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I'd Like Hanna Skandera's Deal

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
          Let's imagine the Journal pays me $125,000 a year to write an opinion column. (It doesn't.)
        And let's say the newspaper gave me that fat salary because I am the most talented columnist in all the land. (I wish.)
        Let's imagine the same bosses who pay me that handsome salary have frozen a handful of positions at the newspaper after a long, loud public relations campaign about the importance of tight belts and budgetary restraint. (They haven't.)
        Now let's say I ask those bosses to pony up $152,000 of that saved salary money so I can hire eight consultants to advise me on how to write my column. (I wouldn't dare.)
        But if I did, I'd have my idea consultant, a person to do all those pesky interviews and someone else to transcribe them. And I'd get a typist, a grammarian, a spell-checker and a writing coach. I would pay a pretty penny for a Synonym Czar.
        I'd find them all outside of New Mexico because (I gather) that's where all the brains and talent reside.
        Wow. Writing my column just got a whole lot easier. It's almost as if I've outsourced a good part of my job with the newspaper's money while still cashing my big, fat paychecks.
        Now I just have to cross my fingers that no enterprising reporter discovers my nice little scam and slaps it all over the front page of the newspaper.
        If my name were Hanna Skandera and education were my game, well, it would be too late for that.
        There was a moderate kerfuffle last week when it was revealed that Skandera, the $125,000-a-year secretary-designate for public education for the state of New Mexico, had contracted eight consultants to advise her on all aspects of running a public education department. The consultants she hired are providing advice on policy, assessment and accountability, technology, teacher effectiveness, organization, federal compliance, funding and communications. What's left?
        Skandera was one of Gov. Susana Martinez's early Cabinet hires, and she was introduced as an out-of-stater we were lucky to have been able to nab for this critical position. Skandera is young, only 37, but she has some big-league credentials. She was deputy commissioner of education for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during Florida's much-lauded era of school reform.
        If you'll recall Martinez's campaign, one of her oft-repeated promises was that she would poke a hole in Gov. Bill Richardson's bloated payroll of "exempt" or appointed staffers and let out all that hot air.
        Now, in explaining why the state could now pay out $152,000 to eight consultants (who will work in the neighborhood of only six to 12 weeks, by the way), the administration said it was because it saved a lot of money freezing a bunch of those "exempt" Richardson positions.
        The department is saving some $300,000 by not filling positions. The administration defends the contracts by saying it is spending $152,000 of that $300,000 to provide "a fresh perspective and short-term guidance" so Skandera can run the department better in the long run. Martinez told me Wednesday she thinks it's money well-spent because part of the consultants' task will be to figure out how to cut the entire education budget by a sharp 20 percent.
        Reaction from school superintendents and the unions to the hiring of a team of experts to consult the big cheese was swift, peppered with words like "unbelievable" and "displeasure" and complete with observation of the irony of dinging schools' budgets while writing checks to consultants.
        I am considering writing a column about this affair. But first let me round up my team of consultants and find out what the experts think. I believe this deal is odoriferous. Does it smell like a cost-cutting rose? Or does it just stink? I will have to call on my Synonym Czar to sort this out.
        UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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