Sunday, September 25, 2016

Education Reform Threatens Birmingham City Schools

By Terri Rector, Alabama BATs

It seems Alabama’s new State Superintendent, education reformer Michael Sentance, came right out of the gate attempting to throw his weight around.
Only a couple of weeks into his job and is appears he was so concerned about the Superintendent situation in Birmingham that he sent Dr. Phillip Cleveland, former interim State Superintendent, to deliver a letter to the BOE before Thursday night’s meeting.  The message: Do NOT fire Superintendent Gacutan!
I guess he thought as long as he had State Department letter head and a mouth piece he had the right to impede on the governance of a local school board.
Whoops, sorry Mr. Sentance.  In a 6-3 vote Dr. Gacutan is no more.
I’d say he got his first lesson in Alabama etiquette: Show a little graciousness and respect before asking for a favor.
His second lesson: Know your Alabama history.
Had he studied our history he would have known that Birmingham’s BOE had already been in the ring once with the State Department of Education and it ended up badly for everyone, well, everyone but Dr. Bice, but more on that later.
Here’s the run down: In 2012 Birmingham City Schools were placed under state takeover for financial reasons by the State Department of Education. State Superintendent Dr. Bice and former State Superintendent Dr. Ed Richardson were calling the shots. Many questionable things happened under their watch: An Innovation Waiver was written, creating the pseudo charter schools in the Woodlawn Innovation Network, there was an illegal Reduction in Force, there were misappropriations of Title 1 funds, and the firing of Superintendent Dr. Witherspoon was blocked.
It should be noted that under the pressure of the misappropriation scandal, Dr. Witherspoon ended up resigning. Yes, you read that right. They blocked the board from firing him and two years later, in the fall of 2014, he was forced to resign due to possible illegal activities, while STILL UNDER state takeover.
If that wasn’t enough to make your head spin get this: At the same time the scandal was forcing the resignation of Dr. Witherspoon, the Chief Academic Officer Tisha Nguyen, and the Supervisor of Curriculum Instruction, Assessment and Federal Programs Vanessa Peterson, the system declared it had successfully built up the 16.2 million dollars in reserves that the State required.
No. Words. Just let it sink in.
I bet you are noticing one important person missing in all of this, Chief Financial Officer Arthur Watts. He announced his resignation in April of 2015, effective July 31st. His financial reporting continued to be confusing and quite often contradictory from month to month.
Then, in June of 2015, BCS was officially released by the State DOE from financial over site, even though no one was truly confident about where exactly the system stood financially.
In July of 2015 Dr. Gacutan was appointed and she brought lots of folks with her. One of them being Chief Financial Officer Sharon Roberts.
Within months of Ms. Roberts arriving we knew all was not well with BCS finances. Yet millions of dollars continued flying out the door based on the Superintendent’s recommendations despite Roberts warnings.
Many decisions were being made that, quite frankly, leaves one scratching their head.
The Superintendent brokered a deal with the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA to take over the Community After School Care program starting January of 2016. Parents only had a few weeks to make the adjustment as the board didn’t vote on it until December 2015. The program enrolled only half the kids the Community ASC program enrolled, it ended after only six months and cost the district $400,000. You would think the Superintendent would have learned something from throwing a program like this at the parents at the last minute but in July of 2016, seeing that the program failed, she again tried to make changes at the last minute. This time the parents organized and pushed back and won after school care in 16 schools.
Despite being told that they were out of money the Superintendent invited Pinnacle Schools’ CEO Karen Lee to present to the board at a Work Session. Pinnacle was wanting to sign a three year contract with BCS for 9 million dollars. The school would take up to 125 kids a year that have been given out of school suspensions for their behavior. That’s $24,000 per child, three times what BCS spends on a typical student. Thank goodness that effort was stopped as quickly as it started because the Superintendent seemed to be ready to implement the program ASAP.
Over $2 million was spent on a new reading program months ago but many of the children have yet to receive their books.
Principals at four different schools were targeted for termination at the end of last year for no apparent reason. One principal won his job back through public pressure, another one sued and reportedly won her case. Several other principals were replaced and they were made ‘floaters’ with no school assigned to them. I believe we are up to four ‘floaters’ now which could cost upwards of$400,000 per year. Is this the most efficient use of the taxpayer’s money and the best decision for the kids who need stability in the schools as bad as they need textbooks?
There was also the bizarre handling of the conversion charter school subject. When becoming a Charter School Authorizer in Sept. of 2015 Dr. Gacutan made it very plain that they were only doing that so they could control the start up charter schools that would be coming into Birmingham, there was absolutely no talk of conversions. Because of this the public was left quite perplexed when at a board meeting a few weeks ago the Superintendent told the board they needed to decide which school would be identified as a Dual Language Immersion conversion charter. Everyone was caught by surprise and left feeling like they fell into an episode of the Twilight Zone. Luckily the Board was eventually able to vote down the conversion charters.
