Another disagreement between the State Board of Education and the Department of Education led by Diane Douglas could leave children in failing schools without a plan to improve their reading.
Douglas, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, and the board are already in court to determine who supervises board employees. But changes lawmakers made during the 2015 session have become the catalyst for the most recent dispute.
The Legislature separated the board’s budget from the department’s and gave the department $500,000 to manage the state’s Move on When Reading program, designed to help schools prepare students to read by the third grade. Students who fall far below reading standards by then aren’t promoted to the fourth grade.
The board has received about $1.5 million a year to manage the program since fiscal-year 2013, and the department has provided some assistance. But the board won’t receive more money starting July 1.
There are 431 school districts and charter schools in the program, although the number of students wasn’t immediately available.
Two hundred of those districts and charters are receiving C, D, or F grades under the state’s school ranking system. That means 10 percent or more of their students fall far below standard, so the state board has to sign off on their plans to improve reading skills.
Board President Greg Miller said his understanding of the changes was the department would completely take over the program from the board.
“There’s a considerable lack of mutual understanding of who’s going to do what and who’s got the money to do it,” Miller said.
Douglas’ chief of staff, Michael Bradley, said the department will use the $500,000 to pay for various components of the program, with more than half going for consultants who help schools improve their reading programs, but he said the law is clear that the board runs the program.
Bradley said the department is required by law only to raise extra money for the program and dole out money to the schools after the board has approved its improvement plans.
The department contends it is the board’s responsibility to provide the program’s manager, people to review schools’ reading improvement plans, and maintain a portal that schools use to submit their improvement plans. Altogether, that is estimated to cost roughly $300,000.
“We’re saying we don’t have any money,” Miller said.
Miller said the dispute was an unintended consequence of the Legislature’s swift passage of the budget in March.
Miller downplayed the dispute, saying he thinks it can be worked out in talks with the Joint Legislative Budget Committee staff. He said there is time because schools won’t start submitting their reading plans until October for the 2015-16 school year.
Bradley said, however, the problem won’t be solved until Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Patricia Starr rules on a lawsuit Douglas filed against the board.
The suit stems from Douglas’ attempt in February to fire the board’s executive director, Christine Thompson, and her deputy, Sabrina Vazquez. More recently, the board voted to move 11 board employees’ offices, including those of Thompson and Vazquez, out of the Arizona Department of Education building and into the Capitol’s Executive Tower.
Douglas sued in May, asking the court to force Thompson and Vazquez to move back into the ADE building. She also wants Starr to rule that the board’s employees “work for the Department of Education and report to the superintendent.”
Bradley said if the department wins in court, then the board employees will work for Douglas and there should be no problem implementing the program.
But a board court victory would mean they are separate agencies and responsible for their own work.
“If we’re separate (agencies), we’re not responsible for their work,” Bradley said.
Starr is scheduled to hold a hearing today.