Thursday, August 09, 2012

Do Iowa's School Districts Need Consultants?

August 9, 2012, 10:00 a.m.
Are They Worth It?

[Credit: Ted Elliott Resources.] The Iowa City Community School District is looking for a consultant -- or consultants -- again. Adam B. Sullivan, "District considers hiring consultant; Firm would determine building capacity, enrollment trends, growth projections," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 8, 2012, p A1.

[And see, e.g., "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010 ("The ICCSD is not the only school district from among the 15,000 in the U.S. that is confronting the need to redraw its schools' boundary lines. . . . However, most districts also manage to resolve it without months of undirected chaos, changes in direction, and the 'assistance' of expensive consultants."); "School Board Can't Do Job? There They Go Again," January 7, 2010 ("What is it about elected and appointed board members and administrators? Why this compulsive, knee-jerk sprint to search firms and consultants whenever they come face to face with the real job they're there to do? Honestly, what is it? Fundamental, gut-wrenching insecurity and low self-esteem? A political cowardice that seeks to ward off any possible criticism from any quarter with the ability to say, 'But that wasn't our decision; . . ..' Or is it a candid, honest assessment that they are really incapable of doing their job?"); "School Boundaries Consultant Folly", August 28, 2009 (and associated, embedded links); "UI VPs and ICCSD Consultants," August 14, 2009 ("it seems to me the tasks he has identified [for consultants] are tasks well within the job descriptions and expertise of administrators and staff the District already has in place").]

And what do they want these consultants to do? Why does the board think it needs them? The Press-Citizen quotes the superintendent as saying, "As we go through the process of doing facilities planning . . . there is some data we need. We need to know how many kids we have . . .."

This is not calculus, folks. It's not even trigonometry. It's elementary school math.

We had an Australian family visiting us last week. Their young son is almost three years old. He can count. Maybe the Iowa City District could hire him to gather that "data" regarding "how many kids we have." I'm sure he'd be willing to do it for substantially less than the $8000-to-$120,000 bids the board is considering.

Yes, I agree. I am being a little unfair. The board also wants to know "how many kids we're going to have." They think consultants can help them design buildings, draw school boundary lines, and determine transportation and staffing costs. But enrollment projections are already being provided by the University of Iowa. And as I'll soon explain, the decisions in question can and should only be made by board members, not consultants.

Administrative and Executive Pay Scales -- and for What?

What are we paying our school superintendents and college presidents for anyway? With their salaries running ten times those of many of their institutions' employees, and many corporate CEOs paid as much as 400 times their employees' salaries, it's hard to say what level of pay would be appropriate, reasonable and fair. But aren't we already paying them for their expertise to do the very things they want to pay consultants to do?

I'm reminded of the time our Board of Regents was unwilling to exert sufficient effort to retain UI President David Skorton, one of the nation's most highly regarded -- and now highly paid -- university presidents. As Slate has said, "Skorton, a man of great humor, warmth, and charm, is a distinguished research cardiologist and an accomplished jazz musician." Robert H. Frank, "Why Has Inequality Been Growing? How technology and winner-take-all markets have made the rich so much richer," Slate, December 6, 2011. That certainly squares with my own experiences with him -- although I would go on at much greater length regarding the full range of the extraordinary talents of this man. (If I am not mistaken he was qualified to, and did, hold positions in three of Iowa's graduate colleges.)

When the Regents refused him a pay raise, and many expected him to be miffed, his response was characteristic of the man: "When the median family income in Iowa is around $45,000 and I make over $300,000, it’s hard to argue that is not a lot of money. It’s very generous." Nicholas Johnson, "Pricey Presidents' Added Cost," Daily Iowan, March 7, 2006. (Cornell University is now paying him probably about three times that.)

Call me naive, but I think even $100,000 a year, plus benefits -- twice the average Iowan's income -- ought to be a liveable wage in most towns in Iowa today. At $250,000 -- five times the average Iowan -- the recipient is in the top 2 percent of American wage earners, most of whom live in east or west coast locations much more expensive than any in Iowa. Andrew Ross Sorkin, "Rich and Sort of Rich," New York Times, May 15, 2012, p. WK1.

