For more than four years, students at Aurora’s North Middle School haven’t met state testing standards for science, math or English. In fact, state records show that students don’t even reach the state’s lowest level of achievement, “approaching” proficiency.
Districts responsible for troubled schools like North relentlessly look for answers, while none have appeared. Fixes for failing schools are hard to come by.
But change is coming to schools like North. It’s coming from outside the system.
There’s no shortage of problems that plague schools rife with poor students. Poverty, language barriers and high teacher-turnover thwart progress as teachers try to get abysmal test scores up to par – or, at the very least – better than the year before.
As Colorado school districts struggle and fail to raise student test scores in schools with entrenched problems, they’re turning to private companies to fix public schools, for millions of dollars.
Some critics question whether at least one of those private companies is qualified for the job based on their track record in another state and their close ties to what some say are anti-public-schools alliances.
That includes North Middle School, as well as Risley International Academy of Innovation in Pueblo City Schools, and the entire Adams 14 school district in Commerce City.
North Middle faced possible state closure or conversion to a charter school next year unless students showed improvement. It hasn’t happened.
The struggles are similar at Risley and in Commerce City.
In all cases, the state board gave districts the go-ahead to pay millions of school district dollars for MGT Consulting, a for-profit management firm, to virtually take over the schools. The move has elicited hope from some that the company can improve student performance after everything the districts have tried has failed. But the contracts have prompted condemnation from critics who say the firm has a dubious track record and is diverting tax dollars to private profits at a time when every cent should be spent on student needs.
A large corporation, and some familiar names and faces
Leaders of the Florida-based MGT say they specialize in allocating public money more effectively while improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom and school culture. Its management process includes sub-contracting areas of school work to other companies, and it boasts completing over 10,000 projects in many states and abroad over several decades.
MGT is more than just a school testing consultant. The limited liability corporation also consults for other government agencies, including conducting impact studies of privatizing public prisons, according to its website. MGT’s current chief executive officer also co-founded a consulting and lobbying firm tapped into a national network of for-profit education institutions, Republican education reformers, the testing industry and charter schools.
That’s part of what draws controversy as public school academia question the motives of a company headed by pro-school voucher officials working to save failing public schools — for profit.
MGT staff also include familiar names to Aurora parents, students and teachers: Harry Bull, the former superintendent of the Cherry Creek School District, is leading the charge in revamping some of the Colorado schools.
Current Cherry Creek Board of Education member Eric Parish has worked with MGT for over a decade, including since he was elected to the Cherry Creek school board in 2015. Parish is currently spearheading the overhaul of an entire Gary, Indiana school district. It’s a project that has drawn condemnation from some local lawmakers there over perceived conflicts of interest and a multi-million-dollar contract.
Current Weld County RE-1 School District Superintendent Don Rangel is also leading MGT’s work in Colorado.
MGT officials have told state education officials that local experts and a deep bench are how they can provide answers that have stymied teams of teachers and administrators at local schools.
Critics, however, say those networks usurp local control by establishing a para-governmental network of current and former education officials.
Aurora Public Schools is creating a first. The district has made a pact with MGT for a minimum $1.2 million, five-year contract to overhaul North Middle School.
It was the first time in state history that a school district had sought out an external takeover before the state demanded it, according to APS. Superintendent Rico Munn recommended MGT as the best, and only, solution for North. It was a move that created consternation among some school board members and rand-and-file educators.
After, the state Board of Education approved Pueblo City Schools’ choice to hire MGT as a private consultant to take over struggling Risley. The district signed a master agreement with MGT last month.
And in a first for Colorado, the state school board forced Adams 14 to hand over management of the entire 7,500-student school district to a private consultant. District leaders there originally hoped for a nearby school district to take over their schools, but the state board rejected that plan and instead agreed to the leaders’ second choice: MGT.
MGT’s work in Commerce City will net almost $8.4 million plus up to $1.7 million in incentives for improving the district scores and ratings, according to a contract the parties signed last week.
In the first two years of its contract, the group can earn from $300,000 to $400,000 each year for improving test scores at different grade levels and for meeting achievement marks. In the last two years, MGT could make up to $400,000 each year for earning the district and individual schools gains in state ratings, even for bumps to levels below meeting standards.
