Party of Seven

Colorado state board and education commissioner held a secret meeting — but accomplished nothing

On the first Wednesday in March, six of the seven members of the State Board of Education met for a private dinner with the man who was their unanimous pick for education commissioner.

Rich Crandall told them he needed direction. The former Arizona lawmaker and businessman, who briefly served as education chief in Wyoming, had been getting conflicting guidance from board members, he later told Chalkbeat.

Board chairman Steve Durham suggested dinner at the University Club, where the Republican lobbyist from Colorado Springs is a member.

The gathering didn’t go as well as anyone had hoped. Over the course of two hours, board members aired grievances about their pet-peeve education policies and made little headway identifying priorities from a laundry list Crandall proposed as a starting point, according to interviews with participants and public records obtained by Chalkbeat.

Under Colorado open meetings law, meetings of two or more members of state public bodies must be open to the public. But the board issued no public notice and took no minutes, officials said.

In an interview, Durham portrayed the meeting as a social gathering and thus not subject to the state’s open meetings law. But records obtained by Chalkbeat show a detailed discussion was planned to discuss setting key education policy priorities. A department of education spokeswoman acknowledged that the meeting violated state law.

As a result of questions raised by Chalkbeat, board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, called on the board to review the law and to organize a public retreat to discuss broader education policy and how the board should proceed.

Disclosure of the tensions before and after the March meeting shed more light on Crandall’s brief relationship with the board. Some observers believed the board coalescing on hiring Crandall in December was a turning point after a divisive period.

But Crandall resigned in mid-May. His departure came after a string of resignations by top department officials and criticism that he didn’t give clear direction to staff. Crandall agreed to resign “in lieu of termination” and cite personal reasons, according to a settlement agreement.

Now, the state is again without a chief schools officer as Colorado faces critical decisions about issues ranging from how to respond to changes brought by a new federal education law to taking action against schools that are failing low-income students.

Katy Anthes, the department’s chief of staff, is serving as interim commissioner. The board has not signaled when it will begin a search for a permanent commissioner.

‘A social opportunity’

By the time Crandall had asked for clearer marching orders, he had already met with almost every member of the State Board individually — in some cases, two or three times.

Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.
PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.

Before the dinner, Crandall sent board members a list of some 25 education topics ranging from accountability to school choice to the nation’s new federal law, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request. He asked board members to arrive with the list printed and four to five topics circled.

“I am hoping this list spurs a conversation toward areas we may want to focus on the next one to three years,” he wrote.

He also asked board members to be prepared to answer the question: What is the “appropriate outcome for a K-12 education?”

“This will help drive our work at the Department,” Crandall wrote.

Durham denied that topics listed in the email were discussed.

“It was just a social opportunity to get to know the commissioner a little better,” Durham said.

But other board members acknowledged that items on the list, as well as others, were discussed in broad terms.

Colorado’s open meeting law requires that when two or more state elected officials meet to discuss matters related to their policy making function, the public must be notified at least 24 hours in advance. Minutes are also to be kept. Neither happened with the March meeting.

“This is a discussion that should have taken place at a public meeting,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a group of journalists, organizations and individuals promoting transparency. (Chalkbeat is a member of the coalition.)

There are exceptions to the state’s open meeting law. Chief among them is a “chance meeting or social gathering at which discussion of public business is not the central purpose.”

“If it truly was a social gathering and they were there to talk about their summer vacation plans or the presidential election, then that’s fine,” Roberts said. “But if it’s a meeting where they talk about their own policy goals, even if it’s at a 30,000-foot-view level, then it’s an open meeting.”

Crandall, in an interview, didn’t dispute the meeting should have been public. When asked why the public wasn’t notified of the meeting, he said it wasn’t his responsibility.

“The board has its own people,” he said, referring to board staff.

Colorado Department of Education spokeswoman Dana Smith said the meeting violated state law.

“Even though the primary purpose was social, with the commissioner’s subjects he wanted to talk about, we should have noticed the meeting,” Smith said in an interview.

She described it as an oversight and pledged that the department would ensure it does not happen again.

‘Little accomplished’

Crandall and board members agree that little came into focus that evening.

Steve Durham
PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham

“There was very little accomplished that night as far as a strategic plan for the state board of education,” Crandall said. “It was more board members sharing their displeasure with education topics like Common Core, turnaround efforts, PARCC (state tests). I could give you a long list.”

Republican Deb Scheffel of Parker remembers the evening being more cordial.

“We talked broadly about him coming to Colorado and the role of the commissioner, about a lot of issues we’re dealing with,” she said. “I’m sure we did talk about issues — generally speaking, about what is Colorado facing, where are right now with education reform. But those are broad topics.”

Goff, of Arvada, said Crandall’s list was daunting.

“We tried to make a start on this list,” she said. “But it’s a huge list. Rich said he had some things on his mind he wanted to talk about. I’m gonna say it — we didn’t make a lot of headway with what I would interpret as productive progress.”

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder had a prior engagement and did not attend the meeting.

‘Easier to suggest now’

As governing boards change hands, members often take time to step back and hold retreats to discuss strategic vision.

Other times, like in the case of the Denver school board in 2009, retreats are held to mend wounds. Those meetings, like board meetings where votes are taken, are posted and open to the public and press to attend.

The State Board of Education has not held a retreat since the three new members — Durham, Republican Joyce Rankin of Carbondale and Democrat Val Flores of Denver — joined the board during the last two year. Instead, the board has made headlines for a number of controversies.

In 2015, a fractured board refused to set cut scores on the state’s social studies test halting the release of the results and spent months embroiled in a debate about a long running health survey given to Colorado’s middle and high schools.

More recently, the board was split on whether to recognize a seal of biliteracy on Colorado students diploma, but made is a requirement that all elementary school students who speak a second language be tested in both English and Spanish to identify reading disabilities despite objections from school districts.

Former State Board chairwoman Marcia Neal attempted to pull together a retreat before she resigned one year ago, citing health issues and the board’s dysfunction.

Board member Goff said now may be the time for the board to have a retreat.

“I wish we had a plan to have one,” she said. “I think this board is in a pretty good place to get some things accomplished through a more formal (retreat). …. I think it will be easier to suggest now.”

Rich Crandall’s email

Update: This post has been updated to better reflect Rich Crandall’s job history. He briefly served as the chief schools officer in Wyoming. 

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.