School district spent $14 million; contract proposed for former administrator

Between June and October, as the Clark County School District was busy paring back jobs and programs because of funding shortfalls, it shelled out more than $14 million to consultants and speakers for a range of educational and operational services, according to documents released by the Legislative Counsel Bureau.

The district spent $10.9 million on administrative and operations services consultants, issuing 412 contracts to 225 providers. It spent $3.2 million on instructional services, issuing 205 contracts to 134 consultants. The district listed the expenditures in a report to the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee.

At a Thursday meeting, the Clark County School Board will consider adding to its list of consultants with the hire of a retired district administrator. Karlene McCormick-Lee, a former associate superintendent who retired in June, now runs a consulting firm called NewLeef LLC. Her firm would be paid at a rate of $770 a day, for a total not to exceed $40,000.

The contract, which would run from Dec. 15 to June 30 calls for McCormick-Lee to return to the department she used to supervise, the superintendent’s schools, and assist with a program she implemented, empowerment schools.

Empowerment schools were created to improve learning and student performance through increased autonomy and accountability. In the district’s report to the state, it disclosed that it has also paid $5,000 to two consultants brought in to speak about empowerment schools earlier this year.

As a consultant, McCormick-Lee’s daily pay rate would be equal to her former salary and benefits, Superintendent Walt Rulffes said.

Rulffes sees hiring McCormick-Lee as an investment. He wants to take advantage of $25 million in federal grants offered to Nevada to improve its worst schools. Rulffes wants to use that money to create more empowerment schools, and he wants McCormick-Lee to go after the grants.

Because the grant applications are so complex, he said, the district needs somebody with expertise and technical knowledge.

"We would be derelict in our duties if we did not aggressively go after grant money for our students," Rulffes said.

By contracting with McCormick-Lee, a 30-year insider, the district would forgo a competitive bidding process. The district’s purchasing department determined that the contract would meet the bidding exemptions in Nevada law, but did not specify which exemption applied, according to School Board documents. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s request for the bidding exemption was not answered this week by district communications staff.

By fully disclosing the contract and seeking School Board approval for it, district officials are taking advantage of a loophole in district policy that prohibits contracting with former employees less than a year after they resign.

McCormick-Lee said hiring consultants can be a "good business move." It’s one way for the district to avoid hiring full-time employees to do the same work, especially for limited projects. McCormick-Lee’s firm has two other contracts with an online company and a private foundation. It was not created expressly for the district contract.

McCormick-Lee also said that because of her experience with the district, she has the advantage over a consultant unfamiliar with the school system.

School Board President Terri Janison said she understands the need for a consultant in this circumstance. The administration that oversees empowerment schools is minimal because empowerment schools are supposed to be independent.

"(McCormick-Lee) is the key to keeping it skeletal," Janison said. "I know it sounds weird, but this is one (contract) I have no problems with."

Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said in an e-mail that not all entities that submitted reports on consultants interpreted the term the same way. He said the district was "using a comprehensive interpretation and included every consultant/contract that could possibly fall under the definition."

The district’s expenditure on a new consultant comes as Gov. Jim Gibbons asks all state agencies to prepare to reduce their budgets by up to 3 percent for this year and next year.

The district, which receives state funding, has already made $120 million in program cuts for this year. Rulffes noted that the district has cut $1 million in administrative salaries.

The district has an operating budget of $2.1 billion.

Contact reporter James Haug at jhaug@ or 702-374-7917.

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