Friday, September 14, 2007

You go, Bres parents!

I was lucky enough to spend a few hours this morning over at the Bres, where parents have organized a "Community Playground Building" event for today and tomorrow. I know they still need help for Saturday, if they are to finish the new playground.

In both the real and symbolic sense, a new community is being built at each of our schools this year, with the reconfiguration. It was wonderful to see the energy and commitment, and the dedication.

I spoke with dozens of parents with kids at the Bres, and they all spoke about how nice the environment is, and how welcoming the Bres has been.

We have had a dark and difficult time this year. But as the Boss says,

"Show a little faith, there's magic in the night..."

The magic appears, right when you need it. Thanks, Bres parents, staff and community folks.

Any press is.....

Summary Paragraph: Menin thanks Eaton for letting people know about blog, admits to be occasionally short-winded, and restates belief that it may be a disservice to take complex issues and reduce them to short talking points. He suggests using a summary paragraph at the beginning of each post to i.d. important points, and allow interested readers to read the entire post for more elaboration. He also points out to his constant dialogue with community members about issues.

(that wasn't so painful...)

A tip of the hat to Mary Baker Eaton's blog
who took the time to mention my efforts here and those of Ward 4 Candidate Ed Cameron to use the blog format as one way to create a dialogue with the community. I think her take on things is pretty accurate; I am long-winded at times (although she probably would've been more accurate if she said I can be short-winded at times; I do feel great passion about these issues. I want the community to appreciate that complex problems can't be solved by simply cutting them like the Gordian knot.

I believe that transparency- a word that few people used until I campaigned in 2001- requires two things. Access to all information, and a public willing to speak it's mind, be heard and see that feedback can have a constructive impact; and also a public that can absorb information and use it to make a decision.

What we face with the Schools is not plastic surgery, it is a much more transforming effort. Decisions we make now may affect classrooms ten years from now. We are in the situation we are in partially because no-one thought that way before.

But Mary is right. If people need short soundbites, I'll work towards that. Maybe I'll stay longwinded for those who like information, but provide a one paragraph summary for those who want me to cut to the chase. And I'll write that paragraph last, but place it first in the posting.

Sounds like a compromise to me.

Oh, and while I am going door to door to hear what people think, don't forget that I spent the entire spring listening to hundreds of people, from hearings, to door-to-door, to debates. I continue to learn about their concerns every day, through e-mails, phone calls, and simple conversation. Because the elected position of School Com member serves the whole city, I am constantly stopped on the street, at the playground, while shopping to hear the issues from concerned citizens. Ask my family, and they'll tell you I am engaged with those folks.

Thanks, MBE. With The 'Toad a memory, I agree that blogs are becoming critical to community outreach.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Challenge Accepted

One of the commentators on the Jonathan Kozol posting issued the following challenge to me:

"So Mr. Menin--your assignment, if you choose to accept it--is to write an essay (or better yet, a series of essays) in which you describe your vision of the perfect school--or entire school system, if you want to be really bold.

The idea is that you are starting from scratch and you have whatever resources you need to set things up anyway you think is best.

You should address as many aspects of the educational process as possible, including (in no particular order): (1)programing/curriculum; (2)types of assessments (both as a placement/teaching tool and for evaluating the progress of students); (3) the facilities (both physical plant and resources); (4)teaching models (what teacher training would include and how classrooms would be managed); (5) how schools would be funded; and (6) any other topics you deem important (no issue is taboo)."

I accept. Over the next week, I will try to respond to this question as thoughtfully and pragmatically as possible, highlighting values and ideas that may already exist in Newburyport's schools, or could become part of the culture of our schools.

I will use the label "Vision" so that readers will be able to use the postings index to find all the postings gathered in one spot.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Resources for Parents of Challenged Kids

We have a posted comment recently that identified several websites that may be of use to parents of kids with challenges. I wanted to create hyperlinks to them for you.

I can personally vouch for LDonline, I've subscribed for a year; they provide a daily summary of relevant articles about learning disabilities.


September 11th- six years on

Amidst all the petty annoyances of the day, the drizzle, the slow driver in front of us, the stubbed toe, the paper cut, the spilled coffee, we stop for a moment and remember that today is September 11th.

This community was affected by the events of the day, as several friends and loved ones from this area perished.

