New school superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. spoke out on Wednesday on a controversial $450,000 consulting contract for one year of transitional services aimed at helping him quickly resolve school district problems in Philadelphia.

Watlington said he asked the school board to approve the contract without a bidding process so he could “take over from day one” – June 16, his first day as superintendent. .

The board ratified the contract in May, but Joseph & Associates, a Tennessee-based consulting firm, began work in April, shortly after Watlington was announced as successor to William R. Hite Jr.

READ MORE: Some are questioning a $450,000 contract Philadelphia schools gave to a consulting firm to support its new superintendent

Yes, Watlington said at a press conference on Wednesday, “it’s a big buck for the taxpayer, but it’s not extraordinarily out of the norm for the kind of work we have to do here in Philadelphia School District.

Paul Reville, a Harvard University Graduate School of Education professor and former Massachusetts Secretary of Education, told The Inquirer that the cost of Watlington’s transition services contract was “extraordinarily high.” He also said much of the work the board has hired the consulting firm to do is usually done in-house.

But Watlington said he was brought to Philadelphia to make the school system “one of the fastest improving urban districts in the nation,” and to do so “requires intentional and strategic actions.”

“I wondered why 32% of students are reading at the third grade level and what are we doing about it? said Watlington. “I’m perfectly clear in my mind that there are some things we need to do differently.”

Watlington also suggested that the capacity of the district’s central office was an issue.

Although he has confidence in his staff, “at the end of the day, I think [the central office] is pretty skinny, as I understand it,” Watlington said.

Watlington took the lead not only on the cost of the contract, but also on the consulting firm itself. Shawn Joseph, the owner of Joseph & Associates, is a former superintendent of Nashville who left before completing three years of work in that neighborhood. A former Nashville board member wrote to the Philadelphia School Board to warn against Joseph, saying of her tenure that she “never before or after have experienced such corruption and dysfunction.” Joseph said Amy Frogge’s claims were “obviously untrue”.

Joseph won’t be the only consultant working with Watlington; the services of Betty Morgan, former National Superintendent of the Year, are also included in the work of Joseph & Associates, Watlington said. Eight other consultants will work on the contract, but Joseph and Morgan will take the lead, Watlington said.

Watlington said he knows both Joseph and Morgan, who he says have “done some pretty significant work in school districts and in the national public education space.” He knows Joseph through the Howard University Urban Superintendents Academy and through Joseph’s former work as a national consultant to the Wallace Foundation, “although I never paid him to be a consultant”.

Morgan, Watlington said, worked with schools in Guilford County in North Carolina, where Watlington spent years as an administrator.

The money pays for supports across three phrases of Watlington’s first year – a Listening and Learning Tour, consisting of 80 sessions with various stakeholders, through September; a transition team component that will launch soon and continue through September, examining in-depth district and education research and best practices across the country to make short- and long-term recommendations; and a strategic planning process that will conclude next spring.

Joseph and Morgan, Watlington said, will bring together “a big tent” of local and national experts and parents, students, teachers and other field staff “in a structured way to support our work”. . Getting a lot of voices around the table can be messy, so I’m looking for support from people who are doing this to help with that.

Consultants will also perform an “in-depth data analysis” of academics in the district.

“We want to do this as quickly as possible to identify the root cause of the underachievement of a large group of students in the Philadelphia school district,” Watlington said.

He said the consultants “will assess all facets of the Philadelphia school district.”

Contract covers up to $10,000 for 100-day priority support; $113,250 for leadership assessment and coaching; $150,000 for transition team development, implementation and reporting; $82,000 for consultant support; $12,000 for administrative and school board pensions; and $75,000 for comprehensive strategic planning services.

But the contract total is a cap, Watlington said.

“We may not get to that $450,000,” he said. “It could be significantly lower. We could spend every penny. I do not know yet.

The school board said in a statement it fully supports the contract, which it believes is “essential” to the success of Watlington and the district.

“This type of transition support is used by leaders across all sectors, and when you have a district as large and complex as the school district, transition support is about providing an even deeper understanding of individuals, of the families and communities this district serves. “, said the board of directors. “With the help of these advisors and the local leaders who will make up the transition team, Dr. Watlington will be able to develop a plan that builds on the goals and safeguards, and best delivers on this district’s promise to improve student success and position our children. to be globally competitive.

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