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August 27, 2014

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Daily Memo: Education:

Why not sever pricey ties to company?

Because School District’s deal with Edison Schools Inc. gives it no out over costs, and the company mostly has had big success

Beyond the Sun

Some people called it a bad deal back in 2001, hiring the private Edison Schools Inc. to manage seven struggling Clark County School District campuses.

Given the budget crisis, it would seem logical to many to reconsider the contract with Edison, which cost the district $11 million this year and runs through 2011. But there is no escape clause for the district based on fiscal distress. The only way to end the contract early would be for poor performance.

Edison couldn’t be considered for recent budget cuts — including $120 million for the upcoming fiscal year. But the economic forecast remains cloudy.

“We have a list prepared in case we need to make further cuts,” said Jim McIntosh, the district’s deputy chief financial officer. “The Edison contract should at least be added for review.”

Under the contract, the district pays directly for staff salaries, maintenance and utilities. At issue is whether the district could operate the schools for less than Edison’s fee for management services and specialized programs.

“We wouldn’t necessarily see $11 million in savings outright, but that money would flow back through us,” McIntosh said.

Edison pledged to boost achievement at campuses serving large populations of minorities and students from low-income households. The Edison model included a longer instructional day, intensive literacy instruction and extensive professional development. Critics decried it as a “cookie cutter” approach that failed to take into account individual teaching and learning styles.

After a few public relations missteps, the company’s six Clark County elementary schools settled into a path of steady improvement. West Middle School was a different story. The district eventually took back the failing campus, remaking it into a successful alternative program serving students in grades K-12.

At Cahlan-Edison Elementary, the eight-year experiment has been wholly positive.

Edison has provided “curriculum consistency, professional development on a daily basis and all the material and human resources we can ever ask for,” said Principal Jean Jackson, who retires this summer after 17 years at Cahlan’s helm.

She’s the only principal who has stayed with Edison for its tenure in Clark County.

“They have definitely added value to our programs,” Jackson said. “As a result, we have added value to our community.”

The district reviewed standardized test scores for its six Edison elementary schools from 2003 to 2008. When compared with 24 other campuses with similar populations of at-risk students, the Edison students did better. However, test scores in reading and math for both groups of schools remain well below the districtwide averages.

Even with two years remaining on the contract, Edison officials seem aware of the precariousness of the company’s foothold in the School District.

Edison operates schools in more than 20 states, with a total enrollment of more than 300,000. In the past year the company has lost several contracts, including in Peoria, Ill., and Baltimore.

“There isn’t a single place in this country where money isn’t an issue right now,” Edison spokesman Michael Serpe said. “We are paid with taxpayer dollars and only work in public schools. We understand just as well as the districts that it’s important for our schools to do well.”

In some districts Edison has scaled back its involvement, which results in a lower fee. For example, a school that has a firm grasp of the Edison model might not need as much technical assistance or teacher training.

“We’re looking at how we might provide services in a more cost-effective way to help offset some of the financial struggles our partners are experiencing,” Joseph Wise, Edison’s chief academic officer, told the Sun. “That includes the Clark County School District.”

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