Who Is In Charge

Make room for another study

The calendar for the next few months already is packed with education finance studies, but it looks like one more is going to be added to the list.

David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Education, is pushing for an 18-month project to craft a new master plan for the state’s colleges and universities. While finance wouldn’t be the sole focus of the project, the shaky condition of college funding is one impetus for the study.

Several other studies are already in progress, including:

The legislative Interim Committee to Study School Finance, which will meet this summer and fall and prepare recommendations for the 2010 legislative session. (Some members have suggested aspects of college funding ought to be part of their work.)

The legislative Long-term Fiscal Stability Commission, which is assigned to study Colorado’s overall revenue picture and constitutional constraints. Since K-12 and college spending account for just over half of annual state general fund spending, education unavoidably will be a big factor in this group’s discussions. It’s on the same time schedule as the other school finance committee.

Four committees are expected to convene shortly to advise Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien’s office on preparation of Colorado’s application for Race to the Top federal stimulus funds. This will be a summer-only project, because the state’s Race application will be due late summer or early fall. Even if Colorado is successful, money may not be awarded until the spring of 2010.

A study will begin later this year of the costs involved in implementing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. That’s the 2008 overhaul of the education system that calls for descriptions of school and postsecondary/workforce readiness, new K-12 content standards, new statewide tests and alignment of the K-12 and postsecondary systems. The first part of this study is due next March, with the final report finished by October 2010. (This paid study will be done by an outside contractor.)

And, the P-20 Education Coordinating Council is scheduled to revive sometime this summer. The panel is on hiatus during legislative sessions but goes back to work later after receiving its annual “assignment” from Gov. Bill Ritter. It’s expected the council will have a lighter-than-usual load of work, at least until late fall, to avoid distracting from the Race to the Top effort.

All of the studying presumably will give the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions plenty to think about – and to sort out, since there likely will be overlap and conflict.

Skaggs told EdNews he began thinking a few months ago about a new higher education master plan, prompted by several things, including:

A state law that directs the Colorado Commission on Higher Education to develop a master plan. But, the last one was done 10 years ago and, as a Skaggs memo to the commission dryly notes, “Conditions facing higher education have change substantially in the last decade.” (Among other things, two economic downturns and resulting state financial crises in the last decade have decimated state financial support for colleges.)

A recent report detailing the failings of the state College Opportunity Fund stipends.

The fact that the department already is doing some big-picture planning thanks to the Lumina Foundation’s Making Opportunity Affordable grant program, which focuses on expanding access to higher education.

The state financial crisis, which left college funding for 2009-10 frozen at 2008-09 levels. That level of support was patched together only with the help of federal stimulus funds, which will run out after the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Skaggs stresses the master plan won’t be only about money, but rather about “how higher education serves the state’s purposes and gets us where we need to be … that should be the driver of the need for money.” (For more detail on Skaggs’ thinking, see this memo.)

The plan, at least for now, is to hold a one-day conference of K-12 and college educators, business leaders, the governor, legislators and others in late July or early August. That meeting would decide on goals, objectives and the process for the master plan, and after that working groups would develop various pieces. The goal is for the commission to adopt a plan in December 2010 for submission to the 2011 legislature.

In anticipation of the master plan, CCHE last week approved Skaggs’ suggestion to automatically renew most college performance contracts, which would have expired this year.

The idea already has sparked lively discussion, particularly among college presidents, with whom Skaggs met the week of May 24. “I presented it with interesting results,” Skaggs told CCHE members on June 4. “There was some pushback.”

Some presidents, faced with falling off a financial cliff in July 2011, feel an 18-month study will take too long and that action on college funding needs to be taken earlier in 2010.

University of Northern Colorado President Kay Norton explained the presidents’ point of view to commissioners at the same meeting. “It is not that the leaders of the public higher education institutions are against planning … I think we all appreciate the intent.” Norton noted there was a higher ed summit two years ago that presidents didn’t think accomplished much. And, “the other major element is the time involved … we have to prepare for the cliff. … We know there will be intense pressure and need in the 2010 session” to address campus financial needs.

Several college presidents this year backed an unsuccessful bill that would have allowed college boards to set their own tuition rates and administer financial aid as they chose. (Tuition ceilings currently are set by the legislature, and the DHE allocates state financial aid.) Ritter opposed the bill, groundwork hadn’t been laid with legislators and it went nowhere. Neither did a related plan to allow community and some four-year colleges to raise revenue from property taxes.

Skaggs told EdNews “the governor is disinclined to raise that [tuition flexibility] next session,” adding that “the governor is of the mind that this is not the time to go laissez faire on tuition.” (Ritter’s up for re-election in November 2010.)

All this studying eventually will filter down to the 2010 and 2011 legislative sessions, and perhaps to voters in November 2011.

State political and education leaders increasingly feel that is the appropriate time to propose a constitutional amendment or amendments to alter the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, Amendment 23 and other constitutional requirements, and/or to propose new revenue sources for education and other state programs.

The state’s financial clock is ticking because 2011 is when Referendum C (the five-year window during which the state can spend “extra” revenues under TABOR), one factor in Amendment 23 (the multi-part formula requiring annual increases in K-12 spending) and federal stimulus money all expire.

Despite that, there appears to be less interest in going to voters in November 2010, partly because the ballot will be crowded with the contests for governor and U.S. senator, most legislative seats and who-knows-how-many other ballot measures.

Some legislators believe a Colorado Supreme Court decision earlier this year allows them to raise revenue without voter approval by repealing existing tax exemptions, and that tactic is expected to at least be debated in 2010 as an alternative to asking voters for money.

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.