Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Commissioner Pickler Did the Right Thing

Commissioner David Pickler has found himself under an ethics cloud since mid-December.  His colleague, Commissioner Martavius Jones brought the allegations at a Board meeting in a surprise resolution.  I've done some thinking, and in the end, was not all that surprised that the Ethics Committee called off its investigation of the allegations.  Not exonerated, not investigated, and still handling funds on behalf of MCS and SCS, Commissioner Pickler was not quite out from under that ethics cloud.

I'm relieved that Commissioner Pickler has now taken affirmative steps to remove even the appearance of impropriety.  Elected officials that do business with the bodies on which they sit should always face increased scrutiny and abide by high standards of disclosure and transparency. 

Without checking the budget myself, I believe Commissioner Pickler and SCS General Counsel Valerie Speakman when they say that the nature of the $12 million investment and its inclusion in the budget approved in June 2012 did not have enough information attached to it to indicate to Commissioner Pickler that his firm or employees would benefit from the investment.  All of that said, I believe that as an elected public offical, at the point that Commissioner Pickler understood from his position as the head of a wealth management firm, that the firm was managing a large investment initiated by a government body of which he as a Board member, he had a duty to investigate his involvement in the investment.  Specifically, he should have investigated how the investment originated, and then reviewed whether or not he voted in favor of the investment.  Had he done that kind of investigation, he would have discovered that, in fact, he had voted in favor of the investment.  Commissioner Pickler's next action should have been to satisfy his to duty to disclose the conflict of interest, and advise the Shelby County School Board of the situation.  I hold public officials to a high standard, and regardless of what the written rules are, there are just minimum standards of conduct by which public and elected officials should abide.  Pie in the sky, no?

Commissioner Pickler has now corrected the situation as best he can, give the timeline of events.  Michael Kelley reports that Commissioner Pickler will no longer manage Tennessee School Board Association investments associated with MCS or SCS:  "Pickler, who owns Pickler Wealth Advisers, has been the broker for the TSBA fund for several years, but he said he turned the account over to an employee whose commissions were not shared with him.
     The TSBA last Tuesday accepted Pickler’s offer to withdraw his firm completely from any involvement with funds contributed by either MCS or Shelby County Schools."

The buffering from the live online broadcast of the Board meeting last night was abysmal, but I gathered that Commissioner Pickler stated that he also offered to resign from his position at the Tennessee School Board Association, and that the offer was rejected.

Commissioner Pickler's withdrawal of his firm as an investment manager for any MCS and SCS funds is appropriate, and will erase any appearance of impropriety going forward related to Commissioner Pickler's ability to vote in favor of local district investments in TSBA's trusts.  That the TSBA has determined that it has no problem regarding doing business with one of its members and officers is not my concern.

Some further assessment of the accounts that were opened last summer will be necessary, in order to determine that the MCS investment is not assessed two separate annual fees due to the transfer of accounts to another wealth management group.  Either the receiving wealth managers should waive the initial fees or first set of annual fees to which they may be entitled, or Pickler Wealth Management should refund the fees that it collected.  Under no circumstances should the change in the investment managers result in any duplicative fees or debits to the initial MCS investment.  Given the scrutiny on these accounts, we can expect that Board Chair Billy Orgel and the MCS finance folks will be double-checking to make sure that the MCS investment proceeds in a fair and orderly manner.

Last Minute School Closings Coming. Thanks, ASD.

School closings are controversial and contribute to instability in already vulnerable communities.  I view school takeovers with the same critical view, with particular concern about the often patronizing - we know better - attitude of transplanted charter operators. 

Before Thanksgiving, we knew that a high number of school closings were coming.  Really, we'd known that since the spring of 2012 between the ASD's stated intentions and the Transition Planning Commission recommendations.  But as of November, we still had no details about which schools and neighborhoods would be most affected.  The announcements soon came hard and fast.  I recently wrote about the seeming decline in the ASD's expansion.

If my readers don't know, there's a weekly WKNO program hosted by Eric Barnes, the publisher of the Memphis Daily News.  He and other local journalists interview local newsmakers, usually with a political focus.  I've added a "page" on the right-hand side of the blog for easy access.  Anyway, last Friday (Feb. 22, 2013), ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic was interviewed by Barnes, his journo Bill Dries, and Eleanor Boudreau of WKNO Radio.  The video isn't up yet, I'll post it when I see it.  A transcript of the interview is available here.

Lots of background to tell you that there is no decline in the ASD's expansion.  During the interview, ASD Supt. Chris Barbic stated that the ASD will open ten schools in Memphis for the 2013-14 school year.  This would not be news, except for the fact that the ASD has only announced that it will open six schools in the fall.

The ASD announced that it will close and takeover six schools:  Whitney, Georgian Hills, Hanley, Klondike, and Shannon Elementary Schools, and Corry Middle School.  Cornerstone Prep announced that it will take over Lester Middle next year.  So it is unclear whether the ASD would say that it has announced that it will take over six or seven schools for takeover, depending on whether they consider Cornerstone's announcement as a new announcement or not.

Here's the exchange from the Behind the Headlines interview: 

Barnes:  Now I’m going to come back to Humes and Gordon in a second.  But just a quick, you’ll add how many schools in next year?

Barbic:  Next year we plan to add ten schools.  Two that we’ll run ourselves, so two more in Frayser.  And then we will have eight charter schools operating, uh, next year.  And all ten of those schools will be in Memphis.
So depending on how you count Lester Middle School, the ASD still has some school closures to announce - three or four to come.  At the outset of this process, explained that it would select ten schools from a published list of fourteen schools.  So far, eight schools on the list have NOT been selected.  What ASD Supt. Barbic's statement on Friday night means is that the parents at:

Graves Elementary
Norris Elementary
Alcy Ball Elementary
Cherokee Elementary
Treadwell Elementary
Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary
Cypress Middle
Denver Elementary

should all still be very worried about who will be teaching their children next year.  And teachers, of course, should be worried about whether they should be looking for other employment.  The Norris parents and teachers are already nervous, since it's on MCS's school closure list.  But ASD Supt. Barbic's statement is important because it means that either three or four of the schools on that list will be closed and reopened with charter organizations next school year.  Well, kind of.  Lester Middle was not on the list, but is being taken over next year.  Maybe ASD Supt. Barbic is willing to take over schools that aren't on that list, but we have to think that there would be considerable pushback, as there has been in Binghampton, should the ASD continue to take over schools that are not on the published list of schools that might be taken over.

What are our stakeholder pain points here?  I phrase it that way only because the consultants won't understand what we're talking about if I leave it in plain English.  So there's the neighborhood instability that comes along with any school takeover, along with the loss of long-standing respected and well-loved employees that contribute to the sense of stability and well-being for the children that attend the school.  There's the loss of tradition and neighborhood pride in the schools - like when the name, colors, or mascot of the school is changed.  What if the ASD told Houston that it was no longer the Mustangs?  Or that White Station was no longer the Spartans?  Oh, that's just whining.  There's the unpredictable nature, for the parents, of what kind of teachers will be brought in to educate the children - often newly-named, not-quite-fully-credentialed teachers, alt-cert teachers with mixed student teaching experience, and let's not forget the five-week-trained Teach for America recent college grads - all with little classroom management experience or knowledge of school discipline principles.  Oh, but they're eager and well-meaning (we must not forget that part).  For the students, it's the sea change in the school that they attended last year - the loss of familiar faces and patterns, and the pressure of learning from a brand new teacher who is still on the front end of their own learning curve.

And then there's the teachers.  Based on last year's transfer process, the process for teachers to voluntarily transfer to another school should already be underway.  According to the current information on the "Teach Memphis" website, managed by TNTP (formerly, The New Teacher Project), the contractor hired by MCS and SCS to conduct teacher hiring, the transfer period is scheduled for spring 2013.  But depending on the timing of the ASD's delayed announcement, teachers at schools that are being closed by the ASD may miss their opportunity to transfer to another position.  The second round of hiring for the ASD finishes up in the next few days.  Nothing like putting teachers at a disadvantage in the hiring process.

