Who Is In Charge

Vegas board votes for Jones

Dwight Jones
Education Commissioner Dwight Jones discussed his status as one of three finalists for the Las Vegas, Nev., schools. Sept. 16, 2010.

The Clark County school board Wednesday evening chose Colorado education Commissioner Dwight Jones as its next superintendent, formally voting 6-1 to open negotiations with him for the Nevada job.

The only no vote was cast by trustee Linda Young, who said she objected to the speed of the selection process, not necessarily to Jones.

The other candidate was Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas, Texas, schools.

In a statement issued after the vote, Jones said, “I sincerely appreciate this opportunity to work with the Clark County school district to improve student achievement. I am humbled by the choice, knowing the board had another outstanding candidate.

“It is clear to me that Clark County wants what we all want, to ensure that all children have access to inspiring learning environments that set high standards and successfully prepare all students for college or careers.

“I look forward with enthusiasm to working with the educators, school staff and community in Clark County, and I will make the transition to Nevada as soon as I can ensure a smooth exit from Colorado. I am keenly excited about the work and challenges ahead.”

With the Nevada board’s decision, finding a successor will be a top priority for the Colorado State Board of Education, which will have at least two new members after the election in November.

Randy Dehoff
State Board of Education member Randy DeHoff, R-6th District

Board Vice Chair Randy DeHoff, R-6th District, said he and fellow Republican Peggy Littleton have suggested an interim commissioner be appointed until new members take office. DeHoff and Littleton both are leaving the board.

“It’s probably not a surprise, given his record, his reputation,” DeHoff said. “I’m happy for him; we’re certainly going to miss him here.’’

Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District, agreed that Jones’ move wasn’t a surprise. “I think we all expected it. He’s star talent.”

She said “the board has had no conversations at all about what happens next.” Berman noted that the next scheduled board meeting is Oct. 6. “We’ll have an executive session next week, and we’ll start the conversation. … I expect the commissioner will recommend an interim commissioner.”

Member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, said, “I know this is what he wanted to do. I do wish him well.” She also said the board hasn’t yet discussed what to do next. (Schroeder is the only SBE incumbent on the ballot this year, facing Republican Kaye Ferry.)

Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education, told said on Thursday, “I’m not anxious” for education Commissioner Dwight Jones to leave. “We owe Dwight quite a lot.”

Schaffer said the state board hasn’t “formally” discussed next steps, “just ideas on a one-to-one basis.” He continued, “I expect if the commissioner leaves we would consider any recommendations he has about succession. … That may entail an interim. We’re not rushing to make plans just yet.” He said it’s “unlikely” any decision about a new commissioner would be made before the end of the year.

Jones revealed on Sept. 16 that he was a finalist for the job and was in Nevada for two days last week for public meetings and interviews. Clark County board members later visited Dallas and Denver.

The commissioner said previously that he didn’t seek the Las Vegas job but finally agreed to let a search firm submit his name.

Jones, previously superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson school district, has made no secret of his interest in someday heading a large urban district.

At the time of the announcement, members of the state board praised Jones’ work and said they supported him interviewing for the Nevada job.

Jones, 48, the state’s education commissioner since June 2007, is widely credited with improving relations between the state Department of Education, local school districts and the Colorado Education Association.

He’s been a central player in education reform efforts over the last three years, including the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, improved data systems, the new method for accrediting school districts, the educator effectiveness law and the ultimately unsuccessful Race to the Top bid.

Jones started career as teacher

Jones began his career in education as a teacher in Junction City, Kansas, before becoming a principal in elementary, middle and high schools and then assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Wichita district.

He then became a vice president for the Edison Schools charter network and, in 2004, became assistant superintendent and later superintendent of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District south of Colorado Springs. He was recognized during his three-year tenure in the 7,400-student district for closing achievement gaps.

As commissioner, Jones works with 178 school districts educating 830,000 students.

Retiring Clark County Superintendent Walt Rulffes’ salary is $277,000, down from $307,000 after he took a voluntary 10 percent pay cut in October. Jones’ current pay is $223,860.

According to data on its website, the Clark County School District is the fifth largest in the U.S., with nearly 310,000 students, more than 350 schools, some 38,000 employees and an annual budget of about $2.9 billion.

For years, Clark County has led the nation in student growth and building schools. In 1998, Rulffes, then the district’s CFO, is credited with helping win passage of a $3.5 billion bond issue, one of the nation’s largest.

But enrollment dipped in fall 2009, the first time the district had reported a drop in its student count in 25 years. District leaders blamed the recession.

Changing of the guard in Colorado

No interim Colorado commissioner was named in 2007 when William Moloney left and was succeeded by Jones. After Jones, the senior executives in the department are deputy commissioners Robert Hammond, in charge of finance and administration, and Diana Sirko, who recently joined to department in charge of learning and results.

Speculation about a permanent successor to Jones began swirling as soon as he let his secret out two weeks ago. Names in the air have included outgoing Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien. Three prominent superintendents – Tom Boasberg of Denver, John Barry of Aurora and Mike Miles of Harrison – all have told Education News Colorado that they’re not interested.

