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Newport Schools Leaders Push Back Against Critical Community Report

The Newport Education Task Force, a committee launched by community organization ReNewport, presented its unflattering review of Newport Independent Schools during a caucus meeting of the Newport city commission last week.

Mark Ramler, a member of the task force and president of the Newport Business Association, presented the reported last Monday.

"The first problem identified concerns leadership - NISD leadership does not have the capacity to carry out the turnaround needed in the schools," the report states early on. "
"The data shows that Newport schools have been low performers for many years.4,8,9,15 Though minor improvements have been made, this track is no longer sufficient, as determined by the City, the School Board, nor the community. A turnaround is needed in the district; however current leadership appears to lack the mentality and capacity to effect such necessary changes."

Ramler's presentation also included direct interaction with Superintendent Kelly Middleton, who was in attendance at the meeting, and who is retiring at the end of June. A search for his replacement is underway.

Ramler said that Middleton told media outlets covering the education task force's report that the report "looks like it might be something to start a fire with, but I don't see what it does for schools."

"It has started a fire," Ramler said. "An engaged group of citizens are now going to grow and fan that flame until we see the necessary changes take place in Newport Schools and we see them rise to their potential."

The task force was assembled with members nominated by Newport Board of Education Chairwoman Ramona Malone, Mayor Jerry Peluso, and the president of the ReNewport board, according to Ramler. Chairwoman Malone said that the school board did not appoint members and was not involved in the report's creation. "As chairwoman of the board of education, I was approached by leaders of ReNewport to recommend citizens and/or Newport staff to be on this task force. It should be noted that out of the 5 members I recommended only 1 was able to serve on this task force," Malone said in a statement. "I supported this effort for two reasons, the thought of the City of Newport, the community coming together to help shed light on all the good work being done in Newport Schools and provide support where needed."

Ramler said that hundreds of volunteer hours were completed in producing the report.

"This was the fresh set of eyes that we so desperately need to address the issues in Newport Schools and to look at them," Ramler said. He criticized what he called "downright bullying from school officials now that this report has become public."

Ramler said that critics of the report "failed to refute it."

The goal of the report is to prompt changes to "help Newport Schools become a top-performing school district that attracts and successfully educates students from all parts of Newport," Ramler said of the committee's work, which started last July.

The committee looked at state education reports, surveys, open records, interviews, state report cards, and census data in compiling the report.

"While well-funded, Newport Schools rank among the lowest 5 percent of schools in the state for student achievement," Ramler said.

The report calls for more support of teachers to address a 29 percent turnover and what the report calls a "poor climate." It also urges an increase in teacher pay, a new incentive-based review process for educators, and the hiring of classroom aids to assist with discipline.

The report also suggested that the diversity of the city is not reflected by the current employment figures at the school district.

It also suggests fewer investments in the central office and recruiting new leaders. The report suggests that Newport Schools spend approximately $1,700 per student just on administration costs while the state average is $945 per student. "That's almost double," Ramler said. 

"If we were a top-rated school, I don't think anyone is questioning that, but we are far from that," Ramler said.

Middleton, through a spokesperson, issued a statement to The River City News.

"The ReNewport report on the Newport Independent School District fails to recognize some of the positive steps we have recently taken, including investing $3 million in teacher salaries," Middleton said in part. "Out of 173 public school districts is Kentucky, Newport ranks sixth in salaries for teachers with 22 or more years of experience. And we have jumped from 170th to 40th in salaries for new teachers. These changes mean Newport pays some of the highest teacher salaries in Northern Kentucky. And our Board of Education is considering more increases for beginning teachers.

"The report also contains some inaccurate information. For example, ReNewport claims we have 30 staff; the actual number is 19. And the report reflects that we employ four assistant superintendents. The actual number is one.

"The task force also appears to be heavily influenced by those pushing a charter school. A plan for a charter school in Newport was recently denied by the board after close scrutiny by our school system, local school superintendents and education experts.

"Any organization can always improve. We are continuing to review the report to determine if some of the recommendations and findings have merit. As the district prepares to hire a new superintendent due to my previously announced retirement, I am willing to sit down and work with members of the ReNewport task force and others in the district and community to discuss ways we can improve to better educate, serve and prepare our students for the future."

Ramler, in presenting ReNewport's report, also suggested that better turnout for school board elections and including the public in the selection of a new superintendent would increase appreciation and interaction with the schools.

"Newport has experienced positive change in the past decades," Ramler said. "We expect no less from our schools."

"This report does speak to some of the challenges we have in our schools but it does not speak to the "why" or the  education barriers, that many our students and families face on daily basis," Chairwoman Malone said. "This report does not speak to the hard work or commitment of the Newport staff nor their long days, nights and weekends to educate our students while eliminating the barriers .  

"This report does not speak to the commitment of the Newport Board of Education to make the right decision to ensure that every student is given the key (education) to the door of opportunity.  

"It is our hope that this report will stir up the conscious of our citizens who are not involved to get involved (sign up to be a reader, math or science tutor, a mentor, etc.).   Thank you to all those in our community, parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins, city leaders, officers, firefighters, business partners, co-op supporters, who all help us do this great work. We look forward to doing a greater work in Newport Schools with our community partners, our city leaders and most importantly our  staff, students and their families.

"It take a village," Malone said, "and we are the village."

Read the full ReNewport report here.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher