APS Associate Superintendent Steve Smith leaving at the end June – receives $104 thousand consulting contract for transition services [Updated]

June 3, 2014

Associate Superintendent Steven Smith is leaving APS at the end of June, but he will continue to provide transition consulting services for a six month period. In the regular monthly meeting, the Board voted to grant Smith a $114 thousand consulting contract to continue working with incoming superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen as she builds her team and takes over responsibility for the school district when she officially begin her duties on July 7th.

For more details on Smith’s background see the Saporta Report article here.

[Added] Also see the following news reports at these links:

Steve Smith Departs APS to Return to Private Sector – Talk Up APS

Smith is credited with providing executive oversight of the district’s daily operations, collaborating with the superintendent to stabilize and rebuild the school system following a national test cheating crisis and cultivating productive staff-board relations as the administration’s primary point of contact to the Atlanta Board of Education.

APS associate superintendent resigns – WXIA

“As my right hand, Steve has helped to shepherd Atlanta Public Schools through a difficult transition,” Davis said in a statement. “As he returns to the private sector, I am confident that he will continue to be an asset to APS and a champion for education.”

Comments – I will add that the process followed by the Board last night was a bit strange. First, Mr. Smith’s name was not included in the Personnel Gains and Losses Report and, as of this morning; his name is still not on the list. Second, the agenda item for his consulting contract was not added until shortly before the Board meeting, although it was strongly rumored last week that his exit from APS was pending. So in essence, the Board voted to grant a consulting contract to an APS employee whose departure has not yet been ratified by the Board in the Gains and Losses Report. It is almost as if the entire event was intentionally downplayed and kept out of the public domain until the last-minute when the consulting contract was approved.

It is interesting to note that the current Board and administration are following the same distressing pattern established by the prior Board. It is now becoming common for items that may be controversial to not be added to the meeting agenda or the attached schedules until just before the Board meeting. This was the case with Smith’s contract, the principal announcements (see here) and the waiver request for the new Therrell principal (see here).

Are we supposed to believe that none of these items were known when the original agenda was published last Thursday? Or to believe that all these items were only confirmed just prior to releasing the updated agenda a 10:50 yesterday morning?

As voters we heard about transparency during the election and that the candidates wanted to hear from their constituents on important matters before voting on them – the withholding of important information from the public until the last-minute does not meet this standard.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]

Budget is policy – unless it is not! Administration ignores budget policy and simply does what it wants

April 21, 2014

Why is the focus on the budget so important? Because as I often say – budget is policy!

But when is this not the case? It happens when the budget is not implemented by the administration in the form that was passed. When this happens, the policy inherent in the budget can be fundamentally changed – and, unless the administration presents the changes to the Board, the Board remains in the dark regarding the change in policy.

Bear with me for a minute as we walk through the process as it is supposed to occur.

During the budget discussions, the Board presents its policy direction. The administration is responsible for incorporating the Board’s policy directions into the budget in the form of specific spending to address the policy issues. The administration then presents a budget to the Board with the policy issues addressed and then the Board passes the budget. The administration is then responsible for faithfully implementing the budget as passed or to bring back to the Board amendments to reflect changes. The amendment process then allows the Board to identify if the original policies it adopted in the budget are changing.

That is the way it is supposed to work. However, during FY14 it did not.

Let’s look at an example. During last year’ budget discussion the maximum class size was a major issue that required extensive discussion between the Board and the administration. At the end of a long and drawn out budget discussion, the administration finally conceded and added $5.2 million for an additional 63 teachers. Clearly the administration did not want to do it – Davis repeatedly stated that the addition was not justified on academic outcome grounds – but in the end, it was included in the budget for FY14.

So what happened? Based on a review of the number of teachers in place as of December 31, 2013, the number of teachers on staff for the Direct Instruction (acct. 1200) was 1,571. However, the budget called for 1,604 – a difference of 33. That represents just about one-half of the additional teachers that were incrementally budgeted for as noted above.

Why weren’t the additional teachers brought on staff? It is simple – the administration decided that it knew better and simply just ignored the Boards policy decision.

