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Q+A with William Penn's Jeremy Nowak on transformation plan

Jeremy NowakJeremy Nowak, the president of the William Penn Foundation, has been a key player in the District's plan for dealing with its budget crisis and reorganizing its operations. The William Penn Foundation paid for the Boston Consulting Group's initial $1.4 million contract and Nowak raised additional money to keep BCG on past its five-week commitment. The Notebook asked Nowak to answer a series of questions about the plan, especially in light of the controversy it has generated. (Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation is a major funder of the Notebook.)

Notebook: Why has the William Penn Foundation decided to do this – to give money so District leadership could hire a consultant to advise it on reorganization?

Nowak: The District faced a perfect storm of crisis-level problems: a superintendent who departed under difficult circumstances, huge budget deficits, declining confidence, and decreased public resources. The new SRC chairman, Pedro Ramos, and the chief recovery officer, Tom Knudsen, realized there was an emergency and the remaining staff did not have the capacity to stop the bleeding. It was – and still is – a dire situation.

There was no other choice than to bring in a firm like Boston Consulting Group that had the expertise needed to help reduce the current year deficit as well as frame out a five-year plan that could move the District into fiscal balance.

The plan has two organizing principles: 1) a sustainable public education structure that operates inside a real budget and 2) increasing the supply of high-quality, safe schools for all students.

Notebook: What is your assessment of the plan rolled out by Tom Knudsen with BCG’s help?

Nowak: The plan is a dynamic framework with new concepts, big ideas, and core principles. It also includes a rationale and data to support a new way of delivering high-quality public education to all students. From a foundation perspective, we received a quick return on our grant investment. It brought the conversation out of the drift of financial crisis and into a much-improved vision of what is possible. We like the idea of using data to scale up the best District or charter programs, or to close down those that consistently fail.

Notebook: How involved were you personally in helping to shape it?

Nowak: It is not a completed process. I am still involved, as well as others at the William Penn Foundation. We’re invested in a big way. Closing the achievement gap for low-income children is a high priority for the foundation. I represent the foundation on the chief recovery officer’s steering committee. We meet regularly to provide input at various stages and we ask tough questions. I am not helping to develop the framework – I don’t have the specialized skills that the BCG consultants bring to this overhaul. But we are working hard to bring other investors to fund the transformation needed. We also have to answer their questions and raise their concerns.

Notebook: Which of all of the other cities that have been cited – New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis, NYC – do you see this plan being most akin to? Where do you think this kind of breakup/reorganization has worked best?

Nowak: There is not another city that has implemented a similar plan. There are concepts from other cities that have helped to inform this proposal. The School Reform Commission and the School District are looking at lessons learned and making decisions on financial data and real performance numbers. This is a unique situation that calls for a tailored structure that can work in Philadelphia.

Notebook: Do you agree with people who say that this plan means the dissolution of the School District as we know it? Is this the goal?

Nowak: No, I don’t agree with people who say that. SRC and District leaders are looking at what works well in many high-performing schools – District-run and charter-operated – and determining the most effective and efficient way to offer those options to more students. How the District does that is still being constructed. Moreover, the District has very real financial problems, many of them based on years of refusing to make tough decisions. If there are alternatives to closing a projected (cumulative) budget deficit over the next five years of more than $1 billion, then we need to hear them.

Notebook:. What do you and the others who have contributed to the reorganization planning hope the school system – the system of schools – looks like after this process?

Nowak: I may be repeating myself, but the goal is simply stated: more students in Philadelphia attending schools – District-run or charter-operated – that provide high-quality education in a safe environment. We have great expectations for what can happen if we all get involved and realize it’s a problem we all must help solve. I think we also hope that the bureaucratic inflexibilities that made it so hard to get things done are slowly eliminated. We want fiscal certainty so we do not move from crisis to crisis every few months. And we want to push as much money as possible into the classrooms in support of great teachers.

Notebook: Education cuts have been deep and broad in Pennsylvania, affecting more districts than Philadelphia. Do you think there is any role for people like yourself or the SRC to attempt to influence Gov. Corbett on the depth of education cuts?

Nowak: Our foundation does not lobby. But we certainly do fund research that provides data that can help make decisions at both a state and local level. Research that our foundation and others support clearly shows what happens to children when they are poorly served by the education system, and what happens to a state that lacks a labor force that is prepared for the future. In the past we supported some of the most important groups in the state who sought (and sometimes won) a fairer formula for the allocation of education resources. These are issues we will continue to support in the future. But we need not only money but performance and accountability.

Notebook: The budget cutting and reorganization plan inspired immediate blowback. To what and to whom do you attribute that?

Nowak: On the one hand, it is based on the fact that there is a lot of bad news here that we are all dealing with because of budget deficits. That is the truth and it is painful and blowback is natural and real. But there is another factor; the plan calls for dramatic changes in the way we organize the system, so you’d expect some resistance on that count also. Frankly, Philadelphia is not always great at dealing with change. Dramatic change must happen, though, given the demanding circumstances the District faces. To close the achievement gap for Philadelphia students, we need to get as much of the District’s funds into the classrooms as possible. Why would anyone be happy with the status quo? 

