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Montgomery parent group concerned about awarding STEM contract without competitive bidding

The Montgomery County 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 about the award process on a inaccurate document on council website.

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

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

The Montgomery County Parents Coalition, an advocacy group, raised concerns ahead of a school board vote last week that the contract for Moco KidsCo, Inc. – the company behind the Bethesda, Maryland-based KID Museum – was awarded in the form of a no-tender, no-talk contract by the school board, a lack of competition and conflict of interest.

A document previously available online said the contract was awarded to the lowest bidder to provide a science, technology, engineering and math enrichment program. However, there was no other bidders and no advertising 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 did not accurately reflect how the school system was awarded the contract.

There was no bidding process as the contract was awarded through a single-source contract as the company provides a one-stop service, said an official from the procurement office of the school system.

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, told the board. At the time, the company was in competition with others and was designated as the lowest. Over the next five years, the program stood out because other providers typically offer a general curriculum, but the KID Museum’s curriculum was individualized for county needs, Hazel said.

The contract is an extension of the program from county colleges to its elementary schools.

“I think what’s causing the problem is that it looked like we were trying to hide something. It was clearly a mistake,” Wolff said. She added that she was “not a big a fan of sole sourcing” as it could “stifle competition” and urged caution about the use of sole-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 committee of the conflict of interest. The ethics committee advised Joftus to recuse himself from decisions regarding his wife’s band, he said.

“I think there was some confusion in the audience that it didn’t happen…it didn’t,” Joftus said. He abstained from voting on the contract last week.

The Parents Coalition and others in the county have expressed concern that the board would approve the contract without discussion since it was on the agenda for consents – part of the meeting for non-controversial items that usually came together for a single vote. The school board removed the consent agenda item and discussed it for approximately 20 minutes before approving the contract with the KID Museum.

Council member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) voted against, noting before the vote his concerns about the lack of information and the “high price” of the contract.