Not So Harmless

After a fourth day of TNReady trouble, the Tennessee General Assembly took action today to make changes to how the test impacts schools, students, and teachers.

While some are billing the report of a joint committee of the House and Senate as a “hold harmless” for schools, students, and teachers, that’s not entirely accurate.

Also, the legislature stopped short of putting a stop to TNReady entirely, claiming federal law “requires” them to test students.

Here’s the deal: Federal law does say that districts should administer tests to at least 95% of students and that states should test all students in reading and math from grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, with a suggestion for additional high school testing as appropriate.

BUT: Is there really a penalty for districts (or states) where the testing threshold falls below 95%?

As I reported in 2016, the last time we had a major failure of online testing in Tennessee:

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

In other words, the likelihood of a single Tennessee district losing funds due to stopping a test that isn’t working is very close to zero. Tennessee is not having problems due to opt-outs or a low number of students being tested. Kids in districts across the state are showing up for a test that is not happening. Districts are doing everything right and a vendor and the Tennessee Department of Education are failing to serve students. Unless TNDOE is going to fine districts, there is truly no risk of funds being lost.

Now, about the “hold harmless” law (pictured below):

  1. The law does say that districts and schools will not receive an “A-F” score based on the results of this year’s test. It also says schools can’t be placed on the state’s priority list based on the scores. That’s good news.
  2. The law gives districts the option of not counting this year’s scores in student grades. Some districts had already said they wouldn’t count the test due to the likelihood the scores would arrive late. Now, all districts can take this action if they choose.
  3. The law says any score generated for teachers based on this year’s test cannot be used in employment/compensation decisions.

Here’s what the law didn’t say: There will be NO TVAAS scores for teachers this year based on this data.

Commissioner McQueen said yesterday that the data from these tests will be used to generate a TVAAS score and it will count for 20% of a teacher’s evaluation. This law does NOT change that. It just says if you get a low score based on this number, you can’t be fired or denied compensation.

Below is an excerpt from current law (taken from TCA 49-1-302, the section governing teacher evaluation):

(E)  For teachers with access to individual data representative of student growth as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii), the following provisions shall apply:

  • (i)  In the 2016-2017 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 school year shall account for ten percent (10%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (ii)  In the 2017-2018 school year, the evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) shall be adjusted so that student growth data generated by assessments administered in the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years shall account for twenty percent (20%) of the overall evaluation criteria identified in subdivision (d)(2)(B);
  • (iii)  In the 2018-2019 school year and thereafter, the student growth component of the evaluation criteria shall be determined under subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii);
  • (iv)  The most recent year’s student growth evaluation composite shall account for the full thirty-five percent (35%) of growth data required in a teacher’s evaluation if such use results in a higher evaluation score;
  • (v)  For the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, student growth evaluation composites generated by assessments administered in the 2015-2016 school year shall be excluded from the student growth measure as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) if such exclusion results in a higher evaluation score for the teacher or principal. The qualitative portion of the evaluation shall be increased to account for any necessary reduction to the student growth measure.

Here’s what this means: If the current tests give you a “good” evaluation score, it will count for 35% of your total evaluation. If the score is not “good,” it only counts for 20% this year. The legislation adopted today by way of the Conference Committee does NOT change that.

In other words, the test data from the 2017-18 administration of TNReady WILL count in a teacher’s evaluation.

Also, districts now have to meet to decide how to handle the tests and student grades. For some, that decision has already been made. For others, this will require a meeting in pretty short order to let students, parents, and teachers know what’s happening.

Here’s the language of the conference committee report:

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

BREAKING: TNReady Day 4 – DOWN

In a developing story, at least eleven school systems across Tennessee are reporting problems with TNReady testing today. The problems include difficulty logging on and errors when attempting to submit completed tests.

While individual schools in some of these districts have been able to complete tests, most of the districts report widespread problems. The problems include several large districts, including Knox County, Davidson County, Rutherford County, and Sumner County.

The testing day was reportedly relatively smooth yesterday, when a number of large systems did not take the test.

More as this continuing saga unfolds.

UPDATE: 12:41 PM

Tennessee House of Representatives votes to delay budget vote until there is action on TNReady. Some are calling for the suspension of the test this year.

