Future of Schools

Tempers flare at Dougco board meeting

Because of readers’ requests, EdNews is posting full videos of public speakers from Tuesday’s board meeting. See them here.

CASTLE ROCK – Douglas County’s voucher program may be in legal limbo but the issue continues to inflame passions among supporters and opponents of the district’s conservative school board.

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
Dougco school board member Meghann Silverthorn appeals to audience and board members for calm after contentious exchanges.

Cindy Barnard, a Dougco parent who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that has stalled the voucher plan, questioned board members Tuesday about legal expenditures in defending the plan, which she said now total more than $900,000.

District leaders have pledged to use only private donations to defend their voucher pilot as they appeal a Denver judge’s ruling that the plan violates the Colorado Constitution and state law. They’ve raised more than $800,000 for their legal defense fund, according to records provided in response to an open-records request.

But Barnard said that leaves a fund deficit of more than $100,000, a figure the district disputes, and she urged board members to post accurate records of voucher expenses and revenues.

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Her comments angered John Carson, the school board president who has championed the voucher program and who blamed Barnard for the dollars spent.

“I would just like the record to show that you are the cause for those legal expenditures,” he said, and some in the audience began to boo. “You are the cause of those expenditures. You are the cause … period.”

Call for more security at “hostile” board meetings

Barnard said she was happy the private donations were rolling in, noting “I do not want district funds spent on a program that as of today has been found to be illegal and unconstitutional.”

That prompted cheers and applause from an audience weighted, that night anyway, more toward board critics than supporters.

It was one of several exchanges during a relatively brief public comment session that showed the factions formed over vouchers, along with the role of the teachers’ union, appear to be hardening rather than softening as time passes.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot.”
– Katherine Vitale, speaker

One speaker, Katherine Vitale, commended board members for their “tenacity” and said she and other supporters are increasingly concerned about the “hostile” crowds at board meetings. She said a bumper sticker was ripped off her car and other supporters’ cars have been scratched with keys.

“I would like to ask for additional security at these meetings, especially due to the damage to cars in the parking lot,” she said.

And a visibly upset high school student who declined to give his name accused board members of bullying Barnard and declared, “You disgust me.”

“If you were to do that in the school system, you would be fired, you would be removed from the school as a disruption,” he said. “You are the problem here, not the solution.”

Later, the student said his first name was David and he was reluctant to give his last name because a parent is a Dougco teacher.

“I know that emotions are very high, people are very upset, on both sides,” school board member Meghan Silverthorn said after David sat down. “If we could just take a step back, take a little bit of a deep breath … Let’s engage productively, let’s listen to each other.”

Parents ask for survey responses to be considered

Much of the public comment centered around parent surveys that board members last month declared were invalid because of a low response rate. Of the district’s 76,500 parents, only 4,900 – or 6 percent – filled out the survey forms.

But several parents encouraged board members to consider the responses anyway, reading aloud from positive and negative comments written on the forms.

“I ask that you validate the comments and concerns of parents who took the time to respond to the parent survey last spring,” said Brian White of Castle Rock.

Some critics have charged the district deemed the survey results inconclusive because 55 percent of respondents said they did not support the district’s voucher plan.

Change in plan
  • Dougco Superintendent Liz Fagen said the district is changing a July 25 deadline for teachers nearing retirement who are eligible for a severance bonus. Additional details.

Board members did not reply to survey comments. They did, however, answer a teacher concerned about a July 25 deadline for those nearing retirement.

After the recent dissolution of the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union, school board members voted to phase out a bonus given to veteran teachers leaving Dougco. Teachers learned earlier this month they had to decide by July 25 whether they wanted to retire and take the bonus.

But Deborah St. Martin, an elementary teacher, said the deadline was impossible to meet because state pension plan officials were unable to process paperwork that quickly.

Superintendent Liz Fagen said that deadline has been changed and teachers will now have until next June to retire and receive the bonus. A letter explaining the change was released Wednesday.

