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Archive for January, 2013

A Hearing or Not a Hearing?

I’ve received many questions about the January 17, 2013 proceeding with the State Board of Education (SBOE).  As you know, the outcome was to postpone and then reconvene the hearing on February 21, 2013.  Most of the questions I’ve received assumed the proceeding on the 17th was a hearing.  I am of the opinion the proceeding did not meet the definition of a hearing in both construction and adherence to procedural requirements.  Why do I hold this opinion?

  1. The SBOE must conduct a hearing pursuant to O.C.G.A. § 20-2-73.
  2. The hearing must be conducted subject to SBOE Rule 160-5-1-.36.
  3. The “Notice and Order” sent by the SBOE required both parties (SBOE and DBOE) to file witness and document lists by 1/11/13.  It is my understanding that it was acknowledged that neither party had adequate time to prepare complete lists as necessary to conduct a formal hearing.  Furthermore, former board members who had received the Notice were instructed that their presence would not be required on the 17th.
  4. If a formal hearing was anticipated, given that the 3 former board members would have pertinent testimony, they would not have been released from attending the proceeding.
  5. Furthermore, there are many documents to admit into evidence and witnesses to testify to various matters discussed in the AdvancED/SACS Special Review Report on behalf of both parties.  Neither party had produced a comprehensive list of witnesses or documents.  Certainly, staff members from DCSD and AdvancED would need to be present, along with documents, to discuss the issues in the report.  Staff members and documents were conspicuously absent.
  6. The statute provides that the hearing must be held no later than 30 days after receipt of the report from AdvancED.  Given the prerequisites for a hearing were not met, why wasn’t the proceeding officially begun and immediately set to reconvene at the next available date?  Knowing in advance that the requirements to hold the hearing were not met, why was the public not informed that the hearing would be adjourned to reconvene in February?

 

I know many of you took time away from family responsibilities and work to attend the proceeding.  Many of you obtained childcare so you could be present.  As no action could be taken on the 17th given the procedural constraints, I wish the SBOE had notified you in advance that the proceeding could only culminate in a hearing at a later date.

It was interesting to note several SBOE members testified that the DeKalb BOE should be more “aggressive” in getting information from the DCSD administration about various issues, including financial data.  This seems at odds with statements in the AdvancED/SACS report.  I’m in agreement with the SBOE.  Board members must have a full and unobstructed view of the facts.  Well paid administrators shouldn’t be prickly or sensitive about questions from the board.  If board members had been more aggressive over the past decade, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this mess.  Sometimes the “governance team” paradigm that is held up as a model of unity makes me wonder what “team” everyone is playing for.  What if the “governance team” sells mediocrity as success and avoidable financial disasters as simple errors?  Today’s citizens are savvy enough to see through that type of spin and rightly demand much more.  Food for thought.

School Choice Week – Empowering Parents in DeKalb

This week is National School Choice Week.  School Choice is about parent empowerment.  If we return the power to parents to govern schools alongside principals and teachers, the cause of education will be well-served.  It also turns schools into innovation laboratories.  It dislodges the bureaucratic hold on budgets and policy.  It allows teachers to teach unencumbered by one-size-fits-all programs, paperwork and creativity-killing dictates.  It allows principals to develop policies that are right for their school.  It minimizes the footprint and potential entanglements of district-wide financial problems.  I’m an advocate for implementing this type of real local control in DeKalb.  It would be a reforming and sustainable model for successful outcomes for kids.   This model is called the Portfolio Strategy.  It empowers parents and gives them choices.

If you support empowering parents, communities and teachers, please join me at the School Choice Rally at the Capitol on Thursday at 10am.  For more details, go to this website:  http://www.schoolchoicerally.com/ .  You can also show your support for reforming our district by reading my Declaration of Parent Empowerment and sharing it with other parents and leaders.

posted by Nancy Jester in DeKalb County School District and have Comments (55)

Change The Game

If you’ve read my series of blogs beginning on December 26th, “My Thoughts On The AdvancED SACS Report“, you’ve heard me lament the fact accreditation isn’t based on results for children.  Its focus is on “process”, pronouns and sweeping in late into the game after financial incompetence was already discussed and publicly stated by me for almost two years.  Apparently, regular accreditation reviews just didn’t catch what this mom with a calculator quickly realized was a deceptive budgeting practice.   My advice to the accreditors – (1) rethink the financial “standards and indicators” you review and (2) send in financial professionals, not just educrats, to look at the books.

My blog posts covered the tortured logic of “The Circle of Trust”.  It showed no matter the mistakes or misinformation of the educrats in writing, reviewing and implementing policy, it is always the board’s fault.  If I ask too many questions, it’s pestering, suspicious or distrustful.   If I am misled by staff, that’s on me too.  Rigid policy is extremely important in accreditation and, as it turns out, in insulating bureaucracies from real accountability and responsiveness.  It has the added bureaucratic benefit of sanitizing the bad decisions made every day.  Remember, “it’s policy”.  Unfortunately, policy is no replacement for human discernment in the life of a child or a community.  We have been victims of policy.

