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.

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