Local superintendents support petition critical of state education leader

Nathan Baker • Sep 19, 2013 at 10:14 PM

Local school superintendents who signed a petition critical of the Tennessee Department of Education and its head, Commissioner Kevin Huffman, said communication from the state has been lacking, especially regarding recent reform measures.

“To me, when you have a dialogue, communication is two ways,” Unicoi County School Superintendent Denise Brown said Wednesday in explaining her signature on the petition authored by Tullahoma City Schools Superintendent Dan Lawson. “When Huffman talked with education representatives, it was: ‘This is what I’m going to do, and it really doesn’t matter how it effects teachers, this is part of my reform.’ ”

Brown, who serves on the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents board and the state’s Superintendent Study Council Executive Committee, frequently interacted with Huffman at meetings and during conference calls.

She said the commissioner disregarded concerns with reform policies voiced by her and other superintendents.

“We’re not against change,” she said. “But as stakeholders, we would really like to have a voice at the table.”

More than 50 superintendents from districts across the state signed Lawson’s letter, in which the signees claim the education commissioner “considers school teachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners” and ask Gov. Bill Haslam and state legislators to help to address some of their concerns. Along with Brown, among the confirmed signatures were from Ed Alexander of Elizabethton, Morris Woodring of Johnson County, Charlotte Britton of Hawkins County, Rebecca Isaacs of Rogersville and Ron Dykes of Washington County, who on Monday had declined to say whether he had signed it.

“Over the last 2½ years we’ve had changes in the teacher evaluation program, salary scales, the (state) Board of Education has passed licensure changes and there is talk of potential changes in special education,” Alexander said. “It’s too much, too fast and it’s been very difficult to deal with, especially for the teacher in the classroom.”

When superintendents asked the state to put a hold on some of the polices to allow time for them to be implemented, Alexander said, there was no response.

“As a public educator, we’re seeing the commissioner and his staff — who aren’t educators — changing all these policies at once, and they aren’t hearing us when we’re asking them to slow it down,” he said. “We’re not being disrespectful, and we’re not opposed to the changes they’re making. We’re just concerned that it’s too much all at once and they’re putting too much stress on the classroom teachers.”

Carter County Director of Schools Kevin Ward said a number of the polices could affect school districts’ ability to hire new staff.

“A lot of us are concerned about the pace of these changes and how it’s affecting the people in trenches,” Carter County Director of Schools Kevin Ward said. “It’s creating a morale problems for our system and other in the state.”

Ward said he was not able to sign the petition at a recent meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, but he fully intends to.

“What I and other superintendents expect when we’re taking on these major reforms is to be approached and talked to about some of the ways to do it,” he said. “There has been very little communication on our end on how to do this the right way.”

But not all of the local superintendents share the opinion that the petition is the best way to be heard. Johnson City Schools Superintendent Richard Bales said Monday that he declined to sign the document, because he prefers to send his own correspondence in such matters.

Bales said he personally met with the governor a few weeks prior to discuss potential areas for improvement.

Lawson officially sent the letter to Haslam and state representatives Wednesday afternoon with 54 confirmed superintendents’ signatures and six Lawson said he could not decipher.

Last week, Huffman said he viewed an unofficial copy of the letter and said his department frequently discusses issues with the superintendents’ organization.

“It’s not a question of who knows more about what children need. It’s a question of, in my perch, I’m responsible for ensuring that the educational outcomes of 970,000 students in Tennessee get better,” the commissioner said in a statement. “So we can either decide that we’re going to stay in the bottom 10 states in the country in education outcomes, or we can decide that we’re going to do the things that will make Tennessee be a competitive state when it comes to education results.”

Haslam, who defended Huffman earlier this year when a social media campaign called for his ouster, again stood by his appointee.

“The bottom line is that we are at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms that I believe will lead to continued progress in education, and this work is simply too important to get sidetracked,” Haslam wrote in a letter to school superintendents Monday.

View the letter and the signatures:

Superintendents Petition by jcpressdocs

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