Thursday, July 22, 2010
The Monterey County Office of Education, an agency with a $100-million-plus annual budget that oversees local district finances and educates the county’s most vulnerable kids, is tightening its belt this year – cutting hours and eliminating some 70 positions. But despite leaner times, some local educators worry that County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Kotowski is spending too freely on highly paid consultants.
The 2010-11 budget includes large sums for services, a fund which in the past has gone to hire outside experts for jobs that current and former county office employees say could just as well have been done in-house. What’s more, the hiring of at least one well-compensated consultant appears to some county office watchers to be political payback, a charge Kotowski adamantly denies.
In 2008, Kotowski contracted with Richard Brown, a Chualar inventor and ag consultant, to select a computer system to track its special education students. Brown would be paid $100 per hour, and would also hire and train a permanent employee to manage the data system, secure federal stimulus program grants and conduct salary surveys for contract negotiations, among other duties
By the time Brown’s work was done, he had billed the county $118,000, according to a COE spokesman.
Brown, whose wife campaigned for Kotowski in 2006 and who donated more than $2,000 to her campaign that year, has no professional education background. Brown’s wife earns more than $100,000 per year as Kotowski’s administrative assistant.
Brown’s résumé, provided by the county office, highlights his business experience in accounting and finance, management and agricultural operations. It includes no prior data system or computer expertise; however, Kotowski cites Brown’s previous experience with various computer systems.
Brown did not return phone calls.
Kotowski issued no request for proposals for the work Brown did, nor did she consider other candidates for the assignment.
“It’s not a requirement for professional services and we had a short timeline,” Kotowski says.
One former manager who asked to remain anonymous says Brown was intelligent and asked good questions, but faced a steep learning curve in grasping the county office’s specialized operations. The cost of his contract was passed on to local school districts. What’s more, the ex-manager adds, Brown’s other duties also could have been done more cost-effectively by a lower paid contractor or an in-house employee.
Not so, Kotowski says.
She argues that Brown helped solve a major problem in the county’s special ed program, which includes kids whose physical or cognitive disabilities or behavior issues are too severe for local school districts to handle.
The school districts pay for the services, and Kotowski says some had complained, not only about the cost, but also about the lack of information they received about the billings.
Additionally, a study by the state’s fiscal crisis management team recommended building greater accountability into the system, Kotowski says.
She contends the controversy over contracting arose because of her efforts to trim down special ed programs at the request of struggling school districts, a move that incurred the wrath of COE unions. She says the programs had become bloated, but special ed teachers argue that disabled kids now go without the extra attention and specialized equipment they need to function in the classrrom.
Brown saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, Kotowski says, by making a deal with the San Joaquin County Office of Education, which had already developed a data management system for another educational program and was willing to apply it to special ed.
The system was a bargain, Kotowski says, at $36,000 over three years. She adds that Brown helped obtain a grant to cover most of the cost.
“He [Brown] had the research skills and the ability to think out of the box,” Kotowski says. “We didn’t want to buy a white elephant.”
Brown’s hiring may have been legal, but it was not transparent, says Resa Foss, a retired teacher and former MPUSD board member, who supported Kotowski’s opponent in the June election.
“Don’t citizens deserve to have transparency?” Foss says. “I’m just saying it’s all under the table and no one knows what’s happening.”
At least two County Board of Education members – Ron Panziera and Ruth Andreson – say they were unaware of the Brown contract when it was approved. They were likewise in the dark about how much the county had spent on other outside consultants, and what their functions are, even though the board approved the county office budget.
In Santa Cruz County, Superintendent Michael Watkins says he reports to his board on all contracts over $25,000.
Kotowski says beginning next year, she’ll make more detailed reports to the board on county office contracting.
She has budgeted $7.5 million this year for outside contracts, which cover a range of services from speech therapy and translation to professional consulting.
That is $1.5 million less than 2009-10. But even if overall spending has decreased, it appears the county office will continue to be a boon to outside professionals.
For example, the item in the business services department that covers consultants increased by more than $100,000 this year, while that item in Kotowski’s office budget has gone up almost 75 percent from last year.