Plan to fix schools under fire

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NORFOLK — The fate of a new statewide entity with the task of fixing underperforming schools is up in the air thanks to a slate of new elected state officials and a lawsuit working its way through the courts.
A nine-member board has been appointed. An executive director earning $125,000 a year is in place. Still, few people —  including those appointed to guide the system — seem to know much about its next steps.

Earlier this year, at the urging of Gov. Bob McDonnell, the General Assembly established the Opportunity Educational Institution and empowered it, starting next school year, to take over schools denied state accreditation, which is largely determined by pass rates on state tests.
Schools accredited with warning three consecutive years also can fall under OEI control. The institution’s appointed board would assume responsibility for those schools from their local school boards and, with the help of local officials, devise turnaround strategies.
The law has generated ire among school officials across the state, who say its powers are unconstitutional. Many have voiced their opposition, perhaps none more strongly than in Norfolk, which has three of the six schools eligible for OEI takeover in the state. Four more of its schools also could face oversight.
In a lawsuit filed together with the Virginia School Boards Association, Norfolk school leaders claim that transferring control of its schools to the state would cause “irreparable harm.”
The move to OEI would hinder the division’s school construction efforts and a proposal to convert 10 schools into more-independent charters, according to the lawsuit.
It also could cost the city money.
During the 2011-12 school year, Norfolk used a mix of federal, state and local dollars to fund its schools at $10,419 per pupil. Money tied to each student attending a school taken over by the state would be transferred to OEI.
Educators argue that could hurt localities that fund schools at a rate higher than the minimum required by the state.
The lawyer defending the state takeover, William Hurd, countered that the Norfolk School Board has been “so lacking as to constitute a failure to provide meaningful and effective operation and supervision” of its three unaccredited schools.
The fact that Norfolk spends more per student than most public school systems in the state shows that “the failures of the school board to obtain accreditation for its schools is not due to any shortage of funding,” Hurd wrote.
The governor’s office appointed Hurd to handle the lawsuit after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli refused to defend it.
Norfolk and the Virginia School Boards Association argue that OEI violates the Virginia constitution by usurping the powers of local school boards. OEI defenders say the constitution requires the state to provide and maintain a high-quality education for children. Failing schools don’t meet that requirement, they argue.
It’s unclear how turnover in the state’s highest offices will affect the takeover plans.
Through representatives, Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General-elect Mark Herring, both Democrats, would not take a stance on the issue, saying only that they would review the policy.
McDonnell, a Republican, said he has talked to McAuliffe about OEI, advising him to “let it work.”
“I understand there’s a court battle,” McDonnell said. “I think we’re on the right side of the law. I think that this is a policy that needs a try and will be proven to be successful.”

OEI board will function much like a local school board

What is the Opportunity Educational Institution, also known as OEI?
A statewide agency, proposed by Gov. Bob McDonnell and established this year by the General Assembly, to supervise and improve schools denied accreditation by the Virginia Department of Education.

Who runs it?
McDonnell appointed the executive director, Jason Sears, a former teacher and principal who also helped start a Chicago charter school. Sears handles the administrative aspects and doesn’t have voting power.
The board members are:
• State Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover)
• State Sen. Kenneth Alexander (D-Norfolk)
• Del. Richard Bell (R-Staunton)
• Del. Daun Hester (D-Norfolk)
• Lisa Goeas, vice president of political and grassroots for the National Federation of Independent Business
• Julia Ciarlo Hammond, director of legislative affairs and public policy advisor for the governor
• Doug Mesecar, founder of Adeptio Education, a consulting firm, and former U.S. Department of Education deputy chief of staff and assistant deputy secretary
• John Nunnery, executive director of The Center for Educational Partnerships of Old Dominion University
• Anne S. O’Toole, retired principal for Chesterfield County Public Schools and educational consultant
• Nonvoting members — the Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqi or his designee; two staffers from the Virginia Department of Education will assist the board

When will the board meet?
No regular schedule has been set, but the board is expected to meet monthly.

Which schools are targeted for takeover?
There are three schools in Norfolk, two in Petersburg and one in Alexandria.

Starting Jan. 1, schools slated for takeover must disclose information and documents relevant to operations. Sears will meet with division leaders of schools eligible for transfer. OEI is to begin supervising those schools in the 2014-15 school year.

How will long will a school remain under OEI control?
Until it earns full accreditation. The OEI board can decide after five years whether to retain control or transfer it back to the local division. The law doesn’t spell out what happens if a school doesn’t earn accreditation while under OEI supervision.

How is OEI funded?
There are two funding streams:
• Per-pupil funding — federal, state and local money assigned to each student enrolled
• State budget — Gov. McDonnell has requested $600,000 for each year in the 2014-15 budget. Last year, the General Assembly appropriated $150,000 and the Virginia Department of Education provided $450,000 in carryover funds.

What’s the OEI budget?
Sears is paid $125,000 and is considering hiring additional staff. OEI board members can receive per diem and travel reimbursement.

What types of authority does OEI have?
The OEI board will operate much like a local school board, but with broader power over daily operations, including the ability to hire staff and develop instructional plans.

To whom is OEI accountable?
After each school year, the board must report to the governor and the General Assembly about school status, staff, operations and student academic performance; Sears reports to the board. Students attending OEI schools still take state Standards of Learning exams and each school is beholden to state and federal accountability standards.

What’s the relationship of OEI to the Virginia Department of Education?
OEI is not a school division under the state education department’s purview like others in the state. OEI is a separate statewide agency managing specific schools.

What strategies will OEI use to improve accreditation?
That’s unclear, but a specific plan will be developed for each school, according to Sears.

Will teachers have to reapply for jobs?
OEI may or may not hire the teachers working in schools eligible for takeover, and teachers can’t be forced to work for OEI. The local division can retain, reassign or dismiss any employee who chooses to stay.

Will more schools be added to OEI’s takeover list?
Possibly, if more schools are denied accreditation for consistent low performance on state tests. According to the law, OEI must supervise any school that has been denied accreditation. Schools accredited with warning three consecutive years also are eligible for OEI oversight, but the OEI board isn’t planning on supervising those schools this coming school year.