“What’s the plan in the meantime?”

Lee School District looks to ‘summer school’

Published in the Cape Coral Daily Breeze Jan. 22, 2015 issue

The School District of Lee County has eliminated private tutoring after they opted not to renew a yearly contract. A fifth quarter option of additional instruction will be implemented this summer.

The concept of the extended learning proposal, the fifth quarter, was brought forth to the school board at the beginning of December during a briefing meeting.

The fifth quarter will be held for 25 days with 75 hours of instruction, which breaks down to four hours a day with two hours of reading instruction and an hour of math. It will also include breakfast and lunch.

According to information presented at the meeting, the students eligible for fifth quarter are those who score below proficiency at a level one or level two, based on mid-year STAR and Early STAR assessments. Students who score at a borderline three level may have the opportunity to participate in the fifth quarter through a recommendation by a teacher or administrator.

The program will be located at the nine lowest 300 list in Title I schools, which includes Bonita Springs Elementary, Colonial Elementary, Edgewood Elementary, Franklin Park Elementary, James Stephens, Lehigh Elementary, Manatee Elementary, Orange River Elementary, Ray V. Pottorf Elementary, Tortuga Preserve Elementary and West Zone 3rd Grade Reading Camp site at Patriot Elementary.

Board Member Cathleen Morgan said she has seen the numbers that the district put together about the after school tutoring. She said the fact that student gains did not meet expectations; she believes the fifth semester is the right decision because the district should get better gains with that tactic.

“The numbers didn’t show we were getting the bang for the buck,” Board Member Steve Teuber said about the learning gains.

He said the tutoring did not get discontinued; it just went from external to internal.

“We have to do what is best for our students and our taxpayers,” Teuber said.

Board Member Mary Fischer said she thinks the fifth quarter is a good idea.

“According to information we have from research and past practice, we know that when kids have support over the summer it helps them to maintain and continue their gain,” she said.

In addition, fifth quarter is really good for a lot of parents because the kids might otherwise be on their own during the day over the summer. With daily reinforcement and support, Fischer said it will allow the students to continue to progress.

“Our goal is to get the kids up to where they need to be,” she said. “These are the kids that really need the additional academic support.”

That additional support, Fischer said provides more success in that type of environment that improves their motivation and confidence level.

There is one concern however with the fifth quarter.

Fischer said her concern is for the children that are in the private tutoring program and are making progress.

“What’s the plan in the meantime between January and the beginning of June,” she asked. “What happens to those kids that are making progress and getting support?”

Many of the students received support after school, in their own environment and on the weekends, Fischer said, during their private tutoring. She said the students developed relationships with their tutors during that time.

“My concern is we must have some kind of plan for those children to maintain their progress between now and June. I would like to see us continue that tutoring until the end of the school year, so we don’t interrupt that positive progress,” Fischer said.

Board Member Pamela LaRiviere said she was torn with all kinds of feelings on the tutoring issue.

“I understand the power behind the fifth quarter as well,” she said during the meeting. “Maybe there will be something we can come up with in the meantime. I don’t know what that will be and how that will come. Maybe we can create something and think outside of the box and maybe someone will donate some money that will help pay for that.”

Superintendent Nancy Graham told the board members during the Jan. 13 meeting that the only reasoning for the timing of the cancelation of private tutoring is because of the January-to- January contract.

“We weren’t able to extend for another six months without going into another year,” she said. “We continue to have extensive instruction during the day. Superstars, which is a program we do, is still in place. The children that were using outside matters are able to get into that program without any issues.”

No impropriety: School super cleared

No impropriety: School super cleared

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Jan. 15, 2015 issue

“Waste, fraud and financial mismanagement” allegations made against Superintendent Nancy Graham in December were dismissed late last week, after a third party attorney found no evidence to support the complaints.

The School Board of Lee County then concluded that no further investigation is needed and no action needs to be taken on the findings during its Jan. 13 meeting.

Board Member Steve Teuber said Thomas Gonzalez, of Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez and Hearing, investigated the complaint against Graham very thoroughly.

The School District of Lee County received a letter from the Florida Department of Education Inspector General Office on Dec. 8, regarding allegations made in connection to Graham’s June 27, 2013 reorganization plan. Those allegations were made by former employee Alberto Rodriguez. The letter stated that the plan mislead the board by “embellishing the savings outlined in the plan,” as well as that Graham “obligated and expended Title I funds without prior approval.”

