By Theresa Harrington
After being sworn into their positions as Mt. Diablo school board members, newly elected trustees Cheryl Hansen and Lynne Dennler began asking tough questions about district consultant contracts.
Hansen came out swinging, when she pulled the consultant contract for Jack Schreder and Associates from the consent calendar and asked why the School Closure Committee consultant’s fees were jumping from $25,000 to $70,000.
The staff report, which didn’t name the consultant, stated: “The School Closure/Consolidation Committee has required additional support and consultation regarding the identification of various options for balancing enrollments at schools districtwide, assistance in the identification of sites for potential consolidation/closure based on District criteria and the identification of new boundaries based on District criteria.”
Hansen was not swayed.
“There was no additional justification,” she said. “I still think that deserves more explanation as to how that occurred.”
Chief financial officer Bryan Richards explained that the committee has met more frequently than originally anticipated, so the consultants continued to work at their hourly rate. Hansen held his feet to the fire, pointing out that the district already owes the company $43,000.
“What concerns me,” she said, “is planning ahead that this is the amount that we think we’ll need and not over-expending that.”
Eberhart, who ended up abstaining from the vote without explanation, suggested that staff investigate whether the district could use facilities money to pay the consultant, instead of general fund money.
Trustee Linda Mayo sang the praises of the company, saying the district had done business with it for many years. When the $25,000 contract was approved August 10, former trustee Paul Strange also lauded the firm, saying it had worked for the district during the past 15 years.
According to Richards, the district has spent $305,333 with the firm since 2001 for a variety of studies. Under its current contract, two consultants are paid $145 an hour including travel time to and from Sacramento.
Eberhart also abstained from the contract vote in August, saying he was currently working with a relative of the person the district was entering into contract with. Eberhart’s boss is Seward Schreder, Jack Schreder’s son.
Before hiring Eberhart, Seward L. Schrder Construction donated $25,000 to the Measure C campaign. Jack Schreder & Associates contributed $2,000.
At Monday’s board meeting, one parent whose daughter is on the waiting list to attend Monte Gardens Elementary accused the district of writing a “blank check” to Schreder and Associates, saying such practices have led to school closures. (Monte Gardens is being recommended for closure.)
Eberhart said the district is not writing blank checks. The public can request documentation regarding payments to Scheder and Associates from the superintendent, he added.
Dennler, who remained quiet during budget discussions, spoke up strongly along with Hansen, before trustees voted on a $92,000 consultant contract with Norm Gold Associates to audit the district’s English learner program.
There was no indication that a request for proposals was sought for this contract, which was recommended by Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support.
Dennler, a former teacher, asked why district staff couldn’t visit other schools that are having success with English language learners, instead of paying a consultant to make recommendations. Lock said Gold would do that. (However, the contract doesn’t mention Gold spending any time visiting sites outside the district.)
“That’s not something we can do on our own?” Dennler persisted.
“We have done some,” Lock said, “but our program still isn’t working.”
Lock said staff has talked about “best practices,” but perhaps hasn’t implemented them with fidelity.
“We need to look at best practices to drive a strategic plan,” she said.
Gold will visit 15 district sites and try to determine whether Mt. Diablo’s problems stem from program issues, implementation issues, or a combination of the two, Lock said. He will then make recommendations based on state and national practices, she said.
“Obviously, we have to follow through on those recommendations,” Lock said. “This is an area we have struggled in as a district as long as I can remember.”
Hansen said she was concerned about the considerable number of outside contractors the district uses.
“At the end, we actually don’t have a comprehensive, compliant plan,” she said. “It seems like an awful lot of money to spend without that plan.”
Eberhart agreed, saying he has long been concerned that the district isn’t adequately educating English language learners.
“Our English language program continues to be an area where I believe we are failing our students in terms of how long it takes to get a student who doesn’t speak English proficiently to a student who does speak English proficiently,” he said.
Superintendent Steven Lawrence said he heard the board loud and clear and he assured trustees a plan would be developed.
“Actually,” Hansen said knowingly, “Dr. Gold works with boiler plate templates, so you can do it yourself.”
Lock said Gold’s contract includes a final report and a community briefing regarding his findings. The report will include recommendations for “improvements in structure and instruction” for English language learners.
“We will be getting a report and he’s going to be providing us with 30 copies of it,” Lock said.
“He better,” Hansen replied. “Expensive paper.”
Here is a rundown of contract expenses:
$15,000: Plan and complete 10 interviews
$50,000: Conduct remaining interviews and site visits
$15,000: Review preliminary findings with audit advisory group
$12,060: Submit final report (PDFs and 30 copies)
The final report won’t identify any individual teachers or schools. Instead, it will summarize data at the district level.
“We do need to bring in teachers and our parents,” Lawrence said. “And we will create a thorough process, where at the end of this, we will have a strategic plan.”
Trustees unanimously approved the contract.
At the beginning of the meeting, trustees elected Eberhart as president and Whitmarsh as vice president. They may hold a retreat in February to get to know each other better and study major district issues.
How well do you think the new board will work together?