Can community schools rescue a ‘troubled’ district?

A contentious contract negotiation between teachers and a district in the Washington D.C. suburbs could foretell whether a transformative strategy for school improvement can dislodge entrenched leadership practices.

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“Why are we still fighting for basic needs?” asked Karen Guzman, a parent and community organizer for the local teachers’ union in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburban sprawl of communities that lie just to the east of Washington D.C., Guzman’s union, the Prince George’s County Educators Association (PGCEA), is currently embroiled in contract negotiations with the district administration, and the negotiations are not going particularly well, according to her assessment. “Almost everything we’re asking for is being rejected,” she said.

Her union president, Donna Christy, agreed. “We’ve submitted more than 100 proposals,” she told Our Schools, “and [district leaders] haven’t given much acknowledgment to most of our points.”

In June, PGCEA announced that negotiations with district administration over the current labor contract, which expired on June 30, had reached an “impasse,” WTOP reported, and the union took “the next step” to request mediation from the state’s Public School Labor Relations Board.

According to contract proposals PGCEA provided to Our Schools, much of what the union is asking for are common requests from teachers and school employees, such as beefed up support staff for addressing widely-acknowledged student needs, adequate planning time and space for teachers, mutually agreed upon limits to class sizes, and upgrades to well-worn school facilities and technology. In other words, things that tend to cost money.

But not all of the union’s requests include monetary items. Many have more to do with how decisions in the district are made and who gets to make them.

For example, one proposal calls for instructional improvements to be determined by “collaborative planning” that involves “teams” working collegially. Another proposal calls for a review of mandatory state and local assessments by a “committee” made up of “stakeholders impacted by such tests.”

Yet another proposal, labeled “community schools,” calls for schools to have “a joint governance structure” at the start of the 2023-2024 school year. The joint decision-making body in each school will consist of administrators, teachers and other staff, parents and community members of the school, and for high schools, the governing boards will include students as well.

These proposals seem to align with Maryland’s new effort to scale up an approach to school improvement, which is generally defined as “community schools.” The term community schools is interpreted differently in different places that have adopted it, but there is a general understanding that the approach includes forming partnerships in schools, in the district, and across the surrounding community to address the root causes of student learning problems.

According to experts, collaboration and team problem-solving involving multiple stakeholders are essential facets of the community schools strategy, because that’s the only realistic means that schools have for identifying actual problems, rather than the assumed ones, and then forming appropriate partnerships to address them.

Maryland’s community schools effort is the result of a law, the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act (House Bill 1300)—passed in 2020 and enacted in 2021 by an override of the governor’s veto. According to the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), which PGCEA is an affiliate of, the Blueprint, among many things, “convert[s] nearly one-third of Maryland schools into community schools, where a school-based coordinator will help determine a school’s specific needs, such as academic and language supports, nutrition and medical, dental and mental health care.”

In the Blueprint, “community schools,” according to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), are defined as “a public school that identifies a set of strategic partnerships between the school and other community resources that promote student achievement, positive learning outcomes, and the well-being of students by providing wraparound services.” Wraparound services are generally understood to be programs and supports that address students’ social, emotional and physical needs, and not just their academic needs.

The Maryland Blueprint has also made community schools that have “concentrations of poverty” eligible for grants to pay for personnel and wraparound services that have been identified by “require[ed] needs assessments and implementation plans,” according to MSDE.

The state’s definition of “concentration of poverty,” according to the Maryland State Department of Education, is “schools with 80 percent or more of students receiving free or reduced meals.” Based on that definition, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), which had already started their own effort to create community schools, suddenly went from being “in its infancy,” according to Christy, to having 78 schools with that designation.

The state’s effort to roll out community schools joins a nationwide trend to implement the approach—California has launched a $3 billion transition to community schools. But only two other school districts in the U.S. have more schools designated as “community schools” than PGCPS—New York City, with 317 and Baltimore City, with 128. (Los Angeles is close behind with 70 community schools.)

