Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jones vs. Pickler, Part 56, or Part Bajillion, or Whatever

School Board Commissioners David Pickler and Martavius Jones are surely shocked to find that their names will be forever linked in the histories that people will write about what has happened in the school systems in Memphis and Shelby County.  We've watched their relationship play out in public over the course of the last two two or so years.  It's hard to say how well they knew each other before this merger mania overtook all civil discussion regarding education in this region, but they've spent a lot of time together since late 2010.  Poor guys.

They've debated each other.  They've negotiated with each other in Judge Mays' chambers.  They've served on the TPC together, jointly chairing the Administrative Organization Committee, and sat next to each other as one of the school board's "odd couples."  My read is that they mostly don't like each other, but that they are both professionals who manage to tolerate each other in public.

Whatever personal detente they managed to forge as other parties duke it out in federal court to figure out what the school district will look like in 2013-14 and future years, it will be interesting to see how they interact going forward in light of the bomb that Commissioner Jones dropped at the most recent school board meeting.  As I wrote previously, Commissioner Jones basically claims that Commissioner Pickler voted in a favor of a resolution that personally financially benefitted Commissioner Pickler, without any disclosure of what Commissioner Jones calls a conflict of interest.  Here, again, is a full copy of the resolution.

Commissioner Jones clearly believes that he's got something on Commissioner Pickler, and I was surprised to read that this little maneuver almost didn't happen.  Commissioner Jones is a smart, talented guy (whatever else you've heard), and he's politically minded enough that he would not take the drastic step of calling out Commissioner Pickler (also smart and talented) in this way unless he believed there was some "there" there.  So the allegations deserve a look.

The allegations are that Commissioner Pickler voted in favor of a resolution that invested $12 million in a Tennessee School Board Association trust - a trust managed by Commissioner's wealth management company, in an account that generates fees that financially benefit Commissioner Pickler's company (and Commissioner Pickler).  The crux of the alleged wrongdoing is that Commissioner Pickler failed to disclose, as he is obligated to do, that he would benefit financially if the resolution passed.  [January 6, 2013 update:  I didn't do a great job of explaining this issue in this post, but tried to better explain it here.]


As I said in my previous post, it comes down to whether or not Commissioner Jones is right about whether Commissioner Pickler is making any money on this $12 million investment.  It may very well be that Commissioner Pickler waived any fees (or other financial benefits) from managing this particular trust, and that his wealth management company manages the trust gratis.  The supporting documentation provided with the resolution only shows the opening of the accounts, and do not reflect any fees or payments collected by Commissioner Pickler or his company.  The supporting documentation only shows that Pickler Wealth Advisors, specifically Teresa Bailey (Executive Vice President and Senior Planning Partner) manage the accounts that make up the TSBA trust.

That's one possibility - and the only possibility where Commissioner Pickler comes out clean as a whistle.  Any other possibility - even the entirely legal ones - will likely cause Commissioner Pickler some grief.

Commissioner Pickler is an attorney, as well as the owner of a wealth management company.  The rules for attorneys and financial advisors are different, though there is some overlap.  In addition to abiding by those rules, and figuring out which of those rules to abide by at any given moment, Commissioner Pickler also has to abide by the ethical rules and obligations related to his public service.  Not making excuses, but it's important that we understand that even though something might be problematic for an attorney, it may be less problematic for a financial advisor.  And there may or may not be a relationship to the rules that govern Commissioner Pickler's public service.

The best practice is to disclose any fact that may indicate even the appearance of impropriety, and to recuse oneself from voting on matters that would provide a direct benefit.  That's not the exact rule for attorneys, financial advisor, or public servants - but that's what we should expect of all of them.

Among the other possibilities of what happened are:
  • Commissioner Pickler previously disclosed the relationship between his company and the trust to the old Shelby County School Board, but did not make the disclosure anew in front of the newly constituted Shelby County School Board.  At the time of the resolution, Commissioner Mike Wissman suggested that "everyone" knew about this relationship except Commissioner Jones.
  • Commissioner Pickler waived all fees that the wealth management company could collect, but did not waive the fees specifically due to Ms. Bailey as the manager of the account.  This would mean that an individual at Commissioner Pickler's company did benefit from the management of the trust.  This would also mean that while Commissioner Pickler would not have financially benefitted (directly) from holding the trust, he may have benefitted professionally from the prestige of managing a TSBA trust.  That probably would not run afoul of the rules for lawyers, financial advisors, or public officials - but would, nonetheless, be a benefit that I would argue that Commissioner Pickler should have disclosed.  Particularly, if the amount of assets that Commisisoner Pickler's company managed would impact his standing among or arrangements with the financial services companies with which Pickler Wealth Management is involved.
There are likely other permutations of the arrangement between Commissioner Pickler, the TSBA, the trust, his company and its employees, and the various disclosures Commissioner Pickler may have previously made.

