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Connected consultants win large COVID-19 school contracts in Massachusetts

Dan Atkinson

As Massachusetts officials have passed federal coronavirus relief money to schools, they have also directed more than $1 million to politically connected consultants, much of it through no-bid arrangements, as they hired outside consultants to help create the state’s school reopening plan.

Officials said spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Gov. Charlie Baker’s former chief of staff, Boston’s former chief of police, and a management consultant firm was justified, even as the various consultants secured six-figure contracts.

But parent activists questioned spending money on outside groups during the pandemic while schools struggled to find basic safety equipment.

“While Ed Davis, McKinsey and others are making hundreds thousands of dollars for writing agendas and facilitating meetings, parents in Boston and elsewhere are having socially distant bake sales to buy air purifiers and PPE for their schools,” Boston parent group QUEST said in a statement. “This seems especially ironic given the limited educational experience of a number of these groups and the outright incompetence of McKinsey vis-a-vis the Boston Public Schools. McKinsey’s 2015 Operational Review of the district, done behind closed doors and at a cost of $660,000, and later disavowed by both the district and the mayor, showed a complete lack of understanding of educational spaces.”

The “Team B Covid-19 bundle”

At the beginning of June, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education signed a contract with McKinsey & Company for $648,500 — which was quickly amended to $813,500. The contract states the Commonwealth “is seeking McKinsey’s perspectives and counsel on reopening elementary and secondary schools for all kinds of populations, including for special needs students and vocational training.”

While the state has paid McKinsey more than $60 million over the years — including more than $8 million from coronavirus relief funds through the office of Health and Human Services — this is the first time it’s contracted with the management consultant firm through the Department of Education, according to state financial records.

And like the state government’s contract for no-bid saliva tests, the contract with McKinsey was issued without going through the standard bidding process. The state has received $214 million in federal coronavirus relief for education, and a DESE spokesperson said the state was allowed to spend up to 10% of the $214 million it received in CARES education aid to support the department’s response to the pandemic. The spokesperson also said DESE followed emergency procurement policy based on Gov. Baker’s public health emergency declaration in signing no-bid contracts.

According to the proposal the company filed with the state, McKinsey was “excited to partner with the Department of Education on this important endeavor” and “bring unbiased, objective, confidential advice with a fresh perspective focused exclusively on what is best for the Commonwealth.”

As part of providing analysis for officials to develop a reopening plan for schools, McKinsey focused in particular on creating a “detailed Re-Open Playbook” and decision models for individual schools to follow using current information. That included plans to help schools “determine the right course of action in the event of resurgence trigger conditions” as well. And McKinsey’s “leadership team” would “meet frequently with Commonwealth leadership to provide both individual and organizational counsel,” among other responsibilities.

None of these services came cheap. DESE purchased McKinsey’s “Team B Covid-19 bundle” of a manager and two associates or analysts for several weeks, which also came with research support, proprietary McKinsey data, and “direct access to the worldwide pool of McKinsey experts who provide on-demand guidance and input for the team and to McKinsey’s growing body of research, analytics, and specialists dedicated to COVID-19 response, recovery, and migration.” That team cost $142,000 a week, and didn’t include two senior associates at $11,500 a week or $80,500 for a secondary consulting firm McKinsey hired.

Whatever McKinsey accomplished, it does not appear to want specifics tied back to the company. “McKinsey’s work for the Commonwealth is confidential and intended for the Commonwealth’s internal use only,” its proposal reads. “In order to promote true neutrality on issues, provide an environment for uncensored guidance for our clients, ensure compliance with our contract confidentiality requirements, and better empower our clients, McKinsey does not advocate, present findings, or consent to public references in any public meeting, writing, or other public forum. … In consideration for its Services, the Commonwealth agrees not to use McKinsey’s name or refer to McKinsey’s work outside its organization without McKinsey’s prior written permission.”

McKinsey declined to comment on its work for this article, sending us to the Department of Education. Asked about the work of McKinsey and other private contractors, Executive Office of Education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn said, “The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education engaged outside experts and medical professionals to help develop the Commonwealth’s school reopening guidelines, for support in their areas of expertise to ensure a safe return to school during a pandemic.”

