Former L.A. charter school leader fined for conflict of interest

A former local charter school operator has agreed to pay a $16,000 fine for misconduct that includes using public education funds to lease her own buildings.

Under a tentative settlement with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, Kendra Okonkwo acknowledges that she improperly used her official position “to influence governmental decisions in which she had a financial interest,” according to documents posted Monday by the state agency.

The settlement or “stipulation” notes two instances of wrongdoing: establishing leases for the school in two buildings that Okonkwo owned and arranging for public funds to pay for renovations to these structures.

The school, Wisdom Academy for Young Scientists, lost its charter to operate and closed last year.

Parents at 20th Street Elementary confront district’s rejection of their takeover attempt

“In this matter, Okonkwo engaged in a pattern of violations in which she made, used or attempted to use her official position to influence governmental decisions involving real property in which she had a significant financial interest,” the commission said.

Okonkwo declined to comment, but the commission cited several factors for not imposing a larger fine, including that “Okonkwo understands the seriousness of the violations and accepts responsibility for her actions.”

The South Los Angeles school, which opened in 2006, had been targeted by regulators for several years.

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The violations cited this week by the state date from 2010 and 2011, when Okonkwo earned a total of $223,615 as the elementary school’s executive director. She also received about $19,000 a month in rent from the school. She attempted to eliminate the appearance of conflict by assigning the property to a new, separate corporation, for which her mother signed the leases. But the arrangement did not pass legal muster, according to the state.

The other violation pertains to Okonkwo signing contracts for school-funded renovations worth $62,000. Okonkwo addressed this conflict by resigning as executive director. Someone else then signed the renovation contract.

Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Wisdom Academy began under the jurisdiction of the L.A. Unified School District, which refused to renew the school after its initial five-year charter expired.

A report to the school board cited “serious concerns pertaining to violations of conflict-of-interest laws against self-dealing on the part of the school’s executive director as well as insufficient governance by the … board of directors.”

The L.A. Unified action did not close the school because, under state law, a charter can appeal to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which chose to take over as the supervising agency.

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But the county office eventually turned against the school as well, revoking its charter in 2014, and leading to its shutdown at the end of the last school year.

The county cited a report by state auditors, who concluded that administrators may have funneled millions in state funds to Okonkwo, her relatives and close associates.

Charter school awarded $7.1 million in case against LAUSD

Charter school awarded $7.1 million in case against LAUSD

Some of the allegations bordered on the bizarre.

Auditors questioned, for example, the use of school funds to pay a $566,803 settlement to a former teacher who sued the organization for wrongful termination after she was directed by Okonkwo to travel with her to Nigeria to marry Okonkwo’s brother-in-law for the purpose of making him a United States citizen.

The organization’s payment of the settlement was inappropriate because Okonkwo was not acting within the scope of her school employment, auditors concluded.

The school took its fight to survive all the way to the state board of education.

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In papers filed with the state, Wisdom’s leaders accused auditors and the county office of misconduct and “open hostility … against this African American operated school,” calling it “the culmination of years of unfair treatment and retaliation … because a few [county office] staff members dislike our school’s founder Kendra Okonkwo, her family, the thickness of her accent, and the color of her skin.”

State officials declined to overrule the charter revocation.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume 

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K12 Inc. Not Happy With Report on Virtual School Failings

Posted

By David Safier

on Fri, Jun 17, 2016 at 11:00 AM

click to enlarge

  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin

K12 Inc. was quick to respond to the report put out by a few charter school organizations saying virtual schools should be better regulated,

which I posted about yesterday. Unfair! the press release complained. Based on old data! We’ve changed our ways!

Well, not so much. The publicly traded corporation is still using the for-profit model, which includes the dictum, grow or die, as well as the necessity of putting stockholders’ interests over the needs of its students. It has an incredible churn rate; about a third of the students leave every year. That means it needs to use every means possible to replace those students and add more. Its recruiters use the kinds of high power, coercive sales techniques which have gotten for-profit colleges in trouble, luring in students who are unsuited to online schooling where personal motivation and parental involvement are keys to success.

