Broward schools investigate board members’ relationship with a vendor

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | September 27, 2022

The state has ordered Broward schools to investigate an allegation that some School Board members and administrators may have improper ties to a former employee who now works for a major vendor.

The complaint has prompted the school district to hire an outside audit firm, and according to multiple sources, search the cellphones and emails of board members and administrators.

The Florida Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General received an anonymous complaint June 13 related to Jillian Haring, a senior adviser for the Boston-based Public Consulting Group, or PCG.

The company has received at least $25 million in district contracts in recent years for services such as tutoring, staff training, implementing software, assisting with behavioral threat assessments and locating students who have left the district, district records show.

Haring joined PCG last year after two years as a strategic analyst with the Broward Teachers Union.

Prior to that, she had multiple jobs with Broward schools, including a controversial stint conducting employee investigations for the Special Investigative Unit, Broward Schools’ police department.

“On several occasions, Jill has utilized her former relationships with Broward County School Board members to pressure district administrators into contracts with Public Consulting Group,” states the anonymous complaint. “This includes contracts which violated procurement law including a multimillion-dollar contract and amendment currently.”

The complaint suggests the inspector general “start with phone logs and text messages between her and board members as well as the superintendent.”

The South Florida Sun Sentinel obtained the one-paragraph complaint, as well as a letter to the school district from the inspector general, through a public records request to the Department of Education.

Neither Haring nor a spokesperson for PCG could be reached Monday. But Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco, who is Haring’s friend and former boss, said Haring did nothing wrong.

“If there was any wrongdoing, it was on the district’s side as always,” Fusco said in a text to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “You know this is all BS. Leave Jillian alone. She’s always been above approach and works with complete integrity.”

Complaints that come to the education department’s inspector general must be forwarded to the school district for review, according to state law. The inspector general will investigate if the school district is “unwilling or unable to address substantiated allegations,” according to state statute.

Chief Auditor Joris Jabouin has hired the Alabama accounting firm Carr, Riggs & Ingram to review PCG contracts, district spokesman John Sullivan said. He would not elaborate on the scope.

Jabouin also has asked some School Board and staff members to temporarily hand over their work cellphones to check for possible communications with Haring, and the district is also reviewing their emails, according to three sources within the district.

The state has given the district until Oct. 31 to respond, said Cassie Palelis, press secretary for the Department of Education.

PCG has had numerous contracts with the district over the years for a variety of academic and training services. Most initial contracts were approved before Haring started with PCG, although the School Board has approved some amendments and spending increases since she joined.

PCG’s partnership with Broward Schools and the Broward Teachers Union to help locate missing students has stood out in receiving scrutiny.

As part of an $8.2 million contract renewal for software and academic services, the district hired PCG to oversee a high-profile effort in September 2021 to make phone calls and go door-knocking to find students who had failed to return to schools during the pandemic.

The initiative, partially funded with a grant from the American Federation of Teachers, allowed Broward teachers and staff members to be paid to work on the project during a weekend.

The effort was considered a success, helping to return more than 1,100 students to the district, so officials wanted to revive the project in 2022, officials said. But that effort got stalled, at least partly due to concerns raised about PCG.

The district wanted to give a new contract to PCG this year without competitive bidding. A June 20 legal document published on a bidding site said the services “are thought to be only available from a single source.”

But a PCG competitor, AllHere Education, responded that it could do the same work. Then on June 29, Cartwright and then-School Board Chairwoman Laurie Rich Levinson got a letter from the state asking the district to investigate possible ties district officials have to Haring. A spokesperson for AllHere couldn’t be reached.

On July 8, the district put the request to find missing kids out for competitive bids, and AllHere submitted a proposal, but PCG didn’t for reasons that are unclear. The district was unable to negotiate an agreeable contract with AllHere, according to bidding documents.

One of PCG’s strongest critics was Levinson, who has since been suspended from the board by Gov. Ron DeSantis related to a grand jury report released last month.

Levinson frequently complained at board meetings about PCG’s growing presence in the district. She said district staff were bringing contracts and requests for funding increases at the last minute. She questioned why the company was being used to find missing students, saying she’d been previously assured that district employees were doing that job.

“I don’t see a bid that took place. I see again giving it to the same company,” she said at an August 2021 meeting. “This is a company that seems to do everything.”

Others in the district have been more supportive of PCG. About seven months ago, Haring posted a photo on LinkedIn with Cartwright, then board member Donna Korn and other district officials. They had led a panel discussion on their efforts to re-engage students during a Council of Great City Schools conference.

“Had a wonderful time presenting … with Broward Leadership on the collaborative work we did together this past Fall,” Haring posted.

About a month ago, Haring posted a photo on LinkedIn of herself and district administrator Ernie Lozano, saying they had presented on a behavioral threat assessment initiative at a safe schools conference.

Cartwright reposted it, adding, “Broward County Public Schools has had a great relationship with Public Consulting Group as we transitioned from paper to online Behavior Threat Assessments.”

Haring’s tenure as a district employee was marked by some high-profile controversies.

She was a longtime behavior support teacher who used her skills in social media to help identify a threat at Cypress Bay High in Weston in 2014. The next year, then-Superintendent Robert Runcie reassigned her to a job in the school police department helping out with employee investigations, a move that proved contentious.

She faced complaints that her investigations and her access to employee emails and information were too broad. Three high-level officials in the police department resigned or asked for demotions during her tenure. After School Board member Nora Rupert and then board member Robin Bartleman criticized her at a public meeting, Haring filed bullying complaints.

In 2016, the Broward Beat blog questioned why she had “unprecedented access” to Runcie. The blog post included an email she wrote to Runcie in July 2016 complaining about the line of questions by a Sun Sentinel reporter.

“I am hoping you were able to call the Sun Sentinel President as we discussed to alert him of this reporter’s obvious agenda and baseless attack on me,” Haring emailed to Runcie, the blog reported.

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