A Virginia education reporter was paid $75 an hour to improve the Alexandria City Public Schools’ communications strategy, while she reported on the district for the online media outlet Alexandria News, of which she is co-founder.
According to the Alexandria Times, Superintendent Morton Sherman considered Carla Branch his “confidential consultant,” who advised him on how to boost the district’s image, including the handling of an independent audit that exposed mismanagement in the district’s capital improvement budget. She also drafted a system-wide and school-specific communication plan and wrote press releases on occasion.
Branch, who earned more than $11,000 for about 150 hours of work between January and July, no longer consults for ACPS, Sherman says.
The Society of Professional Journalists advises reporters to "act independently" and “shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity." Branch, however, says she did not see a conflict of interest, adding that -- per her contractual agreement with ACPS -- she could not “use any of the information … for any purpose other than the communication plan.”
Similarly, Sherman did not see an issue with hiring a reporter to assist the district.
“I expect that a reporter can write a book without a conflict of interest, or serve on a community board, or volunteer in schools, or be an integral part of our community in any number of ways without a conflict of interest,” he told the Times in an email. “Reporters who are members of our community, who had children in the schools and who bring expertise to an assignment should be valued and appreciated for their extended service.”
Sherman has a habit of bringing in outside consultants. According to an Alexandria News article written by Branch in 2010, since becoming Superintendent in 2008 Sherman has spent $4,200,274 on consultants.
Sherman defended his spending, writing in a 2010 email to district staff that the total expenditures represented around 1 percent of operating budget, yet many of the costs were paid from federal and state grants.
The use of consultants in school districts across the country has sparked concerns around private hands in public education. The Boston Consulting Group, for example, was hired in Philadelphia to radically overhaul the public school district, shaping its austere budget, five-year financial plan and a controversial "transformation blueprint."
BCG has to date identified at least $122 million in savings for the district, which faces a $282 million budget shortfall. For its work, the consulting firm has been paid $2.7 million from outside donors.