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Officials Restore OPI’s Contracting Authority

Montana’s Department of Administration last week partially restored the Office of Public Instruction’s authority to independently award contracts for third-party goods and services, stating that the agency has made “significant progress” in correcting deficiencies identified earlier this year.

The restoration of procurement authority at OPI, which oversees Montana’s K-12 public education system, came on the heels of a second compliance review conducted last month. OPI initially lost its authority to enter into contracts valued above $10,000 in March after failing an initial review of its contracting procedures with a score of 57 percent. In its July follow-up, DOA gave the agency a new score of 83 percent.

“Based on these improvements, the Department of Administration is restoring partial delegated authority and authorizes the Office of Public Instruction to procure goods and services with a total contract value of up to $100,000,” Cheryl Grey, division administrator at DOA, wrote in a July 26 memo to state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.

The second review identified three areas where OPI’s contracting procedures still require improvement, including providing proof of insurance or security in its contract files and maintaining full documentation of solesource contracts awarded to a vendor without a competitive bidding process. Grey’s memo stated that DOA will continue to complete contracts above $100,000 on OPI’s behalf and will conduct another review in December. If the agency sustains its compliance through then, Grey added, OPI’s full procurement authority may be restored.

In a statement to Montana Free Press, OPI spokesperson Anna Hoerner wrote that the agency has had 11 meetings with DOA’s State Procurement Bureau since May 4, including biweekly status updates and staff accounting and contract training. She said the agency has made internal improvements “above those required” by DOA, such as internal audit reviews, contract checklists and staff training schedules.

“OPI will continue to ensure compliance with state contract management requirements and is on target to have tier 2 delegation authority restored when SPB completes their final review, targeted to be completed January 2024,” Hoerner wrote. Tier 2 authority, she clarified, would enable OPI to independently award contracts up to $200,000.

OPI’s third-party contracting procedures have attracted the attention of state officials in recent years as the agency embarks on a string of major projects funded with federal COVID-19 relief dollars. One of those projects — a $13.5 million overhaul of OPI’s public school data systems — became a point of acute concern this spring for Montana lawmakers, who feared the agency might not secure all its contracts before a bulk of the funding expires in September. Legislators passed House Bill 367, which expands the DOA’s oversight of OPI’s spending on database modernization, with the stated goal of fast-tracking that work. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill in May.

According to DOA spokesperson Megan Grotzke, the department and OPI finalized the database modernization contract with California-based company PowerSchool on June 29. The contract runs for three years at an initial total cost of $8.2 million, with an optional two-year extension.

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