Throughout all of this the board tried to remain supportive of the Superintendent, not wanting to be accused of micro managing. Still, the frustrations continued building over the Superintendent’s last minute decisions, the lack of answers concerning finances, and the contracts that were being put before them for a vote with insufficient details. Because of this the Board has voted to have a forensic audit performed. That is the fiscally responsible response to this situation, I believe.
At the board meeting on Sept. 13, 2016 several contracts were put before the board for approval. Once the board looked them over they realized that at least two of the contracts had already been completed.
One was for work on the new Operations Center in the Wells Fargo building. The contract was for $83,000. Someone recommended it in March. Any contract over $50,000 has to be approved by the BOE. I do not have the paperwork for this as the board did not approve it.
The other was for Learning Focused, a Professional Development program that was conducted over the summer. That contract is for $74,000. You can find the approved agenda item here.
You can also find at that same link another approved agenda item for a partnership between WIN, UAB and BCS. As of Aug. 1st, 2016 BCS is committing up to $80,000 a year towards early college enrollment for students at Woodlawn.
After searching through tons of contracts that I received through a FOIA request by the Birmingham American Federation of Teachers, I found another questionable 3 year contract for 8.5 million dollars. This contract is for services provided by School Transportation Solutions. You may read the signed contract and approved agenda item here. Even though they have done business with this organization in the past this was an entirely new contract with a new bid number. My sources tell me that it should have definitely been approved before implementing. You can see it was implemented in Aug. of 2015, 2/12 months before it was put before the BOE for a vote.
I have also learned through someone with first hand knowledge, that the Superintendent’s evaluation score has been manipulated. It seems when the numbers were first crunched in accordance with the agreement between Dr. Gacutan and the board, Dr. Gacutan actually performed poorly. One board member realized this and quickly added a new element to the evaluation that was first seen as a tool that would help make the evaluation more complete. It was not made clear to them that this person intended to recalculate the numbers with a new formula that would make her score higher.
It is suspected this same person is the one that leaked the information from the Executive Session concerning the termination of the Superintendent to the State Department of Education.
Which brings us back to the beginning…Mr. Sentance and his attempt to throw his weight around and interfere with the operation of a local school board.
Why?
While you are tossing that question around think about the answer to these other questions: Why did the Innovation Waiver appear during State takeover? Why was the State not concerned with the Title 1 funding misappropriations? Why would a State Superintendent initiate an illegal RIF? Why did the state takeover BCS for a 20 million dollar deficit but they didn’t Huntsville when they had the exact same deficit in 2010? Why was Dr. Bice behind the scene attempting to engineer the firing of the four principals last spring?
And finally: Is it just a coincidence that, after resigning as State Super, Dr. Bice went to work for the Goodrich Foundation, the very non-profit organization that was identified in the Innovation Waiver as a ‘partner’ of BCS? It’s also worth noting that they were the ones pushing for the conversion charters. There sure would have been a lot of big contracts for education management had the conversions passed!!
So we can see the apparent motivations of Bice, but what about Sentance? Bice sure didn’t need him coming to his rescue, he’d already lost his battle and, quite frankly, was probably glad to see Gacutan go. He’s now got another chance at getting conversions passed with a different super.
Sentance, on the other hand, thinks more globally, none of this mom and pop non-profit stuff. He worked as an education consultant for an international company, Tribal Group LLC, for the past several years. He’s ready to bring in the big hitters, the major charter chains that aren’t interested in conversions. For them to be successful in a city where most folks are against charters he needs the system to stay on its path to bankruptcy. The people will then be so angry and ready for change they will welcome charters, no questions asked.
We must accept the fact that BCS is 100% Title 1 and 95% children of color and that makes us ground zero for the corporate reform movement. The reformers see Birmingham as one big piggy bank, the children are no longer students, they are dollar signs.
What can we do? We can stand up for our students by supporting those board members that are pushing back against these reformers.
The next six months will be critical for the students of BCS, please get involved and make sure your voice is heard!
Terri Michal
Director of SOS Support Our Students
Member of the National Badass Teacher leadership team

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