High Noon For The Delaware State Board of Education On Tuesday

We can do it better ourselves but we won’t tell them that.

The Delaware State Board of Education could be shut down as of Tuesday.  They face the Delaware Joint Legislative Overview and Sunset Committee.  The State Board was put under review by the committee last year after some very rough years under former Governor Jack Markell.  Many of the complaints circulate around their Executive Director, Donna Johnson.  As well, many citizens and education organizations in the state feel the State Board has outlived their usefulness and just seem to perpetuate agendas brought forth by corporate education reform organizations such as the Rodel Foundation of Delaware and the Delaware Charter Schools Network.  I wrote about their last meeting with the committee over a month ago.  But I was able to be the sole attendee at a meeting yesterday where the State Board discussed their final meeting with the Sunset Committee and boy was it a doozy!

The committee issued their recommendations to the State Board last week.  On Friday, the State Board met to discuss recommendations and their strategy for the meeting on Tuesday.  This was a public meeting but I was the only member of the public who attended the meeting.  The recommendations to the State Board can be seen below.  But after you read those recommendations, you must read the lightning rod comments made during their planning session.  To clarify, the name Bunting will come up a lot in what I write below.  In Delaware, we have Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting and State Board member Nina Lou Bunting.  They are not related.  When I mention Bunting below, it is the State Board of Education member, not the Secretary of Education.  Executive Director Donna Johnson and State Board of Education member Pat Heffernan did NOT attend this meeting.  The recommendations from the committee are below.

As I wrote above, I was the only person who attended this meeting.  No one from the Delaware Dept. of Education attended, no legislators, no school personnel and no outside education organizations.  It was an eye opener.  The committee found multiple instances of State Board duties not covered in Delaware statute.  One of the recommendations was to have other organizations such as the Delaware DOE, school districts, and the Delaware State Education Association (DSEA).  The State Board shot that down very fast in their discussion.  They stated they perform duties specific to the State Board that are already in statute, such as redrawing district lines and Career and Technical Education (CTE).  Dr. Teri Quinn Gray, the President of the State Board, said paragraphs 104 and 105 of Title 14 are not the only place they have duties (even though the recommendations from the committee give paragraphs 104 through 107).  Board member Barbara Rutt said the State Board does things without bias.  Dr. Gray stated the committee received letters to keep the State Board from the Chair of the Wilmington Education Improvement Commission (Tony Allen), past and current Teachers of the Year, and from charter schools.  All the public comment can be seen below.  They did not talk about the negative letters against the State Board from DSEA, Bill Doolittle, and Robert Overmiller (the former President of the Governor’s Advisory Council for Exceptional Citizens).  I did not see any letters from charters.

The State Board discussed their duties as written in Delaware statute.  The committee asked them to submit recommendations for their specific duties to be added to state code.  Rutt felt they should clarify those duties.  Board member Nina Lou Bunting said they need to work with their attorney to hammer out those specifics.  However, President Gray said their duties are listed in Title 14.  The committee wanted to see better language about how the State Board removes a member.  The Board discussed that if a member misses half the meetings in a year or three meetings in a row they can be removed.  The Board liked the suggested language to add to state code on what criteria a State Board member can be removed.  The State Board would decide if the member should be removed and the Executive Director would write a letter to the Delaware Governor recommending the removal of the member.  The State Board has never had this problem.

