NewsChannel 5 Investigates: Friends in High Places
Controversial Contract Revived by New Administration
(Story created: 5/5/05)
It was a big state contract with a friend of Tennessee's last governor. Now, a NewsChannel 5 investigation has uncovered questions about what happened to that contract under the current governor.
The contract had been put on hold by a criminal investigation of insider contracts.
In fact, after federal agents raided the company that provides Internet service to Tennessee schools in the closing days of the Sundquist administration, state education officials might have seen trouble coming.
But as a new administration came into office, what they saw instead was money waiting to be spent.
"We were able to take a million dollars and put it with the other dollars we were spending to advance technology in this state," says deputy education commissioner Keith Brewer.
The money -- a million-dollar grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission -- was supposed to provide 111 schools in the most remote parts of the state with Internet connections faster than even many companies have -- in technical terms, twin T1 lines.
The plan: to provide full-screen, TV-like videos to help teachers learn new and better ways to teach kids to read.
Specifically, the federal grant called for, as Brewer reads, "full frame streaming video and audio."
That grant and contract had been put on hold in the closing days of the Sundquist administration.
Then, under the Bredesen administration in 2003, the deputy education commissioner signed a five-year contract with Education Networks of America that took the $1 million grant and added $1.5 million of state money.
That created a $2.5 million state contract to increase the services already provided by ENA.
With a 70 percent match in federal school-Internet (or e-rate) funds, it created an $8 million project.
But, now with the project in its third year, there's a catch.
"No, there is no full-frame streaming video," says Education Department spokesperson Kim Karesh.
The department now admits that what developers of the teacher training produced were tiny video clips -- the same size that every Internet user sees virtually everywhere on the web.
"They wanted to make this accessible no matter where the teacher was," Karesh explains.
Even with the smaller video clips, our investigation discovered that, out of the original 111 schools, only five have received the training. And right now the bills are approaching $5 million.
"Five million dollars have been spent, and 5 schools have received the training that was promised," Williams says. "That's not very good math."
"I would say, I would agree with you," Brewer responds.
And get this: every teacher gets these discs when they sign up for the training program, which contain the exact same video clips.
"You could duplicate these discs for every single teacher in this state for about a hundred thousand dollars," Williams tells Brewer.
The deputy commissioner responds, "The dollars that we've spent has created an infrastructure, which allows us to do more things with technology in this state than's ever been done before."
Brewer says schools are already using the high-speed Internet for new and innovative programs -- with plans for more innovations in the future.
But he admits the project isn't living up to the exactly what was promised.
"I agree. That's what we said in the grant. That's what we are going to do. If it's something that we've dropped the ball on here, then we'll correct that to where this video streaming will be full frame."
Education Department officials now say they expect to fix the problem and have full-frame video on line within a couple of weeks.
Still, the state's own computer experts had refused to sign off on the project because they weren't convinced it was needed at all.
This contract is at the center of the upcoming case against Sundquist friend Al Ganier.
Prosecutors have claimed in a confidential memo that this whole contract was always motivated more by politics, than by any real need.