elephant in the room

Four things to know out of this week’s special school board meeting on Memphis grade tampering

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
More than 150 people showed up to hear Shelby County Schools board discuss a review of grading irregularities.

Nine months after a Memphis principal first reported grading irregularities at Trezevant High School, the school board has called out Superintendent Dorsey Hopson for leaving them out of the loop about an investigation that now includes all high schools in Shelby County Schools.

Tension and emotions were high Thursday night during the specially called meeting as members of both the board and community sought explanations for Hopson’s handling of allegations by Principal Ronnie Mackin.

Chairman Chris Caldwell said he wanted to clear the air swirling around Mackin’s charges of a cover-up of “corrupt, illegal and unethical activities” by district leadership — claims that Hopson has forcefully denied.

The two-hour discussion ended with board members chastising Hopson for poor communication on the matter even as, one by one, they voiced support to keep him at the helm of Tennessee’s largest school district.

Hopson apologized for falling short, cautioned against a “rush to judgment” about Mackin’s allegations, and promised to get to the bottom of it all.

“No matter what happens, no matter where investigation leads, we’re going to hold (people) accountable,” he pledged.

Here are four things to know from Thursday’s meeting:

There are two ongoing investigations stemming from Mackin’s allegations, and the board is considering whether to order its own.

After completing an internal review, the district hired a North Carolina auditing firm to review four years worth of student transcripts from all high schools, including Trezevant. Beginning this month, that company will scan every transcript in the district’s database to flag schools with high instances of grade changes for further investigation. The review is expected to be complete by the end of July.

The district also has hired a three-person team of lawyers to investigate non-academic allegations — including financial fraud and inappropriate sexual relationships among school employees — made by Mackin in his seven-page resignation letter. Looking into those are: Edward Stanton III, former U.S. Attorney for Western District of Tennessee; Paul Lancaster Adams; and J. Scott Newton, a lawyer at Baker Donelson and former FBI agent.

Caldwell raised that the board has the option to conduct its own investigation, but members took no action to pursue that track.

Revelations that arose from Mackin’s resignation last week have created tension between Hopson and the board.

Less than two weeks after voting unanimously to extend Hopson’s contract by another two years, board members criticized him for not informing members sooner about the breadth of the investigation.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Chairman Chris Caldwell and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson

“… We all have a serious role to play, and ours is of oversight. We have to maintain that,” Caldwell said.

Stephanie Love said the lack of transparency had put her in a difficult position with her constituents in Frayser.

“Had I known that there was an investigation going on … I would have had had the opportunity to reassure my community that the district was doing what it was supposed to do,” she said.

The exchanges were in stark contrast to typical board meetings where members generally approve Hopson’s recommendations with minimal discussion.

But the grading issues won’t affect Hopson’s contract extension.

After hearing worries from several principals and teachers that Hopson’s contract extension might be rescinded, the board clarified that such an action wasn’t on the table Thursday night, even as an item related to Hopson’s contract was on the agenda.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students hold signs in support of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

“(The discussion) was never not to extend the superintendent’s contract; it was merely for us to be able to have our legal counsel to review the contract,” Caldwell said.

Teresa Jones, another board member, said Hopson’s lax communication about the grading issues and investigation point to a lack of clarity around the board’s expectations of the superintendent, whose initial contract was negotiated with a completely different board.

“From statements today, there are some challenges with the superintendent and this board,” she said. “That does not mean that there’s a desire that he not remain the leader. But it’s an opportunity for us to look at the core of how we want to go forward as a board.”

The allegations have unearthed community concerns that grading irregularities go far beyond Trezevant.

Several stakeholders questioned how deep and far back this goes, despite assurances from Hopson that the issues are isolated.

“This is a systemic issue,” said Michael Pleasants, a teacher at Hamilton High School. “There’s been pressuring of teachers and fiddling with one thing or another.”

Hopson said the vast majority of employees “do what is right every day,” but that the actions of a small number are the issue.

“When there are these broad sweeping allegations, there’s just a cloud of doubt that hangs over everybody’s head,” he said.

The nine-member board is scheduled to meet on June 20 for its regular work session.

Four members — Kevin Woods, Shante Avant, Billy Orgel and Scott McCormick — were absent from Thursday’s special meeting.

Do you have evidence of grading irregularities in your school? Contact Chalkbeat at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.