If the ASD continues its trend of rejecting the full-school turnaround model, then not all of the teachers at the schools subject to the ASD's delayed announcement would lose their jobs all at once - but it will depend on how the ASD chooses to implement its plan.

We're still very much in the weeds of the budget for next year, but we know that both the School Board and the County Commission are considering significant teacher lay-offs next year, both in SCS and MCS.  There has been no talk of an external hiring freeze, so with the expiration of the contract with MEA this summer, we should expect that experienced teachers will be competing for scarce positions with both new education school graduates, the alt-cert pipeline (individuals that become teachers through non-university programs) loved by reformers, and however many Teach for America folks that the district has contracted to hire.  There will likely be no more "bumping".

At this point, we have to assume that ASD Supt. Barbic understands that he is contributing to the grave uncertainty associated with putting together the merged district, and the School Board's ability to reach an agreement on appropriate school staffing levels.  Should we be grateful that the ASD planners weren't wasting their time and our state tax dollars in coming up with their expansion plan?  Maybe.  But I don't think we should appreciate the continued, unexplained delay in ASD Supt. Barbic's announcement regarding the remaining MCS schools that he expects to close at the end of this school year, and the resulting spinning of wheels by the Board and district staff with local tax dollars.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Ethics Investigation Called Off

The ethics committee investigation into allegations against Shelby County School Board Commissioner David Pickler made by Martavius Jones has completed its work.  Here's an article, but the headline doesn't exactly match the contents of the article.

Commissioner Pickler has taken the opportunity to claim that he has been "exonerated", and to carefully not comment on any action he might pursue against Commissioner Jones.  Commissioner Pickler believes that his business and his family have been affected by the allegations.  This information might match the headline "Panel in Memphis Clears School Board Member of Ethics Charge."

In fact, the committee declined to investigate the allegations against Commissioner Pickler because "it has neither the evidence nor the power to investigate the accusations."  It sounds like the committee needed some more information about the allegations but did not have the power (or ability) to get that information.  No ability to subpoena records or take sworn testimony likely posed a problem.  The chair of the committee explained that the committee's recommendation is to revise the policy - ostensibly, so that a future committee could complete an investigation.

This is a good news/bad news situation for Commissioner Pickler.  "Committee member David Reaves and school board attorney Valerie Speakman noted that Pickler had carefully disclosed his brokerage connections in business with Shelby County Schools. Speakman also noted that Pickler could not have been expected to disclose in this case because there wasn't a way for him to know what the expense was when the budget was presented to the board last June."  This is good for Commissioner Pickler:  in the past, he "carefully disclosed" the conflict of interest.  The SCS General Counsel squarely supports Commissioner Pickler when she says that the investment as itemized in the budget approved in June would not have reasonably indicated to Commissioner Pickler that the investment would end up with his firm, or that he should disclose his conflict of interest.  All fair, and it resolves some of the concerns that I've raised in previous posts.

The bad news for Commissioner Pickler is that the Committee was not able to get to the actual allegations and issue an opinion one way or the other.  Two of the three members of the committee pretty clearly thought there was some smoke, but didn't get to investigate whether there was fire.

But let's take Commissioner Pickler's word for it.  He's an honest guy.  He previously disclosed his business relationship with the TSBA accounts.  And he didn't know that when he voted on the budget, he was voting in favor of a $12 million investment with his firm.

This should be a major lesson for the school district and for the staff (or highly-paid consultants) who put together the budget.  The line items for expenditures, contracts, investments, whatever should be detailed enough that Board members who do business with the district, or business near the district, can reasonably determine whether their business will be affected by the budget.  This would allow Board members to appropriately disclose their conflicts of interest, and recuse themselves from any votes if necessary.

This is a different problem than Commissioners not reading the budget or the supporting information that they are provided.  It should not be up to district staff to flag conflicts for Board commissioners - each Board commissioner should be on top of their business relationships with the district (or near the district) and review the budget for any possible conflicts of interest.

Recently, Commissioner Joe Clayton raised the issue that several Board commissioners are retirees of either MCS or SCS, and therefore have a very personal financial interest in some of the TPC recommendations related to district benefits, mainly health insurance, for retirees.  He asked if recusal would be necessary.  SCS General Counsel explained that if MCS and SCS retirees were required to recuse themselves, that it is unlikely that the Board would even be able to achieve a quorum to vote on any proposals.  That's a tough situation, but at least the conflict has been publicly discussed.  We should hope that as these matters come up for votes that each Board member with a personal financial interest will explicitly disclose the conflict.

Given all of that, Commissioner Pickler still might have a problem.  Obviously, best case scenario is that you disclose your conflict of interest on the front end - prior to the vote.  But what if you didn't know you were voting in favor of your financial interest?  Does your duty to disclose expire?  Or do you have a duty to disclose the conflict of interest at the point that you become aware of the conflict of interest?  I don't know anything about wealth management, but just the name of the profession seems to imply that you're dealing with large amounts of money.  When you're in that profession, is it fair to assume that as the owner of a wealth management firm, you would be aware of a new $12 million investment?  My sense is that in this area of the country, a $12 million investment would be notable.

Certainly, in a monthly or quarterly review of the accounts, a new $12 million investment seems like it would cross the purview of the owner of the business.  It would be up to the owner to make sure that commissions and account fees are distributed appropriately to his or her employees, at the very least.  We could suppose that it would be possible that the first that Commissioner Pickler heard about the $12 million investment was in Commissioner Jones' resolution, but we should probably consider how likely that is.  It probably still matters what Commissioner Pickler knew, and when he knew it.

In an editorial, the Commercial Appeal argues for a ethics policy that would empower an ethics committee to investigate and gather information in order to investigate ethics allegations.  Well, now that we know that the current policy did not allow either to take place in this case, we can hope that the attorneys or the policy people are working on a re-write.  Now that we know, we should respond appropriately.  Because when you find out about a potential problem, you should seek to remedy it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Budget Primer - Courtesy of Steve Ross

We're finally seeing some traction for meaningful analysis of the schools budget.  I couldn't bring myself to get into the numbers, so I concentrated on process - big picture stuff. 

Thank goodness Steve Ross has a higher tolerance for putting together the actual numbers - on his own, with no help from the consultants.  It's not quite safe to assume that all of our Board members really understand how the schools get paid for.  The Tennessee School Board Association gives presentations to Boards - the Board members are not exactly without the resources to figure this stuff out.  But most of the unfortunate aspects of the public discussion has resulted because of lack of understanding by the public and by our elected officials of the fundamentals of school funding.  To the list of resources we now should add the two most recent posts from Steve Ross - Required Reading.

Steve Ross got started on Sunday.  Since then, he's been furiously writing and explaining.  First, he explains where the money comes from, then he explains where the money goes.  Great work.  Seriously, great work.

I've heard most of the pieces of this, but not in one place.  Mr. Ross has really done a lot of work to pull this together.  And his commentary is important.

And, I think, raises some questions that the County Commission needs to answer.  The state lets the County know what its minimum level of funding is.  Shelby County has funded both systems slightly over that minimum.  However, "[a]s you can see here, the County has consistently, over the past 4 years, funded the City schools less, as a percentage of BEP than the County Schools. Sure, both numbers are more than the minimum, but the lack of true parity turns into real money in short order. $63m of real money in fact."

The County Commission would likely tell us that with the extra Memphis contribution, and the fact that for capital improvements, Memphis gets $3 for every $1 in SCS capital spending, that Memphis just didn't need an equitable level of funding.  Maybe that used to fly - in a merged system, it doesn't. 

But this policy by the County Commission has real results.  What would be an example of how that little bit of extra disproportionate funding could be spent?  One example might be the shiny new Grays Creek facility that SCS built out in Arlington.  This building did not follow the usual process - through the former Needs Assessment Committee (recently disbanded) - which was put in place to make sure that capital expenditures in the two school districts were equitable.  Capital expenditures are funds spent on building buildings, repairing them, and other one-time infrastructure expenditures.  As mentioned above, the proportion was $3:$1 and generally, if SCS wanted to build a school, it would come up with the cost, and MCS would get three times that amount.  It has to do with proportionate spending between the two districts and functioned as a pain point for the county, and a point of negotiation for the city.

