Frogge on the MNPS Budget

Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge yesterday outlined some concerns she has as the school system’s proposed budget faces tough choices ahead:

MNPS will receive a $5 million increase this year, rather than the $45 million increase requested by the board. Mayor Briley is doing his best with limited funding, as this article explains, but there just isn’t enough money to go around.

For the first time in my school board career, I voted against a budget proposal. After weeks of receiving conflicting and inaccurate information from the administration, I lost trust in the budget process. The administration still will not answer many of my questions, which is unacceptable.

So where will the cuts come from?

They will not come from the charter sector. Under state law, charters must be paid, so the $5 million increase must first go toward the $14 million increase in charter school costs this year. While other schools may suffer, charter schools will remain fully funded.

Cuts are not likely to be made at the top levels of administration. While cutting paper from classrooms and proposing to cut seven social workers from schools, Dr. Joseph pushed for a pay raise for himself and his top administrators. In the wake of the budget shortfall, he chose to keep his personal chauffeur. Dr. Joseph also pushed to pay friends brought to Nashville extra, unexplained stipends and high salaries off the pay scale.

Under the current budget proposal, Dr. Joseph will earn $346,000 next year. This amount includes his salary plus vacation days and deferred compensation, but doesn’t include his benefits or any consulting fees that he may earn per his contract. (The administration will not disclose how much MNPS employees are earning in consulting fees, even though I have repeatedly requested this information.) Dr. Joseph has added top level administrators and will pay four of his five Chiefs $190,000 each next year. (The fifth earns approximately $170,000.) To provide context for these salaries, Dr. Register earned $266,000 per year and paid his top administrators $155,000 each. Jay Steele, who earned $155,000, was alone performing the same job that now is fulfilled by two Chiefs, each earning $190,000.

Cuts are also not likely to come from consultants. The year before Dr. Joseph and his team arrived, the district paid outside consultants approximately $5 million dollars. Next year, it appears the district will pay consultants somewhere in the range of $14 million to $30 million. Again, I can’t get a straight answer from this administration on proposed consultant costs, so this is my best guess. What’s clear is that consultant costs have increased substantially under this administration, which begs the question: Why must we pay outsiders so much to guide the district’s work while also increasing salaries for those already paid to lead the district? Do our current leaders not have the necessary expertise? When they were brought to Nashville, they were certainly billed as experts deserving of higher salaries.

Some of the cuts will surely come from Dr. Joseph’s firing of nearly 100 Reading Recovery teachers. Although Dr. Joseph promised a plan to “repurpose” these teachers, it’s become clear that there is no such plan, and in fact, schools don’t have any money in their budgets to re-hire these teachers. There are also limited positions available for these teachers. So ultimately, it’s most likely that our very best and most highly trained literacy teachers will leave. Many are already retiring or headed to other districts. Despite an ongoing teacher shortage, this doesn’t seem to bother Dr. Joseph and his team, who were actually caught celebrating the firing of these literacy experts after our board meeting.

Finally, the $27.2 million increase requested for employee compensation, including pay raises and step increases, seems impossible now.

This budget season has been a disaster- unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the Metro Council is prepared to ask the hard questions.

 

A few comments:

First, the reason Mayor Briley is having a tough budget season is because the two previous mayors (with approval from Metro Council) spent heavily from reserve funds to balance budgets. Now, that savings account is depleted and absent new revenue, there’s just not any extra money. Yes, Metro Council needs to ask tough questions of the school budget, but they should also be asking questions about how Nashville got here.

Second, as Frogge notes, it seems likely that two things will happen: Some teachers will lose their jobs and there will be no raises. Both are incredibly problematic. Nashville is experiencing a teacher shortage that has resulted in a shift toward what I’ve called “virtual equality.” Nashville teachers are already underpaid, and not giving raises would only exacerbate this problem.

Third, one reason the MNPS budget is facing problems is a “surprising” drop in students. Somehow, this drop was both unanticipated and created a budget emergency this year.