Online education can be a valuable addition to classroom learning, and for a small slice of the student population it can be a substitute for brick-and-mortar schooling, but it fails when it’s sold as a mass education model. K12 Inc. ends its press release by saying, “We are a company of educators dedicated to putting students first.” Massive research on the corporation gives the lie to that assertion. The sooner the stockholders jump ship and the company sinks, the better.

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Agora Cyber Charter announces layoffs

Updated:February 16, 2016 — 1:07 AM EST

by Martha Woodall, Staff Writer

Agora, the second-largest cyber charter school in Pennsylvania with 8,500 students across the state, has laid off dozens of teachers and staffers.

Officials at the cyber school, headquartered in King of Prussia, said they did not have a total for the number of employees let go Friday, but blamed the layoffs on Gov. Wolf and the state budget impasse.

“The Commonwealth’s failure to pass a budget necessitated that Agora make a substantial number of layoffs to survive,” Agora said in a statement issued Monday night.

Current and laid-off employees, however, said that their tallies indicated that more than 100 people were laid off, and possibly as many as 150.

Employees also said they were blindsided by the move.

Nearly two months ago, Agora assured staff that it had the resources to weather the budget impasse and that layoffs were not being considered.

“We have no plans to cut or furlough staff due to the lack of funds we are currently receiving,” Mary Steffey, chair of the Agora board, wrote Dec. 18 in an email to all 649 staff members. “Please do not fear for your position here at Agora.”

One teacher, who did not want to be quoted by name for fear of reprisal, said, “Teachers didn’t even know there was a chance of layoffs.”

Questions also remained how a cyber with revenues of $122.7 million and a $13.4 million fund balance could find itself in such financial straits that it has been forced to let go as many as 15 percent of its workforce.

“Even if the school is not getting the money in, we had that surplus,” Sara Atkins, a mother in Wynnewood who has four special-needs children enrolled at Agora, said Monday. “The classes were already huge.”

She and others said pink slips went to nearly every kindergarten teacher, and many of the family coaches. Major cuts were reported in social studies, science, physical education, arts, music, and elective classes in the high school.

In its statement, Agora said its decision to cut staff came after “all other options [had] been exhausted.”

“In December the budget framework was on the table in Harrisburg, and it appeared the funds would soon be again flowing to districts and charters alike. At the time we had a line of credit, but temporary funds can only last so long. The holidays came and the budget discussions fell apart, plunging schools like ours into desperation,” the statement read.

martha.woodall@phillynews.com215-854-2789@marwooda

Teachers present cyber school options at Lackawanna Trail School Board meeting April 11

First Posted: 7:29 pm – April 12th, 2016

By Ben Freda – For Abington Journal


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FACTORYVILLE — Technology teacher Boyd Semken, librarian Kelly Hopkins, and social studies teacher Katie Lane proposed the Lackawanna Trail School District should pursue its own cyber school during a school board meeting April 11.

Hopkins said that if a Trail student enters a cyber charter school in kindergarten and continues to the highest level of cyber school at $26,000 per year, that student over 13 years will cost the district $338,000. School districts pay for students to attend cyber school.

She mentioned that in addition to the financial issues, a student in cyber charter school can have a lack of success.

“A study by the Stanford University Center for Research on Education in October 2015 stated that if a students who goes to an online cyber school is likely to lose 72 days of learning in reading and 180 days of learning in math,” she said.

Hopkins said students in a district-run cyber program can come back to the schools they left. Students can also get involved in Trail’s organizations and activities, as well as receive a Lackawanna Trail diploma through such a program.

“Based on 50 percent return of our students next year if we can get this off the ground, we’re looking at a $201,000 savings,” she said.

Hopkins said that with these savings, Trail would be able to increase advanced placement course offerings. She then listed school districts that use in-house cyber programs include Old Forge, Carbondale and Pittsburgh. She mentioned that Pittsburgh’s school district was able to bring back 126 students and save $1.1 million.

Semken said the district has three choices: Virtual Learning Network (VLN), K12, and Edison Learning. Semken said that VLN provides students everything including new computer, textbooks, tech support for full-time students, and on-site training for staff. It costs $3,875 per student.

