Who Is In Charge

Lobato 9/2: A long chapter closes

Five weeks of testimony and uncounted documents got summed up in less than three hours of lawyers’ speeches Friday as the Lobato v. State trial wound up.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe next phase of the case is in the hands of Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport, who will decide on the issue of whether the state school finance system fails to meet constitutional requirements and if the legislature should be ordered to come up with a new one.

The end of the trial marks one more step in the lawsuit’s long odyssey, which began with filing in 2005. Since then the case has been through another Denver judge, the Colorado Court of Appeals and the Colorado Supreme Court.

The closing statements by four lawyers capped a trial that has combined mountains of information, emotion, boredom, occasional tension between lawyers, confident witnesses and stressed witnesses and even Skype video testimony.

The case “is about a failing system that is unconstitutional,” said plaintiffs’ lawyer Kenzo Kawanabe in closing. Defense lawyer Jonathan Fero countered that the plaintiffs are seeking an “education utopia” that isn’t required by the constitution.

What they said

Kenzo Kawanabe
Kenzo Kawanabe

Kenzo KawanabeLawyer for plaintiff parents and school districts

Using PowerPoint slides, Kawanabe talked through the plaintiffs’ key points, including that the finance system “has no rational basis” and doesn’t meet the constitution’s requirement that the legislature establish a “thorough and uniform” system. He also argued that the system violates another constitutional section that guarantees local control of schools because districts have to use local funds to cover basic costs that should be covered by the state.

Kawanabe recapped some of the witness testimony about budget cuts and student achievement challenges, praising the superintendents who were brave enough “to describe a failing Colorado education system.

“They know what works” to improve student achievement, he said. “They don’t have the resources, they don’t have the funds to apply what works.”

He said state witnesses “ignore their failures.”

Turning to the cost of recent education reforms, a key part of the plaintiffs’ case, Kawanabe reminded the judge, “These are requirement, they are not aspirations” and that the state has provided little money to fund them.

Closing, Kawanabe said he case “is for the sake of our children, this is for the sake of our constitutional democracy, this is for the sake of our state.”

David HinojosaLawyer for a second group of parents in four districts

David Hinojosa
David Hinojosa

Hinojosa, a lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, represents families in four low-income districts, Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan.

“This case is about lost opportunities” for low-income children and English language learners, he said. In addition to supporting the plaintiffs’ main constitutional claims, the MALDEF case also has focused on the inadequacy of funding for programs that help poor, ELL and special needs students.

“They can achieve if provided appropriate education opportunities,” he said.

Hinojosa argued that the legislature already has defined “thorough and uniform” by passing the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, with its new standards and tests; the 2009 accountability system, which rates districts and schools based primarily on test scores, and the 2010 educator effectiveness law, which ties teacher evaluations partly to student test score growth.

State witnesses argue education reforms mean “there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Hinojosa said. “Unfortunately that’s the light of a train coming in the opposite direction.”

Jonathan FeroAssistant attorney general representing the state

Johathan Fero
Johathan Fero

Fero, wearing his signature bow tie, made the shortest closing, taking a bit less than half of his allotted hour. Speaking smoothly from notes, he didn’t use visual aids.

The plaintiffs “haven’t got as much as they want from the legislature and the voters so they’ve come to your courtroom.” He argued, “neither group of plaintiffs have met this burden” of proving that the school finance system has no rational relationship to the constitutional requirements.

“What plaintiffs and plaintiff-intevenors really want is an education utopia” and believe an education system can’t be rational unless it solves social problems.

“This utopia – the constitution just doesn’t require it.”

He argued that educational successes and failures aren’t the result of state funding but of district choices.

“Colorado has gotten a lot of bang for its buck,” he said, closing by saying to Rappaport, “We ask you not to second guess the legislature.”

Kathleen GebhardtLawyer for first group of plaintiffs

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

Gebhardt, a moving force behind lawsuit since before it was filed, tag-teamed rebuttal arguments with Kawanabe and spoke last.

“This is not a case about a child playing one parent off another,” she said, referring to the defense argument about plaintiffs asking the courts for what the legislature didn’t give.

“This is a case about the constitutional rights of Colorado’s 800,000 school children.”

She argued, “The state misstates the law. … The pertinent issue is whether there is a rational relationship between the funding system set up by the legislature and the [education] requirements imposed by the legislature.

“These standards are not optional. … Districts have to comply, and there are consequences for failing to comply.”

She continued that Colorado has a system “that ratchets up the standards, ratchets up the expectations and diminishes the resources.”

Gebhardt concluded her closing by showing a fast-motion version of a video compiled by Stefan Walsh, a Center High School graduate. The video shows conditions in various districts around the state. (See this story for more information about the video and a player to view it.)

Cleanup testimony

State Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs
Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs

Friday morning saw testimony by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, the last witness for the state.

King defended the process by which the legislature considers the school finance bill every year and said, “That’s why I think the General Assembly is the one that ought to do the school finance act,” not the courts.

“The system is not perfect [but] I think the General Assembly has come together and worked very diligently … to provide a good system of schools for our kids.”

The plaintiffs also called a succession of witnesses to rebut various assertions by state witnesses. All had testified before except former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver.

Asked if he thought state schools were thorough and uniform, Romanoff said, “I do have an opinion. … My opinion is that we have not met our constitutional obligation. … It’s difficult to reach any other conclusion.”

Highlights of the last day

TONE: There was a last-day-of-school air in the courtroom after things wrapped up, with lawyers, assistants, plaintiffs, families and friends clustered in groups chatting and smiling in relief at the end of the long trial.

QUOTE: “They call me the amendment king.” – Sen. Keith King, referring to the 85 education bills and “hundreds” of amendments he’s proposed during his career in both the House and Senate. (True story – people at the Capitol do call him the “Amendment King.”)

MANEUVERING: King kept tripping over the ban on talking about the TABOR Amendment and other state spending (explanation here). Plaintiff’s lawyers had to keep reminding him. “I’ll try to be good,” he said.

DOCUMENTS: If you want some historical insight into how the current school finance system got started, read the report of the 1993 legislative study committee that studied school finance and whose work led to the current law. Refresh your memory on what was said during the trial with the stories in our Lobato archive.

SEEN: Except for the participants, the courtroom has been pretty empty for most days of the trial. The excruciatingly uncomfortable wooden pews were mostly filled Friday, primarily with some plaintiffs, friends and relatives of lawyers and a scattering of education types.

WHAT’S NEXT: Lawyers in the case have 45 days to submit what are called proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law – essentially the ruling they’d like the judge to issue. The judge, or course, isn’t bound by those and doesn’t have a deadline for ruling.

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.