The Delaware DOE’s Official Response To The State Board Shutting Down Delaware STEM Academy Before They Opened

The Delaware DOE came out with an official press release on the Delaware State Board of Education’s decision today to revoke the charter of Delaware STEM Academy.  The decision came just hours ago at the monthly State Board meeting.  Most of the information is factual with the exception of one item which I will notate after their press release.

Delaware STEM’s charter revoked

Delaware STEM Academy will not open this fall after its charter was revoked today. Students who had planned to attend the school will be able to enroll elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the Delaware Department of Education’s Charter School Accountability Committee (CSAC) recommended the revocation of charter unless the school’s board could provide sufficient information to address the committee’s concerns about its financial viability and programming. The New Castle high school was scheduled to open this fall with grades 9 and 10 with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The school was placed on formal review in April.

While committee members praised the school’s board for its transparency, responsiveness, involvement and leadership, citing its members’ experience and commitment as among the school’s greatest strengths, they raised concerns about how the school would be able to execute its approved charter with fidelity due to low enrollment and thus reduced funding that has led leadership to make programmatic cuts.

The school’s approved application was for 250 students in Year 1 with reliance on state/local funds generated by student enrollment. At the time of its final meeting with CSAC, the school had 124 students enrolled with a budget also reliant on private fundraising and a line of credit.

Following a public comment period, including two public hearings, Secretary of Education Steve Godowsky presented his decision to the State Board of Education for its assent Thursday.

“While the public record demonstrates that the school’s leadership and founding board are committed to the school, the low number of students and low levels of state and local funding raise too many concerns about Delaware STEM’s financial stability,” Godowsky said. “My review of the documents led me to the same conclusion as that of the accountability committee – that the school has failed to meet legal standards for financial viability and fidelity to the approved charter.”

The state will assist the families of the students who planned to attend the school this fall in enrolling in other schools. The children are able to return to the district schools in their home feeder patterns or choice into another district or charter school.

In terms of students being able to choice into another charter school, that is only if the charter school has openings.  If a charter is full and there is a waitlist, these students would not be able to automatically just choice in.

Delaware STEM Academy’s Fate…Charter Revocation

The Delaware STEM Academy is up for a decision right now at the Delaware State Board of Education meeting.  Director of the Charter School Office Jennifer Nagourney is advising the State Board why the charter was put on formal review: low enrollment and financial viability.  Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Steven Godowsky’s recommendation is to close the school.  He believes the school’s board and leadership are committed to student success, he is very concerned about the low enrollment and how it can adapt a strong, rigorous program.  He agrees with the Charter School Accountability Committee’s recommendation to close the school and wants the school to surrender their charter.

The State Board gave a motion, which was seconded, to discuss the motion.  State Board member Pat Heffernan asked about the numbers.  Nagourney said they are currently at 129 enrolled students.  Heffernan asked where they had to be.  Nagourney advised, to be in compliance with state law, they would need to be at 80% of their approved enrollment of 250 students, which would be 200 students enrolled.  They had to be at that number by April 1st of this year.

Assistant Deputy Secretary David Blowman is stating there is considerable financial risk with the current enrollment in being able to adequately provide their academic program to students.  Dr. Teri Quinn Gray, the State Board President, is asking how much of the grant money allotted to the school has been used.  Blowman indicated he didn’t have a specific answer.  I just checked on Delaware Online Checkbook and the school has spent $137,444.67 in principal salaries for the school.

Earlier today, Technical.ly Delaware reported earlier today how Delaware STEM Academy was granted $175,000 for principal salaries through their Delaware Charter School Performance Award last year which the DOE states is allowable by state law but State Rep. John Kowalko expressed disappointment the school used the performance award for leader salaries.  With pensions and other benefits, an additional $61,739.89 was used by the school.  Included in that figure is $6,866.81 in United States Department of Education wage garnishments.