I understand your frustration with the board.  As the most consistent “no” vote, I experience this frustration more than most.  For what it’s worth, if the board cannot agree to a drastically new approach to the delivery of education and governance of our district, the board should be removed.  I believe all the members of the board and most of the DCSD administration want better results for children.  But, they want other things more.  Board members and administrators can be removed and the game remains.  Rearranging or replacing the chess pieces won’t result in improved outcomes.   The game itself is rigged.

The only way to truly affect change is to change the game.

My fellow citizens, along with the challenges presented by probation, comes opportunity.  We can either leverage that opportunity to fundamentally change and reinvent education in DeKalb or things will remain the same.  The board or administration can be removed but the deep systemic problems will continue, and possibly worsen in the short term, despite the false hope this action might give.  The persistent and intractable problems that have plagued DeKalb for more than a decade will erupt again.  Look at the outcomes where accreditation and various state actions have temporarily given relief and hope; only to see the systems plunge right back into the same quicksand.  But there is a way out.

Here are my solutions:

  1. Consent Decree – The current or newly appointed DeKalb Board must enter into a consent decree with the State that contains provisions for addressing the “required actions” in the AdvancED report. This decree must do more than offer a weak promise to implement yet another plan and another round of stakeholder engagement meetings.  It must demand that DeKalb reinvent the way public education is delivered and governed.  The consent decree must demand that we push governance and autonomy to each individual school or cluster of schools.  This approach is called The Portfolio Strategy.  Using the Portfolio Strategy approach:
    •    The district can meet the required actions listed in the AdvancED report and ensure that the district retains accreditation;
    •    Design a new governance system that minimizes the risk and footprint of financial malfeasance;
    •    Eliminates the governance, policy and advocacy conflicts that entangle all layers of the district and;
    •    Provides a robust and authentic community engagement process that yields results to meet the unique demands of a diverse set of communities.
  2. Georgia needs to adopt a model for accrediting schools and/or districts based on the merits of their work.  Accreditation should not be linked to anything but results for children and prudent financial management for the taxpayers.  The state of Texas does this and we can too.  Check out the value the Texas Education Agency adds to their systems.  The state continually monitors and works with their systems and does not cede their oversight role.  It is a transparent system based on student results and financial stability.  Read how Texas determines accreditation for schools and districts.  And, it has generated results.  Read the news on their graduation rates.

The Texas model has worked.
•    Number 1 with Asian students with a graduation rate of 95 percent. (Georgia 79%)
•    Number 1 for white students with a graduation rate of 92 percent. (Georgia 76%)
•    Tied for 1 with a graduation rate of 81 percent for African-American students. (Georgia 60%)
•    Has the 3rd highest graduation rate for all students with a rate of 86 percent. (Georgia 67%)
•    Number 2 for Hispanic students with a graduation rate of 82 percent, behind only Maine. (Georgia 58%)
•    Number 2 for children with disabilities who graduate at a rate of 77 percent. Only South Dakota had a higher rate.  (Georgia 30%)
•    Number 2 for economically-disadvantaged students who graduate at a rate of 84 percent, behind only South Dakota. (Georgia 59%)
•    Number 26 for limited English proficient students who have a graduation rate of 58 percent. Those who become proficient in English are removed from the limited English proficient category. (Georgia 32%)

The Portfolio District

According to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, “A growing number of urban districts including New York City, New Orleans, Chicago, Denver, Hartford, and Baltimore are pursuing the portfolio strategy. The portfolio strategy is a continuous improvement model for districts that aims to dramatically affect student outcomes at scale. The strategy, built around 7 key components, creates diverse options for families in disadvantaged neighborhoods by opening new high-performing, autonomous schools; giving all schools control of budgeting and hiring; and holding schools accountable to common performance standards.”  Most recently, the Cleveland Plan has been set in motion to reimagine and improve public education.  Click here to read about their plan.

The Portfolio District strategy acknowledges the realities and complexities of a large, diverse community.  The strategy allows the district to jettison the notions of “one size fits all” and “top down” implementation of policy, procedures, curriculum, hiring and more.  This model removes the intractable governance issues by changing the function of the district from a unit responsible for all policy, budgeting, curriculum, HR decisions, etc. to a purely supportive role.  Schools and communities around the district are given autonomy and then held accountable for their results.  The district would simply be a conduit for funding and could provide other services at the request of individual schools.  Innovative districts around the nation are using this strategy.  You can read more about it by visiting the website of The Center on Reinventing Public Education.

