March 25, 2011

Gist, Education Consultants & Skeptical Radio Anchors

Marc Comtois

This morning, I listened as the new WPRO Morning News team of Tara Granahan and Andrew Gobeil went after Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for her proposal to hire up to 50 retired educators (teachers, principals, etc.) as 90 day consultants to help implement the programs funded via Race to the Top. Earlier, Granahan and Gobeil--apparently taking their cue from a ProJo story--interviewed Warwick Rep. Joe McNamara, who sponsored the legislation. I missed that part of the interview, but apparently McNamara basically explained that it was Commissioner Gist's idea. It was apparent that Gobeil and Granahan were particularly bothered by the fact that the bill would allow retired educators to make up to $500/day while still collecting a pension.

Commissioner Gist then called in to try to clear things up, but Granahan and Gobeil took a hard line on paying retired, pension collecting educators $500 a day to consult. The commissioner explained that, basically, $60-70/hr is the going rate for the expertise offered by "master educators" and that she wanted to be able to hire Rhode Island educators and this legislation enabled that. Gobeil and Granahan weren't buying it and pounded away on how $500/day seemed like an awful lot in these tough times. Further, Granahan asked Gist if the consulting fees would be subject to Governor Chafee's new 6% tax (like other consulting fees), to which Gist basically replied, "Of course."

Nowhere was the distinction made (though I think Gist may have assumed this was known) that the money to pay for these consultants was part of the Race to the Top funds. In essence, the bill was a mechanism to allow the Department of Education to hire Rhode Island based educators to perform the consulting. As Gist said, with or without the bill, she will hire the consultants--from another state if necessary--and the going rate is $500/day. I don't think she changed the minds of Gobeil and Granahan, but I'm not sure if they really "got" that the money was earmarked for that specific purpose.

I know $500/day seems like a lot, but professional consultants in all sorts of industries make that and more. I don't doubt that Gist is correct and that's the going rate (at the least!). And while Republicans like Joe Trillo oppose the measure, I think that its more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything else. One other thing: the teachers' unions apparently oppose the legislation:

Several union leaders voiced concerns again Wednesday, saying it was bad fiscal policy to have retirees drawing down the pension fund while working.

“This is bad for the pension system … and it’s bad employment practice when hundreds of teachers are out of work,” said Maureen Martin, political director for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. “We want them to use local teachers already in the school system.”

But Gist isn't looking for regular educators, she's looking for experienced and special ones. Not just the most senior ones left on the laid off list or new hires with lower pay (as Trillo suggested). She needs top-of-the-line folks to implement RTtT (like it or not). As reported by the Brown Daily Herald:
Gist encouraged available teachers to apply for the positions, but emphasized that the plan "can't be a program for jobs."

"This is not going to resolve employment," she said. "We have to make the decisions that are best for our students."

But back to the interview itself. On the surface, it seemed like Gobeil and Granahan (in particular) were aggressive and skeptical of the Ed. Commissioner's motives because they were trying to safeguard taxpayer money. That may have been the case and, while there are important, technical reasons why their apparent watchdoggedness, in my opinion, was misplaced (the money is earmarked for a particular purpose, etc.), I won't fault them for that. (Plus, to the benefit of WPRO, they successfully turned it into a "newsmakers" moment and have been covering it in the news breaks all morning).

Yet, then I remembered their interview last week with new Warwick School Committee member Gene Nadeau. Nadeau had gotten some publicity for his statement that state education dollars were going disproportionally to Providence, Central Falls and other urban core cities and he was ostensibly on the show to talk about that, which he did. Then Granahan went off-topic and asked Nadeau, to paraphrase, "Is it true that they are going to close a high school in Warwick?" Nadeau was obviously surprised by the question and explained he hasn't heard any discussion of that during his time on the School Committee. Granahan wouldn't let him off that easy and re-phrased the question a couple times. It was clear to me that Granahan, who grew up and has family in Warwick, was skeptical of Nadeau and didn't believe him.

Taken together, the Nadeau and Gist interviews have left me with the impression that Granahan in particular is, at the least, skeptical of local and statewide education administrators. Yes, "twice is a coincidence" and all that. But that's two times in two weeks I've heard an education administrator interviewed and given a tough time by Granahan. That's not a bad thing, but it's interesting to see the perspectives and biases of supposedly "straight news" personalities slowly revealed.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

I don't know Marc, I wouldn't consider G & G straight news people. That distinction would go to Haberman, Klampkin, etc.

I actually think it is a good thing Granahan is pressing them for more information. It has always been rumored that Warwick is exploring closing a high school, which might become more than rumor soon with the rather large drop in population in the latest census numbers.