In my own small way, I lost acquaintances, brothers of friends, the kids of cops and firemen who lived in my neighborhood, who coached my little league teams, who made presentations at my elementary schools. As someone who grew up in the New York City of the fifties and sixties, the WTC became a landmark after my time. It never fixed itself in my memory, like the Empire State Building, or the Polo Grounds.

My friend Rosie, who teaches school just outside of New York City, remembers that she spent the entire year after 9/11 going to memorial services for the parents of students, the husbands and wives of fellow teachers. Every week, someone would be identified, and there would be a memorial service. Her brother-in-law, late for a meeting, looked up as he entered the World Trade Center and saw the plane hit the building. Since then, his life has been in upheaval. Nothing is really the same. My own brother had a meeting there that day, and typically overslept, catching a later train that was stopped halfway into the City when the buildings collapsed. The sister of one of my wife's closest friends, trying to catch the earliest train from D.C. to New York for a meeting at the Trade Center, realized as she boarded the train that she was wearing two different-colored shoes. She decided to run home, change shoes, and try to get back before the next train left. There wasn't a next train. Her 9AM meeting was canceled by history.

My brother doesn't talk about it at all, neither will Rosie's brother-in-law. That's classically symptomatic of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Milton Friedman is the prize-winning economist who invented the crisis-driven model of trickle down economics. It combined drastic tax cuts with drastic spending cuts (during the Clinton years, the model seemed to work because of bi-partisan efforts to balance the budget, and the "pay-as-you-go" approach; during Reagan and both Bushes, even when Congress was controlled by the party of the President, the model pushed the United States, even as we slide towards one right now, into recession, because corresponding cuts and reconfigurations and efficiencies in government spending were never made; under the Republican President, government spending grew exponentially, and Alaska ended up with $340,000,000 bridges linking islands of 40 people with the mainland, we lost billions of dollars in money designated for reconstruction in Iraq, and the NCLB was never funded at more than 15% of it's budget).

Friedman said that only when a major disaster or crisis occurs and the people are distracted can the political choices needed to make his flimsy and class-driven model happen; shortly after 9/11, you may remember Congress passing astonishing tax cuts, 50% of which went to people making $1,000,000 a year or more. It only works when people are distracted, when they are pitted against one another, when they feel vulnerable, when they fear each other. Imagine creating an economic model that is contingent on people suffering deep emotional and financial trauma so that tax and spending cuts can be rammed through. Then imagine what would happen if only the tax cuts were passed. Nah, you needn't imagine it- we're living with consequences. Tour the schools. Watch the housing market collapse. Literally, watch community infrastructure collapse, like that bridge in Minneapolis.

Funny in a way, because the resulting sleight of hand with the war on terror, and the nearly trillion dollars we have spent on war, has bled the schools dry, and jeopardized the very Constitution that we teach our children in those increasing crowded classrooms.

But today it is September 11th. I assume those of you out there reading this do so because you either want to keep tabs on me, or you are interested in education. If you have a few moments, stop down at Newburyport High School, and visit the video lab named after Thomas Pecorelli, a graduate from NHS who died on 9/11.

Then, if you are really moved, take that tax cut you received from Uncle Miltie and his friends in Washington, or maybe just tithe the anticipated increase in your property tax had the Override passed (you'll probably feel as embarrassed about what it amounts to as I am), and walk it over to Richie Eaton at the Newburyport Five Cents.

I never met Tommy, but if he's anything like his sister Angela, he was a great kid. Angela read two poems about his loss at one of the first Favorite Poems nights Deb Szabo and her Creative Writing Class from the High School sponsor annually at the Firehouse. Brought the house to tears, and she was the one who was grateful for the chance to share. She and Tommy; honest, and kind, and quick to smile.

Anyway, tell Richie you want him to put the money into the Scholarship Fund set up in the name of Thomas Pecorelli, so that even the loss of Thomas, a loving son, uncle and brother, who died five months before his own son was born, will remain for us a symbol of the power of love over fear, and the value a free society places on an education. Richie, who knew Tommy from their work together broadcasting NHS sports, will thank you. And in June, two Newburyport kids you might know will be a little closer to a career in the arts that Tommy never got to finish.