The Portfolio District strategy also establishes a partnership with the community, business leaders and foundations.  This public-private partnership helps guide the implementation of the strategy; ensuring that all communities receive the choices and support they need.  This partnership is critical to reestablishing credibility with the citizens and parents.  It will provide for authentic stakeholder engagement that will yield the results each community wants; rather than the false hope of surveys, task forces and commissions long ignored.

Parents, teachers, citizens, I hope that you will join with me in asserting your ownership of the school district.  For too long, the bureaucrats have controlled and affected your communities while your voice carried little authority to demand change.  The mantra of accountability sadly has held almost no one to account.  Don’t let this opportunity leave us with false hope.  Let’s leverage this situation to bring about meaningful reform in DeKalb and our state.

Please join me in asking The State Board of Education and Governor Deal to return power to the parents and the school communities.  If we don’t make this structural change now, I fear that we’ll limp along with ambiguous plans to “do better” or with a new board that either plays the same game or gets rolled by the educrats.  You deserve a seat at the table that determines how your school is run.  You know what is best for your child and you should have a governance system that allows you to use the tools, strategy, calendar, schedules, budgets and staffing models that work best for your specific community.

Please request that the State Board and Governor decree that DCSD must take immediate steps to begin converting our district into a Portfolio District.  Ask them to study the Texas model for accreditation.  If you agree with my approach, let them know.  Let’s use this opportunity to take back our schools, empower parents and give every child in DeKalb the education they deserve.  

posted by Nancy Jester in DeKalb County School District and have Comments (22)

The Curious Case of Policy DJE

By Nancy (Drew) Jester – “Mom With A Calculator,” Board Member and Sleuth
(If you think it’s important to know how government spends your money, read this.)

The October 17, 2012 AdvancED/SACS Special Review Report states:

“Based upon the information collected and reviewed, the Special Review Team found sufficient evidence to support a finding that the actions and behaviors of the DeKalb County Board of Education are in violation of AdvancED Standards and policies and its [DCSD’s] own established policies.”

For the purposes of this blog posting , we’ll ignore the fact that the AdvancED Standards and policies are designed by educrats, in part, to protect and insulate educrats from the very community they serve: students, classroom teachers, parents, board members and the taxpayers who are footing the bills.  There is little in these policies that address effective education of students.  AdvancED/SACS and the Superintendent/administration/staff (SAS) give lip service to “stakeholder engagement,” which they usually promptly ignore, and they hide behind the mantra of “policy” when it is a convenient shield or callous substitute for human discernment.  All the while, the non-student-centered decisions are made because there’s a “procedure” or “policy” that cleverly protects any one educrat from having to shoulder responsibility.  It is insidious and it harms children and taxpayers.  But, I’ll talk more about this later.  Back to Policy; more specifically back to Policy DJE which said report discusses beginning on page 5.

I have spent some time reviewing Policy DJE and the portion of the AdvancED/SACS report referencing this policy.  Click here to review any of the various DeKalb County School District (DCSD) policies.

Whatever in the world is Policy DJE? 

Policy DJE covers the purchasing policy of DCSD.  The AdvancED/SACS report ostensibly addresses compliance issues with Policy DJE, Section V(c)(4).

The October 17, 2012 AdvancED/SACS Special Teams Report states:

Clearly, the Board is ignoring the difference between governing the system and managing the operations of the system.  Another example, involves an issue that has arisen in relation to Policy DJE – Purchasing, which specifies the following:  All purchases and contracts under $100,000.00 shall be reported to the Board monthly for information only, reflecting vendor, goods or services purchased, amount of purchase, and the name(s) of staff member(s) who signed the approval.”

“The board chair requested a report to document compliance with the policy.”

This is good, right?  The board chair is documenting compliance with a policy requested two years ago by AdvancED/SACS; one that allows the Superintendent/administration to spend money without Board approval up to $100,000.

The report continues:

 “In turn, the Superintendent has indicated that the system’s technology structure and software are not designed to provide the detailed report without extensively revamping the database. Reportedly, producing the report would require excessive staff time that would ultimately interfere with job performance in the delivery of services to staff and students.”

OK, so Boards of Education should follow policy.  In fact, this very policy was adopted in the wake of the AdvancED/SACS investigation from 2010 and amended later, at the Superintendent Atkinson’s request, to change the dollar limit from $50,000 to $100,000 thus giving the Superintendent and the administration even more latitude in spending money without board approval.  The only requirement of this policy was that the Superintendent/administration had to provide the board with a monthly list of the purchases made and the money spent under this policy.

How Are Policies Made in DCSD?
The Superintendent/Administration/Staff  (SAS) researches and brings policies to the board for board approval.  So, DCSD staff wrote Policy DJE.  Additionally, once a policy is first brought to the board it must sit for 30 days while all interested parties have the opportunity to vet it.  Early in 2012, the Superintendent/Administration/staff (SAS) first developed this policy and then had 30 days to communicate to the board that they would not be able to comply with it.

