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Cassopolis joins districts signing for ‘Race to the Top’ grant competition

Published 3:07pm Thursday, January 14, 2010

By AARON MUELLER and KATIE JOHNSON
Cassopolis Vigilant

Count Cassopolis Public Schools among the 700-plus Michigan school districts and charter schools to sign the memorandum of understanding (MOU) to compete for the estimated $400 million of federal money available to Michigan schools as part of the “Race to the Top” program.

By a vote of 4-3 the board approved to sign the documents Monday night in the closest decision Superintendent Gregory Weatherspoon has ever seen. The district did so without the backing of its union representative.

“The game is on,” Weatherspoon said during the school board meeting.

The board debated the controversial decision, with three members voicing their opinions against the program.

“How much control of the district are we giving out?” asked trustee George Culvert, who said he favors local control for schools. “Our measures of evaluating our staff will be established by the federal government? We’re trusting the government to do what’s best for us?”

Weatherspoon said the program could help improve the teacher evaluation process, for example, both statewide and in Cassopolis.

“We need help on that greatly,” he said. “We have one of the weakest evaluation systems I’ve seen.”

Business manager Scott Thomas said “Race to the Top” could compare to testing standards.
“They might say each state needs to identify a mechanism to evaluate this data,” he explained.

“We as educators and administration have been so lackadaisical in this state,” president Christine Locke said.

Trustee Janet Hall said she didn’t see any red flags in the documents.

“I don’t see it as top-down language … in spite of all the words, I don’t see a specific dictating note,” Hall said.

Secretary Sue Horstmann said she isn’t comfortable signing something when she doesn’t know what it is.

“How can we commit our school to something … we don’t even know what we’re committing to?” she asked.

Culver, Horstmann and vice president David Weiss voted no, while Locke, Hall, trustee Jeremy Carlisle and treasurer Charlene Lee voted yes.

Other local districts to sign the MOU are Marcellus, Edwardsburg, Niles and Brandywine, while Dowagiac elected not to sign. The deadline to sign the MOU was Monday.
Weatherspoon was happy with the decision.

“We need to try different things,” Weatherspoon said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We are in a small, rural area. We need to embrace new ideas and not get left in the dust due to money.”

Weatherspoon said Cassopolis Schools is estimated to see $122,760 of federal money, which is less than $100 per student.

Weatherspoon said the board members who were opposed to sign it questioned why there was such a hurry in the deadline from the state and were concerned about the lack of details of how districts will qualify for the money and how the money will be distributed.

“They were asking, ‘Why is there such haste? Why are we signing a blank check?’” Weatherspoon said. “‘Who’s really going to get the money?’ There are some unanswered questions.”

There are also concerns that the costs to keep the school up to standards may be greater than the money the district actually sees from the federal government.

Weatherspoon said it’s a measured risk.

“It’s an exciting adventure,” he said. “It’s a risk taking. We need to challenge our educational system. I do a lot of traveling and see a lot of school systems. I’m very concerned we are becoming complacent.”

Weatherspoon also said there is added security in that the district has the option to withdraw as more information comes out.

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