Home Career Philly school superintendent defends consultant for $450,000 amid backlash

Philly school superintendent defends consultant for $450,000 amid backlash

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Against the background of disagreement over his attack on the district of hire a controversial education consultant at a cost of nearly half a million dollars, Philadelphia’s new Superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. said the move would speed up the transition and increase a “lean” administrative staff.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Watlington said the hiring of Joseph and Partners, led by former Nashville County Superintendent Shawn Joseph, will ensure he can focus on making Philadelphia “the fastest-growing urban school district in the country.” But some have raised concerns about Joseph’s $450,000 price tag, which covers about a year of work but exceeds Watlington’s annual salary of $340,000.

The fact that Joseph led Nashville from 2016 to 2019 was also surprising. It was marked by a series of controversies, including claims that he was being ignored and mistreated allegations of sexual harassment against the high school principal, as well as complaints that he tried to award contracts without bidding. Joseph agreed to surrender his teaching license in 2019 because he failed to report 12 incidents of teacher misconduct to the state within 30 days, as required by state rules, according to a Tennessee Board of Education official. Joseph subsequently reapplied for the license and renewed it in 2021, but then let it expire.

Joseph reached a buyout agreement with the Nashville School Board before the end of his four-year contract. The terms of this agreement included a provision that generally neither Joseph nor the board would sue or be sued against the other, according to the Tennessean. Joseph told Chalkbeat on June 21 that he left his post in Nashville because he and the board disagreed on how to achieve a “sustained focus on achieving equity and excellence” in the district.

Joseph told Chalkbeat on Thursday that people have tried to tarnish his image, but he’s still proud of his work in Nashville.

“It’s been three years since I’ve been in Nashville and I’ve been working to educate and train city supervisors like Dr. Watlington,” he said. “Sometimes wisdom comes with pain. When you learn things, you can pass that knowledge on to people.”

Watlington defended his choice on Wednesday. “Are there other consultants to consider? Absolutely,” Watlington said. “The timing justified me making some recommendations and some steps sooner rather than later so I could get started on day one.”

But giving Joseph a contract means less money for priorities like school safety, buildings and outdated curriculum, said Renee Brown, a longtime Philadelphia education activist who has sent five children to the city’s schools. She also said that as someone from outside of Philadelphia, Joseph can’t fully understand the area’s unique challenges.

“I’m very unhappy,” Brown said.

The Philadelphia Board of Education agreed to hire Joseph at Watlington’s request at a board meeting in late May with little discussion. (Watlington officially took over the county June 16.) The board of directors told Chalkbeat that the decision to hire Joseph’s firm, which is tasked with helping Watlington develop a long-term improvement plan for the area, represents “best practice.”

Current and former Nashville school officials have criticized Philadelphia’s decision to hire his consulting firm and warned about the legacy Joseph left in the city.

Fran Bush, a Nashville school board member, emphasized accusations that Joseph improperly directed public money to a firm he had previously dealt with.

“I have to say they have to be very careful,” Bush said, referring to Philadelphia officials.

A record filled with complaints, unkindness

Watlington and Joseph have a common professional background: Howard University’s Academy of City Superintendents. Academy designed for educators who wish to assume leadership roles in urban areas with an emphasis on academic achievement and leadership of underrepresented and diverse populations.

Watlington is an alumnus of the academy, and Joseph was one of its co-directors. When he was co-director, Joseph introduced the academy’s 2021 cohort, which included Watlington.

Joseph and Associates will help Watlington develop a five-year strategic plan for the district. This plan should be completed by the end of May next year. The firm is also tasked with assembling a transition team to help Watlington assess the district’s ability to meet the schools’ shared vision, known as “goals and fences.”

Joseph oversaw the Nashville district of 86,000 students from 2016 to 2019. Local media reported that Joseph received praise for his attention to students of color when he led the district. Earlier this month, former Nashville board member Will Pinkston expressed his support for Joseph, telling Chalkbeat that he was “trying to do the right thing and, frankly, exactly what the board asked him to do.”

But allegations about his management decisions have haunted his time at City.

For example, the Nashville area claims paid as a result of harassment complaints and lawsuits during Joseph’s tenure.

And Joseph according to reports pushed the district to sign two $1.8 million no-bid contracts with Performance Matters, a Maryland company with which he had previously done business. That’s according to emails obtained by a television station in Nashville Joseph began discussing a potential deal with the firm two weeks before he officially became chief in July 2016.

In 2018, Nashville officials expressed disappointment that the number of school districts identified by Tennessee as most in need of support and improvement nearly doubled from 11 to 21 (the state adopted a new system of accountability in 2018). Joseph said it shows some schools need more resources.

Jill Spearing, who was vice chair of the Nashville council for two of the three years Joseph was the district’s top official, said she was “shocked” that he was hired to consult in Philadelphia, “given his failed leadership in Nashville, where the council had to buy out his contract to save the district from further embarrassment.”

Another former board member, Amy Frogg, said Joseph’s practices led to a “crisis in employee morale.”

There is no public indication that Philadelphia County executives are renegotiating Joseph’s contract.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia school board again defended its decision to hire Joseph, saying in a statement that in a “large and complex” district, “transition support is designed to provide an even deeper understanding of the individuals, families and communities the district serves.”

The board did not address the controversy surrounding its decision to hire him.

Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at jcalhoun@chalkbeat.org.

Dale Mezzacapo is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president Association of Education Writers. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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