“Prince George’s County is at the forefront of the community schools movement which is the best alternative for neighborhoods that are facing challenges with their school systems,” said Gary Brennan in a phone conversation with Our Schools.

Brennan, a retired educator who spent 32 years in the Maryland public education system, is currently working for the MSEA as a negotiator for PGCEA. (He stressed that he is not an official spokesperson for the union.)

Brennan sees the union’s contract negotiations as “the perfect frame to bring the community schools model into labor actions. It offers a way to get at solutions to chronic issues and bring students, families and educators together.”

But despite the state’s enacted Blueprint, it’s not clear if PGCPS district leaders are completely sold on the notion of community schools, at least in the way that the approach is represented in the union’s contract proposals.

While multiple sources told Our Schools that the district has hired community schools coordinators and expanded wraparound services for students, these same sources also stated that the district is not embracing the full array of principles that are in the approach, especially the principles related to collaboration and shared leadership.

Also, research conducted by Our Schools found that the district’s approach to creating “strategic partnerships” is misaligned with both the spirit and the principles of the community schools strategy.

Thus, the struggle for the union is not only to use its collective bargaining power to deliver on the community schools’ promises of better outcomes for students and families but also to establish whether this transformational strategy for school improvement can overcome a school district’s old ways of doing business.

‘A Tendency to Make Decisions Unilaterally’

One of those “old ways” is district leaders’ tendency to make decisions from the top-down, according to multiple sources Our Schools spoke with.

“Distributed leadership is pretty much nonexistent,” said Amity Pope, using a term that is synonymous to shared or collective leadership promoted by the community schools approach. Pope is a 20-year veteran educator, having worked as a teacher and a teacher mentor, and she serves as the governmental relations chair for PGCEA.

She recalled that when the idea of community schools first came to Prince George’s County, in 2015, it didn’t come from the district or the state; rather, the idea was introduced by a “self-created” cadre of educators, advocates, business leaders, and other community members. The approach the group chose to follow was based on a six-pillar framework promoted by the National Education Association (NEA), the national teachers’ union, which PGCEA is affiliated to.

Pope and others were trained in the strategy so that they could help train others in the district, and she and her colleagues worked with the NEA and the Center for Popular Democracy to craft language for the Prince George’s County Board of Education to adopt the strategy in its policies, which included the provision for having a community schools coordinator in every school.

In the original language drafted by the cadre, she explained, community schools coordinators were to be members of the PGCEA. However, in adopting the community schools policy, the board changed the language to make coordinators members of the union that represents school administrators.

However, administrators, particularly school principals, according to Pope, have a hard time with the distributed leadership tenet of community schools. “They automatically see themselves as leaders in the traditional sense,” she said, “when what they really need to do is to have their ears to the ground—asking questions, admitting mistakes, and collaborating.”

“We don’t have these kinds of leaders,” she said, “because of administrative bullying that has become a behavioral norm.”

Christy, president of PGCEA, agreed. “Under the current leadership mindset, school leaders are not asking the schools and the communities they serve what their needs are,” she said. “They’re deciding what they think the community’s needs are.”

As a parent advocate, Guzman often sees principals in the district bristle at the idea of engaging in shared leadership practices. She has encountered “principals who are more comfortable with micromanaging their schools,” she said, “and many of them are afraid of what issues will come up if teachers and parents have more of a voice in [governance].”

A ‘Troubled’ District

Many see the district’s top-down leadership style emanating from state legislation, passed in 2013, which undermined democratic governance of the schools and concentrated decision-making power with fewer individuals.

The school district was regarded as “troubled” at the time, Voxitatis reported, due to “revolving” school leadership, and low scores on student standardized tests, and then-County Executive Rushern Baker was mostly successful in pushing a bill in the state legislature that reconfigured the district’s governance structure.

The new state law changed the name of the district’s top official from “superintendent” to “CEO” and gave that person the power to close and consolidate schools, hire and set the salaries of executive staff, and fill vacant seats of elected members of the Prince George’s County Board of Education. The law also required the board to muster a two-thirds majority to overturn any action or decision taken by the CEO.