I'm reassured that Vice-Chair Teresa Jones is on the Ethics Committee that will investigate the allegations - she's an attorney and will recognize the various sets of rules at play.  Commissioner Pickler should be relieved that his long-time colleague and political ally Commissioner David Reaves is also on the committee.  Commissioner Reggie Love is somewhat of an unknown, but we have no reason to doubt his ability to be fair in this matter.

Anything less than a complete refutation of Commissioner Pickler and his company making any money off of this arrangement - even if acceptable under the rules - will cause some problems for Commissioner Pickler.  In that scenario, even if he's not facing any discipline from any of the bodies that could discipline him, it could make it more difficult for him to operate politically in this very important next legislative session in Nashville.  So far, all of the parties involved have managed to avoid any taint of impropriety (beyond fundamental policy and factual disagreements).  Even the appearance of actual, financial impropriety will be unfortunate, even if it's legal.  Commissioner Pickler is also the president-elect of the National School Board Association - he's got a lot riding on this coming out in his favor.  And perhaps Commissioner M. Jones doesn't much care if Commissioner Pickler is officially cleared as long as the political connections to Nashville suffer.

I guess we'll find out . . .

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Teacher Blogger: Ms. Katie

Allow me to introduce you to Ms. Katie, fighting on the rear front in a children's psychiatric hospital in Chicago - teaching children who have fallen out of the reformtastic public education system in Chicago.

Here's a link to a moving post:  where she writes:

"All that reform has taught us is that funding matters, peer groups matter, and segregation matters. So let's tackle the real problems in schools. What if reform was built around helping our neediest kids first: those in extreme poverty, those with special needs, those with emotional/behavioral problems? What if education philanthropists were bragging about giving every school a library, instead of donating to a new 'no excuses' charter? What if the Gates Foundation committed to giving every school a full-time social worker instead of their odd fixation with teacher evaluations? What if the words "integration" and "equitable funding" were as quick to roll off the tongues of the elite and powerful as the words 'choice' and 'charters'?"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Teacher Blogger: Be.Lathram

Hope everyone survived the holidays and is recovering.

Over the holidays, I became aware of a new blog by a teacher in Seattle.  Bonnie Lathram is from Memphis (and an MCS alum), but has been teaching in the Pacific Northwest (and Africa) for the last ten years.

She was deeply affected by the shooting at Newtown and has started blogging about her thoughts about that tragedy and education in general.  I'll be interested to find out where she's going policy-wise, but I'm impressed by her writing regardless of where she ends up on the policy spectrum.

Here's the link:

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Best wishes for a joyous Christmas holiday, and many thanks to Memphis and Shelby County's thousands of educators for the important work they do for our children and our communities.

Chris Barbic Open Letter

Gary Rubinstein is a Teach for America alum from its earliest days.  He is a well-informed critic of many "reform" efforts taking place on the national scale - and still teaching, you know, in an actual classroom. 

This month, he's been writing a series of open letters to some of the leaders of the reform movement.  I enourage you to read them - the Michelle Rhee one is particularly compelling.

Turns out he knows our very own ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic.  They worked in Houston together, and run into each other at TFA events from time to time.

Please, if you have a moment in this busy holiday time, read the full letter on Mr. Rubinstein's blog, hosted by TFA.  I'm amazed they haven't shut him down yet.

Here's the paragraph where Mr. Rubinstein brought home the real argument about whether the ASD can meet its goals:

"Even with this potential for artificially upping the numbers, I still don’t think that you will accomplish this goal. If you’ve followed other attempted ‘turnarounds’ that have been going on around the country, they sometimes get an initial boost only to regress the next year. Even Arne Duncan has completely changed his once optimistic view about turnarounds. Where he once spoke of mythical 90-90-90 schools (90% free lunch, 90% graduation rate, 90% achievement), he now can only point to schools that have achieved ‘double digit gains.’ You seem to be the only one committing to such a specific and, in my view, unattainable goal. It is like you’re promising that you will get a group of people to all run three minute miles when nobody has ever done that, not even you."

Please continue to engage in the conversation about whether the ASD model is viable or even appropriate.

