School superintendents to Haslam: Reevaluate leadership at Dept. of Education

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — More than 60 school superintendents have signed a petition calling on Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers to reevaluate the leadership at the Tennessee Department of Education.

The letter says Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman’s office “has no interest in a dialogue” with local school leaders, and adds that superintendents’ efforts to improve their schools are being thwarted by low teacher morale because of policy changes on the state level.

“It has become obvious to the signees that our efforts to acquire a voice within this administration is futile,” according to the petition.

“Today we feel that we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued,” the letter said. ”

The letter was written by Dan Lawson, director of the Tullahoma City Schools, who said colleagues at a statewide meeting of superintendents in Gatlinburg this week asked to sign on.

“I would characterize it as a bit of anxiety on the part of one superintendent that has been shared with others and has a gained a bit of momentum because of shared beliefs,” Lawson said in a phone interview. “This is kind of an organic development rather than a planned development.”

Lawson said 63 superintendents have already signed on, with more to come. There are 136 local education agencies in the state.

Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the commissioner had not seen the letter.

“His sole focus is on student achievement and improving education in Tennessee, and will continue, as he has in the past, to seek input and feedback from Tennessee educators,” she said in an email.

The petition states that superintendents are “not content with the current leadership” in the Education Department, but stops short of calling for Huffman’s removal.

“We request that Governor Haslam and members of the Tennessee General Assembly consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education in our state and address our concerns,” the letter says.

Lawson said he plans to send the petition to the governor and lawmakers once all of his colleagues have indicated whether they want to sign on. He said his concerns were sparked when Huffman and the Haslam administration last decided to withhold $3.4 million in state education funding from Nashville over its school board’s refusal to authorize a charter school.

“I find that disconcerting, disappointing and heavy-handed,” he said.

Teachers groups have criticized Huffman for calling for changes to the minimum teacher salary schedule for new teachers, reducing steps in salary increases from 21 to four and eliminating incentives for doctorate degrees and post-master’s training. They also oppose his proposal for tying teacher licenses to student test data.

Huffman joined Haslam’s cabinet in 2011. He was previously vice president of public affairs at Teach for America, a program that has tried to improve classroom teaching by placing recent college graduates in low-income schools and is often criticized by teacher unions.

Here’s the text of the letter:

The superintendents who have chosen to sign this document have enjoyed hundreds of years of experience and have led schools in the state of Tennessee to accomplish tremendous outcomes. Each signee aspires to accomplish more and utilize state and community resources to continue with the challenging task of comprehensive and sustained school improvement. The schools we are working to improve are in the communities where we live and serve our children.

As leaders, we have participated in some of the most comprehensive reform efforts in our nation. Our participation has been intentional with a goal of providing a brighter future for the children in our charge while improving increased economic, educational and social opportunities in our state.

During the last year, the signees have developed a belief that the office of the Commissioner of Education in this administration has no interest in a dialogue with those of us providing leadership for school systems. We have begun to feel that the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers school teachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners. While no superintendent will have all the answers, we are confident that many of the efforts underway by our state would be enhanced by our active voice and genuine participation in the decision development process.

Superintendents have attempted to accomplish participation in the decision making process through the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, through the Superintendents Study Council and through more informal measures. Instead of a receptive ear, our overtures have been met with scripted messages and little interest in accomplishing great change by changing culture.

It has become obvious to the signees that our efforts to acquire a voice within this administration is futile. We have been patient, professional and focused on the needs of each of our communities but the expertise we have and the passion we feel must become a part of the efforts to improve Tennessee education.

The superintendents signed hereto have been willing to take this extraordinary step not as an act of resistance rather as a plea out of a sense of responsibility for each of the communities we serve. Today we feel that we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued. Today we feel that we are unable to lead many improvement efforts due to our charge of attempting to address morale issues of many of our employees who feel voiceless and powerless.

We are not content with the current leadership and feel that we are not best serving our state in this manner. We request that Governor Haslam and members of the Tennessee General Assembly consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education in our state and address our concerns and the concerns of many of our parents, teachers and principals.