Those are the kind of things a community does.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Another response to NCLB

Jonathan Kozol is an internationally renowned expert on a very uncomfortable subject- the impact of an imperfectly designed system of educational services and service delivery on the poorest of our communities. I met the Byfield resident in the mid-eighties, when he was working on his award-winning book Rachel and Her Children, and I was running a homeless shelter on the grounds of the former LaSalette Shrine in Ipswich.

I was deeply moved by the depth of his passion for education, and his recognition that a system that fails to educate equitably destroys the future, one child at a time. I have always considered that conversation and his advocacy as touchstones in my own thinking about the role of education.

The enclosed article finds Kozol talking about his response to the impact the federal NCLB statute has had on children since its inception. It is worthwhile reading.

The Cost of Doing Business

A recent comment asked me to nail down what percentage of the school budget was comprised of salaries. Before I answer, I want to point out that we have not up to now, (but hopefully will going forward), provided the actual expense and revenue figures of the real costs of operating our schools. The reason for this is simple, but in the long run, provides a misleading view of the actuals.

Most health benefits are covered by the City-side of the budget. To my understanding, they are not reflected in the full salary amounts we report out; items like sick leave buy-back are reflected each year as an expense of the year when they are paid out. Several years ago, we discovered that the City was running a deficit in the Health benefits line item, as a result of... well, let's just say they ran a deficit. We paid that deficit out of our School Choice account.

Also, our revenue side of the budget does not reflect both the cash contributions made by PTO's and the in-kind donation of time they put in as volunteers. Over the past fifteen years, there has been a tremendous shifting of the burden for covering expenses that used to be part of the school budget- cultural arts, field trips, equipment purchases, supply purchases for special projects, etc. This represents a significant investment by parents in the schools, compensating for the ebbing of school district funding of these areas. Replacing these assets would add, in my estimate, another $500,000 to $700,000 to the true cost of doing business.

G-d bless the parents.

Finally, and I have no idea how one calculates this, but I haven't met a teacher in the Newburyport School system who hasn't spent money out of their own pocket to bring things into their classroom, ranging from books to supplies. I know as a teacher myself, I spent something in the range of $500 to $750 per year, unreimbursed; I would expect Newburyport teachers would not differ much from that range. 200 or so teachers; you can do the math.

All caveats having been caveated, in 2008:

Salary: $ 15,869,961
Expenses: $ 6,129,884
Total budget: $ 21,999,845

About 72% of the total budget paid out through the School District reflects salary costs.
I don't have the exact figures at my fingertips right now for the health costs on the City-side of the budget; it is hard to imagine them not pushing salaries up into the low 80% range of the budget.

Given that the buildings are City owned, and that the City is responsible for all capital expenses involved with them, (remember that there was a discussion this past year as to whether or not re-welding the Kelley School fire escape to the wall, a problem that had been identified in a 2001 Engineering report commissioned by the City to identify the capital needs of the Schools, was a maintenance or capital expense. In 2001 it was a capital expense, by 2007, it was considered a maintenance-- i.e., the schools covered the $9,000 bill), the School operating expenses cover supplies, HVAC, utilities and other costs associated with operations.

As to whether that is the norm or not, it compares fairly with most other school systems; which should be an unmistakable indication that major reform is needed in the area of health benefits, addressing capital needs in a timely enough fashion to avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars a year patching roofs, and more creative options to assist communities to address their revenue needs.

Most professional human service operations, at least the ones I ran considered that an 80/20 split between salaries and operations/administration was good. I tended to run with 10% admin overhead, but I had about .05% of the paperwork and regulatory burden that the schools have.

Some non-profits ran as lean or leaner than I did; places like soup kitchens and meals programs, which rely almost completely on donations and volunteers.

I'll try to capture that missing piece (health care costs in the next few days).

Good question.

Another Budget Driver- My Position

Referring again to the Mayoral candidate's debate comments, derived from Mr. Dean's carefully prepared letter that has been circulating throughout the community, I'd like to address the issue of what appeared to be inconsistent and overly generous jumps in teacher salaries in the seniority part of the matrix and the steps towards professionalism part of the matrix (I can never remember which is X and which is Y).

They are there. They are there for a reason; taken out of context, which both the candidate and Mr. Dean have done (of course they have; there is no way for them to know what actually happened in the negotiations of each of those items). They seem like logical targets for questions. And questions deserve answers.