Though some of these folks that are the subject of the letters are not directly involved in Memphis or Tennessee reforms, their work often underlies it.  Here are links to Mr. Rubinstein's individual letters:
Letter to Whitney Tilson
Letter to Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg
Letter to Michael Johnston
Letter to Timothy Daly
Letter to Jon Schnur
Letter to Chris Barbic
Letter to Michelle Rhee

Mr. Rubinstein has gotten one response so far, from Michael Johnston.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Martavius Jones Declares War on David Pickler

Tuesday night's Shelby County School Board meeting was crazy.  ONE of the reasons that the Board did not begin working on its agenda for over two hours after its start time was due to a surprise resolution from Martavius Jones.

The resolution was to ask for the immediate resignation of School Board Commissioner, and former Chair/President David Pickler.  The result was the constitution of a long-dormant ethics committee, to be made up of Vice-Chair Teresa Jones, Commissioner David Reaves, and newly-named Commissioner Reggie Love.

Commissioner M. Jones basically claims that Commissioner Pickler voted in a favor of a resolution that personally financially benefitted Commissioner Pickler, without any disclosure of what Commissioner M. Jones calls a conflict of interest.  [January 6, 2013 update:  here's a better explanation of the issue.]

My full commentary on this resolution will follow, but since I haven't seen it posted in the media, please feel free to read it here.  My first thought is that it depends on whether Commissioner M. Jones has his facts correct.  Commissioner Pickler told the Board (while commenting much later during the meeting) that he would provide a full report on the allegations in the resolution in the near future.

I guess we'll find out.

I've been discouraged that even though this resolution was read into "the record" at Tuesday night's meeting, the document does not appear to be publicly available.  It is, without a doubt, a public document.  None of the media has published it, and it is not available on the website of either Memphis City Schools or Shelby County Schools.  Whether the resolution passes or not, and particularly because it is the subject of a committee's formation and what will be the committee's investigation, the public should have had immediate access to the full document and its supporting documentation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cornerstone Has Juice. Real Juice.

Well, I might have spoken too soon.  I'll confess that I might have gloated a little bit that Cornerstone Prep just didn't seem to measure up to the ASD's standards.  I left myself some wiggle room, but the ASD has surprised even me, a person who is very cynical about how the ASD operates.  And operate it does.

So let's back up - here's the Commercial Appeal's coverage of the ASD's announcement that it would take over 10 schools from a list of 14.  Then, the ASD announced that it would take over six schools, either by taking the schools into the ASD or by assigning the schools to private charter management organizations.  I was astonished that Cornerstone Prep was not on the list, since it had been one of the four charter management organizations that was to be considered by the Achievement Advisory Council.  Based on the announcements from the ASD and the AAC last week, it appeared that Cornerstone would not be expanding.

It seemed to me that one of three things was happening:  Cornerstone didn't make the cut, Cornerstone had withdrawn from consideration, or it would become clear that a deal had been cut.

It has become clear that a deal has been cut.  And the ASD has been shadier than I expected.

Yesterday, the ASD linked to its blog from facebook, with an announcement that Cornerstone was expanding.  Here's the post, dated yesterday, December 18.  That link takes you to Cornerstone's page, where there's a story dated Friday, December 14, announcing that it would be taking over Lester Middle School.  The plan has shifted from completing the take over of Lester Elementary next year, going from K-3 to K-5 next year, to going to K-6 next year, 2013-14.  Then the following year, 2014-15, Cornerstone will add 7th and 8th grade, taking care of preK-8 in 2014-15.  Cornerstone writes:  "The Achievement School District (ASD) has just approved Cornerstone Prep to transform the Lester Middle School beginning next year. Cornerstone Prep will be leading pre-Kindergarten through sixth grade for 2013-2014 and then will be responsible for the entire school, pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade the following year.  This allows Cornerstone Prep to serve every child in the Lester Elementary School district in 2014 and then every sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade child in the entire Binghampton community the following year."

So last Friday, Cornerstone made the announcement, but the ASD delayed making the announcement until yesterday.  This, despite, a press conference held on Friday with great fanfare.  Why didn't ASD Supt. Chris Barbic make the announcement about Lester Middle at the same time as the other announcements?

Seems to me it likely had to do with the fact that Lester Middle was not on the list of 14 schools that the ASD stated that it was considering.  I suspect that the ASD would tell us that the takeover of Lester Middle is not until 2014-15, so that would be why it's not on this year's list of considered schools.  But Lester Middle does include 6th graders, who will be joining the ASD next year, 2013-14.  So the takeover is beginning next year.

