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Buffalo School Board questions millions spent on education consultants

The Buffalo School Board approved more than $1.2 million in consulting contracts last week and none of the board members was happy about it. They held up copies of the contract resolutions, mocked the jargon-laden language and asked for proof these outside vendors were doing Buffalo schools any good.

“Can’t we at some point say, ‘Wait, stop. What are we doing?’” board member Larry Quinn asked.

“And if they aren’t performing,” board member Sharon Belton-Cottman chimed in, “can’t we have our money back?”

Buffalo Public Schools spends millions on educational consulting firms every year. And since federal School Improvement Grant money became available five years ago, the district has only ramped up its hiring of advisers to develop school turnaround plans, even though many of the schools receiving the millions of dollars in grants continue to struggle year after year.

Board members spent nearly 45 minutes questioning each of more than two dozen consulting contract approval requests, demanding that administrators take a harder look at whether these consultants are delivering results.

In a rare case of solidarity, almost every board member raised concerns. Theresa Harris-Tigg quoted some consultant language that she said had no practical meaning and ridiculed how the same firm only promised school improvements if its strategies were executed “with fidelity.”

Until now, the district has had no consistent or deliberative process for evaluating the work consultants have done and determining whether these companies deserve repeat business.

But district administrators rushed to reassure the board this past week that will change.

“Everybody is having the same conversation,” said Mary Pauly, assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and leadership. “We welcome that kind of questioning because we are all on the same page.”

Last school year, the district spent roughly $3.6 million on outside consultants who were responsible for helping transform low-achieving schools into higher achieving ones, according to the district’s budget office. But most Buffalo schools still aren’t in good standing with the state.

Subtract $1.9 million on spending required by School Improvement Grant rules for educational partnership organizations that take over and run certain schools, and that still leaves $1.7 million.

That figure does not include hundreds of thousands more spent every year on teacher training, leadership development and other professional services not geared toward specific school turnaround strategies. The broader, overall consulting contract figure is closer to $5 million for last school year, according to the district.

Consultants submit proposals to work with the district following a request for proposals. Then they make presentations to a rating committee that scores and ranks the vendors.

But board member Sharon Belton-Cottman said she is troubled by instances of consultants being given a task with specific work, failing to meet goals and then given repeat business.

And in other cases, she said, vendors who were rated highest by the district were rejected by building principals who have established relationships with other consultants they preferred.

“But if it’s not working, why aren’t we trying new things?” Belton-Cottman said. “It’s just not fair to the students.”

Board member and developer Carl Paladino, meanwhile, said he was appalled that consultants are paid based on the proposals they submit and that central office administrators rarely attempt to negotiate lower fees for service. In at least one case, administrators told him a building principal worked directly with a vendor to determine the final contract cost.

“It’s totally incompetent how we get these numbers,” he said. “Here we are struggling for every nickle and dime, and we are throwing away all this money.”

Quinn and other board members said they want clearer language and clearer expectations and anticipated outcomes attached to future consultant approval requests. And for vendors with a history in the district, they want to see proof of school improvement.

“Before we go out and hire a consultant, forget about price for awhile. What are we trying to do?” Quinn said. “Then, of course you’re right, Carl. The negotiations are a joke.”

Distinguished Educator Judy Elliott said that School Improvement Grant funding requires districts to work with consultants to develop their turnaround plans. But Assistant Superintendent Pauly said that, in most cases, the federal grants don’t specifically require that an outside organization be hired for turnaround help.

Some other state grants the district has received for improving district performance do have such stipulations, she noted.

With thousands of teachers working in the district, Paladino said he doesn’t understand why the district can’t assemble its own team of in-house turnaround specialists and Common Core experts. The district could organize its own fixers and trainers and save the district millions, he said.

Pauly said she was gratified to hear that Paladino thinks the district has such competent staff. With the federal School Improvement Grant money being tapped out and the program winding down, creating such a team would be valuable to helping schools maintain their momentum, she said.

She also said administrators already have been discussing how to change the consultant selection and evaluation process.

“We want to make sure what we want to happen is really happening,” she said. “We want to identify ahead of time what we are expecting. We’ll say to the vendor, ‘How do we know what you’re doing is working?’ When board members are asking us how do we know what they do is working, we want to be able to answer that.”

Board members, however, bemoaned the fact that the millions of dollars in grant money already spent on the educational consulting industry is gone.

“It’s a racket,” Quinn said Wednesday. “I’ll vote for this tonight because a new school year is starting, but I don’t want to see it again.”