So how could SCS build a building that didn't go through the Needs Assessment Committee and that didn't result in equitable funding for MCS?  My understanding is that it managed to build it entirely with surplus funds.  Each year, just about any money that was left over at the end of the school year was put toward the building as a "one-time, non-recurring educational expense".  That's right, with all of the cuts that were necessary in SCS over the last few years - ask the administrators and teachers, they'll tell you how they were impacted - SCS still managed to have enough "surplus" funds to build the beautiful Grays Creek facility.

You might be for or against the merger, and you might be for or against municipal school districts.  But the merger, for the year that it exists, just might let us have a real discussion about what equitable funding looks like, why it's important, and how it impacts the classroom.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

ASD Getting Into Real Estate

Thank goodness Bill Dries was at last night's Board work session so that he could tell us about the ASD's ability to do whatever it wants and make up the rules as it goes along.  Here's the article.  It's mostly about the resolutions to delay the merger, but go ahead and read to the end.

"In other action, interim Memphis City Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said leaders of the Achievement School District have approached him about making Humes Middle School a part of the state-run district for the state’s bottom five percent schools in terms of student achievement.
     The school board voted last year to close Humes at the end of the current school year and reopen it next year as Bravo Academy -- an optional school for the musical arts operated by the consolidated school district.
     Hopson said ASD superintendent Chris Barbic has told him the Achievement School District takes the position that because Humes will reopen, it remains in the bottom five percent and eligible for inclusion in the ASD.
     Memphis City Schools cannot veto the choice of a low performing school for the Achievement School District. But the two entities have negotiated and talked over their tentative plans to try to coordinate what they are doing as much as possible.
     Hopson mentioned the possibility of the ASD using a part of the school built to hold over 1,300 students for its purposes as the consolidated school system opens its optional school using another part of the building."

I've speculated before that "the close working relationship between the ASD and MCS is not quite as close as we've been led to believe, and we'll continue to see this kind of public inconsistency in 'party line' flare up from time to time."  This is beyond a flare up in the working relationship.  This is what I think Dr. Cash would call a fault line.

Humes Middle School is a bottom-5% school that was eligible to be taken into the ASD.  The ASD chose not to take over Humes Middle School.  Instead, the ASD decided to start a new middle school elsewhere, enrolling the students zoned for Humes Middle School one year at a time.  This year, Gordon Science and Arts Academy has Humes' 6th graders in space at Gordon Elementary.  Remember the flap about MCS trying to close Gordon Elementary? 

The ASD's decision not to take the Humes Middle building is usually characterized (including by me) as the ASD's granting of a request by Dr. Cash.  But it's worth noting that the ASD has had some fairly specific real estate requirements as it chooses which schools to take over.  It's no coincidence that the schools that the ASD selects are not exactly falling down.  Brick Church Middle School was built just in 2001.  The original Frayser Elementary was built in 1954, but this picture shows a very modern building, likely from the last ten or fifteen years.  Westside Middle and Corning Elementary are both older buildings that have had improvements in the last few years.  Same for the Gordon Elementary campus.  Lester Elementary was specifically requested by the charter management organization, so building condition was not as much of a factor.  Let's compare the relative Facilities Condition Index positions.  The most recent comprehensive report that I could find is from 2010.  If you'd like to look at the spreadsheet yourself, go to the link and pick the third document down.  For FCI, the lower the number the better - higher numbers represent older buildings and more expensive/extensive needed repairs.

     Humes Middle                          32.47%     
     Westside Middle                         6.29%/15.34%  (no Westside Middle, just Elem. or HS in report)
     Corning Elementary                   2.63%
     Frayser Elementary                    4.21%
     Lester Elementary                    19.76%
     Gordon Elementary                    3.21%

And this year's selections:
     Corry Middle                           25.09%
     Georgian Hills Elementary        8.32%  (down from 48.70% in 2004)
     Hanley Elementary                  19.60%
     Klondike Elementary                 9.72%
     Shannon Elementary                27.87%
     Whitney Hills Elementary       17.11%

So it should be no surprise that Humes Middle School was not very high on the ASD's list of buildings it wanted.  Maybe Dr. Cash didn't want them to takeover that school building, but if the ASD wanted the building, they would have taken it.  The solution was that the ASD took the students and not the building.

So now the ASD wants the building.  No community meetings, no matching process, no notice.  Apparently, the process was just that state officials advised MCS that the ASD will either be taking the building, or taking part of it.  For all of the vaunted planning professionals in its employ - its highly-paid superintendent, its "portfolio" "managers", its amazing PR staff - the ASD is basically making a last minute decision to take Humes Middle.  ASD planners know that they are late on this one - their own schedule allows for announcements in December.  It's unclear what went wrong in the ASD offices that this particular announcement - an announcement that actually hasn't officially been made public - is nearly three months late.

Why "last minute" do you say?  Because the School Board has already decided to close Humes Middle - they voted on it back in December.  Efforts are underway to open Bravo Academy, an optional school devoted to the arts - renovations, recruitment, and hiring are taking place right now.  Not only is February late in the game for the ASD to make any changes to its stated plan for the 2013-14 school year, but add in the already overwhelmed staff and School Board trying for a successful merged school district for Day 1, and it's just inconsiderate.  But when we consider that this would effectively negate the Board's action in December, this is egregious state bureaucratic interference in how a school district chooses to remediate failing schools.

From this week's "Around the District", we see the administration engaging in a process with the community to discuss how MCS will try to increase student achievement at Riverview Middle and Douglass K-8.  The district has four options:  close the schools, "transformation", "turnaround", or "restart".  The School Board was well within its rights to close Humes Middle School.  It is also well within its rights to reopen it with different goals, different teachers, different students.

The ASD's argument is that because the former Humes Middle building will reopen as a middle school, it is still a failing school.  This, despite the fact Humes' students are zoned to attend Gordon Science and Arts Academy - 6th graders this year, 7th graders next year, all students the following year.

The reality is that the School Board has no recourse.  The state legislature, when it pushed through the rush legislation in its haste to capture the Race to the Top funds, gave no mechanism to local elected officials or locally-appointed superintendents to negotiate with the ASD.  What the ASD decides is what will happen.  And try this on for size:  the ASD is actually a state charter school authorizer.  We already have a state charter school authorizer that can act with impunity, as well as mechanisms to punish local school boards that don't follow the instruction of the state Board of Education.  It's all connected.

Even without any recourse (and definitely no ability to recoup any costs/staff effort already expended to begin the work necessary for the Bravo Academy), the School Board should state that it disagrees with this overbearing state action.  The ASD decision is not timely, and it is disrespectful of local governance on school issues.  Superintendent Dorsey Hopson was correct to publicly advise the Board of this issue, and we can hope that resolution of this issue is a public one.  If the ASD is going to take over this building, it's time for the Board to force them to be honest and public about how they intend to do it.

On top of all of this position-stating, at a base level, it is unclear if this state action is legal.  Can the ASD take over a shuttered former bottom-5% school?  My quick read didn't give an easy answer.  Sounds like a legal question.  A legal question that may need to be resolved in court.  That's not good for a strong, professional relationship among peers.  But we knew that the ASD didn't really view MCS as a partner.

We know that the state legislature is completely on board with any state effort to control what happens in certain, large Tennessee cities, especially education-wise.  But someone outside of Memphis and Nashville eventually has to express some concern about the state's ability to negate governance by locally elected officials, and the ability to effectively seize property without notice and outside of the public purview. 

If it can happen in the big cities, it can happen in the small towns.  And let's just say that the ASD gets these schools out of the bottom 5% - who will end up in the new bottom 5%?  It's not just the big city schools that are struggling.  Time to rein in the ability of state bureaucrats to manipulate and maneuver in local matters.