The law also changed the composition of the board from nine elected officials and an appointed student member to a “hybrid” board of nine elected officials and four officials appointed by the elected county executive along with a student member named by the Prince George’s Regional Association of Student Governments. The county executive was given the power to name the district’s CEO, appoint three of the four appointed members of the board, and pick the board’s chair and vice chair. The fourth board member was appointed by the county council.

According to Christy, some of the measures in the 2013 law may soon be rescinded, including giving board members the power to choose their own chair and moving from the hybrid model to a fully elected board. “But the CEO will still have all the same power,” she said.

After Maryland enacted the 2013 law, Baker “tapped Kevin Maxwell, a former principal, to run the district,” according to a 2018 article in Governing.

Maxwell’s tenure, from 2013 to 2018, did little to improve the reputation of the district’s leadership, as he was dogged by multiple scandals, including the loss of a $6.5 million federal grant for a Head Start program, an alleged failure to investigate a case of sexual misconduct involving a child, and a state audit of the district’s high schools that found instances of students graduating without required credits and courses between 2016 and 2017.

The litany of troubles culminated in 2019, after Maxwell had resigned in 2018, when a whistleblower sent an anonymous letter to the members of the school board that top officials in the administration had been giving unauthorized pay raises to “some central office staff,” and a state audit found the district violated state laws by spending millions on contracts that were unauthorized and sole-scoured.

Current district CEO Monica Goldson has been credited with cleaning up the district’s scandals, but that doesn’t appear to have resolved how district leaders are perceived by front-line educators and the community.

Union negotiator Brennan credits Goldson with “[making] a lot of the right decisions,” but, he said, “she has a tendency to make decisions unilaterally when it would be more appropriate to draw up a memorandum of understanding and engage with school staff over priorities.”

Further, the previous scandal over the outsourcing of district programs and services through contracts, with little to no scrutiny by the public, foretold current problems about how the district is carrying out its requirement, mandated by the state, to create “strategic partnerships” that are part of the community schools approach.

‘Issues of Accountability and Transparency’

Partnerships in the community schools approach are commonly understood to mean that schools will provide wraparound services to students and their families by developing a network of service providers with local nonprofit organizations and municipal and community agencies. But that doesn’t appear to be the way district administrators in PGCPS are forming partnerships.

First, there are questions about the district’s budget priorities that seem to indicate a tendency for school leaders to outsource services to contractors rather than developing collaborative networks with local nonprofits and government agencies.

In March 2022, when the district proposed a budget of $2.6 billion—a $100 million cut from what was proposed for 2022—PGCEA spoke to budget analyst Chris Schwartz to break down the figures for the PGCPS proposed operating budget for the fiscal year 2023.

In a video posted on the union’s Facebook page, Schwartz details a number of curious findings, including that the district frequently doesn’t spend all of the money from its approved budget and that what’s most likely to get shorted are instructional salaries and fixed charges like employee benefits, while, at the same time, costs for administrative services have seen a spike in the projected budget allocation for 2022 and the proposed allocation for 2023.

One resource that is especially on the short end of the budget stick is the special education services where there are stagnating numbers of employees, even though the special education services funding has been going up “at a modest pace,” from 2006 to 2023. That finding prompted Schwartz to question what those special education funds are being spent on.

Another finding from Schwartz’s analysis is the district’s ever-increasing amount of money spent on outside contractors—up 142 percent, or $227 million, from 2006 to 2023—and how often (14 of the past 16 years) the district has overspent its budget for contracted services. The finding prompted Schwarz to remark that this “raises questions about accountability and transparency.”

A Spate of Contracts

In her interview with Our Schools, PGCEA President Christy also expressed concerns about the rising costs of contract services and pointed to a recent spate of contracts the district signed with outside mental health service providers.

Maryland’s Blueprint law provides districts with significant new funds for hiring additional behavioral health professionals and “grants to increase attention to behavioral health,” according to MSEA. Christy questioned whether that money was being outsourced to contractors rather than being used to hire new district staff.