The Commerce City district does not have a superintendent nor a chief financial officer and will likely not fill both positions, according to school board member Dominick Moreno. MGT will manage the more than $150 million in district spending, almost all state and federal dollars.
MGT CEO Trey Traviesa estimated MGT will bring on about 25-30 employees for its three projects, many of which will be subcontractors.
Teacher union organizations have not looked kindly on the intrusion of MGT – and are responding with lawsuits.
Last month, the Pueblo Education Association sued the state Colorado Board of Education and Pueblo City Schools to halt MGT’s takeover of the school and others. The lawsuit, filed in Pueblo District Court, is pending.
The teacher union in Adams 14 also sued the state school board and that district this week. That lawsuit, filed this time in Denver District Court, is also pending.
It’s not the first time private consultants have contracted with public schools for a wide range of services. But everyone admits these contracts are bigger and more risky than anything Colorado schools have undergone before.
In hearings, state school board members pressed MGT about its ongoing work overhauling the Gary, Indiana school district. Political leaders there turned against MGT and called for the termination of its contract after it was revealed that the former state superintendent of Indiana schools, Tony Bennett, himself was a financial partner in MGT. Colorado State Board of Education member Angelika Schroeder had a cautiously optimistic perspective when she and all but one school board voter agreed to hand Adams 14 over to MGT last month.
“It’s a hopeful opportunity for our kids,” she said, while addressing Traviesa and the MGT Colorado team before the vote.
“It’s also an opportunity for the organization to shine,” she added. “So you’ve been given all sorts of contracts in Colorado. You can either make hay or not. I don’t think you know how hard it’s going to be.”
Roots in Republican politics
Much of the controversy surrounding MGT stems from its leadership roots in partisan politics and education policies.
The group began its work in the 1970s but has been led in its current iteration since 2015, when Trey Traviesa first appears as MGT’s title manager in Florida state records.
Traviesa is a longtime Floridian and former Republican state representative for the Tampa Bay area. He became a lobbyist, venture capitalist, banker and charter school co-founder after serving in Florida’s House of Representatives from 2004 to 2008.
While serving in the state House, Traviesa sponsored legislation to expand Florida’s school voucher program. That program created incentives for corporations to pay for mostly low-income students to leave their school districts and attend private schools.
Voucher proponents generally believe that giving public funds for parents and students to choose their ideal school – be it private or public – will spur better educations for kids who would otherwise attend struggling schools in their neighborhoods.
Voucher proposals have been hard fought in Colorado, with Democrats and some Republicans lambasting the policy of providing public dollars to private schools.
Back in the private sector, Traviesa established Fort Brooke Merchant Partners, a banking firm, in 2009.
He also became influential in Florida GOP party politics, regularly contributing tens of thousands of dollars to Florida Republican political action committees and campaigns including Marco Rubio’s bid for the presidency in 2015, according to the campaign finance resource Open Secrets.
Traviesa also appeared in Florida socialite columns including Modern Luxury and Tampa Bay Metro magazines. Academy of the Holy Names, a private Catholic school in Tampa Bay, published a photo in its student newspaper of Traviesa at President Trump’s Inaugural Party in January 2017.
In 2011, Traviesa changed the name of Public Counselors LLC to Strategos Public Affairs LLC, a lobbying and consulting firm, according to Florida Secretary of State records.
MGT spokeswoman Tiffanie Reynolds said that MGT and Strategos are separate companies with shared leadership, and added that she represented MGT only and did not know basic information about Strategos, including when it was founded.
Reports have suggested that Strategos owns MGT, but Reynolds did not say whether MGT has a parent company.
Traviesa is featured as co-founder in a prior version of the Strategos website that has since been updated to remove Traviesa’s name and biography. Records also indicate that Traviesa is the legal manager of Strategos. MGT and Strategos share the same address in Tampa Bay, Florida, and some staff, according to their websites.
The group attracted many former Republican political consultants and politicians from Florida, including Tara Reid, who worked on Florida Senator Rick Scott’s successful bid in 2014 for governor.