Notebook: Do you think the critics have made any valid points?

Nowak: There are no easy solutions to ensure that every child gets a high-quality education. But nothing is more important to the city’s future than improving the quality of K-12 public education. We welcome the debate as long as we all offer new ideas and realistic solutions. The District is broke and broken. The system is not educating our children at the level we need it to; that’s why change must happen. After all, we are building a school district for the sake of the children, not adult interest groups.

Notebook: If BCG had been hired with public money, the contract would have been subject to right-to-know provisions. What do you say to critics who complain there isn’t enough transparency about this contract? What have you disclosed about this contract and what are you willing to disclose?

Nowak: We have been open about what we are doing. We announced our support for the BCG contract and explained that the goal was to create a more fiscally responsible way to operate the School District, one that will help close the achievement gap and result in more resources at the school level. In our initial announcement, we said we would look for additional resources. I think I was quoted as saying that “Pedro Ramos and I would go on a fundraising tour.” We also talked exclusively with the Notebook about the second phase of work with BCG and listed some of the investors, when you requested it. We understand the need for openness.

Notebook: Some of the private donors supporting the planning support charter expansion. Is it a legitimate or misplaced concern that the BCG report would reflect the interests of these donors?

Nowak: BCG is developing a number of operations, financial, facilities master planning, management structure, and human capital strategies and proposals. At the end of the day, it is up to the SRC to accept or reject any particular path they suggest. Donors that offer a few million dollars for consultation at the request of the SRC are not calling the shots at a $2.6 billion agency. Neither is the consulting firm. This is a public agency with shared governance between the mayor’s and governor’s office.  

BCG’s performance should be judged—and will be judged—on the merits. They are a significant management consultant with offices all over the world. The investors in the future of our city’s public education system come to this project with various viewpoints and ideas. All of them are interested in developing credible, realistic solutions that benefit children. We take the same position with poorly performing charters as poorly performing district schools: Fix them or close them. 

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Comments (21)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2012 12:08 pm

Can we start a list of questions not asked? I'll start.
Why funnel the money through the United Way?

Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on May 31, 2012 2:44 pm

If they want transparency, they should include at least one rep from all unions in the school district at these meetings, not to participate but to observe and give an honest account at what takes place behind closed doors.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2012 6:31 pm

Let's clear up some misconceptions:

1. Jeremy Nowak is not CEO of Mastery Charter. Scott Gordon is. Look it up.

2. Jeremy Nowak did not send his children to private school. He sent them to Lower Merion High School, a public school.

3. There is enough teacher union propaganda. A huge budget deficit calls for the consolidation of schools and the dumping of inept bureaucrats - that's basically it. A rep from a union would spread more lies like 'if you support this plan there will be no bussing for your children!' All we need is more angry, misinformed citizens.

4. Direct democracy is not the answer to anyone's problems. Stop dreaming. Boo hoo you can't know everything about what happens in Foundation chatter and subnational government. YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO.

5. Do some research before you post publicly about something you know little about.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2012 7:34 pm

Nowak chaired the Board of Mastery Charter - he obviously has a vested interested in promoting Mastery. Sending children to Lower Merion High School (what about K-8?) is not the same as sending a child to a SDP school. Lower Merion spends almost 2 times as much per student, has "state of the art" facilities, etc, etc. Don't insult us by comparing Lower Merion with the SDP. The inept bureaucrats are not union members - they are still at 440 N. Broad.

Since you do not support an informed public, are you advocating for an oligarchy with Mastery's Scott Gordon as its head? This seems to be the mode of operation of the Great Cities Compact.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2012 7:20 pm

K-8 was a public school as well. I know the family well. If you met them, you would know how benevolent they are and that Nowak really is fighting for Philadelphia's children. He was one of them. He attended SDP schools himself.

Camden's school district spends as much as Lower Merion yet it isn't able to afford its attendants the same opportunities. Look it up. It's about utilization of funding - not strictly about funding. I would concede in saying property taxes fund what money might not be available from government in Lower Merion. However, money could certainly get to Philadelphia. It's just some higher ups need some good data before they're willing to flush taxpayer money into corrupt, violent districts (blame the contracts, the incompetence, and the unions).

Don't insult Philadelphia's children by siding with unions.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2012 7:00 pm

There are Lower Merion teachers who make six figures because of its union. Should Lower Merion teachers also be rated subjectively? How many Lower Merion teachers buy hundreds if not thousands in schools supplies for their students? How many Lower Merion teachers volunteer to run clubs after school so they can exist?

