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State board of ed "looking at all options" for a larger role in school turnaround

Aug 25, 2016

The state board of education wants more input on the fates of Michigan schools deemed “failing.”

That’s what some board members signaled in a statement released this week.

It called on the State School Reform/Redesign Office to work with the Michigan Department of Education “to provide assistance to local districts to succeed at turning around their own schools and to keep the public fully informed of decisions affecting their local schools.”

The SRO is scheduled to release a list of the lowest-performing 5% of “priority schools,” ranked by annual state testing data, at the start of September.

That’s controversial because the state department of education got a federal waiver not to release an annual top-to-bottom school ranking until next year, as the state transitioned from using the MEAP to the MSTEP tests.

But Gov. Snyder yanked the SRO out of the department of education last year, and moved it into his own office. And it recently announced that it would go ahead with releasing that list and taking turnaround actions on some priority schools, including potentially closing some.

But state board vice president Cassandra Ulbrich says the board still has “constitutional authority” over all public schools.

“As part of that constitutional authority, we have developed a state school turnaround policy. And we expect the school reform office to follow our guidelines and our policies,” Ulbrich said. “That is our role.

“We expect them to work with DOE to create a partnership model to assist local schools. And we expect them to increase the level of transparency and the community involvement in this entire process.”

Ulbrich says so far, state board members and local school district officials alike have heard of the SRO’s plans largely through press releases or media reports. She maintains that needs to change, especially if the office is considering moves like appointing CEOs or closing schools.

Caleb Buhs, an SRO spokesman, wasn’t immediately able to comment on whether the office planned to follow the board-crafted school turnaround policy.

But he did say that while the SRO would soon be releasing the school rankings, there are no firm plans beyond that.

“There is no decision made on school closures yet. Not yet a definite that there will be school closures, and no goal of closing schools,” Buhs said. “It’s a tool that’s given in legislation, but not one that we take lightly.”

As  things go forward, a “transparent and open process will be created,” Buhs said.

Ulbrich says the board and local school officials will wait and see whether SRO changes its approach.

If not, they’re “looking all options … [and that] could include going the legal route,” she said. School groups gathered in Lansing to make much the same point on Wednesday.

Here is the full statement released by members of the state board’s legislative committee, which Ulbrich chairs, on Wednesday:

In May 2015, as part of its Constitutional oversight of public education, the State Board of Education developed a policy on State School Turnaround. The School Reform Office needs to follow that policy, which includes working with the Department of Education to provide assistance to local districts to succeed at turning around their own schools and to keep the public fully informed of decisions affecting their local schools.

The Michigan Department of Education includes education experts who can and should be involved in school turnaround efforts at every level. The State Superintendent has developed a “partnership” model to assist local schools. However, the State Superintendent currently lacks authority over the School Reform Office and does not develop the list of priority schools.

While school closures may be necessary in some instances, those decisions are generally made at the local level and after much public deliberation, and include a quality, public option for affected students. Even then, closing a school can have many negative impacts on children, families and communities. These decisions should not be taken lightly or made quickly without community input.

We are deeply concerned about the lack of transparency and community involvement in this process. Given the impact that these decisions will have on students, parents, taxpayers and communities, we believe that a communication process, as outlined in the SBE policy, must be implemented immediately. This includes the SRO conducting community meetings to inform the taxpayers of plans for their schools.