Who Is In Charge

Senate Ed gets into the weeds

Thursday roundup
Higher ed bills advance
For the record

The Senate Education Committee Thursday gave 8-0 approval to the least-liked bill of the session, House Bill 10-1369.

That’s the 2010-11 school finance bill, which would cut state support of education by 6.3 percent, a reduction that seems unavoidable because of the state’s weak revenue picture.

Committee members echoed the unhappy comments made earlier as the bill went through the House:

“I think someone needs to say it’s a sad day when we’re cutting education,” said chair Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, who’s Senate prime sponsor of the measure.

“This is the most horrible aye [vote] I’ve ever cast,” said vice chair Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, never one to hide her feelings.

“This is criminal in many respects,” sighed Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder.

The comments came as the committee voted. For most of the meeting before that, panel members delved more into the complex details of the bill than did their counterparts in the House.

One seemingly minor provision got special attention. A primary goal of the bill is ensuring that all districts receive an equal percentage cut – the 6.3 percent.

But a handful of the state’s 178 school districts – seven, to be exact – have higher-than-average local revenues and therefore receive relatively small amounts of state aid. As currently written, HB 10-1369 would force those districts to temporarily reduce local revenue in order to realize overall cuts of 6.3 percent.

(The districts are Clear Creek, West Grand, Gunnison, Estes Park, Park, Aspen and Summit.)

That idea unsettled some committee members, because doing that would effectively mean taking away extra revenue that local district voters had approved in the form of mill levy overrides.

“I find this really distasteful,” said Bacon.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, also criticized the forced cut for the seven districts.

“You shouldn’t be surprised that we have to do amazing and weird things,” given the financial situation, quipped Hudak.

Members kicked around various ideas for changing the way the seven districts should take their cuts but reached no agreement except to work on an amendment for consideration when the bill is up for preliminary Senate floor consideration.

The committee also was reminded by a witness of a fact that’s often forgotten in the school finance discussion – school districts have bigger problems than just loss of state aid.

Wil Hatcher, former chief financial officer of the Academy 20 district in Colorado Springs, said that even as revenue is being cut, “We still have this continued mandate on the spending side” – pensions contributions, utilities costs and health insurance. “It’s a double impact in some school districts,” said Hatcher, because increases in those fixed costs sometimes are the same amount as cuts in state aid. (Hatcher’s affiliation was corrected on March 26.)

The committee also spent some time sorting through just exactly what the cuts total, a subject of considerable confusion in many quarters.

HB 10-1369 proposes a floor of $5.44 million in school total program funding for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, meaning state support couldn’t drop below that. Total program funding is the total of state aid and local revenues. (Even if HB 10-1369 is passed this year, the 2011 legislature could change the floor.)

That amount compares to $5.7 billion in 2009-10 total program approved by the 2009 legislature. That was reduced to $5.55 million by legislative action earlier this session.

Legislative economists estimate that full total program funding in 2010-11 would be $5.8 if the full Amendment 23 formula was applied.

Legislative staff fiscal note explaining HB 10-1369

Higher education bills advance

The House Education Committee Thursday unanimously approved three higher education bills:

• Senate Bill 10-079, which would allow Mesa State College to offer a limited number of graduate degrees. The college wants to offer nursing, education and criminal justice graduate degrees to meet local workforce needs. The bill has been on a fast track through the legislature, despite initial concern by the Department of Higher Education that such expansion should be delayed until after the higher ed strategic plan is finished.

• Senate Bill 10-088, which would allow community college students to pursue associate’s degrees with specific academic “designations,” similar to majors. The theory behind this bill is that allowing students to focus early on their interests will improve retention and make it easier for students to move on to four-year colleges. The bill, however, limits the number of designations that can be offered.

• Senate Bill 10-108, which would allow private and proprietary colleges to participate if they chose in the system of common core courses used by state colleges. Common core courses are transferrable between colleges. Private colleges would have to pay fees to cover the costs of course review. According to previous testimony, Colorado Technical University in Colorado Springs is the institution most interested in this.

The committee also approved Senate Bill 10-111, which makes various changes in law governing the Charter School Institute, including allowing institute-governed charter schools to contract for services with boards of cooperative education services.

For the record

The full Senate gave preliminary approval to House Bill 10-HB 1183, which would authorize a study of alternative school finance methods, and House Bill 10-1026, which would create a grant-funded incentive program for quality early childhood programs.

