Money for Roads but Not Schools?

House Speaker Beth Harwell is talking about using the state’s revenue surplus to fund road projects — but has made no mention yet of how the General Assembly might begin to fund the $500 million+ being sought by school systems across the state in a lawsuit over funding adequacy.

According to the Tennessean:

The Nashville Republican noted that state tax collections continue to exceed expectations, estimating the state could receive $400 million more than anticipated. With talk of a potential gas tax increase floating around the state, Harwell said that extra one-time tax money should fund some of the many shelved state road projects.

Certainly, investing in infrastructure is wise. But, so is investing in schools.

And since the state’s BEP Review Committee says Tennessee is about $500 million behind in funding its schools and since school systems are suing demanding adequacy in light of unfunded mandates like Response to Intervention (RTI2), it would make sense to use some of the new money to begin investing in schools.

Of course, Harwell’s #2, Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, has already expressed his displeasure with school systems seeking proper funding.

The point is this: There’s money to fund some infrastructure projects AND to begin investing in schools — and it can be started without a tax increase.

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


 

 

The Road to Looney

This morning, the MNPS School Board voted 8-1 to make Williamson County Director of Schools Dr. Mike Looney the preferred finalist for the vacancy left by Dr. Register’s retirement on June 30th.

The process will move forward with a comprehensive background check on Looney and a visit by the board to his district (a short trip). If all goes well, a final offer could be made as early as next Thursday.

The meeting moved along pretty quickly this morning, with member after member noting how impressed they’d been with Looney’s interviews.

But, the road to making Looney the finalist wasn’t quite so smooth.

Just a few weeks ago, the district’s Chief Academic Officer, Jay Steele, was named the Interim Director of Schools.  Then, he wasn’t, and Chris Henson was placed in the role.

Then, the Board received a list of four finalists that included the controversial John Covington.

After Covington was eliminated from the pool following initial interviews, the Board proceeded with full-day interviews and community forums featuring the three remaining candidates.

By all accounts, the Board was impressed with how well-prepared Looney was and how specific he was about what needs to happen in MNPS.

So, this morning, Board members moved quickly to name Looney as the preferred finalist.

The process isn’t over, and Looney has issued a statement making reference to an allegation given voice by Board Member Tyese Hunter.  But, despite a bumpy process, it appears MNPS has a strong choice to be the district’s next leader.

Here’s Looney’s statement:

“I am honored to learn that Metro Nashville Public Schools has narrowed its search for the Director of Schools, and I am a finalist. Unfortunately, in the last hour of the meeting, a false allegation complicated matters by calling into question my integrity. I communicated to Board Chairwoman Gentry that my first priority is to set the record straight. I look forward to this being done in an expeditious manner. Meanwhile, I intend to converse with Williamson County School Board members about the implications of my selection as a finalist. I am especially thankful for all of the good work our families and employees are doing in Williamson County Schools. It is greatly valued. Out of respect to both School Boards and in order to facilitate getting closure on the false allegation, I will refrain from commenting further at this time.

-Dr. Mike Looney, WCS Superintendent

Read Board Member Will Pinkston’s thoughts on priorities for the next MNPS Director of Schools

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

The Looney Leap

Will MNPS hire its next Director of Schools from neighboring Williamson County?

Andrea Zelinski reports:

…after a day-long series of interviews, meet-and-greets and community forums, board members found themselves laughing at Looney’s jokes, digging his sense of urgency and engaged in the direction he wants to take the district. 

Last month Anna Shepherd was adamant that a candidate from the neighboring, largely white and wealthy district couldn’t understand MNPS’ complex and diverse student body. But after Tuesday’s marathon of meetings, Looney coming from tony Williamson County is “not as troubling” as she thought it would be, she told Pith.

The Board interviewed Barry Shephard today and is slated to make a decision on a favorite for the job by tomorrow.

It’s possible the Board could start the search over or reset it in some fashion, attempting to find additional candidates to consider.

