Wayne County Commissioner John Bell’s comments about the county’s low-performing schools are being called a “preemptive false flag political maneuver” to justify commissioners’ resistance to “fully and robustly fund” urgently needed school capital improvements and increasing supplements for county teachers.
Tamara Berman-Ishee said she wrote the response in her role as the school system’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
Ishee said she showed her letter to school board Chairman Chris West, Superintendent Michael Dunsmore and the board attorney. Dunsmore permitted to send it out to commissioners, school board members and the News-Argus, she said.
Bell made his comments at a May 7 meeting where commissioners approved his motion to support state legislation stripping school boards of their authority to sue a county in disputes over capital outlay funding levels.
“What my main topic today is to talk about the low-performing schools,” Bell said at the meeting. “I don’t care how many buildings you build; it don’t educate children. Now, I don’t know if the school board or school administration are being negligent or inefficient, but the results are the same — kids are not being educated in those low-performing schools.”
Bell said he wanted someone to show him a plan as to what they are going to do about the low-performing schools — something that he said he had never seen done since he has been on the board. Instead, he said, it has always been about brick and mortar.
Ishee called turning Wayne County Public Schools’ need for funding into a debate about school district administrators being “negligent or inefficient” a “smoke screen” that residents should see right through. It flies in the face of clear data that show a “significantly different picture,” she said.
Bell either missed or ignored much of the school system’s recent history, Ishee said.
“Our students deserve the very best from district leaders, administrators, teachers and staff, and they deserve an equally strong commitment from county commissioners to responsibly address staffing and facilities needs in WCPS,” she said in the letter. “We in the district intend to continue to fulfill our responsibility. As educators and citizens of Wayne County, we expect nothing less from our county government.”
Bell might be forgiven this one time for his lack of knowledge about the continuing improvements in the county schools, Ishee said.
“However, he has never once actually asked me, or any member of our curriculum and instruction leadership team, about the work we are doing in service to the district’s students,” Ishee said. “He has also not asked district leaders for any specific data about our results, nor attended any of our detailed presentations about the implementation of research-based plans, newer systems of support, staffing changes, or any strategies we are currently employing to fix the entrenched problems that we inherited four years ago with the low-performing schools.”
Instead, what Bell has done is to react to limited surface-level numbers and reports and publicly voice his incorrect assumptions, she said. And he has done so while ignoring the hard and successful work the school system’s administrators, teachers, students and families continue to put forth, Ishee said.
Ishee said that when she joined the school system nearly four years ago with Dunsmore, then newly appointed superintendent, the system was known across the state for having several schools classified as historically or persistently low performing.
“That means these schools were not performing as required for a decade or more before we arrived,” Ishee said.
Then just months into that first year, the state General Assembly “randomly” changed the definition of low-performing, resulting in the number of schools across the state labeled low-performing to double, she said.
The number also doubled overnight in Wayne Country even though those schools had done nothing to backslide, she said.
Still, even with no additional resources or support, the school system took on the challenge to improve those schools, she said.
“In our first three years, employing smart and intensive strategies on the part of administrators, teachers, instructional coaches, support staff, students and central office leaders, four WCPS schools improved off of the ‘low-performing’ list,” she said. “Eight additional schools (out of 14) significantly improved to a point where we expect several of these schools to exit ‘low-performing’ status when the 2018-19 test score results are released this fall.”
Over the past four years, the curriculum and instruction department has refined services and support to better meet the needs of low-performing schools, Ishee said.
Targeted support is being provided to help those schools understand and use data to improve practice and make adjustments to instruction, she said. The time district leaders spend in the classroom providing direct support to teachers and school-based administrators has tripled, Ishee said.