UPDATE: 1:03 PM  State says issue is “resolved”

The state of Tennessee plans to push ahead with testing, despite significant problems for students on three of the four days of statewide administration. The state says the current issue is “resolved” and that things are back to normal.

Here’s what “normal” looks like when you have these kind of delays.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Third Time’s No Charm

Today was Day Three of statewide testing in Tennessee — TNReady. Let’s just say that the first two days didn’t go so well.

After a serious malfunction on Monday, the state’s testing vendor claimed it was hacked yesterday. So, students around the state were unable to complete scheduled tests.

The hacking allegation raises concerns over privacy, and one parent has had enough.

Now, though, the state is sure things are worked out and Day Three is all set — smooth and problem-free.

In fact, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen testified before a House Committee today and apologized for the two days of problems. She also refused to resign and suggested that because today’s testing was going well, things were back on track. That is, nothing to worry about. She stated she believes the test results can be valid, and can be used in a valid way to evaluate teacher and school performance. Except, even in the best case scenario, that’s wrong.

Here’s the deal: There were scattered reports of issues today, including difficulty logging on and at least five districts requiring some form of tech support. If there had been no other problems this week, that would seem very minor. Taken in context, however, it’s concerning that after these past two days, some districts/schools are still struggling.

I also received one report from a middle Tennessee district that said students in middle grades (5-8) were receiving the wrong grade level tests. While unconfirmed, again, it raises questions in light of earlier challenges this week.

It’s also worth noting that several districts, including two large districts (Williamson, Rutherford) suspended testing for today. That means they weren’t trying to access the system. If the problem the past two days was system overload, a significant reduction in attempts would certainly impact that, possibly allowing the test to go forward today with only minor issues. What will happen tomorrow as those systems join the rest of the state?

Finally, even in systems reporting that the test went smoothly today, here’s what that means at an individual school:

Just a quick update as to where we are on testing and what to expect in the next few days.

We will be on a regular bell schedule both tomorrow and Friday. Due to the number of “Incomplete” tests that did not submit and those that did not get logged on, it has taken a considerable amount of time to get each logged on, trouble shoot and then submit their Writing portion of the test today. We still have close to 97 students to complete tomorrow. Many of these just needed to be recovered and submitted,but this requires time for the administrator to sit with each student and ensure that it does submit successfully.

With that being said, the TDOE has extended the testing window so that we can push back some and get this portion complete prior to moving forward. The Writing portion of the TNReady Test must be submitted prior to being able to move to part 2, 3 and 4 of ELA and has a much earlier required submission date than all of the other tests. We will work tomorrow(Thursday) to get these 97 students caught up and finished and then move ahead to the Math test beginning on Monday as planned. Barring any further disruptions of the testing platform, we will be on our previously announced testing schedule for next week. We will then pick up the remaining ELA testing the following week and will get that information out to you as quickly as we can.

The disruption caused by the testing failures on Monday and Tuesday has far-reaching impact. This message from a principal to parents explains the headache of rearranging schedules and resubmitting the tests.

The bottom line: This year’s online testing may be useful for testing the platform and working out bugs, but it is not a valid indicator of student progress or teacher performance. It certainly shouldn’t be used in any school accountability measures.

Commissioner McQueen seems unfazed by logic, however, and insists we can plow right ahead with these scores and use them to judge teacher performance, and even include them in student grades if a district chooses.

No, the third time wasn’t a charm in Tennessee, no matter what the failed Commissioner says.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Refused

One parent in Knox County has had enough and raises concerns over student privacy issues as the Tennessee Department of Education and Questar allege hacking of the state’s TNReady testing system.

Here’s the letter she sent to Knox County School leaders today:

TNReady has failed again. This time, there is serious concern about the safety of our students’ data.  If Questar has truly been hacked in the last 24 hours, then there is no way they can assure me that my student’s data is safe. To continue testing under these circumstances is irresponsible and possibly open to lawsuits re FERPA violations.

 

Until I can be assured that everything is safe and secure, my son, xxxxxx, simply cannot participate in these tests. Because he is in high school, and because GPA matters, I insist that he be given an opportunity to make up any tests once the above criteria are met.

