Team Dorsey

Inner circle: Here’s who Superintendent Hopson leans on to lead Memphis schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Dorsey Hopson has been at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for four years, but his cabinet has been a bit of a revolving door since the historic merger of city and county schools.

Only three members of his 11-person leadership team have been with Hopson since the Memphis attorney was named superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013.

As the 2017-18 school year begins, here are the lieutenants that Hopson has recruited to help him lead schools in one of the most challenging education landscapes in America.

Brian Stockton, chief of staff

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brian Stockton

Salary: $157,500
Duties: Oversees superintendent initiatives, supervises other chiefs and their departments, connects school-level staff to central office decision-making, cultivates relationships with local governing bodies, handles day-to-day emergencies.
His story: The Memphis native returned home last year after 25 years away, including a stint as a leadership analyst for a government contractor in Washington, D.C. There, he was in charge of stemming attrition, boosting morale and developing leaders. Stockton is a 1990 graduate of Central High School. (Read our Q&A with him when he joined Hopson’s team.)

Gerald Darling, chief of student services

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Gerald Darling

Salary: $163,200
Duties: Leads security teams and prevention programs around truancy, gang involvement, violence and out-of-school suspensions, as well as sports, medical and emergency services for schools.
His story: Darling was chief of police for Miami-Dade Schools from 2004 to 2008, when former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash hired him to lead the district’s security division, a new cabinet post at the time.


Sharon Griffin, chief of schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

Salary: $165,000
Duties: Supervises and supports principals and oversee teacher coaching, leadership development, virtual schools and the Innovation Zone school turnaround program.
Her story: Griffin was promoted to her new job in January after five years as regional superintendent of the iZone, one of the district’s most successful programs. Before that, she led a turnaround effort as principal of Airways Middle School. A Memphis native, Griffin is a graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and received her doctorate at the University of Memphis. She was named Tennessee’s 2015 supervisor of the year.

Lin Johnson, chief of finance

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson

Salary: $155,000
Duties: Crafts and maintains the district’s budget, monitors spending, looks for new sources of revenue, and allocates money to the district’s nearly 200 schools.
His story: Johnson was hired in 2015 after serving as director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.


Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management

Brad Leon

Salary: $157,500
Duties: Oversees charter schools, school accountability and testing, planning and research.
His story: Leon started out with Teach For America as a middle school teacher at a New Orleans charter school, where he was voted Teacher of the Year in 2002. He went on to become a regional vice president at Teach For America and the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis from 2006 to 2010. He joined Hopson’s cabinet in 2013 to lead the district’s innovation department.


Rodney Moore, chief general counsel

Rodney Moore

Salary: $192,270
Duties: Oversees legal matters, including the district’s funding lawsuit against the state.
His story: Moore joined the district in 2016. He previously was a partner in Atlanta with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, which the district hired in 2015 to explore litigation against the state over funding. He is a former president of the National Bar Association and has served on the National School Board Association’s Council of School Lawyers.

Leon Pattman, chief of internal audit

Leon Pattman

Salary: $143,820
Duties: Evaluates processes, monitors operations, leads risk management strategies.
His story: Pattman came to Shelby County Schools in 2015 from the City of Memphis, where he was the chief audit executive. He has held roles in finance, compliance, auditing and information management with the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Air Force.


Beth Phalen, chief of business operations

Beth Phalen

Salary: $176,000
Duties: Oversees facilities planning and maintenance, nutrition services, district purchases and contracts, transportation and risk management.
Her story: The most recent hire to Hopson’s cabinet, Phalen previously was executive vice president of strategy and operations for ISS Facility Services and vice president of business operations at Memphis-based ServiceMaster.



Natalia Powers, chief of communications & community engagement

Natalia Powers

Salary: $139,230
Duties: Oversees internal and external communications, media relations, digital and print publications, social media, television and radio broadcasting services, and community outreach.
Her story: Powers was hired in 2016 after climbing the ranks in the school district of Palm Beach, Fla., from translator and interpreter, teacher for English language learners, program coordinator, and head of communications and community engagement.


Trinette Small, chief of human resources

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small

Salary: $141,500
Duties: Handles recruiting and retaining employees as well as salaries and benefits.
Her story: Small has held this job since the creation of Shelby County Schools following the merger of city and county schools in 2013.



John Williams, chief information officer

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
John Williams

Salary: $158,100
Duties: Provides data systems for administrators and classroom technology for students and teachers.
His story: Williams was hired in 2015 after serving in the same role with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. He has held technology and telecommunications positions with Atlanta Public Schools and Orange County Schools in Orlando, Fla.



Editor’s note: Salary information is based on a list of full-time positions with Shelby County Schools as of April 2017. District officials did not confirm those numbers after multiple requests.