Voucher appeal may drag into next year

Barnard, who is president of Taxpayers for Public Education, one of the groups that sued over the voucher pilot, said there’s some discrepancy in district documents over what’s being charged to the legal defense fund.

For example, the cost of filling open-records requests filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, was moved out of the fund.

Rob Ross, Dougco’s in-house legal counsel, said the defense fund is for expenses incurred by outside attorneys. He said the fund currently has an $8,000 deficit but that the Walton Family Foundation has pledged another $100,000, so the fund will soon be replenished.

Board members approved the voucher pilot, which would use public dollars to help send students to private schools, by a 7-0 vote in March 2011. A Denver judge declared the plan unconstitutional last August and the district filed its notice of appeal with the Colorado Court of Appeals.

In April, opening briefs were filed by the district and the state, its co-defendent in the suit. Taxpayers for Public Education and other plaintiffs filed their responses last week. District and state officials now have until Aug. 3 to reply to those responses, and oral arguments would then likely be scheduled.

Ross said a ruling is not likely until late this year or early next year.

In other action Tuesday, school board members approved the termination of employment for Dougco teachers union president Brenda Smith and four other full-time union staff members. In several large Colorado districts, teachers elected as union presidents leave the classroom but continue to receive full or partial compensation from the district.

Dougco school board members made it clear last fall that they no longer wanted to count full-time union representatives as district employees. Smith said the union had offered to reimburse the district for the teachers’ full salaries, benefits and any other costs – in part to allow union staff to continue in the state pension plan – but the district declined. The union has filed a grievance over the issue.

District officials said they treated union staff like any other downsized employees and gave them the opportunity to apply for classroom positions or enter the substitute teaching pool. One of the six full-time union staff members will be teaching this fall while the others did not seek positions, Smith said. She said they plan to continue representing teachers.

Video highlights from Tuesday’s board meeting

Full video from Tuesday’s board meeting

Part 1 – Speakers Brian White, Trisha McCombs, Lillian Armijo and Beth Kerr
Duration: 8:13

Part 2 – Speakers Laura Mutton, Deborah St. Martin and Katherine Vitale
Duration: 9:19

Part 3 – Speakers Cindy Barnard and Gary Colley
Duration: 8:44

Part 4 – Speakers Pam Mazanec, student named David
Duration: 4:51


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.

unforced error

Mayor de Blasio says education department has culture of frivolous harassment complaints

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Bill de Blasio

A “hyper-complaint dynamic” within the city’s education department explains why so few of the harassment claims made against the agency are substantiated, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty well known inside the education world of some people bringing complaints of one type or another for reasons that may not have to do with the specific issue — and this is not just about sexual harassment,” de Blasio said at a press conference.

“We have to investigate everything but it is a known fact that unfortunately there has been a bit of a hyper-complaint dynamic sometimes for the wrong reasons.”

The mayor’s comments come less than a week after the city released statistics that show nearly 500 education department employees filed sexual harassment complaints over the past four years — but just seven of the complaints were substantiated, according to the New York Times. That means only 2 percent of complaints were found to have merit — compared with nearly 17 percent at other agencies citywide.

During a question and answer session with reporters, de Blasio repeatedly said the education department has a cultural problem when it comes to reporting misconduct.

“I can’t parse out for you who was sincere and who was insincere and what type of offense,” de Blasio said. “I can’t get there. I can tell you the fact it’s unfortunately a part of the culture of an agency that is changing that we need to address.”

De Blasio quickly tried to walk back some of his comments on Twitter.

The mayor’s comments come as activists worldwide have raised awareness about sexual harassment, sparking the #MeToo movement. One element of that conversation has been the  importance of taking harassment claims seriously instead of dismissing them. More than three-quarters of the city’s teachers are women, according to the Independent Budget Office.

De Blasio’s responses drew sharp criticism from Michael Mulgrew, president of the city’s teachers union. “Our teachers have a tough enough job that they don’t have time to make frivolous claims,” he said in a statement.

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, who was accused of gender discrimination when he was a top school district official in San Francisco, said the education department has increased the number of investigators who look into such complaints.