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Education Achievement Authority appoints interim chancellor, plans big budget cuts

EAA chancellor Veronica Conforme.
via Education Achievement Authority

It’s only Wednesday, but it’s already been a very turbulent week for the Education Achievement Authority.

The EAA board met Tuesday, the day after former Chancellor John Covington announced he was resigning for personal reasons. Covington was not in attendance as board members accepted his resignation.

The EAA is a state-led “reform district” for Michigan’s lowest-performing schools.

It’s Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief education initiative, and Covington has been at the helm since it launched in 2012 with 15 former Detroit Public Schools.

The EAA was controversial from the start, and came under fire on a number of fronts during Covington’s tenure.

The district’s enrollment has plummeted, from more than 8,800 students to just over 6,700 in its first two years, according to state data.

There have been persistent budget troubles, high teacher turnover, and transparency concerns. Even some supporters have questioned the district's management, and wondered whether students were making real academic gains.

Most recently, a Detroit News investigation uncovered that the district spent at least $286,000 on travel expenses in the past two years – some of it taken from funds that could have gone to the classroom.

These issues have been a concern for state lawmakers. So far, they have blocked Gov. Snyder’s efforts to formalize the district's legal status as the state's go-to turnaround schools operator, and expand its presence beyond Detroit.

That seems unlikely to change after Tuesday’s board meeting, where the EAA unveiled its proposed budget for the upcoming school year. It projects that revenues will drop almost 25% – from more than $112 million to just over $86 million.

Harry Pianko, deputy chancellor for financial affairs, said previous budgets included private grants and donations to cover start-up costs the district no longer has.

But Pianko said the new budget also reflects the decrease in state funding that comes with declining enrollment.

“It is lower because, while we are expecting to have an increase in students, we are budgeting conservatively,” Pianko said. “So we are budgeting a 9-10% decrease in students from where we are now.”

Pianko said there will be “appropriate” staff cuts as a result.

A number of EAA employees, mostly support staff and special education instructors, came to the board meeting to challenge non-renewal notices they had received.

Greg Galperin, a reading intervention specialist at Henry Ford High School, called his “devastating.”

“We have a school that probably has 50-60% of our teachers leaving this year,” Galperin said. “And the students know this. So when they ask, and I can’t give them an answer of whether or not I’ll be there (next year), it’s very difficult.”

Noting that Henry Ford has struggled even when compared to other EAA schools, Galperin called his job there “essential.”

“I don’t know why anybody would cut an intervention position for a school that is … in trouble,” Galperin said.

The EAA board has until June 30 to approve a final budget for the upcoming school year.

The board also voted to make Veronica Conforme the EAA’s interim chancellor while it searches for a permanent replacement.

Conforme is a veteran of the New York City public schools, serving most recently as chief operating officer. She’s also worked as an advisor to the EAA since January.

“I believe in the EAA. Children whose needs were not being met in the past are now flourishing, enriched by student-centered and blended-learning approaches,” Conforme wrote in a letter to the school community.

Acknowledging that “there is much more work to do,” Conforme said she is “determined to build upon our successes and improve upon our weaknesses.”

Gov. Snyder also issued a statement praising Conforme's selection.

“Veronica Conforme’s experience and talents will ensure that EAA students will continue to receive the quality education they need and deserve,” Snyder said. “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.”

Thomas Pedroni, a Wayne State University education professor and frequent EAA critic, was skeptical about the leadership change. He suggested the move had more to do with deflecting the criticism that had mounted during Covington’s tenure.

“The basic personnel are still in place, and the basic program is still in place,” Pedroni said. “I don’t think it will fundamentally address some of the core problems of the EAA, and I don't expect to see a lot of changes.”

Conforme will be publicly introduced and further outline her vision for the district at a press conference this morning.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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