Southerland, Hawk Have Breakfast With Greeneville City Schools Personnel
BY SARAH R. GREGORY
Members of the Greeneville City Board of Education met with Greene County's state legislators Wednesday to discuss issues of concern as the Tennessee General Assembly prepares to begin its 2014 legislative session Tuesday.
State Sen. Steve Southerland, R-1st, of Morristown, and state Rep. David Hawk, R-5th, of Greeneville, visited the Kathryn W. Leonard Administrative Office for a breakfast and informal talks about the issues.
Primary points of discussion were existing state laws requiring school districts to replace school buses based on years in service and mileage, and ramifications of decisions by the state Department of Education to tie teachers' licenses to students' scores on new standardized tests scheduled for implementation in 2014-15.
STARTED WITH BUSES
The discussion started with comments from Board of Education member Jerry Anderson, who asked the legislators to push for an extension in the life of school buses.
Currently, Tennessee law requires school systems to replace their buses after 200,000 miles or once the bus is 17 years old, whichever comes first.
The expense of replacing buses on such a schedule was discussed frequently during the school system's budget development process for the current fiscal year.
The Greeneville City School System operates 16 buses.
Board members and administrators have expressed concern on a number of occasions about the expense of replacing vehicles that are in working order.
"When they get too expensive to maintain, we'll get rid of them. But give us the freedom to make that choice," Anderson told the lawmakers.
"Some of the buses we wish we could take off [the road] at 10 years because they cost us a fortune [in maintenance costs during] the last years of ownership. Then you have some buses that it seems they would go another four or five years [beyond the age they must be retired]," he added.
"We're all for all the additional inspections and all of that. We want to put our children on safe buses. We encourage all of those certifications. But please let us make the decision on the life of our school buses," Anderson said.
LOCALS SHOULD DECIDE
Southerland and Hawk said they agreed that such a decision should be made on the local level.
"You shouldn't have to buy a new vehicle just because of the number of years [you've owned it]," Southerland said. "That's something that we think the local communities should decide."
Hawk agreed, but said making such a change would be more challenging than most would expect.
CHALLENGE TO CHANGE
In previous years, school buses could only stay on the road for 200,000 miles or 15 years. But in 2009, state legislators were able to pass a measure that extended the potential lifespan to 17 years.
"We addressed that several years ago and were able to put some extension on the life of the buses, and it was a harder battle than I expected it was going to be," Hawk said.
"I agree completely that we need to make those decisions and keep those decisions locally. But statewide -- realistically, it's going to be a challenge to get that done," he said.
School board member Dr. Mark Patterson asked why making such a change is problematic.
"It all goes back to safety," Hawk responded. "The [Tennessee] Highway Patrol and people who actually do the inspections are 100 percent against extending the life of the buses."
Director of Schools Dr. Linda Stroud added that various county school systems across the state also oppose such a change.
"There are a lot of school districts that oppose it, [such as] county school districts with large areas to cover and mountainous terrain," Stroud said.
"They feel like, if the law is changed, their funding bodies -- their counties -- won't purchase new buses even though they're saying 'It's a safety issue,'" she said.
Greeneville and Greene County are good examples that illustrate both sides of the issue, Hawk said.
"Some of the county's buses will run routes that are two, three, sometimes even four times the distance that a city school bus is going to run," he said.
"In Unicoi County," for example, he added, "the mountainous travel takes a greater toll on their buses than a city [route]."
TEACHER LICENSES, TEST SCORES
Another topic of concern for administrators in the Greeneville City School System, like their counterparts across the state, is how teachers will now be evaluated.
"There's great concern about the new teacher licensing being tied to the data of student test scores," said Chief Human Resource Officer Shelly Smith.
Smith said she was sharing the concerns "on behalf of those teachers, who have, over the past couple of years really felt -- for lack of a better word -- not supported by the state government or the Tennessee Department of Education.
"They really feel it is a personal attack about their jobs and what they are doing."
