Tennessee's Achievement School District on hot seat over 'financial mismanagement' issues

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Aug. 16, 2016: Tennessee Educator Survey Highlights Positive School Cultures, Benefits of Evaluation

Educators feel instructional time is protected and evaluation improves both teaching and learningNASHVILLE — The vast majority of Tennessee educators feel positively about the climate in their schools, and more teachers than ever are finding value in the statewide evaluation system, according to the results out today from the 2016 Tennessee Educator Survey.This is the sixth year the state surveyed all of its educators to gather their feedback, and the results show Tennessee teachers feel increasingly supported, with 86 percent saying instructional time is protected by their administration—which improved for the third year in a row. Most teachers also view their colleagues in a positive light and say they hold each other and their students to high expectations. In addition, more teachers than ever—71 percent—said the statewide evaluation system has led to improvements in their teaching, and two-thirds of all teachers said the evaluation process has led to improvements in student learning. Both of those statistics have improved every year since the survey began in 2011.The Tennessee Educator Survey, designed in partnership with the new Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University (TERA), aims to take the pulse of teacher perceptions, monitor school climates and culture across the state, and include teachers’ voices in policy discussions.“Educators’ voices drive the work of the department, and we have to ensure they feel supported. As we continue to improve educational outcomes in Tennessee, both the state and the public must understand how educators and administrators view their role,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. “The Tennessee Educator Survey provides pointed insight for districts, educators, and communities. They can see where we are excelling, in areas like evaluation, and where we need to continue to improve as we seek to ensure all students are ready for postsecondary and the workplace.”The 2016 survey results also highlight disparities between teacher and administrator views about the effectiveness of school discipline policies. More than 95 percent of administrators say their school effectively handles student discipline and behavioral problems, but fewer than 70 percent of teachers agree.These insights and more can be seen on the 2016 survey website, which is launching today. The online portal provides users the ability to view aggregate statewide teacher and administrator responses, as well as district and school-specific information, to a series of questions measuring educators’ perceptions of state initiatives and their work in schools every day. More than 30,000 educators, which make up about half of the teachers and administrators in the state, responded to this year’s survey.The department shares school and district survey results directly with local leaders to inform for their decision-making, and the department also uses the state-level information to understand more about the teacher and administrator point of view and guide the department’s work. Last fall, the department used educators’ feedback to inform its new strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds, and build specific priorities to better empower districts and strengthen systems that support educators. Additionally, the department provides support to districts through regional field offices, called Centers of Regional Excellence, to provide districts with the support to create regional collaborative relationships, differentiated professional development, and evidence-based best practice sharing.To view the 2016 Tennessee Educator Survey results, visit the department’s site here. Data from the 2015 Tennessee Educator Survey can also be viewed on the department’s website here.

More Info

The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Achievement School District August 2016 Performance Audit Report can be found at www.comptroller.tn.gov/repository/SA/pa16128.pdf

NASHVILLE - Tennessee Department of Education officials have been quietly moving to seize key financial management functions of the state's Achievement School District due to "financial mismanagement" at the agency responsible for turning around failing public schools.

The intervention, which began last fall, only came to light Wednesday - the result of the public release of a blistering state comptroller performance audit that represented the watchdog agency's first comprehensive look at the district's internal controls since it was created in 2010.

Many of the findings don't look good for the agency created to help low-performing schools. The ASD, which has functioned apart from the Education department until now, manages directly or contracts with private charter school operators to run 33 schools in Nashville and Memphis.

Division of State Audit accountants found problems in these main areas:

- Management did not establish adequate controls over several key human resources and payroll processes.

- There was a failure to implement adequate internal controls over expenditures, travel claims and purchasing cards.

- Management did not perform "sufficient fiscal monitoring of its direct-run schools and charter management organizations.

- ASD officials also didn't provide adequate internal controls in another area that auditors wouldn't even name.

However, they did cite a provision in the state's Open Records Act that excludes, among other things, disclosure of sensitive computer security issues and personal information from the public's right to know.

Translated into some practical terms, problems included reimbursements for excessive travel claims and $2,500 for alcohol at an office celebration.

Other problems included improperly continuing to pay salaries and benefits to terminated employees after their last day worked. That resulted in taxpayer-funded salary overpayments totaling $5,891, according to the audit.

Officials also had loose controls over employee time and attendance.

Nor did they have a method to verify that fiscal employees actually met the position's education requirements before hiring them. And management didn't complete performance reviews despite requirements.

And while management "appropriately" approved bonuses and pay raises for Achievement Schools Team employees, auditors included, they still "did not always maintain documentation approving main office employee bonuses and pay raises."

Appearing Wednesday afternoon before a meeting of the joint House Education Committees, Jason Mumpower, deputy to Comptroller Justin Wilson, told lawmakers that district officials informed auditors they were "more concerned with 'getting the job done' than paying strict attention to financial controls."

Until late fall, the ASD was headed by superintendent Chris Barbic. Malika Anderson, named in November, succeeded him.

But unbeknownst to either lawmakers or the general public, trouble had long been brewing with problems about financial issues popping up in several years' worth of previous special comptroller audits looking at state agencies' expenditures of federal dollars.

That issue prompted state Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen's office to begin intervening last fall.

Kathleen Airhart, the department's chief operating officer, told lawmakers the department realized there were "significant challenges" at ASD after the comptroller's special Fiscal Year 2014-2015 Single Audit Report.

The department gave ASD's finance team an ultimatum: Quit or be fired, and that's what happened, Airhart told lawmakers.

McQueen, who became education commissioner in December 2014, is now in the midst of absorbing and overhauling human resources and procurement operations for ASD as well, Airhart said.

Lawmakers spent much of their time initially obsessing about the $2,500 expenditure for liquor before giving way to bigger concerns about an agency in control of more than $75 million in state and federal money.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, noted the 2015 Single Audit found noncompliance with federal requirements of the School Improvement Grants and Race to the Top programs amounting to $405,892 and $88,139, respectively, in questioned costs for the programs.

"What we cited in our [audit] was some loose financial management," Mumpower told him.

Rep. Harold Love, D-Nashville, demanded to know why lawmakers weren't informed there was even a problem when they came back for their annual session last January.

Airhart said while officials knew, there were "some challenges," and they did not know the extent of the problems.

"We've got parents who need their children to be educated," Love said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 616-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.