Oh, and it gets worse.

Do you remember the topic of the reduced number of Early Intervention Program teachers that was addressed early in the budget process last year? The State changed the way it qualified students and as a result funding came down significantly. And the number of EIP teachers in the Program came down as well. In the FY13 Approved Budget there was 278 instruction staff (244 teachers and 34 paraprofessionals). The FY14 Approved Budget called for 200 teachers with no paraprofessionals. When reduction in staffing for the Program came to light, both the Board and parents raised significant concerns.

And the administration responded (paraphrased statements over numerous meetings),

No problem, we will find the additional resources and ensure that the Program functions in the same manner and with the same level of staffing as in the prior year. You have our assurances that it will be fixed and the standards will be maintained! 

Everyone took them at their word and moved on. So what actually happened? As I noted above, there were 38 teachers that were budgeted that could have provided resources for the EIP – but those teachers were never hired.

So were additional resources marshaled in the Special Revenue Funds to address the shortfall? In a word – no. The assurances we received never materialized.

In summary, the Boards policy directions were incorporated into the budget, but were thwarted by an administration that “knew better” and just did what it wanted (and likely intended) to do. And should the Board have relied on the administration’s assertions on EIP? In a perfect world yes – but with this administration the answer is always a resounding – NO!

Unfortunately the administration considers the budget to be a ‘suggestion’ and not the policy mandate that it truly represents. The new and incoming superintendent could not have said it any better than she did at a recent community meeting,

…if you really want to know what is happening in your district, just follow the money. Don’t follow the legends and the myths – just get to the bottom of the money. And then you know what you really believe in and what you have been doing for years. If you can track down the money and the resources, you will see what you believe and then you have to say, “Is this what we want to continue to do? Are we OK with this? Or do we want to change our direction?”

The Board and parents wanted to change direction – and adopted a budget that began that process. Unfortunately, the administration though otherwise and then proceeded to change spending and the related policy. This makes Carstarphen’s question resonate even more so,

“Is this what we want to continue to do? Are we OK with this? Or do we want to change our direction?”

How do you answer these questions?

Let the Board know as it further considers policy and the budgeted spending to support it.

Note – There is a way to fix this (or at least to uncover the changes in policy implemented by the administration) – it is simple and easy to do. Since so much of policy and spending is represented by teaching staff, the Board simply needs to request a comparison of the number of teachers on staff to the budgeted number. And this information should be provided every month starting in July. This information will identify if the staffing is consistent with the policy direction inherent in the budget.

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APS Audit Committee meets – raises WERE given to administrators in FY13 and an additional $500 million pension underfunding disclosed

March 5, 2014

The Audit Committee of the Atlanta Public Schools held its first meeting yesterday and it was disclosed that the external auditors had found that 5-7 administrators had received approximately $42,000 in raises for which the administration did not follow state regulations. This information is in direct contradiction to statements made by senior administration officials during last year’s budget discussion (see more on this below).

In addition, the external auditors noted that the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) was underfunded and APS’s share of the underfunding could amount to as much as $500 million. This amount is added to the approximately $530 million that represents APS’s share of the underfunded City Pension Plan. The combined total of over $1 billion for both pension plans is a startling number and doubles the previously disclosed underfunding problem.

In its initial session the Audit Committee (composed of Byron Amos, Steven Lee and Matt Westmoreland), on a motion by Westmoreland, unanimously elected Amos as the Chairman. The Audit Committee is tasked with oversight for the Office of Internal Compliance (Internal Audit) who is responsible for both internal and external audits.

The Committee heard presentations from the external auditor – Mauldin & Jenkins – that has conducted the audit for the last six years and from the State Auditors. A number of key issues were raised during the meeting, as follows:

  • The external audit report, which is part of the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) and can be seen here, resulted in a “clean” opinion which is the best that can be obtained. The auditors stated that, since the start of their engagement with APS six years ago, there has been a dramatic improvement in the financial and internal control systems at APS.  In fact, they were very complimentary of the work performed by CFO Burbridge’s team.
  • The external auditors had not found any material weaknesses in the financial system, but they did make two recommendations on certain procedural weaknesses.
  • The key weakness they noted was that their testing had shown that 5-7 administrative employees had received approximately $42,000 in raises in FY13 and the procedures followed by the administration in granting of these raises had not conformed to state regulations. Under state regulations, during periods when teachers are being furloughed, any raise granted to an administrator must first be publicly disclosed and a public meeting must be held. This was not done.

