State of Public Education (copy)

Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson (from left), Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, La Vega ISD Superintendent Sharon Shields and Midway ISD Superintendent George Kazanas meet before a public education seminar in Waco. Morath and Nelson are pivotal figures in a statewide movement to reform academically struggling schools.

Some Waco Independent School District board members are questioning the necessity and the price tag of using a consultant to implement a new in-district charter school for five struggling campuses.

Waco ISD has already paid the nonprofit Empower Schools Inc. of Boston $260,000 this year to set up the Transformation Waco charter system. Now it is set to pay another $500,000 for an “implementation phase,” for a total of $760,000 by the end of the 2019-20 school year.

The state requires a nonprofit consultant as part of a deal to shield the schools from closure and reorganize them with an influx of state money. The state will pay for the consultant services as part of a pair of grants totaling $5.4 million over 2.5 years. Still, some Waco ISD officials say they don’t see the value in the current partnership.

At a Waco ISD school board workshop last week, gasps and groans could be heard from the board and audience of district employees as they learned of the total cost.

“I am curious about why we need to spend $300,000 to pay someone to help us with the implementation phase of the transformation zone that is now six months down the road,” board member Angela Tekell said during the discussion.

Transformation Waco Executive Director Robin McDurham told Tekell that Transformation Waco was required to have a partner under the terms of the grant with the Texas Education Agency.

“When we wrote the grant we were under the impression that the grant does require a partner,” McDurham said. “But what we were not told was how much.”

The discussion last Thursday came after Waco ISD board members weighed the rising cost of health insurance for school employees and the inequitable distribution of library books at district schools.

Board member Allen Sykes added up the cost of each of the three Empower Schools bids out loud. McDurham confirmed his calculations.

“In total, for 2½ years it’s $760,000,” she said. “If we were required to do what other districts are now doing it would be a million.”

Board member Cary DuPuy and McDurham said Waco ISD didn’t have a choice in the matter.

“This is a complicated matter,” Waco ISD Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said. “We’re committed to doing the work. The partners are welcome to join us in our efforts. We agree that it is exorbitant in terms of the fees that were paid.

“But one thing is for sure, Dr. McDurham and I are committed to keeping local control of our schools. It has required us to jump some hoops, bend but not break on some of our beliefs about taxpayer dollars. And your points are well taken about our partner.”

Waco ISD agreed this spring to create a nonprofit charter school system with an independently appointed board to oversee the five schools, using Waco ISD staff.

The schools are Indian Spring Middle School, G.W. Carver Elementary School, Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School and J.H. Hines Elementary School. That option, created by Senate Bill 1882, shields underperforming schools from the threat of closure and gives them extra per-student funding and large grants.

Waco ISD was the first public school district in Texas to pursue the incentives of Senate Bill 1882. The district will get more than $2 million in total per-pupil funding and $5.4 million in grants over the 2.5-year program period.

Nelson said the school district would work on turning the schools around regardless of the charter school agreement.

“We were working on transformation in Waco ISD well before we applied for relief from Senate Bill 1882,” he said. “Even if they (Empower Schools) weren’t at the table, yes, we would still be doing this critical and urgent work.”

Nelson said the school board will likely continue to see “vague” or “elusive” agenda items related to Transformation Waco because of the state’s hand in the partnership.

“If this board is so uncomfortable with the amount of money we’re spending, then all the more reason you should expect us to improve our student outcomes in our schools, because that is the quickest way to not encumber these types of financial relationships that are tied to Senate Bills or House Bills that have afforded us this relief,” he said.

Following Waco’s lead, districts across the state, including Austin, El Paso, Fort Worth, Midland, San Antonio and Spring Branch ISDs, are in the planning stages of their own transformations.

Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said SB 1882 grantees are required to work with a partner during the planning phase. However, Callahan said Waco ISD has the ability to select another partner for the implementation phase.

“Now that they are past the planning grant phase and into the implementation grant phase, there is no TEA requirement that they use a specific partner,” she said. “That is a decision for Waco ISD and (Transformation) Waco.”

She said the TEA has a list of six other approved partners.

Callahan did not respond to a request for examples of specific services provided by Empower Schools.

Empower Schools Senior Director Matt Matera said the consultant group acts as a liaison between Transformation Waco and the TEA; supports the new school board; helps create strategies relating to autonomy, school improvement and talent pipeline strategies; and advises McDurham on the implementation of the upcoming spring break academies for struggling students.

The spring academy is one way Matera hopes Transformation Waco teachers will feel recognized and empowered.

The five schools’ autonomy from traditional public school regulations is crucial in the zone’s success, Matera said.

“The cheesy thing I say is the Spiderman idea that with great power comes great responsibility,” Matera said. “I think the idea is that school principals and teachers will get tons of decision-making power in their schedule and curriculum, and in exchange for all of this autonomy then it’s going to be clearer that the outcomes of their efforts and outcomes on test scores, student happiness, and many other measures are going to be directly tied to the effectiveness of what schools do. Then it becomes the responsibility of educators to do great things with the power that they have.”

Matera said he hopes Waco ISD will continue the relationship with the nonprofit because “there is a real benefit” to making sure Transformation Waco succeeds.

“I think often things go awry in implementation,” Matera said. “I have a lot of faith in people in Waco but I’m hopeful that with our experience working in other zones that we’d add value and help make it more likely that this is as successful as Waco kids deserve it to be.”

The Waco ISD board will review Empower Schools’ bid at the next school board meeting.

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