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Report links SESIS struggles and DOE's contracting practices

The special education data system that has teachers and parents frustrated carries a $79 million price tag — and wasn’t even tailor-made for the city schools.

That’s according to a report by Ruth Ford and Adrienne Day about the Department of Education’s contracting practices in the current issue of City Limits, the magazine of the nonprofit Community Service Society of New York.

The year-old Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS, was meant to make information about students with disabilities more accessible. But its rollout has been bumpy, with school staff and union officials complaining that using the system is burdensome.

Tracing SESIS’s origins, the City Limits report characterizes the system as “neither an unbridled success nor a total failure” but rather a symptom of the DOE’s reliance on private contractors to solve local problems — a practice that DOE officials said could soon see greater quality control.

From the article:

The DOE put out a request for proposals for a new system and got several bids. The Virginia-based consulting company Maximus won the contract.

Maximus’ motto is “Helping government serve the people,” but, as with all corporations, its bottom line is to help its shareholders. A February 2009 earnings conference call made clear that where others see policy or politics, Maximus (and probably other consultants) sees profit.

“Our business today stands well-positioned to benefit in the long run from greater demand for our services due to the economic slowdown and new legislation that calls for expansion of existing programs. This includes increased funding through the proposed $800 billion-plus stimulus plan,” Richard Montoni, Maximus’ CEO, said on the call.  …

Montoni’s monologue revealed a company in mid-pivot, shifting from a “revmax” business model—identifying and claiming reimbursable federal dollars for state and local governments—to a provider of IT services like SESIS. And SESIS, as the conference call revealed, is simply a repurposing of an existing software package called TIENET—a system that Maximus had already implemented in the Chicago school system. Montoni reassured an anxious analyst: “Naturally, we’ll have to interface it with the systems of New York City, and we’ll have to train the users in New York City on how to use it. But it should not be viewed as a custom-build situation.” Just as when [Alvarez & Marsal, the firm involved in a midyear busing debacle in 2007] came into town riding high on projects in St. Louis and New Orleans, SESIS was a case of a consultant getting big bucks to map a product created for a different (smaller) school system onto New York’s unique education superstructure.

The article also notes that a former special education executive at the DOE got special permission, and a hefty consulting fee, to help the city get SESIS online:

One of the early champions of SESIS was Linda Wernikoff, who in June 2009 retired from her job as the city’s top special-ed official, only to be rehired by the Fund for Public Schools as a DOE consultant on SESIS less than a year later. New York City’s Conflict of Interest Board signed off on a wavier for her rehire at $1,000 per day—on top of her DOE pension. (Wernikoff declined to comment for this story.)

And City Limits also reports that SESIS’s $79 million price tag could balloon because of clauses in its contract, and the city would be without recourse because has not rolled out a required “Electronic Performance Evaluation Process” for its private vendors:

Chances are that SESIS, along with many other IT contracts the city is currently engaged in, will end up costing taxpayers more than its originally stated “base” rate. City Limits obtained a copy of the SESIS contract — which, at about the thickness of The Collected Dialogues of Plato and similarly dense, is a pamphlet compared with many other such contracts — and there are several places in which it is clear that Maximus can bill the city many million dollars more under a so-called renewal of contract and also under something called a change order — which effectively renders the originally agreed-upon price of the contract obsolete. …

Meanwhile, major oversight and accountability issues loom. According to the DOE’s Procurement Policy and Procedures Manual, approved by the Panel for Education Policy, the board that oversees the DOE, in January 2010, the DOE is required to establish a process for evaluating and documenting the performance of its vendors. But no such system exists yet. Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the DOE, says, “A prototype system has been developed and will be rolled out in the near future to capture this data.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”