Apparently staff didn’t inform the board they couldn’t comply, even though staff wrote the policy.

Now, AdvancED/SACS has put DCSD on probation and is blaming the board, at least in part, because the board isn’t following policy.  The AdvancED/SACS report criticizes the board chair for requesting that DCSD Superintendent/administration/staff follow the policy that DCSD Superintendent/administration/ staff wrote.

The AdvancED/SACS report goes on to say:

“Meanwhile, the board chair unilaterally made an arbitrary decision, without further discussion and direction by the full Board, to set a new, lower floor for purchases for which the Superintendent needed to submit a report. It appeared that the Board and administration had reached a stalemate in resolving the issue, but rather than initiating the policy revision process to rectify the dispute, the board chair attempted to create a work around solution. This type of resolution without appropriate policy vetting, approval, and implementation leads to lack of clear requirements for the direction and oversight of fiscal management at all levels of the system.”

I reviewed the emails I received regarding the Curious Case of DJE.  Here’s what I found:

  • Our board chair did send emails requesting that the administration comply with this policy and was told that the existing financial software used by DCSD did not support generating this report. (Why we don’t have robust software is also another blog for another day.)
  • If the district were to comply, the board was told that 5-7 additional staff members would need to be hired at a total cost of approximately $490,000 to review the more than 28,000 transactions that might fall under this policy.
  • Nothing in the emails indicated the Chair made an “arbitrary decision” regarding complying with this policy.  So, I called the Board Chair to discuss what this statement in the AdvancED/SACS report meant.
  • The board chair asked the superintendent to make an effort to comply with the policy even if it meant, providing a report on a smaller subset of transactions (i.e., $75,000 – $100,000 or any other subset).

 

It appears that, after writing a policy it could not comply with and silently waiting out the 30-day comment period, the administration (superintendent) decided that this represented a “dysfunctional” board and submitted this incident to AdvancED/SACS as proof.

So, let me sum it up for you.  Staff writes policy and the board approves it after giving everyone a 30-day window to comment or bring up any potential conflicts with the policy.  Board Chair asks staff to comply.  Staff says they can’t because previous staff didn’t purchase the right software.  AdvancED cites the board for both following and not following policy.

I could close this blog right here but, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, here is “the rest of the story.  Page 2.”

Are you familiar with the www.open.georgia.gov website?

“Open Georgia is a gateway for obtaining information and key documents about how the State of Georgia spends tax dollars and other revenues to provide services to Georgians. The information maintained on this site comes from various state agencies and is updated annually.” 

DCSD is required to send data for this website to Georgia.  For example, you can look up salary information on any DCSD employee – or any other state employee.  There’s another handy feature.  You can look up information on all payments issued by DCSD on the open.georgia.gov website.  The website states,

In accordance with the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 50-6-32, we have provided a list of the names of each person, firm or corporation that has received payments from each department, commission, authority and agency of State government; ”

Pull up the “Fiscal Year 2012 Detailed Payments” report.  The report lists 7,547 payment entries.  The payments span $2.58 paid to AT&T Long Distance Service to $318,455,289.84 in aggregated teaching salaries.  So, apparently DCSD is keeping and producing information on payments that can be uploaded in a searchable database.  In fact, DCSD sends this data to the state on an annual basis.  This begs the following questions:

  • Policy DJE specifies a monthly report to the board for purchases of under $100,000.  According to what is sent to the state, DCSD is tracking most of the information needed to fulfill Policy DJE.  So why was the Board told it would cost near $500,000 to develop the information?
  • Why didn’t the superintendent simply offer to provide a list of transactions (including the amount and the vendor) pursuant to Policy DJE, with this caveat:   details on the specific materials or services purchased and the name of the authorizing staff member (two pieces of information required by Policy DJE), could be available on request as needed?
  • Why wasn’t the Superintendent cited in the AdvancED/SACS report as being obstructionist or, at least, obtuse?
  • Shouldn’t the Superintendent — CEO of the third largest school district in Georgia — have some affirmative responsibility to address the policy given that the Superintendent’s staff wrote the policy and then neglected to note any compliance issues?

 

Certainly we can expect better from our well-paid educrats.  But, perhaps, this issue was engineered to cast the Board Chair as difficult to work with and then served up to AdvancED/SACS for their report.  The reality is the facts don’t match the administration’s, and thus AdvancED’s, position.

To quote Paul Harvey, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

–Stay tuned for more myth busting, my take on School Council empowerment and the complete lack of human discernment in education today.  My final blog on this subject will contain my action recommendations.

posted by Nancy Jester in DeKalb County School District and have Comments (13)
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