Education Department fires math, science coordinators over training contract


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ST. CROIX - A status conference has been scheduled for next week in a civil suit in District Court that has evolved out of an ongoing dispute about procedures in executing a contract between the Education Department and an off-island training company.

Porter-Campbell Associates filed suit in federal court against the V.I. government, and specifically the V.I. Education Department, claiming breach of contract.

One result of the legal dispute is that two long-time Education Department employees - Science coordinator Rosa White and Math coordinator Juanita Boneque - were disciplined with suspensions and ultimately fired.

At the heart of the three-year disciplinary process, which has entailed arbitration and court hearings, are allegations that White and Boneque subverted the department's procurement process for personal gain.

White could not be reached, and Boneque refused to comment on the issue.

The dismissal of White and Boneque raises questions about the future of events like the annual MathCounts competition and STEM Fair.

Procuring training services

According to court documents, White and Boneque, acting on behalf of the Education Department, initiated a bid-selection process in March 2011 to use $20,000 in federal funds to secure a third-party provider for training services, and Porter-Campbell Associates was selected to conduct a professional development training workshop for 62 teachers and administrators in the St. Croix District.

Porter-Campbell Associates officials said after receiving notice from the department that it was the successful bidder, the company's president, Alma Porter-Campbell, conducted the training workshop "Connecting Science and Mathematics through Reading" from May 31-June 8, 2011, at the St. Croix Curriculum Center.

According to court documents, during the entire course of proceedings leading up to the presentation of the workshop, Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the Education Department Cheryl Willocks was the government's designated representative responsible for ensuring that the training was implemented and conducted by the selected third-party provider as scheduled.

In its complaint, the training company said most of its communication was with White and Boneque, and the training was approved verbally by Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry.

Agreement cancelled

Following the training workshop, the paperwork for the services agreement began arriving at the commissioner's office, sent by the department's legal counsel, which needed signatures to finalize the verbal agreement.

Weeks after Porter-Campbell conducted the workshop, the Education Department cancelled the agreement with the training company, saying that proper procedure for short-term contracts was not followed.

In its complaint, Porter-Campbell Associates contends that the Education Department knowingly and intentionally violated the terms and conditions of the parties' agreement by failing to pay them for services rendered following successful completion of the training workshop in June 2011.

The complaint

Porter-Campbell Associates said it had made good faith efforts to communicate with Education officials because it had no direct or indirect involvement with the procurement process and had a reasonable expectation to be compensated for the value of services rendered.

"Notwithstanding, plaintiff made good-faith attempts to amicably resolve the matter, but to no avail, as defendants steadfastly refused to satisfy the debt owed and made no attempt to contact and/or communicate with plaintiff to amicably resolve the matter," the complaint states.

The company has accused the Education Department of breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith and fair dealing, saying that they have suffered, and will continue to suffer loss of revenue which continues to accrue interest daily.

They are seeking relief through the court, including but not limited to, payment of the debt owed for breach of contract, breach of the duty of good faith and fair dealing, liquidated damages, consequential damages, reimbursement of costs and attorney's fees incurred and for such other and further relief as the court would see to be just and proper.

White and Boneque

During the three years since the initial issues, the department attempted to discipline White and Boneque, saying they had violated the department's procedures of awarding contracts by not getting three quotes and allowing for the selection of the lowest bidder.

Boneque, a 29-year employee of the department, has been the Math Coordinator for the last 15 years and had been responsible for coordinating the annual MathCounts and the STEM fair.

White has worked for the department for 33 years and has been the coordinator for 28 years and is also the president of the St. Croix Education Administrators Association.

Suspended

In November 2011, St. Croix School Superintendent Gary Molloy suspended White and Boneque for 10 days without pay on grounds of insubordination and unprofessional conduct.

He said the two coordinators were not asked to repay any funds, but disciplinary actions were needed because they intentionally or negligently bypassed the established procurement process and used their public positions for personal gain.

Following their suspensions, White and Boneque filed grievances, which ultimately led to arbitration before the Public Employee Relations Board.

Arbitration

During two arbitration hearings conducted in May 2013 and November 2013 by the Public Employee Relations Board, attorney Lorin Kleeger, the arbitrator, said the two women testified that they had never dealt with contracts before and were not sure of the process.

Willocks testified that White and Boneque never asked for help and that they were not diligent in their efforts to secure the three quotes to find a suitable trainer.

Willocks also testified that she thought the training was being funded with a per diem grant and that White and Boneque were conducting the training. She said that she was never notified that Porter-Campbell Associates was selected as a vendor and that they were being paid $20,000 - the exact amount of the federal grant.

Housing fee

Kleeger said White and Boneque also made arrangements for Porter-Campbell to come to the territory to conduct the training.

He said because White had been familiar with Porter-Cambell from previous training workshops, White did not secure a hotel room for her and allowed her to stay at an apartment White and her husband owned at a rate of $250 per day, during the 10-day period, without informing Willocks or Molloy.

"No one ever directed the grievants to hire a vendor before a justification letter was signed or to arrange for service to be performed before a contract was signed," Kleeger's arbitration decision states.

Termination

When contacted by The Daily News about the errors and the failure to follow procedures in place for similar programs the department runs, Molloy said the proper procedures were not followed because no contract was in place before the training workshop, and a contract could not be executed after the fact.

He said federal funding could not be used for the training, and no local funds were available to pay for it.

Following the second arbitration hearing in November, Kleeger reviewed the facts presented and the arguments raised and denied the grievances White and Boneque had filed.

Their 10-day suspensions without pay were upheld.

Subsequent to the arbitrator's decision hearing, Molloy recommended the women be fired, which took effect March 7, with an official notice of termination.

Moving forward

Education spokeswoman Ananta Pancham on Thursday confirmed the termination of the two long-time educators but said the department has been proactive to ensure that the programs that they coordinated have not and will not be affected by their absence.

The annual MathCounts competition, STEM Fair and other programs have been taken over by Willocks, she said.

"It has taken some extra work by other members of our team, but the most important thing is that there is no interruption to the programs as a result of these incidents," Pancham said.

One of the most popular programs to be affected, the Math and Science Summer Academy, is coming up this summer, but the department does not anticipate any disruption, according to Pancham.

"I certainly can not make any promises or be 100 percent sure on anything, but it is not anticipated that there will be any problems with this or any other program," she said. "Right now, we are just awaiting approval of the federal funding to pay the staff, but the general fund money for the student stipends are already in place."

- Contact reporter Fiona Stokes at 714-9149 or email fstokes@dailynews.vi.

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