Donna Johnson’s role as Executive Director came up next and this seemed to be a sore point of discussion for the State Board.  They discussed submitting regulatory language or potential legislative ideas to clearly define the role of the State Board’s Executive Director.  The Board created the Executive Director role in 2011 along with the assigned duties of said person.  There were amendments to this in 2013.  They talked about how they were not sure if the role has to be vetted by the Governor.  They were not sure if the role is in legislation.  Title 14 does allow for the State Board to have administrative support but does not call for an Executive Director role.  Discussion around the Board of Nursing and their similar Director role.  On that board, the Director must be a certified nurse but for the State Board of Education it does not call for that.  They said the role of Executive Director “is beyond the scope of their duties and should be married in statute” as per Gray.  The Board hired Donna Johnson but refused to discuss her salary and the requirements of her job in this meeting.  It was at this point that board member Greg Coverdale said “We can do it better ourselves but we won’t tell them that (the committee).”  Gray said they have to have a discussion with the Board about this matter but not in this meeting.  Either they will revise her job description or the committee will do it was a common statement from different board members.  The State Board kept comparing themselves to the Professional Standards Board and the Delaware Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Another big recommendation came up surrounding where the State Board holds their meeting.  The committee recommended staggering meetings in all three Delaware counties.  This would allow for more community attendance to State Board meetings.  Bunting (Nina Lou) said the Dover location is important because the Delaware DOE is in the same building and they provide crucial support during their meetings.  Coverdale said some DOE staff work out of the Carvel Building in Wilmington and could be a good location for New Castle County.  Gray said they would need to discuss this with the Delaware Secretary of Education Dr. Susan Bunting (not related to State Board member Nina Lou Bunting for those keeping track).  Discussion ensued around the feasibility of DOE employees travelling up and down the state.  Gray said issues surrounding the requirement to record their meetings and accommodate crowds is something to consider.  The Board heard from many district administrators that they prefer the meeting be held during the day.

A recommendation from the committee centered around making State Board information public to folks who may not have internet access.  This information should be in printed form which immediately brought up the issue of expense in the State Board discussion.  Coverdale said they went paperless to save money.  Ideas floated around about mailing State Board meeting information to churches and community organizations.  Once again, cost came up and Coverdale even said new churches pop up all the time.  He suggested emailing the information to churches and having them print it to give to parishioners or make it a part of the service announcements.  Once again, they will look at current practices with other boards.  They said they need more clarification about the recommendation and if this would be a monthly or annual requirement.  Rutt said public libraries serve these purposes already and give many citizens information they can’t get on the internet.  As well, all public libraries have internet access.  Coverdale said they can’t determine these solutions in a one hour meeting.

Once again, Donna Johnson came up.  The committee felt Johnson’s role is essentially a lobbyist and didn’t appreciate her coming to House and Senate Education Committee meetings speaking for the board on pending legislation.  The committee recommended the State Board provide a clear and defined process for looking at legislation.  The State Board’s attorney told them this is a part of FOIA and this process should be developed in a public meeting.  The committee also said the citizen’s voice shall be considered in decisions.  The board agreed they need a general consensus before Donna speaks for them at a public meeting.  A question lingered in the air about if past votes on certain matters would count as a position on a bill.  Gray said they need to define a process for this.  Bunting said the Delaware School Boards Association (DSBA) does have their Director speak for them on legislative matters.  The State Board’s attorney said they are not DSBA, they can’t have Donna Johnson say “I represent the State Board” without a public vote, and it is a FOIA violation. Coverdale said the committee feels as though “she has too much power“, meaning Donna Johnson.  Grey said they discuss legislation at their quarterly retreats but agrees with the committee they should then vote on their positions at their monthly meetings.

The topic of adding members to the State Board came up.  A recommendation from the Sunset Committee was to add two non-voting members, such as the Delaware Teacher of the Year, a representative from the disability community, or a member of the military.  The Board agreed they would have to submit legislation for this.  A big question came up about who would choose these members- the Governor or the State Board of Education?  A member brought up the option of having a student as a non-voting member on the board.  The board agreed they would need to talk with the Governor about this matter.  They said they needed clarification on the revalance of having a member of the military or disabled community on the State Board.  Member Terry Whittaker said they are already a small board.  Bunting said the DOE is an administration but the Teacher of the Year was something the State Board already suggested.  Their attorney clarified the Sunset Committee is recommending they have two non-voting members.

