The Knox County Public School District popped up frequently in the press and in this blog after the school system ended a long-standing student transfer agreement with the Corbin Independent School District in January.
That squabble has now degenerated into a lawsuit in Frankfort District Court.
Now, Knox is back in the press, again, but this time a totally different issue is involved.
With virtually no notice, the Knox County Board of Education voted this past week to merge the Lynn Camp High/Middle School with West Knox Elementary School to form one P to 12 school.
In the process, comments captured in the Times Tribune make me wonder if there is an attempt here to maneuver around state laws regarding such things as the state accountability program and the laws regarding the authority of superintendents versus School Based Decision Making Councils (SBDM).
The Knox County superintendent actually discussed how the merger could maneuver around No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and other federal school accountability laws.
The Times-Tribune reports this change triggers a number of significant consequences.
The first impact would be the wiping out of NCLB accountability sanctions that are already in place at Lynn Camp High. Reconfiguration would completely remove the Lynn Camp High from NCLB sanctions, cancelling parental rights to transfer students to a better performing high school and giving the school a “Get out of Jail Free Card” for both state and federal accountability for two more years. Even then, under current rules, if the school continued in academic trouble, instead of being something like an NCLB Tier 3 school in two more years, it would only become a Tier 1 school again, which is the school’s current NCLB status.
The change also eliminates the two separate schools’ individual SBDMs. Instead, one, combined SBDM would be formed. In the 60 days or so required to form the new SBDM, Knox County superintendent Walter T. Hulett would assume the SBDM authority. Hulett already announced that during this 60-day period he will bring in his own instructional team to develop the policies for the new SBDM. In other words, the superintendent thinks he, not the new SBDM can shape and control those policies.
There’s still more.
Hulett already announced that the new principal of the combined school would be West Knox Elementary principal Amy Bays. Apparently, the superintendent believes he, not the new SBDM, will have the authority to name the principal during the 60 day period when the superintendent has control of the merged school.
Finally, it appears that the “merged” school won’t physically merge at all. Both schools are slated to remain in their current buildings. Google Maps indicates those buildings are about two-tenths of a mile apart.
Here are some initial thoughts on this remarkable announcement.
1) Part of the motivation for this dubious merger is to avoid federally required school accountability. The superintendent basically admitted that in a quote captured by the Times Tribune:
“So this is proactive, to avoid anything that the feds may come in and want us to do.”
This intention was reiterated by the superintendent at a follow-on meeting the day after the school board voted to merge the two schools.
He made it clear that the merger would shield the new school from any sanctions that might come as a consequence of the new Race to the Top (RTTT) accountability rules.
Sadly, this motivation isn’t student-centered. It’s accountability avoidance centered and seems likely to mostly just preserve the status quo for adult employees in the school district.
Furthermore, I have to wonder, how will the “feds” react if they read such things as the public comment above from the superintendent?
Could this be construed as an attempt to subvert federal law and Kentucky’s agreements with the federal government to secure RTTT and other funding such as the new School Improvement Grant program?
Given what has already been publicly said, could approval of the merger at this point endanger some or all of Kentucky’s federal grants?
2) There have been several court cases concerning the rights of SBDM versus school district superintendents. The decisions solidly favor SBDM supremacy.
Thus, the discussions in the Times Tribune articles that the superintendent intends to maneuver around these legally mandated divisions of authority are problematic.
As a note: the Bluegrass Institute does have very serious concerns about the functioning of the SBDM system. Among other things, the SBDM system removes too much authority from locally elected school boards and their chosen executive, the superintendent. In consequence, real accountability for the local board, the superintendent and even the schools are all undermined. Still, the current law has been upheld in court, so we need to change the law, first. Circumvention of the law is not acceptable.
Given the public comments already made about the effects of the merger, could Kentucky Board of Education approval of this merger amount to a sanctioning of a violation of SBDM rules?
Can the current Lynn Camp High and/or West Knox Elementary SBDMs appeal this decision? They both would lose their authority under this dubious set of actions. Can they sue?
3) The merged school will have an awkward leadership setup. This seems particularly unwise given the relatively weak performance in both schools, as this table of recent proficiency rates from the Kentucky Core Content Tests summarizes.
While neither school performs terribly well according these recent test results, Lynn Camp High is the major under-performer in this matchup.
But, the Knox plan is for the new principal of the combined school to be the elementary school’s current leader.
Does a person with recent elementary school experience have the right background to turn around a low-performing high school?
Can the West Knox Elementary principal do it from offices at the elementary school?
Will the hiring of several assistant principals be cost-effective? If a lower paid, presumably less experienced assistant winds up doing most of the day-to-day work in the high school, how will that benefit the Lynn Camp students?
4) The Times Tribune opines that there was little public involvement in the development of the new merger plan, indicating that a similar lack of information preceded the controversial cancellation of the Knox-Corbin district transfer agreement earlier this year.
Are there issues with open meetings laws lurking here?
Were private discussions held between board members before the very short public discussion and vote on the merger took place? If not, how did the board reach agreement on this radical and controversial proposal in a process the Times Tribune says only took a few minutes?
5) It appears not all parents are on board. Erma Davis, who protested the merger on the day the board voted for it, said Wednesday:
Ms Davis apparently understands that if the Kentucky Board of Education and the Commissioner of Education approve this merger, you can forget that.
6) Most importantly, how will the maneuvering in Knox County help the kids in Lynn Camp Middle/High School?
If the SBDM in the school is really under-performing, why doesn’t the superintendent use persuasion instead of secret maneuvering to help the school and its SBDM to understand that? If the issue is bad teachers, nothing the superintendent is doing will fix that, and he should not be standing in the way of possible action in that area from the state and federal accountability programs.