Strategos touts an impressive list of current and former clients in the education industry.
According to its website, Strategos has worked on behalf of ACT testing – a ubiquitous college-admissions test – testing giant College Board, the Charter School Alliance of America and Kaplan Higher Ed. Kaplan is a for-profit company that sells education services to public schools and corporations, including Purdue University’s online college, such as test preparation and is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
According to documents in Open Secrets, Strategos also lobbied for Education Corporation of America in 2017. The nationwide, for-profit education network collapsed late last year and left thousands of students scrambling to find other schools that would accept their credits. ECA owned EcoTech Institute, a renewable energy-focused career and technical education institution in Aurora that shut down abruptly in December to the chagrin of students and staff, Sentinel Colorado reported then.
Strategos also sells services as “public opinion architects” in which they “respond rapidly to situations that threaten reputation” through public relations campaigns and information gathering, according to its website.
Reynolds said Traviesa became involved in education because his mother and father taught in public schools or the juvenile justice system for decades, which ignited a passion for education and public service.
So Traviesa spearheaded a school of his own, Collaboratory Prep Academy, in the Tampa Bay area. He co-founded the school with the wife of another former Republican legislator, according to local news coverage.
The K-8 school opened its doors in 2017 but has seen mixed results working with its overwhelmingly poor and minority students.
After its first year, the Florida Department of Education rated the school an “F” grade. However, test growth scores – which are a popular benchmark of school success – were not included in its first year.
Reynolds said MGT is not affiliated with the school, but did respond to Sentinel Colorado’s questions about its track record.
She noted that growth scores were not included in the state’s letter grade because the school had only just been founded.
Traviesa also began leading MGT’s work providing expertise and consulting to government agencies seeking cost-effective solutions to public policy problems.
Reynolds would not say when Traviesa became CEO and President of MGT. Based on Florida Secretary of State records, 2015 appears to be the first year Traviesa managed the firm.
Widespread work with mixed results
MGT had already worked in Colorado and in many other states, but its work here largely involved behind-the-scenes services for districts.
Schools often outsource parts of school work to private companies, including cafeteria lunches, janitorial services, financial consulting and textbooks.
According to documents submitted to APS, MGT conducted audits and reviews of various public school districts and departments in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Jefferson County, Denver and APS, as well as an analysis of the state’s financial assistance priority assessment for the Colorado Department of Education.
In APS, MGT worked last year to conduct public opinion sampling for the district’s Blueprint APS process to decide how best to run the school district in the years to come. That contract cost APS about $100,000.
But the group has a mixed record of getting failing schools back on track – as will be their new work in Aurora, Commerce City and Pueblo.
It’s also a new tactic for Colorado schools.
Karen Middleton is a longtime Aurora community leader, a former state legislator who served on the state Board of Education from 2004 to 2008. She said external managers can provide welcome work for struggling schools but added that elected officials have to keep bidding processes and contracts open and transparent.
“That is one I think needs lots of oversight — you need to watch it closely,” she said of MGT’s contract with Adams 14. “People in the K-12 industry know how to make money, and they know there is money to be made. It would give me pause to look at a number that big,” she added of the contract amount.
As a state school board member, she represented both school districts in Aurora and Commerce City. She was also keen on education issues as a state House representative.
The idea of hiring an external manager is to disrupt the school culture into change, Middleton said.
She said managers can spearhead the hard work of getting principals and staff on the same page, take a deeper look at curriculum and provide mental health and other counseling to address root challenges such as trauma and hunger.
“Even if at first glance, that looks terrible, disruption is somewhat of a value. I actually don’t think it is such a terrible idea,” she said of external management.
In its successful pitch to the Colorado Board of Education to take over Adams 14, MGT touted work in Hawaii, Florida and Gary, Indiana.
One of MGT’s lead teacher development consultants is Dr. Babette Moreno, a consultant who formerly worked for EdisonLearning Inc. The for-profit chain expanded rapidly in the early 2000s to take over struggling schools, including in Philadelphia. Moreno became the group’s vice president of student support and educational services before it fizzled out.
Moreno worked for EdisonLearning in seven Hawaii schools. MGT cited her work there, which grew test scores in reading and math, according to that group’s own data collection.