Tune in tomorrow…

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


 

 

Since You Asked

 

In a recent article outlining a list of priorities for the next Director of MNPS, Board Member Will Pinkston said:

We also need a top-to-bottom review of our teacher compensation system to understand how we stack up against competing and similarly situated U.S. school systems, such as Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Denver and Louisville.

Here is some information on how the MNPS pay scale compares to pay scales in the cities Pinkston mentions. I used the salary paid to a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and looked at starting salary, salary at year 10, salary at year 20, and the top salary paid on the current schedule.

Here’s what it looks like:

Start                    10                          20                      TOP

MNPS                     $42,082                $44,536                 $54,800              $55,757

Louisville              $41,756                $53,759                 $69,514                $70,636

Charlotte               $37,946               $46,008                $53,954                $58,525

Austin                     $46,401               $48,837                $55,477                 $70,751

Atlanta                   $44,312               $54,167                 $62,075                 $66,467

Denver                   $38,765              $47,136                 $53,838*

*Denver has a teacher compensation system known as ProComp and the highest step is 13. Teachers in Denver earn the base pay indicated plus are eligible for incentives and base pay increases based on professional development, advanced degrees, and measures of student outcomes.

Here are a few takeaways from the raw information:

1) Starting pay in MNPS is on par with the cities Pinkston identifies as similar to/competitive with Nashville.

2) Long-term pay increases in MNPS don’t keep pace with those in other, similar districts. Taking Denver as an example, a teacher who received NO ProComp incentives and maintained only a bachelor’s degree would make at Step 13 very close to what an MNPS teacher with similar education makes at Step 20. In all other cities examined, the top step is higher (from $3000 to $15,000) than it is in MNPS.

3) Just three hours north of Nashville in a city with similar demographics and cost of living, a teacher can earn significantly better pay over a career. While a teacher in Louisville starts out making slightly less than a new Nashville teacher, by year 10, the Louisville teacher makes $9,000 more than her Nashville counterpart and by year 20, that difference stretches to $15,000. The lifetime earnings of a teacher in Louisville significantly outpace those of a teacher in Nashville.

4) Nashville’s teacher pay is higher than most of the surrounding districts — making it a competitive choice for teachers seeking to teach in middle Tennessee. However, for Nashville to become a destination for teachers wanting to build a career (or continue one) in urban education, Nashville may need to do more to improve its overall compensation package.

5) This analysis is a starting point — it’s raw data from district websites about base compensation plans. It does not take into account relative cost of living (except as noted in the comparison with Louisville) and other factors that may make teaching in Nashville an attractive proposition.

 

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

TNReady for E-Rate Dispute?

45 school districts across Tennessee could lose up to $50 million depending on the outcome of a dispute over the federal E-rate program which provides funding for internet services to schools.

Dessislava Yankova reports on the impact to Sumner County and gives an overview of the issue.

The dispute is a result of an FCC ruling regarding the bid to provide internet service to the “Sweetwater Consortium,” a group of 45 school districts in Tennessee that joined together for the purpose of gaining access to high-speed internet services at a more affordable price.

Yankova summarizes the issue:

“USAC evaluated Sweetwater’s competitive bidding process and the services requested and determined that the applicant did not select the most cost-effective offering,” the letter stated.

While evaluating AT&T’s appeal, USAC ceased E-Rate funding to ENA, which continued providing phone and Internet to the schools without receiving full payment.

On June 9, ENA Senior Director of Sales Mark Smith wrote a letter to Sumner County schools seeking a $1.4 million payment for services over the last three years and informed Sumner schools that next year’s bill would be for an additional $550,000.

“While waiting on approval of your E-Rate funding over the last three years, ENA has delivered and billed the district for 100% of the services contracted for, while collecting only the discounted portion of the services provided,” Smith stated. “The school district is ultimately responsible for full payment for services received.”

While Sumner County has funds available to shift to cover the costs, other districts may not be able to do so without making cuts elsewhere. The alternative could be a loss of access to quality high speed internet service, a service that is essential to the new TNReady tests being administered in 2016.

