Friday, June 29, 2012

Governing Board Meeting June 28th Public Comment

The following are the remarks I, Christina Bartholomew, prepared and delivered at last night's Governing Board meeting.  While I have tried to be as accurate and as detailed as possible in preparing my remarks, it is possible that I have made a few errors.  If so, I appreciate respectful, polite and private correction.  These are my own views based on my understanding of events and do not necessarily reflect the views of others who have posted on this blog.

Since it is unlikely I will be able to present my full prepared remarks in the time given tonight, I have brought copies for each Board member and would like to ask that a copy of them be entered into the public record and included with tonight’s minutes.  Thank you.

I have always felt that Freedom Academy is my school.  We’ve been at the school for six years and have spent many, many hours volunteering and working to help the school.  I imagine that many other parents and teachers would say the same thing.  Freedom Academy is not just a school for many of our parents and teachers; it is a second home.  In fact, the main appeal of Freedom Academy and other charter schools is that they are supposed to be run by and accountable to the parents whose children attend.

Parents and teachers at this school need to have a voice that is respected in its decisions.  I am concerned that in recent years, we have lost the important voices that are needed in order to make our school great.  We are losing many good parents, students, and teachers because they no longer feel they have a respected voice in the direction of this school. 

At the last Governing Board meeting, the PTO president spoke of one family leaving because they couldn’t handle the homework levels at this school.  She then spoke of how wonderful it is that we have such high standards.  I agree it is important for us to have high standards, but I have also spoken to this same family who is leaving, and while homework is one factor in their decision, there are many, many more factors involved in the decision, including the loss of many of Freedom Academy’s Specialties and the feeling that the high school is taking resources and focus away from the lower grades.  This is a family who has wonderful students and that has consistently and unceasingly donated hundreds of volunteer hours each year.  Our school’s charter requires us to have “family retention” as one of our long-term goals.  I am concerned that because of recent events and practices, we are failing at that goal.  I would like to suggest that in the future, we do anonymous polling of those who are leaving to find out how we can better serve and retain our good families.

There are multiple reasons the parents at this school feel that they have lost their voice.  I wish to outline a few of them in the remainder of my remarks. 

First, I want to go on record as stating that I am not opposed to a Freedom Academy High School.  I personally feel that my children will have more opportunities if they attend the larger area high schools because of their excellent academic and extracurricular programs, but I do understand the appeal of a small, focused high school.  If the vast majority of parents are informed about the real costs of a high school, the impact on the lower grades, and the curriculum and still support a high school, then I would suggest that a Freedom Academy high school has a good chance of being successful.  

I do, however, have grave concerns about the school moving forward with a high school because of the following unresolved issues:

1.       Board meetings occur with very little notice and concern for parents’ busy schedules.  For example, I heard two weeks ago from my neighborhood representative that this meeting was going to be held tonight.  I was going to be out of town today, but because I knew two weeks in advance, I was able to rearrange things so that I could be here tonight.  The majority of parents at the school, however, were given notice only yesterday via email.  The school’s website calendar didn’t show a Board meeting until yesterday.  This might not matter as much if it was easy to find out information about what occurs at Board meetings.  However, that is not the case.

2.       Accurate and unbiased information is difficult to obtain and not shared with the parent body.  It is extremely difficult for parents to be informed of how and why decisions are made at the school.  By law, minutes from Board meetings are required to be posted and information about finances, past Board meeting agendas and other important studies, surveys and documents are supposed to be a matter of public record.  Parents are supposed to have a way of knowing what occurs at Board meetings without having to attend them.
a.       Minutes from Board meetings are not available.  There are multiple instances of minutes not being posted online and this situation is on-going.  For example, there have been three important Board meetings held this spring with significant discussion and decisions made, yet none of those minutes have been posted.  At the last Board meeting, Ken Parkinson stated that all of these minutes were available to anyone who wanted them, but in actuality, it isn’t that simple.  I was required to pay for copies of the minutes I asked for in May, costing me about $30.  More recently, I asked two and a half weeks ago to be given copies of the last Board meeting minutes, and the financial documents handed out and have yet to receive them. 
b.       The Proposal to add the 9-12 grades that was taken to the State two years ago was not approved, posted, or circulated to the parents.  This, despite the requirement that any movement that changes Freedom Academy’s charter requires not just a 6-1 vote of the Board (which was not done) but also a vote of ratification by a majority of the parents.
c.       Questions are not being answered.  Many individuals have asked objective and important questions about on-site and off-site expansion and most especially about its financial impact.  Most questions have been ignored.  For example:
                                                  i.      Traffic Studies.  Many neighbors and parents are concerned about the safety of children in the neighborhood.  The school has stated that they’ve done “extensive study on this issue” and Chris Helvey stated at the last meeting that all of the safety and traffic concerns had been resolved with on-site expansion and that the only reason it wasn’t going forward was because of builder financing.  However, multiple people have asked to see copies of the traffic studies and the safety plans and have received no response. 
                                                ii.      Financial documents.  At the last governing board meeting, a budget was passed out to Board members.  This should be a matter of public record, yet no copies were made available to the audience or to the public during or after the meeting.  I sent an email on May 23rd asking to be given a copy and received no response.  I followed up with a phone call to the school on June 11th asking for copies of this budget and received no response.  Other individuals have also tried to follow up and ask about the financial implications of a high school and have also been ignored.
Because of the lack of clear and open communication at the school, most parents have to rely on rumors and discussions with other parents or employees to make their decisions, rather than on actual and published facts.

