Filing a Freedom of Information Act(FOI) or Open Records request, as it sometimes referred to, is always an interesting proposition. Over the last several years, I’ve filed several and to be honest, most have been worthless. Sometimes depending on who the agency is, you’ll get a little insight into the inner workings of a government entity, but for the most part, what you don’t get is more interesting. A few years ago, I filed an FOI with the Tennessee Department of Education to include all emails involving Teach For America. The returned file was rather light. Only when I reminded them that over half of the Department of Education’s leadership were TFA alumni and that I found it hard to believe that there was so little conversation involving TFA did they suddenly remember that they “forgot” to include the 6 million dollar Race to the Top contract. Ooops.
It then became crystal clear on how it all works when once I went up to the Department of Education offices to pick up an FOI request. As I was picking up my packet, I looked across the room to see then-Commissioner Huffman texting away on his phone. It didn’t take me but a minute to realize how most communication took place at the DOE and that I would never be privy to most of it. My other favorite strategy they employ is to tell you it will take a couple weeks to fill a request, and then when the due date arrives, they send you a link to a public web site. That’s what they did with my latest request for all copies of financial audits for the Achievement School District.
Go ahead and take a look. I will show you more of what we’ve come to expect from the Tennessee’s ASD, which is more sloppy work and inattention to detail. Since inception, its been nothing but one issue after another for the ASD. In the past they’ve failed to report their per pupil spending, even though all other districts were able to. Back in September, reporter Ezra Howard analyzed the state data and showed that local efforts in Memphis were performing better than the ASD. October came and Bluff City, an education blog out of Memphis, reported the city in near revolt against the ASD. To close out the year, they engineered a hostile takeover of a Nashville school. Perhaps a few more Happy Hours are needed.
When looking at this audit it becomes clear once again that the Achievement School District’s forte is not in the details. Details like, failure to have contracts overseen and ensuring that they are in compliance with regulations, allowing Charter Management Operators to get paid before they paid their vendors, and billing salaries to the wrong programs. The amounts of money are albeit small and therefore for many not that concerning, but I would argue that, when coupled with the entire body of evidence, it shows a pattern of behavior. A pattern that is not beneficial to the students or the tax payers of the state of Tennessee.
Here’s a quote from the audit
During the audit, we were told that ASD experienced high turnover in its Public Grants Manager position during the fiscal year. We also determined that when the position was vacant, no other employee assumed the role of reviewing and approving invoices in order to mitigate the risk of paying inaccurate, unsupported, or fraudulent invoices. By not ensuring that invoices are properly reviewed, approved, and adequately supported, ASD runs the risk of paying CMOs for activities that are not allowed under federal program requirements.
So let me see if I get this straight. The ASD had a revolving door in the Public Grants Manager’s office, and when somebody didn’t happen to be available when an invoice needed approval, well they just cut the check anyway. I guess they figured they’d work it out later. I would think, though, that this position is kind of important. Shouldn’t some effort have gone into stabilizing it? Perhaps since the ASD is fond of using TFA temps, they figured a temp is a good fit for any job, and they just contracted a local temp agency and filled the position that way. After all, when nobody is holding you accountable why should you take time away from writing PR pieces and doing self declared victory laps to keep up with the money? When we entrust the school districts of Tennessee with our most prized resource – our children – and they fail to put processes in place to protect those resources, then they are failing the citizens of Tennessee, and that should be unacceptable no matter what the level.
Here’s another little tidbit from the audit:
Before entering the invoice into Edison, ASD’s Accounts Payable Clerk is responsible for verifying that the Public Grants Manager has approved the invoice and that the invoice amount requested is within budget. However, during our review of the 12 invoices charged to the SIG program, we found that the ASD Accounting Manager and Accounts Payable Clerk processed 5 invoices, totaling $477,166.14, without the documented approval of the Public Grants Manager.
What do you need approval for? It’s only a half million dollars. Chris Barbic, the head of the ASD, is fond of saying that the Achievement School District is different from the traditional school district in that 100% of the BEP follows the student. That other districts are encumbered by high central administration costs. I’m thinking a couple of those central administration positions might be a good thing for the ASD in helping them avoid mismanagement of federal and taxpayer funds. Unless, of course, you’re just following the lead of your former boss who showed similar tendencies. It’s all about patterns.
A few years ago I oversaw a summer camp for kids. I would preach to my staff the importance of modeling and how kids will pick up your behaviors when you think nobody is looking. The ASD likes to preach accountability. Students must accept responsibility. Teachers need to accept responsibility. Administrators and schools need to accept responsibility. Well then, when does the ASD accept responsibility? When do they start to become accountable for mediocre results and sloppy book keeping?
If the the ASD was working off a successful model, these issues could be chalked up to growing pains. Innovation doesn’t burst from the incubator without flaws. That’s is not the case here though. Unfortunately, Louisiana provides us with a case study to examine. As Mercedes Schneider, an educator and a researcher from Louisiana, documents, it is not a pretty picture nor a successful picture. Michigan also has a “Achievement District” with similar results. Put it all together and you get the picture of a failing experiment that uses our kids as test subjects. An experiment that we may not even be able to accurately measure for a couple years. My children did not sign up to be guinea pigs for an academic exercise. There is a little to much at risk for that.
That very risk is what causes us to grasp at the straws that the ASD offers. Unfortunately for them, there are alternatives that have already shown positive results. Community schools address the very issues that hinder a child learning and offer wrap around services that combat them. They foster a sense of community vs a sense of disruption. They bring communities together without segregating them. Just think of the results that would be possible if Community Schools were funded like the Achievement School Districts have been funded. Unfortunately for the reformers, there’s not as much chance to turn a profit in a Community School, so I’m sure that hurts their appeal.
Luckily, there are a couple of State representatives that are wise to what’s going on. Representative Bo Mitchell has introduced a bill that will dissolve the ASD. His Senate counterpart is the esteemed Thelma Harper. Senator Harper has not made a long and storied career by attaching herself to bills with no merit. I can’t predict how far this bill will get, but I do know that it’s high time some accountability was brought to the Achievement School District. Mr. Barbic and his minions have long showed a lack of respect for the priorities of elected officials or community members, and that can’t be allowed to continue unabated.
Governor Haslem has made a welcome change at the top of the Department of Education, but like with any illness, the body can only heal when all of the infection is removed. Chris Barbic and the Achievement School District were brought here by Kevin Huffman through their shared experience as Teach For America members. Time proved that Kevin Huffman was not a good fit for Tennessee. Time has also shown that TFA is not a great fit for Tennessee. They are a part of the past and Tennessee needs to look forward. It’s time to add the Achievement School District to that list of failed experiments and embrace policies that will take us into the future, before the damage is irreversible.