 

I anticipate a certain amount of push-back on my decision and requirements for make-up.  I realize every one of you, the BOA, the principals, KCS admin, and the TN Legislature are scrambling today to figure out the ramifications and make decisions on future actions. I also see zero accountability or ownership of this problem by TNDOE.  However, since the testing resumes at 1pm for him, and no answers will be forthcoming by that time, I, as his parent, have to make this difficult decision until there is consensus among you.

 

I’m sure there will be no time for individual responses at this late time and on this busy day, however, rest assured, I will fight like a momma bear to make sure this fiasco doesn’t impact my son’s grades.

 

Thank you for your attention and a special thanks to those of you who are working so hard today to make sure we do what is best for our children.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

TEA on TNReady

The Tennessee Education Association has a statement out on the TNReady debacle:

TEA and its members are extremely disappointed with the failures and delays of the state online assessment system, TNReady. TEA is calling for a full and accurate accounting of the problems and how they affect students, along with proof that the system is secure and fair to Tennessee’s parents and teachers. The association is calling on lawmakers to hold students, teachers and schools harmless in light of the failures and growing concerns of the state testing system.

TEA is pleased the House and Senate are holding an immediate hearing on the testing issue.

“Students and teachers across the state are told these are high-stakes tests. Teachers’ jobs are on the line, students’ futures are on the line,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “That is the environment put upon every parent, every child, and every educator with TNReady. Now the test has been offline for two days, damaging the integrity of Tennessee testing.”

In some districts, students were able to log in, but the system would not allow them to submit finished exams. Some students were disrupted mid-exam. The State Department of Education has indicated completed work was saved on the local device students were using, but teachers and administrators must remember and document which student used which computer. It is unclear how much student assessment work was saved or lost during the failure of the online system over the past two days.

“Student morale is a key component of how well a student does on a test. Losing work, being disrupted mid-exam, and constant delays affect students negatively. We are concerned this will impact scores to the detriment of students, teachers and schools,” Gray said. “We are approaching a point where the entire testing system is becoming questionable. Students who start and stop exams may suffer emotionally or become distrustful, which may hurt concentration.”

Parents’ concerns are also growing. While the state says there is no evidence that student data or information has been compromised when the vendor said their system was hacked, there have been no guarantees the testing program protected student information.

“Many teachers are also parents, and when we hear the online testing system has been deliberately hacked, we fear for our children’s personal information,” Gray said.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

TNReady Groundhog Day

It’s Day Two of statewide TNReady testing and despite reassurances following yesterday’s disaster, districts across the state are reporting problems and suspending testing.

Nashvillle, Williamson County, Wilson County, Rutherford County, Sumner County, and Chester County have all reported problems. Students are having difficulty logging on in some cases and in others, students complete an entire test but are unable to submit.

Yesterday, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen said:

“We understand many of you suspended testing today, and we apologize for the unanticipated scheduling changes this issue may have caused,” she said in an email dispatched to district administrators. “…We feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

No, you don’t understand. No, you’re not sorry. This keeps happening. Year after year. Kids went to school yesterday ready to “test like a champion,” and then, nothing happened.

Kids went back today ready to “try again,” and nothing happened.

Word is, Commissioner McQueen is conferencing with districts now. Unless she’s saying we are going to end testing this year and that she’s resigning, I’m not sure how comforting her words can be.

Here’s a tip for Directors of Schools: Don’t believe what she tells you. There’s a clear and disastrous track record when it comes to McQueen and testing.

UPDATE: 10:32 AM

The Department of Education reports the issue is statewide and has issued this statement:

 

UPDATE: Haywood County Director calls on state to immediately suspend all TNReady testing this year>

has suspended testing AGAIN! We need our leadership to step up & suspend testing statewide. It is a statewide issue. Schools, teachers, & students will all be evaluated based on state assessment. Press pause , please!

UPDATE: 3:05 PM Arlington Schools “concerned”

As many of you are aware, TNReady online testing has been severely impacted across the state. The state required grades 9-12 to test online while it remained optional for grades 5-8. We opted out of online testing where available, therefore, grades 2-8 have not been impacted.

