June 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Head of EAA reportedly to resign

Covington not being ousted, source says; mishandled finances, discipline issues alleged in turnaround district

Covington (Mark Bialek / Special to the Detroit News)

John Covington is in talks to leave as chancellor of the embattled Education Achievement Authority.

Covington, who is less than three years into his tenure as head of the turnaround school district, has told Gov. Rick Snyder he will be resigning, according to two sources familiar with his plans. Although the departure deal is not finalized, the announcement is expected to come this month.

A source close to the governor said Covington is leaving voluntarily to take another job, and is not being forced out. An EAA spokesman would not discuss the matter, and Covington couldn’t be reached.

The EAA has had both loyal support and fierce opposition since Snyder announced its creation in 2011. The district took over 15 of the lowest-performing schools in Detroit in fall 2012, with the goal of improving student performance.

The EAA was originally tasked with overseeing the turnaround of the bottom 5 percent of schools in Michigan, starting in Detroit. But significant pushback recently led to the Michigan Department of Education ending an exclusive agreement with the district to expand its reach.

Those who oppose the EAA, particularly Democrats in the Legislature, teachers unions and the Detroit Public Schools board, have continually pointed out faults in the district, including lost enrollment and discipline issues.

Allegations also include questionable expenditures charged to EAA credit cards. Reports by The Detroit News, for example, highlighted excessive spending on travel and other questionable items. In March and April, the EAA doled out $52,000 to send administrators and teachers to conferences throughout the country.

Given the continued scrutiny, Covington should have handled such financial decisions with more care, especially knowing his critics were always waiting to pounce.

But he seemed unable to meet the challenge of keeping the EAA out of controversy before possibly demonstrating that its rapid improvement model works. In a conversation last month, Covington expressed frustration that he wasn’t being given more time to build a foundation.

Of course, he shouldn’t have expected a honeymoon. EAA teachers are not unionized, making the schools both a rarity and a pariah in the public school community. Also, because the schools were pulled out of DPS, the district chafed at both the lost per-pupil revenue and control.

Defenders of the EAA point to a drastically revitalized culture in the schools, where children are excited about learning and parents are more engaged. I’ve visited the schools, and there is a more positive attitude than the typical DPS building.

Excellent Schools Detroit, a nonprofit school evaluation team, gave several EAA schools improved ratings this year.

When Covington took the job, he left his post as head of Kansas City Schools in Missouri after only two years. He was criticized at that time for bailing on the district too soon, and he’ll likely face similar disapproval now.

In my first sit-down with Covington, shortly after he took the job, he said he was lured to Michigan because he wanted to be in the position of creating something totally new.

At that time, he also expected the EAA could become a model for struggling districts beyond this state.

When he came on, Covington was under the impression the EAA was going to expand at a faster clip. But legislation that would have made the rollout of the authority easier has stalled in the state Senate.

Funding problems also have plagued the EAA, with some teachers complaining there’s no money for basic classroom supplies.

What the critics ignore is that these 15 Detroit schools were the absolute worst in the state. Opponents should have been equally outraged at the condition and performance of the schools before the EAA took over.

Snyder, with the support of state schools Superintendent Mike Flanagan, created the EAA in hopes of speeding the turnaround process.

The governor maintains the EAA is a good system and should be given more time to work. He isn’t likely to abandon the idea even though Covington is leaving.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.
ijacques@detroitnews.com