Lawmakers can’t agree on school consultant, so none hired

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 504 views 

Some Arkansas legislators Tuesday (Oct. 8) wanted to hire Augenblick, Palaich and Associates to study the state’s educational adequacy efforts, some wanted to hire Shuls and Associates, and some wanted to hire neither.

Because neither firm won majority support, the last group got its way.

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the House and Senate Education Committees will not revisit the issue as they produce the biennial adequacy report that guides education spending and policy.

The two committees this spring had voted against a study proposal by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates that would have cost almost $1 million. It was the only firm to respond to a request for proposal then.

“That’s it,” Cozart said afterwards. “I’m done. I’m not doing it again. Not this session. I mean, we’re done. We don’t have time to do anything else. We’ve got to get to work on adequacy for the biennium coming up.”

The vote would have produced the state’s first educational adequacy study in 16 years. The last one occurred in the wake of the 2003 Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee school funding court decision.

Cozart, who voted for the Augenblick, Palaich and Associates proposal, said he was “very disappointed.” He said the failed votes were the result of “Division. I won’t say it was partisan because we were divided on the R side probably just as bad as anything. The Republicans didn’t seem to want to come together and vote for anything today. I really don’t know where all that came from. Very, very disappointing that we couldn’t come together for the kids.”

Cozart said he was surprised at the outcome and expected legislators to select Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.

Of the two, its proposal came the closest to passage, achieving the bare minimum of 11 votes among the 20 House Education Committee members, not all of whom were present. But it only achieved four of the needed five votes among Senate Education Committee members. Majorities were needed in both committees.

In a roll call vote, Sens. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, and Lance Eads, R-Springdale, voted no, while Sens. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, and Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, were not present. Hendren was on a business trip and said via text that he wasn’t sure how he would have voted but that both groups would have had the ability to conduct the study.

After that proposal failed, the one by Shuls and Associates clearly failed on a voice vote.

The two firms each gave hour-long presentations before the vote. Augenblick, Palaich and Associates has decades of experience but quoted a higher price tag at $659,580. Shuls & Associates, which bid $499,236, was formed in response to this opportunity and was led by University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Dr. James Shuls and Dr. Joshua McGee with the University of Arkansas’ Office for Education Policy. Some legislators were concerned because researchers with that group have expressed support for vouchers and charter schools.

The vote came after legislators made three competing motions. Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, first moved that the committees select Shuls & Associates. Then Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, offered a substitute motion in support of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates. After some back and forth discussion, legislators were told that by rule, the substitute motion would be considered first.

At that point, Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, offered a second substitute motion saying the committees should hire neither consultant. Hodges argued that the state should use its own resources and that legislators should hold public meetings to produce their own recommendations.

In closing for the bill, he said the committees were divided on which consultant to choose and would be just as divided when considering the consultant’s report. Picking a consultant would merely “paper over a larger divide here.”

“I don’t need a consultant from California or Missouri to talk to my superintendent or talk to my teachers or talk to my community,” he said. (Augenblick is based in Denver.) “That’s what the people voted for me to do, and that’s what the taxpayers are paying us to do is to go out in the state that we represent, the people that we represent, and talk to them and get a solution. I don’t need an out-of-state person to tell me how to do that.”

Prior to that statement, Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, argued in favor of hiring a consultant, saying the hundreds of thousands of dollars invested with outside consultants would help the state better spend the $2.25 billion in general revenues it spends on education.

“I think, like the Scripture says, there’s great wisdom in a multitude of counselors, so let’s hire us a counselor,” he said.

Hodges’ motion failed after managing the support of only two senators – Johnson and Eads. Ultimately, his viewpoint carried the day when the motions to hire either firm failed.

In addition to the Education committee action, there was new movement in the effort to release the Little Rock School District from state control.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key responded to a proposal from Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott and a large majority of the capital city’s board of directors.

On Monday, they proposed working in partnership with the state and a locally-controlled school board or transition board to seek solutions and cooperative agreements for the city’s schools.

Key said, “I appreciate Mayor Scott’s proposal and thoughtful approach to a very difficult issue. This is the kind of input the State Board members hoped to receive when they asked for community feedback on the next steps for LRSD. I am open to having conversations with the State Board about the proposal to find areas of agreement while balancing the responsibility of the state.”

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said the Legislative Black Caucus will hold a press conference on Wednesday (Oct. 9) at 10:30 a.m. in the Old Supreme Court Chamber at the state capitol.

“After five years of control, it is time for the board to return the district to the people of LRSD. The Caucus will outline the damaging effects of labeling and its case for relinquishing state control,” Elliott said.

“In addition to LRSD, the state has taken control of other districts: Pine Bluff, Dollarway, Earle and Marianna, all predominantly African American districts. We are greatly concerned about this pattern, what it will take to reverse these results and what must be done to fulfill the mandates of the Lakeview lawsuit,” Elliott added.

“Ironically, just today, the Joint Committee on Education failed to fulfill its stated duty to retain an education consulting firm to help complete an objective evaluation of present practices and to make recommendations for meeting adequacy as mandated by the committee’s own definition. Not since 2003 has the legislature completed a full, objective study,” she said.