By way of her post, Frogge points out some possible alternatives. It’s up to the School Board to make a proposal to the Metro Council based on these new numbers. The revisions Dr. Joseph proposes to the MNPS Board will say a lot about his priorities. Metro Council can’t revise the school system’s budget, they can only vote it up or down. However, a budget document that doesn’t address the concerns Frogge raises should be rejected and sent back to MNPS for improvement.

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

Keep the education news coming!

 

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.”

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


 

2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

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


 

The Easy Way Out

While Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in middle Tennessee and the lowest of any county with a population over 100,000, County Commissioners and the County Mayor are now pushing a sales tax increase scheme that will ultimately rest with local voters.

All of this comes about because the Williamson County Commission continues to exhibit a preference for low taxes and lattes over investment in schools.

Here’s more from the Tennessean on the sales tax effort:

Pushing for an increase in the county’s sales tax to help fund future school projects was a cornerstone of Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson’s 15th annual State of the County Address.

The final passage of the proposed 25-cent sales tax increase would be left up to residents in a county-wide referendum, but Anderson has been visiting the county’s six municipalities over the past several weeks in efforts to convince cities to agree to an inter-local agreement that would allocate a portion of new revenue to cover debt service for schools.

“The school system could see an additional $60 million by the arrangements we’re working on for three years,” Anderson said.

All of that sounds great — until you realize this is the most regressive way to raise revenue. Oh, and it has to be approved by voters.

I saw this scenario play out in Sumner County in 2012. County Commissioners faced pressure to raise revenue for a school system growing rapidly. The Commission could not pass a property tax increase. Instead, they put a wheel tax increase on the ballot — twice. It failed both times.

After the wheel tax increase failed twice, County Commissioners ran around saying voters didn’t want a tax increase at all, not even a property tax increase. So, the school budget would have to be cut.

Here’s how this movie ended: Voters turned out in record numbers in 2014 in Sumner County to elect new County Commissioners. The new commissioners promised to explore every option to raise revenue for a county that hadn’t seen a property tax increase in 12 years.

A property tax increase was passed that allowed Sumner County to invest in schools and other needs while still maintaining the second-lowest property tax rate in middle Tennessee. The school system now has a budget that is funded by the revenue generated from a growing county with a low tax rate.

Williamson County is in an even more enviable position than Sumner. Williamson has the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee — by 35 cents. Each one penny increase in the property tax generates $1 million in revenue. A 10-cent property tax increase would generate $10 million — more than enough to fund this year’s budget request — and would still give Williamson the lowest tax rate in the region by 25 cents.

What Mayor Anderson is pitching now may sound like good news. It’s not a long-term solution, though. Even if it somehow passed, the sales tax increase and inter-local agreement scheme is just kicking the can down the road.

Here’s the alternative (best) option: Raise property taxes a modest amount — maintain your system’s reputation for excellent schools AND enjoy the lowest property tax rate in the Nashville region.

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


 

 

Budget Day in Williamson County

From a post on the Williamson Strong Facebook page:

Today’s the big day! The County Commission will spend the whole day discussing and voting on “approximately 50 resolutions concerning the county budget, including a total county general budget proposal of $557 million, a school budget of $337 million, various capital projects and over 20 new positions in county government.”

In advance of today’s meeting, the WCSB cut the proposed 2017-18 WCS budget by $6 million “eliminating multiple proposed instructional positions, including counselors, special education support staff and proposed central office positions.” With the cut eliminating the need for a tax increase this year, the school budget should be approved with little debate.

“Looney explained that if the school district is forced to cut its budget again in other areas next year, and beyond, to avoid a tax increase, with no incoming revenue, the school district will be unable to maintain its current high level of service.”

You might think from reading this that Williamson County is struggling financially. Or that they lack the fiscal capacity to maintain a high level of school services. But, the reality is they simply have a County Commission that prefers lattes to tax increases.

