Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Confusion in Jefferson County Schools? YOU BET!

Could put millions of federal school turnaround dollars at risk

The Courier-Journal recently reported that “State says 'confusion' lingers over Jefferson school turnaround plan.”

You bet it does!

What the district is doing to restaff and turn around dismal educational performance in its Persistently Low-Achieving Schools (PLA) makes no sense to us.

A Bluegrass Institute open records request netted us the same letter cited in the Courier’s article. This letter was written on April 29, 2011 from Kentucky Department of Education legal counsel Kevin Brown to Sheldon Berman, the superintendent in Jefferson County.

We also open records requested union contract documents known as Memorandums of Agreement that pertain to how the school district would select teachers to restaff the PLA.

One issue raised in the Brown letter is particularly bothersome. Brown points out that a number of the PLAs in Jefferson County wound up with too many inexperienced teachers after the restaffing was accomplished. However, Brown also reviewed the union contract in Jefferson County. He cites a section that says:

“The Superintendent or designee for good cause and extenuating circumstances will execute transfers as may be necessary for the efficient operation of the school district.”

In other words, the superintendent had the ability to step in during the restaffing process to insure that sufficient experienced teachers were placed in each PLA. Berman didn’t do that.

There are more problems.

Comparing Brown’s letter to those union MOAs we obtained, it looks like someone isn’t doing restaffing right.

Brown’s letter indicates that selection of teachers in the restaffed school is the primary responsibility of the new principal, who is also installed as part of the restaffing process.

But, language in some of the MOAs we obtained indicate that restaffing in some of the PLA is to be accomplished by a committee consisting of three teachers appointed by the union and three administrators that the school district chooses.

The difference in how restaffed teachers get selected is very important. Brown’s letter indicates that federal guidelines governing restaffing say the principal is not to be hindered in staff selection by union shackles. If such shackles exist, Brown indicates the school cannot qualify for the federal School Improvement Grant money that is tied to the turnaround effort.

Thus, actual school restaffing activities in Jefferson County, which were union directed, may have made the schools ineligible for federal grants.

There are more issues, as well. The restaffing option to turn around PLAs requires 50 percent of the teachers to be replaced. Jefferson County said they could take a credit against that 50 percent for any teachers who had been in the schools less than two years when restaffing was accomplished.

Not so fast says Brown. Those teachers can only be credited IF they were placed in the school as part of a turnaround effort that was conducted under the current federal rules. It isn’t known if any of those rules were used in any Jefferson County school before restaffing started.

One last item – the Courier says:

“Berman said the state’s approval of the district’s application last year for state improvement grants, as well as its recent approval of the district’s corrective action plan under the federal No Child Left Behind law, are proof the district isn’t doing anything wrong.”

Well, that NCLB approval does not extend to the PLA issue, which is actually a result of different federal programs and state legislation. So far, there isn’t approval for what Jefferson County is doing with its PLA. In fact, that is the reason why Brown wrote his letter only days ago.

Talk about confusion!

The superintendent doesn’t seem to know what is required, and the Courier may not fully understand all the issues, either. I know I still have questions.

But, on one issue there is no doubt. The PLAs wound up with far too many inexperienced teachers and no-one in Jefferson County did a thing to prevent it. That is a heck of a way to turn around the state’s poorest performing schools.

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