For the last two contracts, the teachers union rejected the request by the School Committee to do collaborative bargaining, in which the entire bargaining unit on each side use the same data, and work towards using that data to support a consensus for contracting together. The contract prior to that was done collaboratively; it was before my time, but the feedback I received from our attorney at the time was that it was the quickest, easiest and most satisfying negotiation between the Newburyport Teachers Association and the School system.

Instead, for the last two contracts, the NTA has insisted on positional bargaining, also called adversarial bargaining. In this type of bargaining, each side exchanges evolving positions on a particular issue being addressed, and there is virtually no collaborative effort to agree on facts. Most of the work of responding to proposals at the table is done by the Lawyer for the School Committee and the Massachusetts Teacher's Association representative assigned to work with the NTA.

In my opinion, frankly, the latter bargaining style is tedious, incrementally productive, and lends itself to a lot of posturing. With the upcoming election undecided, I do not know if I will be involved, given my seniority, with the negotiations for the next contract. If I do, I am hopeful that the quality of the relationship Doc Lyons has created with the teachers will encourage the collaborative bargaining. It is such a wonderful learning process.

Having set the scene, one of the elements of any contract negotiation is that each party has its own list of "items" it would like to see eliminated or added; these items may have little to do with salary or benefits; but salary and benefits are often used as bargaining chips to get at these items. Increased sick time or a personal day more; a change in the co-pay of medical expenses, or the number of hours a teacher is expected to be on-site doing school work are four examples some of the "shopping list" items.

In my own experience negotiating a contract with the teachers, the seemingly inexplicable salary "bump s" were often linked with concessions that helped constructively impact another long-term budget expense. We didn't give something for nothing, and the teachers didn't get something for nothing.

Let me repeat that. Most of the seemingly curious and uneven bumps in salary movement across the matrix were agreed to in exchange for other items the teachers made concessions on. It may be that an analysis showed we were losing more teachers at that point than at other points in their tenure, and we wanted those teachers to stay. In may be there because it was a concession we made to achieve something we felt would be in the long-term best interest of the school system, the students, or the budget. You give a little, you get a little.

From my recent introduction to Mr. Deans, (through a number of very informative and animated conversations, and my longstanding personal admiration for the Mayoral candidate who unfortunately chose to present Mr. Deans' arguments out of the context in which the criticized decisions were made), I have to say they are both extremely intelligent men, who are passionate about public service. Frankly, I believe that both of them will make terrific public servants when elected. There's no personal beef here for me; the issues they raise absolutely deserve an adequate response.

The problem is that everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die; everyone wants to express a nice clear and seemingly simple talking point, but man is it a pain the petootie to actually place it in context. It forces you to write long postings.

My respect and admiration for both Mr. Deans and the unnamed candidate for Mayoral makes my disappointment all the more painful.

Again, I am not defending the salary schedule that was negotiated for this contract; if memory serves I was actually one of two School Committee members who did not vote to approve this contract, because of the salary schedule.

I think the long-term, and deserved basic mistrust of the School Committee and the administration has made it difficult to for the community to appreciate that some significant and more recent changes in approach and style and accountability have occurred.

Yeah, we still talk things to death, and our meetings aren't as tight as they could be. Our commitment to community engagement lends an air of sloppiness and informality to our meetings. We don't make lightning fast decisions (given my own experience with the tightly structured and highly choreographed votes on previous SC's, that may not be a bad thing overall).

But this refracted view of the SC automatically triggers in some members of the community the assumption that negotiating the contract was simply an exercise- the teachers said "jump," and we said "how high?" Every single item in the contract was analyzed for it's immediate and long-term financial impact; we didn't just throw our wallets on the table and say "leave us the Washingtons, you keep the Benjamins."

Even knowing that, and knowing and having tremendous respect for our teaching staff, I still voted against the contract because I thought the bill was too steep. Majority carries.

Them's the facts, boys and girls. Stick them where you've affixed your assumptions and see if it clarifies anything for you. Perception may be reality, but context matters the most.

