Specifically, it seems that the Item covers abundantly the administration's perspective but offers slim pickings for those straining to hear parents' and educators' points of view. I'm no expert on the Item's coverage, but its regular readers commented heavily here and here and here and here and here and here.
Perhaps to prove the point of its critics, although it reprinted the administration's written responses to individuals who spoke at the January 23 board meeting, the Item hasn't published anything about the public forum. Which is sad for several reasons, the greatest of which is that reportedly a good number of Sumter parents and educators spoke up and shared a lot of pertinent information, aired some searing and painful grievances, and pleaded for answers. One would expect that a hometown newspaper would cover such a meeting with gusto.
But one would be wrong. For the past couple of weeks, it has been as if that conversation never occurred.
Until today, that is -- and the news has come not from the Item, but from the South Carolina Education Association, which sponsored the event. A summary of the conversation has been posted at the association's website, and it reflects in great detail many of the notes sent here after that evening.
Parts of the summary are long and dense. But its introduction quotes SCEA President Jackie Hicks saying, "Goal 1 is to listen to you, to collect information, and to summarize that information. Goal 2 is to hear from you what actions you want to see taken during the coming months and years."
During the next two hours, a number of important issues and concerns surfaced, were clarified in detail, and were documented for future action. Out of this dialogue came the following digest of questions and comments, as voiced by parents and educators alike. The particular sources of these were not necessarily identified during the forum and are not identified here, as some of the attendees remain fearful of retribution in their workplaces. Instead, as president of the state's largest association of education professionals, which includes superintendents and other administrators, certified school district employees and education support personnel, Jackie Hicks presents these questions and concerns on behalf of those attending educators and in collaboration with those attending parents.
Which likely means that, under the rules governing the Sumter board's meetings, no response will be offered unless parents and educators raise specific issues and questions from it, then wait for the administration's responses in writing -- which, obviously, will now be published online by the Item, since the Item has established that precedent.
I'll keep watching for that.
So here it is:
Sumter School District is in a period of significant transition. Hiring a new superintendent alone would have required a period of transition. Consolidating two school systems alone would have required a period of transition. But the combination of a consolidation and a brand-new administration demands that the entire community take special care to participate in a collaborative balance throughout this transitional period.
Parents and educators want Sumter School District to succeed and to see their community thrive. They want to participate in a collaborative balance through this period of transition, but their participation is being impeded. While School Improvement Councils appear to be functioning, Teacher Advisory Councils have been diminished during this school year. Only one teacher representative per school is allowed to participate at TAC meetings, speaking for only three minutes, with a requirement to submit questions and responses for prior approval. Parents and educators believe this does not allow for an open dialogue and exchange of information and ideas, and it does not represent a collaborative balance with the district.
Good point. In a balance, no one voice has an outsized influence, and no voice is minimized. Everyone has a role to play -- including parents, educators, administrators and elected leaders.
Consolidation of the Sumter School District is an accepted fact, but its impacts have not yet been fully realized and a period of transition continues for both parents and educators. One of the advertised benefits of consolidation was to be an elimination of duplicative positions, facilities and work, ultimately resulting in a reduction in personnel positions and associated facility costs, and a savings to Sumter County taxpayers. Yet there is no sign that duplicative positions, facilities or work have been merged. Instead, costly new administrative positions have been added at the district office.
(1) Can the board demonstrate that it has merged positions, facilities and work, to save taxpayers revenues as promised?
(2) If so, what is the total savings from consolidated positions, facilities and work?
(3) What is the total cost of new positions created since the effective date of consolidation?
(4) As the superintendent's contract is a public document, can it be made public?
The Sumter School District's website doesn't offer information of this sort, so far as I can tell.
PARENT SUPPORT FOR EDUCATORS
Parents of students enrolled in the Sumter School District support their public schools and support the education professionals who serve their students in those schools. Parents have declared that Sumter's public school teachers inspire them and their children daily with optimism and a drive to reach and serve every child, regardless of their circumstances. They agree that public education is the most critical element for healthy communities. They understood that consolidation would be a period of transition, and that the transition would include "bumps" or missteps. But they assert that the condition of their school community has not improved through the period of transition, but has instead worsened.
