Who Is In Charge

School finance done despite Senate feud

The Senate Tuesday evening approved yet another version of the 2009-10 school finance act, but not before Republicans lambasted the Democratic majority for supporting an “irresponsible” bill. The House approved the compromise with less fuss, making the bill a done deal.

The latest chapter in the saga of Senate Bill 09-256 started Monday morning, when the Senate rejected the first conference committee report on Senate Bill 09-256, forcing House and Senate negotiators back to the table.

A few hours later, the conference committee approved a tweaked proposal for consideration by the two houses.

The key issue with the bill has been whether there should be a $110 million reduction in the overall increase in state aid to K-12 schools next year. The Senate proposed a $150 million cut, to help temporarily preserve the solvency of the State Education Fund. An early House version proposed a $110 million cut, but that was stripped on the floor.

The conference committee initially proposed giving school districts the $110 million – but to tell them it can’t be spent until Jan. 6, 2010, after the Joint Budget Committee has reviewed December revenue forecasts and decides if further state budget cuts are needed.

The revised proposal approved 4-2 by the committee Tuesday afternoon puts that date back to Jan. 29, 2009, and would designate the full legislature, not the JBC, as the body to decide whether the money should be held back.

The Senate spent half an hour Tuesday evening squabbling over the latest plan.

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, said, “Members, we changed nothing. All we did was move the date.”

King, who warned that not trimming the K-12 increases would lead to serious higher education cuts in 2010-11, moved to stick to the original Senate version but lost that motion.

Other Republicans picked up King’s song, but to no avail. The Senate voted 20-15 to adopt the second conference committee report, and then 21-14 to readopt the bill. Lame-duck Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, voted against the committee report but for the bill. He then asked his name be removed as a cosponsor. Several reform-oriented aspects of the original bill had Groff’s backing, but most didn’t survive once the bill reached this House.

As it settled out, the bill is pretty much the House’s creation, and representatives approved the second conference committee report.

Representatives had voted 65-0 Monday evening to repass the original compromise.

The committee proposal still includes funding for a boarding school for at-risk students – if a Department of Education study decides it’s a workable idea and comes up with a plan – and gives charter schools a small victory on facilities funding. The proposal accepts the House’s modest proposal for at-risk incentive funding (in contrast to the Senate’s original, expansive plan) and wouldn’t tinker with school funding formulas, which the original Senate version did, to the advantage of some school districts and the disadvantage of others.

The “escrow” proposal for the $110 million has a number of attractions for the legislature and advocacy groups interested in the debate.

– It lets the legislature avoid for now the issue of possibly violating Amendment 23 by trimming the increase in overall education spending. But, it also gives the legislature the option of taking back the money later – before it’s been spent – if the state’s revenue situation deteriorates further.

– It gives school districts the full amount of funding they feel A23 calls for – but allows them to keep that money off the table when setting or negotiating salaries for next school year. (Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver and conference committee chair, made clear during the conference committee meeting, “Districts should be on warning … districts should not put this in employment contracts.”

The committee proposal also includes a provision that would require the $5 million in charter school facilities funding be paid in 12 installments. There’s been endless debate over that issue since the $10 million in charter facilities funding originally in the 2008-09 budget was cut earlier this session.

The legislature could have to face further cuts, perhaps including in school spending, well before next January. The next formal state revenue forecast will be issued in late May, and it’s widely felt that bad numbers could trigger the need for a special legislative session this summer to cut the budget further.

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.