School of 47 forced to pay more than $800K for consultant after new law

Feb 7, 2018, 7:35 PM | Updated: 10:35 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — In an effort to help Utah’s lowest-performing schools improve, lawmakers now require those schools to hire consultants. But this program that is using millions of Utah tax dollars to hire consultants has many asking if the money is well spent.

Big Water School in Kane County paid a consultant $887,000. The school has only 47 students. The average spending per student in Utah is $6,575. The money spent on Big Water’s consultant adds up to $21,000 per student, most of which doesn’t go to students or teachers.

“I don’t think we would have spent it all on a consultant,” said Principal Andy Roundy. “We could definitely have used it toward staffing and things as well.”

But he didn’t have a choice.

A total of 26 other low-performing Utah schools were required to hire consultants, as part of the state’s “Turnaround” program, at a total cost of $21 million.

Granite School District has 10 of those “turnaround” schools. While school leaders agree they need resources, they don’t think consultants are the best investment.

“The reality is, the only way to improve outcomes, improve learning, is through quality instruction. So why not invest the money right with the teachers instead of with somebody else?” said Mitch Nerdin, Granite School District’s director of school improvement resource development.

Granite School District has been allocated $1,000,000 over three years for their 10 “turnaround” schools, and Nerdin is concerned about where the money is being spent.

“The expenditures to date have been to outside providers, not the school,” Nerdin said. “If (the state) had given us the $350,000, we wouldn’t have said, ‘hey, we need a consultant.’ We would have spent it, invested it in building the capacity of those teachers.”

Bill sponsor Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, believes consultants are the key to success. He specifically crafted the law to include consultants to bring in a fresh perspective to low-performing schools.

“Instead of just giving more money, which has not worked in time past, we’re bringing in outside teams of knowledgeable people,” Niederhauser said. “It’s a pay-for-performance type of incentive.”

The consultants provide analysis, an improvement plan and coaching. They get half the money up front and half only when a school exits turnaround. Most of the consultants approved by the state are Utah companies, but their cost varies by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“This has been the program that improved the dial better than anything that we’ve done before,” Niederhauser said.

Some of the schools have improved, but at what cost?

School grade results sub-par so far

KSL researched the State School Board’s database to survey school grades from the start of turnaround in 2015 to 2017.

Big Water, with its near $900,000 budget, went from an F to a D grade. A few schools stayed or dropped to an F. Just shy of two-thirds of the state’s turnaround schools are at a D or lower.

“For the amount of money that’s going out, we should be getting better,” Nerdin said.

A few schools earned B and C grades, however. In fact, KSL first learned about turnaround schools when we visited South Kearns Elementary to celebrate them moving from an F to a C. But we learned that kind of growth was the exception, not the rule.

Sen. Niederhauser believes the program is working and said he’s already getting calls from around the country from fellow lawmakers who see potential.

2018 test results key

The State School Board won’t call this a “success,” however, until it has this year’s test results. To exit turnaround, schools have to maintain a one letter grade increase for two years.

At Big Water, they’re optimistic they’ll get a C grade. But even if they do, principal Roundy isn’t sure consultants are worth it.

“Have they helped us? Yeah, they’ve helped us a lot,” he said. “Could it have been spent differently? Maybe.”

The state acknowledges they’ve learned lessons after this first round of turnarounds that will prompt some changes. Moving forward, they’ll reign in contracts so small schools don’t pay such high consultant costs. They’re also giving schools a greater voice in the recommendations from consultants.

Rep. Bruce Cutler said he plans to draft a bill that will allow schools to use their own “in-house experts” instead of consultants, but he added he expects pushback from other lawmakers.

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School of 47 forced to pay more than $800K for consultant after new law