Race to the Top Consultant Earned $500,000 for Two Failed Bids

State Department of Education discloses new information about Wireless Generation

Shedding more light on the private side of public education, additional details came out yesterday on New Jersey’s hiring of a Brooklyn consultant in its controversial — and unsuccessful — applications for Race to the Top money.

The firm’s fees now total more than $500,000.

Under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act, the state Department of Education released new information on how Wireless Generation Inc. was first hired in December under former Gov. Jon Corzine’s administration. The contract was awarded after a hurried bid process to meet Race to the Top’s first-round January deadline.

Under the original contract, Wireless was paid $335,000, the highest of four bids for the work, according to the state. The lowest bid was less than half that amount at $145,500.

“Although Wireless was not the lowest bidder, the department’s evaluation committee scored the company’s bid higher than any other,” read a statement from Alan Guenther, the department’s spokesman.

A Clear Plan of Action

“The committee also said Wireless presented a clear, 25-day work plan to complete the application, and the company was willing to commit additional staff to finish the application without additional cost.”

Participants actually bid twice, with the first bids thrown out when Gov. Chris Christie’s transition teamput a freeze on all new contracts and then opened them again for the Race to the Top bid.

New Jersey failed to make the list of finalists in the first round, in which only two states ultimately won.

Wireless Generation was rehired by now-former state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler for the second round. Under that contract, the consultant was paid $179,750 for the application itself, and another $9,500 for advising the state’s oral presentation in August. The latter service was billed at $950 per day, according to the latest records.

A Losing Bid

New Jersey was among the finalists in the second round, but narrowly lost that bid as well, touching off a swirl of controversy. Christie fired Schundler last week over the miscommunications as to what went wrong.

Wireless Generation officials initially kept quiet about its role in the process, referring all questions to the state Department of Education.

Yesterday, it provided more details about its consulting work, which focuses on education technology but also supplies consulting about education reform initiatives, such as those included in the Race to the Top application.

“The company is highly respected for its proven expertise in educational data, technology and reform — among the key elements prioritized by Race to the Top,” read the lengthy background statement furnished by the company.

Aligned with Institute for Learning

The statement said that Wireless also worked on the application with the Institute for Learning (IFL) at the University of Pittsburgh. The IFL is led by Lauren Resnick, a nationally prominent education psychologist and researcher.

“The combined expertise of Wireless Generation, IFL, and the New Jersey Department of Education resulted in a highly competitive Race to the Top application,” the statement said.

According to documents provided earlier in the week, the company also was to be retained by the state for up to three years if New Jersey won the application.

The continued work was “to ensure that the project delivers the results that the United State Department of Education seeks, including data collection and analysis,” read the state’s waiver of competitive bidding rules.

Six-Figure Fees

Agreements for consultants to stay on once grant applications are completed are not unusual. Nor are the six-figure fees that Wireless Generation collected, said several consultants, who say company fees can be as high as $3,000 – 4,000 a day in some cases.

“With local money drying up, if you are a consultant right now, you follow where the grant money is, and that’s almost entirely in state and federal government,” said Richard Ten Eyck, a former New Jersey assistant commissioner and now an education consultant, although he said not with the state.

“Race to the Top, school improvement grants, these are all complicated enough applications that many states were looking for assistance,” he said.

Overall, the state education department spends tens of millions of dollars every year on professional services, according to New Jersey Department of Treasury’s website, YourMoney.NJ.gov.

In fiscal 2009 alone, it listed more than $35 million in professional services. One firm collected more than $6 million.

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