CCSD: Read it and (bleep)

Karen Gray

Hypersensitive about the Clark County School District's spending on high-priced consultants, district officials reacted with barely concealed fury last month after a Las Vegas Review-Journal news article juxtaposed two facts that officials apparently wanted kept apart.

"Between June and October, as the Clark County School District was busy paring back jobs and programs because of funding shortfalls," began the Dec. 9 article, "it shelled out more than $14 million to consultants and speakers for a range of educational and operational services, according to documents released by the Legislative Counsel Bureau."

Demonstrably upset over the R-J story, Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes the very next day declared the article a "profound underrepresentation of the consulting service report that was submitted to the legislature."

He then led school staff in a 20-minute public "rebuttal" that identified no factual errors in the story.

Instead, Rulffes and school finance chief Jeff Weiler merely walked trustees and the public through a 23-page staff presentation that broke the $14.3 million consulting expenditures down into their subcategories — of which the major ones had been reported near the top of the Review-Journal story.

"The district spent $10.9 million on administrative and operations services consultants … [and] … $3.2 million on instructional services," said the article in its second paragraph.

Of the CCSD staff document, 15 pages itemized the payments to consultants the district had reported to the state. The eight other pages comprised a summary introduction, an inter-office memo and several charts graphing consultant expenses. The charts showed funding categories, CCSD service categories and instructional and operational costs.

Although Rulffes told school trustees that there was a "stunning difference between reality and the media report," he actually reported no errors in the story. Instead, much of his antagonism appeared to arise because the story did not include all the detailed, politically self-protective explanations that Rulffes proceeded to give to the board meeting packed with trustees, teachers and support staff.

The superintendent also seemed miffed that the same article discussed a new consultant contract the district was proposing that very evening for NewLeef, the firm of Karlene McCormick-Lee, a recently retired high-ranking CCSD administrator.

The district attempted to outsource work "in cases where privatization was more cost-efficient," noted Rulffes. "How often do you hear we should be contracting out more to private sources? We do it and then, it seems like we can't win." Apparently in Rulffes' view, it was inappropriate for the Review-Journal to inform readers of the NewLeef consulting contract being considered the next day, in an article on consultant spending generally.

The superintendent then directed finance chief Weiler "to show you [trustees] and the public how badly misrepresented we were in that article that suggests that we were squandering dollars for education consultants."

Nowhere in the article, however, did either reporter James Haug or anyone else charge that the district was "squandering" dollars on education consultants. Yet Rulffes was clearly fearful that readers, left to themselves, might draw that conclusion.

This attitude — that the public cannot be trusted to correctly evaluate the district's performance — crops up repeatedly within top administrators of the Clark County School District and may well be the district's real problem. CCSD operates a highly restrictive information-control regime that regularly blocks news reporters and researchers from speaking directly to knowledgeable district personnel.

Trustee Sheila Moulton thanked Rulffes for the presentation, calling it "an excellent document, easy to understand and read," and adding, "It definitely puts things into perspective. …"  

She asked Rulffes: "Were you asked to give input on [the article] or an explanation for it?"

"I was only asked to give input on the Karlene Lee provision of it," said the superintendent. "I didn't know it was going to be wrapped into a more global … No, I did not know that. I wish I would have.  I would have certainly made sure that all of this information would have been made available."

However, in reality, "making sure all information is available" is not necessarily the CCSD way. Instead, reporters and researchers must jump through tedious hoops, or "protocols," required by the district.

According to reporter Haug, he followed CCSD protocol when seeking information for the article.

The "protocol is that I contact the information office and they facilitate the information. I did that," he says. "CCSD was fully aware that I was looking into the consultant report."

Haug explained that he submitted several e-mails to two different district information officers. Each e-mail sought information about the consultant report and the McCormick-Lee contract.

The district was entirely free to supplement its report on consultant hiring with memos, graphs and summaries. But it did not. Instead, CCSD chose to only provide Haug the actual report submitted to the Interim Finance Committee — the 15-page, spreadsheet-type listing of consultants, services, costs and fund accounts. Consistent with the district's normal grudging response, no memos, charts or narratives were included. Nor, as Rulffes later admitted, were they included in the district's report to the legislature.

That report had been required under a new law passed by the 2009 legislature.

Assembly Bill 463 was introduced by Assemblywoman Debbie Smith (Washoe, D-30) to ensure more transparency in the hiring of consultants by school districts and the state government. The large number of highly lucrative consulting contracts that Nevada's governments and districts were awarding to former employees had come to Smith's attention, she said, in conversations with State Controller Kim Wallin.

Rather than misrepresent the actual report submitted to the legislature, the Review-Journal article actually seems to have been right in sync with the goal of district transparency that lawmakers mandated with AB 463.

After all, if not for the law and the resulting R-J article, CCSD almost certainly would never have finally given teachers and the public a detailed accounting of where the millions of dollars for consultant spending are going.

Karen Gray is an education researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.