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State Board tries and fails to put budget controversy to rest

The State Board of Education tried to end the controversy over the Department of Public Instruction reorganization yesterday, but a letter from state budget officials shows it’s not over yet.

A lengthy discussion over the cuts took place between members at the State Board of Education Thursday.

Board Vice Chair A.L. Collins had requested during the Wednesday portion of the meeting that the Board take the subject up, and after a break Thursday, they did so. Chair Bill Cobey started the discussion by telling the State Board that they were the deciders when it came to what got cut from the DPI budget.

“You’re the final word. We’re not the final word,” Cobey said of himself and Superintendent June Atkinson.

As we reported in January, Atkinson and Cobey were granted the power by the Board to determine how to dole out the $2.5 million in cuts mandated by the General Assembly last session. In January, they decided to use some of the $3.8 million in extra funds granted to DPI by the General Assembly for the Excellent Public Schools Act to save some personnel who may have potentially faced the axe.

However, back in October, Atkinson had already told the Office of State Budget and Management her intention, and then-director Lee Roberts replied saying the plan was “inconsistent with the intent of the budget reduction.” Click “Correspondence” at the end of this story to read the letter.

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, lambasted Atkinson and Cobey’s move in a letter Monday, and Atkinson was grilled by Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake, on the matter at a Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee meeting Tuesday. In an interview Tuesday, Atkinson said that the furor was something of a misunderstanding. She explained that between January and February, discussions with the Office of State Budget and Management had led her and Cobey to revise their original plan. Now, all of the extra Excellent Public Schools Act money is going to schools. And a number of unfilled DPI positions are being cut to compensate.

At the Board meeting Thursday, Cobey referenced a letter and documents being sent to Berger in response to his Monday letter.

“This…fulfills what he describes as the intent of the legislation,” Cobey said.

But a letter sent yesterday from Andrew Heath, the current State Budget Director, indicates that state officials are still skeptical of Atkinson and Cobey’s plan.

Heath’s letter acknowledges his awareness of the new plan, but says it doesn’t necessarily appear to resolve the issue.

“It is unclear whether the difference is substantial or merely employs the same fund shifting approach as the January 8 proposal,” he writes in the letter.

He goes on to request a detailed proposal that “clearly and succinctly explains the $2.5 million reduction” and shows that it does not take away from the $3.8 million for the Excellent Public Schools Act.

Berger had further harsh words for Atkinson and Cobey in a new release.

“It’s bad enough we have a Department of Public Instruction with priorities so misplaced that they proposed shifting money intended to help children around our state learn to read to fund Raleigh bureaucrats,” he wrote. “But for the State Superintendent to then turn around, deny it and attempt to cover their tracks is a textbook example of the lengths bloated bureaucracies will go to protect themselves.”

During the State Board meeting, Board members, unaware of the pushback from Berger and Heath, discussed some of the negative consequences of the cuts.

Cobey said that the positions being cut, though vacant, are essential.

“These are positions that we need, but to meet the $2.5 million, we have to eliminate them,” he said.

The Board then discussed the negative impact to the department that will result because of the loss of these positions.

Board member Eric Davis said he wanted to be sure the General Assembly understood the magnitude of what was happening.

“We should be very clear about the impact of these cuts,” he said.

Collins asked Atkinson to explain why she and Cobey decided in the revised plan to cut vacant positions rather than lay off any personnel.

“Why would we cut a person in a position who was a doing a great job…and leave a vacant position?” she asked in response.

In the course of the discussion, it was revealed that of about 1,126 total positions in DPI, 88 state-funded ones are vacant. It was also revealed that, at the moment, about 42 percent of the positions in DPI are federally-funded. If federally-funded positions were to constitute the majority of DPI positions, the federal government could potentially have more of a say in the operations of DPI.

Below is the full video of the discussion and the documents the State Board sent to Berger in response to his letter.

1- DPI Reorganization

2 – DPI Cut

3 – Eliminated Positions

4A – 12 SBE Approved Minutes-1

4B – 01 SBE Draft Minutes

5 – Correspondence

6 – Breakdown Excellent Schools Act

7 – Legislated Cuts History

8 – Berger Letter 2.3.16

9 – State Statutory Requirements – April 2015

The End of Standard 6

Thomas Tomberlin, director of Educator Human Capital Policy and Research at DPI, presented Wednesday on a plan to remove Standard 6  as one of the standards by which teachers are evaluated. Standard 6 uses student growth scores as a measure to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers.