“We hired a third party,” Teuber said. “An unbiased attorney that was hired to do the investigation with no skin in the game and he did the right thing.”

Teuber said he called the complainant, Rodriguez, and refuted everything.

“There was nothing there again for the 11th time,” he said.

Teuber said every complaint has been investigated and that related public records requests from this particular individual have absorbed “80 percent” of district staff’s time dedicated to public records and requests.

“Public records are there to serve a public purpose,” Teuber said during the meeting. “But at some point you have to take into consideration the burden it has put on our taxpayers and the resources it has taken.”

According to Gonzalez’s Jan. 8 report, the evidence presented by Rodriguez does not “support the allegations that have been referred for investigation.”

His report stated that evidence clearly shows that shortly after Graham was named superintendent, she presented a plan for the organization of her administration. Gonzalez further stated that as part of Graham’s presentation, a document was shown of the costs, savings of her plan.

“The document was not intended to show that the plan had saved the district any particular amount nor was the organization plan driven by considerations of cost,” Gonzalez wrote in his investigation report.

His investigation revealed that Graham did not embellish or mislead the school board about savings from her organizational plan.

Rodriguez’s letter to the inspector general included a complaint that addressed Graham’s reorganization plan saving the district nearly $1 million. Those savings, according to Rodriguez, were the result of eliminating three zone managers from maintenance, three zone coordinators and seven zone teachers on assignment.

According to Gonzalez’s investigation, “the savings related to the zone manager, coordinator and teacher on assignment positions depicted on the costs (savings) document represented amounts that would have been spent in fiscal year 2014 had Dr. Graham adopted, and the school board approved, her predecessor’s plan to create 13 new positions as part of a reorganization of the zone management system.”

Dr. Joseph Burke was the superintendent until June 19, 2013 and Graham became the superintendent on June 20, 2013.

A preliminary meeting was held on June 18, 2013 that involved a PowerPoint presentation that included such new positions, as three zone managers, three zone coordinators and seven zone teachers on assignment, which did not exist before that date, according to Gonzalez’s report. The board did not take action on that presentation.

Rodriguez’s complaint also stated that 50 percent of the new position, director of Turn Around Schools, was charged to Federal Title I funds. According to Gonzalez’s investigation, the funds became available through “Title 1, Part A: Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged 2013-2014” The Florida Department of Education approved the Title I funds on Aug. 21, 2013 for a “director of Turn Around Schools will be hired and funded from 50 percent Title I and 50 percent district funds.”

The board approved the position on June 27, 2013 and the position was filled on July 30, 2013.

The investigation report stated that the issue was the transfer of the Title I funds to a general account, rather than the creation of the position.

“As a matter of law, Dr. Graham could not ‘incur’ or ‘obligate’ Title I funds without authorization obtained as part of an approved application for funds,” Gonzalez wrote in the investigation report. “Neither the creation of a position, nor the appointment of a person to the position incurs or obligates Title I funds and those funds cannot be used to pay for the compensation to be paid to the person who fills that position.”

Teuber called Rodriguez a “disgruntled employee” and said he will want more information before approving any additional investigations.

“We are pretty much done with that, with those types of things unless something shows more proof than what we have been getting,” Teuber said.

He told the board members during the meeting that at some point he is going to bring forth a recommendation that would force Rodriguez to go to court to obtain additional information.

Rodriguez could not be reached for comment by press time.

Outside counsel to investigate complaint

Outside counsel to investigate complaint

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Dec. 11, 2014 issue

The School District of Lee County unanimously agreed to spend up to $10,000 to have an outside attorney investigate a complaint against Superintendent Nancy Graham.

The complaint alleges she “embellished” claims to have saved the district nearly $1 million, as well as expended Title I funds without approval.

The School District of Lee County received a letter from the Florida Department of Education Inspector General Office Dec. 8, regarding allegations made for Graham’s June 27, 2013 reorganization plan. The letter stated that the plan mislead the board by “embellishing the savings outlined in the plan,” as well as that Graham “obligated and expended Title I funds without prior approval.”

Within 30 days of receiving the letter, the school district must send findings and actions of its investigation to the Inspector General Office.

The complaint, which was made by Alberto Rodriguez, a former district employee, addresses Graham’s reorganization plan saving the district $994,555.36.

The letter sent to Inspector General Mike Blackburn from Rodriguez dated Dec. 4 stated “there are a number of striking discrepancies/anomalies that fail to pass fiscal scrutiny and inflates the savings estimates.”