For the next recommendation, I am going to repeat exactly what the committee submitted to the State Board: “The Committee would like to see a sustainable path for charter schools to include local buy in to avoid disruption of the local portfolio.  Ideal framework for best practices for charter school creation from the NACSE informed view.”  Coverdale said they discussed this a few board meetings ago.  Dr. Gray said the charter applicant owns the process of getting local buy-in and have to submit evidence of this with their application.  She said this is known as a Statement of Demand.  She said the local districts are already in regulation to have a say on the impact of the local portfolio.  There is no law demanding collaboration between the district and the proposed charter.  Bunting talked about how many districts don’t typically want a new charter in their district.  Coverdale said he can see where they would if the new charter will offer a specific niche the district may not offer.  The board discussed how they vote on the information the charter applicant provides.  They agreed they need more clarification from the committee on this and it is not in their authority to implement this recommendation since multiple players are involved.  “Some people try to legislate collaboration… Good Luck!” said Gray.

The board discussed future options in the final minutes of the meeting.  They could be released from the Sunset Review or appear before the committee in January of 2018 based on the implementation of the recommendations.  They also said they could be given Sunset, which means terminated.  Or closed.  In conclusion, the State Board discussed how they have a lot more work to do.  Dr. Gray will not be at the meeting on Tuesday so Vice President Nina Lou Bunting will be the lead speaker for the State Board.  But all other members should also be there.  The committee also wants to have a list of the activities State Board members participated in during the past three years.  Gray said there is not enough time to get that list together.  They would have to listen to three years worth of recordings to get that information since they don’t keep track of it in writing.  The State Board wasn’t sure if the final vote from the committee will take place before them.

During the discussion surrounding the ability for the public to have access to the meetings without being physically present, I raised my hand.  Whittaker pointed at me and said someone from the public wants to speak but Dr. Gray firmly said no.  After the meeting, I apologized and merely suggested they may want to consider live streaming their meetings over the internet.  Everyone acted like they never heard this idea before but said it could be easily done.  Gray said she didn’t have public comment on the agenda for this meeting which was why she would not allow me to speak.

My thoughts on all this.  I sensed annoyance from the State Board about this process.  There was far too much concern about clarification.  I would think after the first two meetings on this they should know what some of the major concerns are and would have preemptively addressed some of those concerns, especially on the role of Donna Johnson.  If the State Board shows that same attitude in front of the Committee, they are going to have a rough time of it in there.  It could be a do or die situation for them.  Do I think they should be shut down?  It is hard to say.  I have always stated my position on the membership and I feel they should all be elected officials like district school boards.  I think they very easily follow certain agendas which is succinctly echoed in the below public comments submitted to the Sunset Committee.  I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from criticism of Donna Johnson.  In my view, she IS the State Board which is a problem in and of itself and defeats the purpose of even having a State Board.  It will be interesting to see how the Sunset Committee votes on this.

Many will be shocked Tony Allen wrote a letter in support of the State Board of Education after the hell WEIC went through with them last year.  I look at it like this: Tony Allen is always a diplomat.  Doolittle hit the nail on the head with his comments.  Overmiller’s comment came as a surprise, but that doesn’t mean I don’t agree.  For the Teachers of the Year, these are one teacher out of thousands that are picked.  They are pampered and celebrated and given many perks for this award.  Not that they don’t deserve it, but the State Board treats them like royalty.  It doesn’t shock me they would get letters of support from them.  Once again, I don’t see any letters of support from charter schools or the Delaware Charter Schools Network but they could appear on the Sunset Committee website before Tuesday.  Unless that public comment period is now closed.

I wrote an article the other day about a proposed action item for the regular State Board of Education meeting next Thursday.  The action item is to move public comment from the beginning of the meeting until towards the end of the meeting.  In reviewing the public comment section I put above, I did see a suggestion from DSEA where public comment is allowed after board discussion of each item.  This is something the House and Senate Education Committee already does and I am not opposed to this suggestion.  I find the State Board’s action item to be even more insulting though.  If you don’t already know, the public cannot give comment about any action item before the State Board of Education.

 

 

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