Tomberlin said that, if the Standard were eliminated, student growth would still be presented to teachers for information purposes, but it would no longer have any impact on their status, at least as far as the state is concerned.

The Board will vote next month on whether to get rid of the Standard, but there seemed little reluctance on the part of Board Members.

“I doubt we’ll find anyone who’s opposed to this,” Davis said.

Board member Olivia Oxendine was careful to say, however, that a communications strategy would need to be devised that explains the change to teachers and principals, lest confusion reign.

Indeed, following the presentation Wednesday, an email went out that night to members of the State Board from Steve Oreskovic, a teacher at Randolph Middle School in Mecklenburg County and vice president of Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina.

In it, he said that Tomberlin’s portrayal of the potential change was misleading.

“The presentation by DPI about removing standard 6 for teacher evals was at best disingenuous, at worst outright deception. Such a move would not remove the EVAAS VAM growth data from teacher evals (that is why teachers have been bombarding you with emails!), but virally introduce it throughout the entire evaluation,” he said in the email. “And this would absolutely be punitive toward teachers. Of that I have no doubt.”

In an interview after the meeting Thursday, Tomberlin clarified the plan.

He said the intent of the policy change is to remove student growth as a formal means of evaluating teachers. Tomberlin said that nothing will change in standards 1-5 as a result of the removal of Standard 6.

Further, he said data shows that principals don’t really even use the student growth data now even though it is a part of Standard 6, and he doesn’t see how the removal of Standard 6 would change that.

“I don’t know why principals would all of a sudden start doing this now,” he said.

He also said that insofar as student growth has a negative impact on teachers, that was always a district prerogative.

“If one considers that there is a punitive element to student growth. The ability to make it punitive always resided at the district not at the state level,” he said. “If they use the data to make employment decisions about the teacher, that’s a local decision. And that has to be addressed locally.”

Teacher Pipeline

The State Board heard a presentation from Dr. Alisa Chapman, vice president for Academic and University Programs at UNC General Administration, on issues with the teacher pipeline in North Carolina Wednesday. She told the Board that the UNC System Schools of Education have experienced a 30 percent drop in enrollment since 2010.

She did say that the decline was leveling off but that the diminished pool was something to take note of.

“Overall, when we see a decline of 30 percent since 2010, that’s very concerning,” she said.

The UNC-System is taking steps to address the decreased enrollment, Chapman said, including development of enrollment growth plans, market research, campus recruitment plans, and a recruitment website: http://teachnow.northcarolina.edu.

See the full video of Chapman’s presentation below.

Charter Schools

The charter schools up for renewals received little conversation Thursday during the Board’s vote.

All actions listed below were approved.

— 10-year renewal for:

Clover Garden

Crosscreek

Kipp Gaston College Preparatory

Foxboro Community School

Pine Lake Preparatory

New Dimensions

Seven-year renewal for Queen’s Grant Community School.

Three-year renewal for Haliwa-Saponi Tribal School.

Three-year renewal for Hope Leadership Academy with the requirement that the school meet academic growth each year.

— Non-renewal:

Crossroads Charter High School

Kennedy Public Charter

Numerous Board members expressed their misgiving about the non-renewal of Kennedy Public Charter, but ultimately, they felt the evidence warranted the vote. Go here for the background and discussion from the January State Board meeting on these schools.

The controversial Charter School Report to the General Assembly was revised and approved by the Board with no discussion Thursday. Go here to see the new report.

And finally, the State Board appointed David Machado the new director of DPI’s Office of Charter Schools. He has been the chief administrator of the Lincoln Charter School in Lincoln County for the past 12 years.

“David Machado is the right person to provide leadership for the continued advancement of quality public charter schools in North Carolina,” Cobey said in a press release. “He is a success in the charter school community having presided over an exemplary charter school of more than 1,900 students, 205 staff members and two campuses. His leadership will be welcome at the Department and in the charter school community.”

Machado starts July 1.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.