Tenn. Chief Slammed by More Than 60 Local Superintendents

By Andrew Ujifusa — September 12, 2013 3 min read
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More than 60 school superintendents in Tennessee have registered their official complaints about Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, stating in a letter that “we are not respected or valued” by current leadership in the department and that the “unique culture” of the state is not valued by K-12 officials.

The full letter listing grievances about Huffman, which was written by Tullahoma City schools Superintendent Dan Lawson and supported by a total of 63 superintendents, can be read at the Chattanooga Times Free Press website. It notes that in addition to the superintendents themselves, many of their employees “feel voiceless and powerless.”

“We request that Governor [Bill] 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 and the concerns of many of our parents, teachers and principals,” Lawson wrote in his letter.

An Associated Press story concerning the letter notes that Lawson was spurred to write it when Huffman’s department decided to withhold $3.4 million in funding from Nashville public schools last year because the district refused to authorize a charter school. But there have been several other controversial changes to Tennessee’s K-12 policy under Huffman’s leadership. They include the recent decision to eliminate master’s degree bonuses for teachers, as well as most of the state’s previous salary steps for educators, who in turn have protested these changes, as my colleague Stephen Sawchuk has documented. The state has also instituted the statewide Achievement School District that takes away districts’ control over certain struggling schools. And even though the state isn’t necessarily a prime player in the Memphis-Shelby County district merger, it’s a tremendously complicated story which my colleague Jackie Zubrzycki is following, and Memphis is a part of the Achievement School District.

Kelli Gauthier, a spokesman for the department, told the AP that Huffman had not seen the letter, but that the commissioner’s “sole focus is on student achievement and improving education” in the state.

I rang up Wayne Miller, the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), to talk about Lawson’s letter. (There are 136 local school districts in the state.) Now, TOSS is not responsible for the letter and didn’t approve it in any official way. But when I talked to Miller, he did say that the sheer volume of reforms being implemented by Huffman’s department had taken its toll on superintendents, when combined with relatively low funding. (A new report published today by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank, reported that from fiscal years 2008 to 2014, Tennessee’s per-student spending increased by 1.4 percent, but Miller said the state’s K-12 finance scheme still is weak compared to other states, a statement backed up by the National Education Association recent report on school data.)

“It has been frustrating to keep up with,” Miller said of the various policy changes.

A major gap in capabilities, in both human and financial resources, persists in the state between larger districts and smaller ones, Miller said. Some districts, he said, have 150 administrators they can call on to implement policies, while others only have four.

Regarding the districts’ relationship with Huffman, Miller said in his view it’s more complicated than what Lawson presented in his letter. While districts haven’t yet reached the level of collaboration they’d like with the state department, he said, there’s been improvement on that front in recent years.

“We’ve had a voice at the table. Has that voice always steered the direction? Probably not,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.