Dermot Cole

The Dunleavy administration isn’t telling Alaskans the real story about the origins of the $525,000 contract with the Florida Virtual School to offer online instruction to Alaska students.

It did not come about in response to the COVID-19 health crisis that forced school buildings to close.

It did not come about because of a suggestion former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made last fall. A year ago the state hired Bob Boyle, an old friend of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s, to develop a virtual school plan for Alaska. The state didn’t inform Alaska teachers and administrators about the plan until it was announced to the public Monday.

Education Commissioner Michael Johnson said on a statewide webinar that he “owns” the decision to not inform Alaska educators in advance. He should own up to the entire process and how the state is using the current emergency to push a project it had intended to do long before the new virus upended the world.

Johnson also needs to say why the state hid this effort from the public. I suspect it happened this way because the state wanted to avoid controversy as long as possible. But leaving teachers and administrators out of the loop is not a good way to create education policies.

This one-year contract with the Florida Virtual School is about dealing with the immediate issue of closed school buildings, but it is also about advancing

Dunleavy’s goal of reducing K-12 spending by promoting cheaper alternatives that require fewer teachers.

Shortly before the Boyle planning contract last year, Dunleavy told the Kenai newspaper in an interview: “I would suggest there’ll be tremendous opportunities for educational co-ops to spring up, or 10, 15 kids that want to take online courses — they could get together in buildings other than school buildings.”

“I don’t think everyone is in the same boat that they all have to go to a brick and mortar school,” he said.

The education department justified the no-bid option for the $15,000 contract with Boyle because it wanted to have “a virtual school option available to students at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year” and Boyle had the right experience and contacts.

Boyle, who was forced out of his job as superintendent in Ketchikan in 2018, was living in Washington when he was given the contract to plan the new school.

One serious question that arises from the handling of this matter is whether Boyle’s personal situation regarding his departure from Ketchikan is what prompted him to ignore the option of the existing Alaska Digital Academy, which is run by the Ketchikan School District.

The sole-source justification says Boyle’s experience in setting up the Ketchikan venture made him uniquely qualified to set up a plan for a statewide digital school.

But sources at the Ketchikan school say Boyle did not contact them and they didn’t learn about the Florida deal until this week.

Expansion or state assistance to the Ketchikan program seems a much better option for dealing with this immediate school crisis than paying $525,000 to the folks in Florida.

The state education officials who worked on setting up the project in 2019 made reference to the Florida Virtual School as a model before the Boyle contract was signed.

“Florida Virtual is probably the best-known fully virtual model out there. Research will definitely investigate the many resources already available through FLVS, along with other models across the country and in Alaska,” Tammy Van Wyhe, director of educator and school excellence wrote in an email on April 4, 2019.

“This work to be done by Mr. Boyle is very high on commissioner’s list of priorities,” she wrote.

Laurel Shoop, a procurement official in the department, wrote an email that day that the Florida school had out-of-state tuition rates on its site and “maybe AK could collaborate with FL for its Virtual School needs?”

Boyle and Dunleavy have known each other a long time. They worked together when Dunleavy was the Northwest Arctic Borough superintendent and Boyle was the assistant superintendent. In a scorching analysis of Dunleavy’s time in rural

Alaska, reporters John Creed and Susan Andrews said Boyle was a confidante and ally of Dunleavy and that Dunleavy worked to get Boyle chosen as his replacement.

Boyle received a second no-bid contract last year, this one for up to $2,500, to conduct a “rural schools focus group” on Nov. 6, 2019 that was to include 12 invitees.

Notes from the discussion of that meeting endorse the virtual school idea that Boyle had been hired by the Dunleavy administration to prepare last spring and summer: “An Alaska virtual school, operated at the state level, is critical to support reading development in small rural communities.”

The Dunleavy administration is trying to disguise one of its policy goals as something that came about primarily in response to the health crisis.

That’s not what happened at all.

Dermot Cole can be reached at

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