The House gave preliminary approval to Senate Bill 10-154, which changes accreditation rules for alternative schools, which serve very high percentages of at-risk students.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to bill texts and status information.

New Leadership

Coaching will be key as Griffin adds two from Memphis iZone to state district team

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin greets Alethea Henry (right) at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

After more than 20 years in traditional Memphis schools, Alethea Henry is making the leap to the state’s controversial turnaround district and will bring with her lessons learned from Shelby County Schools’ heralded Innovation Zone.

But Henry is clear that her switch in allegiance is mostly to follow the iZone’s former leader and new Achievement School District chief – Sharon Griffin. Shelby County Schools iZone is a group of 24 low-performing schools within Memphis’ traditional district that won praise for improving student test scores under Griffin.

“I decided to join the ASD…primarily because of the opportunity to serve under the awesome leadership and tutelage of Dr. Sharon Griffin,” said Henry, who is now in charge of support teams for the state district. “My tenure in the iZone afforded me the opportunity to learn valuable lessons. Fortunately, I have been able to apply those lessons learned in my new role with ASD.”

ASD leadership team and salaries

  • Sharon Griffin, ASD chief, $180,000
  • Tonye Smith McBride, chief of school improvement/accountability, $125,004
  • Lisa Settle, chief of operations and culture/climate, $114,996
  • Robert White, chief of communications/external affairs, $114,996
  • Alethea Henry, lead instructional support director, $105,000

Tonye Smith McBride is also joining the state district’s leadership team after decades in Memphis’ traditional district. McBride and Henry coached iZone principals and educators alongside Griffin. Appointing two people with experience coaching administrators offers a clue to Griffin’s strategy of working with teachers and principals to improve student performance.

Schools in the iZone have outpaced progress of those run by the state, which have struggled to show academic improvement. The Achievement School District – now comprising 30 schools, most of them in Memphis – was launched in 2012 to transform the state’s worst performing schools by converting them to charter schools.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and Griffin have said that the state district needs more consistency from school to school, and McBride will lead the charge to share best practices across charter operators.

“As part of the iZone, I served as a principal, instructional leadership director and eventually director of school improvement and accountability for the entirety of SCS,” McBride said. “When you combine all of these together, the work is very much the same…just lots more of it.”

McBride said her new role will focus on ensuring charter operators are following federal and state laws. Similar to her previous roles in Shelby County, McBride will oversee the district’s Special Education team, support career and technical education, and create system-wide “practices to meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of our students.”

McBride coached dozens of iZone principals – including the principal of Trezevant High School, a school within the iZone where reports of improper grade changing launched an ongoing investigation within Shelby County high schools. McBride was not implicated in grade changing and a team of outside investigators found no evidence that she was involved in any other wrongdoing.

Griffin told Chalkbeat she’s confident McBride is up for the steep challenge of improving state-run schools. Recent test scores remain far below the statewide average and dropped in high school.

“When she was a principal, Chief McBride knew how to take a school from a low-performing school to the next phase,” Griffin said.

For Henry, some of her lessons learned include establishing deep support for teachers, something Griffin said educators within the state district have told her was lacking. Henry will focus on improving teacher training and is in charge of creating a strategic plan for “addressing instructional needs across the entire ASD portfolio,” she said.

“Just like every child is different, so are teachers and schools,” Henry said. “Support must be intentional and meet the unique needs of the people being supported. It is no one’s job to ‘fix’ teachers.”

The remaining team members, Robert White and Lisa Settle, have been in state-run leadership for years, and Griffin said she was excited for the context and experience they will bring.

White will continue to work on bettering the district’s historically stormy relationship with its communities – and will focus on telling the district’s story of a new era under Griffin’s leadership.

Settle has been with the turnaround district since the beginning. She moved from the position of chief performance officer, where she made sure charter operators followed federal and state rules, to the chief of operations and culture/climate. Griffin said Settle will now oversee the district’s relationship with Shelby County Schools and focus on building maintenance. Many of the achievement district’s school buildings are leased from Shelby County Schools and need repair.

“I’m still with the district because we aren’t finished – there’s work still to do,” Settle said. “One thing that is changing now is the way we view support needed. We were an authorizer of charter schools, and we still are, but there are traditional district functions we need to provide like a focus on academics, and support around building maintenance.”

