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School Board is right to bring accountability to expensive contracts for consultants

In pushing for a system to evaluate New York State’s teachers, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made an observation that is inarguable: Since education accounts for a massive chunk of the state budget, there needs to a formal way to assess how well it’s working. How can you manage, let alone improve, what you don’t measure?

The logic is inescapable and it applies equally well to the consultants to whom the Buffalo School District funnels millions of unaccountable dollars every year.

The issue arose in unanimous dissatisfaction at a School Board meeting last week. Parents, students, teachers and taxpayers have to hope it turns out to have been a watershed moment for a district whose $806 million budget belies the fact that it doesn’t have a penny to waste.

So the question: How much – if any – of the $3.6 million spent on consultants last year was wasted? No one can say, because there’s no way in place to measure the performance of the consultants and the impact on students of the dollars spent. Board member Larry Quinn noted that there’s no good sense of mission by the board in selecting consultants, while Carl Paladino complained that there’s no serious effort to negotiate a better price when the district decides to move ahead.

That didn’t stop board members from approving $1.2 million in consulting contracts. Under time pressure, with students returning to class next week, members felt they had no choice but to authorize the expenses, but Quinn seemed to represent the board’s sentiment when he said, “I’ll vote for this tonight because a new school year is starting, but I don’t want to see it again.”

That needs to be a commitment, not just a hope, and Mary Pauly, the assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and leadership, affirmed that administrators will act. “We welcome that kind of questioning because we are all on the same page,” she told board members.

Among the most troubling aspects of this broken system is that contract awards become cyclical, even when consultants fail to meet established goals, said Board member Sharon Belton-Cottman. In other cases, she said, school principals with existing relationships with certain consultants reject vendors who were rated highest by the district. It’s nonsensical.

To some extent the work with consultants is unavoidable. Sometimes outside expertise is warranted, and what is more, funding through the federal School Improvement Grant system requires districts to work with consultants.

Significantly, though, that requirement doesn’t mandate outside consultants, prompting an intriguing observation from Paladino: With thousands of teachers in the district, why not organize an in-house team of specialists in crafting turnaround strategies and implementing the Common Core standards? That’s worth exploring.

Indeed, all are worthwhile ideas, and all spring from the fundamental truth that improving performance rests in part on the ability to measure it. That’s how you get individuals and companies to improve and how to attract interest from competitors who believe they can do a better job for the district.

Given the virtual unanimity in the board’s criticism of consultants and the district’s dubious system in selecting, supervising and assessing them, it’s startling this issue hasn’t arisen previously. That raises a couple of questions: What other areas of the district’s operations could benefit from similar skepticism and, more broadly, how much attention are other school districts around the region giving to a costly and ongoing expense?

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