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


 

Volunteer Strike?

Nashville teacher Amanda Kail offers thoughts on the current national climate with teacher strikes or other actions in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona. She takes a moment to explain (from a teacher’s perspective) why this is happening and if it might happen in Tennessee.

Here are her posts:

If you are not a teacher, here are some things you might not know about why so many teachers are striking right now:

1. Most public employees, including teachers, have had their salaries frozen since 2008. In Nashville, step increases that are meant to keep up with inflation and encourage teachers to stick with the job were reintroduced only last year, and only then because MNEA stood up and fought for it. Even so, with the reintroduction of step raises (such as they are- in Nashville it takes a teacher with a MA 10 years to earn $50,000), teacher salaries are now barely above what they were 10 years ago, while cost of living and health care (because our legislature refused to expand medicaid) has sky-rocketed. In Oklahoma, many teachers were seeing the cost of their health insurance exceed their paycheck. This is why you are seeing teachers demand significant raises, not because we are greedy or want gold-plated glue sticks.

2. In states without strong teacher unions, state funding for public education has been continually slashed. In Oklahoma, many districts have been forced to go to a 4 day school week. Here in Nashville, a city with a booming economy that outpaces national averages, parents and teachers find themselves having to fight not only for school employee raises and basic supplies, but for funding school lunch programs and filters to remove lead from school drinking fountains. How can this be? Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation for per pupil funding, and our state legislature which is so generous with its offers of guns and “In God We Trust” signs, only gives us about 60% of the money we are allocated in the state budget. So 60% of already drastically underfunded = hungry kids drinking leaded water in the “It City”. And guess who mostly makes up the difference for public school kids, who provides not only school supplies, but clothing, food, medical care, transportation, and even emergency housing? Teachers. Out of our own pockets. With our low and stagnant wages. This is why you are seeing teachers who have never attended a political rally before suddenly fighting so fiercely. We ARE doing it for the kids.

3. When teachers say we want “respect”, we don’t mean more cheap tchotchkes that say “we  teachers”, or more politicians to say, “thank you for all you do for our kids blah blah blah”. We mean that we want evaluation systems that are fair. That we want our professionalism to not be measured by tests that are deeply flawed and poorly planned (TN’s state tests have had major problems 3 years in a row, including one year that the test had to be abandoned mid-session). That we want leaders who have proven themselves in the classroom first, not hatched out of some neoliberal think-tank dedicated to robbing public schools for the DeVosses of the world. That we want to have the time to design lessons, grade, and teach without interruption by more unfunded mandates. It means that teachers who choose to work with low income students, students with disabilities, and immigrants should have the time, resources, and even more importantly, the trust that we know what we are doing, so we can fill in the foundational skills our students need in order to grow so that they can function on grade level, or beyond! It means giving us class sizes and case loads that are manageable. It means that our districts should consult us as experts in the field on curriculum design and proper assessment before throwing away millions on more pre-packed crap that will end up collecting dust in the closet somewhere. It means valuing veteran teachers with teaching degrees from respected universities enough to pay competitive wages and offer paths to leadership. Seriously, you can keep the tchotchkes.

4. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Trust teachers. We are fighting not only for our own babies, but yours. We stand up for EVERY kid in our community, and we see first hand what happens when communities refuse to do the same. If we say there is a problem, we mean it. Support your local teacher union. Advocate for your neighborhood school. Question why the schools that serve mostly poor kids often look so neglected. Demand that the political candidate of your choice fight to support public schools. Vote like every kid in your state is depending on you. Teachers should not have to put our whole careers on the line to show how badly things have gotten, but we will. So listen. And join us.

On whether there may be strikes in Tennessee:

I have had several people ask me about the possibility of Nashville teachers going on strike. Here is what I will say: Sometimes a walk-out doesn’t look like a picket line. It looks like the 100 or so vacancies our district can’t fill. It looks like increasing numbers of teachers leaving in their first and second years. It looks like veteran teachers deciding to leave the career they loved because they can’t take anymore of the insanity and nonsense wrought by testing. It looks like unstaffed after-school programs because most teachers have to work second and third jobs. It looks like less and less experienced teachers in the classroom, because no one else will put up with it.

Every time a teacher leaves, the students of that teacher lose ground. I’ve seen classrooms become revolving doors of inexperienced and overwhelmed teachers, giving way to subs or overloading other classrooms. Our kids deserve better.

