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Consultants eat up Pittsburgh schools’ gift

Two years after Pittsburgh Public Schools received $40 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to increase teachers’ effectiveness, the district has spent or allocated nearly a third of it on consultants and contractors, mainly from outside the state.

Administrators told board members that they need consultants to perform specialized work outside the expertise of district personnel.

“We’re on track right now to be able to provide teachers and support teachers in improving their practice, in a way that hasn’t been done before,” said Sam Franklin, executive director of the district’s Office of Teacher Effectiveness, whose $110,000 annual salary is paid with Gates money.

Maria Searcy of the North Side, the mother of two girls in the district, said she hopes the money helps the struggling district close the achievement gap between white and black students.

“We need help. I really think we do,” said Searcy, 49. “I don’t think we should spend all the grant money on outside consultants.”

She pointed to Cambridge Education of Massachusetts, which received $6,250 for a survey asking students about the quality of their teachers, as one consultant that could help improve the Barack Obama Academy of International Studies in East Liberty, where her daughters are students.

“I’m hoping we can take that information and use it to improve things,” Searcy said.

The district anticipates spending about $19 million by the end of next year, about 68 percent of it on consultants. It must use the money as outlined in its grant application: increasing teacher effectiveness through more comprehensive evaluations and creating better learning environments. The end result, the district told the Gates foundation, would be higher-achieving students.

One of Pittsburgh’s largest contracts is with GlobalScholar, an information technology company in Washington state. In May 2010, the board approved a six-year contract not to exceed $6.8 million.

The company has received about $3.1 million to develop a system for the district to track information such as grades, attendance and student schedules, as well as software that allows principals and teachers to input information from a teacher evaluation system that provides them with more feedback.

“We needed it, and you don’t want to give that kind of work to people you have working for you,” said board member Theresa Colaizzi.

The district’s preliminary 2012 budget dedicates about $730,000 from the grant to pay for nine administrators, including Franklin, in different departments.

Carey Harris, executive director of education watchdog A+ Schools, said the nonprofit has not tracked how the district is spending the grant, but is monitoring the plan’s implementation.

“As long as the work gets done, that’s the thing we want to make sure actually happens,” Harris said.

In its application to Gates, Pittsburgh said it would increase the percentage of “highly effective” teachers from 28 percent in 2009 to 41 percent in 2014. The district also said it would improve by at least 20 percentage points the number of college-ready students.

To support the initiative, Pittsburgh Public Schools entered into a partnership with the Tri-Level College Readiness Indicator Systems, which tracks and identifies students in danger of not being ready to graduate.

The partnership is supported by a $389,000 grant from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the John Gardner Center at Stanford University, which co-developed the system. The universities• are using grant money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help five districts implement the system.

“The idea is to really address how districts support measuring whether they’re ready and then supporting students so they can move (ahead),” said Ellen Foley, interim director for district redesign and leadership in the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The two other school districts to which the Gates Foundation awarded money in 2009 — Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa and Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools — also have spent most of their money on contractors and consultants.

Hillsborough spent about $22 million of its $100 million grant. David Steele, director of the district’s Empowering Effective Teachers initiative, said Hillsborough used most of the money to make information about schools more accessible to the public, create an electronic teacher evaluation system and pay substitutes to fill in for teachers conducting reviews of their colleagues.

The Gates Foundation sets the disbursement schedule. Annual funding is contingent upon whether grant recipients show they’re on the path to meet the priorities outlined in their application.

“We’re very pleased with the work happening in Pittsburgh,” said Debbie Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation. “Things are progressing well.”

Board member Bill Isler said the fact that the foundation is working so closely with the district satisfies him.

“I think the expenditures have been online with the proposal to the funder,” Isler said. “We have never heard a negative comment, and we periodically meet with them when they’re in Pittsburgh.”


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