With this being the inaugural year of online testing for all high schools, we anticipated the potential for difficulties in the statewide implementation, so we did not schedule online tests to begin until Wednesday for safe measure.

At the time of this release, the Tennessee Department of Education has resumed all testing. We are scheduled to begin online testing at the high school tomorrow and are continuing to get updates from the TDOE. We will proceed according to those updates.

However, we are deeply concerned what impact this may have on our teachers and students and are currently monitoring that impact with other districts across the state.

We’ll update you as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: 3:09 PM – Williamson County Suspends Until Thursday

Only third and fourth grade students taking the paper TNReady tests will continue testing Wednesday. All online testing has been postponed. A decision regarding online testing will be made Wednesday afternoon. WCS hopes to resume online testing on Thursday.

UPDATE: 3:15 PM — TNDOE Says Everything Will be OK Tomorrow:

UPDATE: Lamberth legislation – 

Today I filed an amendment to end computerized testing in Tennessee and return to paper tests. For four years this system has failed our hard working students, teachers and parents and I’m finished with it. The amendment will be heard this afternoon on the House floor. — State Rep. William Lamberth of Sumner County

Stay tuned as more develops with this story.

Understatement

Today was to be the first day of the second attempt at large scale statewide online testing (TNReady) after the first attempt failed miserably two years ago.

Despite assurances from the Department of Education and new testing vendor (with a $100 million+ contract) Questar, the morning did NOT go smoothly.

Now, however, the TNDOE suggests everything is fine and tomorrow will be better.

Chalkbeat reports:

By the end of the school day, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was looking ahead to the next day.

“We understand many of you suspended testing today, and we apologize for the unanticipated scheduling changes this issue may have caused,” she said in an email dispatched to district administrators. “…We feel good going into testing tomorrow.”

But the opening-day episode renewed mass frustration in a state that is no stranger to online testing glitches. Two years ago, technical snafus derailed a wholesale switch to testing on digital devices, prompting McQueen to fire the state’s testing company and cancel TNReady for grades 3-8.

Frustration is an understatement. We’ve had four consecutive years with some TNReady problem. This marks year five. I wrote in October:

Let’s start from the beginning. Which was supposed to be 2016. Except it didn’t happen. And then it kept not happening. For full disclosure, I have a child who was in 4th grade at the time of what was to be the inaugural year of TNReady. The frustration of watching her prepare for a week of testing only to be told it would happen later and then later and then maybe never was infuriating. That adults at decision-making levels think it is just fine to treat students that way is telling. It also says something that when some adults try to stand up for their students, they are smacked down by our Commissioner of Education.

My daughter is now in 6th grade. Here we go again. She expressed some mild test anxiety over the weekend and was not exactly excited about TNReady today. Nothing to be worried about, though, unless there’s some problem with the test again.

BAM! Today starts and there’s a testing problem and the school day and overall testing schedule gets rearranged.

Here’s the good news: In math, my daughter did a hands-on project to better understand and demonstrate geometry concepts. When she went to science, the class worked in groups to create a board game.

She was excited to tell me about the work she’d done when I picked her up today. Excited! Parents of a child who is almost 12 can relate: When you pick up your kid and they are fired up (in a good way) about what happened at school, that’s huge.

My question: Why can’t she spend the rest of this week doing hands-on projects to demonstrate what she’s learned this year? Some form of project-based assessment would be far superior to the annual headache that TNReady has become.

Instead, the state says it’s all fine and things will resume as normal later in the week.

I’m sorry, but normal the last five years has been nothing short of a disaster.

It’s time for something new. The apologies and reassurances only work for so long. Will my child complete her Tennessee public school education experience with a successfully administered TNReady test that includes returning results in a timely fashion? The track record suggests the answer is NO.

So, kids out there, get ready to go back to the testing this week. Adults in our state think this is what’s best for you. Or, for them. Or, they just can’t admit they were wrong.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

BREAKING: TNReady NOT Ready…AGAIN (UPDATE)

Reports from school districts across Tennessee indicate that the state’s online TNReady platform is failing. This despite promises from the Tennessee Department of Education that all would go smoothly this week.

