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


 

Decision Time

I reported last week on the potential fight brewing between Williamson County Schools and the Tennessee Department of Education over End of Course testing this year.

Now, Melanie Balakit at the Tennessean reports that the time for a decision is fast approaching.

From the story:

“There is only one district where administration of high school and end-of-course exams have been suspended,” Chandler Hopper, state department of education spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We are continuing to have discussions with this district and are hopeful that the commissioner’s authority to issue penalties will not be necessary.”

It is not clear what, if any, penalties would be issued from the Commissioner. The Department of Education did threaten to withhold BEP funds from districts who refused to administer Phase II of TNReady prior to the events that led to the cancellation of that portion of the test.

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

Ready for a Fight

Yesterday, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney issued a statement saying his district would not be administering the high school end of course tests in addition to the suspension of the grades 3-8 TNReady tests.

Commissioner McQueen is not very happy about that. She served notice to Looney and all other directors that refusing to administer the EOC would be considered a violation of state law.

Here’s the email she sent to Directors of Schools:

First, I want to thank you for your partnership and support as we have worked together to implement and administer the first year of a new assessment. I know you share my disappointment and frustration with the inability of our vendor to deliver on this higher quality assessment in grades 3-8, and I truly appreciate your patience and leadership.

 

I want to reiterate that the state’s termination of its contract with the testing vendor Measurement Incorporated (MI) and the related suspension of grades 3-8 testing does not apply to high school and End of Course (EOC) exams, and, therefore, all school districts are required to administer these assessments.

 

The state of Tennessee and local districts are under an obligation under both federal and state law, as well as state board of education rules and regulations, to administer annual assessments to our students. My decision to suspend grade 3-8 testing was based on the impossibility of testing and made in close consultation with the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE). Based on the fact that testing in grades 3-8 was not feasible due to the failure of MI to meet its contractual obligations, the USDOE has acknowledged that the department made a good faith effort to administer the assessments to all students in grades 3-8. Unlike grades 3-8, districts are in receipt of EOC exams and the challenges associated with the delivery of grades 3-8 do not exist.

 

Because EOC exams have been delivered, students should have the opportunity to show what they know to measure their progress toward postsecondary and the workforce. Failure to administer the high school assessments will adversely impact students who will not only lose the experience of an improved, high quality test aligned to our higher standards but also the information we plan to provide to students, parents and educators relative to student performance. In addition, districts will eliminate the option for their teachers to use this year’s student achievement data as part of their teacher evaluation if the data results in a higher score.

 

Because of these factors and because state or district action to cancel high school testing would willfully violate the laws that have been set forth relative to state assessment, neither the state nor districts have the authority to cancel EOC exams. Districts that have taken action to cancel EOC exams or communicated such action are in violation of the law and should rescind this action or communication.

What Does This Mean?

In response to the Murfreesboro City School Board considering refusing to administer Phase II of TNReady, the Department of Education issued a statement noting that doing so would be considered a major violation of state law and that withholding state funds was a possible penalty.

McQueen doesn’t say what the penalty would be if districts like Williamson proceed with their refusal to administer the EOCs, but she may well attempt to impose a financial penalty.

In her email, McQueen says:

Failure to administer the high school assessments will adversely impact students who will not only lose the experience of an improved, high quality test aligned to our higher standards but also the information we plan to provide to students, parents and educators relative to student performance.

Just what students want and need: Another test. Some have proposed using the ACT battery of tests as the high school testing measure rather than the current EOC structure.

McQueen also says:

In addition, districts will eliminate the option for their teachers to use this year’s student achievement data as part of their teacher evaluation if the data results in a higher score. 

While the idea of flexibility seems nice, I want to reiterate that any data gleaned from this year’s test is invalid as a value-added indicator of teacher performance. As such, there’s no useful information to be gained relative to teacher performance from this year’s EOCs. Put another way, McQueen’s argument about depriving teachers of an opportunity is invalid.

While the use of value-added data to assess teacher performance is of limited usefulness under optimum conditions, under this year’s transition, it is clearly and plainly invalid. If the goal of using such data is to improve teacher performance, why use data that yields essentially no information?

I have not yet seen a response from Dr. Looney or any other directors. But a fight could be brewing.

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

 

One Step Further

On the heels of the announcement from the Tennessee Department of Education that TNReady testing was being suspended for grades 3-8, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney went one step further and suspended end of course testing for high school students in his district.

