO, but said, “I just liked when talking to them — they did some work here. They knew more about educational background and systems.” He said he hasn’t checked in to see what they’re doing in North Providence.

Asked to describe the work ILO is doing, Parker cited “project management and coordination and design services to assist in the safe and successful reopening of Rhode Island schools for in-person learning,” as well as recommendations on how to use federal funds and assisting state and local leaders “by creating a flexible tool based on existing data sources to track, analyze, and report.”

McKee expressed some frustration Tuesday about how the bidding process had played out, saying it had caused the consultants to come on board “a little late.”

“We had to go through a lot of procedure — it’s quite a protocol in terms of actually going through that process, one that I believe that needs to be streamlined quite a bit,” he said. “I’m pleased they’ve been on board for the past month or so.”

In its response to the original bid, WestEd said it “brings an understanding of Rhode Island’s education context stemming from more than 20 years of supporting RI education leaders and stakeholders,” noting they take on about 636 new consulting contracts per year nationwide.

Pamela Polk, a WestEd spokesperson, told Target 12 the company was “enthusiastic about this opportunity now underway to serve Rhode Island students and educators,” but declined to comment on how the bidding process played out during the spring.

“We don’t have further perspective about the state’s RFP process, or other organizations that responded to the RFP,” Polk said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White (twhite@wpri.com) is the Target 12 managing editor and chief investigative reporter at 12 News, and the host of Newsmakers. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook