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The Omaha public schools are looking for a consultant. The district's not in trouble. Officials there aren't facing an angry group of parents or citizens calling for someone to expose the district's errant ways. They say they simply want to know where they stand in relation to other districts and how to improve. They have some ideas of their own but would like an outside opinion.

Ideally, Omaha officials want someone who will carry some clout. Yet, as they prepare to go to market, they are certain of just one thing: A lot of people will be interested in their business.

No one knows for sure how many education consultants roam the landscape, but they seem to be almost everywhere doing almost everything. States pay for outside advice on assessments, textbooks, teacher training, staffing, special education, and more. School districts call in freelance assistance to evaluate personnel, plan technology programs, set discipline strategies, design ways to boost student self-esteem. And the list goes on.

The roster of consultants ranges from former U.S. Secretaries of Education, like Terrel H. Bell, who made $94,000 helping design school reforms in Idaho, to David Hornbeck, a former Maryland state school superintendent who is now at the center of the debate over a school-reform proposal he helped draft for Alabama officials. Among other prominent names are Ruth Love, a former Chicago superintendent; Wilson Riles, a former California schools chief; and Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor and desegregation expert.

No one knows how much money consultants make from the nearly $280 billion spent on public education each year. It is a small slice, to be sure. Yet, even a tiny fraction makes for a substantial amount. In Louisiana alone, for example, the state education department budgets about $5 million a year for outside consulting contracts. In recent years, that amount has ranged between $2.5 million and nearly $8 million.

And in Louisiana--as in California and Alabama and Dallas and Milwaukee and Omaha and even tiny Hugo, Okla.--school officials increasingly are calling in consultants not only to take stock of education programs and to offer specialized technical help, but to plot a course toward improvement, sketching a vision for the future.

"They will have an impact here,'' says Neal Krause, the secretary to the Omaha school board. "If they don't, we will not have spent our money very well.'' While the board is still deciding exactly what it wants the consultant to do and is scanning the field for prospects, Krause says officials expect the choice to be tough.

"We're not necessarily interested in having a retired superintendent come in and write up a review,'' he says. "We want someone with outside expertise in financial management for a price we're willing to pay.''

Something in the neighborhood of $500,000 would give Omaha the pick of the crop. Something more like $50,000 might make the choice more limited.

So far, the district has gotten lists of consultants from the Council of the Great City Schools and the National School Boards Association. Beyond that, it is on its own in choosing among a field in which steady work depends heavily on professional networks and connections, reputation hinges on the satisfaction of former clients, and membership is open to anyone.

Omaha officials have already been talking with John Augenblick, a consultant who has long worked with state officials and lawmakers on ways to change the formulas that divide money among school districts.

He is working with Nebraska officials on a follow-up analysis of their 1990 school-funding reforms. The state is paying Augenblick $28,600 for the five-month project. He and another partner in his firm have each spent two days with Omaha school officials, who have eagerly paid them a total of $2,500.

The aim in Omaha is to develop concrete figures for state legislators to illustrate the district's need for more money and special provisions in the state's funding system. The district anticipates paying Augenblick $2,500 more before the job is done.

In addition, Augenblick is working with state officials in Louisiana, Kentucky, Indiana, and Mississippi. He keeps busy by maintaining his professional network.

Most of Augenblick's work has come through his connection with the Education Commission of the States, where he was the resident expert on school finance before he launched his consulting business in 1983. Based in Denver, he maintains close ties with the E.C.S.--his bank-tower office is within walking distance of its headquarters. He speaks regularly at E.C.S. conferences, and the organization often recommends him to states needing help with knotty school-finance problems.

His firm also has nurtured a close relationship with the National Conference of State Legislatures, also based in Denver. The N.C.S.L. provides exposure at its meetings, referrals, and, occasionally, cash--it is contributing $3,000 toward the Nebraska study. Augenblick recently recruited John Myers, the former head of education programs at the N.C.S.L., to join the firm, now known as Augenblick, Van de Water & Myers.

While his workload appears heavy, Augenblick says his firm often has struggled and, as recently as a year ago, was on the verge of closing.

"It's not that I didn't design this as a great moneymaker,'' the former elementary school teacher says. "We've just never made a profit. We are able to keep going, but I am always looking over my shoulder to see where the next project is coming from.''

A new project for Colorado officials has invigorated the firm, and with Myers's addition, a nonprofit arm called New Directions for Education Policy in the States is in the works. Augenblick says the partners see the foundation as a way to launch more ambitious projects in states, using private grants.

"All the work I do I find to be interesting,'' Augenblick says. "But we've wanted to actually see things get done and, in that way, this is a very frustrating business. The chances for something happening at the level we're dealing in is not that good. And some things we think would make sense to do we cannot initiate because we are hostages of our clients in some sense.''

Balancing out the frustrations consultants sometimes feel are the pressures that exist on the other side of the paycheck.

Marlyn Langley, Louisiana's deputy superintendent for management and finance, calls Augenblick "one of the good ones.''

He began working for the state in 1989, earning about $49,000 for evaluating its school-finance system. After lawmakers worked on the plan he presented--which has overhauled the state system from one that based aid strictly on enrollment and personnel counts to one that tries to define per-pupil needs and adds funds for students with special circumstances--Augenblick returned last year to help with implementation and to advise the education department staff. He earned about $15,000 for that job. This year, he has a $35,000 contract to do a first-year evaluation of the system's effects.

"The legislators here have grown to trust the work John has done, and we get what we pay for,'' Langley says. "Our staff has gained great knowledge.''

The state's larger experience with consultants has been less favorable, however.

"Especially with out-of-state people, maybe we get to see some work they've done before, but when they come here, we just totally don't get what we ask for,'' Langley says. "They meet the terms of the contract, but what they produce is just not very useful.''

At the state level, consultants had their recent heyday in Kentucky, where lawmakers called in a team of outside experts to help assemble the state's 1990 reform law. In 1990 and in the first year the law was implemented, records show that the state education department paid 149 consultants a total of nearly $2.2 million.

Consultants have met with less success in other states. Texas officials, for example, say every consultant has been hamstrung in trying to develop a solution to the state's four-year-old school-finance crisis. Every solution to date has originated in the legislature. Last year in Michigan, as the state revamped its entire education system, consultants were largely shut out of the process as Gov. John Engler and leading lawmakers hammered out a homemade consensus.

"Not everybody is an expert who says they are,'' notes Terry Stewart, the assistant education commissioner in Missouri. "There are some experts who seem just to be experts--they produce material and they testify and that's about it.''

In Missouri, as in Louisiana, state officials have sometimes brought in outside experts as an alternative to increasing the state's permanent payroll. In recent years, for example, officials there spent more than $1 million to develop an automated system to improve their management of special-education programs. But the results were disappointing.

"We entered into this with the belief that the consultants had the staff and expertise to do a better job than we could, but that was a mistake,'' says Woody Fitzmaurice, the school-data director for the state education department. "We assumed they would bring better skills, and that was absolutely a bad assumption.''

Illinois officials say that such concerns have, for the most part, kept them out of the business of hiring consultants to design state policy and craft administrative changes.

"We are certainly interested in what is happening in other places, but it is not our approach that the best solutions are found 500 miles away,'' says Karol Richardson, the state's associate superintendent. "There are talented people here, and if you work with the grassroots groups and come to a consensus, you have a better chance of passing legislation and having a successful program.''

Yet, while many state school officials feel comfortable with trusting work to their own staffs, many school districts feel increasing pressure to seek outside help.

As the state began moving toward a new outcomes-based education system, the St. Cloud, Minn., school district decided in 1992 to clarify its position on consultants for school leaders who were beginning to make more of their own decisions under a local site-based-decisionmaking effort.

A 13-page memo for administrators setting policy on hiring consultants was needed to ward off potential trouble as outside expertise was sought, says Jim Lee, the business-services director for the central Minnesota district.

"We wanted to protect principals from doing something people might look askance at,'' Lee says. The policy helps administrators make informed decisions about hiring outside experts, he adds.

In Chicago, the school-reform law that gives individual school councils broad authority over operations includes discretionary funding based on enrollments--with the goal of providing $1,000 per pupil in discretionary aid. School leaders there thus have the opportunity to seek help outside the usual channels. And many Chicago schools are jumping at the chance.

Schools are buying their own instructional programs, hiring consultants to design multicultural programs, seeking teacher training outside of what the central admninistration offers, and signing contracts with consultants to design efforts to help reduce the number of dropouts.

"The variety of consultants has increased as a result of schools deciding where to spend their money,'' observes Evangeline Levison, who reviews outside contracts in her job as the district's director of affirmative action. "More people are marketing to the schools now that they have the money.''

