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Auditor Wants More Money

Greg Gibson, president and chief operating officer of Gibson Consulting Group, snubbed the Fairfax County School Board in September, when he failed to present the last of his five audit reports at the board's monthly work session. Instead, Gibson sent the school system a bill for an additional $8,000 for cost overruns.

Gibson Consulting was hired in February, at a contracted price of $250,000, to provide five audit reports: special education, budget enhancements, performance measurement, program evaluation and program overlap. In addition, the county Board of Supervisors chipped in another $30,000 — money left over from the Communities That Care survey, which was canceled. To date, the school system has paid Gibson Consulting $265,000 for the reports.

"There should not be additional costs to us to have him deliver his services. I would like to have him here," said School Board member Rita Thompson (At large), regarding Gibson's absence. The board has requested Gibson appear in person to answer questions, but so far School Superintendent Daniel Domenech is recommending the board hold Gibson to the contracted price and not pay for the overruns.

The staff is expected to present its response to the reports at the School Board work session Oct. 15, tentatively slated to begin at 1 p.m., at the Burkholder Center in Fairfax.

AS WITH THE PREVIOUS REPORTS, school officials said the consulting group came to some conclusions in the program evaluation and program overlap audits that were questionable. In some cases, the report is inaccurate. For example, Gibson Consulting, which is based in Austin, Texas, cites what it calls program overlaps, when in fact, identifying mandated state and federal staffing formulas.

"We did feel there were some conclusions made and recommendations made without significant information, as far as overlap," said School Board member Stuart Gibson [Hunter Mill]. "The report comments on the drop in test scores at Dogwood [Elementary] in 2000 through 02. It makes me question how much he really knows about our schools."

Dogwood was destroyed by a fire in 2000, two months before the Standards of Learning tests were to be taken, forcing the student body to be split up and sent to two other schools while Dogwood was rebuilt. The school reopened two months before the 2002 tests.

SUCH LACK OF DETAILS when it comes to analyzing Fairfax County's school system has been one of the biggest criticisms of the Gibson Consulting reports, which begs the question, were the audits worth it?

"We're an extremely well managed school system. We're not broken and we know that," said School Board member Jane Strauss (Dranesville), who was the finance and budget committee chair when Gibson was hired. "If we want to have people come in with minute detail, that takes an extremely large amount of money."

In the case of the collective Gibson reports, many of the suggestions are items the school system was either already in the process of putting into place or judged not workable in this community.

This is the same problem at least one other school system has run into when it comes to Gibson, whose Web site claims it has done "comprehensive efficiency studies at two of the largest 15 school systems in the United States," and lists 21 school systems, mostly from Texas, Florida, Colorado and Illinois, as former clients.

Of the three largest listed on its Web site — Forth Worth [Texas] Independent School District with roughly 80,534 students; Houston [Texas] Independent School District with an enrollment of about 212,099 students; and the School District of Hillsborough County, Fla., with 179,466 students — only the Florida representative knew of the work Gibson did. In the case of both Texas school districts, representatives in the press/communications offices were not familiar with Gibson and were unaware the company was based in Texas. Both Texas school systems failed to respond with additional information about the work Gibson was contracted to do for them.

IN THE CASE of the Florida district, a separate government office, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, hired Gibson to do the school-system audit.

"The school district is required to undergo a best-financial-policies review by law," said Mark Hart, the director of public affairs for the Hillsborough County schools. "We felt pretty good about the audit. … We scored the highest."

Hart said that while the Gibson report did contain some information the district found useful, such as the creation of a chief auditor position who reports directly to the superintendent, there were other recommendations that fell short of the mark.

"There were some things that just won't work for us. One recommendation is to reduce the courtesy bus rides. We bus students who live close to the school, but we feel have some sort of hazard or unsafe issue with walking. We took exception to that," Hart said. "We took exception to certain recommendations that we disagreed with on a philosophical level."

Hart said the school system also went through a vetting process, where it identified portions of the report that contained inaccuracies and asked for corrections. Gibson, he said, made the requested corrections.

STRAUSS SAID the Fairfax County school system decided on Gibson after another company, School Match, failed to meet expectations. The school system then solicited proposals from other consulting groups, receiving at least five, and selected Gibson.

"Sometimes people go into audit studies with unrealistic expectations. We're recognized as a well-run, well-managed school system," Strauss said of the outcome. "If Gibson had come back and said you are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, that would be different. Sometimes these studies validate what you're already doing and allows people to ask questions and get things on the table. It's a chance to say this is why we're doing things this way and why we're not doing things that way. People wanted a third opinion."