UPDATE:  So the punchline is that if the ASD is getting into the real estate business, then it's not very good at it.  No surprise, though, that if it took bottom-5% schools with great buildings last year, that this year's buildings would not be in as good repair.  Best case, they are taking some buildings with needed repairs off of the district's capital improvement list.  Worst case, the ASD is taking worse buildings now because it already took the best ones in the bottom 5% last year.  We would, after all, expect that schools in the bottom 5% would be in disrepair.  Back in 2010, White Station HS's FCI was 1.60%.  No surprise there.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Where Has Whalum! Been?

Tonight was the fourth opportunity for Shelby County School Board commissioners to hang out together This Month.  But where has Commissioner Kenneth Whalum been?

He missed both opportunities to hear from the public on budget matters the first full week of February, he missed last week's session and vote on what to put in front of the County Commission, and he missed tonight's work session and special call meeting.  In his defense, several other School Board Commissioners also failed to attend either of the community input sessions:  Snowden Carruthers, Sara Lewis, Patrice Robinson, and Mike Wissman (Stephanie Gatewood is recovering from a car accident).

Glad to know he'll be around next week to vote on the important things.

Whatever shall I do if he blocks me on Twitter?

State Charter Authorizer Steamroller Trundling Along

If there was any question about how a supermajority would work, we're learning quickly.  Step 1:  Stack the committee.  Step 2:  File legislation (HB702) and consider it the next day.  This allows Step 3:  Solicit as little public input as possible.  Step 4:  Carefully select speakers that only support the narrow view that supports your side of things.  Last Tuesday, we watched this unfold in a House education subcommittee.

We also got to see a little blameshifting about who was responsible for deciding who would speak to the subcommittee.  Rep. Brooks (R-Knoxville) and Rep. White (R-Memphis)'s staffs couldn't quite decide who put together the lobbyist lineup.  Breakdown in communication or conspiracy?  Hard to say.

We also saw some subcommittee discontent.  Rep. Joe Pitts (D-Clarksville) extended an offer to Tennessee citizens who wished to speak in opposition to the bill.  Here's the video of Metro-Nashville Public Schools School Board member Amy Frogge speaking to the committee.  Rep. Pitts also spoke against the bill.  Rep. Joe Forgety (R-Athens) also spoke against the bill.  The idea of having a state charter authorizer is not a partisan idea - it is supported and opposed by both Republicans and Democrats.  The Republican opposition is usually rooted in added layers of bureacracy and removing local control from elected officials.  Here's another summary of the legislative activity, with the highly notable gem that the body designated to be the state charter authorizer, the appointed state Board of Education, actually opposes the idea of having a state charter authorizer.  Instead, the state Board prefers that its decisions on charter appeals have "binding power to reverse charter school rejections instead of ordering local school boards to change their minds."  Interesting.  Like I said last week, Tennessee basically already has a state charter authorizer.

It's also worth mentioning that Rep. Forgety filed a bill that prevents a state charter authorizer from being the final word on charter applications.  Also worth mentioning that the bill was filed BEFORE the bill currently under consideration, and has not yet been set for consideration by the subcommittee or committee.  Talk about a steamroller. 

The folks behind Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools put two and two together and determined that Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is in the driver's seat.  Here's a hilarious Q&A with Rep. Harwell that doesn't reflect all that well on the thought process that is driving this piece of legislation.

This is all building up to tomorrow's consideration of Rep. Harwell's bill by the full education committee.  Aligned in favor of the bill are several national groups including Michelle Rhee's Students First group, and the Tennessee branch of Stand for Children, Democrats for Education Reform, along with Tennessee Charter Schools Association.  If you're against a state charter authorizer, some actual Tennessee residents have put together a petition.  As always, be careful about what you click on the website or they might accidentally sign you up for Michelle Rhee's group without your explicit consent.  Please consider signing the petition - it will have the effect of sending an email to everyone on the Education Committee.

There is no reason to remove local control of which charters are located where from local jurisdictions.  The focus is currently on Memphis and Nashville, but make no mistake, charter schools are coming for every kind of community.  If the idea is that good government is the government closest to the public, then this bill just does not make sense.  This bill is about disagreements between lobbyists, "reformers", and the cities of Memphis and Nashville.  There is no need for the rest of the state to get involved in this - there are already plenty of remedies for when the state disagrees with local action.

Remember, our own Shelby County School Board has already registered its opposition to a state charter authorizer.  Tomorrow is their annual trip to Nashville - hopefully, they'll take the opportunity to chat with legislators about why this bill should not move forward.

Please sign the petition.

Please also email the members of the Education Committee with your views.  I can assure you that the lobbyists already have.,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

You can also find their phone numbers at the following link:

School Board Commissioners Gone Wild, Ignore Sunshine Laws

Shelby County School Board Chairman Billy Orgel is having trouble herding his cats, I mean, colleagues.  I've mentioned the poor behavior of some Commissioners directed to their peers, and we apparently will have no end to surprise resolutions and ethical questions.

A little over a week ago, on a Sunday afternoon, three School Board commissioners hosted a community forum at Houston High School to hear comments and concerns from parents and community members on the piecemeal budget information that was to be considered at last week's special call meeting.  Here's the write-up.  Former (old) Shelby County School Board Chair David Pickler, along with longtime colleague Commissioner Joe Clayton, and new colleague Mary Anne Gibson listened avidly to budget concerns and apparently some "outright hostility".  No harm, no foul, right?

I was interested to read about this forum because I had not heard about it.  I didn't see it on the School Board calendar, nobody mentioned it to me.  And we all know that if two or more public officials plan to be in the same room to discuss, well, anything, notice of the meeting must be published 48 hours ahead of time.

Guess I wasn't the only one with some questions.  Turns out that they didn't just not tell me, they didn't tell the rest of the School Board.  Commissioner Pickler justified the lack of public notice and notice to the Board by explaining that there was no official agenda, no official business conducted, and that the meeting had been officially announced on facebook and through word-of-mouth.  Some Commissioners are annoyed by the lack of invitation, some think it's fine and want their own separate meetings.

At the very least, we're seeing some very fundamental breakdowns in procedures and communication among Board members.  Commissioner Gibson might be able to credibly claim ignorance of state law - state law with which she is obligated to comply, and for which ignorance is no excuse.  But Commissioners Pickler and Clayton have been around for a long time.  They know better.

So what can we do?  Anybody want to file a lawsuit?

Too Many Puns: Hart Murmur? Hart Attack? Proposal from the Hart? Speaking from the Hart?

What the . . . hart . . . is going on?

Allegedly, Shelby County School Board Commissioner Tomeka Hart is allegedly planning to submit a resolution that would allegedly delay the date of the merger. 

Bill Dries explains it here.  Several of the Commercial Appeal journos explain it here.  Apparently, there was an email where Commissioner Hart stated her intention.  Our reporters tell us that she casts it as a response to the latest bills underway in the Tennessee legislature to enable municipal school districts in Shelby County (and possibly the rest of the state).

Though everyone seems to expect the resolution to be presented at tonight's Board work session, the public will be unable to read the resolution until the minutes from the work session are published - likely after the vote on the resolution at next week's Board work session.  As usual, the Board's practices on publishing agendas and resolutions under consideration often prevent meaningful public engagement and comment before Board votes.

Without reviewing the resolution, it's hard (hart) to say what it's about, what possible alleged purpose it might serve, whether it will save or cost money, whether it could possibly achieve its stated purpose.

So without any first hand information about what the alleged resolution would allegedly do, let's just go ahead and pick a side.

The merger is the result of a negotiated settlement in federal court.  The school board could probably rescind its recent selection of the actual merger date, but it can do little to affect the negotiated settlement that it signed on to over eighteen months ago.  Memphis has already spent what would have been its financial contribution to MCS.  The merger is on track for this summer.  Based on what I've seen of the schools administration, the merged district is on track to open its doors for the first day of school in August 2013.  There are a million reasons why that will be hard, and a million other reasons why a lot of pieces of the merger won't be nailed down by then, but the doors will be open and schools will be in session.

