Making Education Pay

For consultants, the S.F. school district ATM is wide open

BY A FEW MINUTES PAST 7 ON A TUESDAY EVENING, ABOUT 40 PEOPLE HAVE SETTLED INTO THE HARD-AS-HELL wooden seats of the Everett Middle School auditorium. They've gathered, for one reason or another, to watch the Board of Education of the San Francisco Unified School District in action.

It's painfully obvious at this Sept. 14 regular meeting that the school district is in a bit of disarray. Nearly all of the top administrative posts in the district are being filled by people with "acting" titles, as in "acting superintendent," or "acting director" of this and that.

After seven years at the helm of the SFUSD, former Superintendent Waldemar "Bill" Rojas left for Dallas earlier this summer, taking a handful of his deputies with him. Many other administrators fled to different jobs, and still others were canned, in the aftermath of Rojas' departure.

Photography by Anthony Pidgeon
San Francisco Board of Education members Eddie Chin, Dan Kelly, Frank Chong, and Mary Hernandez.
San Francisco Board of Education members Eddie Chin, Dan Kelly, Frank Chong, and Mary Hernandez.

Linda Davis, a former Rojas deputy and now acting superintendent, is at once the picture of an educator and a businesswoman with her neatly trussed, schoolteacher hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and statuesque posture. She fields questions from the board with the same confidence and grace suggested by her classic personal style. Suffice it to say that the intensity level of the meetings has dropped a few notches since Rojas, who enjoyed affecting a certain edge, left town. But nobody envies Davis' position right now.

Rojas has left the district's finances in chaos. Auditors from two different state agencies are now poring over the district's books, and their preliminary findings indicate that the district has been running a deficit for at least the past two years. The California Department of Education has suggested, firmly, that it might step in to sort out the district's financial practices.

On this night, the goings-on are so polite and civilized (they're not always) that it can be difficult to discern the important from the mundane. As the board moves through its agenda, debating policy and exploring real estate transactions, a casual observer might not notice that at least one legacy of the Rojas years is still going strong.

Acting swiftly and with little discussion, six of the board's seven members (Board President Juanita Owens left before the vote) agree to dole out more than $1 million in awards to outside consultants and contractors. It takes just a few minutes to approve the consent agenda, a passel of supposedly routine board actions considered en masse that authorize the district to pay for various outside services ranging from teacher training to computer wiring.

But upon closer examination, there are some remarkable expenditures in the package of contracts that the board so speedily approves.

For instance, $14,000 will be paid to William Coleman, the district's former chief financial officer who has followed Rojas to Dallas. The money is to compensate Coleman for his continuing assistance in helping the district close its books for the fiscal year that ended in June, so auditors can then figure out just how bad the district's finances are. Apparently, Coleman is the only one who knows where to find all the money, and the board feels it must pay him so he will be available to help sort out the mess he left behind.

In the same consent agenda vote, the board approves a $96,000 annual contract with a former school district employee, who managed to nearly double his salary by quitting the district and becoming a consultant. He is now the acting head of the Facilities Development and Management Department.

The two contracts may seem unsettling on their own, but they merely hint at the full scale of a contracting binge that the school district has been on for at least three years. Beginning in the final stages of Rojas' tenure, the SFUSD has undertaken a practice of doling out money to consultants and independent contractors that is off the charts when compared with other California school districts.

School district financial documents show that the 61,000-student district spent more than $35 million on contracted services during the 1997-98 school year (the latest year for which data is available), more than double the average amount, per student, spent by all other school districts in the state. More than $24 million of that $35 million was used to pay record numbers of consulting contracts to agencies and individuals performing services outside of the classroom -- some of which are legally questionable.

The district is swimming in consultants, and is now spending more money per student on outside contractors than it does for textbooks and supplies, teachers' aides, and virtually every other expense short of teachers' salaries.

There are consultants for teacher training, public relations, technology, and legislative affairs, just to name a few. In all, the district last year approved more than 3,000 different contracts (several organizations or individuals have more than one). Among them are former employees who are making more money as contractors than they did while on the district payroll, and consultants who work in district offices, just like regular employees. There are so many consultants, one is tempted to wonder just what the district's 3,882 employees do.

Even a foundation headed by one member of the school board -- former Board President Steve Phillips -- received $24,500 in contracts last year, in part to help set up a summit meeting on reading diversity.

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