The Higley Unified School District is spending $48,000 for a consultant to find ways the district can save money, analyze financial practices and prepare for impending state budget cuts.
“I believe we can do a better job,” said interim superintendent Denise Birdwell. She called The Professional Group Public Consulting Inc., the Monday after she moved into the top district job as a temporary replacement for Joyce Lutrey, who received a one-year early release from her contract Dec. 18.
While the consultant has been reviewing Higley’s books, Mark Busch, the district’s executive director of budget and finance services, has been on paid administrative leave for two weeks.
Birdwell said there has been no mismanagement of finances, and that it’s “customary” to give the consultant a chance to independently look at the district’s finances. She said Busch will return to work next week to work with the consultant on their findings.
But Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said “putting the financial person on leave is not normal practice” during this type of situation in a school district.
“That person would normally work with the consultant” because “the person might learn from the consultant,” Essigs said. “That person would give the consultant the information they wanted and continue to do their day-to-day work.”
Essigs said The Professional Group Public Consulting is a good, experienced firm that does do a lot of work with school districts.
“The consultant is good business practice, but putting someone on leave is not normal,” Essigs said. “That doesn’t mean I think he (Busch) did anything wrong, but justification that everyone does this is not true.”
A message left on Busch’s cell phone was not returned Thursday.
The Higley board approved hiring the consultant Jan. 8 for $48,000 after Laura Smith and Gene Gardner with The Professional Group gave a presentation to the board on their initial findings.
The initial work for $25,000 was requested by Birdwell. The additional $28,000 was needed for the consultant to do more reports and projects. The board needed to approve entering into a contract and paying the consultant because it was over $35,000.
The board learned the district is behind in its “budget talks” and has only a couple of months to make up time. The consultants offered proposed work plans of what still needs to be done.
However, Smith said the district’s current budget is “fine,” especially since the district has had rapid growth.
In the 2000-2001 school year, Higley had 894 students. This school year, the district has grown to about 9,030 students.
“There are improvements that need to be done,” Smith said. “There’s a lot to be done in lots of different ways.”
The Mesa-based consultant will look at how the district spends its money, compare it to how 10 other districts of Higley’s size spend their money, and offer ways the district can spend money better, Birdwell said.
The consultant will also give the district monthly financial reports, offer suggestions on training, and the board will have future study sessions to learn about the findings, Birdwell said.
“I felt it was important to have an independent view of our finances,” Birdwell said. “To me, that’s good business practice.”
Birdwell said in her previous district position as an associate superintendent, the district’s finances and business aspects were not her area of responsibility. In her new position, she wanted to be sure Higley’s finances were “top notch” and wanted to understand all expenditures.
Since the district is facing state budget cuts, Birdwell said she also wanted to know the best ways the district can cut spending. She said the district is planning for at least a 5 percent cut for this year, and could see 10 to 15 percent state budget cuts next year.
In justifying the $48,000 the district is spending, Birdwell said she believes the consultant will find cost savings far beyond what the district is paying for the consultant.
For example, Birdwell said if every district teacher takes on one more student, it would be a $1 million cost savings to the district.
“We’re not hiring unless it’s critical,” Birdwell said. “We have to be fiscally smart. All expenditures have to be scrutinized. We have to cut spending.”