‘These are our schools, yours and mine’

‘These are our schools, yours and mine’

State of Our Schools: Lee students rising to the challenges faced today

Published in Cape Coral Daily Breeze May 29, 2015 issue

Superintendent Nancy Graham

Superintendent Nancy Graham

Although students today are faced with rigorous expectations to prepare them for a competitive workforce, School District Superintendent Dr. Nancy Graham told those in attendance at the State of Our Schools – Partners in Education breakfast Friday morning that students are rising to the challenge with great success.

With this year’s State of Our Schools theme of “Star Wars” The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower dressed as Yoda and Graham dressed as Princess Leia.

Superintendent Nancy Graham and The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower.

Superintendent Nancy Graham and The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower.

“The summation of what I know . . . Star Wars goes like this – there are good guys and one really bad guy dressed in black. So, I had to ask myself how in the world do I relate all that to education,” she said. “Yoda has very few words to say. And when he says them, they are received as profound and lasting.”

Graham’s speech was broken down into seven lessons shared through Yoda.

Her first lesson, “you must unlearn what you have learned,” touched upon the difficult tasks with which educators are faced. Graham said most people have gone to school and many want to serve as local experts in running a school.

“Though it is comfortable for us to relate current life to our own experiences, it would be really helpful in the case of public education for individuals to unlearn or at least suspend personal experiences and see education for what it is today,” she said. “Heavily legislative, often politicized and insufficiently funded.”

Public education has changed in terms of requirements for high school graduation. Graham said years ago students completed their high school math requirements after finishing algebra one.

“You all know those same folks never had to pass a standardized test or end of course exam in math, history or science,” she said. “It’s likely in most cases those same people are reaping the benefits of a well-lived professional life. But today, none of those same people would be able to earn a high school diploma based on the current requirements facing our freshman class, the class of 2018.”

This year’s senior class had to earn at least a half credit of online courses to receive a high school diploma.

When adding rigorous, challenging and prescriptive academic expectations to life experiences of students that are already faced without a stable family unit, homelessness, poverty, English as a second language, neighborhood violence, mental illness and physical or emotional abuse the chance to become a kid may never come, she said.

Through all of those difficulties, Graham said there is a positive note. In 2014, Lee County achieved the highest reading learning gains in its history; performed above the state average in points earned for the state grading system; improved the district grade and this year’s high school graduates earned a combined $50 million in scholarships.

Her second lesson was titled “difficult to see, always in motion is the future, which focused on predicting what students might need to be prepared beyond their kindergarten through 12th grade education.

“As today’s educators, we are charged with preparing our students for the workforce. A workforce full of jobs yet to be defined,” Graham said. “This is the new way of work . . . preparing the future for the unknown. This is why we must focus on teaching our students how to think and problem solve. To look at math and science and literature from angles and many lenses.”

The future for the students is why the district focuses on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – as well as STEAM, because Lee County also includes the arts in its schools. Comprehensive high schools, which allow students to earn diplomas and industry certifications, are also offered to prepare students for the workforce.

Graham said the district also invests in such student leadership programs as JROTC, where Lee County ranks as the second largest in the country.

Another lesson, “truly wonderful the mind of a child” spoke to the district’s responsibility of acknowledging the minds they reach through relationships and programs to nurture students.

“You think Yoda stops teaching just because a student does not want to hear – a teacher Yoda Is” shared information about the teachers of Lee County.

Graham said next year the school district will employ just under 6,000 teachers, 2,000 of whom have a master’s degree or higher. She said it is no easy task to hire and retain the best talent because the School District of Lee County is the biggest employer from Tampa to Miami.

“We are back to a growth pattern of an additional 1,500 to 2,000 students a year,” Graham said. “We are projected to be in that mode for the next 10 years.”

The lesson also shared information about the newest career opportunities for teachers. A teacher leader spends part of their day teaching and the other half coaching other teachers, which Graham said has been successful.

Grants through the National Education Association have also helped in closing the learning gap in Lee County. What started as assistance for 10 schools, will have reached 30 schools in 2016 with the grant.

“When 900 years old you reach, look as good as you will not,” highlighted the capital budget funds decrease. Graham said the combination of lower property taxes, reduced impact fees and reduced funding from the state in the past five years resulted in $656 million loss to the district’s capital budget.

“As a district and a community, we can no longer pretend the losses have no impact as we face a growing number of students,” she said. “These are our schools, yours and mine. Our schools need to be maintained while new schools will ultimately have to be built to house the children that we know are coming.”

Another lesson titled “Try no. Do or do not. There is no try,” shared the importance of partnerships and their involvement.

“All in means more than just writing a check . . . though we are grateful for your financial support. In this partnership all in is about being an advocate of our schools, correcting misperceptions when you hear them or sharing the positives when others may want to be negative,” Graham said. “All in means we make promises to one another and we keep them.”

Some of those promises include a balance budget without using reserved funds; measurable three year strategic plan; nationally credited school district ; increase learning gains among all groups of students; at least one school counselor at every school; 325 fewer required tests; forward movement with technology including the start of one-on-one devices for students; C to a B district and on the way to becoming an A district, as well as continuing to work with the community to keep its vision.

She closed her speech by asking the audience to “pass on always what you have learned.”

“The more who know more the better and stronger the partnership becomes among us,” Graham said. “Our doors are open to you as we move forward and I encourage you to visit our schools. I will personally take you.

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.”