Board Member Steve Teuber said this is the district’s sixth complaint that has come from Rodriguez. He said Rodriguez has asked for more than 230 public record requests.

Teuber, who declined specific comment on the complaint while it is under investigation, said the board had the option of having an internal investigation done to provide information. This is what happened two years ago when Joseph Burke was the superintendent.

In an effort to be efficient and expedient in finding the data, Teuber said it is best to have outside council collect the information. In addition, the use of outside council provides for better public perception than using people directed by the superintendent to pull information regarding the allegations.

“The appearance to the community isn’t transparent,” he said of using staff.

The board’s unanimous vote directed Keith Martin, the board attorney, to hire Thomas Gonzalez, out of Tampa, at a rate of $175 an hour. Teuber said Gonzalez told the board he could do the investigation for $10,000 or less. He said an internal investigation would cost a comparable amount.

The areas Rodriguez outlined included cutting three zone managers from maintenance to save the district $244,419. Rodriguez stated that those three positions were reassigned to service managers of the east, west and south zones.

He also stated in his letter that rather than the district saving money on cutting three zone coordinator positions, it only saved money on one position after it closed due to one employee retiring. Rodriguez further stated that the savings was “over-inflated” by more than $200,000.

The letter also touched upon savings regarding seven zone teachers on assignment.

“The savings amount cited here of $631,099 would mean that even using the most optimistic figures by adding fringe benefits to the totals, would amount to $90,155.43 per teacher,” Rodriguez wrote in the letter. “Not even the highest paying districts in Florida do teacher salaries with fringes are in the $90,000 range, let along Lee County.”

He also stated in the letter that 50 percent of the new position, director of Turn Around Schools, was charged to Federal Title I funds.

Teuber said the unfortunate thing about the Office of Inspector General’s request, is he had to bring forward the issue at a special meeting focused on legislative matters because the next scheduled board meeting was not until January.

“We are still in the mode of spending a lot of time not focusing on students,” he said. “This is another distraction not focusing on students. This board is focused on kids. We dealt with it and moved on and now hope people spend more time on legislation and academic improvement.”


“Let’s go back to what worked”

Legislative plan: Lee School District tackles testing

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze Dec. 11, 2014 issue

The School District of Lee County has unanimously voted to file specific language for legislation regarding state-mandated testing and high-stake penalties for students and schools.

The vote, taken during a special school board meeting Wednesday, passed 4-0, with Mary Fischer being absent.

Board Member Steve Teuber, who is the legislative liaison for the board, said Wednesday’s special meeting was held to provide the community with the opportunity to speak, as well as adopt language for the district’s lobbyist to bring forward on the state level.

With the board’s unanimous vote, the local legislative delegation will file and sponsor legislation to “reduce the overall amount of state-mandated testing; eliminate high stakes penalties for students and schools for no less than two years while the new state tests are fully vetted.”

In other words, the legislation would eliminate the PERT test, as well as eliminate the number of grades being tested in writing; eliminate the 11th grade English language arts state exam; remove the required third grade English language arts exam for fourth grade promotion for no less than two years; remove state test requirements for graduation for no less than two years; eliminate school grades for no less than two years and eliminate state sanctions under differentiated accountability for no less than two years.

Teuber said what they have asked for is to go back in time in regards to testing. He said they want to keep testing for writing and reading in grades four, eight and 10.

“Let’s go back to what worked,” Teuber said.

Accountability is also established in the language. He said it does not make sense to hold teachers and students accountable for a test out of Utah that has not been validated.

“It’s really a three-year window and we are hoping that we get just that,” Teuber said.

The hope, he said, is that the measure moves forward and gets on the floor in Tallahassee and that legislators agree it is a no brainer.

Teuber said they wanted to do something locally, so they could wrap their arms around specific issues and possibly move it forward. He said the previous board brought forth a flashpoint for high stakes testing, which got people talking.

Lee County is part of an 11 school coalition with other districts in the coastal counties which, collectively, make up 55 percent of the student population.

“It is a big, powerful coalition,” he said, with powerful legislative delegates.

The coalition is also part of Florida School Board Association.

All 11 counties voted in favor of a very high reaching legislation platform that addresses all educational concerns. Teuber said the “uber shoot the moon” platform is asking for broad sweeping reform that is going to fix all woes for the State of Florida, including accountability and excessive testing.

He said he believes that type of bill is going to be pushed through because it has a representative on the education committee.