Failing districts may face takeover
Arizona Republic
Jan. 18, 2008

Greater state power over schools in works

Pat Kossan

Lawmakers are moving closer to giving the state power to take over an entire school district where students fail to learn year after year.

A bill that will be reintroduced this legislative session would allow the state to replace the struggling district's superintendent. That newly appointed superintendent would report directly to the state, instead of the local school board, for at least three years.

It would apply to any district where the state has designated at least half of its schools as "underperforming" and at least one as "failing." These labels are based on student test scores, attendance and graduation rates.
Five of the state's 218 school districts could be immediately affected by this legislation. Two Valley districts are among them: Tolleson's Union Elementary, which is already in financial receivership, and Phoenix's Roosevelt Elementary, whose history of poor performance was the impetus for the bill.

"It's really like child abuse if you let this continue on and on and on, and you see there is an issue and nothing is being done," said Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, a Phoenix Democrat representing Roosevelt neighborhoods. "Roosevelt has been given opportunity after opportunity. The stats are getting worse and worse and worse. The urgency is there even more now."


About the bill

The state Board of Education would determine if the poor showing is a result of the district's academic mismanagement and if the superintendent needs to go.

Lawmakers are still tinkering with the bill, but it's not expected to cost the state extra funds.

The newly appointed superintendent would collect the former superintendent's salary and work within the district's budget. Depending on how the law is administrated, the district could cancel the former superintendent's contract, buy it out, or move the superintendent to an assistant position.

This proposal would not apply to charter-school owners. The state already has the power to shut down a charter company if its schools are failing to teach kids.

The state also can take over individual district schools where kids fail to learn.

It has replaced curriculum or the principals, and even teachers and staff, at 17 schools that didn't meet state standards in 2006-07.

In 2005, lawmakers granted the state power to place an entire district in receivership if it mismanaged money. Four districts are in receivership.

The district academic-takeover bill has been a tougher sell. Tom Horne, Arizona's schools superintendent, has been trying for four years.

It's unpopular with the Arizona School Boards Association. The state already has enough power to intervene in schools and districts with poor academic records, said Janice Palmer, the association's lobbyist.

"It is troubling," Palmer said. "A governing board is elected by its community. It's responsive to its community, and the community expects it to make decisions about the superintendent. What we really need to do is work together to improve education for the future instead of taking folks over."


Out of patience

It's mainly Democratic lawmakers who have been uneasy about giving the state power to bypass local boards and take over an entire district.

Roosevelt is a south Phoenix district filled with Latino and African-American families. It is a traditional Democratic stronghold.

For the first time, three Democratic legislators who represent the Roosevelt District community teamed up to rewrite and sponsor the bill. They are asking their colleagues for support.

That could be the key to turning this proposal into law. These lawmakers said they've been willing to give Roosevelt one more year, and then another and another, to make the changes it needs to help its kids catch up. Now, they've run out of patience.

Rep. Clovis Campbell Jr. went to school in the Roosevelt District and is publisher of the Arizona Informant, the state's African-American newspaper.

The Phoenix Democrat said he has been overwhelmed by phone calls and e-mails from community members asking for help to turn around the district.

He still is rewriting the details of the takeover legislation and vowed to usher it into law.

"The people are upset about how the district is run," Campbell said. "It's been consistently bad. We've changed school-board members. We've changed school-board presidents. The results are the same."

The state labeled half of Roosevelt's 21 schools "underperforming" or "failing," the worst academic record in the Valley.

The district has more money to spend on its 12,000 students than the state average. A series of government reports and an Arizona Republic investigation concluded the district has squandered federal and state grants aimed at improving student performance. Its teachers and principals fail to attend state-provided teacher training, it has mismanaged its budget and failed to trim fat or remove ineffective principals and administrators, state officials say.

Now, even a former Roosevelt board member and president, Rep. Ben Miranda, a Phoenix Democrat, is ready to open the door for the state to take charge.

"It's not about educating kids anymore," Miranda said about Roosevelt.

"It's an employment agency that fights and resists any effort to change it and meet the goals and objectives of any school district, and that is to educate its kids."

Roosevelt Superintendent Mark Dowling took charge in 2006, the fifth superintendent in seven years. He said the last thing the district needs is more change.

"It would be one more step continuing the revolving door," said Dowling, who wants more time to improve the district.


Results in other states

Arizona has been slow to implement a district-takeover law. Most states already have the power to take over districts for inept or corrupt administration, money mismanagement and academic problems.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have taken over districts, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Results are mixed. Research shows a takeover can help eliminate nepotism, improve financial management and upgrade school buildings. Academic gains come more slowly, sometimes not at all.

The greatest gains are seen in the lowest-performing schools. A study released a year ago concluded that Pennsylvania's takeover of the School District of Philadelphia in 2002 showed state intervention substantially raised student achievement.

Arizona's Superintendent Horne said that if the proposal becomes law in Arizona, parents and students at failing districts will see "monumental" changes.

"You would have instructional leaders making sure the teachers have a sense of urgency and are effectively teaching academics to students," Horne said. "That's what we don't have now."

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