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Montgomery school leaders defend contract given to board member’s spouse

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/13/2022 Nicole Asbury

Montgomery County’s schools superintendent defended the system’s decision to award a STEM learning contract to a company owned by a school board member’s spouse and blamed concerns over the award process on an inaccurate document on the board’s website.

During a school system update to the county council Monday, Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the $2.37 million contract for KID Museum has worked for students and the school system wants to keep it.

“We’ve had so much disruption in so many different ways,” McKnight said. “We want to be able to continue services with our students that we found to be successful, and the KID Museum is one.”

The Parents’ Coalition of Montgomery County, an advocacy group, raised concerns before a school board vote last week that the contract for MoCo KidsCo Inc. — the corporation behind the KID Museum based in Bethesda, Md. — was being awarded as a no-bid contract, with no discussion by the school board, a lack of competition and a conflict of interest.

A document previously available online said the contract was being awarded to the lowest bidder to provide a science, technology, engineering and math enrichment program. However, there were no other bidders and no advertisements to attract other companies to make the process competitive.

At the school board meeting last week, President Brenda Wolff acknowledged that the initial document uploaded online was not a correct reflection of how the school system procured the contract.

There was no bidding process since the contract was awarded through a single-source contract, because the company provides a unique service, said an official from the school system’s procurement office.

The school district began working with the KID Museum in 2017 to provide STEM enrichment programs, Niki Hazel, associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional programs explained to the board. At the time, the company competed with others and was designated as the lowest bidder. Over the next five years, the program stood out, because other vendors usually provide a general program, but the KID Museum’s program was individualized for the county’s needs, Hazel said.

The contract is an expansion of the program from the county’s middle schools to its elementary schools.

“I think what is causing the issue is that it appeared as if we were trying to hide something. It’s clearly a mistake,” Wolff said. She added that she was “not a big fan of single sourcing” because it could “stifle competition,” and urged caution about the use of single-source contracts in the future.

School board member Scott Joftus (District 3) whose wife, Cara Lesser, is the founder and executive director of the KID Museum, said that when he was appointed to the board in December, he notified the ethics review panel of the conflict of interest. The ethics panel advised Joftus to recuse himself from decisions surrounding his wife’s group, he said.

“I think there was some confusion in the public that that has not happened. ... That’s not the case,” Joftus said. He abstained from voting on the contract last week.

In an interview Tuesday, Joftus added the relationship between the KID Museum and the school system has existed for about a decade.

“Over the last 10 years, KID Museum has developed into becoming a national leader in delivering hands-on, exploration-based learning in the areas of STEM that have shown to engage kids and improve their interests and abilities in science, engineering and technology,” Joftus said.

Lesser, the executive director, said Tuesday that since the original bidding process in 2017 the intention has been to expand the program to all elementary and middle schools, but “covid threw a loop in the plan.” She said working with the local school system has always been a priority, and that she and others at the KID Museum were excited to expand.

“We are focused on doing that work and continuing to build incredibly high-quality learning experiences that speak to kids’ creativity, empathy and their agency,” Lesser said.

The Parents’ Coalition and others in the county raised concerns that the board would approve the contract without discussion since it was on the consent agenda — a part of the meeting for noncontroversial items that usually grouped together for a single vote. The school board pulled the item from the consent agenda and discussed it for about 20 minutes before approving the contract with KID Museum.

One board member, Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2), voted against it, noting before the vote her concerns over not having enough information and the contract’s “hefty price tag.”

This story was updated with comments from Montgomery County school board member Scott Joftus (District 3) and Cara Lesser, the founder and executive director of the KID Museum.

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