Let me make my position perfectly clear

I have been advised to write short and simple postings; I struggle with that for three reasons. The first is that I am, by nature, long-winded. The second is that despite the political attractiveness (and necessity) of keeping it simple, these are complex issues; they aren't simple- you move one facet, you affect so many other things. The third reason is that I believe a community that is given all the information it needs to make an informed decision will make a good decision most of the time.

As much as I set this blog up to help in my campaign to be re-elected to the School Committee (have I mentioned I'm running?), I also want it to be a place that provides information that might help engage the community, the whole community, in finding answers we can all live with.

Any strategy that seeks to accomplish a political solution by demonizing or scapegoating doesn't really lead to a solution. I'm happy to mix it up with anyone on these issues, and can agree to disagree; I can even accept a bottom line of "I do not want to pay a dime more in taxes."

That's a legitimate position, and I can accept that for what it is.

But assertions that are not based in fact, but represent opinion dressed up like a fact, frost my cake. "Too many administrators," is an example of that. Comparable school systems have more administrators, the DOR in its report stated we needed a full-time human resource manager; we have one curriculum coordinator for pre-school through 12th grade, we went two/three years with three elementary schools and two principals. More importantly, the school-based administrators have critical functions- they hire personnel, supervise them, evaluate them, provide remedial plans to improve teaching, in additional to the myriad of other activities they perform.

Until we stop throwing crap like that against the wall one more time just to see if it sticks, rather than having a genuine discussion about how we can create a collaborative or innovative supervision process or evaluation tool for teachers, we are stuck. Stuck.

And in this world, in this culture, in this society, stuck really means going backwards.

Who's gonna drive you home... My Position

There is a sick leave buy back clause in the contract, affecting teachers hired before a certain date. I personally would rather not have a liability exceeding a million dollars hanging over our head. As best we can determine, the buy-back clause emerged as a compromise somewhere in the past, when the School system came to the negotiating table with little or nothing to offer in the way of financial incentives or raises. That's the way it always happens. Is there a lesson to be learned? Yes. Don't make promises that last more than 20 years. Perhaps there is some creative way to resolve this contractual issue.

Longevity is another "issue" in the contract that appeared some time ago, and I believe (if memory serves) may have been part of the 2001-2002 negotiations. Often, School administrations face a negotiating team heavily weighted towards teachers with the longest tenure in the system. They negotiate on behalf of the entire union, but interestingly enough, seem the most intrigued and persistent about salary structures that impact the last years of their teaching experience; years which coincide with what the bottom line on their pension will look like.

Again, perhaps there are some creative ways to address this particular contract item.

Still more drivers out there (the road to budget hell, as you can see, is full of drivers); but one last comment for tonight before I resume this discussion.

Baby, you can drive my car... My Position

We have a legal responsibility to provide educational services for all students based on their gifts and challenges that is exceeded only by our moral responsibility as a community to do so.

The legal responsibility is clearly enumerated by my reading of state and federal laws. The moral responsibility has been shaped by a lifetime of work with people facing all kinds of challenges; I have both a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree in the Science of Special Education, and began working working as a volunteer with children with challenges when I was 11 years old.

Unless the state steps in more aggressively to regulate these services, Newburyport faces the same expense predicament every other school system faces:

The cost of delivering services is rising faster than 2.5%, and faster than the rate of inflation.

From year to year, as children enter into our schools from pre-K through whatever grade they enter, it is not possible to specifically predict who will need support services- we are prohibited by law from even asking those questions as we admit kids. So we never know how many kids will need the services.

Until they are evaluated, we never know the intensity of services we will need to provide.

We have tried to control these costs in several ways that actually provide more benefits than just dollars for the system. We have one of the lowest out-placement rates in the state, meaning that we have made remarkable efforts to keep these students in this community and ensure they receive all the services they need. While this meets the moral criteria I mentioned, it also saves us hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in potential out-placements.

How much can this cost center impact on a budget annually- I can't recall a surplus in the SPED line items in six years; I can recall several deficits that were met by transfers from within frozen line items in the existing budget of the year in question; and we have had to go into the Choice account to pay for significant SPED deficits at least once as I recall. In excess of $100,000. In the area of SPED, we have traditionally been very conservative (i.e., over-budgeted) in this line item.

It is always a wild card, and certainly qualifies as a budget driver.

