In my column last month (“Why grants don’t cover operating expenses,” ), I mentioned that the School District of Lancaster, Pa., is under investigation by the state and the FBI for alleged mismanagement of grant funds. This month, I’d like to discuss the lessons we all can learn from Lancaster’s example.
The investigation in Lancaster focuses mainly on the district’s use–or misuse–of consultants. It is a fact that today many districts bring in outside experts to assist with curriculum development, professional development, and project implementation. (Some districts use consultants to write their grant proposals, too.)
In the case of Lancaster, several family members of the superintendent–a sister, a brother-in-law, and a girlfriend who is now his wife–were hired as “consultants” for the district. In addition to the red flag raised by hiring family members, there are questions about the background of one of the individuals–a convicted felon–and whether or not the work these consultants were hired to do actually was completed, even though invoices were paid.
There are two clear lessons schools should take from this situation:
1. Establish a clear policy regarding the hiring of consultants.
Based on my own experience writing grant proposals for districts across the country, it is clear that each district handles the hiring of consultants differently. If your district does not have a policy regarding consultants or hasn’t reviewed its policy for some time, now would be an excellent opportunity to do so.
Your policy should outline the minimum professional standards you expect of consultants and a process for hiring consultants and reviewing their performance. You also should establish a procedure for paying consultants that includes a way for you to set project benchmarks and a payment schedule that ensures benchmarks have been met before any checks are issued.
2. Involve the school board in reviewing grant proposals and ensuring that consultants are being used appropriately.
Lancaster’s situation raises questions about giving sole authority to the superintendent–or any other school or district official, for that matter–to approve the submission of proposals. Though it would be unfair to make sweeping judgments of all school officials based on this one incident, perhaps there should be some safeguard written into your district’s grant policies that provides for more than just one person having the authority to review and approve the submission of grant proposals.
In my opinion, this situation should encourage us to explore the responsibility of the school board in the submission process. Should the entire board, or designated members of the board, review proposals before they are submitted? Or is it enough to present board members with an executive summary of a proposal and ask them to approve the proposal’s submission?
I’m sure I can hear a collective groan coming from district grant writers across the country. Many times, grant writers are working against tight deadlines–and adding more people to the review process before submitting a proposal might be logistically impossible. However, as the current situation in Lancaster illustrates, perhaps one or two board members should be asked to review proposals to make sure there are no improprieties.
Besides the responsibilities of districts and school boards in the grantsmanship process, another question raised by the use of consultants is how much responsibility funders should bear. Should grant makers more carefully scrutinize the use of consultants and require their resumes to be included with proposals? (Currently, some do and some do not.)
Grant makers are understandably upset when they discover that funds they awarded have been misused. This is a clear violation of the grantor-grantee relationship and should be taken very seriously. Is it appropriate, then, to ask funders to take an additional step in the review process and read resumes more closely, attempting to ascertain if a proposed individual has the background and expertise required for the work he or she is being contracted to do?
Clearly, the situation in the School District of Lancaster has raised several issues to be closely examined and discussed in the Lancaster community. However, I believe this situation also presents important questions for all districts–and funders–to explore. I believe that we all can learn from this situation and can take steps to maintain the integrity of the grantsmanship process.
Deborah Ward, CFRE, is an independent grant writing consultant. She welcomes questions at (717) 295-9437 or Debor21727@aol.com.