As a result of their concern, interested parents organized themselves and continue to meet and communicate under the name of "Sumter Education Task Force." These parents are conducting their own outreach throughout the community, which included outreach to educators, and outreach for aid from, and collaboration with, The SCEA. These parents are making themselves aware of what educators are experiencing professionally and economically. They are aware that educators in Sumter have had no increase in compensation in recent years and, in fact, are losing income without a cost of living adjustment. They know that restricted supply funds force instructors to supply classrooms from their own resources. They know that salary stipends for coaches, club advisors and others at the school level have been cut, and teachers advised to take a percentage of organizational accounts to make up the difference, while they believe stipends at the district office continue to be paid.
Parents want public education to be at the forefront of Sumter County's priorities, and they want more to be done to preserve the professionalism of Sumter's classroom instructors and education support personnel. They recognize that anxiety throughout the education community has reached a fever pitch, and those who attended the January 23 board of trustees meeting observed the tension and anxiety apparent at that event.
I've never heard of asking educators to take part of the salaries out of student organization accounts, but that's what some correspondents reported after the Monday night conversation. One characterized it as "stealing from students" and chose to forego the stipend.
The next segment, titled "Discipline and School Safety" clearly engendered some angst.
To educators outside Sumter: Do these described conditions sound familiar to you, in your own school districts?
Discipline and school safety have surfaced as major issues of concern to parents and educators. Parents and educators agree that no one should have to enter classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums, locker rooms, bus stops, common areas or any other spaces on school property in fear of what may happen to them there. Parents state that their desire to know their children are safe is their primary reason for considering to remove their children from the Sumter School District.
Many parents are hearing reports from their children, across grade levels, that published discipline policies are purposefully being ignored. Among other things, they report that unruly students are being allowed to verbally assault teachers and menace other students without fear of discipline or expulsion. Unruly students are heard to describe the discipline policies and referral forms as just "a piece of paper."
Parents have learned that administrators are instructed not to intervene to stop student fights, and they are "mortified" that children can be attacked and not protected by adults.
Parents and educators agree that sufficient monitoring of student behavior is not the issue, as professionals are posted throughout schools during school hours. Rather, the issue is full implementation of published student discipline policies. Rules and policies are stated in a student handbook. A discipline test was administered at the beginning of the school year, and students were required to earn a perfect score on these tests to demonstrate knowledge of the published policies.
There is a general awareness among students and educators that some students attending their schools engage in violent criminal activity and in drug trafficking, and have been charged and convicted of these offenses, of which some school resource officers and others are aware.
There is likewise a general awareness among students that school administrators have been ordered not to discipline, and especially not to expel, some students or groups of students defined by race, gender or other descriptors, and that the rationale for this order is to reduce the district's discipline rates. A specific rumor has circulated that the district office has ordered school administrators to reduce discipline cases by 15 percent across the district.
The argument that disciplinary actions have been curtailed in order to reduce the district's discipline rate is being taken seriously because the superintendent's previous employer, the Atlanta Public Schools, widely publicized its success at reducing its reported discipline cases in recent years.
Parents and educators want to know that students and professionals who work in Sumter School District are safe from harm, and that no professional should be intimidated, pressured, or fear losing their employment for reporting violations of published discipline policies by students and by administrators. Signs posted in the schools advise students to report incidents of bullying and other misbehaviors to educators, but both parents and educators feel that the adults have nowhere to turn when the bullying occurs to them, either by misbehaving students or by district administrators who refuse to address these issues. Educators are concerned that principals can no longer defend them.
(1) How has the administration addressed discipline during this school year?
(2) Is it true or false that the district leadership has ordered school administrators not to expel any particular students or group of students, defined by race, gender or any other descriptor?
(3) What specific communications or instructions, written or verbal, regarding student discipline have been issued by the district office to school administrators?