Here’s the email he sent yesterday:

You are an incredible group of professionals and I am exceedingly proud of your work. This year has been full of surprises and uncertainty as it relates to state assessment and yet you still have prepared students for success. Your work is important and matters. I am proud of you.

Unfortunately, sometimes events happen outside of our direct control. Today the Commissioner of Education announced the suspension of Part II of the TnReady/TCAP Assessment in grades 3-8.

In addition, because of my continued concerns, I am suspending End of Course tests at the high school level.

I truly believe in the importance of measuring student progress. It is, from my perspective, a critical piece of our work. And I look forward to us being able to appropriately assess students as soon as possible.

Mike Looney

 

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

Looney Turns Down MNPS

Today, Mike Looney turned down the contract from MNPS and will stay with Williamson County Schools. Here is the statement he put out:

My family and I are humbled by the support and prayers we have received over the past few weeks.

The support from the Williamson County community, including parents, former parents, students, Williamson Inc. and the business community, and Williamson County Schools employees has been overwhelming. I also appreciate the support of the Williamson County School Board members who have worked with County Mayor Rogers Anderson and Williamson County Commissioners.

I want to thank the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Board of Education for allowing me to get to know them and for allowing me to explore the opportunity of working for boys and girls in Nashville. I was impressed with the warm reception I received. It is evident the Board’s focus is on student success, and I am encouraged about the future of MNPS.

After careful consideration, I have made the decision to remain in Williamson County Schools in order to continue our journey to becoming a district recognized nationally in the academics, athletics, and the arts.

MNPS will most likely start the search process over. I would assume they would hire a new search firm and start the process after the upcoming elections. This will cost the district (and taxpayers) more money.

While MNPS will have to wait for to see what’s next, Mike Looney will sign his WCS contract and make more money than ever before.

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I think I speak for many when I say that it feels like our district was used and our time wasted.

It’s time to hit the reset button on this director search and hope that the next batch of candidates are stronger than the last. Let’s get to work!

A press conference by both WCS & MNPS will be held today. Updates will follow.

 

The Road to Looney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Looney’s statement:

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

-Dr. Mike Looney, WCS Superintendent

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

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

The Looney Leap

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

Andrea Zelinski reports:

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

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

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

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

Tune in tomorrow…

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


 

 

The Finalists

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

The Tennessean writes of the candidates:

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

Read Covington’s Application

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

Read Huff’s Application

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

Read Looney’s Application

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

Read Shepherd’s Application

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

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

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

A 5% Raise?

That’s what teachers and other school employees in Williamson County are likely to see next year if Director of Schools Mike Looney has his way.

Despite some contention at last night’s County Commission meeting, it appears the school system will be able to proceed with the raises as planned because the proposed budget is balanced without asking for additional revenue from the County Commission.

At least one County Commissioner called for merit pay, but Looney said the issue is his district’s ability to recruit new teachers and employees. He cited specific challenges, as noted by Jessica Pace at FranklinHomePage.com:

Looney defended the school board’s proposal by citing the district’s struggle to recruit high school level and specialty teachers, school nurses and bus drivers due to lack of competitive pay.

Looney’s concerns echo the findings of a study by the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center:

Since 2009, Tennessee has identified shortages in the overall numbers of K-12 teachers needed for public schools as well as teachers for specific subjects. There is a critical need in the state for STEM teachers, as well as shortages in high school English, social studies, world languages, Pre-K through high school special education, and English as a second language.

It’s not just Williamson County that is having trouble recruiting new teachers, it’s a statewide problem. Williamson is addressing that challenge by using its portion of the $96 million in new state money for teacher compensation to provide a meaningful raise in pay for all teachers and system employees.

Will other systems follow suit and offer significant pay increases to their employees across the board, or will they follow Haslam’s advice and move toward merit pay schemes? It’s budget time and that question will be answered in system after system in the coming months.

More on teacher pay in Tennessee:

Why is TN Teacher Pay 40th?

From 40th to 1st?

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

The Sweet Sixteen

Round 1 of Education Commissioner Madness is over and Round 2 — The Sweet Sixteen — is well underway.

The Round of 16 includes former legislator Gloria Johnson, Deputy Commissioner of Education Kathleen Airhart, and Williamson County Superintendent Mike Looney, who edged out Tullahoma’s Dan Lawson with a late surge.

The Sweet Sixteen also features PET’s JC Bowman and TEA’s Jim Wrye.

Head on over to Bluff City Ed and vote NOW for who should advance to the Elite Eight.

For more on education issues in Memphis, follow @BluffCityEd

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