School Superintends Criticize Education Department

ERIK SCHELZIG | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – More than 60 school superintendents have signed a petition calling on Gov. Bill Haslam and state lawmakers to reevaluate the leadership at the Tennessee Department of Education.

The letter says Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's office "has no interest in a dialogue" with local school leaders, and adds that superintendents' efforts to improve their schools are being thwarted by low teacher morale because of policy changes on the state level.

"It has become obvious to the signees that our efforts to acquire a voice within this administration is futile," according to the petition.

"Today we feel that we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued," the letter said. "Today we feel that we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued."

The letter was written by Dan Lawson, director of the Tullahoma City Schools, who said colleagues at a statewide meeting of superintendents in Gatlinburg this week asked to sign on.

"I would characterize it as a bit of anxiety on the part of one superintendent that has been shared with others and has a gained a bit of momentum because of shared beliefs," Lawson said in a phone interview. "This is kind of an organic development rather than a planned development."

Lawson said 63 superintendents have already signed on, with more to come. There are 136 local education agencies in the state.

Huffman spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said the commissioner had not seen the letter.

"His sole focus is on student achievement and improving education in Tennessee, and will continue, as he has in the past, to seek input and feedback from Tennessee educators," she said in an email.

The petition states that superintendents are "not content with the current leadership" in the Education Department, but stops short of calling for Huffman's removal.

"We request that Governor Haslam and members of the Tennessee General Assembly consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education in our state and address our concerns," the letter says.

Lawson said he plans to send the petition to the governor and lawmakers once all of his colleagues have indicated whether they want to sign on. He said his concerns were sparked when Huffman and the Haslam administration last decided to withhold $3.4 million in state education funding from Nashville over its school board's refusal to authorize a charter school.

"I find that disconcerting, disappointing and heavy-handed," he said.

Teachers groups have criticized Huffman for calling for changes to the minimum teacher salary schedule for new teachers, reducing steps in salary increases from 21 to four and eliminating incentives for doctorate degrees and post-master's training. They also oppose his proposal for tying teacher licenses to student test data.

Huffman joined Haslam's cabinet in 2011. He was previously vice president of public affairs at Teach for America, a program that has tried to improve classroom teaching by placing recent college graduates in low-income schools and is often criticized by teacher unions.

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