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Department of Education opens reading improvement program web portal

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

(Photo by Ryan Cook/RJ Cook Photography)

Arizona schools can file their reports on how they intend to improve their students’ reading skills despite the fight between the education board and state schools chief Diane Douglas – at least for the time being.

Michael Bradley, Douglas’ chief of staff, said Wednesday his agency has opened up the web “portal” for schools to file the required reports. Bradley said it was always the intent of the Department of Education to operate the site despite a series of emails threatening not to do so

“We’re not going to hold up the Move On When Reading program,” he said.

Bradley said, though, there is one hurdle to overcome: The Board of Education, which is dividing up $40 million in grants based on the reports, will have to sign an agreement to pay his agency for its costs. And Bradley said he does not know at this point what the price tag will be – and whether the board will agree to pay it.

Board president Greg Miller said he believes Douglas and her staff are backing down following news stories about the impasse and the email exchanges.

“They’ve seen the error of their ways,” he said. “I kind of think that maybe getting called out the way he got called out over the email to me, and my response, kind of got their attention in the context of, ‘maybe we ought to go just flip the switch. “

But Miller said has no intention of giving Bradley or the Department of Education even a nickel.

“The taxpayers have already paid for all of the computer processes,” Miller said, saying this is essentially the same portal that is opened every year.

“We don’t need an intergovernmental agreement,” he continued. And directing his wrath at Bradley, he said, “Get off your pot and get your work done.”

Bradley, however, said he can show there are costs in pulling together all of the data from schools across the state. And he suggested that if the board balks, the portal could be shut down.

That would mean that schools would find it difficult, if not impossible, to comply with state laws requiring an annual report of reading progress.

The ongoing spat is the latest spillover of the fight now playing out at the Court of Appeals on the question of who controls the board’s employees. A trial judge already has rejected Douglas’ bid for a ruling that they report to her.

At play is $40 million the Board of Education has to divide up among schools in the Move On When Reading program to help them improve reading in kindergarten through third grade. The cash goes out after the board reviews reports filed at the beginning of each school year of what progress they have made and what are their future plans.

All that occurs online.

Last week Christine Thompson, the board’s executive director, inquired when the Department of Education intended to open up the portal for the filings. Bradley responded that’s the board’s responsibility, meaning it needs to either contract for its own portal or enter into an agreement with his agency to operate it.

By Wednesday the problem appeared resolved with the portal now available.

“We had already planned to turn it on,” Bradley said, despite the emails to Miller and board staffers.

But he said things got complicated because of the litigation about who is in charge of what.

“If they had ordered us to turn it on, we couldn’t turn it on, because then we’d be following their orders,” Bradley said, essentially conceding to the board’s legal position that it has control. “That’s the way the judge thing works.”

This way, he said, the department is acting on its own – subject, of course, to that fiscal issue being worked out.

Bradley said the portal is more than an email box, with each school having its own type of computer and its own program. He said that means finding a way to make all the reports uniform, providing that to the board and then telling schools what changes the board wants.

“It might seem easy, but it’s not,” he said.

How much?

Bradley said with no changes in what the board wants, it could be as little as $56,000. But he said costs in prior years have been as high as $500,000.

Miller had a different figure in mind when asked how much the board should pay: zero. He pointed out that somehow the Department of Education managed to open the site without any funds from the board.

“So, the answer to your question is, it was already done,” Miller said. Still, he conceded some work is necessary.

“There is some process time that’s going to be required for gathering it in and correlating the information and getting it to the board so the board it so people can get their money,” he said. “Other than that, that’s it.”

And he said the department has the money for it.

Bradley disagreed.

“I know people think we have a lot of money,” Bradley said.

“And we do,” he continued. But Bradley said virtually all of that is “pass-through” state aid to schools.

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