With just a few days before school starts, FLORIDA TODAY sat down with Superintendent Desmond Blackburn to talk about his takeaways from the year before and his goals for the year ahead.
Heading into his third school year as superintendent for Brevard Public Schools, he’s prioritized testing reform, teacher raises, protecting district money and beefing up security across the county’s 82 campuses.
Q: What were the school district’s biggest accomplishments this past school year? And what are your priorities leading into the upcoming year?
After two years of stagnation of third-grade reading scores we had a 5 percent increase there. At the other end of the spectrum there’s continuing to work on graduating our kids from our school system, and we broke into the top 10 of all districts in the state with an 87.5 percent graduation rate. And all of that working together with some other academic indicators and earning another A for the school district, up from a B.
That said, 65 percent of our kids in third-grade knowing how to read is great, unless you’re part of the 35 percent who can’t. And an 87.5 percent graduation rate is phenomenal — that is, unless you’re part of the 12.5 percent who can’t go on and fulfill your dreams. So as happy as I am about the accomplishment, I really can’t even come close to raising a victory flag until both of those numbers are much higher.
Q: Testing reform was at the forefront of the Legislative Session this past spring, but locally the BPS lobbying efforts focused on getting flexible testing options so students could take tests with paper and pencil. Is a complete overhaul of the accountability system still a top priority for you?
I will not and I have not stopped my call for testing reform and evaluation reform and continued reform of our entire accountability system. We’re not going to test a kid into learning, we’re not going to evaluate a teacher into kids learning.
The paper-pencil situation is pretty significant. It causes schools and school districts to spend what little capital resources they have and we have on machines, and those machines are primarily used for assessment. It requires schools to pause or eliminate the ways those machines are used, in our media centers, in our labs for other curricular reasons. I mean you literally have to suspend those programs and services while kids are testing.
Q: Charter schools were also a big part of the conversation in Tallahassee. A law was passed that requires the school district to share property taxes with charter schools. Why was that something you urged the governor to veto?
I’m definitely a pro-school choice kind of person. I think whatever program or school or entity is good for the family, the child, the community, they should have the opportunity. Everything’s all good until money gets into the conversation. If you go back a couple decades ago to the national charter movement … it was supposed to be cost neutral in that resources would not be taken from the traditional environment.
Education requires additional funding, not robbing from Peter to pay Paul from an already limited pot of resources. That is just poor practice for the ecosystem of collaboration.
Superintendent Desmond Blackburn with Rick Fleming,
Superintendent Desmond Blackburn with Rick Fleming, principal of West Shore Junior Senior High School in Melbourne, and Candace Jones, assistant principal at Hans Christian Andersen Elementary in Rockledge. Fleming and Jones were named Brevard Public Schools’ principal and assistant principal of the year on Tuesday. (Photo: Courtesy Candace Jones)
Q: Will BPS be joining the lawsuit against the state in response to the new law?
We haven’t had the conversation as a board on whether or not we’re joining the lawsuit.
There were portions of HB 7069 that we were advocates for: the scale-back of assessments, making assessments transparent to communities. I will tell you that when it was approved, after me publicly being opposed to many things, I sent our local delegation via text and I reiterated my concerns but informed them that their superintendent will now turn the corner and continue making Brevard Public Schools the very, very best district in the nation with their partnership.
Q: Security has also been a priority, as the board approved accelerating half-cent sales tax projects to get fences, cameras and remote-controlled locks installed at every school by spring. But in today’s post-Sandy Hook, post-Columbine world, is it enough?
There’s still things that we need to do … to continue to harden our facilities. I’m living in this world right along with everyone else, and it has changed dramatically from when you and I were kids, and I don’t think today we can be too safety conscious. If you think back to how airports used to be structured, that’s changed so dramatically.
Another example, a domestic episode happens in an employee’s home Monday evening and some spouse decides to go up to the workplace the next day and continue that domestic disturbance. Those are real-life situations that we have to be worried about. And also, we have exceptional education students who, as part of their disability, sometimes they run. So those security fences, they keep the wrong people out, but they also assist to keep the right people safe and free from harm.
Q: A recent hot topic in the board room has been centralizing school accounts and using an armored car, after two bookkeepers embezzled $278,000 over several years. It’s gotten a lot of pushback from the community. Why do you think that is?
This fixes previous issues, it’s proactive at preventing what could happen in the future, it reduces employee time on this particular task and it’s a cost savings. If you had a criminal that broke into your house, you would do something different to the locks on your door. I don’t know why of all of our strategic initiatives, why that one recommendation that’s actually more efficient, less costly, has generated the concern.
Q: This year, you and the school board have prioritized at least a 1 percent raise as a critical expense. What is the board doing to make sure teachers get raises this year?
We’re able to do that because of our own belt-tightening. We closed our district for winter break – that’s a cost saving. We are budgeting salary lapse dollars from when veteran staff members retire, resign or whatever and we hire more and more novice employees. We went through our district department and we reduced district departments by $900,000. And lastly, taking a look at the Federally Connected dollars that we have received and making a recommendation to the board to apply that to the operating costs. Because of that fiscal conservative approach that we’ve taken … we now have the resources to even talk about a raise, and we have the resources to even talk about reopening South Lake, we’re able to add our literacy coaches, we’re able to hire social workers, we’re able to expand our gifted program.
Educators in this country are not in the social ranking that we belong. Without the educator, you don’t have the lawyer, you don’t have the doctor, you don’t have the accountant, you don’t have the business tycoon, you don’t have the reporter, you don’t have the plumber, you don’t have the mechanic, you don’t have the military personnel. Without the educator, you have none of those people. I wholeheartedly understand the frustration that’s felt.
One of the things I will tell you does trouble me is the narrative that’s created around the board, superintendent not caring about teachers, not wanting to increase compensation. That narrative troubles me because it’s so different than what the truth is.