Time for Manatee County school district to disclose details on consultant contracts

The issue of consultant fees paid out by the Manatee County school district has been simmering for well over a year now -- not only in the form of sharp public criticism but in challenges from school board members, too. With a price tag of $15.6 million, the board and administration should be dissecting the fees, to determine effectiveness, consider efficiencies and demonstrate transparency.

Board members Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter have long sought this examination, and the debate has finally begun.

This is a worthwhile exercise if only to prove to the public the value of consultants. Accordingly, a close review of the many contracts would alleviate concerns about malfeasance and misfeasance -- if that is indeed the case.

Suspicions abound because of the district's lack of transparency despite repeated requests for information from the public and board. The interminable delays in releasing public records about the expenditure of taxpayer money only serves to sow distrust, which the district can ill afford.

The total spent on these fees is indeed shocking, as Superintendent Tim McGonegal articulated in a report last week by Herald education writer Christine Hawes.

But comparisons to other Florida school districts provide an inaccurate picture since accounting methods differ. For example, Manatee labels more services as consultant-based than Hillsborough County, which does not count speech therapy or security services into that portion of its budget like Manatee.

The latest available figures on Manatee expenditures on consultants, from the 2010-2011 budget, show the district spent $9.95 million on student education services and $2.7 million on employee benefits services. Those are the two areas of contention.

Carpenter and Aranibar have focused on the risk management and benefits arena. Two pertinent questions are whether district staff could perform the tasks and whether the current consultants have been providing poor advice.

Administrators should produce qualitative and quantitative answers to both concerns.

Most of the fees for student services are spent on tutoring programs mandated by federal grants and the No Child Left Behind law as well as speech and occupational therapy, and programs for special needs students, including the homeless and children from migrant families.

Speech and occupational therapy and school resource officers consume almost half the $9.95 million expenditure, at $3.8 million and $1 million respectively.

Are all these consultants effective? And do they save the district money? Those are the primary questions.

McGonegal offered a spirited defense in Hawes' report, stating that all are closely monitored. Consultants that fail to meet district standards and expectations are not retained.

That's reassuring to a point, but administrators should be able to demonstrate effectiveness through documentation available to the public and posted on the district's website.

The best way to silence critics is to shine a light on matters in a timely manner. Delays only fuel doubts. It's about time consultants' fees receive a thorough public examination.