In the clip of Supt. Barbic on the news tonight, he stated that the decision to takeover Lester Middle was not taken lightly, and that Lester Middle is the second worst performing school in the state.  I'm paraphrasing - he wouldn't call it a takeover, but the rest is near verbatim.  But in terms of open government, this is a Fail, no?  The ASD failed to disclose to the public that Lester Middle was on its shortlist for takeover, and failed to hold any public meetings in Binghampton or inform the media that Binghampton was among the neighborhoods/feeder patterns that could be affected by the ASD's actions for 2013-14.

Unfortunately for Cornerstone and for the ASD, the first opportunity that our Binghampton neighbors had to speak on whether or not they wanted the ASD was last night's School Board meeting.  And speak they did.  Upwards of 15 adults, sporting matching black shirts with yellow writing, protested Cornerstone's expansion and its current treatment of students, with at least 8 individuals speaking against Cornerstone during the public comment section.  The most dramatic moment was the 7 year old girl who described her humiliation at wetting herself several times in front of her classmates because of her teacher's refusal to grant bathroom permission, and the taunting that she received as a result.  She also described attempting to tie her shoes at the "wrong time," and having to walk around the school in her socks for the rest of the day after her shoes were confiscated as punishment.  The 7 year old's mother complained about those incidents and questioned who had helped her daughter change into borrowed clothes.

Another parent stated that none of the staff or teachers at Cornerstone had children attending Cornerstone, that the students were treated as if they are in bootcamp, and that the Cornerstone folks would not allow their children to be treated that way.  This speaker resonated with me because that exact issue has been one of my complaints about the common charter school approach - which I find unnecessarily and inappropriately regimented, in a way that just wouldn't fly in communities with better schools.

NBA star Penny Hardaway accompanied the entire Lester Middle basketball team in a show of support for the neighborhood and Lester Middle.

Every speaker on the subject was roundly applauded - and they were uniformly in opposition to Cornerstone Prep's expansion to Lester Middle.  Well - almost uniformly - one speaker's only objection was to changing the name from Lester to Cornerstone.  Several speakers mentioned that issue - losing the tradition of the neighborhood by removing "Lester" from the name of the school - but they all mentioned treatment of the students and opposition to the ASD and Cornerstone.

This was unfortunate all around, mainly because the Binghampton supporters of Lester were complaining to a government body that has absolutely no input on whether the ASD takes over the Binghampton neighborhood schools, and no ability to remedy any of the problems at Cornerstone.  I'm not convinced that the ASD has the ability to remedy any of the problems at Cornerstone, since Cornerstone has an independent Board of Directors that does not really report to the ASD in a formal way.  It's the age-old charter school accountability problem - public money with little to no public input.

It's also important to note that the ASD has changed its approach to public meetings.  No longer are the meeting dates and times broadcast to the entire Memphis community.  Instead, they send out letters to parents and teachers at the affected school.  I, therefore, was not aware that the ASD hosted its first meeting on this topic in Binghampton tonight - until I saw it on the news.  You have to ask whether that is to push down attendance at public ASD meetings.

And don't we also have to ask how Cornerstone is able to take over a school that had not previously been named as a possibility?  Nothing like a prominent East Memphis church with politically connected funders to allow a newly-minted charter school to move mountains.

It's unclear when the deal between Cornerstone and the ASD was cut outside of the announced process.  Perhaps it wasn't that the AAC chose not to recommend Cornerstone on its list - perhaps the ASD informed members of the AAC that they didn't need to worry about Cornerstone because the ASD would take of it?  We will likely never know because the ASD has deemed that AAC as not having to abide by the state's sunshine laws, and no minutes of any of the meetings have been published.

Hoping to see more coverage in tomorrow's papers about tonight's meeting in Binghampton.  I'm interested to know how the ASD explained itself and its decision making process that ended up being so different from its stated intentions.  I'm also interested to know how Cornerstone and the ASD responded to the allegations of student mistreatment - you know, since they're not required to provide a public answer at all.  Here's Jane Roberts' coverage of the meeting, titled:  Memphis Parents Lash Out Against ASD Leaders.

Once again, I'm in the position of almost feeling bad for the ASD folks.  Almost.  But not quite.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

ASD Discounts Recommendations From Committee It Appointed

The ASD touted its new process for soliciting public input to inform its decision making process as it decides which 10 of 14 schools it will take over next year.