Here is the thing. Teachers really can’t go on like this, and we are having less and less to lose. I think it is HIGH time that the city of Nashville, not just Dr. Joseph and the BOE put school employee raises as a number one priority. The 2% “raise” we are currently being offered barely covers inflation. It still takes teachers with an MA 10 years to reach $50,000, at the same time the administrators at Bransford make more than our city’s mayor. Something has got to give.

 

 

Teachers, what are your thoughts?

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


 

It City?

I wrote a post about teacher pay over at Strong Schools — a non-profit I co-founded to focus on school funding in Sumner County. On reflection, I thought it might be interesting to those following education issues in Nashville and surrounding counties.

The post takes a look at teacher pay in 11 middle Tennessee school systems (Nashville and systems directly around Nashville). I’ve written before about the problems Nashville has had recruiting and retaining teachers. More recently, MNPS has announced some budget challenges. TC Weber has more on the details of the MNPS budget.

The bottom line: Nashville is not exactly the “It City” for teachers in middle Tennessee when it comes to the best financial package for teachers.

Here’s the breakdown of teacher pay in those 11 middle Tennessee districts:

Franklin          $52,446

Lebanon         $52,013

Murfreesboro $51,429

Montgomery   $50,377

Davidson         $49,918

Williamson       $49,489

Rutherford       $49,065

Wilson              $47,900

Sumner             $45,013

Cheatham         $44,907

Robertson         $43,684

These figures represent average teacher salary as reported by the Tennessee Department of Education. Notice that Nashville is ranked 5th in average pay.

As part of the analysis, I also took a look at the issue of health insurance. That’s a significant benefit that can help overcome otherwise low pay. Here again, even with pay + insurance, Nashville ranks fifth:

Williamson        $61,512

Franklin            $60,707

Rutherford        $60,439

Montgomery    $59,964

Davidson          $59,154

Lebanon           $58,918

Murfreesboro   $57,337

Sumner             $55,999

Wilson              $54,515

Cheatham        $52,888

Robertson        $52,670

So, new teachers considering a teaching career in the Nashville area have four options just outside of the city where they can earn better overall compensation. The problem with compensation is compounded by a rapidly rising cost of living, pricing many teachers out of being able to live in Nashville.

Oh, and it is tough to the “It City” for teachers when other cities are already doing a much better job in terms of teacher pay.

Anyway, Nashville has a half billion dollar convention center that is very nice and will soon invest in a soccer stadium, which I’m sure will be awesome. Somehow, the city can’t figure out how to adequately compensate educators or even provide safe drinking water and lunch to students.

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


 

Of Lunch and Lead

March isn’t quite over, but two incidents this month at Metro Nashville Public Schools demonstrate a clear need for improved communication from the district.

First, on the issue of lead in drinking water and the use of filters to help solve the problem:

But district spokesperson Michelle Michaud, in an interview with CBS This Morning, claimed it would cost $8,000 dollars per school just to replace the filters.

“It’s a huge cost to the district, hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Michaud claimed, adding: “That’s a price of two teachers salaries.”

The story goes on to note these numbers aren’t accurate (the cost is much lower). However, it’s noteworthy that the response from the person paid to communicate the message from MNPS is that providing safe drinking water for students is too expensive.

Fast forward to this week, and the discussion of a plan to scale back the offering of free lunch. Here’s what a district official had to say:

“Based on what we are seeing on numbers, we are below that point where it makes financial sense,” Stark said. “We can’t do the program across the district the same way we have been doing it.”

So, to be clear: MNPS believes it costs too much to provide free lunch to all kids (the total cost absorbed by MNPS would be less than 1% of the entire budget) and that providing water filters to eliminate lead in drinking water is too expensive. That’s the message communicated: Our concern is cost. It’s right there in the first responses made in both scenarios.

Here’s an idea: Make safe water and access to meals a top priority. Budget for it. Ask Metro Council for the additional funds if necessary. When your first response to issues like these is “we are worried about money” that sends an unfortunate message.

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


 

Lunch Money

The Tennessean reports on Metro Nashville Public Schools scaling back the offering of free lunch to all students.

Nashville schools is set to scale back a popular program that provides free lunch to all of its students.