Chuck Cagle, an attorney representing the consortium, notes the impact to local school systems:

On May 21, 30 months after payments stopped, USAC notified all 45 systems that federal funding was denied and no back or future payments would be made. Based on the provisions of the consortium’s contract, individual systems are now responsible for full payments to the ENA, Cagle said.

“That is an egregious and seriously harmful outcome of decisions made by an over-reaching federal agency,” Cagle said. “It is crucially important to note here that this move by the FCC is unprecedented. In our collective experience, we have never known this agency to reach down into the state’s legal and proper procurement process and override an award.

“These 45 school districts are reeling from this decision by the FCC and USAC,” Cagle said. “Without accessibility to adequate broadband, advanced statewide student testing and digital learning hangs in the balance — as does the fiscal health of the districts.”

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

 

And Then There Were Three

The MNPS School Board has narrowed its search for the next Director of Schools. The Board heard from four finalists last week on Thursday and Friday. After those interviews, the board eliminated John Covington from the mix and will proceed with interviews of the remaining three candidates.

Read the applications from the candidates

Read what Board Member Will Pinkston thinks the next Director should prioritize

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

 

So, About that Reference…

It’s usually a good practice when applying for a job to let someone know if you’ve listed them as a reference. This way, they’re not surprised if they receive a call about you … and, you can be sure they’ll say something positive if they are called.

Turns out, this basic principle eluded MNPS Director of Schools candidate John Covington. Among his references, he listed the head of the local American Federation of Teachers affiliate. Impressive — if the head of the local teachers union would give the director a positive review.

Funny thing is: She wasn’t asked by Covington. Not by him. And, apparently, not by the search firm MNPS paid at least $40,000 to conduct a search.

Here’s what she said when she was asked: She wouldn’t recommend him for the job.

Here’s a release from the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) outlining the issue and demanding a refund of the money paid to the search firm:

The Metropolitan Nashville Education Association (MNEA) is asking for a refund of the fee paid to the firm responsible for vetting candidates for the next MNPS Director. The association followed up with references supplied by controversial candidate John Covington and major questions have now arisen about the work and actions of the recruiting firm.

“After reviewing the difficulties and questionable actions of John Covington when he worked in Kansas City and Michigan, we wanted to follow up on some of the references supplied by him in his application,” said MNEA President-elect Erick Huth. “One name jumped out at us in particular, Andrea Flinders, the president of the Kansas City teachers’ union was listed as a reference by the candidate. So we called her.”

Huth noted that Covington was responsible for shuttering dozens of schools and eliminating teaching positions across the district, causing great turmoil. The school district lost its accreditation shortly after Covington left in a surprise decision. There are lingering questions about why he left—he denied having another job offer and then was appointed to a state takeover entity in Michigan in short order after his abrupt and disruptive departure from Kansas City.

To Nashville teachers, having an education organization president as a supporter of Covington was a false note. It turns out that is exactly what it was.

“We called the president of the Kansas City local about the reference and she laughed, thinking it was absurd,” said Huth. “She had not been asked by Covington to be a reference and had not been contacted by the search firm to verify her name being used. She was clear she would not recommend him for the job. This raises even more questions about the validity of the search and the documents supplied to the board.”

Huth cannot understand that with the prestige of Nashville nationally, and the clear interest within the system and outside the state about the school system, that there were only four finalists, and one that clearly has not been properly vetted.

“I think it calls into question the integrity of the process,” said Huth. “It is one of the basic tasks of a search firm to call an applicant’s references, and the firm failed to do even this basic step. Also, there was a marked difference to what the firm said about Covington, and what the record shows and what was reported in the media. What else do we not know?”

Huth believes that with growing questions about the process, its hurried schedule, and the questionable information supplied by a finalist, it is prudent to restart the process with a new firm with more transparency and thoroughness. It also will provide an opportunity for new elected Metro leadership to be a part of the process.

“We are about to elect a new Metro government, the ones who keep our lights on and pay for our classrooms.  It is important we get the right person to lead our schools and can work with the new mayor and council. It is only common sense,” Huth concluded.