3.       Board members are not given adequate time to consider important decisions and peruse important documents before votes are taken.  There have been too many “urgent” decisions made in recent months that have made it difficult for Board members to really consider all the information needed and, most especially, to gather the voice of the parents and others involved before voting.  To name just one example, it is my understanding that a budget for next school year will be presented tonight and a vote of approval will be expected to go forward without the Board members having the time to adequately read the budget, consider the implications and changes proposed, or ask other parents for their input and ideas.

4.       Objective Surveys of Parental Opinions in regards to the high school have not been performed.  There were several surveys done in 2009 and 2010, but though the school has stated these showed a “93% support for expansion,” there is no way to verify how accurate that information is, what questions were asked, or how many responded to those surveys, since no copies of this survey have been produced.  In the past several years, as more decisions have been made about the high school, and especially in the last two months, multiple individuals have encouraged the school to survey the current parent body.  Still, no surveys have been done.  One individual was told that once the decision was made to move forward with the high school, “parental comment was closed at that point.”  Another individual was told that it wouldn’t be fair to survey the parents since not everyone at the school speaks English.  A third individual was told that surveys weren’t needed because the school already knew how the parents felt about expansion and it wouldn’t be fair to the ninth-graders.  I have several concerns with these responses.  The biggest, however, is that this is a charter school.  At a charter school, parental comment should never be closed.  The input and involvement of all the parents need to be considered and acted upon, particularly when it concerns something so fundamental as changes in our charter and our school name.  At the last Board meeting, Mrs. Herring stated that in recent weeks, two surveys had been done by parents.  She then gave the results of these surveys.  Since I wasn’t surveyed and no one I’ve talked to was surveyed, I wondered what these surveys were that Mrs. Herring referred to.  Who was surveyed?  What questions were asked?  How valid is the information?  I asked the front desk these questions and the employee there did not know anything about these surveys.  I asked her to find out and get me copies of the responses, but have received no response.  It seems deceptive on the one hand to refuse to do an accurate and unbiased school-wide survey and then on the other hand to quote the results of two independent surveys that certainly don’t represent the views of the entire student body.