As I noted previously:

So, the School Board passed budget cuts of $6 million this week. The alternative would have been for the County Commission to raise property taxes by six cents. That would cost a taxpayer with a $400,000 home $60 a year. Or, one Starbucks drink a month.

While this may not be a huge setback this year, it’s unsustainable in a district growing as rapidly as Williamson County. At some point, the level of service provided to students will noticeably suffer. Until then, have another Caramel Macchiato.

Director of Schools Mike Looney echoed that sentiment when he noted that if this type of budgeting continues, Williamson County will no longer be able to provide the high level of service students and families have come to appreciate and expect.

While no one likes higher taxes, Williamson’s are comparatively low:

Here’s what’s interesting: A property tax increase of 6 cents would basically cover the projected shortfall. Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate in Middle Tennessee. It’s 35 cents lower than the second-lowest, which is Sumner County. A 6 cent increase would mean Williamson’s tax rate would still be the lowest, and still be 29 cents lower than Sumner. It would cost a taxpayer with a home valued at $400,000 roughly $60 a year.

Also low: Williamson County’s spending relative to top performing counties. In other words, Williamson County Schools is getting the maximum bang for taxpayer bucks:

Of the top 10 districts in terms of academic performance (measured by ACT/TCAP), WCS has the lowest per pupil expenditure. WCS spends only $8,945 per student – $1,790 less than the average PPE of the top 10 districts.

In spite of all the evidence and data, and the enviable position of being a high-performing school district with relatively low investment per student and the lowest tax rate in middle Tennessee, Williamson County is set to start down a path that could result in losing ground. It may not be noticed in the 2017-18 school year, but as Looney notes, if the trend continues, there will be a loss of services.

How long will Williamson County Commissioners hold on to the myth that you can have excellent schools without maintaining your investment in them?

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


 

MNPS Budget Has Arrived! 3% raises and more…

Dr. Joseph has released his first budget as director of schools. It includes raises for teachers and support staff, adds more ELL teachers, and more. According to the Tennessean,  “Joseph is asking for $902.8 million in funds to operate the district, an increase of just over $59 million for the 2017-18 school year.” Here’s a first look at the budget, which you can read here:

 

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  • 3% raise for teachers and support staff
  • Increased substitute pay. According to Joseph, MNPS will have highest sub pay for middle Tennessee.
  • 31 new ELL teachers
  • 18 new translators
  • 11 new reading recovery teachers
  • 7 more school counselors
  • 19.5 additional itinerate staff (school psychologists, speech pathologists, and instructional technology specialists)
  • 2 SEL coaches
  • 4 more community achieves site managers
  • Every school will be required to have a literacy coach and a part time gifted instructor
  • Free Advanced Placement, Cambridge,  and International Baccalaureate exams for students
  • All middle schools will become STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) schools over the next three years
  • HR office will grow by 8 employees

Dr. Joseph will present the proposed budget to Mayor Megan Barry on April 13. The mayor and the council will have the final say in how much of the proposed budget is funded.

I wanted to share some of the graphics that went along with the budget presentation.

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


 

 

 

2017 Education Issues Outlook

The 2017 session of the Tennessee General Assembly is underway and as always, education is a hot issue on the Hill. The bill filing deadline was yesterday and some familiar issues are back again. Namely, vouchers.

While the voucher fight may be the biggest education showdown this session, issues ranging from the scope of the state’s Achievement School District to a “Teacher Bill of Rights” and of course, funding, will also be debated.

Here’s a rundown of the big issues for this session:

Vouchers

Senator Brian Kelsey of Shelby County is pushing a voucher plan that is essentially a pilot program that would apply to Shelby County only. Voucher advocates have failed to gain passage of a plan with statewide application over the past four legislative sessions. The idea behind this plan seems to be to limit it to Shelby County in order to mitigate opposition from lawmakers who fear a voucher scheme may negatively impact school systems in their own districts.