Lower Merion is extremely wealthy. Most parents can afford tutors, summer enrichment programs, music lessons, dance classes, etc. Most Philadelphia parents can not. Therefore, schools should provide more opportunities for students in high poverty districts - not less.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2012 3:16 pm

Does Nowak, a former head of Mastery Charters BOD, have a conflict of interest with his promotion of a very narrow view of reform? Mastery may work for some students but it is a test prep, 7 step approach that does not move students beyond the requirements of the PSSA (soon to be Keystone). While he calls this "quality," is it the "quality" he wants for his children? Apparently the CEO of Mastery, who send his children to private school, does not consider Mastery "quality" for his children.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2012 4:54 pm

Well stated---Of course, monkey see, monkey do is not education in the real sense of the word. Edison did that crap too 24/7. It's an embarrassment and no parent who "gets it" wants that for their kids. Fund the real schools fairly and end this profiteering corruption of the system.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on May 31, 2012 10:31 pm

If Mr. Nowak has children or grandchildren, I wonder if he would send his children to a Mastery Charter School. If schools are not good enough for the children of corporate CEOs who make a lot of money, then these same schools are not good enough for poor children and the children of common folk!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2012 6:29 pm

Equality is not possible without a change in the funding formula. No one in the affluent suburbs would send their kids to charter schools at the moment. They are a work in progress, or in another way, a stepping stone. I applaud Nowak and others for their efforts in turning around violent schools that now produce intelligent-minded youth with higher aspirations. Charter schools may shake things up a bit - but in a good way. Wait twenty years and the picture will be much brighter. You'll pretend you were on the side of charters all along.

Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on June 21, 2012 7:19 pm

Since I can't afford to live in Lower Merion, my children are destined for a "less than adequate" public education. Wasn't this suppose to change with Brown v. Board in 1954? Why do you assume all neighborhood public schools produce "non-intelligent minded" youth? The youth organizing against the SDP so called transformation are obviously intelligent, have higher aspirations and attend SDP schools. Why are you insulting our students??? Is this an indication of the charter arrogance that will dump any student who won't sign the Mastery contract?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2012 3:05 pm

According to the BCG website, none of the BCG consultants have any experience or academic background in education- http://www.bcg.com/careers/meet_bcgers/default.aspx (go to "background" to see a list of specialization areas). I would like to know who specifically worked on the plan, and what their expertise areas actually are.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 31, 2012 9:31 pm

Yes, it needs to be disclosed what that "interesting" method is that BCG uses to determine whether a school should be closed or not.

There is also a big contradiction here: do we increase high quality options by closing schools (that equates to opening charters... that equates to saying that running away is a solution) or do we actually confront the bureaucratic unresponsiveness? If we do the latter, (and it is possible by creating an entity that actually can report on, and check for waste, fraud, and abuse) we can preserve what all of us are intuitively fighting for: our combined resources and strength.

What Mr. Nowak does not recognize is that School Based Administration which is being used as the answer to bureaucratic obstacles (in both the movement to charters as well as the splitting of the District into Achievement Networks) will weaken the ability to gather data that is needed to advance better educational methods. It will make it harder to ensure standards across the diverse administrations. It will also make it harder to share resources: despite the "Great Schools Compact", the fact remains that having separate political entities will create a competition for resources, and the advantage of pooling of these resources will be lost.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2012 10:43 pm

The interesting method is that BCG takes some insignificant piece of data, gives it a new catch phrase (ending in the word "analysis"), and puts it in a lovely power point slide.

Oh yes, and then they charge $1.4 million+

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 31, 2012 11:39 pm

So for $1.4 million, we should all get a copy :)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on June 2, 2012 9:22 am

Mr. Nowak. BCG has no expertise that is very very clear from the way they and you have handled the situation.

You see -- that is why we have democracy and the Sunshine Act. We, the public, have a 14th Amendment "due process right" to participate fully in the governance of our public schools. It is illegal to contract out public school governance and it is illegal to circumvent the democratic process.

BCG clearly does not understand that and clearly does not know that by shutting out the public in "their process" it is an example of "incompetent leadership."

And they have the audacity to hold themselves out as "experts?" We are educated people Mr. Nowak and we have our eyes open. We have no trust in what is going on.

BCG has little expertise, only the ideology and psychobabble of privatization. We already see that very very clearly.

Submitted by mrsaltz (not verified) on May 31, 2012 6:12 pm

"There was no other choice than to bring in a firm like Boston Consulting Group that had the expertise needed to help reduce the current year deficit as well as frame out a five-year plan that could move the District into fiscal balance."

My assumptions is that at this point in the interview his nose grew an inch longer. Absurd.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on May 31, 2012 6:46 pm

Agreed---Plus, that run-on sentence was probably crafted by that genius, Penny Nixon.

Submitted by Ken Derstine on May 31, 2012 9:22 pm

Business, it's just business.

"The investors in the future of our city’s public education system come to this project with various viewpoints and ideas."
Where are the educators planning the education of the next generation?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on June 2, 2012 8:24 am

What a shitty interview. I expect more from Dale. Why didn't you ask for a copy of the report? Why didn't you get him to talk about the role of transparency in private $ going to public entities. Shame

Submitted by Kilgore Trout (not verified) on June 12, 2012 10:32 am

"Why didn't you ask for a copy of the report? Why didn't you get him to talk about the role of transparency in private $ going to public entities. Shame"

Because the Penn Foundation funds the Notebook.

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