OPI office public instruction

Montana’s Office of Public Instruction has taken steps to resolve issues with how it enters into contracts that were uncovered during a failing review conducted last month by the Department of Administration. 

OPI, which oversees Montana’s K-12 public school system and is headed by state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, is one of roughly 30 agencies in the state with authority to independently procure third-party services using state funding. Last month’s failing score prompted DOA — a department under the umbrella of the governor’s office that conducts periodic reviews of other agencies — to suspend OPI’s authority to award contracts valued at more than $10,000.


State suspends OPI’s authority to award contracts

A state-conducted review found that Montana’s Office of Public Instruction failed to adequately retain records associated with its contracts for third-party goods and services. Now that contracting authority is suspended pending corrective action.

In a corrective action plan submitted to the department April 26, OPI wrote that it was moving its records to eMacs, a digital contracting system maintained by DOA’s State Procurement Bureau. The agency further stated that it had implemented “additional internal controls” such as internal audits and that all staff with procurement responsibilities had completed additional training. 

However, OPI also took issue with some of the department’s findings, disputing several noted deficiencies related to record retention. OPI spokesperson Brian O’Leary expanded on the agency’s stance in an email response to questions from Montana Free Press, writing that the State Procurement Bureau (SPB) “did not adequately review” OPI’s internal contract management system or its processes.

“OPI is confident that if SPB had conducted on-site reviews of current systems and processes, the results of the compliance monitoring review would have resulted in a passing score,” O’Leary continued. “Further, it is OPI’s opinion that SPB has presented compliance issues that do not consider the utilization of technology, specifically related to the storing of supporting documentation and the agency’s ability to provide source documents.”

O’Leary added that OPI will continue working with the bureau to meet all documentation requirements as it transitions to the eMacs system. He clarified that OPI’s decision to replace its current system was “not driven by the compliance review.”

According to a memo May 2 , DOA accepted OPI’s corrective action plan, with State Financial Services Division Administrator Cheryl Grey adding that DOA would continue working with the agency to address issues highlighted in the review. Grey wrote that the two offices will schedule bi-weekly meetings to monitor OPI’s progress and that DOA will maintain oversight of all procurement activity above $10,000. Grey described helping OPI comply with state contracting laws and policies as “one of our top priorities.”

“Not only is it important that you attain compliance, but it is also essential that you demonstrate your ability to sustain it,” Grey wrote. “Given the failure of your compliance review and the time it takes to complete the tasks outlined in the [corrective action plan], it is likely to take a few months to achieve and maintain compliance.”

Grey added that DOA will conduct a follow-up review in July to determine whether to reinstate OPI’s procurement authority.

In an email response to questions, DOA spokesperson Megan Grotzke reiterated that the department was working with OPI to make eMacs the “repository” for all its contracting and procurement activities. Asked about OPI’s assertion that it currently meets all contract management requirements, Grotzke wrote that DOA has “not altered or changed any of the compliance review scoring as a result of OPI’s response.” 

Documents obtained by MTFP also show that OPI Chief Financial Officer Jay Phillips directed agency auditors via email last month to immediately conduct an internal audit of all current 2023 contracts, a level of review he informed them will be part of the office’s quarterly process moving forward. O’Leary told MTFP that the agency hired an internal auditor in January to “provide a system of support to programs to ensure compliance with applicable federal regulations and state laws.” Grotzke confirmed that internal compliance audits were not part of the corrective action plan.

On May 3, Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 367 granting DOA broader oversight of OPI’s use of federal COVID-19 relief funds to modernize its data systems. Supporters of the new law expressed concern this session about the pace of OPI’s progress on the project, noting that access to nearly two-thirds of the $13.5 million in federal funding will expire in September. Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, told MTFP last month that expanding DOA’s involvement is designed to help “fast-track” the commitment of those funds.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...