Embattled Fort Worth school board trustee Ann Sutherland is no stranger to conflict with school district officials.
Two years ago she was censured for asking too many questions. Last year she was threatened by the district’s lawyer while testifying on behalf of whistleblower Joe Palazzolo after she said, among other things, that she thought there was widespread bullying of staff throughout the district. She was even accused by some board members of conspiring against the district during the trial. And in 2013, then-Superintendent Walter Dansby and then-board president Judy Needham refused to allow some of Sutherland’s issues to be placed on the board agenda, which led to a public showdown.
The more things change with the school district, the more they stay the same. Though Dansby is gone and Needham is no longer the board’s president, their replacements — Pat Linares and Norman Robbins, respectively — are continuing the district’s tradition of ostracizing Sutherland. They’ve refused to allow two items on the agenda that Sutherland thinks are important.
Back in 2013, Sutherland was beating the drum against raises given to district front-office employees. Now she’s fighting what are called short-cycle assessment tests, a series of exams given every three weeks, designed to prepare students for the STAAR standardized test.
She believes that the practice violates state law, is ineffective, and creates a bureaucratic nightmare for teachers. Sutherland wants the board to suspend the tests until some of the kinks are worked out and then reconsider whether to continue the practice.
She’s also upset about a staffer who complained to district officials about being bullied and allegedly was then demoted with a cut in pay for reporting the mistreatment. District policy allows for an employee to have a grievance hearing before the board. Sutherland wouldn’t name the employee for fear of further retaliation.
The refusal by Robbins and Linares to put her items on the agenda violates board policy, Sutherland said.
“This is a fundamental part of our democracy,” she said. Having elected officials on the school board “is a mechanism to make sure that the people who vote for people like me are heard. It’s the only way they can be heard formally.”
A district spokesperson said Linares was in meetings and could not respond to Fort Worth Weekly in time for this edition. Robbins did not respond to multiple e-mails requesting comment.
Board policy states that it is the superintendent’s job to place items on the agenda for the meeting and that any trustee can request that a subject be included. “The superintendent shall include on the preliminary agenda of the meeting all trustee-requested topics that have been timely submitted,” the policy also says.
It is then the president’s job to authorize the agenda. The board policy specifically states that the president does not have the authority to remove a trustee’s agenda item without that board member’s permission.
“It is time this board requires our superintendent and board president to follow this rule,” Sutherland said.
She said she’s received many complaints from parents and teachers about short-cycle testing.
Before adopting the three-week testing cycle in August, the district administered tests every nine weeks. The short-cycle tests are designed to be no more than 10 questions and take a maximum of 30 minutes. The rationale behind the tests is that they quickly give feedback so teachers can adjust lessons to address their students’ weaknesses. The system requires teachers to gather data after each test and fill out lengthy reports.
Steven Poole, managing director of the United Educators Association, told the board during its August meeting that the UEA would not support short-cycle tests. He called the tests a “paperwork treadmill” for teachers.
“Now what was an every-nine-week paper chase will become an every-three-week paper chase,” he said. “When will they have the time to implement the strategies they know will help their students the best, when they’re having to fill out 12 to 15 to 18 pages’ worth of data just to go to a meeting with their principal?
“This is not helping the teachers in the least,” he said.
A parent of two children at Bruce Shulkey Elementary School wrote a letter to Sutherland about the tests, which she posted on her blog.
The concerned father called the test’s questions poorly written and said they seemed intent on tricking the students, as opposed to testing their grasp of the subject. He said the instructions for the questions wAere ambiguous and the answer choices so close in meaning as to be nearly indistinguishable. He also pointed out several grammatical errors.
“My daughter comes home discouraged by a low score,” he wrote. “We go over the exam with her and have trouble telling her how she could have done better.
“My children are not below-average students struggling with routine tasks,” he said. “They were both identified in kindergarten as gifted and talented. They have two parents who care for them and participate in their education. Yet they struggle with this nonsense prepared by the district. Many students in our city do not have these advantages. If my children are struggling, how do you expect less-equipped students to succeed?”
Sutherland also worries that the frequency of testing violates state law, which bans school districts from spending too many class days on tests to prepare for the standardized exams.
She has asked that staffers research the legality of the tests but said she has so far been ignored.
Sutherland has also been trying to get a grievance hearing for the employee she believes experienced retaliation after reporting bullying. Sutherland declined to identify the staffer but cited the situation as another example of the school district’s habit of using fear, intimidation, and threats of retaliation to keep its employees in line.
She fears that the two issues she’s trying to get on the agenda will be swept under the rug the same way the district ignored her past requests.
In 2013 Sutherland was outraged by more than 100 raises given to central-office staff, at a time when more than 300 teachers were being laid off. She repeatedly asked the board to discuss the issue, but Dansby and Needham refused to put the item on the agenda.
Sutherland said the feeling of screaming in a vacuum is all too familiar.
“I never would have voted for Dr. Linares to be our superintendent if I thought she would continue the practice began by Dansby of ignoring these requests,” Sutherland said.