(4) Will the district superintendent and board chairman state unequivocally that there has been no order, nor is there any expectation, that discipline cases will be ignored in order to reduce such cases by 15 percent, or by any other specific percentage?
(5) Will the Sumter Board of Trustees consider adopting a "whistleblower" policy that protects school district employees from punitive action when they report violations of published board policies regarding student discipline? If so, will the board allow an independent committee of parents and educators to draft the policy, with input from the board attorney?
(6) Will the Board of Trustees state publicly its support for the professionalism of its teaching workforce, and its respect for school district employees at the school level?
After reading this, I can think of some more questions of my own.
Is there no state law to protect education professionals from convicted criminals in their workplaces?
What is a district's obligation to notify educators that violent criminals are enrolled in a school?
If it's a matter of weighing a minor student's right to attend school against everyone's else right to safety, don't we have alternative schools for this very purpose?
Does Sumter not have an alternative school?
And does not South Carolina provide educational opportunities for juveniles in its penal system? I believe it does; there are certainly teachers who teach incarcerated minors.
What liability does the district bear if a student or educators is assaulted, or worse, by a student who has already been convicted of a violent crime? Could not the district face liability as an accomplice? Has this happened anywhere?
I am especially gratified to see it suggested that an independent commission be allowed by the board to draft a "whistleblower" policy. If one doesn't exist in other districts already, Sumter can be the leader in this case.
In fact, without regard to a school board's decision, what stops parents and educators from drafting their own policy and lobbying to have it codified by the legislature? Who in their right mind would oppose protecting individuals who expose misbehavior?
The next two segments, "Restricted Communication" and "Threats and Intimidation," reflect a large portion of the commentary left by correspondents to earlier notes about Sumter.
Communication, and the restriction of it, represents a fundamental issue of concern for Sumter parents and educators.
Educators say they have been told unequivocally not to contact or speak to district office staff, district board members or the district superintendent. They've been told not to contact the state department of education unless the matter concerns their own re-certification.
It may still be true that teacher salary schedules posted online do not accurately represent compensation, and ones seeking clarification cannot find clear answers. At least one instance of miscommunication, or lack of communication, caused financial challenges for school district employees, when the new paycheck schedule of the merged district was not clearly communicated to everyone.
THREATS AND INTIMIDATION
Parents and educators believe that threats and intimidation against professionals, whether initiated or tolerated by the district administrators, have no place in Sumter School District. They observe a growing atmosphere of fear among educators, including school-based administrators, in their school system.
It is alleged that at least one educator's employment has been threatened for emailing the district office for information about the payroll schedule.
It is alleged that educators have been warned not to approach district administrators or elected officials.
It is alleged that at least one educator has been warned about having "a target on my back" for speaking out about educators' concerns.
Parents and educators do not want their school district to engage in or support negative behaviors, including intimidation and threats, toward school district employees. School district employees have suffered several consecutive years without pay increases, and have been subject to furloughs, and have been forced to purchase school supplies out of personal funds, and have had restrictions placed on their instructional supplies, including copying, at school.
Educators are fearful of losing their employment, or of having effective departments and teams divided, in retaliation for raising these important issues. Parents and educators agree that these professionals do not deserve to be treated as if they have no value to the school district.
Why should a professional educator not be allowed to communicate with his or her employer, for whatever reason? Are we not adults? And professionals? With credentials that qualify us for the work we do? Have we no rights?
This is, I must repeat, reflective of the underlying ideology in South Carolina's right-to-work-for-less and related laws. Workers, regardless of their professional credentials, continue to be treated in our state as second-class citizens. If what is described by these speakers is accurate -- and I'm curious to learn if these described orders were actually issued in writing -- it suggests we haven't learned much in the past three centuries about recognizing and honoring humanity in one another.
If my paycheck isn't delivered on time and I suffer economic consequences as a result, do I not have a right to understand when the district will deliver my paychecks in the future, so I can avoid future economic consequences? Should I be fired for asking simple questions of the administrators who have the answers? How absurd.
And do we all not, as a matter of basic American civil rights, have a freedom to speak without having our employment status dangled precariously before us?