In addition to Kelsey’s limited plan, Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville is back with the “traditional” voucher bill he’s run year after year. This plan has essentially the same requirements as Kelsey’s plan, but would be available to students across the state. It’s not clear which of these two plans has the best chance of passage. I suspect both will be set in motion, and as time wears on, one will emerge as most likely to be adopted. Voucher advocates are likely emboldened by the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Of course, Tennessee already has one type of voucher. The legislature adopted an Individual Education Account voucher program designed for students with special needs back in 2015. That proposal goes into effect this year. Chalkbeat reported that only 130 families applied. That’s pretty low, considering some 20,000 students meet the eligibility requirements.

Achievement School District

Two years ago, I wrote about how the ASD’s mission creep was hampering any potential effectiveness it might have. Now, it seems that even the ASD’s leadership agrees that pulling back and refocusing is necessary. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reports:

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would stop the Achievement School District from starting new charter schools, rather than just overhauling existing schools that are struggling.

Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville filed the bill last week at the request of the State Department of Education. In addition to curbing new starts, the legislation proposes changing the rules so that the ASD no longer can take over struggling schools unilaterally. Instead, the state would give local districts time and resources to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

Tatter notes that the Tennessee Department of Education and the ASD’s leadership support the bill. This is likely welcome news for those who have raised concerns over the ASD’s performance and approach.

Teacher Bill of Rights

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville has introduced what he’s calling a “Teacher Bill of Rights.” The bill outlines what Green sees as some basic protections for teachers. If adopted, his proposal would have the effect of changing the way the state evaluates teachers. Among the rights enumerated in SB 14 is the right to “be evaluated by a professional with the same subject matter expertise,” and the right to “be evaluated based only on students a teacher has taught.”

While both of these may seem like common sense, they are not current practice in Tennessee’s public schools. Many teachers are evaluated by building leaders and others who lack subject matter expertise. Further, teachers who do not generate their own student growth scores (those who don’t teach in tested subjects) are evaluated in part on school-wide scores or other metrics of student performance — meaning they receive an evaluation score based in part on students they’ve never taught.

Green’s Teacher Bill of Rights will almost certainly face opposition from the Department of Education.

Funding

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Governor Bill Haslam is proposing spending over $200 million in new money on schools. Around $60 million of that is for BEP growth. $100 million will provide districts with funds for teacher compensation. And, there’s $22 million for English Language Learners as well as $15 million for Career and Technical Education.

These are all good things and important investments for our schools. In fact, the BEP Review Committee — the state body tasked with reviewing school funding and evaluating the formula’s effectiveness, identified teacher pay and funds for English Language Learners as top priorities.

Here’s the full list of priorities identified by the BEP Review Committee for this year:

1. Sustained commitment to teacher compensation

2. English Language Learner funding (to bring ratios closer to the level called for in the BEP Enhancement Act of 2016)

3. Funding the number of guidance counselors at a level closer to national best practices

4. Funding Response to Instruction and Intervention positions

5. Sustained technology funding

Haslam’s budget proposal makes an effort to address 1 and 2. However, there’s no additional money to improve the guidance counselor ratio, no funds for the unfunded mandate of RTI and no additional money for technology.

Oh, and then there’s the persistent under-funding of schools as a result of a BEP formula that no longer works. In fact, the Comptroller’s Office says we are under-funding schools by at least $400 million. Haslam’s budget does not address the funding ratios that create this inadequacy.

Then, of course, improving the ratios does nothing on its own to achieve a long-standing BEP Review Committee goal: Providing districts with teacher compensation that more closely matches the actual cost of hiring a teacher. The projected cost of this, according to the 2014 BEP Review Committee Report, is around $500 million.

The good news is we have the money available to begin addressing the ratio deficit. The General Assembly could redirect some of our state’s surplus dollars toward improving the BEP ratios and start eating into that $400 million deficit. Doing so would return money to the taxpayers by way of investment in their local schools. It would also help County Commissions avoid raising property taxes.

