Cynthia Wise

East Texas Advanced Academies CEO Cynthia Wise speaks to board members during their first meeting on Tuesday, February 26, 2019, at Longview ISD’s Administration Building. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Editor's note: A previous version of this story reported an incorrect figure for the Lonview ISD superintendent's salary. This version has been corrected. 

East Texas Advanced Academies, the nonprofit organization running Longview ISD’s district-within-a-district of charter campuses, is paying its chief executive officer $175,000, more than LISD’s part-time superintendent. The five employees of ETAA make more than a combined $500,000 per year.

During recent town hall meetings about Longview ISD considering an application to become a whole district of charter schools, attendees brought up questions and concerns about ETAA. Records obtained by the News-Journal provide details about ETAA’s operations, including how its administrators were hired and their salaries as well as the organization’s relationship with LISD.

ETAA runs six charter campuses for Longview ISD under Senate Bill 1882. Those campuses are East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, J.L. Everhart Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy and Forest Park Magnet School.

SB 1882 allows public school districts to enter into an agreement with an outside entity to take over campuses as approved by the Texas Education Agency.

ETAA CEO Cynthia Wise has said turning the six campuses into charter schools provides extra state funding “to be more innovative.”

However, Clay Robinson, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association, said his organization is “curious why this district has turned over half its campuses (to become charters). We suspect this violates at least the spirit of SB 1882 and the whole purpose of charters.”

The Texas State Teachers Association is a professional state organization for educators. Robinson said there are about 100 members of the association who work in Longview ISD, so it has an interest in the district.

“A school district is limited to 15% (of campus population to become charters),” he said. “Exceptions are made for failing schools. But these schools (in Longview ISD) all got B’s or C’s.”

Longview ISD’s original application to the Texas Education Agency in January was rejected because the student enrollment planned for the district-within-a-district was too high. The Education Code cited in TEA’s denial states no more than 15% of a district’s student body, from the previous school year, can enroll in the charter district.

Longview ISD had 8,547 total students in 2017-18, according to the TEA. A limit of 15% would mean the charter district could enroll no more than 1,282 students. The combined enrollment at the six campuses, based on 2017-18 numbers from TEA, was 3,650 students.

The TEA granted a waiver that allows the district to exceed the 15% rule.

Robinson said when a school is turned into a charter, most teachers do not have to be certified and do not have the contractual rights that traditional teachers have under state law. He said, in many cases, teachers at charter campuses are paid less than at a traditional school.

Teachers at ETAA campuses are considered Longview ISD employees, so they are on the same salary scale as teachers at noncharter campuses.

And Longview ISD school board President Ginia Northcutt has said at recent community meetings that the goal is to have certified teachers in core classes at charter campuses.

Staff and salaries

ETAA has five employees making a combined $507,500 per year, plus more than $10,500 in stipends. All other employees on the campuses are considered Longview ISD employees.

According to the Texas Partnership Guide on the Texas Education Agency website, the partner, or ETAA, must hire at least one employee. The partner organization must manage the principals or school leaders on the campuses it takes over.

The ETAA employees, their positions and their salaries are: Cynthia Wise, CEO, $175,000, with a $6,000 travel stipend; Donald Stewart, deputy of business operations, $130,000; Megan Burns, deputy of curriculum and instruction, $92,500; Maci Wilcox, executive assistant to CEO, $60,000, with a $4,513 stipend; Mary Hagler, business manager, $50,000.

Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox, who is part time, makes $124,014 a year.

The News-Journal on Nov. 5 requested salary information for other Longview ISD administrators to compare with salaries for ETAA administrators. Despite multiple follow-up attempts, that information had not been provided by Friday from the district’s human resources department.

Wise does not have a superintendent certification. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who is an author of SB 1882, said the legislation does not require the person running charter campuses to have one.

“They’re looking for executives” to operate the charter campuses, Wise said, “which is clearly stated in the guidelines.”

There was not a job posting for the CEO position, Wise said, adding that she was recommended for the job by James Wilcox. The ETAA board approved her hire at a May board meeting.

Wise said she was not part of the SB 1882 application process. After Ned E. Williams Magnet STEAM Academy showed consistent growth and high performance while she was principal, a representative from the Texas Education Agency’s Commissioner’s Office visited with Wise to see if her model could be replicated, she said.

