West Virginia Schools Superintendent Steve Paine and one of his assistant state superintendents have now admitted that they called the senior vice president for programs for ACT, the standardized testing group, in December to “share concerns” about one of its lobbyists’ tweets.
They both admit that they called this same person in early 2019 regarding lobbyist Jason Webb’s tweets and his other “lobbying tactics.” But the two state Department of Education officials deny Webb’s allegation that they implied there would be “negative consequences” if ACT didn’t rein Webb in.
Paine also admitted that he called ACT’s chief executive officer in March, alongside the state education department’s general counsel and another department attorney.
In June, Webb, who wrote the offending tweets, whose contents have yet to be revealed, sued Paine and Jan Barth, the assistant state superintendent.
Webb’s suit alleges Paine told the CEO in that March conversation that ACT needed to get rid of Webb or ACT would be disqualified “from participating in future bids due to ACT having an ‘unscrupulous’ person associated.”
On Friday, attorneys for Paine and Barth filed a set mostly of denials, but also a few admissions, regarding Webb’s allegations as part of their official answers to Webb’s suit.
Paine denies saying such things to the CEO. But he admits that Webb came up amid the conversation, without revealing in his answer to the suit why that was or what the conversation was about.
“The CEO responded to Defendant Paine that if Webb had done something wrong, then Defendant Paine should file a complaint with the West Virginia Ethics Commission,” Paine’s answer says.
Paine’s answer admits that he called ACT officials at other times, while saying he is “without sufficient information to either admit or deny” other conversations.
One conversation Paine says he doesn’t have sufficient information about was — according to Webb’s April 2017 suit — when Paine allegedly called an ACT national lobbyist and allegedly said ACT needed to “get a handle on Jason Webb.”
Paine denied telling the national lobbyist, in a later conversation in 2017, that “ACT should tell Webb to stop criticizing how Paine and the Department conducted the [request for proposals] process or they would never do business in the State again.”
Webb’s suit alleges that Paine repeatedly discriminated against ACT’s attempt to win the statewide standardized testing contracts and, when Webb fought that discrimination and spoke up about it, threatened ACT with a loss of business if Webb didn’t shut up. The request for proposals process was when testing vendors competed to win the testing contracts.
Instead of ACT, the state education department, which Paine leads, chose the College Board’s SAT test as the high school exam.
The College Board earns about $1 million annually through the high school standardized testing contract.
The department chose the American Institutes for Research tests for grade levels 3 to 8. ACT had asked the state to pick its Aspire tests for those grades.
Paine’s answer denies Webb’s allegation that he told Webb Aspire was “junk” during the “blackout period,” in which Webb said bidders on the testing contracts were prohibited from “discussing the contract other than the formal presentations” in the requests for proposals process.
The federal lawsuit was filed in West Virginia’s Southern District, a few days before the House of Delegates reconvened the special legislative session on education.
Webb has said he supported the state Senate’s sweeping education bill (Senate Bill 1039), which would have legalized charter schools in West Virginia.
He also lobbies for K12 Inc., an online education company that, among other things, operates online charter schools. The state education department opposes virtual charters.
During the special session, the state Legislature eventually passed House Bill 206, which did legalize charter schools. It didn’t pass SB 1039.
Ed Colby, ACT’s senior director of media and public relations, said Monday that “we have no comment on the answers filed, other than to refer back to the statement we previously provided you: ACT is not a party to Mr. Webb’s lawsuit, and we are not in any way connected to it or responsible for it. Mr. Webb’s lawsuit is a personal matter, and ACT has no comment or position it.”
In the suit, Webb seeks monetary damages and “any other relief to which Webb may seek or be entitled.”
Jan Fox and Mark Dean of Steptoe and Johnson filed the answers on behalf of both education department officials. Webb is represented by J. Zak Ritchie and Michael Hissam from Hissam Forman Donovan Ritchie.
Kristin Anderson, the education department’s communications executive director, said the state Board of Risk and Insurance Management is covering the litigation.