Feb. 6, 2004 – The Board of Education and the Department of Education met head-on Friday in a session on the board's turf that shed light on several thorny issues but displayed a new spirit of cooperation between the oft-times contentious bodies.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael provided the board an update on where things stand with the compliance agreement between her department and the federal government and on the status of unspent federal funds. She also presented plans for an alternative education program in the St. Thomas-St. John district.
It was a full agenda.
Appearing with Michael was Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who is co-chair of the government's task force on the compliance agreement.
The agreement, signed in the summer of 2002, covers program planning, design and evaluation; financial management; property management and procurement; and human capital. It also lays out the expectations of the federal No Child Left Behind act, which hinges federal education funding to states and territories on results, rewarding success in meeting goals and imposing sanctions for failures.
Michael, who arrived at the school board meeting with a full complement of department aides, met the full nine-member board, which proceeded to bombard her with questions concerning the compliance agreement.
Michael said the department contracted Learning Point Associates last fall to develop school reform strategies, including giving greater site-based authority to individual schools — which is also a school accreditation requirement. The myriad strategies include getting high-quality teachers, providing opportunities for all children to meet proficient and advanced levels of academic achievement, and the integration of federal, state and local services programs.
Learning Point has done extensive work, Michael said, and completed drafts of the comprehensive plans for each school are due Feb. 28. Several board members asked if the date allowed sufficient time to complete the work; Michael assured them it does.
Accountability, reconciliation problems
However, she said, the department's accountability system doesn't support the initiatives outlined by the No Child Left Behind Act. The Education Alliance at Brown University will provide technical assistance to bring the territory into compliance, she said, with that project to begin later this month and be completed by August 2006.
The department also is having problems with the reconciliation reports required under the compliance agreement, Michael said. "This continues to be a challenge for us," she said, adding that because of "errors" in the first-quarter report for this fiscal year, a revised version has been submitted.
Another continuing area of concern is teaching personnel. Michael said the department has developed lists of substitute teachers — 50 on St. Croix and a potential 30 for St. Thomas-St. John.
She said a five-year plan drafted to ensure teacher quality would see 280 teachers certified by the end of the first year. Last fall, she said, the board certified 347 current teachers, and 70 uncertified teachers signed up for another certification class.
Under questioning by board member Liston Davis, a former Education commissioner, Mills said the task force meets every other week to "resolve quickly any disuse that surrounds the compliance agreement." Where process are "too slow," Mills said, the task force is changing them.
"We have to listen for input from the people who do the actual work, the front-line workers," Mills said. As a result, he said, "You will see quite a change in human resources and financial management in the next 12 months. New systems are being put in place."
Davis also asked Mills concerning the government's financial management system: "Has it ever been successful?" Mills said "yes" — about 80 percent of the time.
"Then why do we have the same problems we had 15 years ago?" Davis pushed.
Mills said the system requires constant "retraining" of personnel, which presents a problem, and that it isn't especially "user-friendly." "We are constantly training people on the system," he said. Basically, Mills said, a new computer system is needed.
Responding to questioning by board member Keith Richards, Michael said a project manager oversees plans. "We set up school teams at each school with school councils, teachers and parents with the Learning Point Association contract," she said.
Cooperation rather than confrontation
For the most part, the board members extended olives branches to Michael and her department. When Malik Sekou asked how the board can help to "fast-track" the compliance agreement, Michael replied: "We need to have a dialogue for alternative certification. That hasn't been addressed, and it's something we should take up with the board."
Harry Daniel, school board chair, also told Michael that the board "wants to work with you."
While awaiting Michael, who arrived late, the board members relaxed in an atmosphere markedly different from last year, when they were divided over internal disputes including the ouster by one faction of Jorge Galiber as chair and the hiring and then firing of a lawyer. (See "School board closes doors for lawyer debate".)
The board's new executive director, Tregenza A. Roach, who formerly was legal counsel to the Education Department, kept the media informed on Friday. The board at one point entered into a brief executive session which Roach and Daniel explained was to discuss "personnel matters," as allowed by law.
St. Croix board member Terrence D. Joseph said of last year's contretemps: "We came out of all that as a team, and that's good, because everyone learned from that process."
All nine board members were present for the meeting: Daniel, Davis, Galiber, Joseph, Claudette Petersen, Richards, Sekou, Linda V. Thomas, and Yvonne H. Williams-Henry.
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