Smith asked the lawmakers for their perspective on how the state "can help alleviate the pressure" teachers are under when their licenses are tied to student test data.
"It really just seems like a huge leap, and really, that was all done behind the scenes. It just came out. We didn't even know it was going on [being discussed by the State Department of Education] until boom, here it is," she said.
LOCAL LEVEL IS BEST
Southerland said, again, that he felt such decisions should be made on the local level.
"When you try to assign what a teacher in Greene County is doing when you're in Nashville -- you really don't know what's going on in that life," he said.
"That may be one of your better teachers who has just maybe had a bad class come in. So you can't make that decision -- truly make a good decision -- in Nashville.
"That needs to be made at the local level with people who actually work with those [teachers] and know every day from day to day what is going on in that classroom and that teacher's life," Southerland said.
BEHIND LEGISLATORS' BACKS?
"Some of the things that happened -- this past year, they [the Tennessee Department of Education] knew some bills weren't going to pass, and so they didn't try to pass them and did an end-around on some things without our approval," Southerland said.
"It was frustrating for us, too," Hawk added.
"Legislatively, we were asked very purposefully by the administration to hold off and allow us, as a state, to get a baseline of where the teachers are and where the students are, and not work on any legislation dealing with the assessments," he said.
"That's one thing that concerns me about having a shorter legislative session [that ends in mid-April instead of May]," Hawk said.
"When legislators are not in session, the administration of the state's Department of Education has additional free-rein," Hawk said.
"There's not the additional check-and-balance there that can be and is there whenever we are in legislative session," Hawk said.
"We can correct some of those things or address them legislatively with the administration.
"But we didn't get to do that in this particular instance when the state school board and department decided to do some things without legislative approval. It was very frustrating," he said.
Hawk said other legislators were listening to educators in their areas, and said he was hopeful a solution that would "put teachers' minds at ease" could be developed.
"Hopefully we'll work through it and get something in the next six months or so that will be more palatable," he concluded.
CONCERN ABOUT NEW TESTS
As discussion continued, principals and administrators expressed concerns about the state Department of Education's expectations related to new standardized tests scheduled for implementation in the 2014-15 academic year.
PARCC tests -- the Partnership for Assessment on Readiness for College and Career -- will replace the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) tests teachers and students have been accustomed to for many years.
Greeneville High School Principal Patrick Fraley said when new testing systems are implemented, student scores generally drop during the first couple of years.
The state's teachers would essentially be evaluated on -- and have their licenses tied to -- consecutive years of poor results while a new system is being implemented.
NO WAY TO COMPARE GROWTH
Assistant Director of Schools for Instruction Suzanne Bryant agreed and suggested the state wait and establish a baseline norm for the new tests before evaluating teachers based on students' scores.
Because the existing TCAP assessment system and incoming PARCC assessments are different forms of tests, Bryant explained, there is no way to measure growth between their results.
Presently, the school system has more than 20 years worth of TCAP data.
"Right now we're looking at Tennessee Value-Added [Assessment System (TVAAS)] data as the measure, and we have several years' worth of value-added data to look back on," she said.
"When we move to PARCC next year, that's a norm-referenced assessment. There's no way to accurately measure growth in value-added from TCAP to PARCC," Bryant explained.
Norm-referenced assessments compare how the test-taker performs in comparison to others who have taken the same exam. The comparisons are typically on a national level, Bryant said.
Criterion-referenced exams, such as TCAP and existing end-of-course tests, measure students on more specific standards.
"So, in 2014-15, we're moving from the baseline of TCAP in 2013-14 to a PARCC score -- a nationally norm-ed score of a test that has not been created yet, has not been normed yet, and has not even been field-tested," she said.
"Mathematically, I don't know of anyone who could say they can measure value-added between those tests," she said.
"I strongly suggest a year of not looking at value-added. Give them time to mathematically calculate this, not just guess and tie teacher licensure to something that is a complete unknown. ...
"In 2014-15, it's no measure, it's just a guess, and you're tying all teacher licensure to it. It's wrong."