Fort Worth schools superintendent Melody Johnson got a three-year extension on her contract last night with a 6-3 vote, again benefitting from the lopsided board majority she continues to have in her corner —but she didn’t get a raise. (‘Course she really doesn’t need one. She draws a yearly salary of $328,950, not including perks, and is one of the highest paid supers in the state.) She will stay on until June 2013.
Not bad for a superintendent who, according to Trustee Ann Sutherland, has taken this district from being second from the top in 2005 among the major Texas cities in achieving the highest TAKS test scores in the state to being second from the bottom during Johnson’s tenure from 2005 through 2009.
“I find that just plain alarming,” Sutherland told the board after passing out a paper she prepared from statistics from the Texas Education Agency showing just how far Fort Worth students have fallen in all categories, from the state achievement test scores to closing the achievement gap between minority students and white kids, under Johnson.
In February 2005, when Johnson was hired to replace superintendent and long-time Fort Worth educator Joe Ross, (who had taken over 18 months earlier after Thomas Tocco was pushed out in disgrace following a scandal that cost the district more than $10 million in a fraudulent concrete bidding scheme), Ross left Johnson with a district whose 52 percent passing test scores were second only to Austin’s.
Fort Worth kids were outpacing Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso students by two to four percentage points occupying “A stellar place,” Sutherland said.
But by 2009, under Johnson’s administration, “all districts except San Antonio have passed us up,” Sutherland pointed out. The district’s scores have fallen to second from the bottom, outpaced by all the other urban districts by an average of nine percentage points.
While the average scores in all the urban districts have gone up during that time, Sutherland said, Fort Worth school kids are obviously “losing ground. …This is very serious. We need to roll up our sleeves and get busy,” she told the board.
Sutherland also said she had a “greater concern” about the progress – or lack thereof – in the much-vaunted “closing of the achievement gap” between the scores of African American, Hispanic and Anglo students. The gap has widened dramatically under Johnson, according to the TEA statistics Sutherland presented.
Between 2003 and 2005, African American students were improving their passing rates by an average of 6.5 percent per year; Hispanics by 7 percent. Then, between 2005 and 2009, African American students dropped to 2.5 percent per year; Hispanics to 3 percent. Even Anglo’s passing rates fell from an average of 5 percent growth per year in the three years prior to Johnson’s hiring to an average of 1.75 percent from 2005 through 2009. All students were increasing their test scores by an average of 6 percent per year during the 2003-2005 school years. Then, between 2005 and 2009, that rate fell to 2.5 percent per year.
And even though, overall, the district’s test scores are going up, Sutherland argued that Fort Worth is still lagging behind, outscored by the other urban districts that we once were leading. “We need to change course,” she said. “Whatever they [other districts] are doing, we should be doing.”
Sutherland then said, “As much as I admire Dr. Johnson, I can’t vote for an extension of her contract or a raise.” Trustees Juan Rangel and Carlos Vasquez voted with her.
Even before Sutherland presented her paper to the board, an African American civic leader, Isaiah Woods of the Southeast Kingdom Neighborhood Association, chastised Johnson for the district’s failure to stem the high dropout rates among young black males. “The dropout rates have been rising in our community for the past five years. Melody Johnson is not doing her job,” he told the board during the public comment period.
“If you [Johnson] get [your contract renewed] then nothing will change, it will just get worse.” He warned that there must be accountability from the board, especially the African American trustees Christene Moss and T. A. Sims, both of whom have been board members for more than 20 years. “If that doesn’t happen,” he said, “we will organize.”
In other business, board president Ray Dickerson clashed with Sutherland over her repeated requests for public information, claiming that she was “overwhelming” the staff. Sutherland replied that if the administration would respond to her requests for documents, she wouldn’t be forced to file a public information request, pointing out that all citizens have the right to request public documents.
There was one victory for the mostly outvoted minority crew of Sutherland, Vasquez and Rangel when the board decided to postpone for 90 days a decision on granting drilling rights to XTO and Chesapeake Energy for gas wells that would be far too close to two elementary schools, Daggett Montessori and Wilson Elementary.
The superintendent recommended that the leases be granted in spite of the closeness to the schools, the possible dangers to children, and district rules that state that, minus a waiver, no wells can be drilled closer than 1,200 feet to a public school. She favors a waiver.
Johnson’s rationale: The district’s need for the $183,062 “non-tax revenue” the wells would bring in in bonus money, with royalties of 25 percent.
For several months Rangel and Vasquez, joined by Sutherland and trustee Tobi Jackson, have been meeting with industry reps, one of whom spoke in favor of the leases last night, and League of Neighborhood reps, many of whom showed up to speak against granting the leases. Their appeals worked. There will be another three months for the board reps to meet and hammer out an agreement, if one can be made, that will guarantee the safety of the well sites. If that’s not forthcoming, it looks like XTO and Chesapeake will have to fold their tents and silently slip away.