Who Is In Charge

Lawmakers spar over unions

Partisan differences about public employee unions surfaced Thursday during a House committee hearing on House Bill 11-1007, which would allow classified employees at Mesa State College in Grand Junction to opt out of the state personnel system.

The bill passed to the floor on a 7-6 vote by the House Economic and Business Development Committee, but not until after two hours of testimony and questions that at times highlighted the antipathy of some Republican lawmakers to public employee unions.

Colorado CapitolScott Wasserman, a lobbyist for the state employee group Colorado WINS, bore some of the brunt of GOP questioning, with members asking him about use of member dues to fund political contributions.

Later, when questioning Mesa employee Tom Orrell, Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, referred to “Colorado Loses” and asked Orrell if the group had paid his travel expenses to Denver.

Orrell said no. He opposed the bill and said, “There is intense disagreement among classified staff about this bill.” Other Mesa employees testified in favor of the measure.

Some conservative GOP legislators have been highly critical of state employee groups ever since former Gov. Bill Ritter signed an executive order giving them a greater role, but not full union rights.

Mesa President Tim Foster said the idea of letting employees choose their system came from the college’s classified employees council.

If passed, the bill would allow classified employees to hold an election on whether they wanted to withdraw from the state system. If that was approved, individual employees could choose to stay with the state system or become exempt employees under the college’s own personnel system. Future employees would not have that choice and would become part of the college system.

PERA road show continues

This is the time of year when executives of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association make the rounds of key legislative committees, updating lawmakers on the system’s finances and other issues.

On Thursday it was the turn of the House and Senate finance committees to get the Power Point presentation by PERA Executive Director Meredith Williams.

Public Employees' Retirement Association headquarters in Denver.

Williams got questions from both Republicans and Democrats about PERA’s 30-year plan to reach financial solvency, particularly the plan’s assumption that system investments will yield an average 8 percent return over that time period. The PERA board reviews the expected rate of return every year.

Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, wanted to know the details of the projections that led the PERA board to adopt the 8 percent assumption for 2011. Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, asked if retiree benefits would have to be reduced if the 8 percent assumption is scaled back.

Williams circled around that question, saying that “will require an increase in revenues flowing to the system or a decrease in benefit liabilities,” adding that “reducing benefit liabilities is a fairly difficult undertaking” because of legal issues.

PERA and the state are facing legal issues over Senate Bill 10-001, the pension rescue legislation passed last year. A key feature of the law reduced retiree cost-of-living adjustments to 0 last year and to 2 percent this year. The adjustments had been 3.5 percent, and a group of retirees have sued, claiming the change violates the contracts clauses of both the federal and state constitutions.

Greg Smith, PERA general counsel, told lawmakers that the case is moving slowly. He noted trial is set for February 2012 and that it “probably will be three to five years realistically to get a resolution from the [state] Supreme Court.”

Once it is decided, “This is going to be a very significant case from a nationwide perspective,” Smith said.

The PERA officials told the committee that investments had a 17 percent rate of return in 2009 and will have higher than 8 percent for 2010, after last year’s earning are finally calculated next spring.

See this story for what PERA execs told the JBC on Jan. 5 and this presentation from PERA.

In other news

Another piece of charter school legislation, House Bill 11-1089, was introduced in the House Thursday. The bill would expands the types of federal grants for which a charter school can apply without the permission of its local school board, but schools couldn’t apply for grants made available under federal special education law. The State Charter School Institute would be the oversight agency.

The bill would expand a 2010 law that gave charters more freedom to apply for grants.

The bill has 19 Republican sponsors, most of them in the House, Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, are the prime sponsors.

The Senate Education Committee voted 8-0 to pass both Senate Bill 11-029 and Senate Joint Resolution 11-004. The bill would change reporting and transparency requirements for the State Land Board, and the resolution would add the House and Senate education committees to the list of legislative panels to which the board reports.

The board manages state school trust lands, which provides funds for the Build Excellent Schools Today construction program and a small amount of money for general state school support. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is the main promoter of the measures, which are supported by the land board.

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

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.