who rules the schools

Ahead of vote, a tech contract raises questions of transparency, oversight

Counterclockwise from the right, Panel for Educational Policy members Robert Powell, Deborah Dillingham, Lori Podvesker, and Isaac Carmignani, at a contracts meeting with city education officials David Ross and Courtney Jackson Chase.

A controversial contract to expand Internet access in city schools is stirring up a larger debate about mayoral control.

The Department of Education wants to award a contract worth up to $637 million to a technology firm whose ties to a kickback scandal just four years ago went undisclosed until Monday night, two days before the 13-member Panel for Educational Policy was set to vote on it. And despite requests for details about the five-year deal after a brief overview was released two weeks ago, panel members say they also were kept in the dark.

“A lot of the answers we used to get immediately, we’re not getting immediately,” said Robert Powell, who has served on the panel since 2012 and currently chairs the contracts committee.

The episode has prompted criticism from political allies of Mayor Bill de Blasio that echoes attacks he once lobbed as a public advocate and city councilman, when he argued for more public input and transparency around the city’s education decisions. Under the state’s mayoral control law, de Blasio appoints eight of 13 members on the panel, a school-governance system that state lawmakers are considering for renewal this year.

[Update: The city says it’s begun a review of its processes. Read more here.]

“It is shocking that the DOE thinks it is acceptable to vote on another contract without full disclosure and vetting available to the community, elected officials, and the public at large,” Public Advocate Letitia James, City Councilman Daniel Dromm, and Leonie Haimson, the executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, wrote in a letter last week. (Haimson has closely covered the issue on her blog.)

Panel members are scheduled to vote on the contract on Wednesday. City officials on Tuesday defended the deal, and said it had to be approved soon or the city could lose out on federal technology funds.

Though the bureaucratic tangle may seem far removed from classrooms, the underlying debate is about who acts as a final check on the billions of dollars in outside spending that ensures schools get new textbooks, keeps pre-kindergarten programs afloat, and provides the infrastructure that brings the Internet into schools.

Providing more oversight over contracts was one of the goals of the reauthorized mayoral control law passed by state lawmakers in 2009. The law expires in June and is expected to be renewed, though not before the details of the structure are debated. Public Advocate James is holding five forums on the topic, beginning Wednesday.

Contracts were approved by the panel without many details after the change in 2009, but a string of scandals prompted the city to provide members with information a week or more ahead of votes. In the later years of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, that information was also released to the public ahead of time.

Under de Blasio, panel members said they have not received full documents showing what and how much other bidders had proposed and how those bids stacked up to the winner. The department has also not made that information available to the public and, last month, it was not posted until after the panel’s vote, according to Haimson.

“That’s unfortunately been typical of the new administration,” said Patrick Sullivan, a former panel member who led efforts to improve transparency under the previous administration.

One of the scandals that led to additional disclosure involved the company at the center of this week’s debate. Four years ago, a city investigation found that Custom Computer Specialists had helped conceal an outside consultant’s theft of $1.7 million over six years, something panel members say they were not made aware of even after Haimson blogged about the connection on Sunday.

City officials said that contract information is typically not made public until the city has completed its own thorough vetting process. But David Ross, who oversees contract procurement for the department, said Monday that there were “active discussions within the department” about giving the public earlier access to those details.

“I’m fairly comfortable that we’re within legal compliance, but we’re looking at doing better than that,” Ross said.

Custom Computer Specialists, which did not return a message to its office in Long Island, won its latest bid to wire schools for Internet access at an annual rate of $227.8 million for up to nine years, although that has since been renegotiated down to $127.5 million. A city official said the city had until March 23 to approve the contract or risk losing $25 million next year from the federal E-Rate program. That technology funding program was suspended in 2011 because of the scandal.

Ross said the new contract will be directly managed by Department of Education officials, an important safeguard that was not in place for the last contract. He also defended the decision to select Custom Computer Specialists, noting the firm’s record of success in other cities.

That’s not enough for critics, who see the vote as a litmus test for whether panel members are willing to break with the city on important issues.

“At that point we will see just how independent the members are, and who they actually represent,” Haimson posted to her email group.

In interviews, some panel members said that while they shared some concerns about the department’s transparency, they rejected the notion that their votes should be seen in such terms.

“It’s one thing to advocate and it’s a completely other thing to govern,” said Lori Podvesker, who was appointed by de Blasio. “That doesn’t make it OK for them not to be transparent, but there’s a whole different set of responsibilities involved when you’re governing.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.