He said that the difference between VLN and K12 is that K12 doesn’t provide computers or training support. He said Edison Learning also doesn’t provide computers or tech support but costs less than the VLN Platform.

Semken asked the board members for a room in the high school building where students might do a blended program.

“A blended program would be where they (students) would actually come to our building (high school),” he said. “They would do cyber school in a room and then possibly come to special classes.”

Lane listed reasons why students would leave Lackawanna Trail to attend a cyber charting school, such as family life struggles, anxiety, or social issues.

“We feel that if we have a cyber-blended option with a student retention team, in what we are calling a ‘safe haven classroom,’ we might be able to address some of those needs of those students and keep them within the brick and mortar first,” she said.

Lane then mentioned that if they can work through some conflict resolution for two weeks, that will have a safe haven classroom.

High school principal Mark Murphy wondered whether the curriculum of the cyber classes are aligned with Trail’s classes.

“If the student chooses to go away (to a cyber charting school) for two months (and decided to come back to Lackawanna Trail), there might be large gaps,” he said. “There’s no crosswalk to the curriculum.”

Hopkins said the three cyber school options mentioned above are currently piloting a program that allows teachers to author their own classes.

In other business, the board voted to approve:

• The academic calendar of 2016-17 school year.

• Nutrition Group, Inc. as the Food Service Management Company for the 2016-17 school year based on competitive bids submitted publicly on March 7, 2016.

• The retirement of Donald Rupp, high school science teacher, effective June 30, 2016.

• The retirement of Debra Reynolds, elementary assistant cafeteria manager, effective June 30, 2016.

Reach the Abington Journal newsroom at 570-587-1148 or by email at news@theabingtonjournal.com.

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Pansophic drops interest in buying BV high school from Saginaw district

Andrew Whitaker | MLive.com
Buena Vista High School at 3945 East Holland, Saginaw, MI, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015.

(Andrew Whitaker)

By

The Saginaw News
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on March 18, 2016 at 3:31 PM, updated

SAGINAW, MI — The former Buena Vista High School will remain vacant and under the ownership of the Saginaw School District, which inherited a number of buildings and students when the Buena Vista district was dissolved in 2013.

Pansophic Learning said it is no longer interested in buying the property after the Saginaw Board of Education voted 6-1 to reject a $1.8 million counter offer.

“We won’t be making another offer,” said Pansophic Director of School Partnerships Bruce Henson.

The rejection came during the March 16 action meeting where Superintendent Nate McClain made the recommendation to the board.

Trustee Barb Kopka questioned why the district would hold onto the property instead of accepting Pansophic’s offer.

“What is our reason for not selling?” Kopka asked.

“It’s a laughable offer,” McLain said.

“Yeah, and in six months it will be costing us money,” Kopka said.

The state provided money for upkeep and maintenance of properties that were inherited from the dissolved Buena Vista School District.

Those funds are guaranteed through September of this year.

It would cost the district $26,000 to maintain the building each year if state funds were not available, said the district’s finance director.

Secretary Tamara McRae believes that the potential loss of students to a charter school that could open at the former high school could cost the district more money in the long run.

McClain said hopefully the property will attract another prospective buyer in the near future.

Pansophic’s initial offer this year was for $1.75 million. Saginaw School District countered with $4.8 million, an offer McClain said he believed was reasonable for the property that was initially listed for $8 million.

Pansophic rejected the offer and countered with $1.8 million, or $50,000 more than the first offer.

McClain said the district’s counter-offer was fair market value for a building with new upgrades within the past eight years that include a gym and track.

“Unfortunately, if they don’t want to counter, that’s entirely their right and hopefully we’ll have a prospective buyer in the near future,” McClain said.

Bob Johnson is a reporter for MLive/The Saginaw News. Contact him at 989-395-3295, by email at bob_johnson@mlive.com or follow him on TwitterFacebookor Google+.

K12 Inc. Ramps Up Focus on Virtual Career-Tech Education

K12 Inc., the major for-profit provider of online education, is making a big expansion where it says there is strong demand from schools–and employers: career-and-technical studies.