There is a lot of discuss surrounding how the school would be able to perform if they had their full funding.  Blowman is going over different components of the school’s funding.  Dr. Gray is asking if they can implement fidelity of the charter with the changes the school proposed after their final CSAC meeting.  Blowman said on some components yes, but on others no.  He said the school made as many changes as they possibly could but Blowman referred to Godowsky’s recommendation that their proposals were insufficient.  Gray asked what the lowest number they could fall to when they self-destruct, so to speak.  Donna Johnson said the school stated they would surrender their charter if they fell to 120 students by July 1st.

There was discussion on reduced funding to Innovative Schools in lieu of a partnership with another Delaware charter school, Positive Outcomes.  Board member Melendez stated he wants facts and not assumptions.  He told Blowman he doesn’t appreciate that.  Melendez said it is either black or white. (seems like a bit of tension between the two)

Nagourney gave an opinion that the closure of Delaware Met in December impacted potential enrollment in the school as she heard parents say they did not want the same thing to happen here.  With that being said, Nagourney also stressed the board was doing everything they were supposed to be doing in terms of what needed to happen to have an effective opening.

More discussion happened surrounding what will happen with the enrolled students since the school choice window is closed.  Donna Johnson indicated they would go back to their local feeder district, which caused board member Melendez to become very concerned.  Secretary Godowsky shared that when Delaware Met closed, the charters and districts in New Castle County were very helpful with helping the affected students transition.  Melendez felt the State Board and DOE are responsible for these kinds of situation and something needs to happen to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

The Delaware State Board of Education voted 5-1 to revoke the charter school of Delaware STEM Academy.  Dr. Teri Quinn Gray was the sole no vote.

Updated, 7:35pm: This article has been updated to change the State Board of Education vote from 6-1 to 5-1.  State Board Member Gregory Coverdale was absent.

 

Kim Williams & David Sokola Reach Kumbaya Moment With New Charter School Audit Bill

Wow!  I wouldn’t have seen this happening five months ago, but new legislation introduced today by co-sponsors Delaware State Rep. Kim Williams and Senator David Sokola focuses on the fifth attempt at a charter school audit bill in over a year.  Williams’ House Bill 186 passed the Delaware House almost a year ago, but when it arrived at the Senate Education Committee, Chair of the Committee Senator Sokola introduced his own charter audit legislation, Senate Bill 171.  This led to a lot of back and forth on social media between Sokola and Williams and other sides of each bill.

In the spirit of compromise, it appears the two have come together in the form of House Bill 435, seen below.  Will this sail through the House and Senate in the final weeks of the 148th General Assembly and settle the matter once and for all?  Time will tell!

Delaware Basic Special Education Funding For Kindergarten To 3rd Grade Students Bill Released From Appropriations Committee!!!!

Delaware State Rep. Kim Williams just announced on Facebook that House Bill 30 was released from the House Appropriations Committee.  This is excellent news, and I pray this leads to positive action on the legislation by the Delaware House and Senate.  House Bill 30 would give what is considered Basic Special Education funding for Delaware students in Kindergarten to 3rd Grade.  Currently, this funding is not given to students in this category, but it is for students considered “intense” or “complex”.  Students currently under the basic designation in 4th to 12th grade do receive this funding.  It has been like this since 2011.

Introduced about a year and a half ago, the bill sailed through the House Education Committee but was sitting in a “sent to appropriations” status for well over 15 months.  Advocates for special education, including myself, have pointed out this extreme inequity in education funding for years.  This is a very positive step forward in correcting this inequity.

I will certainly let readers know the second the next action occurs with this legislation.

Librarian-Gate In Christina Heats Up: Sophie’s Choice or Misinformation? You Decide!

I wrote a post yesterday about the Christina School District choosing not to rehire librarians that were cut as a result of their 2nd failed referendum last year.  Many have gone on the attack against the district and many have jumped to their defense.  One clear and obvious thing is Delaware needs to change their antiquated unit-based funding system to some extent.  I don’t think anyone is arguing that point.  But a lot of accusations were thrown out as a result of my article and I wanted to point out some of them.

