School leaders must be educated consumers on safety assessment consultants

Posted by on June 9, 2014

“You’ve got to know when to hold’em. Know when to fold’em. Know when to walk away and know when to run.”

This advice from country singer, Kenny Rogers, makes good guidance for ethical school security consultants as well as school boards, superintendents and other central office administrators or school heads seeking school safety assessment consultation services and vendors.

Flawed input, flawed process and flawed output

Following the Sandy Hook school shootings in December of 2012, we have received a number of solicitations to respond to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) and to submit proposals to schools and school districts seeking school security assessment, emergency preparedness planning evaluations and related services.   In analyzing school requests for proposals, we have found some common and concerning issues including:

  1. Many schools do not know what they want and/or need, and their RFPs show it. We are amazed to see many RFPs that have been little less than lifting languages off of the Internet to parrot in their RFPs what vendors advertise on their web sites. At times, this is done because they have already determined who they are going to hire and they are using this consultant’s verbiage to give the preferred vendor a competitive advantage. Oftentimes it is a hodge-podge collection of verbiage that looks like something they think they might want, but they really are not sure what they want or how to pursue it. One perfect example of a poor RFP and process came from a school district in Oregon that recently sent a RFP early in one week with a due date several days later when most districts allow several weeks for vendors to prepare a response. We submitted, only to later discover that the description of services in the proposal request were identical in language to a proposal that the company which got the contract had submitted in a different state on a different project months earlier. The language was not on this company’s web site, which begs the question of whether the district  had prior contact with the consulting firm before writing their proposal request that they then eventually awarded to this same vendor. Perhaps most ironic is that when asked about this the district indicated, in writing, that it did not know how to write proposals for these services, that it had the right to consult with other vendors, and that it saw no ethical conflicts in using the exact language of the vendor later selected for the job. I suspect an independent ethics review might suggest otherwise; however, I noted my concerns with the district as a matter of record and moved on.
  1. Many schools are doing something for the sake of doing something, and doing it fast, regardless of whether it mirrors best practices.  Far too many schools still are rushing to do something quickly when parental and community pressure is on to get something done. They seek something, oftentimes in the form of security equipment or a meeting or active shooter drill that they can promote in the local media to parents and the community. Others exploit parental anxiety about school safety to ask for levies and bond passage by the electorate for school security, only for a small portion of the new tax dollars for security while the bulk is used for other things. In many cases, what is done may be a piece of the overall puzzle, but in the end they really have not taken the time to make sure what they are doing is part of a comprehensive process.
  1. Many school administrators do not carefully scrutinize proposals and cannot see past the glitz and glamour to understand what they are really getting — or not getting — when they select a vendor. We are amazed at the lack of in-depth reading and analysis done by school administrators, purchasing departments, and proposal evaluation teams who review proposals for school safety vendors. As a routine part of our process when we bid, we request copies of all proposals submitted for consideration.  This allows us to evaluate what vendors are promising districts and to learn how districts are evaluating proposals.

In our analysis of the proposals of other vendors, we have found many questionable items and some that leave us shaking our heads wondering how educated people select some companies without catching the obvious. A few examples include:

  • Bait and Switch: High-profile consultants who promote their credentials, show up a day or two on a project, and then delegate the bulk of the work to less-experienced, lower credentialed workers who likely receive less pay than the high-profile consultant whose name on the front of the project would receive if she/he did the work themselves. Of course, the high-profile consultant still charges high-profile fees for the entire project.
  • Proposals laden with family members and others deemed as school safety experts — simply because the one expert submitting the proposal says they are experts. One of the funniest things we recently saw was where a vendor used a marketing quote in one section of their proposal by someone with the same first and last name as a person also listed as a consultant on their consulting team, who also appeared to have the same name as the consultant’s family member! Perhaps it was just a coincidence…or perhaps the vendors just know that school officials do not scrutinize what is given to them in a proposal.
  • Vendors claiming they are in most demand and their proposals are chosen all of the time, leaving some wondering how they could tailor their work to individual districts. If a consultant claims to be traveling district to district 80% of the calendar year, it should force school officials to wonder if they are just changing the names on reports or using templates versus approaching each district individually, and that district’s final work product as unique and requiring individual attention.

A number of the requests of the past two years did not have a “good fit” for our company and the district’s proposal description, so we simply did not submit proposals. Others were clearly written for preferred vendors the schools had a desire or plan to hire as we could easily tell by the language, description and time frame of the proposals. The districts were simply going through the motions to be able to say that they sought multiple proposals.  In most cases, we walk away and run from these RFPs.

There are school leaders who can see through the smoke, ask tough questions, check for extensive references and make good decisions. In some cases, the other companies are a better fit for the job both in their ethical standards (or lack of) and that of the district than is our firm. In others cases, districts look beyond the smoke and went for substance. Our team was selected three out of four times against another firm boasting its inflated credentials, but we were also happy to see the another firm selected by a district with which we had reservations about their ethics and intentions.  We are happy to be picked in many cases, but also happy not to be picked in other cases as our ethics and approach simply would not be a good fit with the district.

The key to selecting school safety consultants is for school officials to make wise decisions in creating their proposals, to read and analyze proposals sent, and to have fair, unbiased, and objective criteria for making a final selection. The key for school safety consultants is to know when to walk away from a RFP that is not a good fit. Failure to do any of these things can be a disaster for both the consultant and the vendor, and certainly will not benefit children, teachers and the school-community.

Ken Trump

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