Officials say Chicago schools have an average of $400,000 in discretionary funding. No longer operating in the shadow of the central administration, schools there realize they are now responsible for their own success.

"The central office exists only to the extent it can compete with outside help,'' says Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, a Chicago reform-advocacy group that is also working in several schools as a consultant. "Undoubtedly, people are making mistakes, but we believe that will be sorted out over time. We are really not talking about fly-by-night organizations, by and large. What we see are dozens of groups providing high-quality help to schools that couldn't have been provided before reform.''

Nominally, Chicago is the home base of Donald Thomas, a partner in the firm Harold Webb Associates, which was founded by the longtime executive director of the National School Boards Association. The firm concentrates its work on superintendent searches, district studies, and state reform plans.

Thomas actually works out of his home in Salt Lake City, where he is a former school superintendent. As a consultant, he admits that his roles are many, and hardly ever does he consider himself the savior of a state or district struggling to improve. More often, he is political cover, the negotiator, the heavy who rolls into town with the message that change is coming.

These days, he is working in the familiar landscape of South Carolina, where he did his first consulting work from 1984-87 on a reform plan proposed by then-Gov. Richard W. Riley. Word of mouth helped Thomas catch on in South Dakota and then in Tennessee. In the meantime, he and a colleague bought the Harold Webb firm, and he began working with school districts on the side.

He grosses about $80,000 annually and nets a salary of about $50,000. Combined with his pension, it's enough to provide for a good life, he says.

The publicity surrounding some of his work over nine years in Salt Lake City led Thomas into consulting; by the end of his tenure, the school board allowed him one day a month to visit other districts and states to offer his help.

The job, he says, requires an unusual combination of political tact, abrasive honesty, and salesmanship. It also often involves telling school officials things they should already know.

"A lot of districts just need somebody to talk to,'' Thomas says. "I tell them, 'I'm just borrowing your watch to tell you what time it is.' That's a lot of what consulting is. Administrators ought to be able to interpret a lot of this for themselves.''

The bigger challenge, he says, is tackling state policy, an area in which several consultants have made names for themselves.

In South Carolina, where Thomas is now working one week each month in preparation for a final report due next fall, he will offer a package addressing governance changes, local instruction, and school finance. State officials who have hired Thomas in the past laud his work.

Tennessee officials say that, in large measure, Thomas prepared parents, business leaders, and government officials to deal with the comprehensive finance and classroom reforms that were later proposed and passed by the General Assembly in 1992.

"He went out and threw out new ideas to the people and made them think about education and reform,'' says Brad Hurley, the executive vice chancellor for the Tennessee board of regents and a former top official in the state education department.

"There were several times we had to distance ourselves from his ideas,'' Hurley says. "He knew he was going too far. But because of that, we would be able to go farther than we could have if he hadn't.''

Thomas pushes both the style and the substance of school reform. Across states, he says, lawmakers have yet to realize that their best prospects for improvement will come with relaxed regulation.

"I have a tough time getting people to understand that overregulation creates an educational welfare system; it makes individuals dependent on regulation rather than their ability,'' he says. "Accountability must rest with local schools; otherwise, nothing of major significance happens.''

Thomas is also not shy about helping local schools develop their own vision. Three years after he consulted with officials in Hugo, Okla., they still refer to his report.

The district, which had hired a new superintendent after a long experience with heavy-handed administration, sought Thomas after deciding to pursue a reform strategy aligned with the "effective schools'' movement.

"We wanted somebody to come in and really start us out on the right foot,'' says Aileen Parnell, the 1,700-student district's school-improvement coordinator. Thomas met with administrators, faculty members, parents, and residents over three days and, for $3,000, provided a report that offered school officials key areas to look at when evaluating their performance as well as clues about the sources of their troubles.

Since then, Parnell says, student and teacher absenteeism has declined substantially, test scores are up and above the Oklahoma average, administrators have a better understanding of their priorities, and attendance at basketball games, which had been anemic, is now healthy--evidence, she says, that the community has become more interested in its schools.

"We are not interested in teaching anymore, but in learning,'' Parnell says. "We think about how to serve children and don't assume that because you teach them they are learning. We would love to have [Thomas] come back and re-evaluate us.''

Not all of Thomas's work at the district level has won rave notices. His call for central-office-staff reductions in Akron, Ohio, drew fire from school officials there. Officials in Spartanburg, S.C., found themselves in hot water when he concluded that the differences in achievement and in services available to black and white students were unacceptable.

