Who Is In Charge

Wade and Barry show highlights fiscal divide

After spending a day and a half trying to absorb brain-numbing financial presentations, printed reports and Power Point slides, it was only fair that members of the state Fiscal Stability Commission got a little entertainment Thursday afternoon.

The commission, created by the 2009 legislature to study the state’s fiscal structure and recommend changes, started work Wednesday. Ten of the 16 members are non-legislators, so the agenda for the first two days was heavy on background briefings about state revenues and spending, statutory and constitutional requirements, the current revenue crisis, the state of the economy and much more.

But Thursday’s final presentation, featuring leaders of the liberal Bell Policy Center and the conservative Independence Institute, was lighter on numbers and heavier on philosophy, with a bit of entertainment.

Wade Buchanan, president of the Bell, told the panel, “I think you’ve seen all the numbers you need to see,” but he did give them just a few in a Power Point presentation that highlighted the sluggish past and future of state general fund revenues.

“We are at a historic low point” of state spending as a percentage of total state personal income. “Our general fund revenues are deteriorating; [that’s] the single most important fact you guys need to deal with,” Buchanan said.

The state has three choices, Buchanan said – modernize the revenue system and increase general fund revenues, close down some state programs or “try to keep muddling through.”

Buchanan has a low-key manner and opened his remarks with a story about his grandparents and their struggles and successes during the Depression.

The white-haired Barry Poulson, a senior fellow at Independence and a CU-Boulder economics professor, is anything but low key and opened his comments by emphatically declaring, “Colorado is not experiencing a fiscal crisis.”

Arms waving for emphasis, Poulson moved into a conservative’s critique of California’s fiscal mess; defense of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights; a call for even stronger spending, revenue and debt limits, and suggestions for greater financial transparency, banning of earmarks and reform of Medicaid.

“I’ve stop ranting and raving,” he said in closing.

Buchanan and Poulson spoke separately but took questions together, leading to some lively if good-natured exchanges.

Panel member Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said, “We are looking at what I consider to be a budget catastrophe” and asked Poulson if he thought the commission was even necessary.

“My advice is do no harm,” Poulson said.

He and Buchanan had a bit of back and forth over whether Colorado government has grown as fast of the state economy in recent year; it turned out they were using different figures.

“They want to raise taxes,” Poulson said, looking at Buchanan. “I would favor a stable revenue system at a slightly higher level,” Buchanan replied.

The session provided enough fun that the audience in the packed Capitol hearing room applauded briefly when it finished. “We’ve had two hours of wonderful dialogue,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, R-Boulder and commission chair. “This is the conversation this committee is going to have.”

The panel represents a wide spectrum of ideological views, but those were muted during the two days of data-heavy presentations.

Earlier Thursday the commission heard from state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and Joint Budget Committee Chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, plus three private sector fiscal experts and representatives of local government such as Sam Mamet of the Colorado Municipal League.

(Keller testified at length about the state’s current budget crisis, which will be up to the 2010 legislature to solve, not the commission. But, that immediate problem will hang over the panel’s deliberations. Tom Clark, executive vice president Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., was one of the experts who testified.)

The panel faces two more days of briefings at meetings on July 28 and 29 and is expected to move into detailed debate among its members when it convenes on Aug. 19 and 20.

The overarching issue, Heath said, is “What kind of state do we want to have, what’s the role of government and how do we pay for it?”

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.

NEW MOMENT

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.