Party of Seven

Colorado state board and education commissioner held a secret meeting — but accomplished nothing

On the first Wednesday in March, six of the seven members of the State Board of Education met for a private dinner with the man who was their unanimous pick for education commissioner.

Rich Crandall told them he needed direction. The former Arizona lawmaker and businessman, who briefly served as education chief in Wyoming, had been getting conflicting guidance from board members, he later told Chalkbeat.

Board chairman Steve Durham suggested dinner at the University Club, where the Republican lobbyist from Colorado Springs is a member.

The gathering didn’t go as well as anyone had hoped. Over the course of two hours, board members aired grievances about their pet-peeve education policies and made little headway identifying priorities from a laundry list Crandall proposed as a starting point, according to interviews with participants and public records obtained by Chalkbeat.

Under Colorado open meetings law, meetings of two or more members of state public bodies must be open to the public. But the board issued no public notice and took no minutes, officials said.

In an interview, Durham portrayed the meeting as a social gathering and thus not subject to the state’s open meetings law. But records obtained by Chalkbeat show a detailed discussion was planned to discuss setting key education policy priorities. A department of education spokeswoman acknowledged that the meeting violated state law.

As a result of questions raised by Chalkbeat, board member Jane Goff, an Arvada Democrat, called on the board to review the law and to organize a public retreat to discuss broader education policy and how the board should proceed.

Disclosure of the tensions before and after the March meeting shed more light on Crandall’s brief relationship with the board. Some observers believed the board coalescing on hiring Crandall in December was a turning point after a divisive period.

But Crandall resigned in mid-May. His departure came after a string of resignations by top department officials and criticism that he didn’t give clear direction to staff. Crandall agreed to resign “in lieu of termination” and cite personal reasons, according to a settlement agreement.

Now, the state is again without a chief schools officer as Colorado faces critical decisions about issues ranging from how to respond to changes brought by a new federal education law to taking action against schools that are failing low-income students.

Katy Anthes, the department’s chief of staff, is serving as interim commissioner. The board has not signaled when it will begin a search for a permanent commissioner.

‘A social opportunity’

By the time Crandall had asked for clearer marching orders, he had already met with almost every member of the State Board individually — in some cases, two or three times.

Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.
PHOTO: Eric Gorski
Education Commissioner Rich Crandall on a visit this spring to the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design.

Before the dinner, Crandall sent board members a list of some 25 education topics ranging from accountability to school choice to the nation’s new federal law, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat in an open records request. He asked board members to arrive with the list printed and four to five topics circled.

“I am hoping this list spurs a conversation toward areas we may want to focus on the next one to three years,” he wrote.

He also asked board members to be prepared to answer the question: What is the “appropriate outcome for a K-12 education?”

“This will help drive our work at the Department,” Crandall wrote.

Durham denied that topics listed in the email were discussed.

“It was just a social opportunity to get to know the commissioner a little better,” Durham said.

But other board members acknowledged that items on the list, as well as others, were discussed in broad terms.

Colorado’s open meeting law requires that when two or more state elected officials meet to discuss matters related to their policy making function, the public must be notified at least 24 hours in advance. Minutes are also to be kept. Neither happened with the March meeting.

“This is a discussion that should have taken place at a public meeting,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a group of journalists, organizations and individuals promoting transparency. (Chalkbeat is a member of the coalition.)

There are exceptions to the state’s open meeting law. Chief among them is a “chance meeting or social gathering at which discussion of public business is not the central purpose.”

“If it truly was a social gathering and they were there to talk about their summer vacation plans or the presidential election, then that’s fine,” Roberts said. “But if it’s a meeting where they talk about their own policy goals, even if it’s at a 30,000-foot-view level, then it’s an open meeting.”

Crandall, in an interview, didn’t dispute the meeting should have been public. When asked why the public wasn’t notified of the meeting, he said it wasn’t his responsibility.

“The board has its own people,” he said, referring to board staff.

Colorado Department of Education spokeswoman Dana Smith said the meeting violated state law.

“Even though the primary purpose was social, with the commissioner’s subjects he wanted to talk about, we should have noticed the meeting,” Smith said in an interview.

She described it as an oversight and pledged that the department would ensure it does not happen again.

‘Little accomplished’

Crandall and board members agree that little came into focus that evening.

Steve Durham
PHOTO: Denver Post
Steve Durham

“There was very little accomplished that night as far as a strategic plan for the state board of education,” Crandall said. “It was more board members sharing their displeasure with education topics like Common Core, turnaround efforts, PARCC (state tests). I could give you a long list.”

Republican Deb Scheffel of Parker remembers the evening being more cordial.

“We talked broadly about him coming to Colorado and the role of the commissioner, about a lot of issues we’re dealing with,” she said. “I’m sure we did talk about issues — generally speaking, about what is Colorado facing, where are right now with education reform. But those are broad topics.”

