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I am pleased to hear the DeKalb school system’s accreditation status has been upgraded from “probation” to “warned”. I worked diligently to shine light on the poor fiscal management of DeKalb. Some of my work was even cited in the SACS report from 2012. Clearly DeKalb still has a long way to go. Academic achievement and growth in many schools is unacceptable. DeKalb’s graduation rate, at 58.9%, is far too low. Of the 25 high schools in DeKalb, 8 have graduation rates below 50%, while only 4 have rates above 75%. All four of these schools are specialty or magnet schools.
I appreciate that SACS finally recognized that DeKalb needed some sort of intervention. The entire episode exposes the structural weaknesses in our state’s accountability model. While SACS can provide a useful and supplemental service via their third party accreditation products, Georgia must not continue to abdicate it’s role in holding districts accountable for their results and financial management. AdvancED/SACS has 5 standards for school district accreditation. While these standards are meant to drive improvement in various processes for a school district, not one standard measures outcomes for children. There is no minimum graduation rate or achievement level necessary to earn accreditation.
In many states, the accreditation status of schools is determined by their Department of Education or comparable public agency. Texas and Virginia both accredit their schools based on defined, measurable performance results. Their graduation rates are 87% and 89% respectively. These states are rewarding success with autonomy and no longer accept failure without consequences. Additionally, Texas has a Financial Integrity system that has 20 indicators that measure the financial health of a district and push money to be spent in the classroom.
From the Texas Education Agency’s website:
“The purpose of the financial accountability rating system is to ensure that school districts and open-enrollment charter schools are held accountable for the quality of their financial management practices and achieve improved performance in the management of their financial resources. The system is designed to encourage Texas public schools to manage their financial resources better in order to provide the maximum allocation possible for direct instructional purposes.”
Georgia has 0 financial integrity measurements for our school districts.
If Georgia had a system for financial integrity, like Texas, DeKalb county could not have engaged in the deceptive budgeting practices I uncovered. School districts would be forced to allocate money to instruction and not a bloated bureaucracy. If Georgia’s Department of Education had an accreditation system like that of Texas or Virginia, our schools would be rated and accredited based on measurable performance outcomes.
I am running to be the State School Superintendent to bring these types of structural reforms to our state.
On Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court released a 47-page opinion upholding the constitutionality of the law providing for the removal of local boards of education. I am thankful for the closure this opinion now provides the citizens and parents of DeKalb County. At every turn I opposed the proliferation of legal entanglements, including this case. As a matter of principle, I do not believe children and taxpayers are well served by spending more money on lawyers and political concerns.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling is one step down the path to improving education in DeKalb, it is just the beginning. Georgia must implement an effective and meaningful system of quality assurance for education. As the Georgia Supreme Court stated today, “(T) he State has a substantial interest in ensuring that those local boards function competently and in a manner that does not imperil the education or future prospects of the students enrolled in the school systems.” Every state that borders Georgia has a higher graduation rate and spends less per pupil. Georgia’s graduation rate stands at 67% and that number is proof we have imperiled the education and future prospects of too many of our children.
The Supreme Court further reminds us that, “The Constitution makes public education not only the business of local jurisdictions, but also the State as a whole.” We must demand more vigorous oversight at the state level. There must be consequences for districts that fail our children and fail to safeguard the public’s money. States like Virginia and Texas have strong state public accountability models and so should Georgia.
I am thankful and relieved the Supreme Court decision is now behind us. We have more work ahead. I hope that you’ll join me in this effort.
We had some fascinating education headlines last week. Perhaps none more interesting than the report of comments made by Mark Elgart, CEO of AdvancED, the accreditation conglomerate that owns many regional accreditors including the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Here’s some background – Georgia is constitutionally limited in the number of school districts to 159 county districts and 21 city district. Last year, Rep. Tom Taylor filed HR 486; a bill calling for a statewide vote to amend the constitution to allow new school districts to form under certain conditions. A feasibility study was commissioned for the City of Dunwoody to determine if an independent school district was viable from a revenue standpoint. The study’s results indicate that a city school district would be financially feasible and, at current millage rates, would produce a healthy surplus.
Speaking before the Buckhead Business Association days after the feasibility study was made public, Dr. Elgart stated the current 180 school districts in Georgia are “far too many.” According to The Reporter Newspaper, he went on to state, “Georgia does not need to expand the number of school systems it has in the state, … It needs to contract it so it can use its resources differently than it currently does.”
I’m puzzled why the head of an international accrediting agency would comment on a state political subdivision matter. The organization of school districts is a self-determination made by the good citizens of our state. Notwithstanding that fact, the suggestion that Georgia has “far too many” school districts is not supported by the research on the topic of optimal school district size.
Here are just a few quotes from scholarly articles on the subject of school district size that support the need for Georgia to break-up its large districts.
- In a study to examine if consolidating smaller school districts in Michigan would save taxpayers money, Andrew Coulson estimated the most cost-effective school district size in Michigan and the cost savings that would result from merging small districts and breaking up excessively large districts. From his analysis, Coulson found that the most cost-effective district size for schools in Michigan was 2,900 students. Districts that were either larger or smaller in size would generate higher per-pupil costs (Coulson, 2007). Consolidating smaller school districts to achieve this optimal size was estimated to result in a cost savings for the state of Michigan and local governments of approximately $31 million annually. In comparison, breaking up large school districts would produce an annual savings of $363 million. The savings from breaking up large districts is estimated to be 12 times greater than the savings that would be generated from merging small districts.
Center for Evaluation and Education Policy
Education Policy Brief
VOLUME 8, NUMBER 3, SUMMER 2010
Revisiting School District Consolidation Issues
Terry E. Spradlin, Fatima R. Carson, Sara E. Hess, and Jonathan A. Plucker
- Small size is good for the performance of impoverished schools, but it now seems as well that small district size is also good for the performance of such schools
The Influence of Scale on School Performance: A Multi-Level Extension of the Matthew Principle
Robert Bickel, Marshall University; Craig Howley, Ohio University and AEL, Inc.
- A study of Pennsylvania districts found that the lowest costs per student were in districts enrolling between 2,500 and 2,999 students (Standard & Poor’s School Evaluation Services, 2007).
- A North Carolina report compared the district sizes of the five states with the best and worst SAT and ACT scores, high school graduation rates, dropout rates and retention rates. The study found that the states performing at higher levels on these performance indicators had smaller average district sizes (Sher & Schaller, 1986).
- A Nebraska study demonstrated that smaller school systems academically outperformed larger ones within the state (Johnson, 2004). Researchers in Maine found that their 15 smallest districts produced higher graduation and post secondary enrollment rates than their 15 largest districts (Bowen, as cited in Driscoll, 2008). In Massachusetts, a task force found that smaller districts had lower average dropout rates, higher attendance rates, greater extra-curricular participation, and were more likely to meet Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) targets than the state average (Driscoll, 2008). A study of small rural districts in New York found that students in these small districts tended to learn the basics at average or above average levels, when compared to students in other districts (Monk & Haller, 1986). In a series of five studies, researchers found that smaller districts and schools had greater achievement equity than larger districts and schools (Howley, 1996; Bickel & Howley, 2000).
An Exploration of District Consolidation:
By:Kathryn Rooney and John Augenblick
Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc.
The abundance of research indicates that the optimal district size is certainly much smaller than DeKalb’s current enrollment. That research shows us that per-pupil costs are minimized in much smaller districts; completely negating the argument of economies of scale with large districts. Furthermore, academic achievement measurements are better in smaller districts, particularly for the economically disadvantaged. In the face of this type of evidence it is difficult to understand any defense of the status quo or advocacy for even larger districts. The evidence is clear and compelling that our students and taxpayers would benefit from breaking up large districts.