In Florida, MGT took over two school districts as an external manager in Madison and Hamilton counties. Their contracts with the counties expired after seven months when MGT raised both districts’ Florida Department of Education ratings from “D’s” to “C’s”, according to documents MGT submitted to APS.
MGT leaders, including Traviesa, appeared most proud of their work in Gary, Indiana.
“Gary’s comeback is demonstrably underway,” Traviesa told state school board members on May 9. “Together, we think that we could create a similar dynamic with you in Adams 14.”
The student body in Gary is 90 percent black and 1.4 percent white, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education, and 99.8 percent of students qualify for free lunches because of low family income.
After a year, test scores remain far below the state average, although more students are graduating in four years than students were a decade ago.
In 2017, Indiana lawmakers selected MGT to take over the Gary Community Schools Corp. after years of abysmal grades. MGT won a $6.2 million contract with up to $1.45 million in incentives for successful performance, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Parish, the Cherry Creek School District school board member, has led the strategy in Gary that includes closing schools and streamlining resources. Dan Schmidt, who led the Blueprint APS project in Aurora, also led the work there.
Traviesa said in the May 9 Colorado state school board meeting that MGT cut twice the actual cost of district administrative functions in its first year. MGT has also sliced the district’s monthly spending deficit from $22 million to $11 million, but the district remains $98 million in debt.
Results are still unclear. The district earned a “D” grade from the state education department in 2016-17, before MGT’s entrance, and again in 2017-18, the end of the first year of management.
MGT reported test score growth under its tenure, but data submitted to the Colorado state school board also shows the percentage of students who passed English and math tests declined in 11 of 14 grade levels.
Reynolds said MGT is “100 percent accountable” to its clients and described the extremely complex nature of improving enormous, indebted and impoverished school districts.
She cited learning gains in different grade levels and an overall district test score performance boost of about 2.5 percent. Students also made big gains in some individual schools.
She also added she thinks MGT could do a better job of touting its track record in Gary.
Adams 14 Board of Education member Dominick Moreno, who is also a state senator, said MGT does not have “the longest demonstrated history” of successfully turning around failing schools and districts, but said that is fairly normal because the jury is still out on external management.
“(External management) is a pretty brand new experiment, so there is not a lot of data to look at…. And this is 10 years after the accountability measure passed,” said Tyler Sandberg, vice president of conservative education group Ready Colorado. “District turnaround is proven to be very difficult all around the country.”
State board member Rebecca McClellan said MGT’s track record in Gary was the crux of their evidence she reviewed before the vote to hand over Adams 14 last month.
She said she wasn’t impressed.
“As a private, for-profit firm, MGT will take millions in tax dollars to manage these three cases in Aurora, Pueblo, and Commerce City,” she said. “The order in the Pueblo case called for a proven track record of success on the part of the external management partner. With MGT claiming a 45-year history in business, the State Board of Education was given the results of MGT’s work in Gary, Indiana, showing proficiency scores dropping in 11 out of 14 measures.”
The Republican-controlled Indiana state legislature approved an additional $200,000 in incentives for MGT last year on top of its contract, but the relationship between MGT and Gary’s Democratic political leadership soured after it was revealed that the former state schools chief, Tony Bennett, served on MGT’s Board of Directors. The relationship had not been disclosed previously, the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana reported.
Bennett is also a partner in the Strategos Group.
Reynolds said Bennett is not an MGT employee and his name does not currently appear on their website.
Bennett is a Republican credited for expanding charter schools and major voucher programs in the region during his tenure as the Indiana schools superintendent from 2009 to 2013. He also controversially handed management of a Gary school over to EdisonLearning in 2011.
Bennett, who enjoyed close ties with former Republican Governor Jeb Bush, went on to serve as Florida’s top education official but resigned after an open records request revealed he had tweaked rules to boost the grade of a charter school. The school was run by a major Republican donor he received funds from in Indiana, according to stories by the Associated Press.
Both Gary’s state Senator and House representative called for the termination of MGT’s contract because of the possibility that Bennett helped secure it. A state education policy maker told the Post-Tribune that Bennett was not involved in helping MGT win its contract in Gary.