Goff, of Arvada, said Crandall’s list was daunting.

“We tried to make a start on this list,” she said. “But it’s a huge list. Rich said he had some things on his mind he wanted to talk about. I’m gonna say it — we didn’t make a lot of headway with what I would interpret as productive progress.”

Democrat Angelika Schroeder of Boulder had a prior engagement and did not attend the meeting.

‘Easier to suggest now’

As governing boards change hands, members often take time to step back and hold retreats to discuss strategic vision.

Other times, like in the case of the Denver school board in 2009, retreats are held to mend wounds. Those meetings, like board meetings where votes are taken, are posted and open to the public and press to attend.

The State Board of Education has not held a retreat since the three new members — Durham, Republican Joyce Rankin of Carbondale and Democrat Val Flores of Denver — joined the board during the last two year. Instead, the board has made headlines for a number of controversies.

In 2015, a fractured board refused to set cut scores on the state’s social studies test halting the release of the results and spent months embroiled in a debate about a long running health survey given to Colorado’s middle and high schools.

More recently, the board was split on whether to recognize a seal of biliteracy on Colorado students diploma, but made is a requirement that all elementary school students who speak a second language be tested in both English and Spanish to identify reading disabilities despite objections from school districts.

Former State Board chairwoman Marcia Neal attempted to pull together a retreat before she resigned one year ago, citing health issues and the board’s dysfunction.

Board member Goff said now may be the time for the board to have a retreat.

“I wish we had a plan to have one,” she said. “I think this board is in a pretty good place to get some things accomplished through a more formal (retreat). …. I think it will be easier to suggest now.”

Rich Crandall’s email

Update: This post has been updated to better reflect Rich Crandall’s job history. He briefly served as the chief schools officer in Wyoming. 

Civil action

Detroit school board to protesters: Please remain civil. Protesters to school board: You’re naive

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore speaks with her supporters from the stage at Mumford High School. Her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to the meeting's abrupt ending.

A day after the Detroit school board abruptly ended a meeting that was disrupted by protesters, the meeting is being rescheduled, while the board president is making an appeal for civility.

“The board is extremely disappointed that the regularly scheduled meeting tonight was adjourned early due to extreme disruptive behavior from several audience members,” school board president Iris Taylor wrote in a statement issued late Tuesday, several hours after the meeting’s chaotic end.

“It is our hope moving forward that the community will remain civil and respectful of the elected Board and the process to conduct public meetings. We must be allowed to conduct the business the community elected us to do.”

The drama Tuesday night came from a large group of parents and community members, led by activist Helen Moore, who packed the board meeting to raise concerns about a number of issues.

Moore had sent the school board an email requesting an opportunity to address the meeting Tuesday on issues including her strong objection to the news that Taylor and Superintendent Nikolai Vitti had attended a meeting with Mayor Mike Duggan and leaders of city charter schools to discuss the possibility of working together.

The mayor, in his state of the city address last week, discussed the meeting, calling it “almost historic,” and said district and charter school leaders had agreed to collaborate on a student transportation effort, and on a school rating system that would assign letter grades to Detroit district and charter schools.

When Taylor told Moore during the meeting that she would not be allowed to give her presentation Tuesday night, saying she had not gotten Moore’s request in time to put it on Tuesday’s agenda, Moore and her supporters angrily shouted at the board and proceeded to heckle and object to statements during the meeting.

The meeting was ultimately ended during a discussion about the Palmer Park Preparatory Academy, a school whose classes are being relocated to other district buildings for the rest of the year because of urgent roof repairs and the possibility of mold in the building.

As Moore shouted over Vitti’s discussion about the school, Taylor ordered that the 81-year-old activist be escorted from the Mumford High School auditorium where the meeting was being held. That triggered an angry response from her supporters and ultimately brought the meeting to a close.

The current Detroit school board came into existence a little over a year ago when the state returned city schools to Detroiters after years of control by state-appointed emergency managers.

The board’s swearing-in last January was heralded as a fresh start for a new district — now called the Detroit Public Schools Community District — that had been freed from years of debts encumbered by the old Detroit Public Schools.

Since then, meetings have been interrupted by the occasional heckler or protester, but they’ve largely remained orderly, without a lot of the noise and drama that had been typical of school board meetings in the past.

In her statement Tuesday night, Taylor lamented that the new school board wasn’t able to get to most of the items on its agenda.

“Detroiters have fought long and hard to have a locally elected board to govern our schools,” Taylor wrote. “It would be shameful to have our rights revoked again for impediments. It sets a poor example for the students we all represent, and it will not be tolerated by this Board.”

Wednesday morning, Moore said she plans to continue her vocal advocacy, even if it’s disruptive.