The ASD cautioned us that just because it had gone to the trouble of appointing a local committee to recommend matches between schools to be taken over and charter management organizations, that the ASD really would still make its own decisions.  When the ASD's Achievement Advisory Committee finally made its recommendations this week, the ASD gave a more concrete explanation of the AAC's role.  The ASD would give the AAC's recommendations 40% weight - weighed against what else, we don't know.  Sure would be interesting to know what the other 60% is . . .

So here are the AAC's recommendations:
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary                Gestalt
Cherokee Elementary                             Aspire
Hanley Elementary                                 Aspire
Klondike Elementary                             Gestalt
Shannon Elementary                              KIPP
Corry Middle                                          KIPP

We now also have the ASD's actual decision when the ASD released its own matching decisions.  re's what the ASD has decided to do:
Whitney Elementary                   ASD (instead of Caldwell-Guthrie Elem.)
Georgian Hills Elementary         ASD (instead of Cherokee Elem.)
Hanley Elementary                    Aspire
Klondike Elementary                 Gestalt
Shannon Elementary                  KIPP
Corry Middle                             KIPP

Interesting.  But what exactly is going on here?  The ASD announcement came early, and only included six schools instead of ten.  Have the other schools been paroled?  Is another announcement forthcoming?  Has the ASD decided that ten schools was more than it could handle?  Is it responding to the local backlash against so many school takeovers?

We already know that the ASD has decided that, for one reason or another, the ASD has decided that Cornerstone Prep is not a good fit at this time.  Instead, KIPP Memphis is the favored charter management organization, receiving two schools from the ASD.  And instead of the two recommended by the AAC, both Aspire and Gestalt are only receiving one school each.  Aspire, in particular, was recruited by the ASD to expand from California into Tennessee.  It will be interesting to see how Aspire views receiving only one school . . .

The ASD also disagreed with its committee's recommendations as to which schools should be taken over.  Instead of taking over Caldwell-Guthrie and Cherokee Elementary Schools, the ASD has chosen itself to "turn around" Whitney and Georgian Hills Elementary Schools.

There's some interesting math here - so the ASD used 40% worth of the AAC's work, which resulted in adoption of 66% of the AAC's recommendations.  And not only did it not expand two of the charter management organizations to the extent recommended by the AAC, but surprisingly, the ASD decided that it would do a better job turning around schools than its recruited charter management organizations.

The ASD agreed with its AAC on two very important fronts, however.  I touched on both above - but the ASD accepted the AAC's recommendations to give two schools to KIPP Memphis and not give any schools to Cornerstone.

It's all very interesting, no?

ASD Snubs Cornerstone Prep?

It's been a big week, and I'm just now catching up on all of the Achievement School District news.  We've been waiting to hear which 10 of the 14 listed schools it will take over next year, and the ASD is releasing the information in drips and drabs.

Early in the week, Jane Roberts informed us that the ASD's Achievement Advisory Council made its recommendations.  So the idea is that the AAC, made up of Memphians from the affected neighborhoods, would "match" neighborhood schools with charter school operators.  I'm more than a little concerned about the folks selected for the AAC, but that was likely going to be the case given the ASD's radical world view.

So here are the AAC's recommendations:
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary        Gestalt
Cherokee Elementary                     Aspire
Hanley Elementary                        Aspire
Klondike Elementary                     Gestalt
Shannon Elementary                      KIPP
Corry Middle                                  KIPP

NOT on the list is the fourth of the four charter management organizations that were to be considered for matching:  Cornerstone Prep.  Of the 14 schools being considered, the AAC couldn't find one with which Cornerstone would be appropriately "matched"?  Cornerstone, a newly minted charter management organization, chartered specifically to participate in the ASD from its previous incarnation as a private evangelical school, already operating half of one elementary school - not selected?

I thought it might be an oversight, that maybe the AAC didn't understand the current political situation, and that the ASD would correct it with its own announcement.

Yesterday, the ASD's matching decisions were released.  Here's what the ASD has decided to do:
Whitney Elementary                  ASD           (instead of Caldwell-Guthrie Elem.)
Georgian Hills Elementary        ASD           (instead of Cherokee Elem.)
Hanley Elementary                    Aspire
Klondike Elementary                 Gestalt
Shannon Elementary                 KIPP
Corry Middle                             KIPP

Still no Cornerstone?  Admittedly, it's still a pretty young school - this is the first year it is teaching 2nd and 3rd graders, its second year teaching 1st graders, and its third year teaching kindergarteners.  But it has some experience at this point.  Is Cornerstone Prep no longer a favored charter management organization?  Were both the AAC - and - the ASD unable to find a suitable match for Cornerstone's skills and experience?