Further, “district leaders didn’t consult with schools in deciding who should provide the services and what would be the nature of the services provided,” she said.

Christy wasn’t able to point to any particular contracts that concerned her, but Our Schools found numerous contracts that have gone to private, for-profit operators rather than local nonprofits.

One contract in 2021 went to Advanced Behavioral Health, Inc., which also received a year-long contract for “therapists” in 2020. According to Dun and Bradstreet, which provides data and analytics for businesses, Advanced Behavioral Health earns $10.74 million annually and is a “corporation” based in Frederick, Maryland, which is located in Frederick County.

Another contract was awarded to Interdynamics, Inc. a private company whose website says the company provides “nationwide services.” The firm started “in 2000 as a management consulting service,” according to its website, “but grew later into a mental and behavioral health firm.” While it’s not clear what criteria district leaders used to select the contractors, Interdynamics has received 11 scathing reviews and only one positive one on Yelp.

Another contract went to Thrive Behavioral Health, which is listed as a “private” company at Crunchbase. Yet another contract was given to Innovative Therapeutic Services. Dun and Bradstreet lists the company as a corporation earning more than a quarter-million dollars annually.

Almost all contracts were completed and sent to contractors on the same day, July 6, 2021, with Angela Queen indicated as district contact in the contracts for that year. The terms of each contract for 2021 were nearly identical, with service periods indicated as July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2023, and fees for “mental health services” ranging from $105 to $119 per hour.

None of the contracts appear to include spending caps that would prevent contractors from running up billable hours.

‘Substantial Risk for Behavioral Health Services’

A significant risk with outsourcing mental health services to private, for-profit contractors is that service providers can change ownership and reengineer their profit-making, which can drastically affect the quality of services. Also, there is a greater risk of nontransparency, as public funds are sent to private firms that do not have to fully disclose how the money is being spent.

These risks are especially pervasive in the senior care industry where acquisitions of nursing homes and other kinds of senior living facilities by private equity investors have become rampant. According to a 2020 study, private investor-backed takeovers of senior care have resulted in increased costs by 19 percent to the public, while short-term mortality of patients has jumped by 10 percent due to cost-cutting measures that investors put into place to increase their profits.

The mental health service industry has also landed in the crosshairs of private equity investors, according to the Private Equity Stakeholder Project (PESP), a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors the impact of the private investor sector.

In a September 2020 brief, PESP reported, “The behavioral health industry has seen substantial investment by private equity firms in recent years, particularly in firms specializing in autism, eating disorders, and addiction treatment,” which are growing mental health issues in schools.

The brief warned, “Private equity investment carries substantial risk for behavioral health services, including the potential for inadequate staffing or reliance on untrained and unlicensed staff, pressure on physicians to provide unnecessary and costly services, or abuse of federal funding programs at the expense of patient care.”

A January 2021 report in Behavioral Health Business bolstered PESP’s findings, predicting that merger and acquisition activity among “behavioral health dealmakers” would “reach a new peak in 2021,” especially in the sectors devoted to autism services, “with private equity (PE) investors fueling the fire.”

It’s not clear how many of the firms that PGCPS has contracted with are owned by or are considering being acquired by private investment firms, but the district has contracted with private equity-backed providers in the past.

In 2019, the district made payments of $139,800 to the Center for Autism and Related Disorders LLC (CARD), which provided autism services to the district.

CARD Founder Doreen Granpeesheh formerly worked at Thoughtful House, an Austin, Texas-based center for autism education and treatment that was formerly guided by Andrew Wakefield, a British physician who, in 1997, originated—according to Public Health, Vox, and other sources—the idea that vaccines cause autism. The study was retracted by the Lancet in 1998, and its findings have been debunked in subsequent research.

Yet Granpeesheh appears to still uphold this discredited claim. In an undated article in Quantumrun Granpeesheh is quoted as observing “families who were reporting that their child had a regressive type of behavior occur[ing] right after their vaccinations,” including “incredible regression,” “no longer responding to their own name,” and an inability to remember words.

