Statehouse roundup

Budget panel launches BEST oversight bill

Illustration courtesy Capital Construction Assistance Division

The legislative Joint Budget Committee Wednesday unanimously approved introduction of a bill that would give the legislature greater control over part of the Building Excellent Schools Today school construction program.

The program was the subject of a somewhat critical state audit last year (see story), and that has prompted some proposed legislative tinkering.

The proposed JBC bill would affect the cash grants that BEST gives school districts for smaller projects like boiler replacements, new roofs and the like. Last year the Capital Construction Assistance board awarded $15.7 million in cash grants to 24 projects, including $9 million in state money and $6.6 million in local district matching funds.

The BEST program receives a share of mineral and leasing revenues generated by state-owned lands. Under current law, the program basically can spend whatever amount it wants from those revenues, a system called “continuous appropriation” in legislative lingo.

The bill approved by the JBC would remove that continuous appropriation power, allowing lawmakers to set a specific amount for cash grants in the annual state budget bill.

Meeting at the same time just a block away, construction board members discussed the bill and had some concerns.

“I’m a little uncomfortable” with the idea, said board chair Lyndon Burnett, saying he was concerned about possible legislative tinkering if the cash-grants amount was in the annual budget bill.

Jennifer Mello, lobbyist for the Department of Education, cautioned the board, “Don’t react to something until you see it on paper. … Working off rumors is just dangerous.”

The board spent more time on another issue raised by the audit, whether the state should do a fresh inventory of school building conditions statewide. The audit faulted the program for not being able to rank buildings by health and safety deficiencies, based on an inventory done five years ago.

Program staff told the board that doing a full new inventory would cost $10.9 million, while upgrading the five-year-old building assessment would cost $2.7 million.

Board members seemed more interested in another option, hiring state inspectors (at an estimated $100,000 a year apiece) and spending $100,000 to train those employees to inspect buildings. That plan also would involve integrating building-conditions data that’s maintained by larger districts into the state database.

The board asked BEST staff to prepare more information on that option and present it at the Feb. 26 meeting. (Get more information here on the options discussed by the board.)

First ELL bill introduced

The first in what may be a series of competing bills on English language learners was introduced Wednesday. House Bill 14-1167, sponsored by Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo, would expand programs for English language learners, including creation of a five-year period during which students would be eligible for extra funding. (Current state funding is limited to two years.) The introduced version of the bill doesn’t include a price tag nor a funding source.

Last year Navarro teamed with Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, on a similar bill, which died because the sponsors couldn’t find funding.

There’s talk that Buckner may introduce his own bill this year, and that Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, might include such funding in a larger bill that would proposed to resurrect some features of his Senate Bill 13-213. (Read HB 14-1167 here.)

Going through the motions

The Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday killed Senate Bill 14-033, this year’s version of the perennial Republican proposal to grant tax credits for private school tuition, donations for private school scholarships and for home schooling costs.

Witnesses provided predictable testimony (parents testified for the bill, representatives of the Colorado Education Association and the ACLU opposed it), Democratic and Republican committee members made predictable statements and the three Democrats outvoted the two Republicans to kill the measure. State Affairs is where the majority leadership sends bills that it wants killed. (Get more details on what the bill would have done in this legislative staff analysis.)

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: