published Thursday, September 19th, 2013

Signing petition gets school leader's testimony canceled

PETITION GOING TO GOVERNOR

A petition criticizing Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, signed by least 55 school superintendents, is on its way to Gov. Bill Haslam.

The petition was started by Dan Lawson, director of Tullahoma City Schools.

In their petition, superintendents said that Huffman's office "has no interest in a dialogue" with local school officials as he seeks to reshape Tennessee's system of education. As a result, the petition says, teachers are demoralized.

Haslam said the issue has not come up in talks he has had with small groups of superintendents.

"That's why I said in my response I was disappointed," Haslam told reporters earlier in the day. "I honestly feel discussion is the best way to handle things."

Among those signing the petition were directors or superintendents from Dayon, Franklin County, Manchester, Marion County, Meigs County and Van Buren County.

NASHVILLE — A Middle Tennessee school director said he was discouraged from testifying before a legislative panel on behalf of new student benchmarks after Gov. Bill Haslam's chief of staff learned he also had signed a petition criticizing Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on other issues.

Lawrence County Schools Director Bill Health made the assertion in an email sent to fellow school directors and superintendents. The email was obtained by the Times Free Press.

Heath did not return a call Wednesday. Nor did Wayne Miller, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

But in his email last week to other directors and superintendents, Health describes how he was asked to be "superintendents' voice" before state Senate Education Committee hearings on Common Core standards. The hearings begin today and go through Friday.

Common Core is an effort to standardize education benchmarks for students among the states. Forty-five states have signed, including Tennessee, but some state lawmakers are restive, with social conservatives complaining about some of what is taught. Liberals have their own issues.

Haslam, a Republican, backs the new standards and so does Heath.

In his email, Heath described meeting by teleconference last week with officials of Tennessee's State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a pro-education reform group that backs Common Core. Heath said SCORE's last question to him was whether he had signed the petition criticizing Huffman.

He had. The unprecedented petition/letter accuses the commissioner's office of having "no interest in a dialogue" with school leaders on various school reforms and says they feel Huffman sees teachers, principals and superintendents as "impediments to school improvement."

They said they were reaching out to Haslam and to state lawmakers because they believe their current efforts are "futile."

In his email, Heath said he explained to SCORE officials why he signed and noted it "could be a good thing" to be able to say that most superintendents, even those unhappy with Huffman in other areas, still "share a common vision" along with the commissioner in support of Common Core.

The phone call ended with an "everything sounds great," Heath said. But later in the day, SCORE officials contacted him. "After a few moments of apologies I was informed that Mark Cate, the governor's chief of staff, had made the call to go in another direction. There was a fear that the letter/petition might become the topic and the focus would not be" on the Common Core standards," he said he was told.

Haslam spokesman David Smith said in response to a request to speak with Cate that he was "tied up" Wednesday afternoon.

But, Smith said in his email, "as Mark said, and Supt. Heath agreed, we didn't want to distract from the focus of the hearings, which is Common Core."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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