It's actually going to be really hard, and it will require more and more tortured discussions and decisions from the school board (and the County Commission too - don't even get me started on them).  There's nothing yet that has convinced me that postponing the hard stuff will lead to better outcomes for anyone.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

More Local Budget Commentary

Last night, I posted some initial thoughts about the manufactured school budget mess.  Today, I'm relieved to find out that I'm not the only one that thinks that the County Commission is pulling a fast one.

Take a look at this post from Steve Ross.  Sometime political candidate, longtime political student and blogger - he's doing some good work.  He prefers big picture political stuff, but we should be glad he took a look at our local school budget process.

Mr. Ross makes some important points that I'm still thinking about.  Mr. Ross tells us that this budget is premature - regardless - because the state hasn't yet told us what they'll be paying, or what Shelby County must pay - and those real numbers will be available in the next couple of months.  Good point, and firm revenue plans and requirements are, of course, critical to the process.  The exercise is academic at this point in the calendar year based on the state's process.  Even if preliminary line item budgets are available, they can only be preliminary until we start to see the finalized revenue process that takes place at the state level.

Mr. Ross also tells us that the proposed budget for next year is actually $200 million LESS than it was last year.  I'm paying attention now, and am interested in the underlying numbers that got Mr. Ross to that conclusion.  If only we had some actual numbers to look at from the School Board.  I think it could be right just based on the projected loss of revenue from the state due to the ASD, and what the district is expecting for increases in charter enrollment.  It seems high to me, but that statement is a shot in the arm to a public discussion that's entirely focused on the supposed irresponsibility of a School Board asking for irresponsible increases in funding.

We need these commentaries to fully discuss these important issues (and prioritize expenditures and cuts) - send them along as you see them.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thirty Cents Away from a Quarter

It's hard to know where to begin on this budget mess.  So many culpable parties, so little real discussion of how to - at the very least - maintain the good that is taking place in schools across Shelby County.

Add some fundamentally destabilizing forces - Memphis withholding $55 million, a Shelby County School Board intent on special district status - followed by the toxicity of prolonged, incredibly expensive federal litigation, the dysfunction of a too large school board, and a County Commission trying to pay as little as possible for the current level of what passes for education in Shelby County and that doesn't understand what it would take to provide a world-class education, and this is where we land.  Oh - and don't forget a new property assessment which is expected to reduce property values and the County revenue available to provide any services, much less education services.  And the County's overall rejection of a half-cent increase in the sales tax, meaning that the only way to increase revenue is to increase property taxes.

So should we start with the biggest problem?  The oldest problem?  The most pressing problem?  The newest problem?  The various sources of the various problems?  On top of what we know in the public domain, it's hard to get a view into the shadows.  If you're not angry, you're not paying attention.  In no particular order, let's dive in.

1.  The City of Memphis should be ashamed of itself.  Pay the $55 million.  Pay the $55 million.  Pay the $55 million.  Don't talk to us about PreK.  Don't talk to us about how you've decided to spend the $68 million per year that you no longer have to pay in maintenance of effort, and why you've decided that taxes shouldn't correspondingly go down.  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million.  Since you don't have $68 million due for 2013-14, use that $68 million to pay off the overdue, interest accruing debt that you owe to the schools, and that you owe to all of us.  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million.  Don't negotiate, Superintendent Hopson.  Don't cut a deal.  Get us the $55 million and the interest and the penalties.  And future merged school district:  if Memphis fails to make good on its shameful debt, it's time to force payment and enforce the judgment, as your attorneys have no doubt already explained to you how to do.  And get your attorney fees, too.  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million.  Please don't make me resort to petty name-calling and unfortunate invective, we're all grown ups here, and trying to have a rational conversation.  You know it's the right thing to do, Mayor Wharton and City Council.  Why waste more public money on the collection of this shameful debt?  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million.  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million.  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million.  Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. Pay the $55 million. 

2.  The County Commission and Mayor Luttrell have forced the current crisis by asking for the budget 4 months early.  Yes, there is much financial planning to do by our esteemed LEA, and some advance notice of the hoped-for budget is not just useful, but essential.  And yes, the usual process used by district staff would result in a preliminary budget by the end of January.  And yes, the School Board has unnecessarily delayed the process by failing to consider the recommendations before it.  But asking for a balanced budget four months early has created false urgency, a reason for the School Board to do a rush job, and a reason for the School Board to punt.  Even an April deadline would have resulted in better, actual numbers.

3.  The Shelby County School Board is not the only entity to take advantage of the false urgency and the need for a rush job.  In one of the early TSC reports, we see that the Transition Steering Committee was in talks with The Boston Consulting Group and Parthenon, two management consultant companies, and asked both for further information.  About what, who knows.  BCG was the consultant used by the Transition Planning Commission, and Parthenon has been used at the behest of the Gates Foundation on many of the staffing issues.  By November 5, 2012, the TSC claimed to have gotten Board approval to use "consulting support for project management and technical assistance to facilitate specific issues associated with the merger . . ."  Payment for the consultants "will be funded by community partners."  No mention of which consultants were picked, or for how much, or exactly who was paying for what, but that probably took place at the Board meeting, right?  Not exactly.  Flip to pages four and five of the Board minutes from October 30, 2012.  There's a resolution with very similar language:  "given the daily demands of running two large districts, the Board approves consulting support . . ." to be paid for by community partners.  Neither the minutes nor the agenda from that meeting provide any explanation of what consultants were actually selected, what specific tasks they will perform, at what cost, or who is paying that cost - only the basic timeline.  But the resolution was rejected - and eventually withdrawn.  Take another look at the minutes from October 30 - bottom of page five and top of six.  The resolution was withdrawn, and the Board approved the timeline only.  Is that a basis to hire a management consultant?  Guess so.

Well, if there's been any question about whether BCG is back in town, it is firmly answered in the affirmative by only a cursory look at any of the documents presented by the TSC in the last couple of weeks.  Remove the SCS and MCS insignias, maybe change the font, and you've got basically the same financial documents put together for the TPC.  Just as an exemplar, take a look at Slide 8 from the last meeting of the TPC's Finance Committee meeting.  This slide was the source of much consternation for the TPC, nicknamed "the waterfall".  Just a quick look at the minutes show that much discussion was needed to explain the waterfall.  Well, the BCG waterfall is a zombie and continues to stalk the staffs at MCS and SCS.  These are the very same staffs that objected to the numbers and assumptions in the TPC work, and that now basically present BCG's work as their own.

How much money is BCG making off of this recycled work?  BCG would tell us that this isn't recycled work, that it's just a recycled method.  But let's talk about BCG's method.  Here's a TSC update from December.  Want to know why we're having so much gnashing of teeth from parents and teachers (I refuse to call them stakeholders)?  From the TSC, the major assumption underlying the entire budget is a pretty major assumption:  "your merged department's budget for FY2014 should be no larger than the MCS FY2013 budgeted amount."  Talk about doing more with less.

BCG didn't even need the actual budget submissions from any department in order to do their "work".  This is A Way to do a budget.  But this is not The Way that budgets usually work.  Usually, budgets are "bottom-up" - the departments submit budgets based on what it will cost to do their work.  As the budgets from the departments are submitted up the chain, district staff leaders revise, negotiate, and generally work the numbers up and down the chain.  But there's a clear understanding up and down the chain of how much particular line items cost, what is being sacrificed for savings, and what the expectations are for the various departments.  BCG's Way is decidedly "top-down" - this is how much we're spending, so you, departments, figure out how to do your work with that amount.  A certain amount of that happens even in the traditional model of how to form budgets as you get closer to the end, and money is tight.  But this is not how budgets are built.  On top of that, based on who is being presented to answer questions from the Board, we should be suspicious of the method.  Dr. Tim Setterlund and Hitesh Haria are no dummies.  They're honest, hard workers.  And while they both have some (even considerable) budget experience, at budget time, the superintendents usually defer to their Chief Financial Officers.  Neither CFO is being made available in public to answer questions from the Board.  Neither is BCG - they're, in fact, so well hidden that if you didn't get up to your elbows in minutes and TSC reports, you might have missed their role altogether.