MNEA believes it is clear the taxpayers of Nashville did not get what they expected from the search firm, and I think it is right the school board demand a full refund. The firm, HYA Executive Search, received more than $40,000 for the service.

Read about the finalists and their applications.

Read Board Member Will Pinkston’s thoughts on priorities for a new Director.

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

The Finalists

The MNPS School Board has been presented with a slate of four finalists for the Director of Schools position. The Board may select from among the four presented or choose another candidate not listed. Currently, it seems the plan is to pursue further study of the four named finalists.

The Tennessean writes of the candidates:

• John Covington, consultant with the Broad Center. Covington is a former educator who has 29 years of experience in public education. He has worked in Pueblo, Colo.; Kansas City, Mo.; and served as the chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan. The authority is somewhat similar to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Read Covington’s Application

• Angela Huff, chief of staff for the Cobb County School District. Huff, a Nashville native, oversees 110,000 students and a staff of more than 11,000 in the Atlanta school district. She has 31 years working in education as an assistant superintendent and principal in Cobb County, and she has also served as a teacher in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Read Huff’s Application

• Mike Looney, Williamson County director of schools. Looney looks after a student population of 36,000, with almost 5,000 staff, in the neighboring Nashville district. He has 21 years experience as an educator, and under his leadership in Williamson, the district has been named one of the best in the state.

Read Looney’s Application

• Barry Shepherd, a retired Cabarrus County (N.C.) Schools superintendent. As superintendent of the Concord, N.C. district, Shepherd oversaw a student population of 31,000, with a staff of 4,000. He started his 30-year career in education as a music teacher and speaks some Spanish.

Read Shepherd’s Application

Today’s unveiling of candidates follows two weeks of controversy over who would be the interim Director of Schools.

And, this morning, Board Member Will Pinkston offered his thoughts on the priorities the next Director should emphasize.