It would be unrealistic to think that a school district or college should be able to obtain the equivalent of a David Skorton at those, or any other, salary levels. Individuals who combine the talents of Thomas Jefferson, Galileo, Michelangelo, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Jesus, Wynton Marsalis, and Jerry Seinfeld are extremely rare.

So we're not getting those qualities. But what are we getting for our money? What can we reasonably expect? Sometimes it seems like the equivalent of the fellow who applied for a job as chef, and when asked what he most liked to make for dinner replied, "reservations." An institutional administrator whose primary skill is picking consultants is little better than that aspiring chef -- especially if the consultants he finds aren't that much better, either.

The Responsibilities of School Board Members

School board members cannot reasonably be expected to bring high level administrative skills, and K-12 expertise, to their jobs. It is a largely thankless position with little-to-negative payoff professionally, politically, socially, and none financially. As I used to say when serving on the Iowa City school board, "You may not get any pay, but at least you get a lot of grief."

That said, for whatever reason board members have chosen to serve. From my perspective that means they have assumed some self-imposed responsibilities.

They need to combine the desire and ability to listen to all stakeholders, along with the political courage to stand up to the inevitable opposition to the changes necessitated by the best interests of the district.

They must be able to think rationally and precisely about their governance system and come to agreement about their self-imposed procedures.

They need to get themselves informed about the range of issues confronting school districts all across the country, and given our global economy, progressive systems in other countries as well.

They need to recognize that, with 15,000 school districts in this country it is highly unlikely they will confront any challenge that has not already been present, identified, confronted, resolved, and written up about another district somewhere.

There are thousands of useful articles, books, government and foundation reports, education periodicals, and academic research regarding K-12. School board members need to spend at least as many hours informing themselves by searching the Internet, and local libraries, as the hours away from home they would spend attending a national school board convention in a holiday resort at taxpayers' expense.

Many to most of the issues school boards confront are issues that school board members, and only school board members, can address and resolve.

As I used to tell my colleagues, "Normally before you ask an architect for advice you know whether you want to build a courthouse or an outhouse." Only the board can decide what they want to do inside those school buildings -- not an architect, a committee, or a consultant. If they think team teaching and block scheduling are a good idea the walls will be in different places. If the board is persuaded by the available research that the optimum size of a high school is about 800 students, that will affect the size and cost of any new high schools. If the board decides, as advised by the National Commission for the High School Senior Year, that the best place for high school seniors is out of the high schools, that may reduce the "overcrowding" that dictates the need for new buildings.

The same thing can be said regarding school boundaries, class sizes, allocation of students from low income or homeless families. These all involve decisions that should be assumed, personally, by board members -- legally, politically, morally, and administratively -- not "contracted out" to the superintendent, committees, or consultants.

Ulterior Reasons for Using Consultants

Of course, the problem is actually worse than this. Consultants are often used, not because board members haven't done their homework, not because they don't know the answer or how to find it, but because they want to distance themselves politically from the decision. They want to be able to say, "we got the best consultants in the business (or best people in the community to serve on our committee), and this is what they advised." This may be made worse still by paying a consultant who is willing to come up with the recommendation the board has already decided upon.

A Little Closing Consultant Comedy

Well, enough of all this heavy discussion. Let's close with some of the stories consultants even tell about themselves.

Consultants, like lawyers, suffer from an abundance of jokes.

A young consultant in a Mercedes pickup truck, dressed in suit and tie, missed his turn and found himself on a dirt backroad in Iowa alongside a field. Spotting the farmer, he decided he'd have some fun while getting directions.

"If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in that field will you give me one?"

"Sure," the farmer replied.

The young man went to work with his laptop, access to a NASA satellite, and offered the answer: "You have exactly 1322 sheep."

"Right, said the farmrer, who opened the gate, and let the young man into the field to select his animal.

Now it was the farmer's turn. "If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my animal?"

"OK, take a guess."

"You're a consultant."

"How'd you know?"

"Simple," replied the farmer. "You turned up here although nobody called you. You want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked, and you know nothing about my business. Now give me back my dog!"

