Election analysis

Ideological tides shift in four key districts

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Recall supporter Cecelia Lange waved signs at 52nd and Wadsworth Tuesday morning.

The tale of Tuesday’s changes in school board politics was told in four key districts — Jefferson County, Douglas County, Thompson and Colorado Springs District 11.

Here’s a quick look at board member turnover and more about those districts:

Jefferson County

Board control: Conservatives are totally out of power.

Winners and losers: Incumbent conservatives Ken Witt, Julie Williams and John Newkirk were recalled by wide margins. A slate composed of Brad Rupert, Susan Harmon and Ron Mitchell took those seats. Two other slate members, Ali Lassell and Amanda Stevens, were elected to two open seats not involved in the recall. (See story)

Money: The challengers, who received significant financial support from teachers union committees, outraised the incumbents. Some observers estimate total spending in the races at $1 million, spent by a long list of candidate committees, issue committees and independent groups.

Voter interest: 45.5 percent turnout. About 59,000 Democrats, 66,000 Republicans and 56,000 unaffiliated voters cast ballots.

Douglas County

Board control: Holdover conservative members have a 4-3 majority. Board vice president Doug Benevento said Tuesday, “The new board has obvious differences but we all care for our kids and our schools. In the coming days and months, I hope we can unite and move forward around that common sentiment.”

Winners and losers: The insurgent slate of Wendy Vogel, Anne-Marie Lemieux and David Ray easily defeated incumbents Craig Richardson, board president Kevin Larsen and Richard Robbins.

Money: The successful challengers also raised significantly more money than the incumbents. But the finance picture in the races is murky because some outside committees don’t have to file disclosures until January, and others don’t have to report at all.

Voter interest: 39.7 percent voter turnout. More than 19,000 Democrats, 47,851 Republicans and 23,000 unaffiliated voters participated.

Thompson

Board control: Conservatives lose it. The most immediate impact may be a softening of tensions between the board and the local teachers union.

Winners and losers: Incumbents Pam Howard and Denise Montagu, in the minority on the old board, were re-elected. Former board member Jeff Swanty and newcomer Dave Levy won seats vacated by two conservative incumbents, Donna Rice and Bob Kerrigan, who didn’t run for reelection.

Money: Substantial amounts of funding poured into the campaigns, included a total of more than $61,000 raised by candidates, at least $50,000 in union funds, $195,000 in advertising by the outside group Thompson Students First and additional five-figure spending by other outside groups, according to the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Voter interest: 34.6 percent turnout in Larimer County, of which the district is a part. About 24,000 Democrats, 30,603 Republicans and 24,000 unaffiliateds voted.

Colorado Springs District 11

Board control: Status quo.

Winners and losers: Incumbents Elaine Naleski and Nora Brown and ally Martin Herrera held off a challenge from conservatives Jeff Kemp, Karla Heard-Price and Dan Ajamian. Theresa Null, wife of term-limited board member Bob Null, also was elected.

Money: Brown, Naleski and Herrera raised $10-$11,000 each, including union contributions. There was considerable outside spending, including $58,000 in advertising provide by the outside group D-11 Taxpayers for Accountability in Education, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Voter interest: 41.6 percent turnout in El Paso County. Republican turnout exceeded Democrats and unaffiliateds combined in the county as a whole, which contains 15 school districts.

Elsewhere around the state

Individual conservative candidates were unsuccessful in the Adams 12-Five Star and Mesa 51 districts. There were two conservative candidates in Aurora, Monica Colbert and Grant Barrett. Colbert was elected. Both candidates were backed by the low-profile nonprofit Ready Colorado.

In Steamboat Springs, candidates backed by the local teachers union, Michelle Dover and Margaret Huron, won election, along with incumbent Joey Andrew. Two other incumbents didn’t seek reelection. Huron and Dover campaigned on a platform to “keep controversial school reform out of Steamboat,” according to Steamboat Today.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: