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


 

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


 

 

You’ve Got Questions

If you are involved in public education in Nashville, you’ve been hearing a lot recently about budget issues. You’ve got questions. The answers are still elusive, however.

TC Weber takes a crack at explaining a bit more about the MNPS budget and the two issues (an enrollment drop and a shift in funding priorities) causing some concern around the district.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

The first question is why this short fall wasn’t identified and adjusted for at an earlier date. Some of you may not be familiar with how the state funding process works. Each student is assigned a dollar value by the state. Every 20 days the district submits a count to the state in which funding is based on. Twice a year, the state cuts a check. So, I’m curious why this shortfall, or potential shortfall, wasn’t spotted in October. Or November. Or December, Finding it in February is a little curious. Unless people were just ignoring it till February when they went out to the mailbox looking for a check and the mailbox was bare, so then questions arose.

The second question arises from the size of the shortfall. I say, “$7.5 million” to you and your eyes get wide. But if I put that 7.5 next to 900 million, it ain’t so eye widening. What I’m saying is, we should be concerned, but does this warrant a crisis like reaction? And that’s how we’ve reacted. A hiring and traveling freeze has been imposed. Individual school budgets – monies that have been pre-approved and are part of the this years budget – if not already spent, are required to be re-submitted for approval.

TC takes the time to explain a bit more about Title I funding, too. Check out the post for more on the puzzle that is the upcoming MNPS budget.

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


 

 

MNPS Hosts Early Childhood Summit

From a press release:

Metro Schools brought together early childhood educators, community partners and businesses to connect and collaborate at MNPS’ Excellence in Early Education Summit 2017 on June 21.

Attendees learned about MNPS’ pre-K program developments throughout this past year, and the program’s work towards building quality pre-K across Davidson County.

The summit also highlighted the milestones met through the federal Preschool Development Grant – Expansion (PDG-E), which has provided MNPS the opportunity to expand access to high quality pre-school programs by adding new classrooms and strengthening the quality of existing classrooms.

Dr. Shawn Joseph and Mayor Megan Barry provided remarks during the summit focused on the importance of building a strong learning foundation to support and develop Nashville’s youngest learners. Dr. Elizabeth Alves, assistant commissioner for the Office of Early Learning and Literacy at the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE), provided the keynote and discussed the importance of quality pre-K programs throughout Tennessee.

MNPS Pre-K community partners participated in a round table discussion, including: Conexión Américas, Global Education Center, KinderCare, Nashville Public Library, MNPS Pre-K Comprehensive Services, MNPS Plant the Seed, MNPS Pre-K Coaching and Instructional Support, The Headstart Program (Metro Action Commission), United Way of Metropolitan Nashville and Vanderbilt Peabody Research Institute. During their presentations, they provided attendees with an overview of their organization, and discussed their work through the PDG-E grant and the impact they have had on Metro’s pre-K program and students.

This is the second Excellence in Early Education Summit hosted by Metro Schools. The event was sponsored by the Tennessee Department of Education with Preschool Development Grant-Expansion Funds.

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


 

Changes Are Coming To Nashville Middle Schools

Dr. Joseph heard a lot of critiques about Metro Nashville’s middle schools when he arrived in Nashville. He later found out that those critiques were spot on, according to Nashville Public Radio.

The newly-hired administrative team held 30 parent listening sessions over the first few weeks. And moms and dads kept talking about middle schools and how they’d like to see them add rigor, more advanced courses and even just a bit more homework.

As a former middle school principal, superintendent Shawn Joseph thought maybe parents were just misunderstanding their pre-teen children. But then he visited many of the district’s middle schools, and the concerns about academics were “validated.”

As a middle middleprepschool teacher, I’ve clearly seen the need for the transformation of middle schools. The district spent so much time transforming high schools that it felt like they forgot about middle schools.

While elementary schools are now getting more resources, middle schools got a new name in 2014 (Middle Preps) and were left alone. It’s like needing stitches and throwing a bandaid on it. It’s time for a real transformation and not just a quick fix. It didn’t work in 2014 and it won’t work now.

As I wrote in September following the release of ACT scores,

Preparing our students for graduation starts before the students even get to the high school level. MNPS transformed our high schools years ago towards the academy model. I think it’s time to start looking at the transformation of elementary and middle schools.

Elementary and middle schools need more supports in place to help close the gaps before students move on to high school. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope MNPS will be looking into ways to give more support to our lower grades.

It looks like Dr. Joseph is answering this call. I think too many students are still coming to middle school without basic skills that middle school teachers are not usually equipped to handle. I hope Dr. Joseph will continue to add more support to elementary schools while he is working to transform middle schools.

So when will these changes start to take place?

“Now is the time to give middle schools the love and attention they need to help strengthen our high school programs,” Joseph says.

Joseph cautions that he doesn’t anticipate any “mid-year, shoot-from-the-hip shifts.”

“We’ll take a bite at the apple next year with more comprehensive plans in year two and three,” he says.

Good luck, Dr. Joseph.

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