Weast charged with discouraging SAT participation of underperforming students
Weast after Blair money
Treatment of administrators questioned
Several high school principals have clashed with Superintendent Jerry Weast on his perceived push to discourage underperforming students from taking the SATs, his redirection of crucial resources from individual high schools to Central Office and his alleged mistreatment of administrators.
"Limit exposure" to the SATs
At an Oct 2 meeting with high school principals, Weast suggested, according to Principal Phillip Gainous, that students who "could not help out SAT scores [for MCPS] and were not ready to take the SATs should be discouraged from taking them," said Gainous. Both Principal Daniel Shea of Quince Orchard High School and Principal Michael Durso of Springbrook High School corroborated this statement.
According to Shea, Weast wanted schools to "examine the level of students taking the SATs to appropriately limit exposure." The superintendent's message was clear, said Gainous: "We were told to do it. And the expectation was that we would all go back and do it."
Elimination of low-scoring students from the general test-taking pool will automatically boost average SAT scores, explained Durso. "If we have a certain number of students not take the SATs, then we'll be on Sixty Minutes because of our [high] scores," he claimed.
"It's morally wrong. It's illegal," said Blair PTSA President Valerie Ervin, who works for the County Council, regarding Weast's suggestion.
Weast softened his rhetoric on SATs after one principal at the meeting cautioned him about the implications of his suggestion. "I think the [principal's] words were, ‘You need to be careful in how you are saying or delivering that message,'" said Gainous of the confrontation. Weast then suggested that students who would score poorly on the SATs be directed toward other tests such as the ACT exam, said several principals.
For certain students, particularly minority students, however, scholarship opportunities are available for even low scores on the SAT.
Weast declined to talk to Silver Chips about this story and instead directed questions to MCPS Director of Communications Brian Porter, who said that the superintendent was "stunned" that his words could have been so misinterpreted. "There has obviously been a terrible misunderstanding," said Porter, who was not present at the Oct 2 meeting.
Minutes from the meeting were confidential, Silver Chips was told.
Rebecca Newman, head of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Supervisory Personnel (MCAASP), who was at the meeting, said she did not recall a message to discourage certain students from taking SAT. "The discussion has been about not encouraging youngsters to take high-stakes testing until they are prepared," she said.
Porter said a list of students who did poorly on the PSAT was drawn up and given to high school principals only in order to identify students for SAT help. "[Weast] is not recommending students be prevented from taking the SATs," said Porter. "He is recommending that students who are not qualified for these tests be given as much help as possible."
In a Board of Education report this August, Weast warned that allowing more students to take the SAT would "affect student performance on average for at least the short term, with the likelihood at times of declining average scores," according to the Sept 2 edition of The Bulletin, the MCPS newsletter. The superintendent has cited this correlation between increased participation rates and declining average scores on numerous occasions.
Weast was noticeably upset by last year's SAT scores that show Howard County climbing 12 points to top MCPS' average SAT score of 1094, and he "pledged that it would never happen again," according to Gainous.
Porter said Howard County's success "served as a not-so-subtle reminder" to Weast and that Weast has always been committed to improving SAT scores.
"Keep those resources with the kids that need them"
Assistant Principal Patricia Hurley said Weast's all-out commitment to improving SAT scores indicated a fundamental difference between goals at the county level and at the school level. She explains that Blair's focus, for example, has and will continue to be on getting kids to pass the High School Assessment (HSA) and Maryland State Assessment (MSA) tests they will need in order to graduate, while Weast's focus will likely continue to be on SAT scores.
Gainous cited Weast's recommendation that resources be diverted from programs such as below-level reading classes toward SAT prep as an example of this difference in priorities. "We had been told that we should redirect our reading specialists and other resources to a band of students in the 900 range so that their scores could be pumped up over 1000," Gainous explained. "That concerned me because many of the resources that would need to be redirected were geared towards students who were learning how to read, and my major concern was to keep those resources with the kids that needed them."
This intervention at the local high school resource allocation level has led to what some principals feel is a lack of autonomy at the high school level. Although Porter maintained that Weast does not "micromanage" schools, some principals have cited instances where Weast has intervened in areas that have traditionally fallen within a high school's jurisdiction.
Weast wants Blair's money
One such area is the increasingly heated discussion over the role of vending machines in individual school budgets. The recent economic downturn has led to a Central Office initiative that charges high schools a fee to offset vending machine electricity costs, angering several principals.
Currently, high schools make individual contracts with soda machine companies. The revenue from these deals goes towards such projects as discounting standardized testing fees and purchasing new computers. Blair currently makes $55,000 in vending machine revenue annually.
A memo about the fee by Chief Operating Officer Larry Bowers, which requested payment of $300 per vending machine to offset electricity costs, raised concerns among high school principals. Weast responded to these concerns at an Oct 2 principals' meeting by agreeing to put the fee "on hold" in exchange for principals' consideration of consolidating other contracts, such as the yearbook, according to Newman, Shea, Durso and Principal Fred Lowenbach of Kennedy, who all attended the meeting.
Consolidated contracts would be negotiated by Central Office, and Central Office would control all revenues generated through the contracts.
