(Photo: State of Michigan)
The district running Michigan’s lowest-performing schools awarded a $1.7-million training contract to a company that scored 8th out of 10 companies seeking the work, according to documents reviewed by the Free Press.
The School Empowerment Network, or SEN, has no office, no listed phone number, an unfinished website and a seven-member staff. Its initial bid of $2.3 million was more than twice the $1-million bid submitted by the highest-scoring firm, Boston-based Public Consulting Group, which has 60 offices in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Most of SEN’s current staff worked formerly for New York City schools at the same time Veronica Conforme, the current chancellor of the financially troubled Education Achievement Authority, also worked there. The EAA is SEN’s only client.
EAA officials defend the contract — by far the largest of four awarded in recent months for professional development — saying some company officials had previously done excellent work for the EAA and were experienced working in urban turnaround districts.
“It’s the same group of people that are doing this work, so there was some continuity that I think also matters for a selection process,” Conforme told the Free Press. “One of the things that we look for is the experience with working in a turnaround environment.”
The contract was awarded as the EAA is under siege because of poor academic performance, declining enrollment and an FBI investigation into kickback schemes involving vendors.
SEN CEO Alex Shub said he has a deep background in teacher and principal coaching and leadership development.
“We’re currently developing leaders at multiple levels in the schools, from classroom teachers to instructional coaches, to school administrators, and we’re doing that through a combination of coursework and on-site coaching,” Shub said.
Shub and two other men, Daniel Pasette and Eduardo Contreras, incorporated SEN in New York, on May 14, listing as the business address the same Brooklyn condominium complex where Shub lives.
A month later, SEN was one of 10 companies that submitted proposals to the EAA, the reform school district opened by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools. The district currently has 15 schools, all of them in Detroit.
At a meeting in August, the EAA board heard a short presentation about the contract, asked no questions and approved it, all in less than 90 seconds.
EAA district chancellor Veronica Conforme talks to Lexus Sampson,17, a senior in the English Language Arts class at Henry Ford High School in Detroit on the first day of school on Tuesday, September 8, 2015. (Photo: Jessica J. Trevino)
“The recommendation came to me, and I made the final recommendation to the board, for all of them,” Conforme said.
School board member Timothy Wood said two weeks ago he couldn’t recall whether board members received background information on the firm prior to voting.
“We trust the administration, that they do their job, and it’s their responsibility to get vendors,” Wood said. “I think they do a wonderful job.”
The $1.7-million contract will be paid using federal funds aimed at improving teachers, Harry Pianko, the EAA’s chief financial officer, said at the meeting.
Shub, who helped select and train new principals for New York schools, said the company is creating a strong leadership pipeline within the EAA, with a goal of improving student achievement.
“The long-term intention is that the school becomes its own talent development engine, and the School Empowerment Network is no longer needed because the best practices get embedded in each of the schools,” he said.
SEN started with a five-member project team and now has seven employees, including Shub. Four of the staffers worked in the New York City Department of Education with Shub, where he said he selected and developed 120 new school leaders as part of an effort to revitalize schools.
Conforme formerly worked as chief operating officer and chief financial officer for the department. Shub said he and Conforme worked in different divisions, and he didn’t report to her.
One other SEN employee worked for schools in New York, but not with Shub. The other employee is a former Massachusetts principal.
“The company is of course new, but we are not new to the work,” Shub said. “The folks on the team have a real wealth of experience working in schools and coaching school leaders.”
As for the company not having an office, Shub said: “Part of our intention is to be as cost-effective as possible. We’re a virtual organization, and our members work from home when they’re not on site.”
EAA spokesman Robert Guttersohn acknowledged that the SEN is a new entity, but said Shub and other staffers worked in Detroit earlier this year for a different nonprofit called The New Teacher Project (TNTP).
“The big criticism is the fact that it’s a new organization,” Guttersohn said. “But they’re not new to the EAA, they’re not new to this work. And it was a balancing act.”
The bid evaluation team noted concerns, however.