Another way we know consultants are involved?  From this TSC update at the end of January, School Board commissioners had one-on-one meetings with staff (probably with BCG present as well).  This allows district staff to respond directly to questions and concerns without pesky reporters and public meetings.  Not only does this remove critical discussions from the public eye, but it allows staff and consultants to tailor their responses.  Not everyone will get the exact same answer to any question even if the exact same question is asked.  This method is designed not only to remove this discussion from the public (voters, stakeholders, whateveryouwantotocallit), but the method is designed to divide and conquer the Commissioners themselves.  It isolates Commissioners so that they don't hear each other's questions, and can't build on the answers they are given, and can't follow-up on each other's questions.  No big deal, nothing to see here.  We'll "summarize" the input for you, and it will "save time" at the Budget Retreat so that everyone doesn't ask the same question.  And we have to get this done yesterday.  And don't worry about how much our work costs because other people are paying for it.  And don't ask about what those other people want policy-wise, and how that gets incorporated into our advice.  Nothing to see here.

4.  If you don't like what you have seen in this high-level preliminary budget, wait until you get to see the actual line item budget.  From the various presentations and TSC updates, we know about the ridiculous assumption that the old MCS FY2013 budget will be the merged district FY2014 budget, and we also know some of the trade-off's that the TSC and BCG have built into the budget:  staffing levels, outsourcing, etc.  But since this is a high-level preliminary "budget", we don't know exactly how the departments have made the numbers work.  This will be critical for parents and teachers to understand what next year's classrooms will look like.  Imagine Mayor Luttrell's surprise when he finds out that despite his stated hope to get line-item-level approval for the school budget for at least the next three years, There Is No Line Item Budget.  For all of the work that Superintendent Aitken keeps telling us has been put into what has been presented to the public and the School Board, what we don't have is the work that we've come to expect to be completed by people who work in the respective finance departments in the time frame that they usually complete it.  We needed the consultants so that the regular work could continue to get done, right?  But who gave the instruction that the regular budget work didn't have to be done this year?  We should, at this point, have preliminary line item budgets complete.  And if it/they is/are done, how come these are not the line item entries that everyone is working from as they decide what and how to cut?  Time to get closer to ground level, folks.

5.  Given all of these things, it should have been no surprise to anyone, least of all the staff, that the budget as it was presented to Commissioners was dead on arrival.  It is unclear whose advice was being followed, but despite the very negative reception from the Board, the public presentation of the "preliminary budget" to the public moved forward.  If the hope from BCG or staff was that public support behind the budget would solidify and pressure the Board to approve it, then it was a miserable failure.  This process, instead, allowed all the political cover in the world for the 15-5 vote to increase the amount of money to be asked of the County Commission.  There have still been no binding votes on any of the hard issues, and everything is still very much up in the air.  What is our baseline?  Is it "current state" or is it "world class"?  And what if neither is possible?  Oh, and the County Commission is cranky because the gap is just too big.

6.  The gap was always going to be big, and we're still not really talking about why.  There was always going to be the loss of the maintenance effort from Memphis - about $68 million per year.  But with all of those efficiencies that the TPC found, that should have been taken care of, right?  Except for that the real problem is the abrupt anticipated decline in enrollment.  Jim Horn explains it here - but the basics are that due to charter school and ASD enrollment upticks, the merged district is expected to lose $212 million in annual funding over the next few years.  That's the budget gap.  And that doesn't include the possibility of municipal school districts or the addition of vouchers into the budgetary mix.  It's a budget gap that the district cannot control, and will have such an uneven impact that planning is made even more difficult - charters pull from multiple schools, 2 first graders from here, 3 from there, so it is unlikely that any school could "scale down" an entire classroom in even one grade due to the loss of enrollment.  And the ASD keeps changing its model and the definition of "takeover". The other increases in expenses, for instance, those required by Norris-Todd related to the non-reduction of teacher salaries, are marginal compared to these other gaps.

7.  It turns out that even with a lower per-pupil expenditure, the SCS staffing model is more expensive - and maybe, too prohibitively expensive to adopt across the merged district.  It will take another post to explain how that could be possible, but the numbers bear out that bringing MCS classroom size to the current SCS classroom size will cost millions of dollars.  Some folks in the county have lambasted the city for its lower performance levels.  But perhaps, just, perhaps, as these folks in the county talk about what they will and won't put up for their children, they are starting to understand that some of the financial decisions impact the classroom.  And it starts to get pretty hard to say that "my children deserve this" but "yours don't" when you're talking about kids all in the same district.  With different districts, it's easier to pick out who deserves what.  In the same district, we really should be concerned about equity.  Not that the former MCS didn't make some unfortunate decisions about which schools deserved what resources - but it's time to clear the slate one way or the other and to be honest about how we're doing it.

8.  Budget cuts were coming anyway.  Property assessments will likely be reduced across the board.  Both the city and county are in financial trouble, and that's before the looming sequestration.  Even without the merger, the conversation about whether we can afford what we want, and whether we can even afford the minimum of what we were already providing - the conversation was coming.  Taxes will be going up, and they need to go up to provide the same level of services we are already receiving because our revenues are going down and our costs are rising.  What a mess.  The merger gets some blame here, but it's not just the merger.  The County Commission (and Mayor Luttrell) are attempting to use the merger to reduce the maintenance of effort in ways that would not have been possible but for the merger.  In the situation we are in, preventing an increase has the effect of a decrease where certain increases are mandated by state law.

9.  And what is Parthenon doing?  Probably staffing stuff - and that is likely the next disaster.  Anybody remember how the Gates project was partly about restructuring teacher compensation so that teacher pay would be based on student achievement?  Or how Norris-Todd prevents decreases teacher pay due to the merger?  Good luck in working out those conflicting goals in this treacherous financial situation, Parthenon.

10. People should just do their jobs.  Stop withholding payment on shameful years-old debts.  Stop creating false deadlines.  Stop gambling that undefined funding requests won't alienate people that you need to work with in good faith.  Stop trying to reduce funding to the schools.  Stop trying to make sure your kids get theirs even if it means lowering the floor of acceptable education for other kids.  Stop lobbying for the hiring of expensive consultants.  Stop parroting what the consultants have presented as the God's honest truth when you know that the data has not been validated.  Allow administrative staff to do their jobs.  Validate the numbers and the data in a meaningful way. 

These are some preliminary, big picture budget thoughts.  No one has clean hands, and most, if not all, of our public officials bear some of the burden for contributing to a more difficult situation than was necessary.  It was always going to be hard, but it didn't have to be this hard.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Residency Requirements a Bigger Problem Than They Thought

Last week I wrote about the County Commission's alleged solution to the difference between the lack of a residency requirement in MCS and the absolute County Charter-required residency requirement in SCS.

I don't take any pleasure from seeing our community leaders dig in their heels and disagree with each other in prolonged and uncivil arguments.  But this discussion is unfolding the way that it should - people have different opinions on whether the Shelby County residency requirement is appropriate at all, and whether it should apply to incoming MCS teachers.  And it's been more or less civil.  These are big enough issues that it's a good thing that our elected officials air their opinions on this, and that it take some time to figure out a solution.  Here's Bill Dries' coverage on the topic.  Even if I don't agree with where the County Commission comes out, I'm glad to see some solid governing take place.  You know, even if I think the alleged solution is not much of a solution and may not be legal.

The alleged solution - giving MCS teachers five years to come into compliance - has survived its second reading.  But we must take it as encouraging that part of that discussion is about whether existing Shelby County employees have complied with this particular condition of employment.

Turns out that I need to acknowledge that I may have spoken too soon about how current, post-1986 SCS employees were circumventing the rule.  I assumed, apparently incorrectly, that employees who were not in compliance with the rule were being sneaky about it.