Two weeks after the meeting, Weast broke the agreement. Bowers sent a memorandum asking principals to meet an Oct 27 deadline for sending in inventories that included the number of vending machines to be taxed. Principals felt this was a breach of trust and that Weast had broken his promise to halt collection of the fee until consolidation was discussed further.
Approximately half of the 23 schools did not meet the deadline, according to the MCPS Assistant Director of Facilities Management Sean Gallagher, who said those schools would be "charged based on an estimate of the number of machines and assessed the higher rate."
Some principals remain skeptical of Weast's request. Durso said of Weast's fee that, "The rationale of paying for the electricity for the machines is unique," while Gainous said, "[The fee] will give money to Central Office. I don't know if it's a control thing—that he just wants to have control over us—or if it's strictly a financial thing. But if it's strictly a financial thing, then it doesn't equate to me."
While Gallagher admitted that the estimated $350,000 in vending machine electricity costs is less than one percent of MCPS' 14 million dollar electricity budget, he said the revenue was still important. "There's a need to pay the electricity bill," he said.
Weast's insistence on the fee was consistent with earlier pronouncements, said Gainous. "He gave the example of our insurance and retirement benefits and our salaries and said he needed vending machine money to offset these benefits or else we wouldn't get those benefits," Gainous said.
Bowers lowered the fee from $300 per vending machine to $200 per vending machine after an independent investigation by an MCPS business manager proved that the amount of electricity consumed by a single vending machine would only cost a little more than two-thirds of what Bowers was originally charging.
Although the principals as a group agreed to consolidation to avoid paying the vending machine fee, several were concerned about the logistical repercussions of merging resources. Gainous quoted Larry Bowers, MCPS' chief operating officer, as having said in 1997 that, "You know that we can't negotiate the kind of contracts and bring to the school the kind of money that the principals are doing on their own." Since then, Gainous explained, there has been a "180-degree" turnaround in attitude toward consolidation. "It's so difficult to comprehend why we're going down this road," he said.
"This thing is going to explode"
"Red zone schools"—schools identified by Weast in 1999 as needing increased resource allocation, which include Blair, Kennedy, Einstein, Wheaton, Northwood and Gaithersburg high schools—rely on vending machine income more than do more affluent schools. Not only do these schools have higher numbers of vending machines overall (Blair has 25 taxable vending machines, as compared to Walt Whitman High School's three), but they also lack a parent body capable of making up gaps in revenue.
Ervin pointed out that the vending machine fee would exacerbate the already stark economic contrast between "red zone" schools and the rest of the county. "I think we're reaching a tipping point where this thing is going to explode," she said of the discrepancy in funding.
Controlling the money
Principals are also worried about losing money from contract consolidation. For example, according to Gainous, yearbook revenues at Blair go toward maintaining the low cost of yearbooks at Blair; if yearbook contracts were to be negotiated at the county level, profits may not return to Blair directly.
Eileen Steinkraus, the Blair Magnet coordinator, pointed to a similar instance of resource diversion through Central Office. The Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act, which Weast petitioned for, allows MCPS to commingle federal grant monies intended for the Magnet program into the general Central Office pool. This year, for the first time, Steinkraus must apply for funding from Central Office, instead of receiving the money directly.
This consolidation of resources coincides with a general consolidation of power on the part of Weast, which has led, in some principals' opinion, to a manipulation of personnel into carrying out Weast's directives.
Enter the NAACP
According to Porter, Weast has not heard any complaints and enjoys "the best of relationships" with his principals. He has "invested considerable time and energy into their success."
However, Judith Docca, vice president for programs of the Montgomery County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), said that multiple MCPS administrators, all of whom wished to remain anonymous, have filed a complaint alleging discrimination on the part of Weast in hiring and funding practices.
The complaint, said Docca, contends that Weast does not "give the support he should to principals of color."
Because the plaintiffs have refused to go on the record, the NAACP cannot take action against Weast, said Docca, but the organization has met with him in person and has written him a series of letters requesting that he bear the complaints in mind when making future decisions.
The complaint also asserted that Weast limited internal promotion opportunities for black administrators, opting instead to hire from outside the system and staff the high school administrative team with "his own people."
Building Weast's house
Fifteen out of the 23 high school principals have been replaced since Weast took over in 1999. Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Betsy Arons said the annual turnover rate for principals averages about ten percent. Since Weast took office, annual turnover has been close to 15 percent.
"Hiring data during his time as superintendent was similar," said Gainous, "but what wasn't similar was the number of individuals who were forced out, rather than those who retired due to natural attrition."
Gainous went on to say that, "[Central Office] can honestly say that the principals [who were pushed out] requested new assignments, but that was after the writing was on the wall and Dr. Weast had made things very clear."
Arons explained that many of the principals were promoted to Central Office, where Ervin described the pressure from Weast as so intense that employees are "literally shaking in their boots."
In the words of Gainous, "The perception is that progress hasn't been as great as had been hoped, funds are drying up, time is running out, and [Weast] is anxious to show. We haven't been able to produce, and he's feeling pressure to show results."
Weast is scheduled to hold his regular principals' meeting on Wednesday, Nov 5, where the confidentiality of principals' meetings will be discussed in response to inquiries made by Silver Chips for this article, according to Jeanette Dixon, principal of Paint Branch High School and co-chair of the principals' meeting.
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