Update: 11:18 — Message from the TN Department of Education:

We share the frustration that earlier today some students had issues logging into Nextera to take TNReady. This issue has been resolved, and more than 25,000 students have now successfully completed TNReady exams. Testing has resumed across the state and thousands of students are on the platform now without any challenges. No server has crashed, and this issue was not due to volume. Our partners at Questar have worked quickly to resolve the issue.

UPDATE: 11:57 AM — Message from a middle Tennessee school principal:

Teachers and staff I know it is difficult to accept another apparent fiasco with school wide testing. I appreciate your patience but I do understand the frustration with the testing platform. We will discontinue standardized testing until we can get confirmation that the testing platform is operational without mishaps for students trying to take the EOC assessments. My understanding is the problem lies with the vendor, Quesstar  and not with MNPS IT connectivity or bandwidth. The school will turn in submit an irregularity form for the entire English I subpart I. I do not have an answer on the remaining subparts of English I EOC. I will keep you informed as new information is relayed for the office of research and accountability. Please keep the EOC packet that you received last week, modifications to the testing schedule will be made as soon as guidance from the central office is made available.

And a note from a high school teacher:

I teach 10th grade English, and even though I’ve told my students we’ve been assured by the state of TN that this year’s tests will work they log on, they are skeptical. And now on our first day of testing – our 9th graders attempted to take the writing portion of the English test today – many of our students weren’t successful. So my 10th graders, who are supposed to test tomorrow, are wondering what the point is. They don’t have any faith in the system.

UPDATE 12:34 PM: Wilson County Schools suspended testing in grades 6-12 today and there’s this statement from Williamson County:

Williamson County Schools 12:25 email:

“The Tennessee Department of Education experienced some difficulties across the State with online TNReady grades 5-11 testing that began today. WCS students who were able to access the system completed the test, but most could not access their tests. At this point, we have not yet received an explanation as to why some students could access the system while others could not. WCS will attempt to test again tomorrow. Third and fourth graders took TNReady on paper and were not affected.

Carol Birdsong
Communications Director”

UPDATE: 4:02 PM — Coffee County resumed testing after lunch with no problems.

UPDATE: 4:15 PM — Cheatham County Schools: TNReady testing kicked off today. There were some glitches this morning with the state testing platform. The state corrected the issues & we were able to test successfully this afternoon. The district anticipates that all will go well on Tuesday.

Stay tuned as this story develops.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Danger Ahead?

As Tennessee prepares to test more students than ever via an online platform, there are some signs of potential trouble.

Chalkbeat reports:

State officials said Thursday they are confident the new digital platform will work under heavy traffic, even as their new testing vendor, Questar, had headaches administering computer-based tests in New York on Wednesday. Some students there struggled to log on and submit their exam responses — issues that Questar leaders blamed on a separate company providing the computer infrastructure that hosts the tests.

 

Tennessee officials say they are working with Questar to ensure similar problems don’t occur in Tennessee. They also point out our online testing infrastructure is different and that Questar will have troubleshooting staff in the state during the test administration.

Here’s the problem: Across multiple testing vendors and dating back to TCAP, Tennessee has had problems with testing. This includes the now perennial issue of not being able to deliver scores back to districts in a timely manner. In fact, in December, districts were told scores might not be back in a timely fashion this year, either.

It’s possible the state and Questar have all the issues worked out and this year’s test administration will be nearly flawless. However, the record over the past few years is not encouraging.

Then, there’s the issue of what happens with the results. If they are available for factoring into student scores, it is up to districts to choose the method. I’ve written before about why that’s problematic. Here’s a quick summary:

The cube root method yielded on average a quick score, the score that goes for a grade, of 4.46 points higher. In other words, a studentscoring basic with a raw score of 30 or higher would, on average, receive an extra 4.46% on their final quick score grade, which goes on their report card. A student who scored a 70 last year could expect to receive a 74 under the new quick score calculation.

The additional points do drop as one goes up the raw score scale, however. For the average basic student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 30 and 47, they would receive an extra 5.41 extra points under the new method.

The average proficient student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 48 and 60 would get 4.32 extra points under the new method.