Today, we get word from the SCEA President, Sammy Jobe, that there are likely a fair number of teachers - he estimates 300 - that live outside of Shelby County.  [Update:  here's the latest article with SCS confirming that it knows of 169 teachers living outside of Shelby County.] That's one thing - that's a higher number than I would have guessed.  The other thing is that SCS employees were apparently allowed to move out of Shelby County with the knowledge and consent of SCS administrators (Update:  and possibly Board members, according to the latest article].  Jane Roberts reports on SCS teachers who advised administrators of impending moves out of Shelby County, and were apparently given the go-ahead.

This is a major problem.  Not only does it undermine the argument made by County Commissioner Terry Roland (and others) that if some people (SCS) have to abide by this rule, all people (MCS) should have to abide by this rule - but it raises the specter of discipline of administrators who willingly failed to require compliance with this residency requirement.  It's one thing for County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz to put out the call for a review of compliance in County departments - we're now likely looking at a need for verification of residency for ALL county employees.  It wouldn't be fair to single out SCS employees for across-the-board compliance with this disclosed and known condition of employement, when there may well be other County departments with similarly lax enforcement of this rule.

In the spirit of fairness, we probably should just grandfather the MCS employees in. 

And with regard to the County employees, SCS or not, who for some reason have fallen out of compliance with this known and disclosed condition of employment - I'm not convinced those folks should similarly be grandfathered in.  Those should be examined one by one, to determine if the failure to comply is the result of willful non-compliance (sneakiness in the form of failing to disclose the actual residential address) or of administrative laziness (sneakiness in the form of choosing to believe that the plain language of the condition of employment just doesn't apply to "me" and my boss said it was "okay").

If we're going to require people to follow the rules, we should actually require people to follow the rules. 

Legislature's Charter Authorizer Steamroller Revving Its Engine

As promised, state legislators that are beholden to the highly organized and very generous self-proclaimed "education reformers" are moving forward with efforts to remove decision-making power from local school boards who currently vote on which charter management organizations may operate in their communities.  The Shelby County School Board voted unanimously (with one recusal) to oppose a state charter authorizer because it wants to retain the ability to carefully vet the charter schools that are allowed to open in Memphis and Shelby County.

Here's a great, explanatory article on the proposed legislation - proposed legislation that was submitted yesterday that will be discussed today at 3 p.m.  It's clear that the legislators are trying to collect as much public input on this as possible before making any decisions, right?  Here's the Commercial Appeal's coverage last month on the expected legislation.

Of particular interest here in Shelby County is what appears to be a provision allowing a Local Education Authorizer (LEA) to apply directly to the state to operate charter schools.  This would probably allow the suburbs of Memphis to form charter management organizations to operate their own schools.  But really, that's a separate issue from the overall state charter authorizer issue.

Here's why proponents of this policy say it is needed:  (1) there's a conflict of interest for the local school boards when they make their charter decisions because charter schools are in enrollment competition for public school students, and (2) school boards are too slow in their process.

The truth is that nationally, less than 20% of charter schools perform better than their traditional public school counterparts.  Here's the exective summary from the famous 2009 CREDO report, based out of Stanford University.  It is generally accepted that Tennessee's charters schools do better than the national average.  I've written before on the 10 out of 23 Memphis charter schools studied that outperformed their MCS counterparts.  From that post:  "Charter school proponents will want to tell you that the important takeaway from the CREDO Memphis research is that just over 65% of Memphis charter schools perform as well as or better than traditional public schools (that's the 10 + 5 of 23). But just as important is the 57% of charter schools that, at best, only perform as well as traditional public schools, and the 35% that cannot manage to perform as well as Memphis public schools - Memphis public schools which are famously under-performing (that's the 5+8 out of 23, and the 8 of 23, respectively)."

Let's talk about why Tennessee's charter schools do better than the national average.  First we have to dispense with the notion that we're talking about Tennessee's charter schools.  We're really talking about Memphis' (+1 in Bartlett), Nashville's, and Chattanooga's charter schools.  Here's the map of Tennessee charter schools produced by the Tennessee Charter School Association.  So really what we're seeing is that Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga have actually done pretty well - better than the national average (a feat Tennessee is not exactly accustomed to) - in selecting which charter schools to approve.  If we were seeing a true conflict of interest, then we would see these school districts approve under-performing charters on purpose.  Instead, from Matthew Throckmorton, head of the Tennessee Charter School Association, we hear not that these three school districts have done well and represented Tennessee well by approving better-than-average charters chools - we hear that these districts are not approving enough charter schools.

So why would he think such a thing?  Mr. Throckmorton is in a tizzy because last year Memphis rejected 17 applications due to the financial impact on the district (the state granted the applications on appeal), and because this year, Nashville refused to follow orders and refused to allow Great Hearts, an Arizona charter management organization, to open a school in an affluent section of Nashville where schools are already performing well. 

These reformers toss around words like "accountabilty," but this is actually an attempt to narrow accountability.  Instead of being able to hold our elected school board members accountable for their decisions, you know, by voting, the proposal is to put the "accountability" on the unelected, appointed state Board of Education.  Who's on the state Board of Ed?  Here they are.  Who represents Memphis?  Hyde Foundation Executive Director Teresa Sloyan.  Anything odd about this?  Well, her employee Terence Patterson commented on the possibility of a state authorizer here, when he stated "Hyde does not take a position on legislation, 'proposed or otherwise,' Patterson said in a recent email. However, the foundation believes a statewide charter authorizer 'is a national best practice' and that its merits 'should certainly be evaluated in the context of Tennessee.'"  Interesting.

The Nashville Great Hearts debacle really deserves its own post, but I try not to go with straight invective.  The state's heavy-handed approach in that situation make it difficult to write a rational summary.  Clearly, the state has decided that as part of the plan to comply with the Race to the Top goals, it should actively recruit charter schools in other places to plant themselves in Tennessee.  Nashville rejected Great Hearts, a group that had been recruited by our state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.  The punishment for Nashville was a loss of $3.4 million in state funding.

So it's not like the state has no recourse for when local districts won't behave as the state has strongly suggested.  The Shelby County School Board, when it had the chance to stand up to the state's dictate that it allow 14 schools to open, chose not to.  It turns out that it had good reason to avoid that hornet's nest.  The state is not playing.

But it turns out that the state is not satisfied with just having the ability to grant appeals and withhold funding (a particularly devastating punishment).  Tennessee already, in effect, has a state charter authorizer due to the strong remedies the state has against local districts.  But it's just not enough.  If you want to speak against a particular charter group considered under the proposed state charter authorizer, you have to travel to Nashville to speak (if they'll let you) to the state Board of Ed.  Limiting public input, and shifting accountability out of the hands of voters.

What if we, as Tennessee citizens, disagree with a decision of the Tennessee Board of Ed.?  Well, you could write a note to the governor, when that Board member's term is sheduled to end, and ask the Governor not to renew the Board member.  And I guess that's it.  You can't email them because the state does not publish their email addresses.  If we, as Memphis citizens or Nashville citizens or Chattanooga citizens disagree with a decision by our local school boards, what can we do?  Vote.  Directly contact our board members by email, by phone, or when we see them in the grocery store.  All the usual ways we hold our elected officials accountable for the decisions they make and how they spend our money.  Accountability for state Board of Ed. members?  I don't think so.  This is about providing political cover for continuing expansion of charter schools, whether they are needed or not, and limiting public input into these decisions.

Why would I think the state legislature is interested in limiting public input on the expansion of charter schools via a state charter authorizer?  Because Representative Brooks (R - Knoxville) and Representative White (R- Memphis) are actually limiting public input TODAY on whether a state charter authorizer should be adopted in Tennessee.  Representative Brooks is the head of the Education Committee and Representative White heads up the sub-committee considering the bill today at 3 p.m.  Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools, a grassroots group out of Nashville opposed to vouchers and a state charter authorizer, has been trying to get time in front of the subcommittee all day - today, because they had no advance notice that the bill filed yesterday would be discussed today.  Rep. White says that it's Rep. Brooks' decision.  Rep. Brooks says to contact Rep. White.  You know, the usual runaround.  Big government grinding along.