Comment – I raised the issue of administrators receiving raises last year (both directly and by reorganizing departments) and senior administration officials repeatedly denied this was the case (see here and here). An excerpt of one of the posts is as follows:

 Again, under very pointed and direct questioning, both Associate Superintendent Steve Smith and Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Karen Walden stated unequivocally that no central or school administrative staff had received any raises during the past year or were there any raises for these staff members in the upcoming Budget. However, they did say that certain individuals did receive salary increases as a result of being promoted to new positions. Several Board members remained skeptical and requested additional information related to the numerous Departmental reorganizations, changes in positions titles and apparent compensation increases shown in the Preliminary Budget. I think this one is going to get very interesting given the strong and unequivocal denial that any salary increases had been given out.

It appears that the administrations statements were, at best, incorrect.

  • The external auditors noted that under new GASB guidance the estimated pension liabilities in the future would be presented on the balance sheet versus as footnote disclosures in the past. As a result, the unfunded pension liabilities – currently estimated at over $1 billion – would be included as part of the balance sheet in FY15. It was during this discussion that APS’s share of the TRS underfunding amounted to approximately $500 million.
  • State auditors also made a presentation on their review of APS finances and controls. They indicated that, given the tremendous improvement in the financial systems and controls at APS over the last five years, they were able to heavily rely on the work completed by the external auditors and did not find any misstatements or required adjustments.
  • The state auditors commended the APS finance organization and presented them with an Award of Distinction for Excellent Financial Reporting. This award was only granted to 24 out of 252 entities. The state auditors also noted that the 10 year financial and statistical information that APS includes in the CAFR also represented an excellent achievement that only 12 of the 252 entities in GA provide to their constituents.

Comment – During my interactions with the Finance team at APS, I have always been impressed with their knowledge and their promptness with responses to my many questions. The award noted above is well deserved and it was clear CFO Burbridge was proud of his team. Nice job!

In addition, a number of other Board Committees have met over the last several weeks. I will report on their activities in subsequent posts.

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Mold still an issue at Booker T. Washington High School

October 22, 2013

As reported by WSBTV, the mold problems found last August at Booker T. Washington High School continue to persist and the local community is demanding action. As WSBTV reports (with video at the link),

Monday night, students, parents, lawmakers and community activists held a “state of emergency rally” at Lindsey Street Baptist Church. They are demanding that Atlanta Public Schools officials get rid of the problem once and for all.

In the WSBTV report, a parent commented,

“I think they need to get off their butts, stop lying to us, fix that school and put those kids somewhere safe and do what they need,” parent Valerie Sims said.

Board member Byron Amos has been leading the effort to clean it up and has consistently raised concerns since the Board of Education meeting held in early August. Board members Amos, Meister and English have requested that Chairman McDaniel call a special meeting at the end of this week to further address the issue.

WSB also included the statement released by APS on Monday:

“We believe the mold issues at Booker T. Washington High School are residual cases from the initial cases that were reported and not an indication of ongoing mold in the building. The Atlanta Public Schools Facilities Services Department continues to clean any surface mold that is discovered. New HVAC units have been ordered, and temporary units installed until they arrive. As a result of the weather changing to cool and dry, and the installation of the temporary units, the mold issue should dissipate. However, APS will continue to respond to any incidents of mold, if needed.”

This issue has been persistent since the heavy rains during the summer. While APS officials have consistently stated that they have addressed the issue, clearly the local community does not agree.

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North Atlanta High School Administrator that was removed last year on “Bloody Friday” speaks out

October 11, 2013

Maureen Downy at the Get Schooled blog published a letter from Laura Ricca Brazil who was one of the administrators that was unceremoniously removed from the North Atlanta High School in October 2012. The action taken by Superintendent Davis was widely criticized by the parents in north Atlanta and ultimately led to an internal review regarding claims of institutional racism and cheating at NAHS. The final report released last month found no grounds for the institutional racism or cheating charges (see more here and here).