How do you know you're dealing with a consultant?
When he took you to lunch he asked the waiter to explain the restaurant's "core competencies."

He can spell "paradigm."

He insists on referring to every serious problem in your organization as nothing more than an "improvement opportunity."

When you asked what he did before becoming a consultant he described it as "my sunk cost."

He is able to say "value-added" without laughing.

He refers to his wife as his "co-CEO." She confides to you that he used to refer to their dating as test marketing, he always put executive summaries on his love letters to her, he wanted to do more market research before they had their first child, and now he wants to re-org their family into a "team-based organization."

(Who provided some of the raw material to stimulate the above? Why, consultants of course. DCS Media "Consulting Jokes" and Tom Antion & Associates, "Consulting Humor.")

Want to be able to talk to your consultant? Forbes has contributed its own list of proposed vocabulary for MBA's seeking promotions. It will also be useful for school board members who wish to appear knowledgeable when talking with consultants. It contains such words and phrases as this sampling from Forbes 89: "thrown under the bus," "low-hanging fruit," "next big thing," "best practices," "peel back the onion," "phoned it in," "elephant in the room," "basic blocking and tackling," "our go-to-market," "move the needle," "the deliverable," "gone viral," "square the circle," "cash cow," "synergy," "incentivize," "perfect storm," "at the end of the day," "let's put lipstick on this pig," "results-oriented," "a one-off," "facing some headwinds," "put that in the parking lot," "let's blue sky this," "where the rubber meets the road," "net it out," "creative destruction," "boots on the ground," "paradigm shift," "data-driven," "win-win," and "wrap our heads around." Eric Jackson, "89 Business Cliches That Will Get Any MBA Promoted And Make Them Totally Useless," Forbes, June 19, 2012.

Concluding Remarks

I don't deny that there may have once been some institution, many years ago in a land far away, that actually benefited from consultants. That's certainly possible. But I'm not convinced we're better off with them than we would be if superintendents and board members would bring their own expertise, study, judgment, and political courage to bear to what are, after all, their personal responsibilities.

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Nick said...

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Julie VanDyke said...

Nick, you asked, "And what do they want these consultants to do? Why does the board think it needs them?"
Consultants make sense, when they can efficiently deliver a large amount of information in a short time as opposed to it taking one person or two or 20 a very long time to do. I am for creating as many living-wage ICCSD jobs as possible but only when it makes fiscal sense to do it that way.
The University does deliver some numbers to the district on which we have based much, but it's just one guy and he's pretty much counting with sticks and rocks compared to a consulting form that can deliver a system to us that allows us to run many different scenarios very quickly.
I did a custodial staffing report at UCSF (yes me) and it took me about a year to get through every room of the large 14 story tall Med Science building. They could have paid a consulting firm the same amount as they did me and had the information in a matter of a few days to a week.
Not that this district hasn't wasted money on consultants - RSP was a 160,000? and provided NOTHING USEFUL. They were exactly the kind of consultants you describe above and the board was using them as a decoy to take the heat for the planning and decisions they needed to make themselves and never really did.
This RFP is different. They are not contracting out the decisions. They are buying the tools to quickly get a full picture of every person and asset and room in the district. They are buying the base they need and have needed and will need to be able to make better informed decisions.
Synesi's audit was an excellent example of cost-effective use of consultants and we got many times what they cost back in the resignations of Pedersen, Bobek, and Schultz. Synesi's work stopped unimaginable waste of money, assets, and good people.
I'll watch the RFP carefully...we still need to watch our investment in consultants vigilantly to make sure we're not taking away a living wage job that could do a task more effectively than consultants.
UPDATE 10/4/12: Please view the updated RFP, available at the link below.

The Iowa City Community School District intends to procure services for facility master planning, including evaluation of building capacity, total cost of ownership, educational suitability, and management of fixed assets.

RFP available at (see RFP 13003)

Proposals due 10/24/12 at 2:00 PM CT

Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to the content of blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that comments unrelated to the essay, such as advertising posing as comments, or with links to unrelated sites, will be removed. That is why one or more of the comments posted on this blog entry are no longer here.

-- Nick