How KIPP’s observers and allies are reacting to co-founder Mike Feinberg’s firing

PHOTO: Creative Commons / William J Sisti

A day after one of the education reform movement’s most prominent figures was fired, his colleagues are grappling with their shock over the allegations that led to his termination and with what the news might mean for the schools he founded and the movement as a whole.

The KIPP charter network fired Mike Feinberg, its co-founder, Thursday after revealing that a law firm hired by the network to investigate found credible allegations of sexual abuse of a child in the 1990s and sexual harassment of two adult KIPP employees. Feinberg denies the allegations, which were not definitively substantiated.

What are people who have followed Feinberg, KIPP, and the charter movement thinking today? We asked a number of them. Here’s some of what they said.

First, from Richard Barth, KIPP’s CEO: “This morning 100,000 KIPPsters went to school across the country – nearly 90,000 in our schools and over 10,000 on college campuses. This organization is bigger than one person and while this is a difficult day in our history our KIPPsters and families are depending on us. We are thoroughly reviewing all of our organizational policies and practices to ensure that they protect every member of the KIPP community.”

Robin Lake of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, which is generally supportive of charters: “I really don’t think of this as a charter schools issue. The #metoo movement is an equal opportunity movement that is showing up everywhere. For me, this is just another reminder that these kinds of issues can pop up anywhere, anytime, with neighbors and with icons. We just have to have good systems in place so they are dealt with fairly and effectively.”

Mike Petrilli of the pro-charter Fordham Institute: “This is a sad day for all of us in education reform. Either one of the heroes of our movement is a monster, or he has been the victim of a terrible injustice. KIPP is no doubt in for some tough sledding, but assuming they handled the allegations appropriately, they will get through it. And they should get through it, because they continue to do amazing work for kids on a daily basis.”

Jeff Henig, a professor and longtime observer of education policy at Columbia University: “For various reasons, at least a little steam seems to have been escaping from the charter movement, so this could be a delicate time to take on any extra baggage. Charter networks like KIPP depend on public bodies — authorizers, school boards, district administrators — for a range of things including funding, access to buildings, contracts, and their charters themselves. Even when public officials can intellectually distinguish between an organization and one bad actor, they remain highly sensitive to public opinion. With the #MeToo movement roiling the waters of voter sentiment, at least some officials may find it easier to look elsewhere.”

Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools: “The National Alliance believes creating safe spaces for all is a core premise of public education, and one that we work towards every day. These jarring allegations — especially against someone with ties to the public school ecosystem — are antithetical to everything our community stands for. We support the actions taken by KIPP leadership to proactively and thoroughly investigate and subsequently terminate Mr. Feinberg.”

Dacia Toll, co-founder and president of Achievement First charter schools: “While this news is incredibly upsetting, KIPP is bigger than any one individual. Over many years in many communities, KIPP has established a strong legacy of excellence and a commitment to doing what’s right. Their values are on display even in how they are handling this difficult situation.”

Some people defended Feinberg, which in turn led to a sharp backlash.

Jeanne Allen, head of the Center for Education Reform: “Mike Feinberg’s long time, unassailable record of integrity, honesty and commitment to putting kids first and his outright denial of the allegations, lead me to question the findings of KIPP’s lawyers and management and thus their decision to move Mike out without ever giving him a chance to respond to the allegations. This is not coming from an uncritical fan — I have had differences with Mike on policy for years, but I still respect his work and accomplishments and have seen him enough in action to know these are likely scurrilous charges. If he or anyone else is guilty of sexual misconduct they should be dismissed immediately. But I have doubts that this is the case.”

Allen’s support for Feinberg in a tweet Thursday prompted a number of critical responses.

“I’m heartbroken & angry that you think an independent investigation that confirmed ‘credible evidence that is incompatible with the mission and values of KIPP’ isn’t enough to NOT give someone the benefit of the doubt,” responded Kate Duval, the head of external relations for the group 50CAN.

“Neither good work nor service entitles a man to the benefit of the doubt when accused of sexual assault or harassment. No matter who they are,” wrote Matt Richmond of EdBuild.

A few others on Twitter — John Arnold of the Arnold Foundation and Nelson Smith, a senior advisor at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers — have emphasized Feinberg’s past work rather than the allegations against him, or the fact that they were deemed credible by KIPP.

Rishawn Biddle, who runs the site Dropout Nation, seemed to allude to this in his own statement: “The big question is how will leaders in the school reform movement address what has happened? So far, a few leading figures have chosen to not make strong, unwavering calls for all leaders in the movement, and in American public education as a whole, to engage in good conduct, especially when it comes to working with children, at all times. At the same time, I’m not necessarily surprised with the responses so far. One reason is because the movement itself has long struggled with holding its own leading lights to account.”

heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.