Hard to say.  It seems like there would be one of several things going on here . . .
  • Maybe it really is the case that neither the ASD or the AAC particularly liked what Cornerstone has to offer - or specifically, what Cornerstone can offer the 14 schools on the list.  Interesting.
  • Maybe Cornerstone withdrew from consideration.  Of course, since the ASD is not required to function as a public government entity, there is not much that they have to make public.  So we might never know if Cornerstone withdrew.  But I would wonder why they withdrew.  Those public meetings were tough, and Cornerstone's Board is made up of people actually from Memphis and invested in the community.  It may be that Cornerstone Prep well understands the current political situation and chose to withdraw from the process.  It may also be that Cornerstone has its hands full with its "Lester Campus" and decided to focus its energies there.  Hmmmm.
  • Or perhaps some other deal has already been cut, and we just have not yet had it disclosed.  The ASD did, after all, plan to takeover ten schools next year, but only announced six.  I would not be surprised at all to find out that the ASD has something else up its sleeve, and the Cornerstone still has some ASD expansion in its future.  [SPOILER ALERT:  it's this one!]
Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Teachers Pushing Back Against Privatization

Got a great email today from a local educator concerned about privatization efforts in Memphis.  She argued against closing schools while expanding the charter school footprint.  She also forwarded a letter circulating among local teachers - the letter is critical of MEA and calls on MEA to take a stronger stand against the "reform" wave that threatens neighborhood schools and the children in them, the neighborhoods that they support, and the teachers that are an important source of stability for their students.

First, here's the petition against privatization (by something called the Memphis Teachers Coalition):  Stop Trying To Privatize Public Education in Memphis.

I've previously written in support of MEA and SCEA, and I do continue my support of the organizations and the future merged organization.  I'm a big believer in the important work that teachers' unions do to support strong teachers - by requiring due process for disciplinary issues, by offering professional development training and opportunities, and by negotiating for better working conditions (those working conditions being the same as the students' learning conditions).

I suspect that the reality is that most teachers do not have a lot of contact with their union (slash-education association).  There might be a rep in the building, but there has not necessarily been strong, consistent messaging from the union about what they do for an everyday teacher who is not in trouble.  In the past couple of years, I've had dozens of conversations with teacher friends where they discount what MEA and SCEA have Done For Them.  And in the current political environment (that I read as very anti-union), even Randi Weingarten has acknowledged that “We were focused — as unions are — on fairness and not as much on quality.”

I think many teachers are not aware of (in particular) MEA's efforts on their behalf with the new-ish teacher evaluation systems.  Yes, MEA agreed to have student achievement metrics included in teacher evaluation scores, but MEA negotiated the district down from 50% to 35%.  Should MEA have stood stronger?  Maybe - but these new teacher evaluation systems are happening, and 35% is about as low as the student test score component gets.

I also think that there's lots of room for improvement for MEA/SCEA.  Unreturned phone calls, clubbiness, etc. - there are some cracks that they've let folks fall through.  I personally know several teachers who contacted MEA for one reason or another and either did not get a response, or were not treated with the degree of professionalism that they expected.  In each case, I suggested that they notify either their building contact or the leadership directly.  The organization should be given the opportunity to understand their shortcomings and to adjust their practice appropriately (sound familiar?).

My emailer this morning clued me in to some significant pushback against MEA.  And I think there's room for that, and likely a need for some of it.  But I would encourage the teachers who are dissatisfied with MEA/SCEA to reach out directly to the organization - I suspect that they are more on the same page on these privatization issues than they think.  Both MEA and SCEA have lots of institutional memory of how things got to where they are - which is a vital understanding to have as reform in Memphis pushes forward.  I feel safe in saying that both also feel absolutely excluded from real engagement with decision-makers both by local practice and, now, by state statute.

For teachers who are dissatisfied, yes, make MEA/SCEA better - a stronger organization with more engaged members, an organization that better supports its members that don't necessarily need its protective functions.  But I would discourage you from actively undermining an already embattled organization, or to give those that work against MEA/SCEA's goals any excuse to further marginalize the organization.  The reformers and privatizers are better-financed and nearly uniformly united in their goals.  Anything less than a united front by Memphis and Shelby County teachers will be detrimental in the overall fight.  Don't go that route unless you have to.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Sorry Gordon Parents, the Decision Was Made Last Spring

The Achievement School District's public relations staff has been working hard to make you think that they are involved in a community engagement process that will inform the ASD's decision making process on which 10 of the 14 schools to takeover and turnaround, and which charter groups will take which schools.  That's their "community matching" process. 