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

A Board Member’s Thoughts on the Next Director of MNPS

MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston shares his thoughts on the next Director of MNPS
As a member of the Nashville School Board, a question I hear frequently right now is: “What are you looking for in the next director of Metro Nashville Public Schools?” Collectively, the board has outlined desired characteristics for the future leader of America’s 42nd-largest school system, including generic descriptors such as “has a clear vision of what is required to provide exemplary education services and implement effective change.” For my part, I’m looking for a leader who can tackle specific priorities that I believe represent some of the most meaningful opportunities to move MNPS to the next level. Below are 12 detailed priorities (in no particular order):
  1. Early childhood education. Expansion of pre-kindergarten is one of the only areas where the school board is in near-unanimous agreement. However, we’ve got a long way to go in defining the scope and costs of universal pre-K — with “universal” meaning every student and family that wants a seat, gets one. National research shows that pre-K is, dollar for dollar, one of the best investments we can make. We need to accelerate pre-K expansion locally, even if Governor Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell refuse to commit state resources to help.
  2. English learners. In Tennessee, 4.5 percent of public school students are English learners. In Nashville, more than 15 percent of our students are English learners. We are the most diverse school system in the state and one of the most diverse in America. If we can deliver the highest-quality educational services to our youngest New Americans, then I believe all boats will rise in our school system. At the school board’s direction, management has developed an “English Learner Innovation Plan” that outlines $16 million in new investments in areas such as language-intensive after-school programs, new technology to enable self-guided instruction, and more extensive teacher professional development. Another $23 million is proposed to reduce class sizes in schools with high percentages of English learners. In terms of the budget, this plan will require a multi-year phase-in. We need to get started now.
  3. Early-grade reading intervention. This priority goes hand-in-hand with English learner initiatives, and addresses much broader challenges and opportunities in our school system. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, supported by philanthropies including the local Dollar General Literacy Foundation, says reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high-school graduation and career success. Unfortunately, only 37 percent of MNPS third-graders meet this standard. Ensuring that every student can read at grade level by the end of third grade is the most important thing we can do. We must aggressively expand reading intervention, and do it with a sense of urgency.
  4. Testing time. We know that students, teachers and parents are exasperated by over-testing. HBO comedian John Oliver recently captured the national obsession with testing in a brilliant 18-minute segment that has drawn more than 4.5 million views on YouTube. Alberto Carvalho, head of Miami-Dade public schools, is engineering “the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not the country.” The next director of MNPS will immediately capture the hearts and minds of this community if he or she will commit to reducing testing time. My suggestion: Begin with Achieve’s “Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts,” a tool that school system leaders can use to take stock of their assessments and assessment practices.
  5. Turnaround strategies. Almost a year ago, MNPS more than doubled its number of low-performing schools on the state of Tennessee’s “priority” list, which identifies the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state based on standardized test scores. Our school system went from having six schools on the list in 2012 to, as of last year, 14 schools. Put differently: The number of students in exceedingly low-performing schools rose from 2,260 to 6,272, according to enrollment data in the state’s Report Card. Following criticism from the board, the last director scrambled to cobble together turnaround plans for each of the 14 priority schools. The next director needs to pressure-test those plans, determine if they’re sound and being implemented with fidelity, and build turnaround expertise in the Central Office and in the field. Nashville should have no schools on the state priority list.
  6. Funding adequacy. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, MNPS is ranked 54th out of 67 urban school systems in America in per-pupil funding. This is due, in large part, to inadequate state funding and refusals by the governor and legislature to commit new funding for public education. The legislature’s Basic Education Program (BEP) Review Committee estimates the BEP is under-funded by nearly $500 million, while education funding experts believe the actual number is likely in excess of $1 billion. Even using the review committee’s conservative estimate, MNPS would receive about $30 million more from the state, or an additional $350 per-pupil on top of current per-pupil state and local funding of $9,000. Tennessee’s system of funding public education was born in a courtroom in the 1980s. In keeping with our state’s modern history, a growing number of school systems now have filed lawsuits or are actively exploring litigation to challenge state funding inadequacy. MNPS may choose to join these efforts. The next director should vigorously advocate for more state funding, even if it means joining other school systems in court.
  7. Community engagement. Many of MNPS’s wounds are self-inflicted — especially when it comes to community engagement, or the lack thereof. During my time on the school board, poor communication has turned basic operational decisions, such as school rezonings and school sitings, into full-scale conflagrations with parents, students, citizens and taxpayers. A performance audit commissioned by the Metro Council, our funding authority, noted that the school system’s failings warranted the creation of a board committee specifically focused on “community and stakeholder relations.” This committee is up and running, but some board members have resisted setting minimum standards for community engagement. Notwithstanding board dysfunction, I believe the problem can be solved by a director who surrounds himself or herself with effective communicators who think and act strategically. Let’s fix this failing and eliminate these unnecessary distractions to the school system’s core mission of educating kids.
