Mississippi

Mississippi lawmakers funneled $1.5 million in education money to Weight Watchers

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Teachers across the country have been walking out of their classrooms demanding higher wages and better funding for their schools. The National Center for Education Statistics reported the states with the highest and lowest paid teachers.

Teachers across the state shed pounds thanks to Weight Watchers courses paid mostly with state education money.

But the biggest loser?

Mississippi taxpayers.

Lawmakers gave Weight Watchers about $300,000 a year from 2011 to 2016, but documents from the Mississippi Department of Education show the voucher program at times needed about half that amount — or less — to operate.

Weight Watchers never appeared in any education funding bills and never had a contract with the state of Mississippi.

The Clarion Ledger found the payments to Weight Watchers as part of an ongoing investigation into Mississippi lawmakers quietly funneling millions of education dollars to favored vendors.

Weight Watchers, which declined to comment for this story, paid $276,100 to lobbyist Beth Clay between 2010 and 2016.

During that time, lawmakers directed nearly $1.5 million to New York-based Weight Watchers through a legislative side door.

How does it work?

That side door is opened when state agencies ask for clarification about how to spend money listed in budget bills.

Key lawmakers who finalize budget bills can then direct agencies to spend money on certain projects or vendors.

These earmarks come after a bill has been signed into law, making it hard — if not impossible — for the public to know how some money will be spent.

Senate Education Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, said that was how some earmarks were directed in the education budget, but the practice stopped in the 2016 legislative session when his committee began listing out each earmark in the education appropriations bill.

Prior to that, Tollison said lawmakers directed roughly $20 million a year in education funding through the side door, referring to it is as “budget notes.”

This process is how Weight Watchers got nearly $1.5 million in education money, without a competitive bid process.

A ‘Legislative Mandate’

In a document created after the 2014 legislative session, MDE described the different programs and projects — such as Weight Watchers — it was required to pay using education appropriation money.

According to the document, the requirement came from a “Legislative Mandate.”

The Clarion Ledger asked MDE for any records of communication from lawmakers that might shed light on the “mandate.”

MDE spokesman Pete Smith said MDE could find no such records, but he stressed that MDE does not spend money that’s not directed through the appropriations bill or by the Legislature.

According to the 2014 MDE document, the payment to Weight Watchers allowed teachers and school staff to sign up for 15-week courses at subsidized rates.

Instead of paying $150, teachers and staff paid $60 and the state of Mississippi picked up the remaining tab — $90.

Some schools hosted their own Weight Watchers meetings while other individual teachers and staff used vouchers at existing Weight Watchers programs.

The numbers don’t add up

Rather than pay Weight Watchers for teachers or staff members who signed up, the Legislature just gave the company $300,000 most years.

That’s enough money for 3,333 Weight Watchers vouchers a year.

But the Weight Watchers program never had that many teachers and staff join.

The closest the program came was in its first year, when 3,232 teachers and staff signed up, according to a report from Weight Watchers to MDE.

The numbers dropped off from there.

The next year, Fiscal Year 2013, there were 2,942 sign-ups. That number plummeted to 1,973 the next year.

MDE said it could only find a report for the first half of Fiscal Year 2015, which showed 762 sign-ups.

In the program’s final year, the number of sign-ups was 1,125.

But lawmakers kept giving Weight Watchers the same amount of money.

According to the Department of Finance and Administration, MDE paid Weight Watchers $1,494,205 between Fiscal Years 2012 and 2016.

The program should have paid more than 16,600 vouchers for teachers and staff, but the reports Weight Watchers provided to MDE show only 10,034 were used.

That means nearly $600,000 of the $1.5 million went directly to Weight Watchers without the company having to provide anything in return.

‘Is this working?’

Two lawmakers who would have had oversight of the education budget — Tollison and former House Education Chairman John Moore — did not respond to requests for comment specifically about Weight Watchers.

Moore, R-Brandon, reported a $1,000 campaign donation from Weight Watchers in 2014.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Buck Clarke, R-Hollandale, said he was aware that money had been going toward Weight Watchers, noting that the company started getting money the year before he was appropriations chair.

Clarke said he remembers when the decision was made to stop giving Weight Watchers money.

“Folks were saying, ‘What is this?’” Clarke recalled. “It was like, ‘What is this, where does it go, who’s taking advantage of this, is this working?’”

Clarke said lawmakers heard the program wasn’t that effective and that teachers and staff weren’t using it.

“So the decision was made to remove it,” he said.

When asked if Weight Watchers should have received $1.5 million in education money, Clarke said: “That program probably would have been more appropriate going through the Department of Health.”

Was the Weight Watchers program successful?

Teachers and staff were losing an average of about 11 pounds per course in the program’s first two years, according to records Weight Watchers sent MDE. But the average declined to about 8 pounds in its final years.

For more, go to ClarionLedger.com

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