SPARTA, NJ – The Sparta Board of Education’s special meeting on Monday, August 12 has a single item on the agenda, approval of the Quality Single Accountability Continuum District Improvement Plan or QSAC DIP. As late as July 29 Superintendent Michael Rossi was seeking clarification about the post-QSAC failure process, according to email obtained by TAPinto Sparta through an OPRA request.

On the morning of July 27, one month after receiving the initial QSAC placement letter, Rossi got the meeting he wanted to appeal the district’s placement, failing for Instruction and Program.  Rossi, Assistant Superintendent Patrick McQueeney and board president Kelly McEvoy met with Sussex and Passaic County Educational Specialists Stephen Goldman and April Wolcott.

Later that afternoon, Rossi responded to board member Kim Bragg’s inquiry about the appeal meeting, copying McEvoy, board vice president Kylen Anderson, McQueeney and Business Administrator Pam Hinman. 

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“We expressed our frustration with the roll out of the new framework and the unequal treatment among counties and the CAR districts,” Rossi said. “They are taking our appeal to Trenton but since most offices and employees were off [Thursday] we will not a response until next week,” at which point he said he would update the board.

Successful appeal or not?

On Monday, July 29 at 11:51 a.m. Rossi emailed Executive County Superintendent Rosaile Lamonte requesting she“Please accept this correspondence as formal acceptance of Sparta being in Cohort 1 for 2019 2020.”

Lamonte responded a couple of minutes later that she forwarded Rossi’s request to New Jersey Department of Education office of QSAC to move to Cohort 1.

Minutes after that exchange, New Jersey Department Of Education QSAC Coordinator Carla Spates confirms the request and explains the next steps in the process; board approval of the move to Cohort I confirmed by meeting minutes to be sent to QSAC and Lamonte by September 15.

At 12:37 p.m. Rossi announced to board members, “The Department of Education has affirmed our appeal/challenge. We will complete the QSAC process in 2019-20. We do not need to a DIP.”

At 12:46 Lamonte tells Rossi, “QSAC tells me that you will still have to submit the DIP for this year's QSAC. You should send the DIP to QSAC and copy me and Steve. Please be sure to include a board resolution approving the DIP.”

Over the next few minutes Rossi and Lamonte exchange email in which Rossi tries to clarify that the district must still complete a DIP.  Only McQueeney is copied on these exchanges.

Lamonte said she “… was told the DIP is in code,” and therefore required.

In response to Rossi’s questioning the need for a DIP if the district changes cohorts Lamonte said “…the DIP allows us to concentrate on [Instruction and Program]” at the full QSAC review [in February] and that she will not need to come for the “’extra’ visits.”

“I am thoroughly confused,” Rossi said in the last email to Lamonte furnished by the district for the OPRA request.  He said he “[alerted] the BOE that our appeal was granted” and that it was “beyond frustrating.”

According to NJ DOE spokeswoman Carmen Cusido, “A district that submits a DIP … is monitored every six months to review the district’s progress in implementing the DIP.  When the school district satisfies 80% of the quality performance indicator in the area(s) that were/are  below 80% the district is then deemed ‘high performing’ and is not monitored again until the district’s cohort undergoes a full NJ QSAC review.”

Board members Kim Bragg and Jen Grana responded with questions to Rossi’s email about the affirmation of his appeal.

Bragg, after congratulating Rossi on the successful appeal asked him to “share with the full board the letter from the state releasing the Board from having to complete a District Improvement Plan that is typically required by statute. Did they reinstate our lost points in Instruction and Program?”

If Rossi responded it was not included in the OPRA’d documents.

Grana’s email stated:

 “While that sounds promising — can you just clarify what you mean by ‘The Department of Education has AFFIRMED our appeal /challenge?’ Does that mean our score has been changed and our original results have been overturned? If so, did they issue a new letter with updated results that you can share with the entire Board? I am curious as to why we would have to re-do QSAC if this is the case but if we do, is it just for the curriculum portion or the entire process.”

If Rossi responded it was not included in the OPRA’d documents.

