A D.C. government agency paid a Chicago consulting firm $89,995 for one day of work at a recent city education conference, a fee that included a half-hour keynote speech, three 45-minute parent workshops and hundreds of copies of parenting books.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education hired the firm without soliciting or considering other bids, according to an agency spokeswoman. The agency sponsored the Sept. 7 conference in an effort to reach out to parents, using D.C. tax dollars to pay the Chicago firm even as many speakers that day — as well as the keynote speaker at the same conference in 2012 — volunteered.
The payment to SPC Consulting is about $12,000 more than the average D.C. Public Schools teacher earns in a year, and is more than three times the “living wage” — $26,000 per year — that Wal-Mart would have been required to pay employees under a bill that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) vetoed this year. It’s also higher than the $50,000 that former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, arguably the most widely recognized education figure in the country, charged for individual speaking appearances in 2011.
The superintendent’s office is responsible for citywide education policies, and the agency funnels federal and local funds to city schools. The agency selected SPC Consulting based on a recommendation by Chief of Staff Jose Alvarez, a top agency official who has played a leadership role during months of turnover, and who knew the firm and its founder from a previous job in Chicago.
Alvarez said the agency’s turnover left it in a last-minute scramble to put together the September conference, the second annual D.C. Parent and Family Engagement Summit. He said he is confident that SPC delivered quality services, but he acknowledged that the time crunch prevented his agency from conducting a competitive bidding process that would have ensured a fair deal for D.C. taxpayers. Agency officials said they have the authority to enter into such contracts without soliciting multiple bids.
“It wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances, and it’s not going to happen again,” Alvarez said, adding that the agency has started planning for next year’s parent summit. “I can guarantee you it could have been absolutely better, and we’re going to do it better.”
Alvarez said he suggested using SPC, but he said he was not directly involved in the decision to hire the firm. He previously worked for Chicago Public Schools, where he led a division that contracted with SPC to conduct parent workshops, according to public records.
SPC Consulting is headed by Sunny P. Chico, a former U.S. Education Department official who contracts with school systems. She is married to lobbyist Gery Chico, who ran for Chicago mayor in 2011 and serves as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education.
SPC markets a package of parent empowerment workshops and Sunny Chico’s three-book series on parenting, “You: Your Child’s First Teacher.” The D.C. agency purchased the package as a centerpiece of the parent summit.
The District paid about $15,000 for 500 book sets, at $29.99 each. The city also paid $75,000 for Chico’s keynote address and for SPC employees to conduct three of the 28 “breakout sessions” offered to parents.
SPC charged $180 per person for a three-hour parent workshop in Chicago earlier this year, $70 less per person than the firm charged for the District conference. SPC officials said they had to charge the D.C. agency more to cover travel and lodging costs for Chico and two employees.
SPC Marketing Director Judy Razo defended the firm’s fees, calling them “below normal industry rates.” She said that SPC provided a training session for agency staff, as well as a two-hour book-signing session with Chico, even though those weren’t required by the contract.
“We’re trying to spread the message, and we understand that school districts have limited budgets,” said Razo, who said Chico was not available for an interview. “We want to impart wisdom, not just make a sale.”
During the event, Chico spoke of her family’s emigration from Cuba to the United States and issued a call for parents to become more involved in their children’s education, according to several people who attended. Some expressed shock when they learned what Chico and her firm were paid for the appearance.
“At the time, I thought it was pretty interesting, but I hadn’t thought of it in the context of this amount of money,” said D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large). “I’m not sure what the draw was for that kind of money.”
Three presenters were paid fees of between $1,100 and $1,500, according to the superintendent’s office. An agency spokeswoman did not address why SPC was paid so much more than the others and did not respond to requests for the total cost of the conferences in 2012 and 2013.
Alvin Thornton, a senior administrator at Howard University, said he did not accept payment when he gave the keynote address at the parent summit in 2012.
“I don’t accept fees for speaking, especially at schools,” said Thornton, who as a professor and author focuses on the politics of educational reform. “I’ve never accepted speaking fees for 30 years, that’s just my principle.”
Fairfax County also holds an annual education summit. Many presenters at its 2013 summit volunteered, including the keynote speaker, Superintendent Karen Garza. Two presenters of “breakout sessions,” each of whom handed out hundreds of free books, were paid a combined $14,300. Most of those fees were covered by a $10,000 donation.
Athena Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the D.C. agency, stood by the payment to SPC.
“SPC delivered a quality program reflecting national best practices,” she said, adding that the three-book set is “a tool that parents can reference throughout their child’s academic career, and supports the Common Core standards.”