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Outside the district, despite budget cuts

Lodi Unified School District will spend more than $21.5 million on contracted services in 2010-11. Some are asking: Can district survive without them?

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Posted: Saturday, August 14, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 5:58 am, Mon Aug 16, 2010.

This school year, Lodi Unified School District will pay more than $21.5 million in contracted services, including close to half a million dollars in legal services. These contracts do not include employee contracts.

This money — approximately 9 percent of the district's annual budget — goes toward services the district can't provide in-house, such as legal assistance and certain counseling programs.

"The easiest way to explain it is paying people who do what they do, like accountants, legal firms," Chief Business Official Doug Barge said.

Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer said contracts include a wide array of services.

"The purpose is just that, to provide a needed service," she said.

But in light of drastic budget cuts recently — including laying off more than 300 teachers and classified staff — some have questioned whether these services are needed and if they can be done in-house at a lower cost.

Most contracts must be approved by the board of trustees on an annual basis.

At the July 6 meeting, they approved five contracts for the upcoming school year, totaling more than $1 million. Four of them are specifically for the district's afterschool Bridge Program.

They include:

  • An agreement with One-Eighty Teen Center to provide curriculum to assist teens with decision-making, behavior management, truancy and academics at Millswood Middle, Delta Sierra Middle and Lodi Middle schools. Total: $9,993.
  • Two separate contracts were approved with both the city of Stockton and city of Lodi Parks and Recreation departments to provide academic and enrichment components to help close the achievement gap at specific schools. Total: $676,785.
  • A contract with the Lodi Boys and Girls Club serves students at more schools in similar programs. Total: $416,297.
  • The last contract was an agreement with therapist Mary Anita Daniels to provide counseling services at Joe Serna, Jr. Charter School. Total: $28,305.

Two months later, at the Aug. 3 meeting, the board approved another $1 million in contracts that included $425,000 in legal services to different firms — but not before board candidate George Neely questioned the district as to whether they requested a price cut on any of the contracts.

"I don't know why we have a problem asking for a reduction, even temporarily. Why are we going to them?" he said, adding that he called one of the vendors himself who seemed open to doing just that.

Barge responded that he is in the process of asking for a cut from at least one provider.

Neely is not alone in his criticism of paying for contracted services.

"We could be doing something with the dollars instead of sending them to outside vendors," Christa McAuliffe teacher Martha Snider said at a recent school board meeting.

She takes issue with staffing before-school and afterschool programs with non-district teachers.

But Dawn Vetica, who oversees these programs, said many of the services with the cities of Lodi and Stockton, and the Boys and Girls Club are paid for by a grant, and approximately 350 workers are district employees who extend their day of teaching with these afterschool programs.

Teachers' union president Jeff Johnston believes the district could do more using current in-house employees.

"With my union hat on, I'm not going to suggest we get rid of all outside vendors. There are things like special ed and speech therapy where we can't get the personnel to fill those needs," he said.

However, he said, in the past the district has used its employees to perform staff development trainings, rather than contractors.

Trustee Jeff Thompson, a former district administrator, feels each contract needs to be systematically examined, and encourages his peers to do so on a regular basis before approving them.

"What does it provide and does it meet that service for the district?" he said.

All contracts that exceed $15,000 go before the school board for approval, either as a regular agenda item, on the warrants list or as a routine item on the purchase order list, according to Barge.

Smaller contracts, however, can be approved and signed by designated district employees, most of which are in the business office.

Thompson believes there is some skepticism surrounding the current cost of contracted services, but said it likely stems from the sluggish union negotiations. Both the classified and certificated unions have yet to adopt a contract with the district.

"Any time you have a large dollar amount, people are going to question it, especially people who are involved in certain public interest groups like teachers," Thompson said. "There's always that opportunity to look for employment in those particular groups."

But he cautioned that some of the district's contracts are short-term, meaning there's an end to the contract and other sources could be used to fund them.

Last year, the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District's contracted services totaled less than $80,000, compared to Lodi's $21.5 million. The district paid for two education consultants, according to Superintendent Karen Schauer.

Marge Gratiot, of Pivot Learning Partners, served as administrative coach for principals and central office administration to strengthen student achievement by meeting regularly with teacher coaches. Her contract totaled $37,000.

The nonprofit organization Gratiot works for is funded largely by grants from the Hewlett and Annenberg foundations, with some fees charged to school districts for direct services.

Most districts pay their portion of the cost with federal categorical funds, she said in an e-mail.

Other nearby districts who have used services from Pivot Learning Partners during the past two years include Lodi, Elk Grove, Twin Rivers, Lake Tahoe and Napa.

The second paid consultant was Ann Leon, who served as a literacy consultant. Her services totaled $38,000, and she will likely be hired again, Schauer said.

At the Galt high school level, that district has a standing contract for legal services but, unlike Lodi, pays by the hour, according to Chief Business Official Audrey Kilpatrick.

In June 2009, the board approved a $16,000 contract with Professional Development Center for staff development of teachers and site administration.

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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