Stay tuned as the bills start moving next week and beyond. It’s expected this session could last into May, and education will be a flash point throughout over these next few months.

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


 

Decoding Dyslexia Opposes MNPS Reading Recovery Initiative

Today, members of Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee wrote to the Nashville School Board in opposition of the budget investment in Reading Recovery. Decoding Dyslexia has four major points in their letter.

  1. We feel that MNPS should not spend so much money funding a program that is not evidence-based and is known not to work for the very kids (those with dyslexia) who struggle most to read.
  2. We feel strongly that MNPS should spend its money training teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method, which will soon be required by law, which has been proven by years of research to teach the most troubled readers how to read
  3. We strongly feel that MNPS should heed the guidance of the TNDOE (who worked tirelessly with dyslexia advocates from TN STEP, Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee, Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia and Tennessee chapter of the International Dyslexia Association to craft this guide) and spend its money on the Orton-Gillingham program contained in the guidance from the State. 
  4. We feel strongly that your district should follow the United State Congress’ lead and give students an evidence-based program to help all students read.

I hope you will read the full letter below. Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee makes a push for using evidence-based reading interventions for all students. Let’s hope MNPS takes their advice.

 

April 5, 2016
Dear Metro Nashville School Board Members,
We, members of Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee, would like to voice our opposition to the School Board’s proposal to invest a large amount of money into the “Reading Recovery” literacy program in MNPS.  Although we are pleased with your district’s focus on literacy, we strongly urge you to consider using a program that is evidence-based that will address the needs of ALL struggling readers. We urge you to fund a multi-sensory, evidence-based literacy program, such as Orton-Gillingham, which is proven to work for ALL students, not just those with dyslexia. Here is why:
1. Science knows that students with dyslexia make up 20% of our student population and 80% of the kids who ultimately end up in special education for learning disabilities.  Students with dyslexia are a huge percentage of our struggling readers. Scientists and dyslexia experts also know that students with dyslexia need an evidence-based program, like Orton-Gillingham, to learn to read. Leading dyslexia experts agree that Reading Recovery does not work for students with dyslexia and some, such as Lousia Motts, go as far to say its harmful and that it is “indefensible to keep spending money on this.” Sally Shaywitz, of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity writes “We have come too far and made too much progress to allow anything less than valid scientific evidence to be used in determining if, indeed, a program is effective in improving students’ reading.” We feel that MNPS should not spend so much money funding a program that is not evidence-based and is known not to work for the very kids (those with dyslexia) who struggle most to read.
2. Tennessee Legislature is about to pass the Say Dyslexia Bill which will require districts to screen students for dyslexia in kindergarten and will require districts to provide dyslexia-specific interventions, like Orton-Gillingham, to be put into general education in the RTI Tiers. Specifically, the Bill says “The LEA shall: provide student with appropriate dyslexia-specific intervention through the RTI framework.” We feel strongly that MNPS should spend its money training teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method, which will soon be required by law, which has been proven by years of research to teach the most troubled readers how to read.
3. The TN DOE has issued, in January 2016, the “Understanding Dyslexia: a Guide for Parents and Educators” which clearly states that: “It is not necessary for a student to be diagnosed with dyslexia in order to receive appropriate intervention. Once a school identifies that a student shows characteristics of dyslexia, it is important to provide the right interventions…These principles of instruction are often referred to by the following terms: Orton-Gillingham based, a Multisensory Structured Language, or Structured Literacy. Interventions must be aligned to individual students’ needs. For students with dyslexia or for students with the characteristics of dyslexia, the intervention should address the specific phonological deficits identified through targeted assessments.” We strongly feel that MNPS should heed the guidance of the TNDOE (who worked tirelessly with dyslexia advocates from TN STEP, Decoding Dyslexia – Tennessee, Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia and Tennessee chapter of the International Dyslexia Association to craft this guide) and spend its money on the Orton-Gillingham program contained in the guidance from the State. 
4. The United States Congress has recently passed the Research Excellence and Advancements for Dyslexia (READ) Act which instructs the National Science Foundation to create best-practices on evidence-based educational tools for children with dyslexia.  To pass the bill, the Congress held extensive testimony from dyslexia experts which, again, highlighted the need for evidence-based interventions for students with dyslexia.  We feel strongly that your district should follow the United State Congress’ lead and give students an evidence-based program to help all students read.
We urge you all to look deeply at this issue before dedicating such a large amount of money on something that is not proven to work for ALL students.  Dr. Michael Hart, an international dyslexia expert of 25 years, is willing to come present to your board on our behalf once he returns from an international dyslexia conference in India the week of April 18th.  Thank you for your attention on this most important issue. Thank you further for focusing your attention on literacy, which is hugely important for the success of ALL our students.
Sincerely,
Anna Thorsen
Eillen Miller
Julya Johnson
Lori Smith
Melissa Tackett
Suzanne Roberts
Rachel Doherty
P.S. If you would like more information about the details listed above, here are some resources:
  1. “Cautionary Note – Show me the Evidence” – by Sally Shaywitz, Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. http://dyslexia.yale.edu/ABOUT_Shaywitz_MajorStepForward.html
2.  The text of the whole Tennessee #SayDyslexia Bill can be found here: https://decodingdyslexiatn.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/hb2616-sb-2635-dyslexia.pdf
3. Full text of “Understanding Dyslexia: a Guide for Parents and Educators” https://tn.gov/assets/entities/education/attachments/sped_understanding_dyslexia.pdf
4. Congressional testimony about evidence-based vs. research-based practices https://youtu.be/nbQ9wAtTxlU.
5. A short, general informational TEDed Video “What is Dyslexia.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zafiGBrFkRM

