“Certainly, this whole episode will raise some questions about whether we need to be clearer in our policy and regulations and instructions to employees,” school board member Patricia O’Neill said.
Derek Turner, a school system spokesman, said the district has no evidence of improper activity between the employees, who are retiring, and the vendor, Discovery Education. But he said the district believed that the process might be viewed as tainted, and Superintendent Jack Smith thought it was best to start over.
The two school system administrators have denied wrongdoing.
Discovery Education withdrew its bid May 18, Turner said, when company leaders realized that the administrators the company is hiring — Erick Lang, an associate superintendent, and James Fliakas, the English supervisor for grades six through 12 — were involved in the bidding process on the school system’s side.
“We wanted to be sure that parents and community members could trust the integrity of the process,” Turner said.
The school system — with more than 161,000 students, the largest in Maryland — notified employees Monday and sent parents a letter the next day. That letter mentioned the delay but not the potential conflict of interest.
Plans were underway for summer training for teachers and a rollout to roughly 80 schools in the fall. Thirty elementary schools were slated to get the math curriculum, and 30 were tapped for English. About 20 middle schools were also involved.
“The situation was unfortunate, but I think what is positive is that we will have more time to roll this out and get this right so it is effective for our students and teachers,” said school board member Jeanette Dixon, who expressed disappointment about staff actions.
“Our staff should not be applying for jobs with vendors who are seeking to get a contract at the same time,” she said.
Almost a decade ago, Montgomery created its Curriculum 2.0, reflecting rigorous Common Core standards that were intended to set a high bar for what students should learn in states throughout the nation. But teachers have long complained that the curriculum is not in sync with a variety of tests that students must take and that it lacked supporting materials that teachers need.
The district asked experts from Johns Hopkins University in August to audit the long-standing curriculum, and the school board in March embraced a recommendation to acquire a new curriculum developed by an outside firm. While there were few high-quality curriculums on the market 10 years ago, now there are many highly developed, regularly updated options with digital components and other important benefits, officials said.
Bids were due May 11. Twenty-six proposals came in — some for English, others for math — for the $4 million to $5 million project.
A team of about 50 educators and central office staff — including Fliakas — began to review material May 15, school system officials said.
Fliakas said in an email that he had worked only with English-related material, and that Discovery Education’s bid was for math. He did not say when he began discussing jobs with the company but said the job offer from Discovery came May 17, and he “immediately informed my supervisor on Friday morning, May 18, and recused myself from the curriculum review process.”
Montgomery schools officials said Lang played a significant role in developing the bid solicitation. Lang did not describe his work the same way, saying he was not involved in writing the bid solicitation or answering questions from vendors. He said he was approached about a possible job at Discovery Education in March and learned he was a candidate in late April, telling his supervisor a day later, on April 30, and mentioning the need for recusal.
When Discovery Education submitted a proposal May 11, he immediately asked to be recused, he said. He provided an internal memo from a supervisor reflecting many of those actions in April and May.
“I did this out of an abundance of caution, in order to avoid any real or perceived conflicts regardless of whether I pursued this career opportunity,” he wrote in an email. Lang said if his supervisors or the legal counsel had voiced concern, he would not have pursued the Discovery Education job.
Christopher Lloyd, president of the county teachers union, said the announcement shelving the curriculum overhaul came as a shock. Teachers have been looking forward to change, he said, even as some worried the process was being rushed.
“This is one of the biggest purchases we make that has a direct impact on kids and teachers,” he said.
Lloyd said that although he has concerns about the integrity of the process, “this is a good time to stop, reset, be thoughtful and deliberate, and develop a process that is airtight.”
Stephen Wakefield, a spokesman for Discovery Education, said in an email that the company has “the utmost respect” for the school system. He said that when Discovery Education leaders learned that the job candidates had ties to the district’s request for proposals, the company withdrew immediately from consideration, in “an abundance of caution.”
Wakefield declined to provide details about job discussions with the two men, saying the company does not comment on personnel matters.
At least one other former Montgomery County school administrator works for Discovery Education: Martin Creel, who was hired in 2015 as vice president of curriculum and instruction. The company employs former educators from throughout the country, Wakefield said, and its Montgomery County location makes it “a natural place” for educators looking to work in education technology.
The district will start the bidding process anew in the fall, officials said. Interested companies must bid again.
Board President Michael Durso said the system is hoping to do a curriculum rollout in some schools in January, for the second semester of the academic year. A letter went out to staff Friday saying the rollout would be no later than the 2019-2020 school year.
Parent reaction has been mixed, said Cynthia Simonson, a vice president for the countywide council of PTAs. Some had recently learned that their schools were being tapped for the new curriculum, only to discover Tuesday it was being postponed. “That was a little disconcerting,” she said.
Other parents asked why employees involved in procurement did not sign agreements not to solicit or accept employment with vendors for a set time period, as often happens in government agencies, she said.
But some viewed the curriculum process as too rushed. “The pause is a relief on one side,” she said.
Simonson said she thinks Smith made the right decision in urging that the bidding process be stopped. She does not think there was ill intent, she said, but hopes the school board will examine whether district policies need to be changed.