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Whistleblower alleges school textbook publishers offered secret discounts to large districts

State law says all districts must pay lowest price
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Posted at 6:41 AM, May 25, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-25 18:42:25-04

INVERNESS, Fla. — A whistleblower who obtained textbook purchase orders from more than a dozen Florida school districts alleges that big publishers violated state law by offering special deals to large districts.

The ABC Action News I-Team learned that similar activities were uncovered by an audit of Florida Department of Education textbook purchasing nearly 20 years ago.

“There’s my cap,” said Citrus High School senior Alexandria Snyder, as she prepares to receive her diploma.

It’s the latest step in her goal of becoming a teacher.

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Alexandria Snyder graduates from Citrus High School this week.

Along the way, she and her classmates have read thousands of pages from textbooks funded by taxpayers.

Snyder said at any given time, her backpack is filled with books.

“I guess depending on how many classes you have and which classes you have, you can have up to four,” Snyder said.

Teaching materials in her school range from workbooks which are replaced every year, to software downloaded onto iPads, to traditional textbooks purchased by the district once every five years.

Alexandria's English language arts textbook was purchased by the district from publishing giant Savvas.

Records show Citrus County Schools paid between $138 and $143 for each Savvas English language arts instructional set, depending on the grade level.

State law says all districts should pay the lowest price

The prices of all textbooks are negotiated by the Florida Department of Education.

Under state law, publishers “may not exceed the lowest price” at which they’re offered for sale “to any state or school district.”

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Florida state law says textbooks have to be offered at the lowest price to all districts.

“And they have to provide freebies to everyone if they provide them anywhere,” said Lobbyist Chris Doolin.

Doolin represents the Small School District Council Consortium composed of superintendents and school board members from Florida’s 39 smallest school districts, including Citrus County Schools.

“These small districts have to overcome limited resources and a small number of students to compete with every single standard and requirement of the state,” Doolin said.

Last year, the state allocated $246 million for districts to buy textbooks, but that state funding didn’t cover the entire cost of those materials for every school district.

Whistleblower receives invoices from a dozen districts

The I-Team obtained three letters sent by a Tallahassee law firm on behalf of an unnamed whistleblower asking for an investigation to the Florida Department of Education, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office and the Office of Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis.

“The letters were very substantial in terms of documentation. This is very comprehensive,” Doolin said.

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Chris Doolin.

In the letter, the whistleblower, who goes by “Joe Doe” alleges, “Some out-of-state instructional materials publishers engage in a pattern and practice of overcharging many Florida school districts.”

The allegation is based on records received from more than a dozen school districts showing some received free or discounted materials not provided to others.

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Letter from whistleblower's attorney to state officials alleging publishers gave discounts to large districts that were not given to smaller districts.

“They just didn’t get the benefit, which needs to be put into the equation. Commodity paid for, commodity free, equals unit price, and it’s below the state rate,” Doolin said.

Among the examples provided in the letters:

  • An invoice showing Miami Dade Schools received one free book for every 10 Savvas “My Florida Perspective” English Language Arts books ordered
  • A document received from Polk County Schools from McGraw Hill which references “confidential pricing” and includes thousands of free textbooks and a “loyalty discount” resulting in savings of $865,000
  • An invoice that shows Polk County paid a penny per unit for the same item sold to Madison County Schools for $219
  • An invoice that shows Miami Dade Schools received 13,300 free units of McGraw Hill’s “Florida Comprehensive Student Bundle” as part of a $16.8 million order
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A purchase order from Miami-Dade Schools included in a letter to Florida's Attorney General's Office shows some instructional materials were included for free.

A spreadsheet provided to ABC Action News by the whistleblower shows that if Savvas had given the same deal to Citrus County Schools that was provided to Miami Dade Schools, the smaller district would have saved more than $135,000 on language arts materials for grades 6-12.

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Spreadsheet shows prices and free units of English Language Arts materials.

“We’re not getting the best deal,” Doolin said.

He said his organization is calling on state agencies to investigate and take action if the facts warrant it.

“The Small School District Council Consortium requests retroactive reimbursement or credits and for future purposes equitable treatment for all districts. That’s what the law says,” Doolin said.

“I don’t think it’s fair. I feel like everybody should be paying the same price,” said graduating senior Alexandria Snyder.

We went to the Citrus County School Board office Friday and requested an interview with administrators about the pricing issue, but they declined.

After our questions, the topic was raised at a school board meeting on Tuesday in which board members were told to wait for the Attorney General’s Office to determine if there were any irregularities.

Allegations of special deals from publishers for certain districts arose in the past

It’s not the first time publishers have been accused of sweetening the deal for some districts.

A 2003 audit report said, “Although Florida law requires publishers to provide the same free materials to all districts, the department does not monitor compliance and it appears to be violated regularly.”

“Twelve Florida districts reported they were able to negotiate a better deal for free materials than what was listed in the state catalog,” the report said.

The DOE responded the following year saying, “These requirements, if not met, will result in the cancellation of the contract.”

The audit also led to the requirement that publishers sign a form, saying they will “adhere to the spirit and intent of Florida’s statutes."

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Publishers must sign an acknowledgment that they will abide by Florida law when they offer a textbook for sale.

A spokesperson for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody sent an email saying, "Our office is aware of this matter and cannot comment further at this time."

The Florida Department of Education sent the following statement:

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. If there were violations of Florida law, then 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.

A McGraw Hill spokesperson said in an email, “We believe the letters have factual inaccuracies and that we have fully adhered to Florida law in pricing our products. We have not overcharged any district.”

A Savvas representative sent this statement:

Savvas Learning Company has rigorous policies and procedures in place to comply with applicable statutes governing the procurement of instructional materials. We are confident that our pricing practices are consistent with the intent of those statutes.

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