"I sit down and say to superintendents that, to have integrity, I have to call the shots as they are,'' Thomas says. "There is always the temptation to be a little more gentle than you ought to be because you know the people you are working with. But you can't mislead the school board about what its problems are.''

Thomas counts himself among the retired superintendents who consult as much for pleasure as for business.

"If I was dependent on this as my only source of income, it would be stressful,'' he says. "But doing it this way is really pleasant.''

The offices of Floretta Dukes McKenzie, one of the nation's best known education consultants, are located in a posh downtown Washington building that is home to one of the city's biggest law firms.

While McKenzie prefers to spend her time helping school districts across the country, she also finds she must expend considerable energy just keeping her business going.

After resigning as the superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, McKenzie transformed herself into an entrepreneur who juggles the challenges of preparing for speaking engagements, casting for new business, meeting a payroll, and tackling a wide assortment of education issues.

"This is not as easy as falling off a log,'' McKenzie says.

The McKenzie Group has a full-time staff of 12 as well as about 35 others who are brought in over the course of a year to work on specific jobs.

While it focuses on foundation-funded programs and projects in urban districts, the firm's list of services ranges from superintendent searches to programs aimed at improving minority participation in mathematics and science, from management and performance audits to federal lobbying. The large agenda--combined with McKenzie's own speaking engagements and marketing efforts--leaves her little time to dwell on specific projects beyond being familiar with their progress and troubleshooting such problems as dissatisfied customers or cost overruns.

"When I first started, I wanted to define myself,'' she says. "But you run into a real problem when it comes to keeping up the lease and paying people's salaries. Sometimes, it's difficult to stay where you want to be.''

Despite its stresses, McKenzie says, the demand of presiding over a consulting firm is not as intense as the pressure of being a big-city superintendent.

"I am not under some kind of microscope, so I can reflect more,'' she says. "In a school district, the atmosphere is, 'What have you done for me lately?' Those political stresses are not like that here.''

"Sometimes, I think that, if I'd had these skills when I was a superintendent, I would have done a better job,'' she says. "Knowing that makes me want to do the very best job I can do when I work with superintendents, because they really need your best thinking.''

A large part of the McKenzie Group's practice is superintendent searches, a popular task for consultants and most state school boards associations. Search consultants typically charge between $10,000 and $20,000 plus expenses. For that price, school boards expect to receive a list of qualified candidates without the headaches of having to deal with internal candidates who might feel slighted.

Searches--which are frequent, given the short tenure of many superintendents--typically take place with little fanfare.

For example, the McKenzie Group handled the search for Broward County, Fla., school officials that led to the hiring in January of Frank Petruzielo, the former Houston superintendent.

But there are exceptions. In 1991, McKenzie's search for a new superintendent for the Kansas City, Mo., schools ended with the school board choosing Walter L. Marks, who arrived along with the news that his previous district, Richmond Unified in California, was bankrupt.

Missouri officials, who are paying the lion's share of the Kansas City desegregation effort, protested Marks's hiring, saying the district school board was not familiar with his background. At the time, the decision rekindled state officials' talk of placing the district in receivership.

McKenzie's firm received attention of another kind after it conducted the search that led Milwaukee officials to hire Howard L. Fuller as superintendent in 1991. The firm was paid $12,500 for its efforts in narrowing the field to Fuller, the city's director of health and human services who had had no experience in K-12 education. Many observers hailed the unexpected choice.

The search project grew out of earlier work McKenzie had done for the district.

In 1988, McKenzie had worked with Milwaukee officials on governance issues, designing a reorganization plan that carved the district into neighborhood districts. The work cost school officials $175,000.

Fuller has since reorganized local school management, and officials say the district is not as quick to use consultants as in the past.

"We went through a flurry,'' says Mary Bills, the president of the school board. "We only use them when we want to make changes we don't feel we can make from within.''

McKenzie says that after a few lean patches, work in recent years has become fairly steady and, financially, the business is doing "O.K.''

"A little firm like I have won't ever be rolling in money, but I can support the organization and stay in business and occasionally do some pro bono things,'' she says. "That's the test--that I don't have to spend every minute here.''

Part of the reason she can relax is that the consulting business appears to be on the upswing. More school districts, consultants agree, are interested in outside advice on a host of performance and management issues. The movement toward comprehensive, systemic reform is also forcing states to begin to consider a bigger picture, which often means more work for consultants.

Despite the rise in business, consultants do not see much increase in their own ranks.

