Saturday, January 10, 2015

A History Lesson: Will they (we?) ever learn? (see end note)

           

The “Oops” post of earlier this week, marking our first post of the new year, was intended to serve a larger purpose than you might think.  However poorly played, the idea was to provide an ever so subtle thematic introduction to the subject matter in subsequent posts.  It remains to be seen, for both of us, just how ‘subtle’ that connection is.  The only way to find out is to get on with it, which we now commence.

                    

Some years ago, in one of our many inconsequential and undistinguished ‘statements’ to the Brunswick Town Council, we proposed they hire this correspondent to act as a consultant in advising them on the use of consultants.  Which clarifies in part why we haven’t made a nickel doing stand up comedy.

Our offer was made only partially in jest.  Over the years, we’d noticed that municipal governments, including our very own, love to bring consultants on board.  And higher levels of government do so all the more.  As a result, there are vast gaggles of such ‘professionals’ ever at the ready to feast on some easy OPM, promising all sorts of ‘expert’ advice, guidance, and analysis.  You might call them Vulture Capitalists, a term we didn’t originate.

Turns out that in our storied professional years, we had gained experience observing the use of consultants.  We saw they were often hired to add a dash of mystique while providing air cover (CYA, in street lingo) for senior officials.  “It may sound counter-intuitive, but the experts make a very strong argument.”  On other occasions, the sponsoring executive had reached their level of incompetence, and rather than admit it, simply used company shekels to mask it as long as possible.  Ironically, it seemed to boost their self-esteem at the same time.

Only rarely were consultants hired to provide expertise we didn’t have, and speaking bluntly, didn’t need.  In the worst cases, they sent us on wild goose chases that wasted time, money, and collective staff energies.  Academics looking for places to try unproven theories were among the most memorable in this regard.

As you might guess, any thoughts this reporter had that consultants were rare, unusually talented experts in a particular field of endeavor were replaced by a belief that they embraced an alternative business model to a steady job and career advance through proven performance.  In most cases, the ‘experts’ and the money were long gone before the sad truth became obvious.

For reasons we hope you will perceive over the next few days, we were thinking on this subject recently.  Which brings us to the very heart of this post.

Our reflections took us back to the enrollment studies performed for the Brunswick School Department in 2004 and 2007.

By way of background, based on a variety of circumstances, not least of which was the prominence of a local, one time political luminary in Augusta, the Brunswick School Department (BSD), then headed by Jim Ashe, decided to ‘see if the state would even consider’ funding new school construction and/or major renovation of our school facilities.  The department hired skilled consultants in such matters – Harriman Associates - to prepare applications dated May of 2004.

As what we take to be a pro-forma act associated with these applications, the BSD also hired Planning Decisions, Inc. (PDI) of Portland, Maine to prepare a study of projected system enrollment.  PDI is well known in the state.  Charles Lawton is a principle of the firm, and is a bona-fide member of Maine’s consulting illuminati.  He pens a regular column in one of the state’s largest remaining newspapers, and his engagement, like that of Charles Colgan’s. lends instant credibility to any initiative.  At least for the gullible and unwary, of which there are many among us.

You can find the 2004 PDI study effort here: https://www.scribd.com/doc/252085168/PDI-Enrollment-Study-for-Brunswick-School-Dept-May-2004

We think the key piece of data from that study is this table, found on page 59 of the document.  The figures include both military dependent and non-military dependent town residents, plus the Durham students being ‘tuitioned’ into Brunswick schools.

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Totaling the 2004-05 line gives a ‘best fit’ projection of 3,314 total enrollment for that year, and a ‘best fit’ projected enrollment of 2,937 for the 2013-14 school year.

Data that we’ve compiled from official documents over the years show a total actual enrollment of 3,372 in the 2004-05 school year, the highest figure since we began keeping records in 1999.

You’ll note in the table above that PDI projected a steady decline in total enrollment over the years, even though base closure was an unknown factor at that time.

The 2004 applications, and the 2004 study, were all completed before the federal government announced in 2005 that Brunswick Naval Air Station would be closing as part of the Base Realignment and Closure program.  The state Department of Education (DOE) placed Brunswick on the approved new construction list before base closure was announced.  High fives were the order of the day.

And then something ‘unexpected’ happened.  Convinced the announcement of base closure invalidated all the premises and underpinnings of Brunswick’s applications, and the ensuing DOE decision to fund construction, a concerned local citizen filed a civil suit challenging the state agency determination. Seventy others signed on as co-plaintiffs in the suit.

                           

While this action had no tangible effect on the plans of the town bureaucracy, we believe the challenge led to the BSD contracting with PDI to update the prior enrollment study, since the original did not consider base closure’s effect on student population outlook, and they needed to brush any such concerns aside.

You can find the 2007 revision here: https://www.scribd.com/doc/252085806/PDI-Enrollment-Study-April-2007

For an “apples to apples” comparison to the 2004 version of the report, we give you this table, found on page 68 of the document.

image

Apples to apples is a stretch, as you can see, since PreK has been added to boost total figures by 200+ per year.  Additionally, Durham gave up their tuition arrangement with Brunswick some years back, for a decline of about 140 total students per year on average.

If you back out the PreK and Durham figures, you’ll note that the 2013-14 projection in the new study would be about 2,980 in total enrollment, above the 2,937 projected in the 2004 report, even though the 2007 report plans on base closure.  So, counter-intuitively, PDI figured closing the base would increase baseline school enrollment.  Even though the 2004 report projected a steady decline in enrollment over the years without considering base closure.

