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District contracts: Who's getting paid





(This post has been updated)

Despite all the budget hoopla, one area consistently downplayed by the School District has been private contracts.

Since the budget hearings began, Parents United  for Public Education has been asking questions and requesting public information on contracts - how much is being paid out and to whom. Weeks ago, tired of the wait, we made our own "right-to-know" request. To the District's credit, they delivered on our request, and we've posted their list of the 2011 year-to-date payments to contractors and vendors here.

If you follow us on Twitter (@ParentsUnitedPA), you would have seen some of the outtakes of our findings. We dubbed our outtakes "fun facts," but the questions here are very serious.

After all, if we’re advocating for increased school funding through taxes and if the SRC/District is going to put on the chopping block essential priorities like full-day kindergarten, free transportation for students, and local schools’ discretionary funds, then we need to make sure we’re holding the District accountable for its own spending practices and priorities.

In my last post or two, I’ve gone over some of the problematic expenses the District and School Reform Commission have approved in the midst of the worst financial crisis in school history. The District doesn't competitively bid more than $200 million in professional services contracts, for example.

For the public, the only information that’s readily made available is the SRC resolutions posted every month. But in fact, the resolutions don’t even begin to give a full picture of the number of vendors getting paid by the District. For example, I couldn’t even find the resolution for the $240,000 spent on Alta Communications, a politically connected marketing and public relations firm. It’s just one piece of the $986,000 spent on PR, governmental, and marketing contracts, this despite the District’s having budgeted $2.86 million for a 20-person communications office.

These contracts include: Alta Communications, $240K; Frontline solutions: $153K; Positive Promotions: $146,534; Jada Creative Communications: $83,572; Maven Inc.: $77K Govt. relations; Eleanor Jean Hendley: $73K; Third Eye Productions: $64,841; Ceisler Jubilerer: $45,000; KSA-Plus communications $22,575; John Callahan and Mark Christy scouting video: $29,605; OMG Center for Collaborative Learning: $28,628; and Radio One Inc.: $22,674.

There are other questionable expenditures here too:

  • This year, the District is spending $8.3 million on the testing subsidiary of CTB McGraw Hill, an increase of 66 percent from the previous year’s $5 million, and more than three times the amount spent in 2009 ($2.6 million). CFO Mike Masch has said the District will cut about $1.5 million from testing contracts, but that hardly makes a dent – and that’s just for one company.
  • Another testing company making out big is Pearson. Its eight subsidiaries  cost the District $1.7 million in FY09, and in FY11 have racked up $3.4 million in fees so far.
  • As I reported before, the District has so far spent $2.2 million on Achieve 3000, a computer learning program that didn't exist two years ago.
  • We may have 1,200 fewer teachers next year, but the payout to Teach For America has more than doubled since 2009, from $301,000 to $668,000 so far in 2011.
  • What exactly did $244,000 buy from Public Financial Management, the organization brought in during the 2007 fiscal crisis to institute budgetary controls and ensure that a similar crisis wouldn’t happen. Last year we paid over $500,000 to PFM. Can we please have this money back?
  • Sterlen Barr, aka No Puff Daddy, gained a $234,000 payment for presentations on health and nutrition. Just to put this in context, in FY2011 Xerox had a $299,000 contract districtwide.
  • $66,686: The fee for the Council of Great City Schools, which recently named Arlene Ackerman the best urban superintendent in America. This amount is a third larger than the $48,000 paid to CGCS in 2009. 

There are other things like the $443,000 spent on the International Center for Leadership in Education or the $383,000 paid to the Gallup Organization for personnel assessments or even the $132,000 to Truffles Caterers. And who can forget the infamous million-dollar turnstiles at District headquarters.

The School Reform Commission approved a budget that failed to uphold things we know work in education. You have to wonder who’s checking on the contracts that never seem to make it to public light.

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