Ms. Brazil recounts some of her thoughts and experiences during that time and urges voters to consider the event as they go to the polls (excerpts from letter):

  • As one of the administrators who was abruptly transferred without rational explanation, I hope that the voting public takes time to consider the report’s implications.
  • This report, conducted by APS itself, concluded that there was no racism on the part of the school.  It also concluded that the administration should have been addressing perceptions of racism. Well, we were.
  • We want to teach our students to think critically and make informed decisions, yet district leadership acted first and looked for justification later.
  • Among the rumored rationales:  1) potential state take-over as a failing school, first presented by Mr. Davis, denied by the State Board of Education;  2) improper grade changing, as reported by the AJC, but never substantiated; and 3) institutional racism, pressed by anonymous allegations and alluded to in School Board Chair Ruben McDaniel’s e-mails.  
  • But this report shows that there was no justification.
  • Smeared by a whisper campaign, but with no chance to respond: no person deserves that.
  • And while Mr. Davis is closing out his contract, the board members that fought to retain him, even in light of his disregard for evidence and decency, should be held to account

Please read the whole letter here.

At the time Mr. Davis’ contract was extended, only BoE members Nancy Meister and Brenda Muhammad, both of whom are running for re-election, voted against the extension.

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North Atlanta High School principal resignation/promotion saga continues -– parents angry & confused – no resolution in sight

September 18, 2013

Last night Board of Education member Nancy Meister (D-4) hosted a community meeting for the parents of the North Atlanta High School to review a series of events regarding the resignation, subsequent promotion and then the BOE rejection of the promotion of principal Dr. Howard “Gene” Taylor. Also in attendance were Steve Smith, Associate Superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools, Chairman of the Board of Education Reuben McDaniel (At Large 8) and Board member Courtney English (At Large 7). For more background on the events leading up to last night and video of the event, see here, AJC here, Reporter Newspapers here and Patch here.

Meister opened the meeting and said that she had stood with Dr. Taylor when he was originally hired and had strongly supported him throughout the last week.

From then on, a number of parents asked very pointed questions and then directed a series of very angry and skeptical statements towards Mr. Smith indicating that the entire process had been mismanaged by the APS administration. My sense is that there were four core questions to which parents wanted answers.

The first is – what structural issues did Dr. Taylor face in dealing with the APS administration that led to his initial resignation?

Per Mr. Smith, Dr. Taylor had voiced that he was having difficulty in getting the personnel he wanted approved by the central office, that when approvals were forthcoming they were not timely and that he had to constantly overcome a series of bureaucratic roadblocks set up by the central office. In essence, Dr. Taylor believes that he did not have the autonomy he needed at the school level to make the decisions he thought were appropriate and required for him to successfully perform his job. It is important to note that Mr. Smith conceded that the problems encountered by Dr. Taylor are systemic to all of APS and that the administration has been aware of them for some period of time.

The second question was – given Dr. Taylor’s concerns and issues with the APS bureaucracy, what specific actions was the administration taking to correct the problems encountered by Dr. Taylor?

Mr. Smith indicated that a “Principal’s Counsel” was being established that would have access to senior administration officials and that would give the principals a direct line of communication into the central office. What Mr. Smith did not say was what direct steps were being taken to correct the bureaucratic inefficiencies and roadblocks that admittedly exist in APS and that led to Dr. Taylor submitting his resignation in the first place. My sense was that the parents considered this move as just adding an additional layer of “committees” and “bureaucracy” instead of addressing the fundamental problem of administration inertia and failure to perform.

The third question was – what was the process followed by the administration that ultimately led to the Board calling an emergency meeting yesterday to consider the Dr. Taylor promotion and which then failed to get sufficient support on the Board to even get a recorded vote?