During Christina’s 3rd referendum attempt, the situation was dire.  As a result of the last two failed referenda, they had to make some major cuts.  Teachers, para-professionals, specialists, and yes, including librarians.  In several places, whether in writing or spoken word, the district mentioned they wanted to hire back the positions they cut and reduce classroom sizes.  This year, there were anywhere between 35-45 kids in some classrooms.  That isn’t good for any student, much less some of the high-need populations in the district.  One of the members of Christina’s Citizen Budget Oversight Committee, Brian Stephan, also writes for Delaware Liberal.

Let me point out this simple fact: I like Brian.  I think he is a good guy and a very involved parent.  I wish more parents were as involved as Brian and his wife in public education (and on a volunteer basis at that).  I have no doubt in the world he is very well-versed in school financing.  But just as I get my readers stuck in the weeds on issues such as special education or regulations for example, I think that may happen to Brian when he is explaining district financing.  Like any television show, there is frequently a “previously on…” before the show starts.  The brains of everyday citizens don’t remember everything, so they need a constant refresh.  I have to reiterate things on this blog constantly, not only to refresh existing readers, but also for my new readers.  I don’t always succeed with this.  But I would never complain to my readers that I have to explain it again.  That would be an insult to my readers.  I believe this happens in education a lot.  I see it all the time in parent complaints about educators and administrators.  They perceive them as being arrogant, but the reality is they may know more about situations and assume you do to.  When they realize you aren’t aware, the communication style is perceived as condescending or arrogant.  It may be, or it may not be.  There isn’t always an easy answer.  But when both parties are equally aware of a situation, and they dance around it with bad communication, that can be very dangerous.  But I digress…

I like to refer to education funding as a Rubik’s Cube with 64 sides.  It is a beast!  God bless any average parent who has a firm grasp on it, because I know I don’t.  Charters I’m pretty good at breaking down, but that is not the case with school districts.  But I do look at what people write and things they say.  That is the anecdotal evidence I look for in most situations.

Back in March, a week before the referendum, Brian wrote:

What’s the District asking for? An additional $0.30 per $100 of assessed property value that would generate an additional $16.2 million per year. What would that do? $4 million would go toward bringing back the teachers and staff we had to cut (yes, including librarians), and reduce our class sizes. $4 million would go toward the operating fund to keep the district functioning at pre-budget cut staffing levels for the next 2 years.

Note the word “and” when talking about restoring the positions cut AND reducing the classroom size in the above statement.  On Facebook yesterday, Brian was telling folks the current situation with librarians was spelled out succinctly and clearly, but I could not find anything in writing stating that it was an “or” situation.  Currently, defenders of the district are stating it is a building leader’s (principal) choice to either fund a librarian with an earned teaching unit or hire a regular classroom teacher.  In the event that a board doesn’t like that decision, they could force a principal to hire the librarian.  In effect, this comes down to a gut-wrenching choice of either keeping classroom sizes bigger or having a librarian.  Brian alleges this situation plays out in many of our school districts.  I have no doubt he is correct about this, but does the average taxpayer know this?  I doubt it.  This situation wouldn’t have become as intense as it has had this been spelled out during the weeks before the referendum.  Had something been put in writing to the effect of “It is our desire to hire back what we lost but we may not be able to get back every single position”, I would have no issue with any of this.

In response to the firestorm that went down on social media yesterday, Brian wrote a response on Delaware Liberal last night.  In the comments for this, he writes:

I can say that we described the referendum as restoring what was lost. And there’s a reason I didn’t say “Restoring ALL that was lost” because if I could have said *that*, I would have without a doubt.