The district currently provides free lunch to all students, regardless of income, but now plans to limit the program to 74 schools next year, while families at other schools must file paperwork to receive free-or-reduced lunch rates.

Why?

The district first began using the program in 2014, but must reapply for grant funding every four years, Stark said.

During that time, the number of students within the district recorded as needing federal assistance has dropped — from about 60 percent to just under 50 percent, Stark said.

The lower percentage of students eligible means the federal government won’t cover as much of the cost to provide free lunch to all students, Stark said.

The cost to MNPS to absorb the shortfall and continue offering the program across the board is $8 million. That’s less than one percent of the entire system budget.

Angst?

Nashville schools will still continue to provide free breakfast to students next year, Stark said. The money to fund that program comes from other sources, he said.

“We are hoping that can alleviate at least some of the angst,” he said.

Interesting that the concern from the standpoint of MNPS is parent angst, not student hunger.

Also worth noting: This announcement came on the same day that legislation to prevent “lunch shaming” sponsored by John Ray Clemmons of Nashville failed in a House committee. That bill would have prohibited separating students who had an outstanding meal debt at school. Clemmons cited a story about one Tennessee school where students with unpaid lunch debt were made to eat a peanut butter sandwich in the principal’s office.

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


 

TC Talks MNPS Budget

So, there’s been some excitement around the MNPS budget and TC Weber has been following it all.

Here’s a bit from his latest post:

As anticipated, changes were announced to the distribution method of Title I funds yesterday. Going forth, schools who are above the 75% poverty level will receive $651 per direct certified student, and schools between 50% and 74% will receive $300. This will soften the blow for some schools, while getting the needed resources to others. The general feeling was that if this had been the initial proposal, then a lot of the turmoil that has embroiled the district over the last several weeks could have been avoided.

And:

At yesterday’s budget talk to principals, Joseph indicated that his budget would require an additional $45 million in revenue from the Metro Council. He was going to ask for $59 million, but being a frugal guy, he lowered the ask. This $45 million ask will come as Nashville itself is looking at a loss of $25 million in revenue. I would think that ask would be a lot easier if MNPS could demonstrate that the extra money they received last year was well utilized and produced measurable results. As it stands, there seems to be a dearth of evidence of progress and an abundance of questions. Hopefully the upcoming Metro audit will illuminate spending a little better.

Stay tuned for more in what is sure to be a very interesting budget cycle.

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


 

 

A Lesson in Communication

Teacher and blogger Mary Holden got to teach a lesson in communication in real time yesterday as MNPS dealt with the predicted bad weather and an early dismissal.

Here’s a bit from her take on the situation:

Communication has long been an issue for MNPS. Perhaps they don’t have the right people in charge? I mean, the district’s public information officer – the public face of the district – was recently on the news discussing how we don’t have enough money for water filters in some of our schools where there is lead in the water. LEAD IN THE WATER. And we can’t pay for filters?! She came across as callous and tone deaf.

I don’t know. All I do know is that it is frustrating. I’m left with a bunch of questions…

Are there not communication protocols in place for this kind of event? Shouldn’t there be at least one official district email for all employees in a situation like this to prevent the spread of misinformation? As soon as a decision is made like today’s early dismissal, shouldn’t there be an immediate callout AND email to parents and teachers with all the necessary and specific information needed? Shouldn’t every avenue of communication be pursued at the moment the decision is made – instead of just one tweet??

READ MORE about Mary’s day and how she turned it into a teaching opportunity.

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


 

Elrod Announces Campaign for Nashville School Board

From a press release:

– Rachael Anne Elrod formally announces her candidacy for the District 2 seat on the Metro Nashville Board of Education.

“I’m raising my hand and running for school board to improve our schools so every child can thrive, and because I want every teacher to have the resources and support they need to succeed,” said Rachael Anne. “Our schools are made up of wonderful students, demanding parents, hardworking staff, and passionate teachers, and through listening and working together we can accomplish the goal of making our public schools the best they can be.”

 

Rachael Anne and her husband, Jeremy, have lived in District 2 for nearly a decade and currently reside in Crieve Hall. They look forward to seeing their three-year-old twin boys learn and grow in MNPS schools in the coming years. Between recent experiences with the school system, and ongoing conversations with parents, she knows the needs for system-wide collaboration, student-focused curriculum, improved classroom resources, and expanded Pre-K.