The average advanced student grades 3-8 with a raw score of between 61 and 67 would receive an extra 1.97 extra points under the new method.

The difference varies much more widely for below basic students, but the difference can be as much as 25 points in some cases.

So, for those districts using quick scores in report cards, there could be a wide variance across districts depending on the method chosen. It seems to me, districts should have already communicated to families how they will calculate quick scores with some justification for that choice. Alternatively, the state could have (should have?) mandated a method so that there is score consistency across the state.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of using these scores in teacher evaluation. Let’s say testing goes well this year. This would be the first year of a test without problems. If that happens, this should serve as the baseline for any test-based teacher evaluation. Yes, I think using value-added scores is a misguided approach, but if Tennessee is going to go this route, the state ought to take steps to ensure the data is as accurate as possible. That would require at least three years of successful test administration. So far, we have zero.

If TNReady is a great test that has the potential to offer us useful insight into student learning, it’s worth taking the time to get it right. So far, it seems Tennessee has yet to learn the lesson of the NAEP outlier — we don’t need rapid acceleration, we need to be patient, take our time, and focus.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

Amy Frogge on the MNPS Budget

This week, MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge raised concerns about the budget and spending in the district. Here are her full remarks from the most recent budget meeting:

“A budget is a moral document. As an elected official representing all of Nashville’s children, it matters to me that our budget reflects our morals. We must be good stewards of our schools’ resources, and we have an obligation to ensure that the funds entrusted to us are properly spent. Our budget discussions are not personal. They are about the policies that we enact as a board which will affect our community for the next decade or more, and it’s our job to ask the hard questions.

This year’s budget has kept me up at night. Never before have I received so many concerns and questions about the budget, and not just about the changes to Title I funding. A wide variety of concerns about this budget and the district’s spending have been raised.

In pouring over budget materials these last several weeks, I have found more questions than answers and have noted what appear to be a number of financial red flags.

These are the issues that have come to my attention:

1. Over the past two years, there has been a dramatic increase in unauthorized purchase requests in the district. An unauthorized purchase request, or UPR, is just what it appears to be: an unauthorized expenditure. Ideally, a UPR is never used because a purchase order should always proceed any purchase, and the only time a UPR should be used is in the case of an emergency, such as broken pipes.

During this administration’s first year, the number of unauthorized purchases increased more than sevenfold – from approximately $300,000 to $2.3 million. The trend continues this year. I am aware that sometimes URPs are triggered by accidental errors, and in a school district as large as ours, there is a certainly a human error percentage to take into account. But the ballooning number of unauthorized expenditures is a very serious problem that warrants investigation.

2. The administration entered into a no bid contract- or some sort of agreement- with Research for Better Teaching, and has paid this company over $100,000 without the required board approval, which is in violation of our board policies. I’ve heard more than one explanation from the administration about the lack of board approval, but the fact of the matter is that this contract was placed on the consent agenda for approval and then pulled immediately when a board member began asking questions. Paying vendors before seeking board approval has been an ongoing problem for this administration.

3. There is an appearance of nepotism happening within our district in a way that benefits a few but that does not benefit our children. New employees with close ties to the new administration are being paid more money for less work, including unexplained stipends and salaries outside the salary schedule. For example, one Chief’s spouse is making a $24,000 stipend in addition to her salary, even though she has less job duties and less employees to supervise than others. Another Chief’s friend is making more than any other elementary school principal, including those with more credentials. MNPS is also paying half the cost for this principal to receive her doctorate. Furthermore, the first draft of this year’s budget proposal reflected much higher pay increases for those at the top of the pay scale than the 2% raise offered to teachers. This was changed when a board member noticed the problem and pushed back.

4. In the first year of this administration, consultant costs grew from $5.1 million to $8.6 million, and some of the new consultants appear to be problematic. For example, last August, the board approved a literacy contract with R.E.A.D. America, LLC, for $150,000. When I searched for information about this company, I was unable to find a website or any other information online. The company appears to be one-woman operation run out of someone’s home in Chicago, and MNPS seems to be the sole source of this person’s income. I also received complaints about another consultant, Bruce Taylor, and decided to look into his background. From Mr. Taylor’s marketing website, I learned that he has no background or training in education, but is instead an actor who now promotes Common Core. The district has paid Mr. Taylor over $100k without board approval, and according to a Channel News 5 story, Mr. Taylor worked in the district six months without a contract.