“If that’s the only avenue we have to get our point across, when they don’t allow us to speak, then we must take every avenue,” Moore said. “Time is of the essence with our children. And they spend too much time with distractions, listening to the mayor, listening to the corporations, and not listening to people who have children in the public schools.”

Moore, who is active with an organization called Keep the Vote/No Takeover Coalition and with the National Action Network, said she fought for years for Detroiters to again have a locally elected school board. City residents did not have control of their schools for most of the last two decades.

“We worked like crazy,” Moore said, but she asserts that most school board members are “naive.”

“They don’t know the history,” she said. “They need to be educated and that goes for Dr. Vitti too. We need to educate them and that was a first start.”

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 12:30 p.m. Thursday at its Fisher Building headquarters where it can return to its unfinished business from Tuesday.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Detroit activist Helen Moore waved to her fellow activisits from the stage at Mumford High School. She returned to the room after her removal from the auditorium prompted loud objections that led to a school board meeting’s abrupt ending on March 13, 2018.

parent voice

It’s not enough just to stay open, say Memphis parents of their struggling elementary school

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Sonya Smith, a longtime community organizer in Memphis Frayser, speaks to parents at Hawkins Mill Elementary School on Thursday during a community meeting about state intervention plans.

For six years, Hawkins Mill Elementary School has been on the state’s radar because of students’ low scores on standardized tests — an issue cited again last month when Tennessee officials urged local leaders to close the Memphis school.

Shelby County Schools is passing on that recommendation, but agrees with the state on one thing: Hawkins Mill faces big challenges, including declining enrollment and a mostly impoverished student population.

Now the question is what to do about it. Among the issues is whether Principal Antonio Harvey should stay on for a sixth year, and if the district’s first $300,000 investment in Hawkins Mill went toward the right interventions this school year.

During a Thursday evening meeting, about 50 parents and community members got their first opportunity to ask questions about competing visions for their Frayser school.

What parents like

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Principal Antonio Harvey, front, and parents listen to a Shelby County Schools presentation on the state’s new accountability model.

Parents applauded the district’s stance to keep Hawkins Mill open, in defiance of the state’s recommendation, in order to give their school a fair chance to improve.

Many also spoke in favor of Harvey, describing him as a stabilizing and nurturing force who has ushered in new opportunities in the arts, sports, and other extracurricular activities. The school’s suspension rate also has declined in recent years, except for a slight uptick last year.

“I saw how he took unruly, disrespectful kids and they shake his hand now. He sits down and talks to them. … We’re constantly adding programs,” said PTA member Sharanda Person. “Doing things that way makes me think he cares about the kids.”

Several spoke favorably of their children’s school experience.

“Since she’s been here, I’ve seen exponential growth,” said Tonyas Mays, who transferred her daughter from a state-run school last August. “My child’s potential has been recognized here and she’s testing out of (special education) now.”

What parents didn’t like

A presentation on the low percentages of students on grade level in reading and math drew moans from parents as the data was explained by Antonio Burt, the district’s assistant superintendent for its lowest performing schools.

Notes: 2013-14 science and 2014-15 social studies test scores were not listed in the state report card. Elementary students did not take TNReady in 2015-16. The 2016-17 social studies test did not count toward school accountability measures.

But some questioned the validity of the state’s new test called TNReady, which has been marred by technical glitches in administration and scoring during its first two years.

“The state of Tennessee has made excuses as to why the test wasn’t ready. They get a pass while our children don’t,” said Sonya Smith, a community organizer. “Every time our children meet the test, they tell us that test was no good.”

Another disappointment is declining enrollment. Hawkins Mill had 357 students when Harvey started in the fall of 2013. Last month, enrollment was at 314.

What parents aren’t sure of

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for low-performing schools, speaks to parents.

Burt said some assessments and attendance data show “some positive trends” this school year.

His presentation was void of nitty-gritty detail on progress as outlined under the school improvement plan that went to effect this school year. However, information provided to Chalkbeat on Friday showed that student growth this school year was higher than average in reading and math — a measure key to showing whether students can catch up. Also, the school’s suspension rate so far this school year is about 4 percent of students, compared to almost 13 percent at this time last year.

Several parents asked whether Harvey would remain as principal, worrying that a new leader could set the school back because of the adjustment in getting to know the students and faculty.

Burt responded that leadership is being reviewed, but that no decisions have been made. “To be completely transparent, we have to reassess everything,” he said.

Because Hawkins Mill is a priority school on track for state intervention, the state Department of Education must approve any plan outside of its recommendation to close.

The school is slated to continue under Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them. District leaders are still discussing the amount of new funding and where to invest it.

Burt thinks the district’s plan has a “50/50 chance” of state approval since it’s new.