District to pay $1.4m to turnaround consultants

Lost in the shuffle of a six-hour Philadelphia School Reform Commission meeting Thursday night: resolution A-13, a $1.4 million, one-month contract with to Boston Consulting Group, Inc.

That’s right — $1.4 million. And the Philadelphia School District still has a June deadline for trimming $38.8 million more from a budget that’s already lost thousands of employees and withstood deep cuts to individual schools’ funds.

But SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said he did not expect the money to come from district coffers. The SRC has had conversations with philanthropists and nonprofits and the full funding should come from them, Ramos said.

And — in what seems to be a nod to the failed $905,000 donor-financed buyout of Arlene Ackerman, which fell apart over public furor over anonymous donations — the names and contribution amounts of the donors will be made public, Ramos said.

The contract is for “professional managerial and financial consulting services and expenses” in three areas — advising Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon on a decentralized academic program model; examining the district’s current central office setup on the business side and how that should be revamped for the new decentralized model; and identifying and implementing new gap-closing measures for both this fiscal year and next.

Why the need for high-paid consultants? And why act now, before the nonprofit/philanhropic funding is finalized?

“Our financial battle here is a battle literally being fought in days,” Ramos said. “Because [Chief Recovery Officer Thomas] Knudsen’s ready to move with a decision today, we didn’t want to delay that.”

Plus, Ramos and Knudsen said, this is a job that requires outside expertise - it's simply beyond the district's internal capacity.

The district put out a request for qualifications before choosing Boston; Knudsen said four of nine respondents qualified.  Boston, he said, has experience with this kind of work.

On its website, the company bills itself as “the world’s leading advisor on business strategy” and says that “by taking a holistic, analytical approach to our clients’ most challenging issues, we are able to develop solutions that deliver lasting value.”

Knudsen said that this work would take the “muscles of this system” and make them work better. 

The district is a large and in some ways antiquated bureaucracy, officials said.  Bus routes, for instance, are still mapped out with grease pencil, Knudsen said.

And then there’s the question of how schools will operate going forward.  Principals will have much more autonomy — this means the end of centrally-mandated, nearly universally-reviled scripted curricula, for instance — and central office will be restructured to try to support that better.

The few audience members who remained when the discussion was going on, at about 11 p.m., seemed startled — wait, the decision to decentralize the district is already done?  It’s being executed?

Commissioner Lorene Cary said the decision was effectively made a long time ago, by others, that this SRC is just acknowledging the district’s reality — it has a system of diverse schools and types of schools, and must manage them better.  Status quo won't work any more, for a lot of reasons, they said.

All this to say: stay tuned. It’s going to be a very busy, transformative race to the end of the school year. 

What do you think about the consulting contract?  About the looming decentralization?