The Herndon, Va.-based company has announced it is launching the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, expected to enroll high school students beginning this fall.

Additionally, the company says it will open two more online schools with a career-and-technical focus in other parts of the country soon. And more growth in career-themed education is likely to come in the years ahead, said Lynda Cloud, K12’s executive vice president for products and technology.

“We really needed to do this because our economy needs it, our businesses need it, and our kids need it,” Cloud said in an interview. Interest from students so far, she said, has been “overwhelming.”

K12 says it is offering career-oriented courses in four “clusters”: architecture and construction; business management and administration; health science; and information technology.

Teachers licensed by the state of Wisconsin will lead the courses, and students who graduate will receive a high school diploma.

The school has also partnered with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, a Wisconsin trade union that mostly represents heavy equipment operators working in the construction industry, and Fox Valley Technical College.

“This revolutionary new school helps meet our state’s critical workforce needs,” Terry McGowan, the president of the operating engineers, said in a statement. The Wisconsin school, he predicted, will give students the preparation they need “to access the many available technical and high-paying jobs that help our state grow.”

K12 worked with the union and the college to develop an academic pathway in construction. The “pre-apprenticeship” program will be directed by the operating engineers, and it will seek to give students hands-on experience to joining jobs in that field.

Fox Valley Technical College will provide students with opportunities to take dual-credit, tech-prep courses that combine computer-based and in-person teaching.

In addition to launching the new school, K12 offers an extensive number of individual courses focused on career-and-technical education separately through Fuel Education, a division of the company that provides courses and curriculum.

K12 has drawn sharp criticism over the years from those who question the quality of its programs, and accuse it pushing too hard for profit, mostly by aggressively recruiting students who may not be well-suited to online studies to enroll. The company has said its online programs help students who have struggled academically or socially in traditional brick-and-mortar settings, and that the virtual approach gives students and families the flexibility and customized lessons they need.

One of the central arguments that critics make of online education, including K12’s programs, is that the online experience cannot match the traditional teacher-to-student interactions found in many classrooms. It’s difficult to keep those students on-track, detractors say, and too few online programs put forth the effort.

Cloud says that there will be requirements in its Wisconsin program for students to have training with local program partners on job sites, and in person with professionals, with the amount of those requirements varying by the course.

K12’s approach is not “one-size-fits all,” she said. Nurses-in-training, for instance, would have extensive practice working directly with patients. Other practical, job-site experience will be tailored to industry demands, Cloud said.

The Destinations Career Academy will operate as charter school that is authorized by the McFarland School District, which is located in the Madison, Wisconsin area.

Correction: This post originally misstated the membership of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, which represents primarily heavy-equipment operators in the construction trades.


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Follow @EdWeekSCavanagh and @EdMarketBrief for the latest news on industry and innovation in education.

K12 Inc. Ramps Up Focus on Virtual Career-Tech Education

K12 Inc., the major for-profit provider of online education, is making a big expansion where it says there is strong demand from schools–and employers: career-and-technical studies.

The Herndon, Va.-based company has announced it is launching the Destinations Career Academy of Wisconsin, expected to enroll high school students beginning this fall.

Additionally, the company says it will open two more online schools with a career-and-technical focus in other parts of the country soon. And more growth in career-themed education is likely to come in the years ahead, said Lynda Cloud, K12’s executive vice president for products and technology.

“We really needed to do this because our economy needs it, our businesses need it, and our kids need it,” Cloud said in an interview. Interest from students so far, she said, has been “overwhelming.”

K12 says it is offering career-oriented courses in four “clusters”: architecture and construction; business management and administration; health science; and information technology.

Teachers licensed by the state of Wisconsin will lead the courses, and students who graduate will receive a high school diploma.

The school has also partnered with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 139, a Wisconsin trade union of pipefitters and construction workers, and Fox Valley Technical College.

“This revolutionary new school helps meet our state’s critical workforce needs,” Terry McGowan, the president of the operating engineers, said in a statement. The Wisconsin school, he predicted, will give students the preparation they need “to access the many available technical and high-paying jobs that help our state grow.”