Now, here’s the hook: actual enrollment in the 2013-14 school year averages 2,385 for the two figures reported to the DOE, or nearly 600 less than projected in the PDI study.  In simple terms, PDI over-estimated the 2013-2014 enrollment by 25%!  600 students can be thought of as ‘one school’s worth,’ hardly a negligible or ‘rounding’ error.

Even more concerning, and suspicious in this reporter’s view, is the fact that the 2007 PDI document postulated three scenarios for population transition due to base closure.  The first is the ‘best fit’ projection shown above.  (Best fit?!! PDI must have a bunch of comedians on the payroll.)  The other two vary the pace at which military population declines, and are shown on pages 69 and 70 of the linked document.

Oddly enough, and we mean oddly, the three scenario variations, with PreK anticipation and Durham students still included, end up with figures of 3,314; 3,315; and 3,315 as the projected total enrollment in just two school years from now.  Take out PreK and Durham, and that’s still close to 600 more students than current enrollment!

Boy, these experts and consultants are really something, aren’t they?  Thorough, circumspect, wide-ranging in their research, and more than willing to tell their employer, in this case, the Brunswick School Department, the hard truth, no matter how much it conflicts with what they want to hear.  Which makes us all the more willing to listen to Chuck Lawton’s economic prognostications and recommendations for Maine’s economy.  NOT!

A glance at the two reports will reveal two things.  First, no historical review of base closure effects in nearby areas is mentioned in the 2007 version.  For example, Pease AFB closure in the Portsmouth, NH area, or Dow AFB closure in the Bangor area.  This alone should have been a red flag as to the veracity and credibility of the effort and delivered product.  But then, you know how it is; reality can be so difficult to change, and recorded history is even tougher.  Better to project your fantasies and wishes into the future, where they can’t be disputed in the present.

As it turns out, before we began this ‘media outlet,’ we looked into the Portsmouth situation ourselves, and reported on it in a column in The Ostrich. We wrote it in August 2007, and you can read it here:  https://www.scribd.com/doc/252087139/An-Op-Ed-Tale-of-Two-Cities

All in all, the message of the 2007 PDI effort is that while there might be some interim fluctuations in Brunswick school department enrollment due to base closure, totals will quickly rebound to pre-base closure levels.  Studying Portsmouth’s experience, among others, would surely have challenged such blithe and naïve thinking.

Secondly, PDI completely ignored the unique stability of military dependent populations age-wise because of the way individuals rotate between duty assignments and locations.  Succinctly stated:

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This passage is from a lengthy report your correspondent published in August 2007, which you can read here: https://www.scribd.com/doc/90207524/Study-of-Brunswick-Population

You should know that we became curious as to how much the Brunswick School Department paid for the two PDI studies, each more than 60 pages in length.  We contacted Mr. Lawton, and he said he didn’t have that information, and referred us to other PDI staff.  We dutifully contacted that person, who told us they didn’t make such information available to the public.

So we went looking for the answer via town officials on both the municipal and school sides.  Strangely, they couldn’t find much in the way of related records, though a school department official found mention of a payment in the $5,000 range to PDI.  Anyone who thinks you can hire a consulting firm to perform such a study, and then draft a 60 plus page report for the paltry sum of $5,000 is living in a parallel universe,  Especially when all concerned know that OPM is paying for the effort.

Well.  It took us a while to get here, but we’ll move on by saying all of the above leaves us with a number of burning questions, none of which we expect anyone in authority will ever answer.  Still, we’re going to put them out there for our mutual amusement; maybe you’ll have some of your own.

  • What was the process for finding a consultant to perform these studies?  What was the statement of work?  Were qualifications sought?  Was this a competitive undertaking?  Why was PDI selected to do the work?  Did they have credible past experience?
  • Who managed the solicitation process for the school department?
  • Was a written contract put in place for the studies?
  • Who ‘oversaw’ the PDI work for the school department while the subcontract was underway?
  • Who reviewed the delivered work/reports and declared them ‘fit for use,’ valid in their content, and worthy of being paid for?
  • Who has since lost their job, been demoted, or otherwise held accountable for overseeing such clearly erroneous analysis and projections?
  • Has anyone followed up with PDI to demand consideration for generating such clearly unfounded and incredulous analysis, leading to flawed planning and strategic assessments within the school department?
  • Who in their right minds would move forward with the closure of three elementary schools in the face of such ‘professional’ reports?

Alright; you caught us.  That last one answers itself …. and more than that.  And here’s one more…

  • What lessons have been learned?

End Note: 

Are you kidding?  The title is obviously a rhetorical question.  Most government action, and that of various civic and non-profit advocacy groups, is predicated on not learning.  It’s the equivalent of teenagers going off a bridge while driving drunk.  Adults do the same, but in a far more ‘adult and consequential’ way.  Because ‘it won’t happen to us.’  Maturity is the process of learning otherwise.

                 

Consultancies are based on understanding this axiom:  no one ever learns.  And the greater the degree of OPM involved, the lesser the possibility any learning will accrue.

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There you have it – installment two in our return to print; let’s see if you discern the larger message.  For now, a favored quote or two:

The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
George Bernard Shaw

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
George Santayana

                    

1 comment:

  1. The real question is why such a study was necessary in the first place? Anyone with at least the usual amount of common sense would know that if the overall population is aging, the number of school children would be reducing and after you have reached a peak and taken care to have the facilities necessary all one needs do is maintain those facilities. Obviously the school department leadership does not have much in the way of common sense which makes one wonder exactly what it is they are teaching.

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