Process Versus Results – Accreditation by SACS explored the relationship between AdvancED/SACS accreditation and academic results for children. DeKalb County School District has been accredited for years — as have other Georgia districts and schools that fail children, as witnessed by the state’s low aggregate graduation rates (48th out of 50 states). My Thoughts on the AdvancED SACS Report pointed out that SACS accreditation teams had been visiting the DeKalb County School District (DCSD) for years, examining DCSD on many “standards and indicators,” including the management of financial resources. Yet, these teams of SACS accreditors failed to find the simple, yet deceptive, accounting practices that I uncovered shortly after coming onto the board.
Do you know what the teams of accreditors (all expenses charged to DCSD) missed in the AdvancED report? They missed the “mother of all financial problems.” They said nothing about the accounting methodology used by DCSD. The third largest school system in the state (approximately the 24th largest in the nation), has been reporting to the board of education using a cash basis.
Why is this a big deal? For starters, the cash basis will always overstate account balances because it doesn’t include liabilities already incurred but not yet paid out. The board would then approve budgets for the next fiscal year without a true picture of where the last year ended. But that’s just one reason the DCSD accounting methodology is a “big deal.”
I’m just a mom with a calculator, but even I know there are standards for accounting methodologies. The Georgia Department of Education (GA DOE) says that districts should use an accrual or modified accrual method. The GA DOE’s manual for financial reporting, Section 1, Chapter 7 states: “LUAs are urged to follow GAAP during their daily accounting and financial reporting.”
• LUA stands for “local unit of administration” – that’s accounting-speak for “school district.”
• GAAP stands for “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.”
• Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB)
So, why would an accreditation agency that has best practices embedded in its “standards and indicators” ever accredit a district or school that used an accounting methodology that did not conform to the GAAP or requirements from their own state’s Department of Education?
Why would the GA DOE continue to allow a district to operate against GA DOE’s own financial manual; using a method that, in their words: “permits distortions in financial statement representations due to shifts in the timing of cash receipts and disbursements relative to underlying economic events near the end of a fiscal period?” (Section 1, Chapter 7, page 2.)
Doesn’t it seem odd to you that these issues were never brought to the attention of the board or the public by AdvancED/SACS?
Since at least half of the state budget is spent on education, shouldn’t Georgia have ensured that the third largest school district in the state was compliant with common accounting standards? (I’ll blog later about what I learned during a meeting with state auditors. Meanwhile, consider this: in all my time being interviewed I never encountered a financial professional/expert; only educrats and one lawyer.)
I contrast the academic and financial failures that I have noted here with the issues that were highlighted in the AdvancED/SACS Special Review Report. My personal favorite, I have labeled, “The Pronoun Police.” On page 11, the report states: “During interviews, board members used pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “mine.”
Were you aware that a school board member has their First Amendment rights curtailed and must refrain from using these pronouns? Does that seem like a silly thing to note given the major financial and academic issues on which we should focus? Yet, the report states, mildly, only that academic achievement has declined. It does not speak to the administrations’ responsibility in said decline. It doesn’t even address the competency issue at the heart of the academic failures we have witnessed. But, it was apparently noteworthy to discuss the pronoun usage of board members.
The DeKalb school system has faced significant challenges over the last several years. These challenges are what motivated me to run for the board. I took office in January 2011 and was promptly fed a diet of misleading and false information throughout my tenure on the board. I consistently pointed out the problems I saw. Just to note a few:
- 7.11.11 Board meeting @ 1:31:48 on the recording of the BOE meeting I note the variances in the budget concerning electricity and legal fees. Mr. McChesney supports me.
- 10.03.11 BOE meeting @ 1:04 on the recording I ask about legal fees; @1:05, I note that I continue to “harp” on the electricity issue as we are more than $1 million over-budget; @1:06:11, I ask why we aren’t preparing better budget assumptions; @1:06:39 I am mislead about the reasons the overage has occurred.