K12 worked with the union and the college to develop an academic pathway in construction. The “pre-apprenticeship” program will be directed by the operating engineers, and it will seek to give students hands-on experience to joining jobs in that field.

Fox Valley Technical College will provide students with opportunities to take dual-credit, tech-prep courses that combine computer-based and in-person teaching.

In addition to launching the new school, K12 offers an extensive number of individual courses focused on career-and-technical education separately through Fuel Education, a division of the company that provides courses and curriculum.

K12 has drawn sharp criticism over the years from those who question the quality of its programs, and accuse it pushing too hard for profit, mostly by aggressively recruiting students who may not be well-suited to online studies to enroll. The company has said its online programs help students who have struggled academically or socially in traditional brick-and-mortar settings, and that the virtual approach gives students and families the flexibility and customized lessons they need.

One of the central arguments that critics make of online education, including K12’s programs, is that the online experience cannot match the traditional teacher-to-student interactions found in many classrooms. It’s difficult to keep those students on-track, detractors say, and too few online programs put forth the effort.

Cloud says that there will be requirements in its Wisconsin program for students to have training with local program partners on job sites, and in person with professionals, with the amount of those requirements varying by the course.

K12’s approach is not “one-size-fits all,” she said. Nurses-in-training, for instance, would have extensive practice working directly with patients. Other practical, job-site experience will be tailored to industry demands, Cloud said.

The Destinations Career Academy will operate as charter school that is authorized by the McFarland School District, which is located in the Madison, Wisconsin area.


See also:


Follow @EdWeekSCavanagh and @EdMarketBrief for the latest news on industry and innovation in education.

A new, for-profit charter chain named Pansophic is planning to take over charter chain schools in Ohio. The linked story was published in June, but there have been no follow-ups since then. Either the deal was completed or is pending.

Pansophic is a new company founded by Ron Packard, formerly of McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and the online giant K12. As CEO of K12, Packard was paid $5 million yearly.

The company also expects to acquire charters run by for-profit Mosaica in Ohio. Pansophic will become the biggest for-profit charter chain in Ohio.

“Akron-based White Hat Management reportedly sold off management of 12 elementary charter schools Friday to an out-of-state, for-profit company that could acquire a third charter school company, an attorney for the charter schools’ public boards said.

“The two deals would make Pansophic Learning the largest for-profit operator of Ohio charter schools, which has become a taxpayer-funded $1 billion private industry.”

White Hat has produced poor academic results for 20 years.

Now, Ohio’s for-profit charter schools will be outsourced to a Virginia corporation that also focuses on the bottom line: profit.

Are these for-profit schools really public schools or are they profit centers that hoodwink parents to enroll their children?

This is what Ohio’s charter law says (thanks to reader Bethree):

“Opening paras of Ohio charter school law: “3314.01 (A) (1) A board of education may permit all or part of any of the schools under its control, upon request of a proposing person or group and provided the person or group meets the requirements of this chapter, to become a community school… (B) A community school created under this chapter is a public school, independent of any school district, and is part of the state’s program of education…”

Is a school owned by a for-profit corporation in Virginia still a “community” school? Is it a “public” school?

How much more of this flimflam will the voters and taxpayers of Ohio tolerate? Do they care about the education of their children?

via Diane Ravitch’s blog http://ift.tt/1NMoKVE

A new, for-profit charter chain named Pansophic is planning to take over charter chain schools in Ohio. The linked story was published in June, but there have been no follow-ups since then. Either the deal was completed or is pending.

Pansophic is a new company founded by Ron Packard, formerly of McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, and the online giant K12. As CEO of K12, Packard was paid $5 million yearly.

The company also expects to acquire charters run by for-profit Mosaica in Ohio. Pansophic will become the biggest for-profit charter chain in Ohio.

“Akron-based White Hat Management reportedly sold off management of 12 elementary charter schools Friday to an out-of-state, for-profit company that could acquire a third charter school company, an attorney for the charter schools’ public boards said.