After Bennett’s connection to MGT came to light, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson called MGT’s contract selection a “sham” and said the state should cut ties, according to local media reports.
A Journal Gazette editorial blasted the reappearance of Bennett “where he is not welcome – Gary, Indiana.”
The Gazette quoted Gary’s state Senator Vernon Smith, a Democrat, blaming Bennett for creating many of the issues MGT purported to fix in Gary.
“It can be argued that Tony Bennett played a substantial role in putting Gary schools into the mess that it finds itself by championing policies that treated public schools like second-class citizens in favor of charters, vouchers and home schools,” Smith said. “He was anti-public schools, anti-student, anti-teacher and anti-everything that didn’t have to do with benefiting the education-for-profit industry.”
The Cherry Creek connection
MGT also has deep connections with current and former education officials in the Denver metro.
Early on in APS’ decision to seek out MGT, APS board member Kyla Armstrong-Romero raised concerns that Eric Parish of nearby Cherry Creek schools served not only as a board of education member, but also as an MGT vice president.
Last month, Parish read aloud a written statement to the audience of a Cherry Creek school board meeting addressing his role in MGT.
He said he’d been with MGT since 2007, when he sold and merged his firm with the company. He’s been a private consultant for over 25 years, according to his board of education biography. At MGT, he is one of three executive vice presidents with “a broad range of senior responsibilities.”
According to the statement, Parish’s main role with MGT has been leading the work in Gary.
Parish will not work in Colorado, according to MGT. In his statement, he said he spoke with education leaders in Pueblo and Adams 14 districts during the bidding process for their contracts and provided “general information” about MGT and information about how MGT’s work in Gary could be applied to the districts.
“At no time has my role as a Cherry Creek School District Board of Education member conflicted with my work with MGT,” he added.
Parish declined to comment on inquiries about how his role at MGT has impacted his tenure on the Cherry Creek school board, and referred questions to MGT.
Parish announced earlier this year he would seek another term on the Cherry Creek school board but announced suddenly last week, however, he will not seek re-election. Parish cited a need to spend more time with family.
Parish’s listed campaign address for his 2015 bid for Cherry Creek school board is the same address as MGT’s Colorado headquarters. The location is a rented postal box in a Centennial shopping mall.
Susan Meek, engagement and communications director for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said that school board members’ potential conflicts of interest would need to be analyzed if they could be profiting from work taking place inside their district – but because Parish’s consulting firm is not present in Cherry Creek schools, there is likely no policy violation.
Cherry Creek schools is not currently seeking out MGT’s consulting services in the district, according to Abbe Smith, a district spokeswoman. She did not speculate on what process would take place if the district retained their services.
Parish served with Harry Bull, the former Cherry Creek superintendent, who has also recently joined the MGT team. Bull was superintendent from 2013 to 2018 and resigned, citing family obligations, after a scandal over administrators who mis-handled a sexual assault case involving a school staffer and a student.
Bull is now leading the charge for MGT to revamp schools in Adams 14 and Risley middle school in Pueblo. Current Weld County RE-1 schools superintendent Don Rangel is also working for MGT on Colorado projects.
The connection between Parish and Bull wasn’t lost on state school board member Rebecca McClellan, who was the only state school board vote against MGT’s takeover of Adams 14.
“So you two are working together again,” she said to Bull during the hearing. “You know each other well. Small world.”
She also expressed skepticism that dozens of MGT staffers or subcontractors could meet at their listed address in the Willow Creek Shopping Center, where the company’s post-office box resides at a UPS store.
Moreno, however, said he found it comforting that MGT was bringing on so many former educators with roots in Colorado.
He said that bolsters his trust to hand over control of finances, staffing and other district leadership roles to MGT – a decision he called a “leap of faith.”
Sandberg said Bull’s involvement signified that there were liberals, too, involved in MGT’s work.
“This is not a conservative education reform takeover by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
What local control?
Some Colorado education officials also see an issue with how MGT expanded so quickly to revamp schools in three cities.
Armstrong-Romero doesn’t disagree with APS Superintendent Rico Munn’s decision to seek out MGT and another external manager.