The song and dance got off to a disastrous start with parents declining to engage in "break-out sessions" and peppering ASD officials with hostile questions.  Since the initial roll-out of community meetings on November 8 and the week of November 12, the ASD has been on radio silence.  We should take them at their word that their Achievement Advisory Commission has been meeting in private to decide on their recommendations for which schools to take over.  But that process has not been public.  We've been told to expect the AAC's recommendations the week of December 10, with the state's actual decision to come the week of December 17.

Should we be surprised to find out that at least some of the decisions have already been made?  That there's been a shadow process running parallel to the public process?  That the decisions were not public at the time that they were made?  That the ASD and MCS cut a deal?

The first thing to understand is that the ASD is not only a turnaround model.  Five of its six schools in this, its first year, are pretty strict turnarounds.  The ASD has taken over, or partially taken over, five school buildings with the students in it.  But one of those schools, the Gordon Science and Arts Academy, run by Gestalt, did not take over an existing school.  GSAA is a middle school that serves only children that were previously attending bottom 5% schools, and pulls from several middle schools - instead of simply taking over an existing middle school.  GSAA is housed within an under-enrolled elementary school - Gordon Elementary School.

What we found at last Thursday's Special Call meeting on the school closures is that the ASD wanted to takeover Humes Middle School.  The ASD does not need cooperation from the school district in deciding what schools to take over, but in this case, it seems that the ASD granted Superintendent Kriner Cash's request not to take Humes.  It's on the closure list now with less than 20% enrollment, but Dr. Cash does not intend that the building be shuttered.  Humes, attended by Elvis Presley, is the subject of a new proposal to turn it into a music and arts optional school.  Seems that MCS just didn't want to let go of that storied building.  So they cut a deal.  The ASD wanted middle school kids, but agreed not to take Humes.  This resulted in the special situation at Gordon Elementary.

According to parent and teacher speakers at last week's Special Call meeting, teachers and families were assured that this unusual situation would not affect Gordon Elementary students going forward - that it was just a matter of cohabitation.  Gordon Elementary is not in the bottom 5%, so imagine parents' and teachers' surprise to find out that Gordon Elementary Could be closed, and that the Gordon Elementary School building would be given over to the ASD - to be used by the expanding Gordon Science and Arts Academy. 

This. Counts.  This counts as a school closed so that it can used by the ASD.  It's not a takeover of an existing school because of poor performance.  This is MCS cutting a deal to save the Humes building, that involves giving over a non-bottom-5% school building to a "school district" that's supposed to be turning around only bottom-5% schools.  Sorry, Gordon Elementary, you're the sacrificial lamb - without the courtesy of an ASD community engagement process (non-courteous though that process may be).

As if all of that weren't bad enough.  MCS cut this deal last school year.  And they told a lot of people.  Not the teachers and parents affected by the deal, but a lot of other people.  Including The Boston Consulting Group.

Yes, Gordon Elementary School parents and teachers, MCS told BCG (and the TPC) before giving any indication to you of their intentions.  How do we know?  Attached to last week's Special Call meeting agenda was a previously unreleased document generated by BCG.  (It's available on the Shelby County School Board website, but I've downloaded it and reposted it just to keep it publicly available.)  The document is the mystery list of possible school closures that make up BCG's TPC Recommendation #113.  It's dated June 20, 2012. 

On Page Eight of the June BCG presentation, Gordon Elementary is listed as under-enrolled with the designation "becoming an ASD charter".

We know that the Page Eight listing is not exactly correct because it also lists Cypress Middle School as "becoming an ASD charter".  This is, apparently, no longer the case.  But it was disclosed to someone at BCG either by someone at the ASD or by someone at MCS.  It is currently unclear why Cypress Middle was spared by the ASD.  But we now know why Gordon Elementary is not being spared.

It's possible that the Shelby County School Board could still save Gordon Elementary - the vote on whether to include Gordon on the list was closer than on the other schools.  Gordon is still under-enrolled - at around 50% capacity when we don't count the GSAA kids.  Gordon Elementary may or may not be an appropriate school closure on its own merits.  But taking into account this "deal" that has only now been made public, Memphis City Schools, Dr. Cash, and the ASD all suffer hits to their credibility in the important discussions about what schools should be closed and which schools will be taken over by the ASD.

It's easy to be paranoid about conspiracies in the current environment.  But, sorry to say, Gordon Elementary:  it's not paranoia if they're actually after you.