"There are still not that many practitioners,'' McKenzie says. "It is becoming more common, but this is still a field dominated by university or think-tank types.''

And where there is growth, it is generally coming from outside the traditional school world.

Not surprisingly, Lawrence Herman is on the road again, this time in Louisiana. He is there to examine the effectiveness of the state education department as part of a statewide audit of government.

For more than 25 years, Herman has worked as an education consultant for the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick. Now a partner, he is one of the company's chief experts on education, leading a staff that includes 50 Peat Marwick employees in offices in New York City, Washington, Austin, Tex., and Sacramento.

A graduate of the Harvard business school, Herman sees the field growing more specialized and increasingly pressured by the public and observers to make changes and show results.

"My clients are tremendously more demanding of skilled practitioners,'' Herman says. "They don't want somebody who is consulting for education today and General Motors tomorrow. They want to work with somebody who lives and breathes education, with a sophistication in looking at accountability.''

He became involved in East Baton Rouge, La., two years ago after a group of the city's biggest businesses grew concerned about an impending school-tax increase. The group, known as the Top 25, agreed to hire Peat Marwick to look at the district's nonclassroom spending and make suggestions.

School officials say that the resulting report, which cost $130,000, did not offer any surprising suggestions. Yet, it initiated a conversation last year that school officials say was useful and would have been unlikely without the consultants' work as a starting point.

"Changes came a lot easier than they would have if we had not gone through the process,'' says Grady Hazel, the associate superintendent of the 60,000-student district. The report led to more than $6 million in cuts and opened a dialogue with local corporate and bank executives that has continued. More than the consultant, Hazel credits the business group with making the process work.

"If they had just paid for the report and left it, this would not have happened,'' he says.

Peat Marwick's practice of conducting management audits and school-spending surveys--which bring in anywhere from $25,000 to more than $500,000 apiece--continues to grow. Recently, the firm's education consulting has gained national prominence through its affiliation with Education Alternatives Inc., a Minnesota-based school-management firm.

Indeed, observers see the move toward private management of public schools as a strong sign that greater expertise from outside is in demand.

And while Peat Marwick is not about to expand into instructional audits or delve into school-performance questions, it is striving to remain a leader in school consulting as other well-known accounting firms try to carve out a bigger niche in the market.

"There are 15,000 school districts in the United States, and a lot of them have needs,'' Herman says. He cautions, however, that states and districts should be careful not to give too much latitude and authority to outside advisers.

"It's very much like every other area; it pays to be an informedconsumer,'' Herman says. "The difference between a good study and a bad study often has to do with the quality of the client. A client that is demanding and clear on what he wants usually gets better work done.''

Furthermore, beyond any firm's reputation, the quality of a consultation depends on the individuals who actually do the work, Herman says.

He notes that many analysts believe that as tension builds over controversial issues facing the public schools, an entirely new group of school districts will become interested in seeking outside help.

"The private sector will have a major role to play in improving education as its techniques and skills and systems are introduced to the school world,'' Herman says, launching into his sales pitch. "We're well positioned to take a leadership role in that.''

Yet, even with high growth potential, full-time, big-time consulting is a field rife with pitfalls and tremendous risk.

"A lot of people view it as something they might do, but, after two or three years, you find them in the district offices or county office again,'' says Fred Tempes, an associate superintendent in the California Department of Education. "For a lot of people in education, the rigors of private consulting are not something they've been trained to do, always looking ahead for that next job.''

Many administrators get their fill of consulting without leaving the security of a state job. Lonnie Love, the administrator of gifted-education programs in the Georgia Department of Education, has advised other states on establishing new programs and initiating governor's schools after discussions launched at professional meetings.

"Occasionally, somebody asks me if I would be interested in doing this full time,'' he says. "If I were 30, I might.''

He likes the work and, after consulting with colleagues in several states in exchange for expenses and a small payment, has stopped giving speeches because he has found such presentations have little impact. His income from occasional consulting doesn't even cover the cost of taking annual leave, Love says, "but I think of it as part of my dues to the profession.''

Other consultants agree that the price of their image as policy "mercenaries'' armed with advice and solutions is the never-ending challenge of making ends meet.

"I used to think that to go to sleep at night and justify things to myself I had to do be doing something good for people,'' Augenblick, the Denver school-finance consultant, says. "But some nights now I go to bed and think I made the rent payment. And maybe we do some good things along the way.''

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