This is the heart of the matter, in my opinion.  As I wrote in my response to his comment, there isn’t any transparent difference between “restoring what was lost” and “restoring ALL that was lost”.  I completely believe that Brian understands the current situation, but it was not clearly pointed out to taxpayers that their vote would mean one or the other.  That is why I was upset about what is happening with the district not restoring the librarians.  I backed this referendum 100% and fought for the district.  Now I feel like I’m eating crow.  It’s very easy to come back afterwards and explain this in writing.  I called that Monday morning quarterbacking yesterday.  I became very confused when things were written on social media and Delaware Liberal yesterday where defenders of the district wrote the funding is there to restore librarians.  Many commenters were.  But to write things to the effect of “let me explain this again” is not in the best interest of trying to win a point.  Most people feel like they are being talked down to.  But if that is the flavor of Brian’s writing style, that is his choice.

But here is the million dollar question.  If the assumption is that building principals in schools that had librarians cut are not restoring those positions in favor of keeping classroom sizes smaller, will the district take the classroom size waivers next fiscal year?  These are waivers the districts request that actually keep classrooms bigger.  They are usually granted.  Most districts do this, including Christina.  But in doing so, should Christina choose to go that route in December, they are actually breaking another referendum campaign promise, that of reducing classroom size.  Technically, one could say all districts do it and if they are out of compliance in one school they have to do it based on the populations in the school.  But it has also kept classroom sizes at increased levels in many districts and has not made the problem any better.  I could not tell you, based on my limited knowledge of this aspect, how to fix that or who exactly controls that aspect.

But back to Christina.  To make matters even worse, several sources have informed me that Acting Superintendent Robert Andrzejewski told many students the librarian positions would be restored.  These were children who were upset their librarians were no longer there.  Perhaps he spoke out of turn in saying this, but the students are probably the most important stakeholders in any education decision.  Imagine if a librarian was a student’s favorite teacher.  That librarian got cut.  The student was very upset.  They go home after the Acting Superintendent says the librarians will be back.  The student is happy, the parents are hopeful, and the district can count on a yes vote from those parents.  Those kind of events can seriously impact referendum results.  That is a huge issue and could easily be seen, and justifiably so, as a broken promise.

To truly understand what happened here, we do have to look at Delaware’s unit-based funding system.  This is based on the September 30th count for each school in a district or a charter school.  The number of students in the school determines how much state funding the district or charter school gets from the state.  Schools also get funds from federal dollars and local dollars.  What a school can’t pay for from state or federal money, comes out of local dollars which is where taxpayers come in.  A district receives x amount of units based on the population of the district.  With this, there are all sorts of conditions, especially with special education.  Based on a student’s disabilities, the formula changes.

Looking at Christina’s 2015-2016 unit allotment based on their September 30th count, they received the following: based on 15,553 students, they received 1,236.40 units.  This does not mean every unit goes towards one teaching position.  For example, a CTE teacher counts as half a unit, or .5.  Based on the amount of units a district receives, the district determines how many units each building gets based on their student count.  Certain units, such as special education, have to go towards those services (or they are supposed to).  But a building leader, or principal, does have some discretion for how the funds generated from that unit-count are allocated.  They can’t make wild decisions.  If a school’s Smarter Balanced scores are low, they can’t hire 50 math teachers and only 3 English/Language Arts teachers.  But out of that pool of funds is how decisions are made.  The district’s Chief Financial Officer guides the schools with those decisions.  If enrollment is down, based on school choice or students moving from the district, a principal may face some difficult decisions.  I don’t envy a principal making decisions like this, but I also believe they should look at things like what was told to taxpayers in the latest referendum campaign.  Such as the case with Christina now.  Unfortunately, Christina loses a lot of students to charters and this has been going on for the past ten plus years.