Granpeesheh is also founder and president of Autism Care Today, an organization that states, on its webpage titled “autism facts,” that “concerns about vaccines and infections have led researchers to consider risk factors before and after birth.”

CARD, which is based in Plano, Texas, claims on its website to be “the world’s largest autism treatment provider.”

Perhaps for that reason, CARD was acquired by Blackstone Group LP, a private equity investment firm, in 2018, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Blackstone Group is often described as one of many prominent investment firms, according to a report by Vox Media—along with the Carlyle Group, Bain Capital and KKR—that practice an investment strategy in which the investor buys up a company with growth potential, expands it dramatically, by accruing enormous amounts of debt, and then sells the business, as a whole or in parts, for a profit.

These investment firms are often blamed when their acquired companies eventually collapse due to their enormous amounts of debt or because of the consequences of being dismantled and sold off piece by piece.

Should PGCPS be using money coming to the district for mental health services to pay for-profit contractors backed by private equity it’s likely taking a risky gamble.

‘What Does That Mean in Practice’

This is not to say PGCPS hasn’t added to its own capacity to address mental health issues.

In 2021, the district used grant money it received from the state to retain a mental health coordinator position and to issue a Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Prince George’s County Public Schools plan for Behavioral Health Supports July 2021-June 2022 with a budget of $4,506,214.

The district’s blueprint plan claims to offer students “free access to school-based mental health professionals” in 93 schools, which it pledges to roll out to “all 207 of its schools and centers by the 2023-2024 school year.”

However, the only reference the blueprint makes to the district’s implementation of the community schools strategy is on page eight where it states, “Parents will be able to refer students in need of counseling support by contacting their community school coordinator or professional school counselor.”

Also, while the blueprint describes activities the district will undertake to “engage” students, families, and communities, those activities are devoted to outbound engagements—“messaging” and “training”—rather than activities devoted to gathering inputs from teachers and parents or assessing community needs.

There’s also evidence that the district has reached out to local nonprofits to form partnerships.

In 2019-2020, the district announced it had partnered with United Way of the National Capital Area (United Way NCA) “to bring the strongest community programming” to “community schools.”

As part of that effort, the district and United Way NCA issued a directory of providers for a range of wraparound services that included both for-profit and nonprofit organizations. The Center for Autism and Related Disorders is not on the list while Advanced Behavioral Health can be found repeatedly, in multiple sections. The directory was reissued in 2021 with Advanced Behavioral Health again listed as a preferred provider.

For its part, the teachers’ union has made community collaboration not only a key feature of its community schools implementation but also a basis for its contract negotiations.

In her work as a parent organizer, Guzman described how union outreach to families had to start from scratch because few schools had active parent teacher associations. So she and her colleagues created “community schools circles”—consisting of teachers, parents, and community advocates—in seven community schools. The number of circles has expanded to 15, and the union has amassed an email list of more than 1,000 parents.

To scale up the community engagement to a districtwide effort, the union collaborated with volunteers from the Prince George’s County chapter of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS-PG), a national alliance of teachers’ unions and community and public education organizers, to conduct a Pandemic to Promise campaign.

Included in the campaign was a survey that asked respondents to “vote your dreams” and choose their priorities from a list of 10 that were gleaned from the feedback from community schools circles. AROS-PG and PGCEA also conducted a Pickup Truck Tour that went to schools, parks, bus lots, and other high-traffic locations to encourage survey responses.

Based on nearly 800 survey responses, the community’s top four priorities were:

  1. Healthy food and eating environments.
  2. Fully resourced classes and after-school programs.
  3. Improvements to special education and English language learning services.
  4. A publicly available transparency mechanism to explain where school/program funding is going.

Christy maintained that these priorities are reflected in the union’s contract proposals. Guzman said, “All this community input went directly into language that the union is now bargaining with during their negotiations with the district administration.”

But whether community input matters to the district may depend on how strongly district leaders embrace the principles of the community schools approach.

As Guzman asked, “So, our district has the [third] most community schools, but what does that mean in practice?”

That could be the toughest negotiation point of all.

This article was produced by Our Schools.

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