The only other response was from board member Joanne Hoover who said “awesome.”

Appeal versus DIP

At the July board of education meeting Rossi told board members he was meeting with Education Specialist from Sussex and Passaic County to appeal the failing QSAC scores in the area of Instruction and Program.  He did not discuss changing cohorts as an option for that meeting.

Completing the QSAC process in 2019-2020 means the district will repeat the entire QSAC review process again in the upcoming year.  Each year a third of the 600+ New Jersey school districts undergo QSAC as a cohort. 

Cusido said, “All QSAC district placement results are reviewed by the commissioner and presented to the state board of education.  The state is allowing for reconfiguration of cohorts to balance the number of full NJQSAC reviews a county performs.  This is a one time occurrence.” Districts from Cohorts 2 and 3 were given the opportunity to move to Cohort 1 for review in 2019-2020.

Board members Kim Bragg, Jen Grana, Mike McGovern and Kate Matteson questioned the superintendent and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Patrick McQueeney about the DIP at the July meeting.  They wanted to know the process, the timeline and why it had not been done despite having been told it as required by the state in the June 27, 2019 placement letter from the NJ DOE. 

At that time Rossi said he was confident his appeal of the placement would be successful and there appeared to be confusion about what the DIP would look like. 

Rossi said he would “just say ‘write curriculum’” while McQueeney said the DIP was substantially completed but “didn’t have the details at his fingertips.”

The district lost 41 points in the Instruction and Program area of QSAC.  There are five areas of review; I& P, finance, governance, facilities and personnel.  At least 80 must be achieved in each area to pass. 

Sparta lost 28 points because the curriculum was not compliant with the most recent standards in all nine subject areas, as required by statute.  The standards were most recently updated in 2017 by the state board of education but the changes were discussed beginning in 2015.  

Additional 13 points were lost in all nine subject areas for student growth/achievement.

Rossi emailed Spates on July 2 complaining about Sparta’s QSAC placement, still claiming he did not have enough time to bring Sparta’s curriculum up to compliance.

“How is it possible we're supposed to change all pre-k thru grade 12 curricula by February? I'm also hearing that certain counties are giving full credit to districts in this area as long as they have ‘a plan’ to address the new requirement… It is patently absurd that a place like Sparta is getting zeros in curriculum.”

The changes were actually announced more than a year earlier than Rossi claims to have become aware of them.

Spates’ answer to Rossi was “It has been noted that the district filed an appeal.”  She said she would be able to respond to his email and telephone call “to offer assistance once a determination has been made.”

Early attempts to appeal

According to email, Rossi also tried to get “an emergency meeting” with Lamonte Repollet, Commissioner of Education for New Jersey on July 9, approximately two weeks after receiving the QSAC placement letter.

Repollet’s assistant Helene Leona said any information needed for the district’s appeal would be handled through Spates. Further Leona told Rossi, “As you may or may not know, you do have a second appeals process through our Office of Controversies and Disputes. Since Commissioner Repollet will make the final decision on any appeal filed with Controversies and Disputes, he is unable to meet with Mr. Rossi and/or any district staff regarding your QSAC score.”

The Sparta Board of Education must approve the DIP and it must be received in Trenton by August 12.

The DIP must show a plan to bring all areas that lost points into compliance.  It must identify SMART goals for each missed section as well as a timeline, identification of the person responsible for making the changes and the source of funding should it be necessary.

Document TAPinto Sparta obtained through an OPRA request reveal the last time curriculum was compliant was 2012.

McQuenney told board members he knew the curriculum was not compliant when they were going into the QSAC review but did not want to “sacrifice teaching for a piece of paper.”  McQueeney said both the “curriculum is top notch and up to date,” and that it would have taking “hundreds of hours” of having teachers out of the classroom to bring the curriculum to compliance.

Every summer teachers are paid a stipend to write curriculum, as is the case this summer.

The meeting on Monday will be held at Mohawk Avenue School at 7:30 p.m. The public is invited to attend and there are two public comments sessions on the agenda.