PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — One day after Gov. Dan McKee said he set up a highly paid consulting firm with the Westerly School Committee to help reopen schools amid the ongoing pandemic, the committee’s chairperson reached out to Target 12 saying the company isn’t working with them “at all.”
In an email to Target 12, Westerly School Committee Chairperson Diane Chiaradio Bowdy said she met the governor at a social event last week, and McKee subsequently had the consulting firm — ILO Group LLC — reach out for a “brief discussion” on Tuesday, the district’s first scheduled day of school.
McKee had highlighted the Westerly connection to reporters Tuesday as an example of what ILO has been doing since it landed a $5 million state contract to help guide Rhode Island’s back-to-school policies.
“We have the capacity to help any school district in the state for the full year in terms of providing additional assistance,” McKee said about the consultant.
“I was down in Westerly the other day and we set up the ILO group with the Westerly School Committee,” he added. “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.”
After hearing the governor’s comments — which were included in a Target 12 investigation into how the consulting firm landed the contract following an unusual procurement process — Bowdy reached out “to ensure clarity on the topic.”
“ILO is not doing any work in Westerly. At all,” she wrote in the email. “I’m still unclear on exactly how this company can support RI school districts and entered into no agreements.”
When asked about Bowdy’s email Wednesday, McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff sought to clarify the governor’s comments.
“As he mentioned, we made a connection between ILO and Westerly and from my understanding there was an initial call with Diane yesterday,” Sheaff said in an email. “From what I’ve gathered, they talked through key elements of Westerly’s plan, mitigation strategies and answered some of her concerns. Next steps were she was going to talk with her superintendent and follow up if there was any additional needs.”
Bowdy is far from the only Rhode Island school district leader who’s confused about what services ILO is meant to be providing.
During an interview Wednesday on 12 News at 4, Rhode Island Association of School Committees executive director Tim Duffy said he surveyed all school superintendents and school chairs following Target 12’s report, and while not everyone had gotten back to him, the responses suggested almost no one knew about ILO.
“So far, there’s only one district that’s asked the ILO Group to review their school reopening plans, and that was Little Compton,” Duffy said. “The rest of the responses have been that they haven’t been contacted and are not even aware of the services the consulting firm offers.”
Duffy added that most of the reopening efforts this year have been guided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with officials from the R.I. Department of Health and R.I. Department of Education. He also noted the timing of the ILO news coming out, pointing out that school reopening now has already happened in most of Rhode Island.
“With the exception of Providence, all schools are now fully reopened,” he said.
Duffy’s comments contrasted with ILO’s Tuesday, when partner Cerena Parker cited helping schools reopen as one of the consulting firm’s biggest accomplishments so far.
ILO is “helping to coordinate between the Rhode Island Department of Education, the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Governor’s Office and our state’s 66 public Local Education Agencies to support reopening plans to ensure a safe return to in-person learning this fall and providing additional capacity and expertise that can support our students, families, and educators to mitigate learning disruption,” she said.
Beyond the local school districts, news about ILO and how it won a seven-figure contract within months of incorporating has raised eyebrows at the State House.
Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is challenging McKee for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, issued a statement criticizing the process, though her campaign had to correct an error in its initial news release.
“Creating companies in the middle of the night to win contracts for services that might already be provided by public sector employees is wrong,” Gorbea said in a statement, adding, “Plain and simple, this is cronyism and the people of Rhode Island deserve better.”
House Oversight Committee Chair Patricia Serpa has long criticized big consulting contracts, arguing they often cost too much and underdeliver.
The West Warwick Democrat told Target 12 she was “concerned and annoyed” when she heard about the ILO contract, adding that she’s talking with House leadership about whether the oversight committee should meet to take a closer look.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Serpa said, while noting that she supports spending money on the schools, especially if it means improved safety for students and teachers.
But she wondered why so much would be spent on a consultant when much of the work is seemingly already being done by the state and local school districts.
“As we continue to delve into contracts, this will certainly be one that I’ll bring forward for a fuller explanation about timing, who signed it, when the company incorporated and how it came to be,” she said. “I hope something really meaningful and helpful and new comes out of this. But I have some doubts.”
Senate Oversight Committee Chair Louis DiPalma likewise said he’s taking steps toward holding a hearing in his chamber.
“Upon initial review of the RFP, Proposals and Proposal Evaluation, I believe a Senate Oversight hearing is warranted,” DiPalma said. “I plan to discuss this request with the Senate leadership in the coming days and determine the way forward. It is paramount all have faith in a fair, efficient and effective procurement process.”
Spokespersons for House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday regarding the contract.
ILO incorporated two days after McKee was sworn into office on March 2. Within months, the firm landed the $5 million contract following an initial bidding process that unraveled, in part due to the ILO’s vastly higher estimate of how much it would cost to do the work compared with a longer-established rival.
McKee has nonetheless defended the contract, making it clear he wants to have a team of consultants that he can trust — and that’s what ILO provides.
“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,” he said Tuesday.
The group is led by former executives of the nonprofit Chiefs for Change, whose CEO Mike Magee is a longtime ally of the governor. McKee and Magee have worked together on education policy for more than a decade.
Chiefs for Change and ILO have both said they are not currently working together on the state contract. However, another part of ILO’s stated work is to emulate an initiative known as municipal learning programs first created in 2007 by McKee and Magee in Cumberland.
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.
The prospect of creating more municipal learning programs caught the attention of Duffy, who said that while he welcomes the assistance of any municipal government to educate children, he’s unclear what value the programs would offer beyond what’s already provided by school departments and committees.
“I’m not sure exactly what the municipal agencies are going to do,” he said, adding that what’s being proposed is “somewhat redundant.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.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, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram
Kim Kalunian and Brian Yocono contributed to this report.