By Sally Absher

Last week’s Board of Education meetings brought a bit of good news for teachers, staff, and advocates of strong public schools in Knox County.

For KCS teachers and classified staff, the Board unanimously approved the first reading of Board Policy GBRHB, Sick Leave; and Policy GCRG, Leaves and Absences of Classified Personnel.

Policy GBRHB adds the two days of bereavement leave approved under the KCEA-negotiated Memorandum of Understanding, and brings the BOE leave policy in line with industry standards. Previously, KCS employees had to use sick leave when a loved one died.

Policy GGCRG extends bereavement leave to classified employees (non-teachers), as suggested by Amber Rountree during January’s mid-month meeting.

In support of strong public schools, Rountree proposed renewing the KCS Board Resolution opposing Vouchers. As the legislative session heats up in Nashville, there is concern that a Voucher Bill could pass, robbing public schools of tax dollars and redistributing them to private schools. Karen Carson suggested making the resolution more specific by listing specific examples, and proposed the following language:

“Whereas proponents argue that vouchers give students a choice in education but fail to realize that Knox County School affords many excellent choices for all students including magnet programs at the elementary, middle and high school level; STEM programs at each level, a Career Technical high school, an International Baccalaureate high school, and the Paul Kelly Volunteer Academy in the Mall with alternative hours. Each of these schools is open to all students throughout the County. The Knox County Schools also has a successful Community Schools Program. Per the liberal transfer policy of the Board of Education, students may also attend other traditional public schools within the district; and…”

The resolution was approved 8 to 1. Doug Harris was the lone “no” vote. Harris is a well-known proponent for the Chamber of Commerce and School Reform crowd, and their misguided belief that the problem is “failing schools” and “bad teachers.” This ignores the real problems, which include poverty and lack of parental involvement and support. Taking public dollars away from public schools does absolutely nothing to fix these problems; it just destroys the community neighborhood school.

Dr. McIntyre asked the board to consider an Inclement Weather Contingency Plan. With just one “snow day” remaining and another 1-3” of snow and ice in the forecast, he asked the Board to grant him the authority to convert March 13, a scheduled student holiday/in-service day, to a regular school day IF NEEDED. He said TN DOE Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she may issue “waivers” for schools exceeding their inclement weather days, but did not know how quickly, or even if, KCS would be granted a waiver. The Board approved the contingency plan.

Monday’s work session meeting had a few other interesting items of note including discussions on standardized test procedures and the teacher survey.

Rountree explained that while she understands that there is no “opt out” for Tennessee or even at the federal level, there are parents who want to “refuse the test.” She said that there was not a consistent policy for the recent TCAP writing assessment; some parents were told they had to keep their child home all day, others were told they could return to school after lunch, and some were told their child could be present but had to remain in the classroom during the testing, and not even read a book.

Lauri Driver, KCS Supervisor of Assessment, said, “We don’t allow books in the testing environment because we don’t want to have children to have an incentive to hurry through the test so they can read their Harry Potter book.” She said she has been doing this for 12 years, and last year was the first time she saw students refuse the test.

Lynne Fugate reminded the board that the BOE implements state policy and cautioned against making a policy in opposition to state policy.

Rountree said she simply wanted to see consistent guidance. She asked how a child refusing the test affects a teacher’s individual TVAAS score; since that is something the teacher has no control over. Driver said that last year, students who refused the TCAP were not included in the TVAAS score, so it did not have a negative impact on the teacher.

Carson said “The foundational question is, why is there such an increase in people thinking they want to opt out?” She challenged Rountree’s statement that teachers had no control over students wanting to opt out of standardized tests.

Gloria Deathridge said that in schools in her district, teachers and principals sat down with parents and “handled it in the building.” She said, “We need to squash it at the lowest level before it gets big…and it may not blow up.”

Where have these BOE members been? This is a huge, growing, national movement. It started last year in New York, which piloted the high-stakes common core standardized test. Over 80% of the students in some New York schools refused the test. It is happening right now across the nation from Florida to Oregon as high stakes common core testing is underway. The horse is already out of the barn.

Rountree also stressed the importance of repeating the same paper and pencil Teacher Survey that was given last year so a direct comparison could be made. Although Tracie Sanger, Fugate and especially Carson expressed concerns about the time and effort required for a paper survey and suggested using an online survey, Dr. McIntyre agreed that it would be useful to do the paper and pencil survey again this year. He said the survey should have basically the same questions as last year.

Speaking in public forum, Brenda Owensby presented innovative ways to improve the paper and pencil survey.  She said KCS could use a “bubble sheet” for teachers to mark their responses, to facilitate electronic scoring.  Or set up “dummy accounts” so teachers can type in comments, eliminating the need for handwritten notes to be keyed in later. Both of these suggestions protect anonymity of the respondent, which is a major concern of any online survey. And she suggested adding a column where teachers could indicate if their perception was “better,” “the same” or “worse” than last year.