Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam took a flattering and conciliatory tone with irritated schoolleaders this week, but still told them to back off public criticism of beleaguered Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.
In a letter sent by email Monday, Haslam told school superintendents that he appreciates the hard work they have done to implementeducation changes in their own districts and is grateful for their help.
However, he told them to find new ways to communicate and collaborate with Huffman.
"The bottom line is that we are at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms that I believe will lead to continued progress in education, and this work is simply too important to get sidetracked," Haslam wrote. "I was disappointed when I learned from the media about a letter that was signed by some superintendents and apparently is making its way to me."
Tullahoma Schools Superintendent Dan Lawson says at least 60 superintendents from around the state have signed a letter asking Haslam to put the brakes on Huffman's education reform policies and assess progress before moving ahead.
The letter, authored by Lawson, says Huffman's administration "has no interest in a dialogue" with local school leaders. Huffman, however, issued statements saying he does and will continue to communicatewith them.
Lawson was expected to send the letter today and make public the names of the superintendents who signed it.
Haslam is "asking people on both sides to recommit themselves to communication and dialogue," said Dave Smith, his spokesman. "Education has been and will continue to be a top priority for the governor."
Lawson said he did not see Haslam's comments as a rebuff, but "as a positive statement that said we all need to be working toward a common goal. It invites cooperation, and that's good news. My letter asks for cooperation."
Lawson said he hopes superintendents will be given opportunities to discuss changes with Huffman rather than hearing about decisions after they are made.
'Improving the future'
Earlier, Lawson had pointed to a new state policy that ties teacher licensing to student test scores as the last straw for his patience. The licensing policy and another adopted during the summer to change teacher pay were highly controversial and made an already fractious relationship between Huffman and local educators even worse.
Huffman and educators have been at odds almost since the start of his tenure in April 2011. He introduced a controversial teacher evaluation system soon after his appointment.
Haslam, however, called Huffman's changes "tremendous improvements" and said he is grateful for Huffman's vision.
"He has brought a new perspective and dynamic energy to education reform in Tennessee, and while you may not always agree with some of our administration's specific initiatives, there is no doubt that we're improving the future for more Tennessee children," Haslam wrote to superintendents.
The Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers union, has issued a vote of no confidence in Huffman.
And in Williamson County, school board members agreed to move forward with legal action against Huffman's Department of Education over coding errors on standardized tests.
Officials say about 45 districts were wrongly denied appeals of those scores.