Here are the email addresses for today's education sub-committee members.  You know, the elected officials, who might remove accountability from other elected officials and grant tha power to unelected appointees.  Feel free to cut and paste.,,,,,,,,

Let them know that you don't approve of any additional shenanigans.  Or ask them how much money they got from Michelle Rhee and Students First.  Let me know what they say!

Cornerstone Contrition & Cornerstone Test Results

Sometimes people read my blog and offer critical input - they'll comment on the post, they'll shoot me an email, they'll find me on twitter (just kidding, no one's found me on twitter).  I try to respond.  But sometimes I don't understand the comments.  As background, here's where I've written about Cornerstone in the past:  here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Over the weekend, someone commented on this post about Cornerstone's hiring of an accounting firm to look at its policies.  The comment is:  "Look at the school's results..."

Since the post was about the lack of transparency in Cornerstone's investigation of the serious allegation made against Cornerstone teachers and administrators, I wondered to myself if Cornerstone was continuing its PR practice of letting information trickling out about the results of the investigation.  Nope, the trickle has dried up.

Well, kind of.  Cornerstone Prep has begun its tour of contrition.  Here's the article titled "Principal Admits Cornerstone Made Mistakes; Wants Focus to Return to Kids".  Weird.  I thought the discussion was about the kids, and specifically, how Cornerstone Prep teachers and administrators treated them.  Let's not follow the red herrings that these complaints are about white teachers teaching black kids, or that this is just about a name change.  This has always been about the unfortunate combination of Cornerstone school policies and inexperienced teachers, and what that looks like in terms of classroom management and schoolwide discipline.

In this very generous "but I'm one of you" article, Cornerstone Principal Lisa Settle acknowledges three errors by Cornerstone and the remedies taken:  (1) the school did not do enough to contact parents and neighbors in spring and summer 2012 after the takeover announcement was made, but before school opened; (2) teachers no longer confiscate students' shoes; and (3) a new liberal bathroom break policy.  And possibly a fourth:  (4) the college and university pennants displayed around the school now include some historically black colleges and universities.

So I'm not sure what the commenter might mean when when he or she says look at the results in the context of a post on the investigation.  Now that Cornerstone has made some changes - which may include some expansion of the Board - we'll have to see what the results of those changes might be.  We can hope that it will mean that the children of Cornerstone experience an education where they feel valued just as much as kids in East Memphis and the suburbs, and that the "no excuses" bootcamp approach falls by the wayside.  But to call these changes in policy "results" would be premature.

Perhaps the commenter was attempting to direct my attention to Cornerstone Prep's press release on Saturday.  The second administration (of three each year) of the MAP test was completed in January, and the results are back.  I've mentioned the MAP test before in the context of teacher boycotts of the test in the Pacific Northwest.

The MAP test has been rolling out subject areas and grade levels for at least the last decade.  It's an expensive test, and the company that sells the test makes money based on the number of children taking the test and the training sessions for school and district staff.  The ASD has elected, without any oversight by any elected officials (except the governor), to buy the "subscriptions" necessary to administer this test - a test that most districts in the state cannot afford even if they want to use it, and a test that is not required by the state.  Some ASD charter schools have also elected to administer additional standardized tests during the course of the school year.  This is all in addition to the annual TCAP tests.  The amount of instructional time lost to the administrations of the various non-TCAP tests, in addition to the costs associated with the various standardized tests, may be a fertile area for some legislative oversight.  [clearing throat]

But back to our intrepid commenter.  I think he or she would want us to know that Cornerstone Prepsters scored very well on the most recent administration of the MAP test.

But first let's take a look at how Cornerstone has let us know about its MAP results.  Here's a screen capture from Cornerstone's press release on its website.  Here's a different screen capture from Cornerstone's homepage.  There are, of course, the smiling, happy children, who look just thrilled to have received the good news about their test results.  I notice that the kids are holding signs.  Signs with the logo of the school and statements about the test results.  The logo is in color.  Just on my quick internet search of cheap sign companies, it looks to me like the cost for two 2 foot by 3 or 4 foot vinyl signs, with color, with a customer-supplied logo run in the $150-$300 range (depending on vendor) plus shipping.  Someone on staff would have had to place the order, so at least some salary-based expenditure should also be counted.  Then there was the lost instructional time taken to gather the two separate groups of children to hold the signs.  Then there was the photographer, maybe a staffer with an iPhone, or maybe an actual photographer who just happened to be on site that day.  Or maybe a staffer was assigned the task to arrange for the photographer to be there.  Then the invoices would eventually come in, and would have to be processed, and a check would have to be cut.  I figure the full cost had to be somewhere north of $500.  For a couple of photographs.  It was a particularly nice touch, given the "difficulties" surrounding Cornerstone's administration of the takeover of Lester Elementary, to congratulate the parents before the Prepsters on one of the signs.  And exceptional touch with putting the "donate" button right next to the picture.  That's some good PR work working in tandem with the donor development department.

But we know the ASD doesn't skimp on self-promotion.  Here's a picture of students at Corning Achievement Elementary School standing in front of a stage with curtains.  On the curtains framing the stage across the top, you might notice the letters CAES.  As part of the ASD's takeover of Corning Elementary School, somehow the ASD found the funds to order new curtains with the letters of the ASD-version of the name of the school.  No quick internet search to find out how much that cost.  Gosh, and the measuring and ordering process by an ASD-paid staffer, then the installation, probably by professionals.  Perhaps our state legislators could find out, in some sort of itemized fashion, how much the ASD spent (you know, of our hard-earned tax dollars) on this decidedly non-instructional aspect of taking over schools.  [again, clearing throat]

So let's assume that Cornerstone's purchase of its signs was not with tax dollars.  Another possible source of funds would be Cornerstone's devoted philanthropic pool with non-taxable 501(c)(3) dollars.  No big deal.  Nothing to see here.  That's the price of self-promotion.

"But the scores!" our sage commenter doth protest!

The scores are good.  The company that sells the MAP test has priced itself out of really being a national test - as of 2010, researchers the U.S. Department of Education said that more than 10% of districts nationwide bought the test.  Compared to the other districts that bought this test, "Cornerstone Prep students outpaced the growth of 69 percent of the students in the national norm in Kindergarten and first grade and 98 percent of all students in grades two and three on the national test."  This is good.  The kids are making progress - needed progress. 

The substantially higher scores from the second and third graders are to be expected versus the scores of the kindergarteners and first graders.  Cornerstone and the ASD know that only Cornerstone's third graders will be tested this year.  It should be no surprise that they are the subject of ramped-up preparation.

However, Cornerstone, and for that matter, the ASD, have not issued the other data that would have come with the MAP test results.  We don't yet know how the students are progressing towards being on grade level.  The results released by Cornerstone only reflect the rate of growth of these students.  But we would hope to see the highest rates of growth by the children who are furthest behind.  If everyone makes one year's worth of growth in an academic year, but some kids start behind, those kids who are behind will never catch up - not even to grade level.  In order for the kids who are behind to catch up, they have to make more progress than the kids who only need to achieve one year's growth to stay on grade level.  So yes, the percentiles look good to me.  It's not really safe to assume that these tests actually measure what they purport to measure, but at minimum, the results released by Cornerstone do indicate some good progress for the kids Cornerstone is teaching.

In order for Cornerstone to meet the minimum requirements of the job that it signed up to do - to move Lester from the bottom 5% to the top 25% statewide in five years - it has to make that kind of progress.  It has to do better (not just grow faster, but do better) than 75% of the other districts statewide in order for the ASD to leapfrog over those districts - some of which are doing just fine - to land in the top quarter.  We'll see what the 3rd graders' TCAP results look like next summer to see if Cornerstone's celebration of meeting some part of the minimum requirements of its contract was appropriate and if the money spent on signs and the publication of photos of children holding those signs was an appropriate expenditure.