School officials, board express concern about grant

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- They discussed the issue so long that a board member appeared to be sleeping near the end of the meeting.

Dougherty County Board of Education members and school system officials debated the merits and concerns of the federal School Improvement Grant for the bulk of the its hour-plus afternoon meeting Wednesday.

Cassandra Lawson Sampson, instructional supervisor for secondary English, language arts and foreign language, and Debra Pope Johnson, instructional coach and secondary social studies, delivered the presentation to the board.

Albany High Principal Sheila Marshall and Dougherty Comprehensive Principal Horace Reid Jr. are likely to lose their jobs if the DCSS is awarded the possible $2 million grants that could extend to as much as $6 million for three years. The Dougherty County School System applied April 15 for the grant, which participation was encouraged by the Georgia Department of Education.

The grants had basically four options -- closing the school, converting it to a charter school, replacing the principal and firing half the staff, and replacing the principal and improving through comprehensive curriculum reform. School system officials choose the latter, called the Transformational Model.

In April, school officials were told they would receive word on the grant sometime in May, but the state recently said the announcement won't come until June. Sampson and Johnson also told the board that the amount of money available to state schools had also changed. It was $122 million, but the state needed to withhold 25 percent of that for carryover. This changed the amount of money for the whole state to $89 million. The minimum grant reward is now $50,000 and maximum is $2 million.

Johnson said the school system turned in to the state a $1.5 million request for Albany High for one year, and a $1.385 million request for Dougherty Comprehensive to address academic needs.

The crux of the debate focused on giving some teachers performance bonuses if they met performance standards and releasing those that didn't, while at the same time not rewarding the other 24 schools in the system who also met or exceeded those same standards.

Another concern was the fact there was no guarantee on how much money the federal government would supply with the grant.

"There's no need to take the grant if we're already putting in $50,000, but on the hook for the other $1.5 million," board member Velvet Riggins said. "We don't need to wait until August to tell our principals what they will be doing."

Sampson said the deadline to turn in the application electronically is Tuesday.

Board member James Bush then asked DCSS Executive Director of Operations and Business Services Robert Lloyd how much the state had cut from the school system's budget the last three years. Lloyd answered $30 million.

"Before any decision is made, regardless, there needs to be careful consideration," Sampson said. "If you turn in the application and (Superintendent) Dr. (Sally) Whatley signs it, it's a done deal."

Board Chairman David Maschke questioned Sampson's assertion.

"Are you saying once we sign the application we're committed?" he asked.

Whatley then interjected.

"You must pay for the life of the loan," she said. "If the teacher doesn't meet standards, the teacher must be released. Those are very serious ramifications. It's appeared it's gotten more complicated and rigid as the process has gone on."

As a result of the long debate and growing concerns, board members Riggins, Milton Griffin and Emily Jean McAfee voiced whether to even continue with the application process, which is 95 percent complete.

"I don't want to support this and thank the teachers we have," Griffin said.

"I think there's an awful lot of strings to this," McAfee added.

Maschke, Anita Williams-Brown and Michael Windom wanted to turn in the application and see what funding the school system would receive, but only if they could still opt out.

"I think school principals should be accountable to how the school's teachers are doing," Maschke said. "If a teacher isn't doing what they're supposed to do, we should be documenting it. I don't care if they've been there five, 10 or 20 years. We should be documenting the teachers' efforts. That incentive should be there now regardless of a grant or not."

Windom liked what the grant offered, which included teacher training.

"I saw the grant as a very high stakes improvement model where success would be welcome and serious consequences for failure because people would actually lose their job," he said after the meeting. "But student achievement is actually paramount and the most important thing we do and if we are serious about student achievement we need to be serious to take on that model.

"I have confidence in the staff that they'd meet those requirements at those two schools because when you raise those standards that high they would reach the bar."

To further discuss the details and to allow the school system's administration to contact the state to obtain answers to board member questions including if grant acceptance is mandatory, even if the grant reward is too small to cover the increased costs, the Instructional Committee will meet at 4 p.m. today at the Administration Building.