Saturday, August 13, 2022 Aug 13, 2022
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DISD Administration

2 Trustees Voted to Cut Off More Than $100 Million to DISD and I Guess No One Cares

Also, Mike Miles talked about TEI, which isn't going smoothly, from what I hear
By Eric Celeste |
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I really don’t know what to do. Really don’t. I tell myself I’m going to talk about things besides the performances of trustees Bernadette Nutall and Joyce Foreman, because everyone knows I think they’re too often obstructionist and harmful to the district. So I’ll find other things to discuss when I recap the board meetings. But then they go and completely dominate a meeting, and cap their performance by voting for the district to reject more than $100 million in federal funds, and other media won’t even mention it. It makes my shoulders slump.

You realize that this really happened last night, right? These two trustees, stewards of the public’s trust, repeatedly voted in ways that would have forced the district to lose tens of millions in E-Rate Program funds (federal money for school telecommunications programs). It was shocking, but apparently only to me. Here’s a tweet from me last night:

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Serious question, because I’m sort of depressed about this today: Does it even matter? Does anyone care? Are we just okay with people treating our city’s school system like it’s dinner theater, a place where court jesters prance about giving broad, hilarious performances, while we munch on popcorn and giggle? I’m very sad about this, mostly because I think a) you should care; b) you would if 90 percent of these kids weren’t poor and brown and black; and c) I feel a thousand years old for saying all this.

Here’s a recap, with notes about as many other things as I can find the energy to talk about that don’t have to do with the bi-weekly sideshow:

• The speakers were for the most part interesting this week. I particularly paid attention to Chris Tullis of NEA-Dallas, who is a DISD math teacher. He praised the district’s expanding of WiFi capacity, but said it must still do a better job on the IT side, especially with the district’s new Schoolnet instructional management system for teachers. (Which he mistakenly called “Skynet,” and then said, “Wait, no, that’s from The Terminator. Sorry.” Very funny.) He said it was harder now with this system to get meaningful data in the hands of teachers that they can use to better their instruction. I’ve heard complaints about Schoolnet from other teachers. One let me see how it works, and it looked something Microsoft would have developed for accountants in 1995. Why (in general) education companies settle for tech solutions that pale in comparison to what I can find free on the Internet never ceases to confuse me.

There were also a concern expressed by a speaker over minority contracting numbers within the district (a very interesting topic in terms of how it relates to DISD; we’ll tackle this some day soon, promise); and one speaker linked Mike Miles, a local education nonprofit, and Barack Obama. Let’s just say he wasn’t a fan of any of the three.

• Mike Miles gave his regular state-of-the-district report, which led with implementation of the Teacher Excellence Initiative, or TEI. As I’ve said, this evaluation system is the lynchpin to merit pay for teachers, which is a important step away from a seniority-based system. But as I’ve also said, the trick will be in implementation. Miles said glossed over the implementation aspect, but as we’ll talk about Monday (the day Miles gets his review from the trustees), TEI is not going smoothly. In fact, according to many smart, committed teachers I’ve been talking to, its implementation — especially the SLO, or Student Learning Objectives, which are being completed now — was fairly awful. I’ve said many times that I don’t know yet if Miles will prove to be a good superintendent, just that the reasons his opponents want to run him off are foolish. I also share many of his ideas about school reform. But anyone can have good ideas. The trick is in implementation. The early signs of this are at best not encouraging, at worst troubling.

Miles also said they are working to get plans in place and executed to raise the scores for every campus that has been labeled IR (Improvement Required) by the state. He mentioned the many spot observations being done of teachers to raise the quality of instruction in the district. He said every teacher was evaluated, and that about 70 percent “passed” the observation, which is about where they thought they’d be. Now, we’ll also get into this as well on Monday. Spot observations are fine. Excessive observations can be a problem, especially when it makes the teachers feel as if they have to make students perform on cue to please the observers. Heaven forbid they walk in at the beginning of a quiet, reflective, 15-minute writing assignment.

• There was a funny moment when board president Miguel Solis was confused on a vote, and there was much mumbling and discussion about whether or not five yes notes and three no votes meant a motion (that needed a super majority, or 2/3 yes votes) had passed. This was of course settled when Mike Morath — in that Alan Rickman-ish, please-deliver-me from-these-fools sort of way — announced that 5/8ths reduces to .625, which is indeed less than the .666 one needs for a 2/3 super majority. Solis later joked there would be extra math assignments for the trustees.

• Okay, so, the items for discussion. Not sure how to go about this. I guess you don’t need a blow-by-blow, but a summary, because they were all of the same sort. They were contracts that needed new money approved, or the board needed to waive its policy rules so that it could approve new money to extend a contract, stuff like that.