Still missing from Griffin’s team is a second in command. When Griffin was hired in April, the state Department of Education announced that it would also “soon add a leader to oversee the development and support of high-quality public charter schools, and this role will work closely with Dr. Griffin to support the portfolio of charter operators serving schools in the Achievement School District.”

PHOTO: (Mark Weber, The Commercial Appeal)
Achievement School District new chief Sharon Griffin chats with students at Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary on the first day of school.

Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the department, said the right person hasn’t been found for the role yet, and they are still actively seeking candidates.

Griffin acknowledged that the current team will have to do more with less. A year ago, more than half of 59 central office staff positions were slashed to cut costs, and a new leadership team was brought in under then-superintendent Malika Anderson. Griffin’s team of four is significantly smaller than that of Anderson.

“I believe we have the right people in place and skill set to impact student achievement,” Griffin said. “But there is added responsibility for us because our team is smaller.”

Verna Ruffin, the turnaround district’s chief academic officer, was recently hired as superintendent of a school district in Waterbury, Connecticut, White said. Six former members of central office staff took positions with charter operators within the turnaround district or pursued other opportunities after the restructure last year.

Griffin said now that the new team is in place, they can get to work.

“I have to make some changes while hitting the ground,” Griffin said. “I needed people who understood the context and could get things done.”

pushing back

McQueen calls superintendents’ request to pause state testing ‘illegal and inconsistent with our values’

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen pens a letter in response to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

Tennessee’s education chief is pushing back after leaders of the state’s two largest school districts asked for an indefinite break from standardized testing.

“Pausing a state assessment would be both illegal and inconsistent with our values as a state,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen wrote in an Aug. 13 letter emailed to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Shawn Joseph.

“It would turn our back on the students we most need to ensure receive a world-class education.”

Hopson said that Joseph sent their letter on Aug. 3 both electronically and through the mail to outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam and McQueen declaring “no confidence” in the troubled state test, TNReady.

However, McQueen wrote that the state has still not received that letter. “Let me begin by sharing my disappointment that the letter you addressed to Governor Haslam and me has been shared widely in the media but has yet to actually be shared with the Governor or me,” she said in the letter.

McQueen emphasized that an annual statewide assessment is required by state and federal law and that without it, the state would have a harder time monitoring the progress of vulnerable students.

“Historically, it has been the students from racial and ethnic minorities, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English learners who have been most ignored and underserved by our schools when we have not had a statewide assessment that accurately measures student performance, or when we have not used the same measuring stick for all kids,” she wrote.

Hopson told Chalkbeat that McQueen’s letter was the first he had heard from the commissioner since their letter was sent. Joseph was not immediately available for comment on Monday.

The Aug. 3 letter from the two superintendents triggered a chain of responses. A group of civil rights leaders penned a letter last week urging the state to press on with standardized testing, while the school board of Knox County Schools voted to draft a letter expressing no confidence in the state Department of Education.

The state has struggled to administer TNReady cleanly since its failed online rollout in 2016, prompting McQueen to cancel most testing that year and fire its testing company. Except for scattered scoring problems, the next year went better under new vendor Questar and mostly paper-and-pencil testing materials.

But this spring, the return to computerized exams for older students was fraught with disruptions and spurred the Legislature to order that the results not be used against students or teachers.

For the upcoming school year, the state has hired an additional testing company to assist Questar, and McQueen has slowed the switch to computerized exams so that only high school students will test online. In addition, the state Department of Education has recruited 37 teachers and testing coordinators to become TNReady ambassadors, tasked with offering on-the-ground feedback and advice to the state and its vendors to improve the testing experience.

“It is important to note that Tennessee educators have been engaged extensively in the development of TNReady,” McQueen wrote in her Aug. 13 letter. “Tennessee teachers help to write questions, design the test, edit questions and forms, and review and finalize our state assessment.”

McQueen also addressed part of the superintendents’ letter that said districts spent “tens of millions of dollars” investing in new technology to prepare for online testing that didn’t work. Both Hopson and Joseph’s districts are suing the state over the adequacy of education funding.

McQueen said the state’s expectation was that technology would not be purchased “simply to take a test” and that there was no need for special technology to take TNReady.

“To suggest that an investment in technology is limited to online testing shows a misunderstanding of the increasing role of technology in education and undervalues the great work many of your teachers have done to enhance their teaching through technology,” she wrote.

Read McQueen’s letter to the superintendents in full below: