One company could lead school improvement efforts in at least two Colorado districts soon

A Florida-based company could win two contracts in Colorado this week — and be poised to win a much larger one later — to become the outside manager to solve chronic low achievement in struggling schools.

The Colorado State Board of Education this week will weigh in on the plans in two districts, Aurora and Pueblo, to work with MGT Consulting, a for-profit firm.

MGT Consulting might also still get a contract to work with Adams 14, the Commerce City-based district that the state ordered to find an external manager to take over much of its operations for the next four years. Although Adams 14 initially selected Mapleton, a neighboring school district to be that manager, state officials did not feel confident in that choice, and asked the district leaders to identify another possible co-partner.

If all three projects were to pan out, MGT Consulting would be running turnaround work in three Colorado school districts later this year.

That would double the company’s school turnaround work. So here’s a little more about who they are.

The company has been around for a long time.

MGT Consulting started in Florida in 1974. The company has consulted for local governments, school districts, and universities, including many in Colorado.

Most recently, MGT helped Aurora’s school district engage the community to map out scenarios for facilities planning. In Jeffco, the company has a contract now to review policies and processes around the use and closure of facilities.

Eric Parish, a school board member in the Cherry Creek School District, is one of the company’s many vice presidents.

Their turnaround work is newer.

MGT Consulting is working to turn around one school district, in Gary, Indiana. One other applicant for the Adams 14 management position also had experience with turning around a whole district.

MGT also provided “school improvement services” to two Florida schools for 2017-18 after their low performance dictated they seek outside help. That work included training teachers and helping track progress. Both schools improved achievement in one year, so the state no longer required the district to contract with MGT.

MGT leaders said that the company expanded into turnaround work in response to school districts’ needs. The officials said they expect to have more contracts soon for that work in other states besides Colorado.

Officials said the projects are similar to consulting work, except that rather than leaving after making recommendations, MGT will stick around to help districts follow through.

In Aurora, the school board approved a plan in February to have MGT work with North Middle School to manage school improvement before state intervention is required. At the time, local board members questioned what external providers could offer that the district couldn’t do itself. Superintendent Rico Munn noted that it wasn’t necessarily that the district couldn’t make changes on its own, but that if the school didn’t improve in time, state law required the district to take one of only a few routes to improve, the least drastic of which is to hire an outside manager.

In March in Pueblo, the school board under an order from the State Board of Education asked MGT to serve as the external manager for two middle schools, Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation. That decision sparked teachers union criticism of the process for selecting the manager as well as MGT’s track record. (On Tuesday, the Pueblo school board, citing enrollment and facility conditions along with low performance, voted to close Heroes at the end of the year instead.)

Pueblo school officials selected MGT in a second search after the first process yielded only one applicant which the district rejected. In an extended search, the district had two finalists to choose from and selected MGT.

Teachers union leaders also oppose the possibility of MGT replacing the already selected Mapleton district, to manage Adams 14.

Is the lack of a longer track record a concern?

While companies have been helping schools improve for years, it’s less common for a company to take charge of a school, much less an entire district. In the few cases where they have, the results have been mixed.

Parker Baxter, director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, said it’s important for districts to look at a firm’s track record when evaluating a management partner for a school. But he said it’s hard to assess this kind of work because there aren’t many times where a district has asked an outside group to take over.

“Unfortunately we have seen [that] these outside management organizations have not shown significant evidence of success,” Baxter said. “I definitely think that to the extent an organization has a strong record of success, objectively it’s reasonable that should be seen as evidence of potential for success in the future.”

Another piece that is just as important to consider, Baxter says, is who exactly will lead the work. MGT’s approach is to hire local people. Often the company hires retired superintendents or other educators. The company already has posted job listings online for school turnaround project managers in Colorado.

MGT’s existing staff who might be involved in Colorado work include former principals and others with experience administering schools.

How has the improvement effort in Gary gone?

It’s early to say anything definitive. In 2017, MGT won a four-year contract to manage schools in Gary, Indiana. The deal is potentially worth about $11.4 million, if the state funds the contract for all four years and if the company meets performance goals.

Gary’s school district has about 5,000 students enrolled this year, down from about 11,000 ten years ago. The students in Gary overwhelmingly qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty, like in Adams 14, but only a handful of students are learning English as a second language.

In Gary, the state ordered an emergency manager to come in not only for academic problems, but because the enrollment decline and fiscal mismanagement problems landed the district deep in debt. MGT took over the responsibilities of the superintendent and the school board, at the state’s request, and reports directly to state officials.

The work has been controversial. Some lawmakers called for removing the firm when it was discovered that Tony Bennett, who was state superintendent in Indiana from 2008 through 2013, is a partner in the Strategos Group, which acquired MGT in 2015. Lawmakers argued that the policies Bennett rolled out in his time as state superintendent contributed to Gary’s financial problems that led the state to require an external manager.

MGT has not been removed, however, and Bennett doesn’t have an active role in the management of the district. According to news reports citing state officials, since the takeover, the Gary district has decreased its debt, slowed its enrollment decline, and purchased new textbooks. The latest state rating of the district has also improved slightly.

Will they do similar work in Colorado?

Not exactly. MGT’s proposals are intentionally a little vague because, company leaders say, they like to tailor the work to fit the need, and to collaborate with local staff and community.

Colorado’s laws also differ from Indiana’s. MGT will not supplant local school boards, nor will it report directly to the state. And the three districts where MGT might work here don’t have the same financial problems that Gary has faced.

The MGT proposal also revolves around hiring several people locally. Often the company hires retired educators like superintendents to help run its day-to-day work.

In two Colorado proposals, MGT will work with a program from the University of Virginia.

The university program, Partnership for Leaders in Education, has a considerable track record, and more evidence of success. The program trains principals and district leaders to become better managers and to assess what works and what doesn’t.

In Pueblo and in Adams 14, that work will be taken a step farther to make sure school and district leaders can also “design and deliver supports and equip teachers,” to better serve students.

William Roberts, the university program director, said that multiple people from Adams 14 reached out to him to talk about managing the district.

“We felt that for the specific opportunity of this district management, that we weren’t the right fit,” Roberts said.

After learning about MGT, the two groups decided they could work together.

“There aren’t a lot of organizations with experience engaging communities well and delivering opportunities well in such a role,” Roberts said.

He also said he was impressed with MGT’s experience in Gary.

“We thought they could do powerful work,” he said. “We saw we had complementary expertise.”