The State Board of Education approved the Department of Education’s recommendation to grant the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency (AEA) conditional accreditation at their meeting Thursday, citing issues with the AEA’s finances, leadership and board.
Background: A 10-person team from the Department of Education conducted an on-site visit to the AEA from Nov. 27–29 after the agency had spent four years in a row with a negative budget. During the visit — which Chief of the Bureau of School Improvement Amy Williamson said was comparable to what would be called a “Phase II” visit for a district — the team reviewed documents, with an emphasis on finances, and interviewed 160 AEA staff, district staff, nonpublic school staff and parents.
In Iowa, the nine AEAs oversee multiple districts and nonpublic schools to ensure all students have equal education opportunities, with a focus on special-education services.
During a special board meeting Tuesday night, the AEA board voted to “acknowledge receipt” of the state’s report from the November visit. The board changed the language from voting to “accept” the report, citing concerns about how the visit was conducted.
Conversation: “Our view is that Mississippi Bend is about 2 ½ years of about five years of improvements,” AEA board Vice-President Joe Adam said. “We recognize we’re not where our stakeholders would like us to be. … It would be the board’s intention to work very closely and very collaboratively with the Department of Education.”
While AEA Chief Administrator Bill Decker reiterated during both the special AEA board meeting and the state board meeting that he and the board didn’t want to expend effort trying to prove the state wrong, his administrative response was largely about discrepancies between the report and how his team interpreted information and data.
“I’m not here to dispute what [Williamson] has given you, other than that we don’t think it’s a complete story,” he said. “ … The process in the past has always included some interviews and a data search, and there’s always been a chance to interact. Those two things did not happen. We don’t want to recreate what we did in 2015. We don’t want to create an adversarial relationship that, frankly, we felt like it did in 2015, and that might still be going on.”
The AEA refuted a separate board report in 2015 with a 17-page letter describing their complaints; the visit was re-conducted, and those problems did not come up again.
On Thursday, members of the state board cited concerns with the board’s function.
“It’s my opinion that your board is not well-informed of your duties and your powers,” Director Mary Ellen Miller said.
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Director Josh Byrnes referenced some comments from AEA board member Ralph Johanson, published in the Times, where Johanson said he was philosophically opposed to giving in to “big government.”
“It presents this image that there’s a dartboard at the department and we decide who we’re going to pick on,” Byrnes said. “That’s not how this operates.”
Johansen was not mentioned by name and was not in attendance. He voted to approve that the board “acknowledge receipt” of the state report.
Adam, who has vocalized his concerns about board attendance, said he agreed the board could be more involved.
“Frankly, I agree with you — some of the meetings have been too short,” he said. “We could do a better job delving into the financial situation.”
Contributing to the agency’s financial issues, Decker said, was receiving the wrong information from a former business administrator, which informed decisions made by the state board, Decker and the rest of the AEA board.
“There’s nothing that I have put my time toward or been more concerned about than correcting that information,” he said. “ … I am all about working to get better. I don’t want to put our energy toward fighting about it. I will learn. Our board is committed to learning.”
Next Steps: Decker said he hopes to organize a “non-confrontational” conversation with the state department to talk about some concerns in the report, while reiterating that he does not want to waste time or energy proving the state wrong. Such a meeting has not been scheduled.
One of the recommendations for the AEA was for an outside expert mentor to be hired and paid by the Department of Education for “at least a year” to work with the AEA’s board, finances and leadership. Williams said it didn’t necessarily need to be three different people, and she didn’t see it as a full-time position.
“The reason we’re offering to pay for it is Mississippi Bend already has some financial strain, and the Department of Education has a responsibility to make sure they can meet their obligations,” she said.
Following conditional accreditation, the AEA will receive a remediation plan, followed by a second accreditation team visit, which would generate a new report. The state board would then vote for full accreditation, conditional accreditation or dissolution of the MBAEA.
“The period of time for conditional accreditation is entirely up to the board,” she said. “ … All of the timelines are up to you.”