table talks

In Memphis, two competing school districts came together to learn how to play nice. It didn’t work.

Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson have led their districts through a maze of school choice issues in Memphis.

In Memphis, it’s no secret that the city’s two school districts don’t always get along. Just last week, the traditional district, Shelby County Schools, and the state-run Achievement School District, launched in 2012 to improve Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, were fighting over rights to students’ contact information.

What’s less well known is an attempt at detente by a kind of intergovernmental marriage counselor — a private consultant brought in behind the scenes to create a better working relationship between the two districts.

The effort, brought to light in emails obtained by Chalkbeat, halted in May when the two sides weren’t able to agree to terms.

The emails paint a picture of conversations with representatives of both districts following more than a year of talks moderated by Phil Vaccaro, a managing director of Parthenon-EY, a Boston-based consulting group. Vaccaro and Parthenon-EY had worked with Shelby County Schools in the past, and his work moderating the discussions was paid for by philanthropists, not taxpayer dollars, according to two sources who declined to be named, citing the sensitive nature of the negotiations.

“We have been spending a lot of time behind the scenes trying to have a better relationship and clear the air with a lot of issues,” SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said of the meetings.

The heart of the work was a seven-page accord outlining shared “rules of engagement” as well as recommendations for how to move forward — a document that ultimately was not adopted.

The “rules of engagement” touched on a laundry list of contentious issues between Shelby County and the ASD, from the student contact information challenge to abetting accusations of “misinformation” about school performance.

The document also offers suggestions for improving relations going forward. One proposal outlines rules for how and when each side should communicate with each other — often in writing. Another part details an intricate set of agreements, new policies, and shared “toolkits” aimed at smoothing over another communications minefield: the tricky matter of how each district talks to families that they are trying to recruit to attend their schools.

The sides even attempted to work together on the previously contentious process of how the ASD decides which Shelby County schools should be converted to state-run charter schools. In the past, local leaders have protested these decisions, urging parents to choose SCS-run schools instead of ASD-run charter schools. The new “rules of engagement” would have had them talk together about which schools the ASD would take over before the decision was made.

Hopson and ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson confirmed the meetings took place. Both downplayed the collapse of the talks, saying they learned from the process and are moving forward with some points, even though they didn’t commit to the full “rules of engagement” document.

Hopson said he stepped back from the conversations following the state’s decision this summer to overhaul and downsize the ASD’s staff to curb costs. “I think that, given some of the changes and turmoil that the ASD has been going through, we kind of wanted to stand back and see what would happen with the ASD,” he said.  

“We’ll certainly be open to collaboration and discussion [in the future],” he added.

Anderson said the process was helpful, especially in establishing lines of communication between the two districts about decisions that affect each other. “We reached agreement on several key issues that were already implementing together, which I think is good,” she said .

Hopson said the two parties had unofficially moved forward with guidelines about recruiting students. He did not elaborate on what exactly they’d agreed to, but the document outlines ways for the two sides to coordinate their communications with parents in order to avoid what it calls “misinformation.” In a city with too many schools and too few students, recruiting practices have caused squabbles in the past.

“The recruiting guidelines were reasonable,” Hopson told Chalkbeat. “We could just do them rather than just have a big commercial about it.”

Hopson and Anderson also both pointed to another reason they had no need for a formal memorandum of understanding: Their disagreements over sharing student information, they said, were now a moot point because a new state law, passed this spring, requires local districts to hand over student data to approved charters.    

But it’s that very law that has the state and the Memphis school district back in the boxing ring. Charter operators and state officials say the contact information is guaranteed to them by the state law. Shelby County board members insist that handing it over would violate federal student privacy laws.

Vaccaro declined to comment on his work in Memphis.

Chalkbeat could not confirm which philanthropists supported Vaccaro’s work. One email obtained by Chalkbeat said that one meeting between SCS and ASD officials was held at the office of the Hyde Family Foundations. A Hyde official declined to elaborate. (The Hyde foundation is one of Chalkbeat’s funders. You can see the full list of our supporters here.)

You can review the full memo and proposed “rules of engagement” below.


A student is in custody after Noblesville West Middle School shooting that injured another student and teacher

Police asses the scene outside Noblesville High School after a shooting at Noblesville West Middle School on May 25, 2018 (Photo by Kevin Moloney/Getty Images)

A male student shot and injured a teacher and another student at Noblesville West Middle School on Friday morning, police said.