“Solid personal experience but organization is just starting up,” Michael Gaal, who oversees K-8 schools for the district, wrote on an evaluation sheet where he graded SEN a 75 out of 100.
Gary Miron, professor of education at Western Michigan University and a fellow at the National Education Policy Center, said the young age of the company raises questions.
“How can you select somebody for such a large contract with no track record?” he said. ” … Qualifications are more than just individual personal credentials. Especially for something like this. This is a big contract.”
When the 10 proposals for training arrived in June, the EAA asked teams of administrators and staff to evaluate them, reviewing the submissions and interviewing company representatives.
The training work the district sought was divided into three categories: Teacher training, coaching and developing school leaders and strategic consulting. The request allowed companies to bid on all or portions of the work.
The SEN was one of four companies to bid on all three categories. The evaluators assigned scores to each one, awarding points for scope of work, qualifications, and experience and staff capabilities.
All six EAA staffers who evaluated SEN marked it down in the category of qualifications and prior experience. A list of pros and cons developed by the procurement department noted “We would be their only clients” but also that “Brand new company, have to absorb all of costs as their only client.”
One of the other companies bidding on all three categories, Public Consulting Group, earned 30 points, the most allowed, for qualifications and prior experience. But the company had only two evaluators, compared with the six who reviewed SEN’s proposal.
Overall PCG scored 95, though under cons, evaluators noted “generic consulting. No local staff and no connection to our urban setting.”
PCG’s initial bid was for just over $1 million, less than half of SEN’s initial bid of $2.3 million. Guttersohn said the district negotiated the SEN proposal down to $1.7 million.
Conforme said she instituted the review process that created the scores, but said it’s only part of the process.
“It’s not the deciding factor,” she said. “We need great teachers and great leaders in every school. And for us, it was about who’s going to be able to deliver on that quickly.”
But disregarding the scores raises questions, said Brent Maas of the National Institute for Government Purchasing, a professional group of buyers from the U.S. and Canada.
“The whole notion of transparency is so that an outside observer could come in and connect the dots from solicitation to award,” Maas said. “Why would they make awards that are potentially contradictory to what the measures bore out?”
Maas said that buying goods, such as textbooks or laptops, is less complicated because they can be compared side-by-side more readily. Consulting services are harder to gauge but the district’s evaluation process, including the scoring, should help identify the best bidders.
“If you’re continuing to see that disconnect, the hope is truly, ‘We understood things, we made a judgment,’ ” Maas said. “But it would be helpful if you could provide some contextual background to support or explain the whys.”
The previous work in Detroit that impressed Conforme was when Shub and another SEN staff member were still with The New Teacher Project, a New York-based teacher-training and research group that has received at least $2.4 million in contracts from the EAA since September 2014.
While with The New Teacher Project, Shub and the other staffer helped build the Achievement Leadership Institute, an intensive training program to develop leaders who can advance through school ranks.
That work was done for the EAA under a $461,312 contract that included other things like recruitment. Eleven EAA staff members completed the program in the summer; nine still work in the district. Nine more are currently enrolled in it, Shub said.
Denby High School assistant principal Jay Haffner, who remains with the district, said the Achievement Leadership Institute training he attended was intensive.
“It felt like a graduate-level education class,” he said. “Through the training, I felt I was being put into a position to be successful.”
SEN’s current contract has it running The Achievement Leadership Institute and a program to develop lead and master teachers, who mentor younger colleagues. Shub said the teacher program has 27 participants. He expects it to expand.
Guttersohn said the EAA handled the teacher training contracts appropriately, seeking bids, having teams of administrators evaluate them, and then voting to approve four companies to provide the services.
But the FBI is investigating whether the EAA’s procedures can be gamed. Former Denby High School Principal Kenyetta (K.C.) Wilbourn told the Free Press last month that she planned to plead guilty to bribery and tax evasion for taking kickbacks from vendors. She told investigators that veteran principals in the Detroit Public Schools taught her how to manipulate the purchasing system to enrich herself.
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