The state school board would likely have forced a similar course of action next year, when North Middle and Gateway High schools failed to improve enough in time under state law.
Rather, Armstrong-Romero is frustrated that APS did not provide an alternative to MGT or reach out more to the local community of parents, students and staff about handing the school over to a consultant. She and Marques Ivey voted against MGT’s proposal to take over North Middle.
Munn said several times this spring that there was adequate community input on the decision, citing four years of community engagement spent while attempting to bring the school up to speed.
Pueblo Education Association President Suzanne Ethredge also said Risley parents and staff weren’t given enough time to consider the best options for Risley, echoing teacher criticisms of the process in APS.
Armstrong-Romero also said she is concerned that the wide reach of MGT and their extensive work in the state could undermine the local control doctrine of education policy in Colorado.
Local districts typically make decisions about curriculum, for instance, which MGT will redevelop in North Middle School.
The fact that MGT is working so widely in the state is less troubling to Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert than what she called the privatization of schools in general. It’s a term usually used to criticize policies Traviesa touted as a Florida politician and Bennett implemented as schools chief in Indiana and Florida, including supporting charter schools — public schools that can amass private funding — for-profit schools and education consultant firms.
She said she’s concerned that MGT can’t be held directly accountable for their spending and staffing decisions in Adams 14 but also in Pueblo and Aurora.
MGT is accountable to local school boards, which can terminate their contracts, but not to the general community through elections – as is typically the case with leaders of entire school districts.
In APS, however, the consultant will stick to education programs such as teacher training, English language learning techniques and curriculum changes in North Middle School. MGT does not have the power to change school administration or staff and has to work with the funding it receives, according to Christiansen.
MGT will sub-contract with consulting group School By Design to optimize resources and develop best practices for teaching and learning.
That group has already worked in APS for the last two years to audit resource use.
MGT is also partnering with the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education to provide school leadership consulting in Risley and Adams 14.
Will it work?
Observers agree that time will tell whether MGT’s charge into education management will benefit kids and taxpayers – and what their success, or failure, would mean for the relatively new idea of outsourcing school management and policy to private firms.
“Colorado is on the cutting edge of it,” Sandberg said. “We’ll leave knowing about what works and what doesn’t work from this.”
The APS contract with MGT will last for four school years if the school board does not terminate the relationship, and includes May and June of 2019, according to the master agreement. The state board will scrutinize the progress in two years.
Meanwhile, the teacher union lawsuits against the state school board could upend the state’s power to force school districts to hand over management to a private consultant, according to Moreno.
For Adams 14, however, he’s confident that the school board chose the best course of action with MGT.
“We have no option other than to move forward,” he said.
At the March state board of education meeting, the state board gave Superintendent Munn and district staff the go-ahead with an MGT contract.
“If this works, it’s the best money we’ve spent,” State Board of Education member Steve Durham told them. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll see you in two years”
Education Consultant Overview
Hiring contractors to perform school functions is common, but external management organizations are somewhat new to Colorado. Lawmakers have only recognized EMOs as a strategy to turn around struggling schools for the last decade
• MGT Consulting: The Florida-based firm now has the most power of any EMO in the state and has worked in Colorado mainly conducting audits for decades. The firm’s services will cost APS a minimum of more than $1.2 million.
• Communities in Schools: APS also hired on this group, based in Virginia, to build a more successful student culture in Gateway High School. The contract costs more than $400,000 for four years. The group already works in APS.
• University of Virginia Darden/Curry partnership: Educators and business experts at UVA have combined forces to transform over 400 schools in 20 states, according to its website. MGT is contracting work to UVA in Colorado.
• Schools Cubed: This Arvada-based group works with school leaders to improve school performance from the top. The group will work in Adams 14 under MGT and has worked in nine other districts in various states – including in Colorado Springs.
• Beyond Textbooks: Adams 14 hired this Arizona group two years ago to implement teacher and curriculum changes in some schools.
• School By Design: MGT hired this group, which has no listed address, to work in North Middle optimizing resources and teaching strategies. The group has worked in multiple states and in APS for two years. Its recently departed CEO is the former vice president of tech giant Amazon’s education resources wing.