SOM District, Achieve Foundation Offer Clarification on $15K Strategic Plan Grant

by The Village Green
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The announcement earlier this week that the Achieve Foundation was awarding $15,000 to the South Orange-Maplewood School District to pay for strategic planning consultants was greeted as good news by many in the district.

However, the announcement also raised a few eyebrows, particularly among a number of commenters on Facebook who questioned why the district was hiring consultants to perform the strategic plan and why the Achieve Foundation — which is known for its grants to support individual teacher projects — was funding a non-teaching grant.

Commenters also wanted more information on SoarPoint Associates, the group hired to assist Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos in performing the strategic plan. One commenter suggested that the NJ School Board Association could supply consultants at a much cheaper rate. Others felt that Ramos along with other district administrators should perform the strategic planning process without outside consultants; some noted that Ramos touted strategic planning experience in his resume. Others expressed frustration that, because the consultants were being paid for by a private grant, the district did not bid the project and the Board of Education would not have oversight of the SoarPoint contract.

Comments were posted on The Village Green’s Facebook page as well as on the South Orange Parents for Quality Education Facebook group which is administered by local parents Lauren Freedman and Elissa Malespina (Malespina is widely known as the former librarian at South Orange Middle School as well as for being a candidate for Board of Education this past fall).

Both the District and Achieve responded to Village Green’s request for clarification.

In a letter signed by Achieve Executive Director Deborah Prinz and Co-Presidents Sarah Iozzio and Robin Peacock, the organization explained that Achieve “provides grants, not only to teachers, but to all SO/M educators” as well as District Partnership grants to the superintendent “to use for initiatives that benefit the entire district.”

The letter continues:

“Historically, District Partnership funds have been awarded for the superintendent’s top priority programs, including pilots for family engagement, social/emotional education, after school activities, grant writing, etc. As is true of all funds that we distribute, the District Partnership is intended to pay for programs that advance innovation, excellence and equal access to education, but which exceed district resources.”

In fact, Prinz, Iozzio and Peacock explained, “An Administrators’ Grant we awarded last spring paid for consultants to assist with long-range planning at Columbia High School, in conjunction with the CHS 2025 self-study, required for the Middle States Accreditation process.” The letter continued, “Both in that instance, and in the case of this year’s grant to Dr. Ramos for the district-wide effort, we believe that maximizing strategic planning efforts is a sound investment for the future of public education in our community.”

Read the full letter below.

South Orange-Maplewood School District Director of Strategic Communications Suzanne Turner responded to questions regarding the use of consultants.

Turner said that it is common for superintendents to work with outside consultants on a strategic plan (backing up Turner’s assertion, a Google search by Village Green for school district hires consultant for strategic plan yielded about 1,670,000 results).

“Superintendents around the country bring firms in to do strategic planning,” said Turner. “Superintendents need to be part of the process, not facilitating the process themselves, so it is important to have an outside facilitator. In addition, facilitating a strategic planning process requires specialized expertise which is not part of the experience or job description of most administrators.”

Regarding assertions that the process of selecting SoarPoint lacked transparency, Turner responded, “Dr. Ramos did inform the Board that he planned to retain a facilitator for this process. The Board is not hiring SoarPoint, however, and no district funds will be going to them.”

Regarding the assertion that the district could have contracted with the NJ School Boards Association for $4,000 for strategic planning, Turner responded:

“The scope of work includes months of preparation work, including attending the Education Summit and participating in the synthesis of the data which resulted from the Summit. It includes preparing for and facilitating the 3-day strategic directions committee meeting. It includes follow-up including throughout the action planning phase. SoarPoint’s approach is atypical, personalized and combines the strategic planning best practices from various sources and experiences.”

Turner also supplied further details about SoarPoint:

“SOMSD’s Strategic Planning process is being facilitated by Rocco Rainone, Jr., and Marilyn Gounaris from SoarPoint Associates, thanks to a generous $15,000 contribution from the Achieve Foundation. Mr. Rainone and Ms. Gounaris have a wealth of experience in guiding both school districts and individual schools through comprehensive strategic planning processes, including serving for 10 years as senior staff consultants with the Rhode Island State Department of Education, and 10 years as private consultants working with schools throughout the Northeast including Albany, NY and Bridgeport, CT.”

In a Google search for SoarPoint Associates, Village Green did not find a website for the group; we’ve asked Turner to supply any links and will post them should they be made available. Rainone and Gounaris’ names can be found in searches related to the Rhode Island State Department of Education.

Turner noted that the District recently posted a story about the next phase of the strategic planning process on the SOMSD website. Read it here or below.

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