Who Is In Charge

Higher ed budget back in play

Colorado will seek a waiver from federal stimulus rules that require a minimum level of state support for higher education, the Colorado Commission on Higher Education learned Thursday.

Approval of such a waiver would allow the legislature to reduce the amount of state funding that goes to colleges, but the intention is to cover the loss with stimulus dollars that haven’t yet been allocated, said David Skaggs, director of the Department of Higher Education.

“That’s certainly what everyone is intending,” Skaggs said.

Such a reduction of state support would give lawmakers a bit more wiggle room as they try to cover a $384 million shortfall in the 2009-10 budget.

While overall higher ed spending would be held level if the plan works, it would leave colleges and universities with a lower base of state support when the stimulus ends in 2011.

The commission Thursday also unanimously approved a resolution to convene a Sept. 21 higher ed “summit,” a meeting intended to kick off a 15-month project to create a new master plan for the state’s postsecondary system.

Higher education’s financial pinch is a key impetus behind the master plan, which is being pushed by Gov. Bill Ritter and Skaggs despite hesitation by some college presidents.

Recession-driven revenue declines forced the 2009 legislature to cover about $1.4 billion in shortfalls in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 budgets.

Higher education was in the crosshairs during that process, and one proposal called for cutting state support of colleges by $300 million in 2009-10.

That was averted by a plan under which state support of higher ed was cut back to 2005-06 levels (a deeper cut would have made Colorado ineligible for education stimulus funds). Then, $150 million of stimulus money was used to bring college support back to 2008-09 levels. The legislature has intended to use the same formula for 2010-11, meaning higher ed would be frozen at the same level for three budget years.

This year and next, higher is to receive about $555 million in state funds and $150 million from the stimulus. Cutting the $555 million and replacing the cut with stimulus funds would keep higher ed stable, but leave colleges with a big hole to fill when the stimulus ends. (Colleges receive additional funds from tuition and fees, federal grants and private donations.)

That plan (and a lot of other proposed state spending) is threatened by a continued decline in state revenues, highlighted in an updated state forecast released late last month.

State economists now estimate the state will have to cover an additional $384 million shortfall in 2009-10.

The Joint Budget Committee will start tackling the problem next fall and the full legislature in January, but Ritter already has asked state departments to come up with 10 percent cuts.

“We are very optimistic the waiver will be granted,” Skaggs said, adding he believes the federal Department of Education will act quickly. “We’re not going to be the only state in this predicament.”

Earlier, discussing the master plan, Skaggs said, “This is a hugely ambitious undertaking, and a lot of questions have been raised, especially by institution presidents.”

But, Skaggs added, “It is at least the governor’s view … that this is even more necessary than before” because the state will need to show “the people of the state will be getting for their money” if there’s a ballot proposal in 2011 to raises taxes for higher education or other state programs.

The commissioners spent a fair amount of time discussing how college presidents view the idea.

Commissioner Greg Stevinson asked more than once if the college presidents “are all on board on this?”

“It’s fair to say all the CEOs are not on board,” Skaggs said.

Nancy McCallin, president of the community college system, said, “I think there was a great deal of concern on a couple of fronts.” (McCallin hosted the meeting at the system’s Lowry headquarters.)

First, some presidents are concerned that a master plan might come up with new duties for higher ed but no funding, and second, presidents are focused on the current financial crisis.

As currently envisioned, the master plan process would examine student access and success, the role of higher ed in academic growth and innovation, how to improve institutional efficiency and productivity and adequate funding.

The work would be done by a steering committee of educators, policymakers and citizens, assisted by working groups that would focus on the subjects listed above. A final report would be adopted by CCHE in November 2010, with recommendations forwarded to the 2011 legislature.

The department already is doing some planning work with a grant from the Lumina Foundation but hopes to receive a $2 million, four-year continuation grant. Skaggs estimated the master plan could cost “several hundred thousand dollars to do it the right way, which means being out in the state” gathering a broad range of views.

But, the exact shape of the proposal “is still a work in progress” and will be tweaked up to the Sept. 21 summit, Skaggs stressed.

Do your homework

Skaggs memo about the master plan
Detailed draft proposal for the master plan process

In with the new

Newark school board selects new leaders after raucous vote

PHOTO: Newark Press Information Office
Members of the Newark school board in February with Mayor Ras Baraka and former Superintendent Christopher Cerf.

Newark’s school board has new leadership after a vote Tuesday that was disrupted by hecklers claiming the vote was rigged.

Josephine Garcia, a city councilman’s aide whose children attended charter and magnet schools in Newark, was elected as board chairwoman. Dawn Haynes, who works in the mayor’s office and whose children attend Newark district schools, was chosen to be vice chairwoman.

The new leadership, which will oversee the selection of a new district superintendent next month, is taking over just months after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district and returned full authority to the board. Haynes and two other new members who were elected to the board last week — Yambeli Gomez and Asia Norton — were sworn in at Tuesday’s meeting.

Observers have been watching closely to see whether the city’s political leaders would try to influence the elected board now that it has regained control over the schools. In particular, many wonder how much power Mayor Ras Baraka and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos will hold over the board now that all nine members — including the newest three — ran on slates that were chosen and endorsed by the two men, along with the charter-school sector.

Some critics believed that Baraka and Ramos told the board members whom to choose as their new leaders. As soon as voting began at the public meeting Tuesday, some audience members started to boo and shout, “The community should vote!” and “This is Anibal Ramos’ and Ras Baraka’s board!” The shouting, which lasted for more than 20 minutes and at times brought the meeting to a halt, was led by two community activists who unsuccessfully ran in this year’s board race.

The same group of people cheered when board members Leah Owens and Kim Gaddy nominated one another for chair and vice chair, though no other members voted for them. After the meeting, Gaddy suggested that her colleagues had been influenced by their political patrons.

