Friday, June 20, 2008

TOP STORY > >Board member, principal feud

Leader senior staff writer

No love is lost between Pulaski County School Board member Bill Vasquez and Jacksonville Boys Middle School principal Mike Nellums.

Nellums, the gender-specific middle schools and the site-based council concept are ground zero in a struggle where Vasquez would have Nellums replaced, make the schools coeducational again and largely run by the site-based council, which is controlled by the teachers and their union.

Nellums insists Vasquez is a tool of the teachers’ union, a man who attacks him in emails to other board members and to the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers.

Vasquez says the middle schools are failing because of the lack of leadership by Nellums and girls school principal Kim Forrest, and he wants to replace both of them.

Nellums, initially skeptical of gender-specific education, now says great strides have been made by students in that system and says five years of data and scores are needed to make a reasonable determination of its efficacy.

“He talks about our less-than-stellar (middle school test) scores, but the scores from Jacksonville fifth grades—the students coming into the middle schools—are 20, 30 or 40 points lower than the district as a whole,” Nellums said.

“When I came to this school, 9 percent of students were proficient or better in eighth-grade math and 11 percent in literacy.

That’s what we had when we were one big happy family. Math is now 19 percent and language is 40 percent.

Vasquez envisions both current Jacksonville middle schools in a single, new building, under new leadership and under the site-based council currently in place at the Jacksonville Girls Middle School.

Nellums says that even if the two existing middle schools were to share a building, core classes should remain gender specific, at least until there are sufficient data to track the progress of single-gender education. He, of course, believes he and Forrest should remain the principals of the boys and the girls schools and doesn’t want a site-based council making the important decisions at the boys’ school.

“If I had a franchise and it was losing money, I’d change the leadership,” Vasquez said. “Everybody’s job in the district is to give teachers what they need to educate the children.”

Nellums has been outspoken in suggesting that the teachers’ union dominates site-based councils, propping up those teachers who are lazy and stripping administrators of their authority.

Vasquez counters by saying that no one knows better than the teachers what’s needed in the schools. He said that it is fiscally wrong to operate two buildings, when there are students enough for just one. He said that’s particularly true with duplication of some services and with the energy costs of operating two separate buildings.

At the June PCSSD board meeting, frustrated by Superintendent James Sharpe’s refusal to put his proposal on the agenda, Vasquez tried to suspend the rules during the board-member comment period toward the end of the meeting to consider middle school reorganization for next year. Board president Charlie Wood seconded his motion, which died by a 4-2 vote.

“July 1 is the deadline to reconfigure the schools for the 2008-2009 school year,” Vasquez said.

“If we wanted to build a new middle school, the boys and girls schools were going to have to be combined in the boys building long enough to tear down the girls’ school and construct a new building,” Vasquez said.

“When 149 parents from the district came to us in May and said they wanted to reconfigure the middle schools, we should listen,” he said.

Parents like site-based schools, he said. “They are not being heard by the district.”

During the public-comment portion of the meeting, Nellums said that 149 people out of a town of 29,000 were hardly a mandate. Vasquez said that represents students from 149 families who will not attend the middle schools.

Vasquez said that any doubts he had about the need for a separate Jacksonville school district have been pretty well erased by the indifference that the administration and some of the board members have shown for the Jacksonville students and community.

“The district has shown us nothing but disrespect,” he said.

“I see the pluses of a separate school district but also, you lose the economy of scale of a larger district,” Vasquez said.

Not only would Jacksonville be responsible, in a new district, for paying for at least two new buildings, it would have to hire new administration, teachers, support staff—and employees always have the right to organize, he added.

Vasquez says Jacksonville can probably afford its own district. He figures it will cost roughly $50 million to run.

It could expect $8 million-$9 million from the existing millage, $36 million from state minimum foundation aid—the roughly $5,700 that follows each student to his or her public school district—and $10 million in Title I and National School Lunch Assistance. That’s about $54 million.

Not only would Vasquez like to see both middle schools combined or at least rolled into one building, he said Tuesday that both North Pulaski and Jacksonville high schools could be combined into one building.

“We could close down two old ones and replace them with two state-of-the-art buildings.

“We are dropping 50 kids each year since single-gender education has been in place,” Vasquez said.

The core curriculum is supposed to be taught in the gender-specific classes and electives are supposed to be coeducational, Vasquez said, but “the teacher training didn’t happen.”

That may be the one thing Vasquez and Nellums agree upon.

“I was skeptical initially,” Nellums said of gender-specific education, intended to take advantage of the different ways boys and girls that age learn. “I don’t think there was enough planning or that the faculty was adequately trained. We’ve learned how boys learn and accomplished a lot without much assistance from the district.”

Vasquez has said that measuring by test scores, the experiment has failed.

Nellums says the test scores in his school have increased dramatically, with limited resources, while serving a high poverty school-age population and a high special-needs population.

Nellums said that from their sixth-grade year to their eighth grade years, the percentage of students proficient in math increased from 16 percent to 45 percent—students were three times more likely to be proficient in math.

Twenty percent of the students at the boys school are in special education, but because of the so-called “no-child-left-behind” mandate, still counted when determining what percentage of the students are performing at least adequately.

Just 80 percent of the school-age population has an above average chance of being proficient.

“The Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers worked hard to get (Bishop James) Bolden out and (Vasquez) in. The people of this community would prefer higher educational standards over whether the union is satisfied,” Nellums said.

“There is no doubt that site-based councils are a tool of the union. There is not one iota of evidence that scores improve significantly in any school where they lead,” Nellums added.

Nellums says Vasquez sends libelous emails about him and Forrest to school board members and to PACT officials. “I don’t appreciate that.”

Nellums said Vasquez wouldn’t talk with him or visit the school.

Vasquez said Tuesday that he hadn’t been invited, but Nellums said Vasquez had been invited to come talk to the teachers at his school.