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Decision to bring in firm to evaluate Peabody's special education system sparks debate

Posted by Ryan Mooney  May 23, 2012 07:55 AM

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The decision to have Futures Education evaluate the special education system in Peabody schools ended up involving the school committee on Tuesday night due to interim Superintendent Herb Levine's work as consultant with the company as recently as last year.

After filling out a disclosure form with the Massachusetts Ethics Committee to find out if it is appropriate to hire Futures, Levine brought the idea before the committee to give them the opportunity to vote against his choice to hire the firm. Futures was the only bidder at a cost of about $12,500, substantially less than they normally charge for this type of service.

The committee ultimately did not vote him down - Futures will begin in the first week of June, and produce a report by the end of July - but the decision raised no shortage of questions and concerns, and not as a result of Levine's history with the company.

Futures would be obligated by contract to make recommendations on ways for the special education system to save money, and one of the concerns among committee members is that the company is allowed to place bids to run the services they suggest changing.

But Levine assured the committee that the idea of the company simply coming in and creating work for themselves through consultation is misleading, as any decision to contract a service or make a staff change would have to pass through a school committee vote anyways, and that Futures would have no advantage over any other company in bidding services in accordance with state bidding laws.

"I would have been more comfortable if I saw language saying that if they did acknowledge or recognize areas of savings that, as a company, they would not be looking to bid on that," committee member Ed Charest said.

Evaluation of the special education program annually, whether internally using members of the school system or with an outside consultant, is required by law. But Brandi Carpenter, who placed the motion to not move forward with Futures that was ultimately voted down, 5-1, was not buying in. No vote was required, but Levine wanted to bring the ethics issue before the committee.

"Our [special education] staff has nothing to hide, but when people are interviewing you who are also possibly going to take your job, I find that to be a little problematic," Carpenter said. "And the fact that it says right here, in our bid stated, that whoever we hire to do this must find cost savings, and these same people who are definitely going to find cost savings can possibly be taking these jobs, that's where I do find fault."

Carpenter was also wary of a controversial report that Futures did in Ipswich last year, and would also like to know where the incoming superintendent stands.

Levine contends that the controversy in Ipswich was brought upon by people, which he says can be found in every town, who will fight against any and all outside cost-saving recommendations out of the fear of reduced services for their children. According to Levine, who worked on the report in Ipswich, there were no job losses or reduction of services as a result of the report.

A couple of school committee members agreed that having an outside company come in to evaluate the special education program, rather than do it internally, is the better way to go. Levine's seven-year history with this particular company gives him a unique perspective, and in his eyes the right decision has definitely been made.

"The law says we have to do it, we've got to do an evaluation, doing an outside evaluation at least periodically I think is good practice," Levine said. "I think in this case, knowing the company, knowing the people involved, they are honorable, they have integrity, and do good work."

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