Ohio

Eye on Education

How the Columbus Education Commission Spent Its First $360,000

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The Columbus Education Commission has spent nearly $360,000 in its first three months to research and write a report that will recommend specific ways to improve Columbus schools. Nearly 80 percent of that money has gone to community outreach, public relations and communications firms.

The commission plans to spend a total of $1 million — half private funds from the city’s business community, half public funds from the city of Columbus — before its work is done.

Commission Director Eric Fingerhut, former Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, said that’s the price to pay for fulfilling the commission’s task.

“This is an open, transparent public effort led by the mayor and the council president who are engaging this city…in a far reaching and broad conversation about the future of education,” Fingerhut told StateImpact Ohio. “Of course it takes resources to be able do those things rather than meeting in private in a secret room somewhere.”

The commission’s vendors were selected by Fingerhut, spokesman Rob Evans said. Fingerhut said the commission’s charge of creating a report within four months meant there wasn’t time to go through a competitive bidding process.

“We reached out to the best possible people in this community to help us with that work,” he said.

The 25-member Columbus Education commission was appointed by Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman in December. Our colleagues at WOSU describe the commission’s mission as “to examine the district’s issues and essentially find a way to make its students thrive.”

At StateImpact Ohio’s request, the commission provided invoices for payments made through February 2013.

The largest expense — $138,591 — was to Columbus marketing agency Murphy Epson for creating a public outreach campaign that included more than 20 community meetings and focus groups; a 100,000 postcard campaign; multiple TV commercials encouraging people to provide suggestions to the commission; and other work.

Other expenses through February include:

  • $97,777 to Worthington communications firm Mindset Digital for managing the commission’s website and Twitter account and dealing with the media;
  • $38,950 to Columbus communications and public affairs firm Paul Werth Associates for outlining and drafting the actual report; and
  • $35,848 to Matthew Smydo, a long-time government affairs guy who now basically serves as Fingerhut’s chief of staff for the commission, doing everything from organizing and running numerous Commission-related meetings and briefing members and conducting research to buying commission members’ nameplates and reading materials.

[Scroll down to see a more detailed list of the commission's spending thus far.]

And while the Columbus Dispatch reports that the commission is not paying for lobbyists, records show that people working for the commission have met with state officials and with state Sen. Peggy Lehner, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. Those meetings were only for informational purposes, not advocacy, commission spokesman Rob Evans said.

The commission is scheduled to review a first draft of its report next Wednesday, and could be ready to present a completed report to Columbus’ mayor and city council by the end of the month.

After that the commission’s official work is over. But Fingerhut said he expects to see a similar community effort to put the commission’s recommendations into effect.

Columbus Education Commission Spending Through February 2013

Vendor Amount % of Spending
Murphy Epson (communications/community outreach) $138,591 39%
Mindset Digital (communications/online communications) $97,777 27%
Paul Werth Associates (communications/drafting report) $38,950 11%
Matthew Smydo (special assistant to the commission director) $35,848 10%
Jeannette Oxender (consultant, former Ohio Department of Education chief of staff) $20,000 6%
Nutter Video Productions (video of commission meetings) $8,499 2%
Payment and travel expenses for Tom Vander Ark (educational technology evangelist, venture capitalist) $6,061 2%
Payment and travel expenses for Steven Bingler (architect/designer, proponent of community-centered schools) $6,015 2%
Creative Cuisine (catering) $5,377 1%
Live Technologies (AV equipment for commission meetings) $1,985 1%
Travel expenses for Robert D. Murray (Retired Ohio State University pediatrics professor, childhood nutrition/obesity expert) $381 <1%
TOTAL THROUGH FEBRUARY 2013 $359,484

Source: Columbus Education Commission. Note: Although the commission is funded by both public and private funds, all spending through February was funded by private donations.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Eric Fingerhut’s title with the Columbus Education Commission. He is the commission’s director.

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