A Brigham Young University math professor angry that a University of Utah team won a $600,000 state textbook contract accused state education officials of conflict of interest, bias and anti-competitive practices during a legislative hearing Wednesday.
Several investigations and the audit before the Government Operations Interim Committee on Wednesday concluded that Wright’s allegations were groundless. The Legislature’s Audit Subcommittee had looked at the audit last month.
Wright insisted, however, that serious flaws in how the contract was awarded show the need to strengthen Utah’s conflict-of-interest laws for state purchasing.
He also urged lawmakers to investigate the Utah State Office of Education, which he said improperly overlooked plagiarism by the U. team, and he called out two officials by name.
“I commend the Legislature for cleaning up the problems in the attorney general’s office. I encourage you to clean up the problems in education,” said Wright, who said he was not speaking for the Provo-based university.
Brenda Hales, deputy superintendent of public instruction, responded saying, “The folks in my office he is denigrating are outstanding individuals. There were no shenanigans.”
Hales said there were no conflicts of interest among members of the USOE committee that picked the U. team to write the new seventh- and eighth-grade mathematics textbook. Some committee members had previous professional relationships with members of both the U. and the BYU teams, but such ties are impossible to avoid in an education community the size of Utah’s, she said.
Sydnee Dickson, head of teaching and learning at the USOE and one of those Wright accused of being too cozy with a member of the U. team, told lawmakers she had had more conversations with Wright himself than she ever had had with the U. team member.
Wright said that U. team member, David Wiley, a BYU education professor, was added to the U. team on the suggestion of USOE staffer, Diana Suddreth, STEM coordinator.
Hales called that allegation “categorically untrue.”
Hales made some charges of her own, suggesting that those who help write legislation, as the BYU team did in the case of the math textbook contract, expect that “the fix is in” when it comes time to award the contract.
“When it doesn’t happen, you’re looking at consternation,” Hales said.
She also said certain legislators began putting pressure on USOE officials, including former Superintendent Larry Shumway, “from the moment the legislation passed,” trying to ensure one particular team would get the contract.
“It was made very clear by the sponsor who was supposed to get it,” she said.
Hales did not name Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, but he was SB217’s sponsor after being asked to run it by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo.
BYU Professor Jeffery Humpherys, Wright’s colleague, had suggested the Legislature fund a math textbook, and Humpherys approached Bramble and later helped write the legislation, Osmond said previously.
Osmond said Wednesday he doubted Hales meant to accuse him. He denied making calls to USOE officials to encourage selection of the BYU team, he said.
The BYU team members knew they would have to compete to get the contract, he said.
“We [Osmond and Bramble] made it so clear to them that they could not expect the money from that bill would come to them,” Osmond said. “It had to be written vendor neutral.”
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, and a member of the committee, asked Hales Wednesday to respond in writing to Wright’s accusations. Committee members also asked the state’s purchasing division to consider proposing more specific conflict-of-interest language for state law.