Gov. Bill Ritter, LT. Gov. Barbara O'Brien
Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien

In departing the state scene, Jones joins Gov. Bill Ritter and O’Brien, both of whom played major roles on education issues during the last four years. They chose not to run for second terms. House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, who played a prominent role in charter school legislation and in passage of the educator effectiveness law, is leaving the legislature because of term limits.

Vegas board notes

Video of the Clark County trustees meeting was streamed live on the Internet, including public testimony from several people, most of whom were critical of the pace of the board’s selection process.

The speaker most critical of Jones was Stephen Augspurger, an official of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-technical Employees.

Augspurger maintained there are “nagging issues relating to his transparency and integrity,” claiming Jones wasn’t fully candid with Clark County trustees when asked whom he’d talked to about the job in Nevada.

Augspurger also argued that Jones wasn’t transparent in handling recent raises for CDE executives. He was referring to a recent KCNC-TV story in which state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, complained about raises in a time of budget cuts. CDE officials note that Jones had the authority to set the salaries, that raises went to employees who were assigned additional staff members to supervise and that two assistant commissioner positions weren’t filled, yielding net payroll savings.

Responding to the various public comments, Clark County trustees were polite but made it clear they disagreed.

Archived video of the meeting wasn’t available late Wednesday, but you can watch video of the board’s Sept. 23 interviews with the finalists here.

Budget woes

In budget address, Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker proposes modest education increases

J.B. Pritzker speaks during a round table discussion with high school students at a creative workspace for women on October 1, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois.

Even while calling his proposed budget “austere” and speaking plainly about the yawning deficit he inherited, Illinois’ new governor, J.B. Pritzker, struck an optimistic chord when describing how he plans to plow more money into schools.

His fiscal year 2020 budget would allocate a total of $7.2 billion for K-12 funding, including an extra $25 million in addition to the mandated $350 million annual minimum increase under the state’s funding formula.

“There’s a focus here on trying to not only rebuild from the damage that was done over the last four years but also to set us up for growing the economy, which happens in part because of our investments in education,” Pritzker said, nodding to a nearly two-year budget stalemate under his predecessor, Republican Bruce Rauner, that left the state with billions in unpaid bills.

During Wednesday’s speech, the governor said the long-term solution to the state’s budget deficits  was a progressive income tax that would take more money from Illinois’ wealthiest residents.

In the shorter term, though, Pritzker’s budget proposal includes an additional $25 million for Illinois schools, an increase of $21 million in special education grants, and a $5 million boost for career and technical education programs for high school students.

Also in the proposal: $50 million in need-based college grants, another $35 million in university scholarships, and $2 million to cover waived fees for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests.

Pritzker’s budget would allocate an additional $100 million to the Early Childhood Block Grant. That would bring the state investment in early childhood education to $594 million next year.

The governor Wednesday also proposed freezing a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contributed scholarships for private schools. Critics argued the program cut into state income taxes that would otherwise help fund public schools. Supporters, including Rauner, said it was one of the few ways struggling families could afford private schools.

Pritzker noted that given Illinois’ economic reality, there is a limit to how much cost-cutting alone could do. Instead, he promised to pass a budget that would include an increase in funding across the board as a way to invest in the state’s future, with a particular focus on education.

“We must stop slashing programs that build future prosperity,” Pritzker said in his budget address. “Over the long term, we must make investments in education, livable wages, innovative human service programs and job training.”

In unveiling his budget, the governor spoke plainly about the state’s dire fiscal situation: a $3.2 billion budget deficit and $15 billion in debt from unpaid bills — an amount that is equal to funding “free four-year university tuition for more than 12,000 students,” he said.

Nearly two years without a state budget under the previous governor prompted a massive backlog of funding in the K-12 education budget that the state is still struggling to fill, on top of an $8.1 billion backlog of unpaid bills across state agencies.

A 2017 overhaul in the formula Illinois uses to fund schools put the state on a 10-year path to closing the more than $6.8 billion gap between what it spends on K-12 public schools and the projected cost of adequate school funding. In January, the state board of education asked for $15 billion in public schools funding.

“It’s a very teensy step and better an increase than not,” Wendy Katten with Raise Your Hand Action, a parent group advocating for public education, said of the increased funding for K-12 schools. “But that’s nowhere near the $7 billion that’s needed for basic adequacy, let alone the $2 billion needed for [Chicago Public Schools].”   

Pritzker’s proposed additions are modest, to be sure, but unions representing teachers in Chicago and statewide, as well as disability advocates, said any additional investment in education is most welcome.

“It’s clear that he understands the importance of great public schools and higher education and is committed to fulfilling the state’s responsibility to invest in them,” the president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Dan Montgomery, said.

And the Chicago Teachers Union asked that Chicago Public Schools to use any extra state funding to lower class sizes and increase special education staffing.

“The increase in evidence-based funding over the statutory minimum recognizes that Illinois’ challenges with education funding equity are fundamentally rooted in the need to drive more resources to students, like those in CPS, who have suffered from decades of insufficient and unequal school funding,” Jesse Sharkey, president of the union, said.

