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Front Page - Friday, August 26, 2016

An (expensive) toast to the Achievement School District

View from the Hill

Sam Stockard

Somebody forgot to tell the Achievement School District it had to follow a few simple rules when the Legislature formed it a few years ago to save failing schools: Primarily, don’t party with the money.

But that’s exactly what they’ve been doing, according to a state Comptroller’s Office audit, which shows among many other findings – or failings – district personnel spent $2,500 on a holiday event at the Sheraton in Memphis, in part to recognize outgoing Superintendent Chris Barbic, including expensive finger food, alcohol and a bartender.

Management also bought $1,630 worth of alcohol for a staff recognition event and charged it to its Charter School Grant Funding, a private grant in which funding was restricted to operating expenses for five schools.

In another instance, an employee took himself and a friend out to dinner on ASD’s dime and bought $22 worth of drinks, plus dessert, and failed to exclude them from his reimbursement. He wound up getting $13 too much, though he reported he didn’t consume the beverages or eat the dessert.

Let’s be honest, the comptroller is paid to be tight. But even if this ASD employee got $50 more than he should’ve, it could be forgiven. After all, moving schools out of the bottom 5 percent in Tennessee is hard work. Anyone charged with such a task deserves a cold beer at the end of the day.

There’s just one tiny catch. This money was supposed to go toward the education of children, not buying thousands of dollars’ worth of booze, staying in fancy hotels or catching rides with Uber Black in New Orleans, all of which are reported in the comptroller’s audit.

“Certainly, any time you’re diverting taxpayer money which is supposed to be intended for the education of children toward alcohol, we consider that a problem,” says Comptroller’s Office spokesman John Dunn. 

Catching a buzz wasn’t ASD’s only problem, though. The audit is chock-full of findings ranging from failure to report expenses properly to problems in human relations with regard to hiring, evaluating and giving bonuses and pay raises. Last fiscal year alone, ASD employees got more than a half-million in bonuses – for what, nobody knows.

Federal fallout

The General Assembly formed ASD in fiscal 2011, and it was allowed to operate “autonomously in all respects, thus preventing the department’s prompt recognition and reaction to ASD’s administrative actions,” the report states. In 2013, the Department of Education even allowed the district to move its financial operations into a separate accounting system.

Isn’t that convenient.

In fact, audits done in 2013, 2014 and 2015 on ASD’s use of federal money showed deficiencies in internal controls and noncompliance with federal programs, “resulting in approximately $721,000 of federal questioned costs.”

Following the comptroller’s 2015 audit of federal funds, the Department of Education began to review the district’s operations and processes. As a result, the Department of Education brought ASD back under its financial controls.

Under questioning by state Rep. Harold Love in a recent joint House Education Committee meeting, Department of Education COO Kathleen Airhart told state lawmakers they found “significant challenges” in ASD and intervened. Six people were fired and replaced.  

“What you’re telling me is you all knew in December (2015) before we went into session that there were issues with ASD financially?” asked Love, a Nashville Democrat whose district has schools in the bottom 5 percent statewide.

“We knew there were some challenges with procedures and processes but not the extent of the dollar amount,” Airhart responded.

This apparently irritated the mild-mannered Love, who gave a short sermon about parents who need to be assured money is spent properly on children, in addition to recent situations in Nashville with nonprofit education agencies getting involved in election campaigns. He apologized for sounding preachy.

But considering the questions swirling around the Achievement School District earlier this year and whether it was doing its job, maybe – just maybe – someone with the Department of Education should have brought up those problems during the legislative session. 

Instead, a spate of bills designed to do everything from kill ASD to reshape it were put on hold.

Barbic had just stepped down, and Malika Anderson had taken over as ASD director. So they gave her a pass, and despite of this audit, the Department of Education is still letting her off the hook.

Anderson did not respond to questions about the audit, though ASD management did concur with the comptroller’s findings and promised to do better.

The Department of Education had this to say in response: 

“We take the audit findings seriously and have worked closely with the leadership of the Achievement School District over the past several months to establish new fiscal oversight and direct management practices. We continue to support the ASD and their goal to improve the outcomes of students who are in the bottom 5 percent of our schools.”

