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NH Department of Education withdraws request; others to get shot at consultant job

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 23. 2013 9:29PM

CONCORD - The Department of Education has withdrawn a request for Executive Council approval of a $117,000 consultant contract with a retired superintendent who recently resigned from a salaried position in the department.

The proposed contract with former Somersworth Superintendent Karen Soule was tabled by councilors in a 4-1 vote at their July 10 meeting after councilors Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, and Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, questioned the high price-tag for a 30-hour position.

Councilor Ray Burton, R-Bath, voted in support of the contract, while councilors Chris Pappas, D-Manchester, and Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua, joined Van Ostern and Sununu in voting to table the request, pending more information from Education Commissioner Virginia Barry.

They were also concerned that the request for proposals was issued in April, when Soule resigned from her staff position, and that she was the only bidder.

Soule earned $109,759 a year as Somersworth superintendent, retired in late 2010, and went to work for the next two years in the Department of Education credentialing office for $77,755 a year, according to information on the state's "Transparent NH" website.

"So here's someone who worked in your department for two years, then quits and gets hired in your department for $117,000, and there was no one else who even applied for the job?" Sununu said at the July 10 meeting. "There's something fishy here, and if not, then I'm concerned you guys are not doing a good job at getting these opportunities out to the general public before handing them to your own staff."

Soule is also collecting an annual retirement benefit of $63,351, according to information provided by the state retirement system. Retired employees in the system can work up to 32 hours a week while collecting a pension.

The commissioner was at a statewide education conference in Keene and unavailable for comment, but Education Department spokesperson Lori Temple confirmed that Barry will be reissuing a request for proposals in the hope of attracting more applicants.

Barry said at the July 10 meeting that the consultant position was necessary to comply with requirements the state faces now that it has a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law. The waiver, announced on July 5, requires the state to create an accountability program for teachers that links their evaluations to student achievement, particularly in the lowest-performing schools in the state.

Those schools have to receive technical assistance from the Department of Education to develop teacher and administrator evaluation plans, said Temple.

Van Ostern said he learned on Tuesday morning from Barry that she was going to withdraw the contract request.

"I told her that I thought it was appropriate to withdraw the contract," Van Ostern said. "I thought the process seemed a little fast and loose, given the high dollar value, but that it's a very important role, and I'm glad to hear she's committed to coming up with an alternative."

Sununu said Barry had been providing the additional information requested by councilors, and he had not heard on Tuesday that the request was being pulled.

"It's a positive move," he said, "in that it appears they are rethinking how they go about filling this position and possibly others in their department."

No one questioned Soule's credentials or the need for the work - only the process by which the contract was awarded and its cost.

Gov. Maggie Hassan reminded councilors at the July 10 meeting that the federal mandates associated with the No Child Left Behind waiver will have to be met, but on Tuesday she welcomed Barry's decision to start from scratch.

"The governor believes it is critical to have a fair, transparent and competitive bidding process," said Hassan's spokesperson, Marc Goldberg. "She supports the department's decision to withdraw the item and to pursue filling the important educator effectiveness role in a way that has the full confidence of the Executive Council and the people of New Hampshire."

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