County Mayor Jim Coppinger has met several times with State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and his stance against her taking over five of our inner-city schools seems to have softened. I attributed it to his alleged allergy to a pretty girl’s perfume. So when I mentioned he shouldn’t let this woman into our nirvana at Wednesday’s commission meeting, one thing led to another and he arranged a private meeting between us on Thursday so I could see if her “White Violet” – or whatever the scent -- had an effect on me.
McQueen, as you may know, has announced a crazy partnership where she will have total and complete control of five poorly performing schools in Hamilton County in the fall of 2018. Now she is pressing the school board to choose between two very unsavory choices. I am among 350,000 Hamilton County residents who are adamantly opposed because the take-over is wrong in every way.
But Coppinger was right when he asked me to meet with her in a one-on-one conversation. “There has been a lack of communication from her office and there are some big misperceptions,” he said on the day before.
We met for almost an hour and she was far kinder and exhibited far more grace, poise, and manners than I did, trust me. Here are some highlights:
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS”
Our introduction was cordial – I recalled her husband, Andy, who was a fabulous basketball star at Lipscomb, and was an All-American with a record number of three-pointers – and she told me she’d quit reading my stories because they made her mad.
So my first question was more of a statement. “You don’t have to do this. There is no rule or mandate for you to take over five schools in Chattanooga. That’s the truth and you know it. You don’t have to do this.”
She explained that both state and federal law required her to exhibit “responsibility” with perpetually failing schools. “I have a responsibility to address these issues after two failing ‘cycles’ -- a ‘cycle’ is a class that goes from kindergarten to the fifth grade.”)
When asked if a “responsibility” could be met in a lesser form – such as weekly visits by Nashville supervisors, extra faculty meetings or far less traumatic steps, she was evasive. She did admit there is no loss of federal or state funding nor any penalties for using alternative methods.
“Mrs. McQueen, that is precisely why you do not have to do this.”
“THERE IS A MISCONCEPTION” – PART ONE
“You have written that I will pick the ‘Director’ of the Partnership schools. That is untrue. The board will select the ‘Director,’” she said, this meaning the same as a Superintendent over Brainerd High, Dalewood Middle, Woodmore Elementary, Orchard Knob Middle and Orchard Knob Elementary. Newly selected Hamilton County School Superintendent Bryan Johnson will be totally out of the partnership unless he is selected to serve on the board.
But when McQueen was asked if the board would still be ‘tilted’ – the suggestion being that four members will be picked by the state and three be named by the Hamilton County School Board, she said that was true.
“You don’t think if you appoint four votes, and the school board appoints three, with such a loaded ballot you will not be able to actually decide who is going to be the Director?”
“No, the seven board members will decide.”
“THERE IS A MISCONCEPTION” – PART TWO
The notion that not one person in the Hamilton County area will have any control or say in the operation and the direction of the Partnership schools is untrue. The board, which will include several people from Hamilton County, will make all of the decisions. The director will be directed by the board.
Four-to-three: Please see “Misconception – Part one. The Majority rules.
Also, after the Hamilton County School Board chooses the ASD take-over or the partnership plan, the state reserves the final decision. That will be decided later this summer. And who on the state level will make the final call? “I will,” she said.
“THERE IS A MISCONCEPTION” – PART THREE
A news release from McQueen’s Nashville office last Friday read precisely, “Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen next week plans to hold a series of private, invitation-only community meetings about the planned state take-over of some low-performing Hamilton County Schools. Her office said the news media will be excluded … “
“That’s not true. I was just an invited guest at the meetings. They were held by school board members Karitsa Jones and Tiffanie Robinson. They compiled the guest lists, not me. They each have schools in their districts that will be affected. I was happy to make myself available.”
“THERE IS A MISCONCEPTION” – PART FOUR
In April, McQueen presented the school board with the two choices – either accept between the proposed Partnership or her state-run Achievement School District – which would completely take over the schools, replacing principals, teachers and staff. Since she has used the much-maligned ASD as a ‘Sword of Damocles,’ i.e. “Take the partnership or else.”
“It was never a threat, but an option,” she said, after Coppinger had explained earlier that a third option was botched when the Hamilton County Department of Education didn’t follow through on a $10 million grant during the last administration three years ago.
“Then why are you punishing Chattanooga for something that took place before anybody knew our public education was a horrible wreck? We have a new superintendent – who you know well – and while a 1.9 percent raise in the education budget is hardly indicative of intent, I promise you there is a new emphasis on public schools.”
In April McQueen told the school board “No is not an option” but yesterday was told “No” will forever be an option in the Land of the Free. “That made you look like some pushy tyrant …”
“I certainly apologize if I gave that impression. I have the same goal as everyone who I’ve met in Chattanooga. We want to help in any way we can. Every child needs an education that will enable them to function in the work place after they graduate. That’s what we all want.”
“THERE IS A MISCONCEPTION” – PART FIVE
McQueen has said she will use the 2017-18 school year as a planning phase, bringing a million dollars in state money, before the proposed five-year agreement goes into effect. When and if it does in August of 2018, she will have a scant four months left as Education Commissioner. “Then what?”
“You’ll scatter for the high seas and Hamilton County will be in the lock-step partnership with God only knows who? We all know how politics works … this isn’t a good omen for Hamilton County.”
“Hamilton County’s side will be fine. There will be a contract.”
Apparently McQueen doesn’t know how much money Hamilton County has spent buying out contracts.
WHO IS GOING TO PAY FOR THIS?
“Actually, we are going to have minimal expense. The Director will be a paid position … and then under him the five principals are already being paid. The board seats will be unpaid positions with people who have a passion for iZone children wanting to succeed. We are working on a budget now.
“We hope to retain all the principals, teachers, and staff who want to work in this partnership arrangement.
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A number of Hamilton County teachers have wondered how the Commissioner knows the five schools have bad grades after tests scores have been botched the last three years. Brainerd High students were told the test scores would factor into their final grades but here it is July and no results: “I know what Brainerd’s grades are … the test scores will be released soon.”
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A special called workshop will be held next Thursday at the School Board meeting room in the HCDE complex on Bony Oakes Drive. The state’s take-over will be discussed at 4:30 p.m. and the regular school board meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m.
Items that might be discussed include:
* -- offering an alternate plan instead of making any decision.
* -- The school board can indeed vote ‘no’ without fear of legal repercussions, penalties or sanctions but ask the state for advisory assistance.
* -- Select Jill Levine, Zac Brown and Justin Robertson, who have just guided HCDE so adroitly, to fill the three seats on the proposed school board while retaining their HCDE jobs. Face it, the three know more about our iZone schools than anybody. And any of the three could nominate Kirk Kelly as the Director. Is America great or what?
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Above all, remember Candice McQueen is neither required by rules nor bound by law to take over any school in Hamilton County.