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EAA takes up declining revenues, pink-slips 99

John Covington

John Covington

By T. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT—Expecting a continuing drop in enrollment, the Education Achievement Authority board at its June 17 meeting approved a smaller budget for 2015, ignored reports of excessive spending on travel, and accepted Chancellor John Covington’s sudden resignation.

It also approved pink slips for 99 staff members facing unemployment because of “economic necessity.”

At the same time, the board voted to pay itself for travel to and from the meetings.

EAA board members are appointed by Gov. Snyder and are not paid for their service. The majority do not live in Detroit.

Despite the controversies, the district continues to report it is making progress.

“We are starting to move (the students) out of the bottom,” said Deputy Chancellor Mary Esselman in a report to the board. However, under questioning from board member Kim Schatzel, Esselman admitted only 70 percent of the EAA students took the most recent test. Esselman’s analysis of student achievement was based on that test.

EAA Interim Chancellor Veronica Conforme

EAA Interim Chancellor Veronica Conforme

Wayne State Associate Professor of Curriculum Tom Pedroni, a critic of the EAA, during citizen comments again challenged the EAA administration’s interpretation of its test data. He quoted figures from his analysis of student performance on the 2014 MEAP tests that showed a significant number of students who entered the EAA in 2012 proficient on state tests had declined and were now performing below proficiency in both reading and math.

Esselman came to the EAA with Covington from Kansas City in 2011. Both had served for two years in the struggling Kansas City district promising to turn it around. Covington was superintendent and Esselman a deputy superintendent. As the two left for the EAA, the state announced it was withdrawing the district’s accreditation.

At its December meeting, the EAA board voted to hire Interactive Learning Systems LLC of Columbia, S.C., as an “executive coach” for Covington at an undisclosed amount. As reported here, Interactive is a one-man company with annual revenues then of $49,000 and a staff of one, Ron Epps.

Harry Pianko, deputy chancellor for business, fiscal affairs and operations at the EAA, confirmed Epps had visited the EAA offices and submitted invoices. Pianko said he assumed the contract would now end.

The board’s budget shows anticipated revenues of $86 million for the coming school year. By contrast the amended 2014 budget showed revenues of $112.6 million.

When Snyder announced the creation of the EAA, enrollment was expected to be 10,000. EAA enrollment has fallen and the district expects next year to have approximately 6,000 students.

The EAA board also named as Covington’s replacement one of its current consultants, Veronica Conforme. She takes the post of interim chancellor at an annual salary of $325,000.

Conforme is promising to evaluate the EAA programs and build on what is good and fix what is bad, according to published reports.

In 2013, Conforme joined the College Board’s Access to Opportunity campaign as vice-president. The program helps at-risk students succeed in AP courses, explore college options, and attend colleges where they are equipped to succeed. Before that she spent eight years with the New York City schools and was chief operations officer when she left.

Until the EAA appointment, Conforme was a finalist for the New Orleans school board superintendent job. The New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted a current school board member saying Conforme’s experience with charter schools as well as managing budgets were her strengths.

During the June 17 meeting, the EAA board adjourned to a closed session for over two hours to hear appeals from some of the 99 pink-slipped teachers and administrators.

Snyder took 15 buildings and contents from Detroit Public Schools in 2011 to form the EAA. Then DPS Emergency Manager Roy Roberts signed an Interlocal Agreement with Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents to legalize the arrangement. Since then the governor and corporate reform advocates in the Michigan Legislature have tried unsuccessfully to expand the EAA into a statewide district.

Snyder released a statement on the state website following Conforme’s appointment.

“Veronica Conforme’s experience and talents will ensure that EAA students will continue to receive the quality education they need and deserve. Her work in New York City includes serving in key roles in finance and other areas of administration as well as being a strong advocate for helping low-income students reach their potential,” the governor’s statement said. “Ms. Conforme already has worked with the EAA team and her strong leadership and compassion will help ensure a seamless transition while EAA board members work through a search and selection process.”

Ms. Conforme attended public schools in the Bronx and graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School in Lower Manhattan. She has a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University and a master’s in public policy from Columbia University, according to WNYC website.

The board approved the hiring of Mario Morrow as executive director for public relations communications. He will be paid $150,000 a year. He is a former principal at Mumford, now an EAA school, and was superintendent at Albion. Albion has since lost its high school, students are now transported to Marshall High School.


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