Chris Yun, the education policy analyst with Access Living, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she was heartened to see a bump for special education funding, noting: “Students with disabilities are often forgotten because the number is much less than general education students. We have a long way to go, but this is just step one.”

Pritzker told Chalkbeat in October that contributing more money to education would require solving the state’s longstanding budget woes. At that time, Illinois was expected to enter fiscal year 2019 with a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. That figure has now more than tripled.

Its problems are compounded significantly by its pension responsibilities, making it increasingly difficult to allocate money to other needs, said Ralph Martire, director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

“The payments are jumping at levels our system can’t afford,” Martire said.

Pritzker on Wednesday said he would “smooth the pension ramp by modestly extending it,” which hints at a plan to push payments off further.

While Pritzker’s progressive taxation plan has a steady thrum of support from Democratic lawmakers, the measure has not yet passed the state legislature.

Pritzker acknowledged that his 2020 budget was built on a tax structure that he still considered regressive and said he hoped to change that going forward.  

“Not only is our tax system unfair, it’s also inadequate to solve our long-term financial challenges,” he said. “Make no bones about it, I choose to stand up for working families and will lead the charge to finally enact a fair tax system in Illinois.”

Cassie Creswell, a board member of public education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Action, said the budget address was a positive indicator of Pritzker’s support for revamping taxation, but feared “the rates that will be proposed to make it politically palatable won’t make it the rate we need to fund stuff in the state.”

interview time

Four candidates left make their case before commission for open Shelby County Schools board seat

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Interim school board candidate Aubrey Howard presents before the Shelby County Commission.

Four remaining candidates for a vacated Memphis school board seat had their chance to tell the Shelby County Commission why they are the right person for the job on Wednesday afternoon.

They were the remaining viable candidates after six applicants were disqualified for living outside of District 2, the area the interim board member will represent in Shelby County Schools. Chalkbeat reported on Monday that six of the candidates live outside of the district. The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and will serve until the term expires in August 2020.

The four applicants are (We’ve linked to their full applications.):

  • Erskine Gillespie, an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank.
  • Althea Greene, a retired Memphis educator and pastor of Real Life Ministries.
  • Aubrey Howard, the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office.
  • Charles McKinney, the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Commissioners peppered the candidates with questions on big issues facing the district, including school choice, the budget process, managing the district’s aging buildings and underenrollment, and how they could improve the relationship between the district and the county commission, the funding body for schools.

In their pitches to commissioners, applicants touted their previous experiences with K-12 education, such as work with nonprofits and curriculum development, and their ties to Memphis schools. “I’m a product of Memphis schools,” was a phrase said again and again.

Most applicants expressed general support for charter schools, which have grown significantly in recent years in Memphis, but Gillespie said he believed “the influx of our charter school program is an issue that must be addressed.” McKinney sits on the board of a charter high school, and Greene and Howard said they had no issues with charter schools as a way to serve individual needs of students.

On the relationship with the county commission, Greene said: “I think it’s important that as a school board member, I’m at county commission meetings. And work as a bridge to educate children and give them the best education we can, and we know that costs money.”

Gillespie was asked by Commissioner Willie Brooks what he thinks of alternative schools, which serve students who have been expelled or suspended from traditional schools for behavioral reasons. There are several alternative schools in District 2.

“I think alternative schools are truly something necessary,” Gillespie said. “They can provide a trauma-informed response for our students.”

The questionnaire given to each candidate asked about TNReady, the state’s embattled testing system. Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs the education committee, asked Howard to expand on his answer that the test “didn’t work.”

“Those decisions about testing and teacher evaluations would be better met if they were local and not state controlled,” Howard replied. “For sure, the state wasted a huge amount of money with the companies they hired that failed us.”

Gillespie and McKinney described aging and often near-empty school buildings as a large issue facing the district. The interim board member would help analyze a massive district plan left by former superintendent Hopson that would consolidate 28 Memphis schools into 10 new buildings.

McKinney said the school board should be having regular conversations with the commission and the neighborhoods it serves on how demographic shifts have impacted the county, creating underenrollment in some schools.

“For the school board, those conversations need to be ongoing, so when it comes time to make a decision about whether or not to close a school, it’s not coming as a surprise,” McKinney said.

Three people from Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group, spoke in support of McKinney. The group’s leader, Sarah Carpenter, said he’s been a consistent figure in her neighborhood of North Memphis.

Shelby County Commission
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Commissioner Willie Brooks (left) asked candidates about how they would work with the county commission.

“I’m tired of people coming to our community when they want a seat and we don’t see them anymore,” Carpenter said. “Our children’s lives are on the line.”

Commissioner Edmund Ford, himself a former teacher, said after the interviews he would like to see an educator on the board.

“There were a lot of things I saw as a teacher, when I would go to the school board to ask for their assistance, that I would not receive,” Ford said. “Personally, I would like to see someone who has been there and done that.”

After hearing from the candidates, the commission voted to move the item to its Monday meeting, where commissioners will vote on a successor.

For more details, see our Twitter thread from the hearing.