Next up, those pesky buy-back and longevity clauses.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Drive on, Drive On- My Position

In the previous post, we talked about one particular driver to the never-ending increase in the expense side of the School budget, the one that seems most popular these days, teacher salaries.

Before I talk about another budget "driver", I had one further point to make regarding the upcoming contract negotiations. It is completely illegal, under labor law, for me to discuss impending labor negotiations. People have publicly made a range of suggestions, from letting the contract simply expire and shrug our shoulders, to tearing it all up and start over, asking for "give-backs," freezing the contract, restructuring the contract. Some of these are interesting, if draconian and potentially unworkable ideas; there are also a number of interesting, potentially collaborative and productive ideas to be explored as well. It's all very interesting; unless of course you are a teacher. Then, according to the candidate for Mayor and Mr. Dean, you not have to shoulder the burden of more kids per class (correcting 90-120 creative writing essays, anyone? No time and a half for that, folks, just part of the job...); nonetheless, the Mayoral candidate and Mr. Deans agree you are the reason our schools can't contain rising costs.

Let me be clear about my opinion on this, with the full understanding that students interested in the SC race might be reading.

Are teacher salaries a budget expense "driver?" Yes. The only driver. No. In fact that suggestion has about as much resonance as a goose fart on a muggy day. Once the air clears, you're left with a smiling goose, and an existing problem. The suggestion itself is divisive, unfair, short-sighted and could potentially poison the atmosphere as we head into what I believe will be possibly some very creative and forthright negotiations.

I think it is fair, and within the law for me to state the following facts regarding upcoming contract negotiations:

Both sides are aware that money is in short supply.

Unlike previous years, as we head into contract negotiations, based upon my own discussion with teachers, there is feeling of trust between the admin and the union that I have not seen in my six years. There is a respectful relationship. That is a good thing.

Both sides will come to the table prepared, and I hope engage in a creative discussion that will include a clear understanding of the long term impact of negotiated items on future budgets.

Well, that is all I can say about negotiations.

Perhaps another driver, one with far greater long-term impact projected outwardly, assuming that efforts could be made to begin addressing what some in the community feel is the excessive rate of compensation for teachers is the absolute
hemorrhaging of revenue from the feds and the state over the past 6 years.

In 2004, we lost 20% of our state Chapter 70 revenue, approximately $750,000.
Around that time, we also lost funding for providing transportation; as a result, in an area that was once heavily supported by the state, we have taken on a $500,000 a year burden, 20% of which is made up by assessed fees. We have lost a number of support grants received through the state, including health grants, literacy grants, and MCAS tutoring grants.

Let's add it up. $750,000, plus two years of transportation at $500 thou per, and lets just guess that before that we had two years at $350 thou per. So far, that's $2,450,000 in lost revenue over six years. Let's really go conservative on the health grants- let's say 6 years at $10,000 per year; as for the MCAS tutoring grants, let's be even more conservative- $5,000 for two years. That brings us up to $2,520,000 in lost revenue in six years. I'll let the candidate and Mr. Deans figure out how many teachers that would support- you can even use as a base rate of pay what you think their work is worth. I know you think they make too much, even though we are below the state median in some of our levels, so use your own figures; somehow neither Mr. Deans nor the candidate got around to actually valuing the work teachers do in terms of dollars.

And hey, there's actually an added incentive here-- if you set the value low enough, we might be able to qualify them for free and reduced lunch.

I'm not going to bother including the fact that during the past six years, the No Child Left Behind Act (or charade, if you prefer) has never been funded at more than 15 to20% of what the feds estimated it would take to bring the country into full compliance with the statute. That little detail hasn't prevented them from requiring that every single regulation embodied in the act be achieved within the timetables set (and not yet revised). Oucho.

I dunno, could be another couple million there, for sure.

Wow. Over six years, the real loss of $2,520,000 in revenue, and the possible loss of an additional couple of mil in federal money for academic achievement? No wonder the actual cash amount of the city's contribution has increased, even though the percentage of the city budget spent on schools has decreased slightly.

I'm still willing to hear an argument that teacher's salaries and benefits may be the most immediate area in which we can effect savings, albeit at a great cost to morale and potentially the actual loss of teachers to other, better-paying school systems, but asserting that it the "main, perhaps only driver" in jacking up our expenses doesn't stand up to simple scrutiny.