Professional educators across South Carolina have suffered quite enough at the hands of a miserly legislative majority, predisposed against public education and educators for ideological reasons. They don't need additional dangers, toils and snares to threaten their well-being and livelihoods from their district office. Thankfully, there are a good many school districts, and administrators, who treat professionals professionally.
Now, although "Sweet 16" once looked like the major issue among folks in the district, it apparently was just one side of an iceberg -- still significant, but not the whole magilla.
Classroom instructors are subject to mandatory evaluation under ADEPT. Implementation of the new evaluation model, Sweet 16, has inspired tremendous anxiety among Sumter's educators, who see the model as redundant and unnecessarily stressful. Some of the stress stems from knowing that anyone can walk into a classroom at any time to conduct the detailed new "audit" or evaluation; under the best of circumstances, unannounced visits cause disruption to a class, no matter how unobtrusive visitors may attempt to be. In addition, documents used to introduce the model contained numerous errors, which didn't inspire confidence in educators who are subject to the new "audits."
Comments made by presenters and widely reported among educators ("We will coach you up or coach you out") were interpreted as unnecessarily antagonistic and threatening, rather than collaborative or constructive. A rubric associated with the model wasn't delivered to some educators for weeks after its introduction, though they sought and requested the document from their direct administrators.
Underscoring this anxiety is the awareness that Sweet 16, in its present form and as presented to Sumter's educators, does not exist and has never existed elsewhere in the United States. While research may exist to support various pieces of the model, and while the component parts of the model may sound appealing and represent best practices generally, the model in its packaged form has never been implemented, tested or studied.
As many parents and educators have conducted their own research, and have asked for aid from state and national agencies to understand the model's origins, they have concluded that the model is not a legal mandate representing state or federal law, and that it may represent an experiment whose purpose they cannot determine.
Further, district office representatives have stated in media reports that Sweet 16 will not be used for the purpose of evaluating instructors, yet the structure of the new "audits" purposefully evaluates instructors.
Finally, although Sweet 16 was promoted as costing nothing to the district, the staffing for Sweet 16's required "audits" represents a substantial cost. Many staff members who were not originally hired to conduct "audits" and evaluations under the new Sweet 16 model are now doing this work, which leads to several questions.
(1) When staff members are redirected to conduct "audits" or evaluations under the Sweet 16 model, is their previous work no longer being done?
(2) If their previous work is still being done, who is doing that work?
(3) Is "auditing" the best use of these staff members' time, given the skills for which they were originally hired?
(4) Are all of these staff members qualified to "audit" or evaluate classroom instructors?
(5) Can all documents related to Sweet 16, from "audit" or evaluation forms, to rubrics, PowerPoint presentations and other materials, be posted online for review by educators and parents, as soon as possible?
(6) Can all research supporting the Sweet 16 model in its present form, as introduced to Sumter educators and to which they are now subject, be posted online for review by educators and parents, as soon as possible?
"We will coach you up or we will coach you out."
In order to become an educator in South Carolina's public schools -- unless one slips in through Teach for America or another side door, directly from the private sector -- a body must have graduated high school, graduated from an accredited college or university, and earned a teaching certification. In order to continue teaching in our schools, this professional must suffer through a torturous first few years, then maintain his or her certification through regular coursework, seminars, trainings and other educational opportunities every several years.
And that's without pursuing advanced degrees; if a body chooses to improve his or her credentials and career earning potential, they must earn a masters degree, and perhaps a terminal degree in their field, from accredited colleges and universities.
None of which is a cakewalk.
So I understand perfectly the offense taken by educators who are told, "We will coach you up or coach you out."
How about, instead, helping educators and parents to organize behind a movement to demand sufficient funds from the legislature to guarantee every child access to a great education? And how about addressing the root problems that stymie a family's ability to support a child's education: unemployment, poverty, poor nutrition, domestic violence, lack of access to books and other literacy resources, and lack of access to early childhood education?
How about, instead of threatening educators with, "We will coach you up or coach you out," you say to educators, "We will support your work, come hell or high water, and demand that those in positions of power treat you with the respect you deserve." It's only speculation, but I bet that would guarantee you a workforce that would follow you to the ends of the earth.
