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September 20, 2014

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In theory, School District consulting fee will pay for itself

Grant money pays law firm, which watches for more grant money

The Clark County School District, which spent $6.8 million — almost entirely from federal grants — to pay for consultants over a recent six-month period, plans to spend another $1,800 per month for a consultant to keep tabs on the latest developments in Washington, D.C., to make sure it doesn’t miss out on — that’s right — more federal grants.

If this sounds like some bureaucratic perpetual-funding-motion machine, one might ask: Why not, as long as the School District and its students come out ahead?

Nearly all of the federal grant dollars are earmarked for a specific purpose — such as the $5 million the district spent on consultants to provide tutoring services for students at low-achieving schools. It’s a “use it or lose it” situation, said Jeff Weiler, the district’s chief financial officer.

The dollars can’t be used for purposes other than what the grant specifically calls for, such as professional development or student enrichment programs. Examples of how the district spent its federal grants include after-school and vacation science camps for students and training for staff in math and literacy instruction. And the money can’t be used to supplant general fund expenditures, such as teacher salaries.

The district has been regularly criticized by members of the public for its reliance on outside consultants, rather than making better use of in-house expertise. But the district argues that there are times when using consultants is the more cost-effective route.

The 2009 Legislature required the School District to begin submitting a spending report every six months outlining its consultant expenditures. Weiler said he included the latest report on Thursday’s school board agenda to give the public a chance to review it.

“We’re trying to do a better job communicating where the funds are coming from, and what they’re being used for,” Weiler said. “We want to be transparent.”

Although federal grant dollars might appear to be less discretionary than general fund dollars, that doesn’t entitle the district to spend without accountability, said Andy Matthews, spokesman for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

“You can’t argue that this is money that came from out of state, fell into our laps and we shouldn’t worry about the effectiveness of what those dollars are buying,” Matthews said. “Any government funds need to be accounted for, every dollar should be spent wisely, and let’s make sure we’re having the intended impact.”

The state does evaluate the effectiveness of the federally mandated tutoring program, which accounted for the bulk of the consultant costs from November to April. The report is due later this year.

In addition to the $6.5 million in federal dollars, the district spent $233,356 from its general fund — against the operating budget of $2.1 billion — on consultants. Those costs ranged from $110 for a band competition judge to $24,000 for student flight lessons as part of Rancho High School’s aviation magnet program. Most of the general fund consultant fees were less than $2,000 per expenditure.

At Thursday’s school board meeting, the members will be asked to approve renewing a contract with the Washington law firm of Brustein & Manasevit to provide legal advice and guidance on the district’s federal grant programs and applications. The one-year contract calls for a retainer of $1,800 per month, with another

$225 per hour as needed, the same rate paid last year.

The district relies on the federal education law specialists to serve as its eyes and ears on Capitol Hill, said Charlene Green, deputy superintendent of student support services. The firm has also been helpful in ensuring the district is in full compliance with the reams of red tape that accompany the grant dollars, Green said, and that the federal audits of the various programs are “clean.”

With the district working its way through two new grant programs — one aimed at turning around low-performing schools and another specifically to encourage innovation — the outside support is needed more than ever, Green said.

“It’s important that we go after every dime available,” Green said. “Given what we can get back, I don’t think it’s an excessive use of funding to bring in outside help.”

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