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October 19, 2010 Published in 2010 In Review, Schools, Top Stories

Alexandria School Chief Defends Consulting Expenditures

Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman. (Photo: James Cullum)

By Carla Branch

Since becoming the superintendent of the Alexandria City Public School system in August, 2008, Dr. Morton Sherman has spent $4,200,274 on consultants. Some teachers, principals and members of the Alexandria community want to know why.

“The time that we are spending in training is taking away from time that we should be spending in the classroom with students,” said one teacher.

Principals agree. “There needs to be a better balance between the time that administrators and teachers are spending out of our buildings and the time that we are spending with our students,” said one principal.

On Friday, Sherman sent a letter to the staff defending the amount of money that he is spending on consultants.

“Although it is generally agreed that consultants and use of professional services make countless contributions to our students and teachers, some of the questions I have had are: Who are they? How do they contribute to the work we do for students? At what cost? To help to answer these staff and community questions, I have attached a summary and a detailed list of consultants and professional services the division has hired over the past three years. The total expenditures have been around 1% of operating budget; yet, many of the costs have been paid from federal and state grants,” Sherman said.

“Consultants make three primary contributions to the students, parents, professional team and to the community. Our outside advisors are ‘knowledge transfer agents.’ They bring with them a deep level of expertise that isn’t realistic for our team to have and still deliver on their day-to-day responsibilities. Second, our advisors are an efficient solution to the need for specialized expertise. We pay only for what we need and use. Third, our advisors’ primary role is accelerating the learning process of our professional team. They provide a fresh, independent set of eyes by which we gain new perspectives.

“Consultant advisors mainly focus their knowledge transfer and professional development in these key areas: education professional development, energy conservation, legal, transformation of TC, private investigators for residency, planning and related special services. They are paid from a variety of revenue sources. Each budget department that they support derives a documented and measurable benefit.

“We try to minimize the length of engagement for each advisor. They work with ACPS for only as long as they complement, improve and elevate our mission. The long term goal for most of the areas where consultants are used is to have staff members learn the skills or gain the knowledge so we can have in-house experts. As a school division working hard and making progress as we go from very good to great, our success is measured one student at a time. In a recent report about Alexandria’s children, it is clear that we serve students who have remarkable potential, and that is why our ‘one to one’ approach helps our students achieve their unique potential. At the same time, we have one of the most diverse student populations in all of Northern Virginia school divisions. It is important to have this contextual understanding to fully appreciate the journey of our budget process,” Sherman said in the letter.

The School Board pays for legal fees associated with defending various lawsuits. In the past two years, legal/medical fees come to $1,908,914. Staff development consultants over the past two years have been paid $693,143 from the school system’s operating budget and $351,896 in federal, state and private grants.

ACPS Consulting Highlights (Graphic Image)

Individually, over the past two years, Sherman has paid Fran Prolman $102,300 in consulting fees for staff development and other professional services. Dr. Bena Kallick has received $73,859 for staff development services, all of which has come from the operating budget. Stefanie Karp has earned $42,783 in consulting fees over the past two years for technology services, other professional services and financial services. Before Sherman took on his full-time responsibilities as the school system’s superintendent in August, 2008, the School Board paid him $20,000 in consulting fees to ensure a smooth transition from Interim Superintendent Bill Simons.

These payments reflect expenditures through June 30, 2010. There are a number of consultants working in the school system now.

“It’s very easy to target the cost of consultants as whether this is a good use of dollars,” said School Board Chair Yvonne Folkerts. “We do find savings and results with consultants. For example, we’re presently using consultants on a short-term basis in lieu of a Central Office position not being filled. In this instance, we are paying less than the salary and not paying benefits. Further, we do see results. One example that comes to mind is the writing consultants we brought in to train our teachers. We reaped the benefits: Patrick Henry, Barrett and other schools saw writing scores jump dramatically last year as a result of our teachers using this training directly in their classrooms.”