A leading critic

The Achievement School District oversees 33 schools, almost of them in Memphis, a sore point for several members of the Shelby County delegation who represent inner-city areas. They believe other cities with poor performers are being let off the hook.

State Rep. Antonio Parkinson sponsored legislation earlier this year to abolish the ASD. He and others contend it’s not making enough progress, and a study done by Vanderbilt last year showed iZone schools, those run by local systems, were improving more rapidly than those overseen by ASD, which doles out most of its work in Memphis to charter operators.

In light of the audit, Parkinson says, “It’s disappointing and not surprising. We’ve been trying to sound the horn about the practices of the Achievement School District and the things that’s been going on.”

Parkinson says he heard stories this year about students at one ASD school eating packs of carrots and cheese nips for lunch one week. While the carrots are nutritious, they couldn’t fill up an ant. And cheese nips? They must have been left over from an ASD beer bash.

Comptroller’s Office Chief of Staff Jason Mumpower told legislators the audit focused mainly on finance and HR process and pointed out “we were told the staff was more concerned with getting the job than financial reporting.”

Unfortunately, ASD isn’t exactly lighting the fires of academia.

ASD’s mission is to move the state’s poorest performing schools into the top 25 percent in five years. Members of the Legislature’s Black Caucus say it’s not happening, affecting mainly minority and low-income children. 

Parkinson points out part of the audit shows the Achievement School District allows charter operators who “demonstrate a successful track record” to submit proposals to be interviewed to run schools. Yet, Libertas Montessori was allowed to take over a school even though it had never run one before and, thus, had no track record, Parkinson says.

When ASD added four Shelby County schools to its oversight in 2015, the caucus called for a moratorium and more intensive efforts in those schools already at the bottom.

Those ranked the worst in the state are given three years to start coming off the Priority list, and if they show progress they have to maintain it for five years before making a transition out of the ASD back into the local education system. But if they regress for just one year, they have to start over, putting them under perpetual ASD control, Parkinson says.

In contrast, ASD’s Anderson claimed early this year Priority schools were starting to show major progress and because of “collective” efforts of the ASD and iZones, children were learning four times faster than their peers statewide. 

Second- and third-year ASD schools also showed the highest possible growth rates in value-added assessments in 2014, and ASD schools “outpaced” state and Shelby County iZone schools in math and science, according to Anderson.

More conflict

For the average onlooker, figuring out whether ASD schools are doing better than regular schools is nearly impossible.

But Sarah Carpenter, the new executive director of Memphis Lift, says it’s clear the ASD schools there are giving parents a choice they never had. She contends she’s been battling for education reform in Memphis since 1998, long before most people mentioned “reform.”

“We fight for choice and competition,” Carpenter says.

Parkinson, who is the most vocal critic of ASD but definitely not the only one, says he believes the problems with the Achievement School District run even deeper than a bad audit and its inability, so far, to move any schools off the list.

He points toward an email showing Natasha Kamrani, the wife of Chris Barbic, was executive director of Memphis Lift at a time it was bashing Shelby County Schools and ASD was trying to take over a school. The email shows Kamrani stating Parkinson lost in his effort to derail ASD in the 2016 session.

“Not just that, but they’re also lobbying legislators in regards to legislation,” Parkinson says. 

Furthermore, from Malika Anderson’s legislative testimony, Memphis Lift is a nonprofit agency but actively campaigned for a specific candidate during the last election, Parkinson says.

Carpenter, who claims she was the organization’s first executive director, says Parkinson is making it all up, though she doesn’t know why. 

“I’m tired of fighting politicians who wouldn’t dare send their children to these schools,” Carpenter says.

So the Memphis soap opera continues, and it’s likely to keep on with a fight brewing between school-choice advocates and public school proponents during the 2017 legislative session.

That aside, it took more than four years for the Department of Education to figure out ASD liked its liquor and its funny accounting. Finally, someone took notice, but based on the comments in the House Education Committee only a few are concerned. 

After all, it’s only a few thousand dollars shifted from tens of millions to teach kids how to read, write and cipher.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.