School plan rejected
But at least one local official said he was not surprised that the plan would not pass muster with the state because he believes there was not sufficient time to complete the document properly.
Duquesne is one of 12 districts statewide affected by the Education Empowerment Act, and is the third in Allegheny County to have its improvement plan returned. Previously, Clairton City and Sto-Rox school districts had their plans of action rejected by the state.
Nick Staresinic, chairman of the Duquesne School District's Board of Control, said the district empowerment team that drew up the plan did so under time pressure and was aware that the plan would likely need revisions.
'That plan, as it was developed, was done rather hurriedly because we were trying to reach a state deadline for submission,' Staresinic said. 'It wasn't as though we weren't thinking it might come back.'
Under the empowerment act, which Gov. Tom Ridge signed into law last year, any district with more than half its students scoring in the lowest ranks of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test must submit to the state a formal improvement plan outlining clear methods and goals for improving student performance.
The plan is then reviewed and is approved or returned for revision.
This is only the first rejection for Duquesne schools, but is the second time the plan has run into complications.
When the plan was initially submitted in late December, the state Department of Education could not accept it because it had not been endorsed by the district's board of control.
The board of control conducted a special meeting in January to approve the plan.
Staresinic and the board approved the plan with minor modifications. However, they acknowledged that the plan might be returned to Duquesne.
'We did what we did knowingly. It wasn't as though we felt we had the perfect model going into Harrisburg,' Staresinic said. 'Now that it's back in our hands, we need to get it done and we will.'
Ronald Tomalis, executive deputy secretary with the Department of Education, wrote in a letter to Staresinic what needed to be addressed in the plan's revision.
'It is evident that the team has worked diligently to identify the general areas in which progress is needed,' he wrote. 'However, the plan must identify specific actions, techniques and methods that the district will employ to improve academic performance.'
Under the law, Duquesne School District has 30 days to revise the plan and return it to Harrisburg for review and approval.
Staresinic said while the empowerment team might have felt rushed when writing its first draft of the plan, he is confident the members will be able to create an acceptable plan by the new deadline.
'We've got some good people working on our empowerment program and I've got to believe ... the (plan) modifications can be done in that 30-day time frame,' he said. 'We have a really fine empowerment team in Duquesne with a lot of expertise and a lot of background.'
The state has approved only one improvement plan from Allegheny County. That plan was submitted by the Wilkinsburg School District.
Staresinic and the other two members of the board of control were appointed last year when the school district was identified as being financially distressed.
The board's goals include returning fiscal solvency to the district, managing district finances and drafting improved budgets.
Staresinic said once an improvement plan and budget are approved by the state, the school district is eligible for $519,000 for each of three years to go toward implementing the improvements.
'That's money that can be well-utilized and well-spent in Duquesne,' he said.
Joseph J. McCallister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (412) 380-8536.