“As opposed to individual board members making that decision, you had politicians making that decision,” she said. “It’s unfortunate.”

An advisor to the mayor said she was not aware of anyone from his office instructing board members how to vote. Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, said the members chose their new leaders without any input from the councilman.

“These are nine individuals that were supported by the mayor, by Councilman Ramos and the North Ward Democratic Committee, and by ed reform,” he said, referring to pro-charter school groups. “We’re comfortable with whatever decision was made yesterday.”

The board will now turn its attention to choosing a new superintendent.

A search committee consisting of three board members and four people appointed by the mayor and the state education commissioner have been interviewing candidates. Owens, who is on the committee, said the interviews have concluded and the finalists will soon be presented to the board.

According to a state-created plan to guide the district’s return to local control, the board must vote on the new superintendent by May 31. A leading candidate is Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory.

After Tuesday’s vote, Garcia made brief remarks, which were partly drowned out by shouting. She promised to “be a chair of total inclusion” and to help shepherd the district’s transition back to local control.

“I look forward to working with you all in our ongoing mission to move our district forward,” she said.


Tennessee’s struggling state-run district just hired the ‘LeBron James’ of school turnaround work

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Sharon Griffin was the first chief of schools for Shelby County Schools. Starting in May, she will be the next leader of Tennessee's state-run district.

In hiring a Memphis native to save its most vulnerable schools, Tennessee is hedging its bets that she can finally get the job done.

Sharon Griffin’s new job is to fix the state’s struggling Achievement School District and use her experience to strengthen the relationships with local districts across the state.

But can she right the ship and make everyone happy?

“I know through my experience and the relationships I’ve built that we cannot only focus and prioritize our work, but strengthen the relationship [between local districts and the state] so all of our schools can be great places of learning,” Griffin said during a conference call this week.

Tennessee’s achievement district started out as the cornerstone of the state’s strategy to improve low performing schools in 2012. It promised to vault the state’s 5 percent of lowest-achieving schools to the top 25 percent within five years. But the district hasn’t produced large academic gains. It’s struggling to attract students and retain high-quality teachers. And local districts don’t like it because the state moved in and took over schools without input.

But as Tennessee works to make its state the national model of school achievement, naming a revered, longtime home-grown leader as point person for school turnaround is seen by many as a jolt of badly needed energy, and a savvy move in a state education system divided into many factions.

“I think it is a game-changer,” said Rep. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, who has championed legislation to refine the achievement district. “The ASD badly needs a strong leader…. She definitely could be the bridge to bring us over troubled water in Tennessee.”

Read more about what Griffin’s hire means for the school district she is leaving behind. 

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen stressed during the call that Griffin’s appointment does not mean state-run schools will return to local control, even as she acknowledged that the district is at a turning point. It’s now the state’s tool of last resort.

“Whether that is transitioning a school back into the district when it is ready or whether it’s to intervene and move a school into the Achievement School District,” McQueen said. “This particular moment is about a person who can lead all of the state interventions as well as the specificity of the ASD.”

For Bobby White, the founder and CEO of a Memphis charter organization in the achievement district, the appointment signals a new chapter ahead. Griffin will directly oversee the district’s 30 charter schools in her new role.

He has been around for the highs and lows of Tennessee’s six-year experiment in state-run turnaround work.

“It feels like we got LeBron James, you know?” said White, who runs Frayser Community Schools. “It feels like she will have a vision and take us where we have been needing to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Frayser Community Schools CEO Bobby White has seen the highs and lows of the turnaround district.

Part of that vision will be finding new ways for charter schools and local districts to work together. In her roles as assistant commissioner of School Turnaround and chief of the Achievement School District, Griffin will oversee more than just the state-run district. She will have a hand in turnaround efforts across the state, such as a new partnership zone in Chattanooga. In the partnership zone, state and local leaders will work together to create mini-districts that are freed from many local rules.

Griffin stressed earlier this week that building relationships and fostering collaboration are among her top strengths — efforts that the state has failed in as local districts have sparred with state-runs schools over enrollment, facilities, and sharing student contact information.

“We have a level playing field now,” Griffin said. “I want to be clear, it’s not us against them. It’s a chance to learn not only from what ASD has been able to do alongside charter schools, but a chance to learn from each other as we move forward.”

Marcus Robinson, a former Indianapolis charter leader, said Griffin’s dynamic personality will be enough to get the job done.

“Dr. Griffin is magnetic,” said Robinson, who has helped raise money for Memphis schools through the Memphis Education Fund.

“She is the type of person who disarms people because she’s so authentic and genuine,” he said. “But she’s also experienced and wise and she knows school turnaround work.”

Griffin leaves behind a 25-year award-winning career with Shelby County Schools, the local district in Memphis. She has been a teacher and principal. She spearheaded the district’s turnaround work, and now serves as chief of schools. She will start her new role in May and will stay based in Memphis — something community members have long asked for.

Student at Frayser Achievement Academy.
PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick
A student walks through the hall of Frayser Achievement Elementary School, a state-run school.

Steve Lockwood has watched the state’s reform play out in his Memphis neighborhood of Frayser, whose schools were home to some of the first state takeovers.

When the state first started running schools in Frayser, it was with the promise that the academics and culture would improve, said Lockwood, who runs the Frayser Community Development Corporation.

“The ASD has struggled to deliver on their mission,” Lockwood said. “But the last few months have been modestly encouraging. The ASD has seemed willing to admit mistakes and shortcomings.”

Lockwood said he sees Griffin’s appointment as a commitment by the state to bettering relationships in Memphis — and added that he was surprised she signed up.

“It’s a tribute to the ASD that they have enough juice left to attract someone like Dr. Griffin,” Lockwood said.