Wise previously described her “culture-conscious” campus model as a school that sets high expectations for students and staff. The campuses create safe and inclusive schools, college and career readiness, whole-child development, critical thinking and problem solving, strong student and staff relationships and community engagement.

“(James) Wilcox recommended I would be the best person to (lead ETAA) because of my record of experience and proven results,” Wise said.

Bettencourt said the legislation intended that the person running the charter schools should have a history of doing well at the work required to manage the campuses.

“The key thing is, they must have a history of this type of work,” he said. “Because we’re trying to start innovation, but it has to have a track record. Their work performance and the progression of the kids involved will be very closely monitored.”

Several community members contacted the News-Journal about the nature of the relationship between Wise and James Wilcox. However, Wise said there is no truth to the rumors that she and Wilcox share a grandchild. She said they have no family relation.

Maci Wilcox is the niece of James Wilcox, and Wise said she hired her as a teacher at Ned E. Williams.

“She did a wonderful job for me (as a teacher),” Wise said. “When (the executive assistant) position came open, I knew I wanted to hire someone with an education background as a teacher with a degree.”

About six or seven applicants interviewed for the executive assistant position, Wise said.

According to resumes for applicants for the position obtained by the News-Journal, four other applicants had a degree and teaching experience.

“I hired the best applicant. That was Maci, and Maci just happens to be Dr. Wilcox’s niece,” Wise said. “She does not get any preferential treatment. The expectations for her are the same as any of my other employees, and they know that.”

Wilcox’s job duties as Wise’s executive assistant include maintaining Wise’s schedule, answering calls, greeting and directing visitors, organizing and managing the office, maintaining files, assisting with Wise’s travel arrangements and reviewing and distributing mail.

Budget

On Aug. 21, ETAA approved its 2019-20 budget. Based on student populations at the six charter schools, the organization gets 40.05% of Longview ISD’s average daily attendance funds, which amounts to $32.5 million.

Of that $32.5 million, 30% is kept in a Longview ISD reserve fund. At the meeting in which the budget was passed, Stewart, the deputy of business operations, said that reserve fund is for transportation, child nutrition, safety, school resource officers and other services the district provides the campuses.

The other 70%, which is $22.75 million, is used to manage and operate the campuses, including $17.5 million for staff salaries.

Performance contract

Many parents and community members at the town hall meetings have asked Northcutt, the LISD board president, about the district losing control by allowing another entity to run schools. Northcutt has said the district has a performance contract with ETAA, and the district can dissolve the agreement if the organization does not meet performance standards.

According to the contract, either ETAA or Longview ISD may terminate the agreement if either fails to correct a contract breach within 30 days after a written notice.

Longview ISD may terminate the agreement with a school in the network if the campus is placed in one of the lowest two categories of school improvement for three or more consecutive years or if ETAA fails to achieve the student outcome goals after the third year of the school’s operation under the organization.

All campuses except the Montessori Prep Academy have two of the same goals: to use 2018 State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness results, benchmarks and campus assessments results for grades four and five to measure and track student progress and that the STAAR percentages of academic achievement, growth, English language proficiency and student success will meet or exceed all state targets.

According to the agreement, at J.L. Everhart, the goal for the percentage of students who score at “meets” or “masters” in all grade levels on the STAAR will increase from 37% to 46% by 2022.

At Ware, the goal for the percentage of students who will achieve “meets” or”masters” in all grades in all subjects on the STAAR will increase from 27% to 36% by 2022.

Bramlette’s goals on STAAR results are to increase “meets” or “masters” in all subjects and grades from 47% to 56% by 2022.

The Johnston-McQueen goal for STAAR “meets” or “masters” is an increase from 43% to 50% by 2022.

And at Forest Park, STAAR results should improve from 39% to 48% of students who meet or master all subjects in all grades by 2022.

The first goal for East Texas Montessori Prep Academy is the Primary Math Inventory percentage of students scoring “meets” or “masters” will increase from 69% to 80% by 2022.

The second goal for the campus is to use reading results to track student progress.

The full performance contract is available at tinyurl.com/etaacontract .