Big-Name Consultants Greeted With Wariness

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 24, 2007

Two dozen high-priced consultants have set up shop on three floors of the D.C. public schools' headquarters, wearing pinstripe suits, toting binders and BlackBerrys and using such corporate jargon as "resource mapping" and "identifying metrics."

They come from big-name restructuring firms, and the city is paying $4 million for their services this summer. The findings of the consultants, hired by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), could have a large bearing on whether his plan to overhaul the troubled 55,000-student system is successful.

But to many school employees and activists, there is a depressingly familiar ring to promises from city leaders that the consultants will somehow work magic with their spreadsheets, databases and management-school theory. Over and over, D.C. school boards and superintendents have brought in consultants with consistently disappointing results.

"Lots have been hired, but it never goes anywhere," sighed Mary Levy, a lawyer with the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

Levy should know. Six years ago, she was among a group of residents that helped London-based McKinsey & Co. prepare a five-year strategic reform plan for then-Superintendent Paul L. Vance. The plan was scrapped two years later when Vance retired.

"Making plans is not the problem," Levy said. "It's the follow-through."

Now McKinsey is back, hired this month by the Fenty administration to assess central office operations and develop a "program management office" to track reform initiatives. The firm has been paired with New York-based Alvarez & Marsal, which will examine how the D.C. school system is spending its $1 billion budget to identify savings and reprioritize spending patterns.

Additionally, KPMG, a Swiss cooperative, is helping D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi fix specific problems related to incomplete records, unauthorized overtime pay and inadequate monitoring of federal grant money discovered in February.

As Michelle A. Rhee, whom Fenty nominated as school chancellor, takes over the system, the consultants will provide much-needed expertise during a time of institutional upheaval, mayoral aides said.

"It's a good way to know exactly where things are," said Victor A. Reinoso, Fenty's deputy mayor for education. "They're doing a fair amount of work in a four-month time frame and will provide a level of detail you might not have otherwise."

During their first two weeks on the job, the consultants have tried to immerse themselves into the culture -- and receipts -- of the school system. McKinsey consultants recently held a focus group session with a handful of principals to ask what barriers stand in their way when dealing with the central administration.

Alvarez auditors have scoured financial records and arrived at a few early findings. Among them: The system is failing to receive $7 million to $9 million per year in federal funding it is entitled to because it is not collecting and submitting forms for all of the children who are eligible to receive free or reduced-price school lunches, said Carrie Stewart, a senior director at Alvarez who is leading the D.C. consulting team. That's an amount that could pay for approximately one additional teacher per school, Stewart said.

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