“The two deals would make Pansophic Learning the largest for-profit operator of Ohio charter schools, which has become a taxpayer-funded $1 billion private industry.”

White Hat has produced poor academic results for 20 years.

Now, Ohio’s for-profit charter schools will be outsourced to a Virginia corporation that also focuses on the bottom line: profit.

Are these for-profit schools really public schools or are they profit centers that hoodwink parents to enroll their children?

This is what Ohio’s charter law says (thanks to reader Bethree):

“Opening paras of Ohio charter school law: “3314.01 (A) (1) A board of education may permit all or part of any of the schools under its control, upon request of a proposing person or group and provided the person or group meets the requirements of this chapter, to become a community school… (B) A community school created under this chapter is a public school, independent of any school district, and is part of the state’s program of education…”

Is a school owned by a for-profit corporation in Virginia still a “community” school? Is it a “public” school?

How much more of this flimflam will the voters and taxpayers of Ohio tolerate? Do they care about the education of their children?

via Diane Ravitch’s blog http://ift.tt/1NMoKVE

NC Charter Chief Becomes Head Of Online Charter School

Joel Medley meets with charter advisory board in his previous job as Director of the Office of Charter Schools.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE

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The Director of North Carolina’s Office of Charter Schools took a new job this week. He is now the head of an online charter school that won approval from the state board of education this year.

It made us wonder what policies the state has to ensure public employees aren’t applying for jobs with the same groups they may be vetting or negotiating contracts with. There aren’t many.

Joel Medley is now the Head of Schools for North Carolina Virtual Academy. But up until last week, he led the state’s Office of Charter Schools. It oversees all of the state’s charters and helps analyze applications of groups applying to become charter schools.

That list of applications this year included the online charter Medley now leads. He’s actually an employee of K12 Inc., the for-profit company that manages the school. The group had applied before, but failed to make it through the process.

State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said Medley’s review of the school was thorough.

“I know he scrutinized these as closely as possible and brought up all the possible criticisms and negatives during the process,” says Cobey.

Medley helped review North Carolina Virtual Academy last October. His part of it did include some tough questions about how many students the group expects would withdraw and how the school would plan to deal with children with disabilities.

State Board of Education members approved the school in February. They didn’t have much choice since state law established a pilot program for two online charters and only two applied.

“I don’t think there’s anything that went on between him and K12 before this approval. In some cases you might suspect somebody, but not with Joel Medley, not at all,” says Cobey.

Medley says he would never do that. He says he didn’t talk to K12 about a job, until he saw the post in April and it seemed like a good fit.

“My wife and I had conversations about looking to get back to a principalship and, in the last few months, it just kind of happened,” says Medley.

He says he didn’t tell his bosses he applied for the job, but they knew in general he was thinking about moving on.

Situations like this leave too much up to trust says Jane Pinsky, Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.

“In many of these cases, people are not involved in something that’s malicious or wrong, but it does undermine citizen confidence and without citizen confidence our democracy doesn’t work,” says Pinsky.

State law requires a six month cooling off period for lawmakers and certain high-level public employees who become lobbyists. But there isn’t anything like that for most public employees taking jobs in the areas they regulate or with companies or groups whose applications they may vet or whose contracts they may negotiate.

State Superintendent June Atkinson doesn’t see conflict-of-interest concerns arising from Medley’s case.

“He was not the deciding person as to which companies would get the charter,” says Atkinson.

Some state agencies have conflict of interest policies that cover what are called “revolving door” situations. But many like the Department of Public Instruction don’t.

Two years ago, a Department of Health and Human Services employee who helped oversee the rollout of a Medicaid billing system took a job with the company responsible for the massive project that had problem after problem. That prompted State Senator Jeff Tarte and others to introduce bills trying to put restrictions on these situations.

“There needs to be appropriate steps followed to ensure even the perception of any impropriety is not present,” says Tarte.

One such bill passed the Senate this year. It essentially places a six month cooling off period on any state employees who take jobs with companies they’re regulating or whose contracts they’re overseeing. It aims to do that by not allowing state departments to contract with any groups using these new employees to administer state contracts.