- 1.19.12 BOE meeting @ 1:46 I bring up electricity again. Mr. McChesney supports me. Other BOE members try to prove me wrong, saying that the increase is due to rate increases.
As I highlighted in my December 26, 2012 blog, the AdvancED/SACS report states, “The board members’ questions to the staff displayed a suspicion and lack of trust for any information provided by the staff.” But AdvancED/SACS fails to ask these critical questions:
• “Why does the staff provide misleading, incomplete or false information to the board?”
• “What if staff continues to provide misleading, incomplete or false information to the board?”
• “What if many of those staff members are still employed by DCSD and continue this practice?”
• “What if some newly hired staff also engages in similar behavior?”
Part of my “take away” from reading the AdvancED/SACS Special Review Report is that accreditation is attached to pronoun usage of board members, as well as their gullibility. A friend of mine helped put together a “Circle of Trust” graphic that represents what I see as the paradigm for trust within the AdvancED/SACS accreditation best practices framework:
So, to anyone who wants to be a board of education member, make sure you are comfortable with the “Circle of Trust” — or give me call and I’ll tell you what you are really in for.
–Stay tuned for Fun with Policy DJE and Solutions.
I thought it would be useful to provide some historical context to the whole accreditation issue. Five years ago, if you had asked me what accreditation means, I probably would have told you that it meant something about the quality of the education that kids received; that it judged in some way the results of how well children were educated.
It does not.
Accreditation by SACS/AdvancED is big on “process” and “continuous improvement.” It does not rate how well schools perform their mission to educate children. Given the recent graduation rates that were released nationally one must wonder about the nature and efficacy of accreditation “processes” and to whom the benefits of “continuous improvement” accrue.
You will note that we are not graduating even 50% of our African American students in four years of high school instruction, even with an opportunity to take 32 credits on a block schedule of the 24 required to graduate. Yet, we are in the top ten for money spent on education. It appears to me that our emphasis on process is quite expensive, but ineffective. How can we have such poor aggregate graduation rate results and have so many accredited schools and districts in our state? Shouldn’t we be focused on honestly assessing the results?
State law requires that I must have 9 hours of training annually. The Georgia School Boards Association (GSBA) holds large conferences where board members can attend seminars to meet the training requirements. Your tax dollars pay for board members to attend these conferences.
I recently attended a GSBA conference to get my required training hours. (I’ll have to blog in the future about how much of the seminar seemed designed as an infomercial for products that GSBA or their vendors sell. Also, the seminars are largely conducted by educational bureaucrats that tell elected officials how to treat the educational bureaucrats in their district. But I digress …)
During my seminar, two executives from AdvancED spoke to the group. I learned that the concept of “district accreditation” is relatively new. This accreditation product was rolled out from 2004-08. Many districts in the state do not seek district accreditation. Instead, they have only their schools – or only their high schools — accredited. State law requires students to graduate from an accredited school to qualify for the HOPE scholarship. There is NO requirement that a district be accredited. For Georgia public schools the law permits accreditation by either SACS or the Georgia Accrediting Commission (GAC). State law also provides methods for homeschoolers to qualify for HOPE scholarships.
During the Q&A at the GSBA conference, I asked AdvancED officials questions about how student achievement should factor into accreditation. (I recorded this exchange and I’ll try to put it up on my website.) I noted that our state does not compare well in the recently released graduation statistics. I further asked:
“If processes are used effectively, but achievement results are not improved, what does that say about accreditation? What is it we’re accrediting? If it doesn’t correlate strongly with, or have a causal relationship actually, to results for children in achievement then it is a … the whole process seems to dichotomize there and I’m concerned about that. Are we focused on process or are we focused on results?”
The response from the AdvancEd official was:
“As far as results … it is a process. Going through this process, the school or district will go through and look at what is happening. Accreditation is not based solely on student results.”