  8. Constituent services. Nashville’s nine elected school board members represent sprawling geographic districts in a county that covers 504 square miles. According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, our community’s population now exceeds 668,000 — which means each board member on average serves more than 74,000 parents, students, citizens and taxpayers. School board districts are larger than state House legislative districts. Yet board members have been deprived of the basic tools and supports needed to effectively respond to the constituents who elected us. Part of this is our own fault. As a group, we haven’t prioritized constituent services. At the same time, management has done little to develop the infrastructure needed to help board members deal with constituent concerns on a timely basis. Rebooting our approach to constituent services, along with creating new a community engagement strategy, will go a long way toward restoring public confidence in our school system.
  9. Teacher recruitment and retention. Despite repeated requests by board members, MNPS has not articulated a meaningful plan to recruit and retain the best teachers. Meanwhile, the National Council on Teacher Quality reports that two of the top four teacher-prep programs in America — Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University — are located within a stone’s throw of our school system’s Central Office. We should be hiring as many new teachers as possible from those two institutions and, as a major purchaser of teaching talent, we need to insist that other institutions step up their game. We also need a top-to-bottom review of our teacher compensation system to understand how we stack up against competing and similarly situated U.S. school systems, such as Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Denver and Louisville. For teachers currently employed by MNPS, we need to be talking every day about how to provide the best professional development to help them help our kids. I want the next director to adopt the mantra of Alvin Wilbanks, the long-serving director of Georgia’s Gwinnett County schools: “There are two types of people who work for our system. Those who teach and those who support those who teach.” Amen.
  10. Leadership development. Think of MNPS as a system of 86,000 students. Further, think of MNPS as a system of 6,000 educators. Then, think of MNPS also as a system of 140 principals. Making sure there’s a top-notch leader in every school building is perhaps our biggest lever of change.
  11. Unabated charter growth. This is the defining issue for the Nashville School Board. Some board members, pandering to special interests intent on dismantling public education, want to continue unchecked growth of publicly financed privately run schools. Other board members believe it’s time to recommit to public education and protect finite resources to help students and teachers in existing schools. To put it in perspective: In 2010, the entire state of Tennessee had just 20 charter schools. This fall, in Nashville alone, 27 charters will operate at an annual cost of $75 million. Even if the school board approves no new charter applications, more than 6,500 additional charter seats — costing another $59 million a year — will come into existence by fall 2019 under current agreements. A comprehensive audit of MNPS found that when new charter schools open, they siphon funds from traditional schools while costs such as staffing, maintenance and technology can’t be easily adjusted. The audit validated a 2014 report commissioned by the school board that found “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact.” To be sure, some charter schools are doing good work (as are some MNPS schools). But simple math tells us that we cannot sustain unabated growth of new schools of any type without systematically starving existing schools. Balancing new investments across multiple sectors and priorities is a matter of fairness and responsibility.
  12. Leadership style. The previous MNPS director’s leadership style was to pit people against each other — board members, staff members, parent leaders, community leaders. I hope the next director will not lead by divide, but rather find a way to unite people and erase the culture of fear that pervades the school system. I also hope this person will demonstrate courage and intestinal fortitude when it comes to dealing with radical state policies. When the governor and legislature set out to punish the capital city’s school system, the director of schools should be the first person on the front line fighting for public education — not pandering out of political expediency.
Other priorities are important, too. Wraparound services like health screenings for low-income students and families. Exceptional education. Alignment between academic standards and instructional materials. Expansion of the MNPS free meals program. Technology in the classroom. Energy efficiency to drive cost-savings in a system with 14 million square feet of buildings. The list goes go on and on. But these are enough, for now. Looking ahead, let me propose the following compact: If our next director of MNPS will dream big, show some spine, commit to these priorities and others, and — here’s the really important part — back it all up with action, then he or she will have my full support. I promise.
Will Pinkston, a former reporter for The Tennessean and The Wall Street Journal, served as a top aide to former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and represents South Nashville on the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education. Pinkston is a graduate of Metro Nashville Public Schools and he is an MNPS parent.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Leader of Failed KY Voucher Campaign Heads to TN

The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a pro-voucher group, has selected Mendell Grinter as its Tennessee State Director.

Grinter will work to revive interest in a statewide school voucher program that has met defeat in three consecutive legislative sessions.

The release announcing Grinter’s selection mentions:

Grinter previously served as the Kentucky State Director for BAEO where he led the creation of BAEO’s first Pastors Coalition. Under his leadership the Coalition led rallies, press conferences, community meetings, and received over 30 media placements.

Yes, the coalition led rallies, held press conferences, and even got in the news. What they didn’t do was generate any significant interest in passing vouchers in Kentucky. That’s right: Grinter led a coalition that didn’t move the needle on vouchers in Kentucky – voucher legislation, even with an interesting twist, failed to pass in Kentucky.

Of course, Kentucky also has no charter schools, so the landscape for advocates of education privatization is bleak there. What Kentucky does have is 20+ years of steady educational progress. And, with no vouchers or charters, Kentucky continues to outperform Tennessee on the NAEP.

Make no mistake, voucher legislation will be a big focus in 2016. And Mendell Grinter’s track record should be of some comfort to those who support public schools and oppose failed voucher schemes.

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