TALLAHASSEE – Holmes and Washington Counties could be among some of Florida’s most financially strapped small school districts that could have paid thousands of dollars more for textbooks than their larger counterparts, and local officials are asking state leaders to do something about it.
A whistleblower identified as “John/Jane Doe” recently sent allegations to state officials about publishers potentially violating state law by providing free or discounted instructional materials to some districts but not offering the same deals to all 67 county districts.
The state establishes a price for each item on a list of approved instructional materials available for purchase by districts.
But the whistleblower alleges that some districts received special deals that effectively reduced the per-unit cost of materials. The deals weren’t offered to all districts, according to letters sent to state officials by attorneys representing the whistleblower.
The letters include details about prices school districts paid for instructional materials, including some items that were provided free-of-charge or at a cost of a penny per unit. The free or deeply discounted items reduced the per-unit cost in what allegedly is a violation of state law, according to letters sent by Doe’s lawyers, William Spicola — a former general counsel for former Gov. Rick Scott — and Adam Komisar.
The Small School District Council Consortium (SSDCC), made up of districts in 39 rural and fiscally constrained counties, has asked Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state leaders to investigate whether some districts are receiving special benefits that aren’t available to others. School officials in some of the state’s poorest counties are also seeking retroactive reimbursements or credits for future purchases.
“If there is a special deal, it needs to be publicized, reported and given to everybody,” Chris Doolin, a lobbyist who represents the consortium and who alerted the group’s school superintendents about the issue, told The News Service of Florida in an interview.
While neither Holmes nor Washington county school districts know for certain if they are one of the counties that overpaid, they are both working with SSDCC to provide documentation to find out. Holmes County School Superintendent Buddy Brown says information requests have been coming in.
“We have been receiving requests for information from SSDCC over the last five days,” he said. “Staff is working to fulfill the requests so we can find out if we have overpaid. We cant say for certain as we are not privy to what the other districts may have paid.”
Washington County Superintendent Joe Taylor says that should there be anything to the claims, he thinks the state will back the district. “If there is any validity to the claims made by the whistleblower, I believe the state will hold the district harmless,” he said. “We will work with the state in any ay we have to in order to help the investigation.”
Under Florida law, publishers are required to furnish instructional materials to the state that “may not exceed the lowest price at which they offer such instructional materials adoption or sale to any state or school district in the United States.”
Publishers also must “reduce automatically the price of the instructional materials to any district school to the extent that reductions are made” anywhere else in the country.
The law also requires publishers to “provide any instructional materials free of charge” to the same extent they are made free elsewhere.
Spicola and Komisar in March sent two letters outlining the whistleblower’s allegations to the top lawyers for the Department of Education, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.
The lawyers, responding to requests for more information, followed up with additional details showing disparate discounts or freebies among counties.
“Some out-of-state instructional materials publishers … engage in a pattern and practice of overcharging many Florida school districts resulting in false claims for payment being made against the state,” Spicola and Komisar wrote on May 5.
For example, the letter said Franklin County was “overcharged” $10,233.04 for English Language Arts textbooks for grades one through five, when compared to the adjusted price Miami-Dade County paid for the same products in 2021 after receiving free or discounted products. Hamilton County paid $19,383.55 more for materials for kindergarten, first grade and grades three through five, according to the whistleblower documents.
While $10,000 may not seem like a lot of money in some districts, the amount represents more than 10 percent of the $89,000 total allocation Franklin County receives for instructional materials.
The overall poverty rate in the North Florida coastal county’s schools, which serve approximately 1,200 students, is about 80 percent, Franklin County Superintendent of Schools Steve Lanier told the News Service.
“We’ll take whatever we can get. I don’t think it’s fair that we would pay for something that a larger school district may get (for free),” Lanier said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen on this. I appreciate somebody being honest about the situation and letting us know. … We’re hoping that it’s going to be something positive for us.”
Hamilton County Superintendent of Schools Dorothy Wetherington-Zamora said the roughly $20,000 price differential makes up about 15 percent of her district’s $130,000 total allocation for instructional materials. The per-unit cost difference “directly impacts our students,” she said.
“So $20,000, obviously, in a small district such as we serve, could go a long way … if this actually turns out to be something that has been done,” she said.
The district “could definitely expand our purchasing power,” if reimbursements or credits are made available.
State education officials are reviewing the whistleblower’s allegations, according to Department of Education spokeswoman Cassie Palelis.
“Textbook prices are set as part of the state’s approval process for curriculum, and they are meant to provide financial surety for districts and schools. We take complaints regarding the violation of these processes very seriously. At this time, we are engaged in a deliberate, detailed and thorough process of reviewing the complaints to determine whether Florida law was either complied with or broken,” Palelis said in an email.
“If there were violations of Florida law, then those responsible will be held accountable. In the meantime, in fairness to all involved, it would be wrong to presume compliance or noncompliance with Florida law, until the matter is fully reviewed.”
The practice of publishers providing free or deeply discounted books to certain school districts isn’t new.
A 2003 report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, or OPPAGA, flagged the issue. A follow-up report two years later said the Department of Education had “taken steps to ensure that all districts receive the same free materials, but more could be done.”
The education department’s “ability to monitor compliance with this requirement is hindered because some publisher representatives are reportedly dealing directly with individual schools rather than school districts,” the 2005 report said.
Districts don’t have any way of knowing what special deals are being offered elsewhere because the deals aren’t publicly posted, Doolin said.
He wants state officials to calculate the value of benefits provided to certain districts and not to others and is seeking retroactive reimbursement of benefits or a forward credit for districts that didn’t receive equivalent prices or free materials.
Doolin also suggested that the state might need to change its purchasing process to ensure that all districts are provided equivalent benefits and prices from publishers.