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Executive councilor: $75 an hour too steep for education consultant

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 10. 2013 8:54PM

PETERBOROUGH — Executive councilors balked at approving a $117,000, one-year consultant contract for the Department of Education after they learned the consultant, former Somersworth school superintendent Karen Soule, was on payroll as a full-time employee of the department as recently as April.

They tabled the request in a 4-1 vote, with Councilor Ray Burton, R-Bath, opposed, pending more information from Education Commissioner Virginia Barry.

Councilor Colin Van Ostern, D-Concord, who was teleconferenced into the Wednesday meeting at the Peterborough Town House, raised the question when he observed that Soule, a Manchester resident, was only being contracted for 30 hours a week.

"That's a pretty eye-popping rate by state government standards," he said from the hospital where his wife had just given birth earlier in the morning.

Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields, agreed. "This will be one of the highest-paid consultants we have in the state, above a lot of our IT consultants. While I understand there is a lot of value there, $117,000 for 30 hours a week, that just seems a little steep," he said.

Councilors asked if the department might be better off by posting and hiring a full-time, salaried employee.

“We would prefer full-time employees,” responded Barry, who said the position was necessary to comply with requirements the state faces now that it has received a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind law.

The waiver, announced on July 5, requires the state to create an accountability program for teachers that links their evaluations to student achievement, particularly in the lowest-performing schools in the state.

“We need to be sure there is a teacher evaluation and leader evaluation system in place that makes a connection between teacher accountability and student achievement,” she said.

Barry said Soule was well-qualified for the position, having served two years in the department as director of the Bureau of Credentialing and administrator of the Professional Standards Board; and was the only applicant for the $75-per-hour consulting job.

“She was doing two full-time jobs,” Barry said.

That triggered some tough questioning from Councilor Chris Sununu, R-Newfields.

“So here’s someone who worked in your department for two years, then quits and gets hired in your department for $117,000, and there was no one else who even applied for the job?” he said. “There’s something fishy here, and if not, then I’m concerned you guys are not doing a good job at getting these opportunities out to the general public before handing them to your own staff.”

Request tabled

The councilors agreed to table the request until Barry can provide more details as to how much Soule was making in her job with the department, and the circumstances surrounding her decision to resign and apply for the consultant position, which is paid for with 85 percent federal funding.

Barry did not return phone calls from the New Hampshire Union Leader after the meeting seeking that information.

She told councilors the timing between the granting of the waiver and the state budgeting process did not allow her to post and fill a staff position, although the consultant position was posted in April, she said.

“It is very difficult to hire people in the Education Department with the salaries we have,” she said. “We’ve been sitting on a Title I coordinator position for a year and a half.”

Schools with a large low-income student populations receive federal Title 1 funds and must comply with federal regulations.

“The salaries in the field are not commensurate with what we pay in the department,” she said. “We are losing a lot of good people. They leave the department and their salaries double.”

Burton spoke up in support of Barry’s request.

“The Department of Education is so closely tied to the federal government that it must be a really tough job to be a commissioner of education in any state,” he said. “If you don’t dance to their tune, you run into trouble.”

Prior to her work with the state Department of Education and as superintendent in Somersworth, Soule was a special education director, building principal and a Title I coordinator. As a member of the Professional Standards Board she assisted in the updating of standards for state educators and was a key player in initiatives that reduced the state’s high school dropout rate.

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