During these line-item discussions, Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall asked why the administration was coming to the board asking for this money. In a vacuum, this is a fair question. In each case, reasonable answers were given, and the two trustees still voted against the funding request or waiver request or whatever the administration was asking for. This despite the fact that:

a) The explanations were either reasonable or apologetic, in the latter case because CFO Jim Terry has pledged to clean up the procurement problems within the district, and the request was shown to be a lingering problem based on bad past practices. This is complicated, but just know that Terry came in a year ago, saw that the way the district has long done much of its accounting practically invited mismanagement (if not fraud), and set about changing that. In fact, he told the board that he was going to do this, and every time they found a problem they wouldn’t keep it quiet but instead bring it before the board so they could publicly acknowledge the problems. This is part of that process. For doing this, the administrators are not praised but instead subjected to a demeaning line of questions that usually ends with some sort of b.s. “this is wrong, and I want it fixed” statement. It’s theater, not leadership, and it’s insulting.

b) Denying the requests often meant the district would have forfeited the aforementioned federal funds. On one vote alone, Foreman and Nutall voted against a $10 million request, which meant the district would have lost $86 million in federal money for telecommunications. Foreman and Nutall did this multiple times. The total amount of federal money they voted to leave on the table was ballpark $118 million. I mean, sweet Jesus and Mary Chain — that is insane. You think your job is to screw with the administration because you think it’s evil, or your constituents get a rise out of you doing so, or you’re trying to build a case to run Miles out of town, sure, fine, that’s your gig. But to make your point (which is what, exactly?) by voting to take out more than $100 million from the district … I still can’t believe it.

A few sub notes from these discussions:

• I particularly enjoyed the moment when Foreman asked, “How are you going to spend $5 million [on a program] in seven months?” and the administrator answered, “Very effectively.” (Foreman did NOT like that, as you may imagine.)

• There was much tedious discussion about subjects that had already been covered in board briefings, subjects that had been covered in the supporting documents made available to the trustees, or subjects where the answer should be known to anyone paying attention. This, too, never ceases to amaze me. (Or other trustees, I’m sure; I also enjoy it when a trustee, in this case Nutall, asks for a breakdown/data/information, and another trustee, in this case Dan Micciche, says, “It’s on page four of the memo we were given.”) As a public service, here is the web page for TEI, which has handy charts that break down the teacher evaluation system. Also, here’s background on students evaluating teachers. Let’s prepare next time, mmmkay?

• Specifically, about that $86 million Foreman and Nutall wanted to leave on the table. Here was the item discussed:

Consider and Take Possible Action to Ratify Expenditures, Approve an Increase to the Contract for Insight Public Sector for Network Electronics and Services for Various Departments Districtwide, and Waive of Board Policy CH (Local) as it Relates to Submitting a Separate Competitive Procurement (Not to Exceed $19,845,693 of which $8,945,693 is for Ratification of Past Expenditures and $10,900,000 Additional/General Operating Funds/Bond Funds/E-Rate Eligible) (Consent Item #39, Pulled by Trustees Bernadette Nutall and Joyce Foreman)

Long story here, but basically, this was an extension of a contract that has been around a long time, since 2006. The trustees were rightly wondering why it was never put out to bid again, and why is DISD spending another $10 million to extend it? The answer cleared everything up: In 2006, the contract said that the vendor would supply all the equipment. Now, many years later, much later than the contract was meant to run, the district has to supply a lot of the equipment. So why do it? Because, to be eligible for that big pot of E-Rate gold from the feds, they have to, under cumbersome federal rules, keep the same contract/vendor. So, yes, it seems inefficient to pay $10 million to keep an outdated contract, UNLESS doing so gets you the $86 million buck in federal money. So, unless you’re an idiot, you do what you gotta do to get more money for a cash-strapped district.

That’s not the way Foreman saw it: “While I clearly understand the R-Rate implications,” she said, “what I don’t understand, all of this is put back on the board to say we approve of what has happened.” No. You don’t approve of the way the federal government is making you jump through hoops to get money earmarked for schools. But you do so because it’s best for the district, and thereby best for kids. As Micciche said, these were two separate issues. There’s nothing wrong with asking the district to continue fixing its procurement/RFP/contract mismanagement. But you don’t take an $86 million cut to the nose to spite your face.

The vote to approve the requested money was 6-2. I guess maybe I shouldn’t focus so much on the two, but on the six reasonable trustees. I just have a hard time doing so when they make decisions like this.

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