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From community and labor leaders, skepticism over BCG

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by Benjamin Herold
for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks
 

The School Reform Commission and private philanthropists may be offering considerable support to the Boston Consulting Group and vigorously defending their work.

But the District’s new management consultants have received a substantially cooler reaction from Philadelphia’s community and labor leaders.

“We at the NAACP despise the Boston Consulting Group,” said J. Whyatt Mondesire, the president of the venerable civil rights group’s Philadelphia chapter, during a protest rally before last week’s School Reform Commission vote on the District budget.

Mondesire was one of several speakers to blast BCG – and the unusual funding arrangement supporting its work in Philadelphia .

Robert McGrogan, the president of the principals' union, Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, called it a mistake for the District to rely on high-priced outside consultants and an expensive temporary executive, District Chief Recovery Officer Thomas Knudsen, to guide it through the current financial crisis.

“They’re going to be gone with their pockets full, and we’re going to be left with the legacy of whatever decisions they make,” McGrogan said.

Activist Helen Gym of Parents United for Public Education compared BCG to Edison Schools, a private company that 10 years ago also recommended dramatic changes to the management of Philadelphia schools. (Disclosure: Gym is also a Notebook board member.)

“We paid Edison Schools $2.4 million in 2001 to do a plan for our schools,” said Gym. “Now we’re paying $2.7 million to the Boston Consulting Group, and they’re making the same promises: Private outfitters can turn our schools around.”

“It’ll be terrible for our kids,” Gym concluded, drawing cheers from a raucous crowd at the rally.

During the SRC meeting, retired teacher Karel Kilimnik offered formal testimony on BCG, repeatedly asking when the group’s work would be made public. 

“There should be a printed report,” Kilimnik said.

Ramos responded that BCG has “generated a lot of analytical work” and that the SRC “has asked them to synthesize it and compile it in a way that can be useful.”

That documentation should be released “in the next few weeks,” said Ramos.

Last month, Enon Tabernacle Church in West Oak Lane, the largest predominantly African-American congregation in the city, organized a mass meeting demanding answers from Knudsen, Ramos and other District officials about the transformation plan. People at the meeting were openly skeptical about this reliance on outsiders.

Last week, Enon's senior pastor, the Rev. Alyn Waller, delivered their views to the SRC.

 "Jettison the relationship with the outside entities that have received money without giving back any report,” Waller told the commissioners.  

“Start over. Look into the community, where all the resources are.”

A BCG spokesperson declined to comment on the firm's work in Philadelphia.

“As a matter of policy, BCG does not comment on its work with clients,” wrote David Fondiller, in response to an emailed request for an interview. 

But William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak, who has raised the money for BCG's contract, says that the foundation is pleased with its work. The District was in such dire straits that it had no choice but to bring in an outside consultant, he said.

"From a foundation perspective, we received a quick return on our grant investment," Nowak maintained. "It brought the conversation out of the drift of financial crisis and into a much-improved vision of what is possible."

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