No class

New York-based Edison Schools flunked out with trying to privatize Sherman's public schools. Why should things be any different in Dallas?

"I do not believe we would have that had Edison not come into our schools," he says. "We'd still be writing on chalkboards and showing old filmstrips."

A lifelong Texan and public-school educator, Garrett judges Edison through a personal lens. He says he didn't particularly like the company's executives, who he believed were more focused on business affairs than on learning. He considers them "corporate types," not educators -- "and that would be fine for UPS, but not for schools," he says. "If they were a supplier of tires for the school district, we would have long since found another supplier."

It's difficult to reconcile the opposite perceptions held by those in Sherman who love Edison and those who think the company has fouled things up. After all, how can those fighting on the same side see things so differently? Perhaps Lorie Shanklin, Sherman's director of elementary education, has that answer. She claims many teachers who chafed under Edison simply don't talk about their corporate boss.

Edison Schools will pull out of Sherman in June, putting Washington Elementary back in the hands of SISD.
Mark Graham
Edison Schools will pull out of Sherman in June, putting Washington Elementary back in the hands of SISD.

"It's a very closed organization," she says. "If you work for Edison, teachers tell us, you just don't say anything."

But some teachers have spoken out. Kim Miller, a former first-grade teacher at Edison who left after the company's first year, complained to Sherman's Herald-Democrat that Edison didn't train her after she arrived two weeks into the 1995 school year. She signed her contract at 7 a.m. and began teaching at 7:30 a.m., later receiving informal help from other teachers (Edison's supporters say such problems were ironed out in later years). Miller said she liked Edison's special programs, but thought the company was "more interested in the business side of the school than in the education side." She declined an interview when contacted by the Observer.

A few blocks from Washington sits the Sherman school district's administration building, a converted high school. Manning the fort here are Garrett and David McConkey, Sherman's assistant superintendent for business, finance, and operations. (District superintendent Bob Denton recently retired and has not yet been replaced.)

Talk to Garrett, a tall and affable man, about the same school praised by teachers and parents, and he tells a completely different story, unloading five years of criticism against Edison built up during his close dealings with the firm.

"We have six elementary schools," Garrett says. "All five of the other schools have made more dramatic improvements in performance than [Washington]." He says Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) scores for Washington students classified as economically disadvantaged at Washington have shown little improvement in five years. The school -- which once, under Edison, barely escaped state classification as "low performing" -- ranks near the bottom of a state-compiled index of 40 schools with comparable economic and ethnic profiles.

Their beefs aren't limited to test scores. Garrett says Edison seemed unable to manage day-to-day school operations, neglecting to properly staff and train its teachers, cutting corners in academic and business affairs, and giving local administrators grief or delay whenever they called them on it. The problems commenced from day one, he says. In the chaotic first few weeks of Edison's occupation, he says, the company botched class schedules and sought to sidestep the Texas law that caps class size to 22 students per teacher.

"They says, 'No, no, we can get around that,'" Garrett recalls. "They really couldn't believe it was a law. I had to show it to them."

He insists the company's blunders hindered learning at Washington Elementary. He cites the fact that at the beginning of this school year, the company neglected to deliver crucial math materials until October. In addition, he says, Edison wasn't aggressive in recruiting bilingual teachers, despite the school's large population of students with limited English skills, and its special-education services were poor. Edison also offered no gifted and talented classes.

David McConkey, a quiet man who takes pains to praise Washington Elementary's teachers, also expresses disenchantment with the company. He says Edison routinely balked when he billed it for its share of transportation, cleaning, and other costs (in some cases, the firm failed to find cheaper contractors than the district). "They tried to play hardball with every single one of them," he says.

McConkey recalls that when the company cut corners on maintenance, he directed staff to work at Edison despite the company's contractual responsibility. "This building belongs to SISD taxpayers," he says. "We can't afford for it to go downhill."

Edison, insisting its record in Sherman is one of success, declines to comment on the two leaders' specific charges. "I'm not going to get into a tit for tat with the administrators," says Edison's Rivera, who claims Garrett and McConkey are exaggerating some incidents -- without offering specifics to refute their accusations.

Garrett estimates that the town lost $4.2 million -- or about $1 million a year -- under the contract because of "hidden costs" associated with Edison, mostly because of management duplication and other indirect expenses. The increased costs traced to Edison, Garrett says, have forced him to cut other schools' instructional-supply budgets by 10 percent. He estimates the district spends $1,300 more on each student at Washington Elementary and $1,000 more per student at Dillingham Intermediate's Edison section.

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