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APS Chief, Unions Criticize Education Secretary's Move

By Hailey Heinz
Copyright © 2011 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          New Mexico Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera's decision to pay eight out-of-state consultants for advice is causing an outcry among school superintendents and teachers.
        The consultants, who will be paid a total $152,000, will advise the new Cabinet secretary on everything from tracking student achievement to handling public relations. The money comes from unfilled exempt positions in the education department.
        Kristy Campbell, one of the consultants who spoke Friday on Skandera's behalf, said the administration brought in the consultants to offer a fresh eye to New Mexico's policies. She said Skandera is also gathering comments from people with in-state perspective.
        Christine Trujillo, president of New Mexico's chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, blasted the plan.
        "You can't copy and paste an education agenda for New Mexico's kids that outside consultants have used elsewhere," Trujillo said in a release. "Our students and teachers need education leaders who come from New Mexico and understand the unique needs of our state's children — not folks with connections to the failed education policies of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and to former President George W. Bush's botched No Child Left Behind program."
        At least six of the eight consultants have careers tied to one of the Bush brothers. Skandera, who worked for Gov. Bush, has said she plans to adopt some of the reforms he used in Florida, such as assigning schools A-F grades. "The consultants are one venue to provide kind of a fresh look and outside eye, to kind of improve efficiency here in the department," Campbell said. "It's absolutely in combination with the counsel she's getting from folks currently serving in the department, and superintendents."
        About $80,000 of the $152,000 worth of contracts will go to two consulting firms that are supplying five employees. The rest will pay for three individual contracts. All the contracts expire at the end of March or the end of April.
        Nearly all the consultants' résumés consist of policymaking or communications work rather than direct classroom instruction, which Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks said is a concern for him.
        "As someone who's practiced education for 38 years, I disagree that this group brings a wealth of education experience to the state, when in fact I don't think any of them have actually practiced education," Brooks said. "They've been education consultants to governors and legislators and they've been policymakers, but I don't know that any of them have ever practiced education."
        The AFT was critical of the expense.
        "In times of financial crisis, it is unbelievable that Gov. Susana Martinez and state Education Secretary-designate Skandera would choose to hire outside consultants on the dime of struggling New Mexicans," Trujillo said in a statement.
        But Campbell said the money to pay consultants came from exempt positions in the education department that have not been filled yet. Hiring the consultants is cheaper than paying salary and benefits for those positions from January through April.
        She said that is based on paying eight employees a salary of $89,000 plus benefits, which would cost about $297,000 over four months — less than the $152,000 in contract costs.
        She said the contractors will perform many of the day-to-day tasks that would have been filled by the exempt employees.
        Lack of local representation on the advisory team is another issue for local officials.
        "I did tell her I wanted to join my colleagues in expressing my displeasure that there was no New Mexican on the group," Brooks told the school board Friday morning. "I think it sends a bad message when you're only an expert if you're from outside the state."
        Skandera did announce a local permanent hire Friday, naming Legislative Finance Committee analyst Paul Aguilar her deputy secretary of finance and operations.
        She has been doing some damage control since the advisory contracts were announced Wednesday and superintendents became concerned that they were being cut out of the decision-making process.
        Tom Sullivan, who heads the New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators, said Skandera is meeting with superintendents this week to smooth out the situation, and he looks forward to resolving it.
        "It didn't start out well, and we're hoping we can get a new start face to face," he said.
        The consultant team
        • Christy Hovanetz: advising on policy issues, including assessment and accountability. A senior policy fellow for the Foundation for Excellence in Education; former assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Education; worked in the Florida Department of Education for former Gov. Jeb Bush. Working under a $42,193 contract with Summit Education.
        • David Saba: advising on teacher effectiveness, certification and licensure. Founder of DWSaba Consulting, former CEO of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence; former regional director for Kaplan Test Prep. Saba is also part of the Summit contract.
        • John Bailey: advising on education policy and technology. Director of Whiteboard Advisors and co-publisher of Education Insider. Was on former President George W. Bush's Domestic Policy Council. Working under the Summit contract.
        • Catherine Freeman: advising on operational functions and education policy. Senior associate with HCM Strategists LLC, and former chief of staff to the state Superintendent of Education in the District of Columbia. Served in the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education, managing implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Freeman is being paid under a $37,866 contract with HCM.
        • Terrell Halaska: advising on education policy and organizational issues. A founder of HCM Strategists LLC, and previously worked in the federal Department of Education. Working under the HCM contract.
        • Kristy Campbell: advising on communications, legislative and public engagement strategies. Was chief spokeswoman for former Gov. Bush and communications director for his two non-profit education policy groups. To be paid $34,000.
        • Chad Colby: advising on education policy, federal compliance and communications issues. Worked in the Florida Department of Education when the state adopted Gov. Bush's "A+ Plan." Later, managed media affairs and all events for the U.S. Department of Education secretary. To be paid $15,146.
        • Cathie Carothers: advising on policy issues, including federal compliance and funding. Former assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary education in Washington, D.C.; worked in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Indian Education. To be paid $22,719.
        • Two other consultants, Jay Pfeiffer and Jeff Sellers, were named in the original press release but have not been issued contracts. Campbell said they may contract with the state later, but are currently offering advice at no charge.

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