School Board Approves "Partnership" With State As "Lesser Of 2 Evils"

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The County School Board on Thursday night voted 7-2 to join in talks with the State Department of Education leading to a Partnership Zone for five low-performing schools.

Joe Smith and David Testerman voted against the plan.

Other board members said the only alternative was for the state to take over several low-performing schools under the Achievement School District in which the schools are "reconstituted." No board member spoke in favor of that.

Chairman Steve Highlander said he had asked Education Commissioner Candice McQueen to give new Supt. Bryan Johnson a year to see what he had achieve with the Opportunity Zone he has launched. But he said the Partnership Zone and the ASD were the only choice.

Officials noted that in order for the Partnership Zone to go into effect the state Legislature will have to pass enabling legislation.

In the meantime, the state and county will be working out details of a Partnership contract, it was stated.

State officials said the move bring an initial $3.2 million for the Partnership schools - Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Orchard Knob Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Woodmore Elementary. 

There would be a board created that would have more state appointees than county. 

Supt. Johnson spoke in favor of moving ahead with the Partnership Zone, saying it would bring "additional support" for the failing schools. He said currently there was "a cloud of uncertainty" over the affected schools. He stated, "Given the two options, this (Partnership Zone) is by far the best option."

Ms. Thurman noted the proposal was "dependent upon available funds" from the state and federal government. She said she worried that those funds might not materialize, leaving the county schools to pay a bigger share.

She said the "track record of ASD is not something to desire." However, Ms. Thurman said she was voting in favor of the Partnership Zone out of deference to two board members with the low-performing schools - Tiffanie Robinson and Karitsa Jones.

Joe Wingate said the plan looked good "from 4,000 feet," but he said on board votes "the tie breakers go with the state. At the end of the day, it's not an even partnership. That's a little hard to swallow."

Mr. Smith said he had been opposed to a state takeover "from the start." He said he had long worked with the state and found that "about the time you learn to do something, they change it." He said the state record in school takeovers "is not very going."

Mr. Testerman said, "These are our schools. It's a broken system no doubt, but the state is as broken as we are."

He said if the county "gives up our schools, we may never get them back."

Laura Encalade, state Education Department chief of staff, said under the law the state can only keep the schools in the ASD for 10 years. She said a five-year contract was planned for the Partnership Zone.

Ms. Robinson said she was frustrated that the item was not initially on the agenda. She said every possible question had been answered. Chairman Highlander said there had been no formal request for a vote. Then it was agreed to add it to the agenda.

Joe Galloway said he did not want to go the ASD route, but he said the board needed to make a decision on the Partnership Zone.

Ms. Jones called the two state options "two evils" and said the Opportunity Zone "is already working." She said it was time to act, saying, "This can has been kicked for 15 years."

She called the ADS "an epic failure" and said legislators should be urged to take another look at the bill that created it.

State Senator Todd Gardenhire took offense that there had not been enough discussion about the Partnership Zone. He said legislators had "talked about it, talked about it, talked about it and talked about it." He said, "It's time to make a decision. This thing has been discussed long enough."

He said it gives children in those schools "the best opportunity to get help from every direction."

Meanwhile, the state attorney general's office ruled that the contract negotiations could begin between the state and county schools over the Partnership Zone, though the law to enable it had not yet been passed.

The opinion said the talks were designed to lead to a letter of intent and not a binding, enforceable contract.

The opinion said, "Nothing prohibits a school board from expressing potential interest in a method of
improving educationthat may differ from methods currently available under existing law. Because
an affirmative vote on a non-binding memorandum of understanding would be nothing more than
an expression of a potential interest and would not hinder a school board from complying with
current law, a school board may vote on such a non-binding memorandum of understanding."

Rep. JoAnne Favors requested the ruling.












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