So then a district is faced with difficult decisions.  They could either stay on the road they are on, or make changes.  In Christina’s case, they are wisely looking at school climate and discipline as one of the key issues which results in students leaving the district.  I have no issue with this as it is the number one complaint I see for Christina.  Part of their referendum promises was to take a “deep dive” at the situation, come up with a plan, and make changes.  That is completely acceptable in my opinion.  But what Christina also didn’t point out was the fact they would hire an outside vendor to help form this “strategic plan” who also happened to also work for the district in the past.  To the tune of almost $50,000 without a formal bid process.  These are the types of things that need to be spelled out to taxpayers during a referendum attempt.

One of the questions posed on the CSD Paving the Way referendum website concerned school resource officers and if the $1 million the district would use out of the funds generated out of the referendum would go towards bringing those positions back which were cut.  It was clearly spelled out that this decision was not going to be immediately made and that an action committee would form to determine how to handle this issue.  While it doesn’t look like anyone directly asked if all cut positions, such as librarians, would be restored, that would have been the place it would have most likely appeared.  In the absence of that question, many assumed all cut positions would come back.  Not to put the entire blame for this on a referendum website or a well-read blog in Delaware, but it is part of the issues.  As well, Andrzejewski’s comments to students played a factor.  As well, I had grave issues with the district spending $181,200 on what I initially viewed as more assessments for students when a state focus has been to reduce the amount of assessments.  I have since been informed this contract would replace two assessments at less of the cost of the other two assessments, which seems to be a prudent move on the district’s part.  Furthermore, you can’t just rob Peter to pay Paul.  Just because that $181,200 was available for assessments does not necessarily mean you can pay $181,200 in librarians in lieu of those funds.  There are different buckets for different aspects of education, as Brian has explained many times to people.

I received this information from an anonymous commenter named “John Doe”, seen below, but I felt the need to put it in the heart of the article:

Sir, I would please ask that you correct some misinformation included in this blog. It was made clear at the Christina SD Board of Ed. meeting that the district was consolidating, not simply adding, assessments. Yes, a new assessment will be purchased, but it is replacing two existing assessments which together cost the district more money than will be spent on the new assessment next school year. The district is indeed cutting assessments back in a number of sensible ways, and the district will benefit from cost savings as well as savings in instructional time because of these decisions. Teachers and administrators, like carpenters, need good tools to help them do high quality work. For a district the size of Christina SD, the assessment costs the author quoted are very reasonable.

In the past, districts and charters lave gotten themselves in trouble with misappropriated funds in the wrong bucket.  For example, last year Capital School District was warned by the State Auditor’s office they can’t use a Superintendent’s discretionary fund to help pay for band field trips.  That is just one of countless examples where districts did the wrong thing.  Intent plays a big part in that.  Was it an honest mistake or done on purpose?  In the case of some charter schools in Delaware in the past few years, taking school funds and using them for personal use is a big no-no.  But this hasn’t just happened in charters, but also public school districts as well.  But charters are held under more scrutiny than traditional school districts so it could be easier to find.  But by the same token, some of the charter employees who did abuse these funds had not been involved in public education to the extent others in traditional school districts have and were not as well-versed with the law.  This does not excuse their actions.  In fact, it makes the problem more acute and laws should reflect this troubling aspect.

As I learn more about district and charter funding, I am also looking towards the future in regards to corporate interference in education.  Out of the funds schools do receive, what funds are being wasted on assessment and useless programs?  How much is going towards outside vendors who have limited experience in an actual classroom but come out with reports that are utilized by those who support these agendas?  Are districts and charters riding the latest wave that has no factual research to back up the effectiveness of these programs, such as personalized learning in a digital environment?  Are funds being allocated based on the Smarter Balanced Assessment and how to increase scores while keeping bloated classroom sizes and not addressing the true needs of students?  These are the things that matter to me.  So when I see librarian positions not being restored (as of now), I have a major beef with that.  That is happening right now, in Christina.  If I am made aware of similar situations playing out in other districts, I will call them out on it.  Which is something, based on this current situation, I am going to be looking for.