I am also concerned because I recently learned that an outside organization has brought in the former superintendent of Knox County schools to work with MNPS. He is now attending all executive leadership meetings. According to Knoxville board members, this man ‘left a trail of disaster in his wake.’ Knoxville colleagues tell me their former superintendent spent too much and started too many unsustainable programs, leaving the school system in financial straits. Now that this superintendent is gone, Knox County Schools must cut key programs to make up for the deficit.

5. The administration is piggybacking substantial service contracts, some worth over a million dollars, from contracts in other counties. Piggybacking is a procurement tool that allows for no bid contracts. Piggybacking service contracts, as MNPS has done, is problematic because of the inherent risk of fraud and the potential to get less than the best price. One such no-bid service contract with Performance Matters was piggybacked from contracts in Shelby County, TN and Orange County, FL, for a total of $1.1 million. Yet, the Performance Matters contracts filed with the Metro Clerk’s office show that the contracts with Performance Matters are not to exceed $1.8 million. I want to know why the board was not consulted on this change.

Performance Matters is affiliated with non-profit company called Education Research and Development Institute, ERDI. According to a News Channel 5 story last week, Dr. Felder has received consulting fees from ERDI. ERDI partners include a number of other companies to which the district has awarded large contracts, including Discovery Education, for $13 million, and Scholastic, which hosted 10 Metro employees, including Dr. Felder, at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island in February 2017. According to a News Channel 4 story, MNPS helped pay for the Amelia Island conference, but Scholastic also comped rooms for MNPS employees at the five-star hotel, where rooms typically cost $700 per night. Contract discussions with Scholastic took place on Amelia Island, and immediately after the conference, administrators tried to place an extremely large contract with Scholastic on the board agenda. It was pulled when a board member questioned it. A couple of months later, in April 2017, the board approved a two-month contract for Scholastic to supply classroom libraries for $140,000. I would like to know how much Scholastic paid for the Amelia Island conference and for MNPS attendees specifically, including room fees, meals, drinks, or any other perks, as well as any consulting fees.

We need an investigation into all consulting fees garnered by MNPS employees, particularly those related to companies affiliated with ERDI. I would also like to know which contracts with ERDI partner companies were no-bid contracts.

So in sum, these are the problems as I see them: questionable contracts, consultants, and expenditures; overpaid employees; and at the very least, a disregard of proper procurement procedures. These problems have been amplified in light of the way the budget has been handled this season. With regard to contracts and consultants, the common theme seems to be avoidance of board scrutiny. That is the very opposite of transparency.

Due to ‘budget constraints’ this year, the district has already cut paper, toner, and other basic supplies from schools, curtailed professional development trainings starting in February, removed funding for school plays, cut out year-end student celebrations, and in general defunded the efforts of those on the ground- the very people who touch children’s lives daily. And now this administration has proposed cutting seven social workers and our free and reduced lunch program next year. It would be possible to make up for much of the shortfall just by cutting salaries and raises at the top of the scale. For example, excluding benefits, vacation days, raises, consulting fees and other perks, our Director and his five Chiefs alone earn salaries totaling over around $1.2 million dollars. This would pay for 22 social workers. Of course, we must pay our leaders reasonable salaries, but in a budget crunch, it’s critical that we keep our priorities straight.

All of this is disappointing and distressing because I have placed my full support behind this administration. I believe the board and administration have done excellent high-level work during the last two years, and it’s difficult to reconcile the work we’ve done with the issues I’ve raised. But it turns out that where the rubber meets the road, the focus is not really on students.

This board must engage in difficult conversations about the district’s spending, and we have an obligation to make policy corrections wherever necessary. I propose that we immediately reduce the amount on contracts that the board approves, that we prohibit any further consulting fees by district employees, at least until the audit is complete, and that we discuss installing an internal auditor that reports directly to the board to oversee MNPS spending. This board has a fiscal obligation to do the right thing, and I hope we will take swift corrective action.”

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