 


 

 

Mary Pierce: The Centralized vs. De-Centralized Debate

Nashville School Board Member Mary Pierce recently shared her opinions on the upcoming MNPS budget. The budget conversations have turned into a philosophical centralized vs. de-centralized debate. These conversations are much needed in Nashville. No matter where you fall on the spectrum, these conversations allow us to make our education system better for our students. Some budget items need to be centralized, like payroll, transportation, and maintenance. Others not so much.

I think Mary Pierce is saying that she is not against XYZ program, but she is in favor of the principal to make the decision what is best for their school.

So why the debate? As you saw, while $454M is sent directly to schools, some $356M is still managed at central office, but for much more than daily operations such as school buses, utilities or building maintenance  Roughly  $117M or almost $1,600 per pupil is managed by central office for academics in areas like Literacy, English Learners, Advanced Academics, Special Education, Family and Community Support, and more. It’s in this space where we see the philosophical divide. Does centralizing these services align with our strategic plan or should we allow our principals more flexibility in areas like these by giving them more dollars to drive outcomes for the students they serve?  My personal belief is that central office can best support our schools by making thoughtful and intentional hires of principals for each school community, and then allowing them the budgetary freedom to make staffing and academic decisions for their specific school communities.

While the 2016-17 proposed budget is still in draft form, we have had two meetings to walk through the overall budget and the proposed changes or expansions of programs. Of the requests totaling around $22M in new funding from departments within central office, roughly $6.4M will be sent directly to schools via student based budgeting for teachers supporting students learning English, but the remaining $16M will be managed by central office. This does not mean that the teachers or staff paid for by these initiatives won’t be out in schools directly working with students, but it does mean the principals will not have programmatic or budgetary discretion over the programs. While the programs are not mandated, schools will not receive funding for support unless principals agree to follow the central office plan.

To be clear, the questions raised by board members have not been about the merits of a particular program or service, but rather about who is in the best position to make the best decisions on the behalf of students and does this align with our strategic plan.
What do you think about this philosophical debate?