It is important to understand in advance that the Board did not see Superintendent Davis’ letter announcing the promotion of Dr. Taylor until they were already in executive session late Monday afternoon. Additionally, when the news came out it was also clear that several key senior members of APS were not even aware that the decision had been made by Superintendent Davis. And from the Board’s reaction and failure to even hold an up or down vote yesterday, it was also clear that Superintendent Davis had not consulted with the Board to ensure that he had the support for such a key decision amidst the ongoing controversy. Effectively, the entire process was one misstep after another in which Davis did not build the necessary consensus to get to a near term solution.

And the final question is – what happens now?

The answer to this question was limited. Essentially, Dr. Taylor has been offered the opportunity to stay as principal at NAHS and submit his credentials for consideration in the search for a new North Cluster Executive Director. However, Dr. Taylor has already indicated that his resignation is effective December 1. Both Chairman McDaniel and BOE member Courtney English indicated that, by not holding the vote on Dr. Taylor’s promotion yesterday, the Board maintained its ability to reconsider the item at a later date.

So what is the bottom line on this matter after four days of drama? The structural flaws that exist in how the central office supports the schoolhouse leaders are on full display. The process is bureaucratic and not driven to provide the resources and support the principals need. And the end result is the potential loss of some great talent in the schoolhouse. Further, the steps necessary to fix the problems do not appear to even be under consideration. Additionally, it is also clear that there is a disconnect between the administration and the Board of Education and again, there does not appear to be a solution in sight on this either.

There are systemic problems in how the APS bureaucracy operates and there is a lack of consensus driven leadership displayed by the superintendent and the Board of Education.  And this is why the upcoming Board of Education election is so critical to Atlanta and its education system.

[Follow me on Twitter @Financial_Decon]

Dr. Howard Taylor, principal at NAHS, issues letter on his resignation

September 13, 2013

As previously reported here (video statement at the link) and here, Dr. Howard Taylor resigned his position as principal of North Atlanta High School. His resignation was a complete surprise to parents and members of the community.

In a letter to the NAHS community, Dr. Taylor stated the following key points (emphasis added)

  • I remain in good standing with the district and have not been asked to resign.
  • While this decision is, bar none, the hardest of my professional career, it was my decision – one that I felt necessary and appropriate.
  • I have financial obligations like anyone, but my decision was not influenced by financial or professional gain. 
  • It is possible that I will receive another position with another district. However, a “better offer” is just not a motivator for me.
  • … I hope that knowledge assures you that I would not have made this decision if it were not necessary or appropriate.

As with any resignation letter, what is left unsaid is often as important as, or more important than, what is said.

Dr. Taylor was not asked to resign – but was he asked to do something that he in good conscience would not do? He did not extend his thanks to the APS central administration – why not? Most importantly, he did not say what led to his resignation – and only referred to what were NOT factors (financial or professional gain, a “better offer”).

There is more here than is currently being reported – let’s wait and see what the full story is.

The full resignation letter is printed below.

Dear Parent and Community Warriors,

As some of you may have heard already, I announced to my staff this morning that I have submitted my resignation with Atlanta Public Schools. My decision may have left some of you with questions and concerns that I hope to address beginning with this message. I remain in good standing with the district and have not been asked to resign. While this decision is, bar none, the hardest of my professional career, it was my decision – one that I felt necessary and appropriate. I have financial obligations like anyone, but my decision was not influenced by financial or professional gain.  It is possible that I will receive another position with another district. However, a “better offer” is just not a motivator for me.

From the time I have had the honor of working with you and your children, you have seen my heart and understand my character. I hope that knowledge assures you that I would not have made this decision if it were not necessary or appropriate.

My last day at North has not been finalized at this time, but it is likely I will remain through November.  The district soon will begin its search for my replacement and if time allows, I will be able to assist this person in his or her transition as your principal. The members of the NAHS Administrative Team are excellent at their jobs and will work with me and the teachers to keep our and the students’ focus on learning. In short, I will do everything possible to ensure a smooth transition and have assurances from the district that it also is committed to this end.

As I have done every day since beginning my work at North, I will continue to give you all I have through my last day.

Howard E. Taylor, Ph. D.

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