5.       Rather than answering questions, providing information, and encouraging the input of teachers and parents at the school, and then leaving it up to the Board to make the final decision, the administration and some Board members have actively campaigned for their point of view.  Students were not treated equally in regards to their high school choice and peer pressure was used inappropriately for the benefit of those who wanted to advocate for a Freedom Academy high school.  These actions have involved students inappropriately, distracting from the learning environment.  Some students took license from the administration’s strong stance to bully those who were attending other high schools or whose parents had opposing viewpoints.   I sent an email outlining some of my concerns about this to Mrs. Herring on May 10.  I received no response to my email and in the ensuing weeks, events of this nature continued to occur:
a.       Students wishing to attend other schools were not treated equally.  Some individuals wishing to register for Provo High missed ideal registration times because Provo High counselors were not allowed to come to Freedom Academy’s campus.  This is a change from prior years.
b.       Eighth-graders who went to the front office asking how to register for Provo High were told “That’s not our problem.”
c.       On several occasions, students signed up for Freedom’s high school were given privileges not extended to other students at the school.  For example, they were taken to a private residence owned by the school for a high school pep rally and pizza party. 
d.       Petitions in favor of on-site expansion were placed prominently at the front office and circulated three different times.  At the same time, those students whose parents signed a petition opposed to on-site expansion were singled out.  Several eighth-grade students in this situation were confronted multiple times by their peers, asking them why their parents signed it, questioning their parents’ intelligence, and saying things like, “I can’t believe they signed it.”
e.       One student planning on another high school had been given a Freedom Academy High School T-shirt for doing volunteer work.  When she wore this shirt on T-shirt and jeans day, she was approached by several students who told her that she didn’t deserve to wear this T-shirt.
f.        Class time was devoted to a debate about whether the high school should be placed on site, with the result that students opposed to a high school were further singled out and targeted.  One student made the comment in class, “If you don’t want the high school here, you should just move away.”  Nothing was done to stop the debate and students who tried to give opposing opinions felt they weren’t given equal time.  The debate continued into recess.
g.       The Board CAO worked diligently just before the last Board meeting to spread the word through the neighborhood that their concerns about traffic and safety had been heard and that the administration was no longer going to recommend on-site expansion.  The result was that many neighbors, feeling their concerns had been addressed, stayed home from this meeting.
h.       At the same time, certain Board members and the administration worked hard to make sure the May Board meeting was packed with those whose opinions matched their own.  Parents with students signed up for the high school were called and personally invited to attend the meeting as well as asked if they were still committed to the high school.  At the same time, peer pressure was effectively used to get the eighth-graders to come to the meeting.  The students were attending Lagoon that day and the word was spread among them that they should come to the Board meeting that night because “Mrs. Parkinson is bribing us with pizza to show up and say good things about the high school.” (a direct quote from a student who was in a friend’s car).
i.        After the public comment period, pizza was served to eighth-graders who came to the Board meeting held in May.
j.        While some of these things perhaps just show poor judgment and not ill intent, the cumulative effect of these events was that many students had a very difficult experience their last few months at their beloved K-8 school. 
k.       These events also cast doubt on what might happen in the future if a high school is added.  Will eighth-graders every year be seen as recruits to boost numbers at Freedom Academy high school?  Will there be division and acrimony and peer pressure every year?  Will students who want to attend other high schools be respected and encouraged in their school choice?  Is this an issue we want to deal with every year?  Freedom Academy is a school of choice, and all choices need to be respected.

6.       Valuable resources – in time, talent, and finances -- are being taken from the K-8 school in order to support the high school and parents are not being informed of these issues.  Specifically:
a.       Despite our charter’s limiting class sizes to 25 students per class and 75 per grade, for a total of 675, budgets are being written that show a total student body next fall of 800 students.  The high school currently has less than 55 committed students.  Unless the school is planning on somehow finding an additional 70 high school students before fall, it is clear that the only way to have 800 students in the fall would be to add students to the younger grades, thus overcrowding the K-8 school and violating our charter.  
b.       The vast majority of time in Board meetings in recent years has been spent discussing, debating, and considering issues relating to the addition of a high school, leaving little time for the important and vital needs of the current K-8 students.  For example, issues of specialties, safety, goals, achievement,  have been put aside on multiple occasions because of lack of time.
c.       Administration and staff members at the current school have spent “countless hours” working on high school-related issues:  hiring, scheduling, dealing with petitions and concerns from neighbors and political leaders, drafting and encouraging the signing of their own petition, finding locations, etc.  This is all time that takes away from the current students.
d.       Electives and curriculum in the seventh and eighth grade this fall are suffering because of decisions about the high school.  French is no longer being offered nor is any language other than Latin.  I asked the reason and was told that Mrs. Flewellen would only have time to teach one French class in the fall and that would be offered only to the high school students.  Latin is now required of both seventh and eighth grade students, with no way to opt out.  Orchestra was cut two years ago and is still not being offered.  In fact, the only choices my eighth-grader was offered for next year was a choice between two PE options for one semester and a choice between art and choir for the other semester.  Our valuable seventh and eighth graders deserve better.  Parental voices need to be heard and their concerns addressed.

Though there are many issues that Freedom Academy needs to address, I do want to say that there are also many wonderful things at this school.  The parents are very involved.  The teachers and administrators are kind and loving towards our children.  Our school’s wellness policy is a model for other schools in the state.  We’ve had some amazing Spanish and music programs in the past that I’d love to see re-instated.  We’ve had some great drama, track, and other programs I’d like to see continue. 

At the same time, many of our most committed parents and teachers are leaving the school because of issues like the ones I’ve described.  Others want to voice their opinion but fear that their children will be targeted and treated differently if they say anything.  I understand these concerns because I’ve felt the same way.  Because of the lack of clear and open communication from the Board and the administration and a lack of tolerance for opposing viewpoints, many of our best and brightest teachers and families are feeling silenced and are leaving the school.  For the good of the school, this can’t be allowed to continue.

It’s time for the parents and teachers at this school to be given a voice.  It’s time for emails to be responded to, questions to be answered, and parents to feel included in decisions.  It’s time for more information to be shared openly so that there is clear communication to rely on, not just rumor.  It’s time for better communication, more openness, and more transparency.  I give my voice as one who wants to work together to see Freedom Academy improve and work through these issues and emerge on the other side as a stronger school.