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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah lawmakers were told Tuesday there's more than $2 million in unpaid invoices from the testing company whose contract was terminated earlier this month after a series of problems surfaced.
Although the Utah State Board of Education's 10-year contract with Questar Assessment was ended in the early hours of June 7, the company has already been paid just under $7 million in addition to the outstanding invoices.
Whether the state will get back money already paid to administer new tests known as Readiness, Improvement, Success and Empowerment, or RISE, is still being negotiated, although the contract allows for damages to be collected.
"We're in a position of strength with regards to the contract," Darin Nielsen, assistant state superintendent of student learning, assured members of the Legislature's Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Nielsen said Questar doesn't intend to contest "liquidated damages," as high as $50,000 a day, for failures related to the end of the school year testing in grades 3-8, such as results disappearing from the system.
He said the state "can seek other remedies as well."
Questar has not been paid by the state since January, Scott Jones, deputy superintendent for operations, told KSL. There are unpaid invoices from February, March, April and May that add up to over $2 million.
"We may not end up paying any invoices at all. That’s all in the works right now," Jones said, describing the company as being "very cooperative." He said he does not expect to see any additional invoices.
The report state public education officials gave the subcommittee detailed the timeline for Questar's selection for what was a nearly $44.8 million contract through problems that started in fall 2018 and continued through May.
Questar is continuing to work with the state to recover data, Nielsen said, and is scheduled on Aug. 1 to deliver a study validated by an independent third party on testing results.
Until then, he said it's not clear whether there is adequate data available that's needed to assess school performances as well as those of individual students.
"My position is we don't know yet. But we will know," Nielsen said.
Jones told KSL there will be "some form of written agreement with them for however long it takes to get that data." It is not clear if the company would be compensated for its efforts.
The state is already negotiating with another company, American Institute of Research, through an emergency procurement process to conduct testing in the upcoming school year.
A three-year contract with that company, one of four considered for the previous contract awarded to Questar, is expected to be finalized next month and considered by the State School Board on Aug. 1.
The estimated cost of the new contract was reported to lawmakers as nearly $21.6 million. Funding would come from money already appropriated for the previous Questar contract.
Nielsen said the American Institute of Research was the only vendor available on such short notice. The company had disclosed five incidents related to testing problems in the previous procurement process.
Questar did not disclose any incidents other than three related to its parent company, according to materials shown to the subcommittee. But reports of past incidents later became public.
Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, asked if the company wasn't dishonest, raising questions about the procurement process that kept the search committee from checking for online reports.
"This is just an unfortunate example of a vendor failing," Utah State School Board Chairman Mark Huntsman said. He said the state is "fortunate" Questar is continuing to work on recovering the data rather than fighting the termination.
The timeline showed the state became aware in April 2018 of problems Questar was having with testing in Tennessee, but Nielsen said there were assurances they would not affect the program in Utah schools.
By October, the company was missing deadlines but continued to tell the state, "Don't worry, we've got this," he said. In March of this year, the state gave the company five days to rectify problems.
But on April 25, the state experienced the first of five interruptions of service during testing and, Nielsen said, "that's when things started to be highly publicized and frustration among teachers started to build."
Last month, he said, the company president came to Utah to make a case for keeping the contract. A day later, on May 17, Questar notified the state an unknown number of student test results were inadvertently reset.
The vote from the State School Board to end the company's contract came on June 7.
The subcommittee took no action on the report Tuesday, but the co-chairman, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he anticipates updates, including about potential changes to the process used to award contracts.