And it looks like Gist's media honeymoon is over, especially given her strange endorsement of Caruolo.

Posted by: Don Botts at March 25, 2011 9:58 AM

There's a big difference between paying mediocre public sector individuals high wages based on arbitrary factors like seniority and paying out for truly talented and knowledgeable consultation. In many instances, you really do get what you pay for and one or two individuals with expertise can truly make or break your efforts. On my more difficult work projects, I'd much rather have access to somebody at the top of the field for an hour than 10 people in the middle of the field for 10 hours at the same price. Actually, I might not want the latter at any price, depending on the project (too many cooks in the kitchen, a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, etc.)

Business has realized this for decades. More and more in the general public have begun to realize it as well. There used to be a big to-do in court every time an expert was paid for their testimony, e.g., "How much are you being paid for your testimony today? $5000?! And you feel you can be impartial for $5000????!" Jurors have little issue with top-dollar expert consultation now. A judge I know always asks the jury afterward if those lines of questioning had any effect on them, and the prevailing attitude among them today is that a good expert is worth that much and more. They see no problem with them being compensated for their services.

The issue thus becomes whether these individuals are really knowledgeable experts in the field who have something substantial to contribute for that level of compensation.

Posted by: Dan at March 25, 2011 10:25 AM

Don, I get your distinction, though I'd say the impression left by the WPRO marketing campaign is that it's the WPRO Morning "NEWS" (not opinion). Anyway, that's not a big deal and I wasn't being particularly critical of Granahan, just making note of some emerging proclivities.

As for Warwick-specific stuff, the demographics certainly lead to the conclusion that a HS will close within the next 5-10 years. Right now, though, the talk is moving 6th grade to the Jr. High schools (there's a rumor for you!).

Re: Gist. I didn't get the Caruolo thing (other than making the best of the situation, perhaps), but in this instance I don't think there is anything nefarious going on and the situation is as Gist has explained. Regardless, I've got no objection to public officials being scrutinized. I just wish the same vigor was brought to the table ALL the time.

Posted by: Marc at March 25, 2011 10:38 AM

The real test of the plan to hire retirees will be when we can learn how many either quit or were fired for lack of ability or performance.

If none go, then it's just a glossy coat on a rotting foundation.

Posted by: John at March 25, 2011 11:55 AM

As this is RttT money, it seems to make sense to me to hire retirees (after qualifications based interview process) in that these jobs are not permanent but are tied to the one time grant from the Fed and retirees would be less inclined to try to milk this into a permanent gig. In listening to the interview on WPRO this AM, I believe that, in addition to laying the blame on Gist, I heard Rep. McNamara advocating the possibility of sending the money to individual municipalities to let them hire their own consultants instead of the State, but the interview was 'up against the clock' so G & G didn't get to follow up. Letting cities and towns take this responsibility likely would hinder possibility of reaching consensus on critical issues like teacher evaluation methods. It would probably be easier for 50 consultants working together to come up with one plan than 39 consultants (assuming each town only hires one) working separately to come up with consistent plans.

Posted by: Jon at March 25, 2011 1:31 PM


Gist is a sell out. Gist has changed her tune ever since the unions won the election last November. Caruolo stands for the exact opposite of what gist previously stood for. Caruolo doesn't believe the schools need reform. And Gist is willing to go along with Chafee and caruolo in order to protect her huge salary.

Gist saw what happened to Michele Rhee and doesn't want the same thing to happen to her. Can you people really not see this?

Posted by: rasputin at March 26, 2011 9:11 AM


Gist is a sell out. Gist has changed her tune ever since the unions won the election last November. Caruolo stands for the exact opposite of what gist previously stood for. Caruolo doesn't believe the schools need reform. And Gist is willing to go along with Chafee and caruolo in order to protect her huge salary.

Gist saw what happened to Michele Rhee and doesn't want the same thing to happen to her. Can you people really not see this?

Posted by: rasputin at March 26, 2011 9:13 AM

Since when is the union concerned about fiscal policy and how does paying a retiree to work for RIDEC hurt the pension system. That was all about creating non-union positions. It was about non dues paying people working for the state. It was about control. Just ask George Nee what he thinks about consultants working for the state.

As far as Gist goes, where is the sell out? Big deal, she endorsed Carulo. Just maybe she knows the game and will do what's necessary to accomplish her goals. Was she not supposed to endorse him? Get real.

As far as opening those positions to the cities and towns, only if you want to see political patronage at its worst. I'd rather roll the dice with Gist than 39 individual communities.

Posted by: Max Diesel at March 27, 2011 12:48 AM
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