 

“Navigating our school system should not be difficult for families, whether a child is an English language learner, has special needs, or is just trying to get the most of their school,” said Rachael Anne. “It should be easy for every parent to understand a child’s options so they can receive services to not only do well, but to excel.”

 

Rachael Anne holds a Bachelor of Science in Education from Austin Peay State University and taught first grade in Clarksville, Tennessee.

 

“Teaching my students was rewarding, but I went through some of the same frustrations just to do my job every day that MNPS teachers face,” said Elrod. “We have to support our teachers, who are the best and most important part of educating our children.”

 

Rachael Anne, 35, has extensive experience in corporate training and improving employee performances, where she was known for her problem-solving skills and results-driven development strategies.

 

“The people of Nashville have a unique spirit of innovating while building each other up and pulling together as a community,” said Elrod. “I want our schools to reflect the same values.”

The District 2 school board seat is located in South Nashville and currently held by Dr. Jo Ann Brannon, who has announced she will not run for reelection. To “Raise Your Hand for Rachael Anne,” visit ElrodForSchools.com or Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @elrodforschools.

 

Schools zoned for or located in District 2: Granbery Elementary, Shayne Elementary, Crieve Hall Elementary, Cole Elementary, Haywood Elementary, Tusculum Elementary, Croft Design Center, McMurray Middle School, Oliver Middle School, Valor Flagship Academy, Valor Voyager Academy, Cane Ridge High School, and Overton High School.

 

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


 

Beer Me

It seems one Nashville charter school is in need of new teachers and hopes to recruit them at an event with free beer.

Here’s a portion of the invite to an event hosted by Valor Collegiate Academies:

Come meet key members of Valor’s network and school-based teams, and enjoy a beer on us while learning about career opportunities at Valor! We have several openings on both our middle and founding high school teams in Fall 2018, which you can check out here!

The event is being held at Black Abbey Brewing Company on March 28th.

As an MNPS-authorized charter school, Valor receives taxpayer funds in the way of BEP (school funding formula) dollars based on the number of students who attend.

Is is explicitly against the law to use taxpayer funds to provide free alcohol at a teacher recruitment event? Not exactly. But, it is problematic.

First, imagine the principal of any other MNPS school hosting a recruitment event and using school funds to buy free beer for guests? What would happen if the principals at JT Moore or Hillsboro High tried this?

Second, while recruiting teachers is certainly important, that can be done without using taxpayer funds to buy alcohol.

Third, the state’s Achievement School District faced some trouble in the past when they held a teacher recruitment event and offered free alcoholic drinks.

In fact, a recent Comptroller’s audit of the Achievement School District noted:

In addition, “in recognition of ASD school leaders and support staff, management purchased $1,631 of alcohol using a purchasing card and charged the expense to Charter School Grant Funding, a private grant that provides restricted funding for operating expenses for school year 2015-16 Achievement Schools … .”

That purchase came up in the discussion among lawmakers Wednesday, with Rep. Harold Love of Nashville saying he was “alarmed and disappointed.”

“We advise all offices to never buy alcohol with taxpayer funds,” Mumpower said.

As a former state employee, I recall that on state-funded travel, we were always advised not to purchase alcohol with state funds and meal reimbursements were not to include alcohol.

Perhaps Valor will suggest they raised private funds to pay for the party and so should not be subject to scrutiny. Again, imagine the principal at your child’s school telling you they’d raised private funds to help the school and instead of using them for resources for the students or training for teachers, they were using those funds to buy beer to lure people into jobs there.

In any case, on March 28th at Black Abbey Brewing, there’s free beer courtesy of Valor Collegiate. Drink up!

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


 

 

No More Paper?

Apparently, Metro Nashville Public Schools is in such dire straits due to a so-called “budget shortfall” that at least one school was denied a request for paper.

WTVF-NewsChannel 5 has the story:

“We would not allow any school to go without paper, we would not allow any school to go without materials,” he said.

However, that indeed had already happened.

“Overton did everything right,” said Evernham.

The school’s principal, Dr. Jill Pittman, put in a request for paper funding but she was denied. So parents, instead, took matters into their own hands and on Wednesday morning delivered cases of paper for the entire school.

While this issue has seemingly been resolved (paper was to arrive this morning), it highlights the continued confusion around the surprise budget crisis that has created a hiring and spending freeze in the district.

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