Noblesville police Chief Kevin Jowitt said the shooting suspect asked to leave a class and returned armed with two handguns. The suspect, who police said appeared to be uninjured, is in custody and has not been identified by police.

The teacher, 29-year-old Jason Seaman, was in “good” condition Friday evening at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital, police said. The female student, who was not identified by police, was in critical condition at Riley Hospital for Children.

News outlets were reporting that Seaman intervened to stop the shooter, but authorities said they could not confirm that on Friday afternoon.

The Noblesville Police Department has a full-time school resource officer assigned to the school who responded to the incident, Jowitt said. Local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies also responded to the shooting.

“We do know that the situation resolved extremely quickly,” Jowitt said. “We don’t know what happened in the classroom, so I can’t make any kinds of comments about what [the resource officer’s] involvement was.”

Students were evacuated to Noblesville High School on Friday morning, where families met them.

Jowitt said an additional threat was made at the high school, but they had “no reason to believe it’s anything other than a communicated threat.”

Police continue to investigate. They said they do not believe there are additional suspects. Noblesville Police spokesman Bruce Barnes could not say how the student acquired the guns, but he said search warrants have been issued.

Noblesville West Middle School enrolls about 1,300 students. Noblesville is a suburb of Indianapolis, about 20 miles north in Hamilton County. The district has about 10,500 students.

The frenzied scenes Friday outside the school have become sadly familiar. Already, there have been 23 school shootings in 2018 that involved someone being injured or killed, according to media tallies.

Just last week, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. A student at the school has been arrested and charged.

In February, 17 people — 14 students and three staff — were shot and killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a 19-year-old faces multiple charges.  The Parkland tragedy set off a wave of student activism across the country — including in Indianapolis — calling for stricter gun control.

“We’ve had these shootings around the country,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear. “You just never think it could happen in Noblesville, Indiana. But it did.”

Noblesville Schools Superintendent Beth Niedermeyer praised the “heroic” efforts of school staff and students, saying they followed their training on how to react to an active shooter situation.

Barnes also hinted at the broader trauma that school shootings can have on students and communities.

“We ask for your prayers for the victims in this case,” he said. “I think that would include a lot of kids, not only ones that were truly the victims in this case, but all these other kids that are trying to make sense of this situation.”

Watch the press conference:

A Chalkbeat reporter is on the scene:

In a pattern that has become routine, Democratic and Republican politicians offered prayers on Twitter.

temporary reprieve

Parents score a temporary victory in slowing the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Protesters gathered at the education department's headquarters to protest a recent set of closure plans.

A judge blocked the closure of a small Brooklyn elementary school Thursday — at least for now.

Three families from P.S. 25/the Eubie Blake School filed a lawsuit in March backed by the public interest group Advocates for Justice, arguing the city’s decision to close the school was illegal because the local elected parent council was not consulted.

Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Katherine Levine did not make a final ruling Thursday about whether the closure plan violated the law. But she issued a temporary order to keep the school open while the case moves forward.

It was not immediately clear when the case will be resolved or even if the school will remain open next year. “We are reviewing the stay and will determine an appropriate course of action once the judge makes a final decision on the case,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in a statement.

The education department said the school has hemorrhaged students in recent years and is simply too small to be viable: P.S. 25 currently enrolls just 94 students in grades K-5.

“Because of extremely low enrollment, the school lacks the necessary resources to meet the needs of students,” Holness wrote. The city’s Panel for Educational Policy, a citywide oversight board that must sign off on all school closures, voted in February to close the school.

But the school’s supporters point out that despite low test scores in the past, P.S. 25 now ranks among the city’s top elementary schools, meaning that its closure would force students into lower-performing schools elsewhere.

“Why close a school that’s doing so well?” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters and one of the lawsuit’s supporters. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The lawsuit hinges on a state law that gives local education councils the authority to approve any changes to school zones. Since P.S. 25 is the only zoned elementary school for a swath of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the department’s plans would leave some families with no zoned elementary school dedicated to educating them, forcing students to attend other district schools or enter the admissions lottery for charter schools.

That amounts to “effectively attempting to change zoning lines” and “unlawfully usurping” the local education council’s authority to determine those zones, according to the lawsuit.

But even if the education department loses the lawsuit, the school’s fate would still be uncertain. The closure plan would theoretically be subject to a vote from the local education council, whose president supports shuttering the school.

Still, Haimson hopes the lawsuit ultimately persuades the education department to back away from closing the school in the long run.

“My goal would be to get the chancellor to change his mind,” Haimson said. “I don’t think the future is preordained.”