Monday, February 18, 2008

How to Grade the RSD's Homework: Part 1

On Wednesday, Paul Vallas, Superintendent of the Recovery School District, is due to present a budget to the State of Louisiana Board of Education. The RSD has been operating without any budget for over two years.

Mr. Vallas was hired to manage the RSD last spring amidst great fanfare. His reputation has largely been presented as sterling, witness the following articles:

From the New York Times, "A Tamer of Schools Has Plan in New Orleans" and "Prominent Education Reformer to Lead New Orleans School"
From NPR, "An Education Star Takes On New Orleans"
From Time Magazine, "The Greatest Education Lab"

So when the Times-Picayune characterized him locally as "an urban schools luminary," they were merely expressing a bias that had already become ensconced as fact.

Coming from Philadelphia as I do, I was aware that Paul Vallas had many detractors. He did not leave there on good terms. His exit was quite messy, actually and it was covered extensively by bloggers and mainstream news organizations in Philadelphia. That might come as surprising to those here in New Orleans because this was never mentioned by any of the local news outlets or by Vallas' national boosters.

In fact, Time Magazine lauds Lousiana for landing Vallas, claiming that Mr. Vallas was "persuaded to leave Philadelphia," when the fact is that he was not welcome to return.

A few months ago, I set out to investigate what went wrong for Mr. Vallas in Philadelphia with the hopes of sharing that information with the citizens of New Orleans. Given Mr. Vallas' considerable skills in managing relationships with politicians and the media, it is critical for everyday citizens to step up to ask the questions that need to be asked.

I don't believe that Paul Vallas is a bad guy. He's not outwardly incompetent or misguided like some of the other municipal personalities we've grown accustomed to discussing here in New Orleans. By all accounts he is extremely intelligent and especially hard-working.

However, given that Mr. Vallas' record in Philadelphia was actually quite mixed, it is critical that New Orleanians not turn a blind eye to his administration.

After all, he doesn't plan to stick around to take responsibility when the city will likely begin experiencing some of the consequences of Vallas' unchecked decisions: "Three years tops."

Therefore, over the next few days keep checking back to see the results of my research into Mr. Vallas' track record. On Wednesday, when the RSD produces its first budget, we'll begin to have an idea of whether or not Mr. Vallas is repeating his mistakes.

Teachers sometimes create a rubric, or blueprint for evaluating the work of students. I hope my findings and analysis will help the citizens of New Orleans form a rubric for evaluating the performance of Mr. Vallas.

Part 1: Entourage

I've obtained some audit materials from the Philadelphia City Controller's office.

Under Mr. Vallas, there were dramatic increases in the number and amount of no-bid contracts awarded each year. In 2002-2003, out of a total of 263 vendors, no one contract exceeded $5,000. In 2003-2004, the cap on any one no-bid contracts was raised to $25,000 and the number of vendors receiving contracts increased to 768. During the 2005-2006 fiscal year, contracts were awarded to 901 vendors.

These contracts do not represent all of those awarded by Philadelphia's School Reform Commission. Rather, these represent no-bid contracts that Mr. Vallas was authorized to award without direct approval from the SRC.

In fairness to Mr. Vallas, the SRC approved of the increases to the individual contract cap and the total budget allotted to Mr. Vallas for awarding these types of contracts.

Nevertheless, what appeared to occur was that Mr. Vallas was able to convince the SRC to give him more money and less oversight. The ramifications of this will become clear later when I discuss budget deficits.

When Mr. Vallas presents his budget on Wednesday, it will be interesting to see what kind of leeway he gets in the awarding of no-bid contracts. If his budget specifically lists some of the no-bid contracts the RSD has already awarded, it will be especially enlightening to take out a magnifying glass. What vendors show up on my lists from Philadelphia?

For instance, what companies are being paid to provide classroom technology?

Paul Vallas does not work alone. He is known to rely heavily on a team of close advisers that have followed him from Chicago to Philadelphia and now to New Orleans. They were paid handsomely in Philadelphia. Who did he bring with him and what do their salaries look like?

In Philadelphia, one aide close to Vallas was found to have billed the School District of Philadelphia for over $70,000 in expenses over four years for flights to and from Chicago, Ford Mustang rentals, hotel room service, hotel gym memberships, and an apartment in Philadelphia's upscale Center City neighborhood.

It was later revealed that while she was working 20 hours per week at $75,000 per year in Philadelphia, she simultaneously was employed by the school district in St. Louis for 29 hours per week at $69,000 annually.

Cozette Buckney was ordered to repay the Philly district $19,000 for inappropriately billed expenses.

Unfortunately, I cannot find free full-text articles that mention this. They have been hidden behind the Philadelphia Inquirer's archive wall for some reason. This link verifies the existence of one of those articles. I have hard copies of those articles and there are a couple of key excerpts that I'd like to share:

[The dual-employment story] came as news to the president of the St. Louis school board, who said Friday that the board would investigate it...

Buckney was hired by St. Louis Superintendent Creg [sic] E. Williams, who worked for Vallas as chief academic officer in Philadelphia before taking the job in St. Louis. Like Buckney, Williams worked for Vallas when he ran the Chicago public schools. Williams was not available for comment...
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Buckney said she was leaving her St. Louis job in July. She said the controversy over her expenses and her dual employment "is just tearing me apart. It hurts me to my heart," she said.

"I'm going to take a vacation - I need one after this."

A quick google search reveals that Cozette Buckney did go on vacation after she left her St. Louis job in July.

It was a paid vacation.

To Louisiana.

If you scroll to page 36 or 37 of this document, the minutes from Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on August 17th, you'll see that the state retroactively approved a $38,400 contract for Cozette Buckney to provide consulting services to the RSD from July through October of 2007. If you scroll down to page 33 or 34 of this document, the minutes from the October 18th meeting of the Board, you'll see that Buckney's contract was extended through the end of January at additional cost of $14,400 so that she could continue to provide consulting services to the district. That's a total salary of $52,800 for six months of consulting work.

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When Mr. Vallas releases his budget on Wednesday, keep an eye out for his entourage. What are they getting? Is it fair?

Stay tuned.

6 comments:

dsb nola said...

Good work! Keep it coming ...

Anonymous said...

Can I work for you when your Mayor?

Leigh C. said...

E, don't know if you saw this today:

http://www.first-draft.com/2008/02/i-have-friends.html

Thoughts?

Simone said...

The Web site of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is currently during a series of reports about Mr. Vallas and his efforts. Four reports so far in the series. Below are the links:
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/july-dec07/nola_10-02.html http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/july-dec07/nola_11-23.html
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june08/nola_02-08.html
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/education/jan-june08/nola_04-03.html

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