Jan. 20, 2013 UPDATE:  Gordon Elementary Got Its Pardon

Monday, December 3, 2012

Judge Mays Did Not Find Munis Unconstitutional

We've been Waiting in Memphis for Forever!  Well, not quite forever.  In some parts of the country, getting a big federal decision like this within two months of the trial would be a feat unto itself.

Just as last week's school board meeting adjourned, U.S. District Judge Samuel H. ("Hardy") Mays, Jr. issued his decision on whether Shelby County's six municipalities, the six other than Memphis, can withdraw from the merged Shelby County Schools and create their own, individual school districts.  Judge Mays' decision was a dampening "Not Yet".  Here's the decision.

Decent coverage from Bill Dries.  Strong coverage from Zack McMillin.  Better coverage from Jackson Baker.

It's been almost a week, and the dust is settling.  And new dust is kicking up.  But let's start with the decision.

Judge Mays issued a very limited decision that answered only some of the questions surrounding whether the formation of municipal school districts in Shelby County may proceed.  Of the three statutes in question, Judge Mays only addressed Chapter 905, leaving Chapters 1 and 970 for another day - and further briefing.

The result is that Chapter 905 was found unconstitutional.  Chapter 905 governs the process that a municipality would go through to create its own school district.  Judge Mays found that the law was unconstitutional for two reasons.  Though I doubted he would do so, Judge Mays found that the law was actually a private act, and that the requirements for a private act were not followed - those requirements including the ability of the County Commission to vote on (and possibly reject) the law's application to Shelby County.  The now famous passage from this aspect of the decision is:  "There is in the history a sense of a wink and a nod, a candid discussion of the bill's purpose occasionally blurred by a third-party correction.  The history is clear, however, that the bill never would have passed had it not been intended to apply only to Shelby County."

However, the Judge spent a much greater portion of the decision on the question of whether there are other counties where Chapter 905 could apply.  Judge Mays went through a detailed discussion of the population forecasts given by the experts, finding the County Commission's expert credible and the municipalities' expert less so.  Judge Mays decided that the law could not reasonably, realistically apply in any Tennessee county besides Shelby County based on current populations in current school districts.  To Judge Mays, this called into question the intention of the state legislature, and allowed him to get into the legislative history.  Once he got to the legislative history, and the many exchanges between the legislators, the decision was an easy one.

The result is that any actions taken under Chapter 905 are voided - including the referenda in all 6 municipalities to form their own school districts, and the elections of school boards.  Those newly elected school boards will not be sworn in, and will have to at least go through the motions of another election (if the municipal school districts proceed).

Not voided is the possibility of municipal school districts.  Though Judge Mays will hear further argument, and may eventually rule on Chapters 1 and 970, both are currently still in force.  This means that once the merger is complete at the start of school in August 2013, the municipalities may again proceed their withdrawal process.  But the schools of the future possible municipal school districts will remain in the merged district for at least the 2013-14 school year.

Further litigation - at least in the form of appeals - seems likely.  The municipal mayors will meet tomorrow with their lawyers to map out their route.  School Board Chair Billy Orgel is pushing for a negotiated peace without further litigation.  Former SCS Board Chair David Pickler is working on a third way  - proposing that the municipalities either form (or align with existing) charter management organizations to operate the schools in the municipal borders.

Judge Mays, in my view, has made it clear that he does not wish to rule on this.  And I think he's right that it is not preferred that a federal judge decide these kinds of issues.  But I think the open hostility among the parties has poisoned their ability to get to a negotiated peace, and that it will likely fall to him (or the Sixth Circuit above him, though probably not the Supreme Court) to decide whether the state legislature has acted appropriately.

No real winners here, and only one clear loser.  Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris could pooh-pooh objections from other politicians who complained that his quickly (and poorly) drafted statutes did not meet constitutional muster and were a state attempt to meddle in local affairs.  Senator Norris did not have to work very hard to work himself into an outrage when the state Attorney General interpreted Norris' law as it had been written, but reached a different result than Norris.  But he's been working on this group of laws for nearly two years at this point - revising and editing the language, cajoling and pitching to his legislator colleagues.  And in the end, a federal judge has agreed with the senator's detractors - that the law was ill-advised and did not meet the requirements of the Tennessee Constitution - a document, of course, that Norris has sworn to protect and defend - as a state legislator and an attorney.  We'll find out what route Senator Norris will take in the next legislative session in January - whether he has been chastened or emboldened.  I don't think there's a third way for him.