Christina has a pocket of folks who do not enjoy any controversy based on decisions made coming out of that pocket, in my opinion.  And when they are called out on it, the fingers point to those casting the blame and not addressing the real issue.  This has landed me in a tough spot with the district in the past and in the present.  If information is not readily transparent, I go by what I do know.  And yes, I am opinionated and I am quick to reach judgment based on what I know, or believe I know.  I’m not denying this.  There are also other factors that play into how I write articles, such as sidebar conversations or issues I am unable to write about to protect others.  But those aspects definitely influence my opinion.  Do I get everything right?  Nope.  I’ll be the first to admit that, and when I don’t, I’ll fix it or write a follow-article.  But if you come on here and comment that I am wrong without explaining how I’m wrong, that I can’t do anything about.  I was accused of starting fires and then saying “I didn’t know” and trying to back out of my original post under that excuse.  Sure, that happens.  I write based on what information I do know and go from there.  Do I always seek clarification from other parties?  I don’t.  Here’s why: I am not a mainstream journalist.  I am a blogger.  The journalistic etiquette for mainstream journalism does not apply to bloggers.  Do I go for the “shock and awe” at times?  Absolutely.  And sometimes I just don’t feel like reaching out will serve a purpose.  All too often, I get no response, I’m attacked, or I get bad information.  That happens more often than not.  As well, the person who accused me of this, I have reached out to in the past over certain things but lately I had not been getting much response.  Until I posted about this latest librarian thing.

This is one of the reasons I admire and respect Christina board member John Young so much.  He is constantly attacked for attacking, or the perception of attacking.  John and I are very much alike in that aspect.  But it gets people talking and I would say it brings more transparency to issues facing public education.  The more people talk about education, the better.  We live in a state where a certain group of people tend to make ALL the decisions and that isn’t good for kids.  Period.  End of story.  If I can shock people out of an education awareness slumber, I certainly will.  This is how John operates, it is how Kilroy operates, and it is how Kavips operates.  It is the heart of Delaware education bloggers mindset, especially those who fight against the insane practices of the Delaware DOE and Governor Markell.  Most of the information we post (or used to in John’s case) is not information that is picked up on by the News Journal or other media outlets.  I don’t believe John’s goal, or my goal, is to intentionally divide, but to bring light to situations people may not be aware of.  But we are attacked for attacking.  If we don’t do these things, how the hell are people going to know these things?  Could we be more temperate in how we do this?  Sure, but would folks listen?  I can say I have defended Christina much more than I have “attacked” them, as some have said.

My intention is not to make things up in order to start a fire.  Unless it is one of my “fan fiction” posts, which are easily recognizable (such as Markell, Herdman, Godowsky, Jaques and Sokola going on a midnight horse ride in Dover), I am basing my information on something real.  If there is more information along the way, it’s going to come out.  If not from me, than in the comments or somewhere else.  Without going into a lot of details, there are some VERY strange things that go on behind the scenes with blogging.  Eventually, all truths are known or they are buried forever.

Updated, 9:32pm: This article has been updated to reflect the discussion about the assessments the district purchased.  I previously wrote these were more assessments, when the reality is they were to replace two other assessments to save instructional time and the district money.  While this is certainly a good thing, it does not change my issues with the librarian issue.

 

Evaluating Educators

Minding My Matters

Over the past school year I have been working with a dedicated group of professionals in the educational realm around the controversial topic of student improvement and its role in the educator evaluation system. This is not the forum for in-depth discussion about what, specifically, we did; interested parties are encouraged to visit https://egov.delaware.gov/pmc/ and scroll through the calendar in the Education, Office of the Secretary, Agency page to view our meeting agendas and minutes. However, I’d like to encourage my readers to consider making their voices heard around one particular piece of legislation that directly reflects the recommendations of the sub-committee.

House Bill 399 would put a number of our recommendations into law, which is exciting for me because we spent a great deal of time as a team working towards consensus on how to really keep the student achievement part focused on students, and on authentic methods of…

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