But there's more:
TRANSPARENCY AND RESPONSIVENESS
Parents and educators alike believe their community and school district are strong and have tremendous potential that can be realized through collaboration. But they are frustrated at what they interpret, in their words, as a lack of transparency and responsiveness, an attitude of condescension and superiority, equivocation, secrecy and restricted communication. They say that district leaders are not listening to them. They say that district leaders have not given them straightforward answers to direct questions, especially but not exclusively around the new teacher evaluation model.
(For example, they have asked for research, not jargon that supports the Sweet 16 package in the form that it was presented to Sumter County instructors. From so many existing models of instructional evaluation, why was this model developed and chosen? And is it truly useful to give students the option of choosing serious writing or drawing a picture?)
The recent decision to invest sole authority to negotiate and finalize deals regarding property sales on behalf of the board and district was cited as one example of a "power grab" that doesn't reflect the will of the community and which illustrates a "code of secrecy, a veiling of the district office." All of these examples leave parents and educators interpreting that district leaders "do not care" what others think and feel.
As Sumter County taxpayers, parents and educators are asking for clarity regarding the district's financial priorities and policies. There is a perception that in a time of financial strain, the only members of the community suffering cuts to resources are educators and their students. While perception may vary, it is reality that the board of trustees approved a budget granting the district's highest-ranking administrators lucrative salaries and benefits. As one parent noted, "The superintendent is driving a new Jaguar. How am I not supposed to be offended?"
How do these reflect a consistent set of priorities and policies?
(1) Educators were delivered a 40-page document to introduce and begin implementation of Sweet 16, yet copying for their classroom instructional needs has been curtailed.
(2) Supply funds to educators were taken, then reduced amounts were given, while district administrators have negotiated large salaries, taken well-publicized travel and used district funds to buy food and other goods for district office purposes.
(3) Educator positions were threatened with reduction without implementation of a furlough; yet new district administrators were added to oversee implementation of a new teacher evaluation model.
The superintendent has stated to school-based educators his opposition to stipends for coaches, band directors and club advisors.
(1) Are stipends still being paid to coaches, band directors and club advisors?
(2) Is it true that coaches, band directors and club advisors were told to take a percentage of their stipends for this year from student organization accounts?
(3) Are stipends being paid to district office staff members and/or to board members?
Is that true? A Jaguar?
I acknowledge that choices are choices, but it's hard to ignore a Jaguar.
Here's what Wikipedia says about the economic landscape of Sumter:
The median income for a household in the county was $44,167, and the median income for a family was $48,970. Males had a median income of $41,083 versus $37,162 for females. The per capita income for the county was $45,657. About 13.10% of families and 16.20% of the population were below the poverty line, including 23.60% of those under age 18 and 16.40% of those age 65 or over.
INFLUENCE OF BROAD FOUNDATION IDEOLOGY EVIDENT
During the process of researching the new teacher evaluation model and the superintendent's unqualified support for it, parents and educators have made themselves more aware of the Eli Broad Foundation, the Broad Institute, the Broad Superintendents Academy and its graduates. Parents in Sumter have been in contact with leaders of parent groups in other cities and school districts where Broad graduates now lead, or temporarily led, their districts.
Additionally, they benefited from reading Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." They agree among themselves and with Ravitch that they oppose the Broad philosophy of dividing teachers and communities, and of instituting top-down, management-oriented school administration.
Parents and educators are concerned about the change in their community's culture since the introduction of this mode of thinking. Thanks to media coverage of Broad graduates and their records in other cities and school districts, they recognize that the cultural changes they observe occurring in Sumter have occurred in those other places too.
From their research, dialogues and observations, they conclude that the new teacher evaluation model, the perceived effort to reduce reported discipline cases, the restrictions in communication and the consolidation of power at the district office are reflections of the top-down, command-and-control tactics advocated by the Broad Institute. They question whether these tactics and this philosophy of school administration is the best and most appropriate one for Sumter School District.