At his swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, Philadelphia’s new superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. unveiled a 100-day plan to help him transition to his new role.
What Watlington did not mention during the ceremony is the consultant who will — at a cost well into six figures — support that transition. The firm is run by the former head of Tennessee’s second-largest district who left that school system before his contract was up.
Last month, Watlington asked the school board to hire Joseph and Associates, a Tennessee-based education consulting firm near Nashville, to assist with his transition. The board unanimously agreed to pay the firm $450,000 for its services with little discussion at its May meeting. Funding for the contract will come from the 2022-23 operating budget.
The board has hired Joseph and Associates in large part to help Watlington to develop a five-year strategic plan for the district. That plan is due to be finalized at the end of next May. In addition, the firm will help assemble a transition team to help Watlington assess the district’s ability to meet its overall vision for schools known as “goals and guardrails.”
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Watlington said the consultant will also help him connect with people who can identify what’s working and what’s not working in urban school districts across the country. Watlington’s aim is to make Philadelphia one of the fastest improving urban school districts in the U.S.
“I’ve asked that external consultant to be an adviser to me, as I launch my 100-day entry action plan,” Watlington said.
The school board said in a statement to Chalkbeat that hiring such a consultant is “a best practice.”
The president of Joseph and Associates, Shawn Joseph, served as the first African-American superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools from 2016 to 2019, leading an 86,000-student district. Local media outlets reported that Joseph won praise for his focus on students of color while he led the district, but that his response to allegations of sexual harassment against school employees provoked controversy, as did certain contracts and a clash with principals.
The Nashville school board bought out of his contract after he served three years of his four-year contract. Joseph received a $261,250 payout when he departed his position.
In response to questions from Chalkbeat about his Nashville tenure, Joseph said it came to an end because “I did not believe that the climate supported a successful continued focus on achieving equity and excellence” in the district.
Two former school board members in Nashville vouched for Joseph’s leadership skills. Current Nashville school board chair Christiane Buggs said Joseph’s departure was due to “personality conflicts.”
“There were board members who were unable to reconcile their desire for their district with how Dr. Joseph was approaching it,” she said, adding that the contract buyout was a mutual arrangement.
And Will Pinkston, who served on the board during Joseph’s tenure, said it was a “really complicated situation” and that Joseph “was trying to do exactly the right thing and, frankly, exactly what the board asked him to do on the front end.”
The Philadelphia school board’s move to quietly hire the consultant drew some criticism. Lisa Haver, co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, argues the board should have discussed the matter further and doesn’t like the price tag.
“We’ve been saying for years that the board has spent way too much money on consultants and outsourcing, so this would not be out of character for any administration in this district,” Haver said. “They should not have considered this if they picked Dr. Watlington, if he had the knowledge and experience.”
In addition to leading Joseph and Associates, Joseph is an associate with Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, an education consulting and executive search firm, and has worked and supported superintendent transition teams in two Maryland counties, Prince George’s County and Baltimore County.
Joseph founded his consulting firm in 2019, the same year he left his job as Nashville superintendent.
“We are supporting Dr. Watlington as he learns about the district quickly and aligning the work that he’s doing with goals and guardrails and facilitating the writing in a report, which will provide short-term and long-term recommendations in achieving the goals and guardrails,” Joseph said.
Joseph said the transition team for Philadelphia will have between 50 to 60 people, including committees made up of district teachers and principals in the school system. There will also be outside experts, including people from local universities who have experience in supporting education leadership transitions.
Betty Morgan, who once led Washington County Public Schools in Maryland, will be responsible for writing the transition team’s report.
Watlington’s 100-day entry plan will include a listening and learning tour, a school board retreat, a senior staff retreat, and other activities to engage with the community.
From early September until the end of November, Watlington and the transition team will evaluate the district’s capacity to achieve the school board’s vision, with specific attention to the district’s organizational structure.
Starting Dec. 1, Joseph and Associates will focus on the five-year strategic plan Watlington wants. The plan is expected to be ready by May 30 of next year.
This story has been updated to correctly identify Joseph and Associates as a consulting firm and not a law firm.
Bureau Chief Johann Calhoun covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. He oversees Chalkbeat Philadelphia’s education coverage. Contact Johann at firstname.lastname@example.org.