Top cop, top contract

While McKinsey was the largest private contractor getting paid in school coronavirus aid, they were not alone. McKinsey’s proposal includes an organizational diagram of groups working on K-12 school reopening, with Baker and other top officials just above DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley — who is described as interacting with superintendents, unions, and school committees — with the state’s Covid-19 Re-Opening Staff Group just below him. Working with them are McKinsey and another consulting group, Edward Davis Company — the security firm run by the former Boston police commissioner.

The contract with Davis to “support the work of the Commissioner’s Return To School Working Group in preparing a Return To School Plan/Guidance Document for gubernatorial approval in conjunction with the reopening of the Commonwealth” was signed in early May, before McKinsey came on board, and runs through June 2021. It pays Davis’ company $400,000, or $40,000 a month, with the option of extra classes in “proper cleaning and sanitation protocols, appropriate distancing, identification and protocols for staff and students with systems,” among other topics, for up to 40 people at a cost of $3,500 a class.

According to a scope of services provided to DESE, Davis will “provide recommendations and guidance on the Department’s reopening strategy and will deliver relevant and timely information to the Department’s leadership” — and be available 32 hours a month to “to participate in calls and/or meetings with leadership to provide recommendations on the reopening strategy.”

That scope seems to overlap with McKinsey’s; according to Davis, his group “will take the lead on authoring Return to School Plan/Guidance, with direction from the DESE lead contact.” Additional language also sounds similar to the work McKinsey was hired to perform a month later: “EDC will work with the DESE leadership and the Return to School Workgroup to customize and construct a wholistic [sic] Plan to provide recommendations and solutions for the reopening of Massachusetts primary and secondary schools with minimal disruption to existing operations.”

A spokesperson for Edward Davis LLC said the company forwarded all media inquiries to the group’s clients.

The Baker guy

According to McKinsey’s chart, Davis’ group was overseen by the Covid-19 Re-Opening Staff Group, which is mostly made up of DESE officials and other state workers. But it also includes Steven Kadish, Baker’s former chief of staff and a current senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. Kadish is being paid $100,000 to “assist with the development and management of the work associated with COVID-19 response, including organizational structure, project development, work plans and project management,” per his contract with DOE.

Kadish has experience in secondary education, serving as COO at Northeastern University and CFO at Dartmouth College, but not in K-12 education. In a letter to DESE Senior Associate Commissioner Bill Bell describing the scope of his work, which like Davis and McKinsey’s was secured through an emergency no-bid contract, Kadish wrote that he will “assist with the development and management of the work associated with COVID-19 response, including organizational structure, project development, work plans, and project management,” “provide direct support and consultation to the Commissioner as requested,” “draft, develop, comment, edit, review documents and materials as requested,” and “provide general assistance as may be needed, including meeting agendas, meeting facilitation, and specific necessary follow up.”

According to his contract, which was extended through September, Kadish was paid $2,000 a day or $250 an hour, with no charge for more than eight hours a day.

One other part of Kadish’s duties was to “provide direct support and consultation to the DESE COVID-19 Response Leader, Julie Swerdlow Albino as requested.” Swerdlow, who is listed as “(DESE) Advisor to the Commissioner, re-opening team lead” on McKinsey’s chart, was hired, unlike McKinsey, Davis and Kadish, through a competitive bid process. But she had an inside track.

Swerdlow had previously worked for DESE in the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, where the state and a private partner co-managed Springfield schools after the district went into receivership. After that, she worked as an adviser to DOE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley from 2018 to 2019 in a position that was paid for by the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund, DOE officials said. According to Boston Schools Fund’s tax documents, its mission is to “increase the number of seats in Boston’s high-performing district, charter and Catholic schools by one-third over the next five years.”

While working for Riley, Swerdlow wrote Riley’s “Our Way Forward” report that described an “updated vision for K-12 education” in the state, according to Swerdlow’s resume. That report’s directives for new testing and policy plans was the basis for a bid earlier this year to advise DOE leaders on implementation, as well as “maintaining public education delivery during the current COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Swerdlow’s consulting company, Atlas Partners, bid on and won the contract to help implement the policy she helped write, at a cost of $480,000, or $175 an hour. At the time of this reporting, Atlas had received about $40,000 in COVID-19 relief money for Swerdlow’s work on the task force, DESE officials said.