Opinion

With $450k consulting contract, Philadelphia’s new school superintendent crushes hopes for change | Opinion

Tony Watlington is bringing in a Tennessee-based firm, and the Board of Ed. isn’t taking questions.

Philadelphia School Superintendent Tony Watlington outside the first day of summer enrichment classes in West Philly. Watlington officially assumed his duties June 16.

Philadelphia School Superintendent Tony Watlington outside the first day of summer enrichment classes in West Philly. Watlington officially assumed his duties June 16.

Tom MacDonald / WHYY
lisahaver

Lisa Haver is a retired Philadelphia teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, @APPSphilly.


After years of pain and frustration that included the closing of neighborhood schools, privatization driven by standardized tests, crumbling infrastructure, and more than one debacle, the people of Philadelphia were psyched for new leadership in the school district.

The door to new priorities seemed to open with the arrival of Tony Watlington as the next superintendent.

But that door slammed shut before his tenure had even begun with the news that he’d brought in a Tennessee-based consulting firm to help him navigate his first year in the job. In May, the Board of Education voted unanimously and without deliberation to approve a one-year contract with Joseph & Associates. Price tag: $450,000. The board approved this contract — the last on a list of 92 official items — near the end of an 8-hour meeting.

According to a recent Chalkbeat article, the board hired the consulting firm to help Watlington “connect with people,” assist in assembling his transition team, and develop a 5-year plan for the district. Watlington said he asked for the contract so he could “hit the ground running by Day 1,” according to The Inquirer.

Apparently, Watlington decided the district’s current leadership of 16 department chiefs and 15 assistant superintendents could not help him do that, and that people from Tennessee could educate him about the district’s history and needs better than the people who live and work in Philly.

The Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, the organization I co-founded, has reported on and analyzed the spending priorities of the district since 2012. We intended to ask the board directly why they hired Joseph & Associates, but all five APPS members who tried to sign up to speak at the June meeting were denied.

Last winter, in public town halls held for the three superintendent finalists, Watlington told parents, students, and educators he had a plan and wanted to meet with district stakeholders to hear their concerns. He didn’t say he could only do that by hiring an out-of-town consulting firm at a price higher than his own $340,000 salary.

The first official act of the new administration signals a continuation of those before him: hiring consultants and outsourcing work that should be done by district personnel. Sending resources into classrooms remains on the back burner.

The scope of the Joseph & Associates contract raises concerns for families and public education advocates for a number of reasons. Watlington said he wants the consultants to help him assess how the district can best meet the board’s “Goals and Guardrails” — a set of priorities based on standardized test data. This approach does not lend itself to creative learning or teaching. The Watlington administration should commit to funding proven reforms: smaller class size, more support staff, and reinstating school librarians.

But it’s the final phase of the Joseph & Associates contract that should sound the alarm for defenders of public education: the compilation of a 5-year “strategic plan” for the district. Many recall what happened a decade ago after the last long-range plan from an outside firm, the Boston Consulting Group: school closings and more privatization of neighborhood schools. Any plan that determines the future of the district and its ramifications for families and neighborhoods should be discussed and formulated in public meetings — not the private boardrooms of an out-of-state consulting firm.

Joseph & Associates principal Shawn Joseph has in the recent past been involved in several controversies. During his time as Nashville school superintendent, he was hailed for work with students of color but excoriated for his handling of a sexual harassment allegation against a colleague and for awarding millions in no-bid contracts.

Joseph is one of several consultants who’ll work with Watlington under the contract with the Philadelphia Board of Education, per The Inquirer. But the board is enabling corruption when they silence organizations like APPS — we who attend meetings, report on their actions, and ask the necessary questions.

It’s sad to say, but Watlington has already blown his chance to fulfill what should have been his top priority: to restore faith in the School District of Philadelphia.

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