Contract killing

Is it time for Sac City schools to give pink slips to education consultants?

About 400 teachers in the Sacramento City Unified School District just received pink slips; other brutal cuts lie ahead. Should the district really be spending millions on contracts for education consultants?

About 400 teachers in the Sacramento City Unified School District just received pink slips; other brutal cuts lie ahead. Should the district really be spending millions on contracts for education consultants?

Illustration by JAMES O’BRIEN

Another year, another round of pink slips at Sacramento City Unified schools. About 400 teachers have been told they may not return to their jobs next year—pending the outcome of the budget wrangling at both the state and the local level.

Other brutal cuts lie ahead. Under the worst-case scenario, class sizes might be increased, sports programs would be eliminated, adult education would be zeroed out and school-bus transportation for those few students who get it now would be lost, too. Some school officials are even quietly talking about the possibility of a shortened school year.

But there may be some fat yet to trim in the form tens of millions of dollars the district spends on contracts for education consultants and other professional services.

It’s a part of the budget that gets little public scrutiny and that even elected school board members have trouble navigating. And some argue that it’s these consultants, not the teachers, who should be getting the pink slips.

“I’m not sure the public understands how much the district spends on contracts. It’s a huge amount of money,” said Gustavo Arroyo, president of Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees.

School-district budgets can be pretty opaque. And even the leaders of the school district can have trouble figuring out what is what. “It’s very arcane,” said Arroyo. “The fact is that the public is struggling to get their hands on basic information.” He told SN&R, “I’ve been asking for two years” for a review of the district’s consultant contracts.

Vendor contracts make up about $53 million of the district’s $450 million budget. These 714 contracts account for a wide variety of services. They include the school’s insurance policies, software for tracking student performance, music therapy for special-education students and consultants who tell the district how to save energy.

“If we can find some savings there and avoid class size increases, or save school transportation, I think we should,” Arroyo said.

Much of the cost of contracts is for services that the district has no choice but to purchase—like liability insurance. There may be savings there, but it can’t be done away with. And much of this is driven by state mandates. For example, the district has to spend money on special placements for special-education students whom the district otherwise can’t adequately serve.

And many of the contracts are fairly straightforward. District employees and volunteers must be fingerprinted, so the district contracts for fingerprinting services with the Department of Justice for $140,000. A contract with the Sacramento Police Department for school “resource officers” costs the district nearly $1.5 million.

The district also allotted $129,000 in the last budget for an autodial system that regularly calls students’ home phone numbers with prerecorded announcements.

Among the largest contracts are more than $1 million to outside attorneys for litigation and legal counsel. The district is preparing a new bid for legal services.

Other contracts are harder to suss out.

A $79,000 contract was billed to the district’s special-education budget for consultant SAM Schools LLC. The company’s website describes their services this way: “The Schoolwide Applications Model (SAM) is a strong structural school reform process using data-based decision making, a response to intervention (RTI) logic model, and fully integrated resource coordination.”

There’s a $65,000 contract for a company called Teachscape, which provides software for principals to track and evaluate teacher performance. That contract was paired with a technology grant that bought new iPads for several principals. Teachscape is a pilot program, and the district hasn’t decided to keep it. The iPads are staying, however.

“I think it’s a wonderful idea to review some of these contracts,” said Dave Ross, a parent and longtime SCUSD budget watcher. “There’s a lot in there that the district probably overspends on.” Ross has served on the site council for his neighborhood school and on a districtwide advisory council. He thinks much of the money the district spends on outside contracts would be better spent at the local school.

“You see one of these programs, it’s an exciting concept. It’s very hip and very tempting to purchase it. But when you spend that $80,000 or $100,000, where’s the teacher’s salary at that point?”

Some other highlights among the district’s larger contracts:

• The district is paying more than $500,000 to a consulting firm called Transformation By Design. This one is tougher to explain without a lot of education jargon, but in a nutshell, the company is helping with reorganization of the districts seven “priority schools.” These are schools that performed poorly on state test scores and are now being shaken up, given new principals, new teachers and additional district support.

• The district is spending more than $600,000 for a contract with Energy Education, to consult with the district about how to save energy. The contract includes the salaries three full-time energy consultants. This contract is “under review,” according to district spokesman Gabe Ross (no relation to Dave Ross). “The jury is still out on this one,” he said. “It definitely saves money. Whether it saves us enough money to pay for the deal, it’s tough to know.”

• The district is paying $400,000 to Cambridge Education to run the district’s School Quality Review process. Again, it can be tough to get through the lingo, but the reviews are meant to help administrators, parents and teachers to develop a “School Development and Improvement Plan” for each campus.

Some of the contracts beg the question: Why are so many consultants needed when the district has so many highly paid and highly experienced education experts on staff?

The district in the last fiscal year had 136 employees on the payroll who make more than $100,000. Most of the six-figure salaries are for school principals. But the highest pay grades are occupied by associate superintendents and a number “chiefs” in Superintendent Jonathan Raymond’s Cabinet—like the chief accountability officer, chief of staff, the chief academic officer and the chief communications officer.

It’s fair to ask whether the district already has enough brainpower on staff to perform some of the tasks that consultants like Cambridge Education or Transformation By Design are getting paid to do.

“Are we giving out contracts when we have somebody in house to do that work? How do we know we’re getting the most bang for our buck?” Arroyo asked.

Some teachers think they already know the answer to that question. Sacramento City Teachers Association President Linda Tuttle says the teachers union conducted a survey of its members a couple of years ago, asking them to rank where the district should make cuts. Right after trimming administration, teachers said the district should fire the consultants. “They felt it was a frivolous waste of money,” Tuttle said, at a recent school board meeting.

Elementary school teacher Alice Mercer said she thinks some of the consulting contracts are providing worthwhile services, but at a price that’s too high. “A number of these initiatives look good. But I think there would be more buy-in and it would be cheaper if we did some of this in house,” Mercer added.

But the effort to trim consultant contracts appears to be bogging down in school-board politics and process. When Arroyo floated the idea of an ad hoc committee to scrutinize consultant contracts at a board of trustees meeting earlier this month, some of his fellow board members balked. Some members feel that the board shouldn’t form committees, but should handle all matters at regularly scheduled board meetings.

This philosophical difference led to some testy exchanges, and Arroyo’s proposal stalled. Instead, the district’s top administrator, Superintendent Jonathan Raymond, will lead a workshop on contracts for the board on April 7.

“We certainly need as much information as we can get,” said board member Patrick Kennedy. “Let’s get this all out in front of everybody and get some sunshine on it.”

But Kennedy disagrees with Arroyo’s push for an ad hoc committee. He thinks the issue can be addressed in one or two workshops of the whole board, which would likely concern just the largest contracts. “Do we really need to look at how much the district is spending on pencils?” Kennedy asked.

While board members haggle over process, time is running out to close the district’s budget gap. At last month’s meeting, board member Jeff Cuneo said that the board needs to get on with a review of contracts quickly as possible—in hopes of saving teachers and needed programs. “I would like to have some urgency on this issue. It needs to be done this budget cycle.”