So, there you have it. And you pay for this process with your tax dollars and cede power over your property values to a concept administered by an unaccountable group, made up of educational bureaucrats. In the end, the process does not guarantee, judge or rank the quality or results of the education provided to students in your school or district.
Our graduates – our frighteningly few graduates – cannot take “process” to the bank.
Additional reading on this subject: http://www.nccivitas.org/2011/to-accredit-or-not-to-accredit/
–Stay tuned for more of my thoughts, including: the pronoun police, the circle of trust and solutions.
First, I would like to explain that I have been delayed in communicating to you about the AdvancED/SACS report because I have been out of the country since December 15th. I returned this past Saturday evening (December 22nd). While I was away I had limited access to the Internet, email and phone. I had time to quietly reflect on my (almost) two years of service on the board and the AdvancED/SACS Report. I’m writing to you now in the first of a series of blog posts I have written and plan to post over the next several days. The opinions I express here are mine alone and I express them as an individual citizen.
No one knows better than I do, that the board as a whole can be very frustrating to watch. As the board member who most often votes “no”, I endure this frustration more than most. I am the board member who identified and publically discussed the financial issues that were cited in this report. For almost two years, I have publically inquired during the presentation of the monthly financial report about the discrepancies that I uncovered. My public statements at board meetings span two administrations. I have written that it appears to me that our budgets for the past six years were, at best, a weak suggestion of how to spend money and, at worst, a document based on deception. I received support for my analysis from only Don McChesney and Pam Speaks. I was publically misled by administration officials who stated at board meetings that our budgeting issues with electricity (one of the many areas I cited as problematic) were due to (1) unseasonably hot/cold summers/winters and (2) increases in electricity rates. These statements were demonstrably false.
No agency, government department or official was interested in my findings. Eventually I posted them on my website (here’s the link to my September 13th entry: http://whatsupwiththat.nancyjester.com/2012/09/13/5-year-budget-analysis/ ). My public statements at Board meetings go back to almost the beginning of my service.
Additionally, I discovered that “general administration salaries” have been the only salary category that has increased over six years; including the current budget. I inquired into this matter at two board meetings but did not receive a response. Here is the link t0 my analysis: http://whatsupwiththat.nancyjester.com/2012/11/16/salary-analysis-fy2008-fy2013/.
While I’m flattered by AdvancED’s extensive use of my research and statements; their conclusions, required actions, indeed, their paradigm for “team governance” would prevent me or any other board member from discovering and properly alerting the public to these misdeeds (see required action #5).
The report also states, “The board members’ questions to the staff displayed a suspicion and lack of trust for any information provided by the staff.” As I stated above, I have been misled and stonewalled when uncovering some of the very financial malfeasance that AdvancED now has decided to recognize. Suspicion and lack of trust, at this point, is clearly justified as I and my fellow board members are legally accountable as stewards of tax dollars.
I’m also curious as to why, with all of their teams of professional educational bureaucrats visiting and researching DSCD (at our expense), AdvancED never discovered the financial malfeasance that I brought to light. I’m just one mom with a calculator. Given the record of misleading statements and nonresponsive behavior I have dealt with from administrators around the financial issues that AdvancED has now chosen to present as evidence to warrant placing DeKalb on probation, it seems odd that they would then simultaneously hold the position that Board members just need to be less suspicious and more trusting of staff members.
If I were an employee, I would most likely be protected under whistleblower laws. How ironic that I may be removed from office exactly because I discovered and made public the financial misdeeds of the third largest school district in our state. What message does this send to board members around the state or to future board members in DeKalb? Given that the majority of our state budget goes to education, I would think that the state would incentivize and welcome local board members to be watchdogs over these finite resources. To do otherwise is to steal from the educational lives of children.
Stay tuned – tomorrow, I’ll post my thoughts on the education bureaucrats’ construct of “the governance team” and what that means for your children and tax dollars.