Next post, yet another driver...

Some thoughts on why the school budget has increased over the past six years

At the recent Mayoral debate, one (or maybe more) of the candidates spoke at length aabout the factors "driving" school budget costs higher every year. I should say factor; there are several, but with the upcoming teacher's contract yet to be negotiated, the driver de jour seems to be teacher salaries. According to the analysis offered by the candidate, "the real raise" received by the teachers ranges from 3-11% annually, given the matrix that has been the staple of salary negotiations for thirty-odd years- an annual raise that occurs and accrues for each year served, and also a step system that provides additional compensation as teachers acquire graduate credits towards their professional status.

That is one "driver." Yes. I agree. Just one of several. Several.

The candidate noted (his analysis came from the work of Bill Dean, City Council candidate, which I have been discussing over the past week or so) that teachers even receive special compensation over the summer for working on curriculum. Absolutely true.

Now, why would any School Committee in its right mind agree to that? Simple. Most teachers are paid over the School year. One of the findings in DOR Report of compliance with Ed Reform was that our Curriculum was not currently aligned with the state frameworks. Personally, just speaking for me, I think there is a lot of sense to having the people who will be teaching the curriculum write the curriculum. You see, first off, the $1,500 to $3,000 stipends they receive for spending their summers doing this work is far less expensive than buying curriculum and then spending time and money adapting it. And you have the added benefit of the people who have written the curriculum teaching it to kids, and training their teacher peers at no additional cost to the city.

So, if you really think about it, the City saves money by doing it this way. Apparently, neither Mr. Dean nor the candidate understood the context for this educationally sound practice. I will fight like hell before I see these stipends for curriculum work disappear. It makes no sense for the kids and our efforts to bring the schools into compliance with Ed Reform.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Revisionist History- My Position on the value of teaching critical thinking skills

As a native New Yorker, I grew up in a highly charged political environment. Both of my parents served on the local Village Democratic Committee; in 1968 they declared support for two different presidential candidates, my mother for Robert Kennedy, my father for Eugene McCarthy. It would come as no surprise if I were to share that they were separated by 1970; for other reasons, but politics must've played a role.

I don't have a horse in the presidential race at this point; but given what is at stake, I hope that the budget cuts the schools have made, resulting in larger classes, do not impact on the efforts of our teachers to teach students how to think critically. To use Neil Postman's irascible phrase, we're all going to need finely tuned crap detectors to get through this election.

Critical thinkers recognize revisionist history; they recognize the difference between crass opportunism and political leadership. Critical thinkers are skeptics, they are willing to do the research themselves, and make up their own minds based on facts. If our schools cannot produce critical thinkers, we simply will not sustain our leadership in the world.

I bring this up in relation to the anniversary of 9/11 that is approaching. I am no conspiracy theorist, no defender of terrorists; about what happened on 9/11, even as a person committed to peace and a trained mediator, I believe our decision to go after Osama Bin Laden was the right decision.

As a critical thinker, though, I will not have history rewritten to suit the political ambitions of an individual. Like I said, I have no horse in the presidential race, but I can recognize the rear end of one when I see it. As a New Yorker, born and bred, and a Newburyporter by intention, I would urge you all to follow the link enclosed and learn more about candidate for president Rudy Guiliani.

There were people I knew and grew up with in the towers on 9/11. Some of them worked there, some of them were first responders (in my village outside of NYC, a lot of firemen and cops lived). Rudy Guiliani made the decision to place the Emergency Operating Center for New York City back into the towers, despite the written recommendation of his Emergency Services Director urging him not to do that. That center included a private apartment for Rudy, complete with monogrammed hand towels. It has been established that Guiliani used the attached apartment, within walking distance of City Hall, for trysts with Judith Nathan during his second marriage. The building was also owned by a developer who held a fundraiser for Rudy about four weeks after the lease was signed.

Guiliani claims to have spent as much time at Ground Zero as the workers did. According to his own records, he spent 29 hours there, total, mostly photo ops and interviews. During the same period of time, he spent 49 hours at Yankee Stadium.

History, they say, is written by the winners.

There are two man-made objects that can be seen by the naked eye from space, according to astronauts. One is the Great Wall of China, the other is the Fishkill Landfill outside of New York City. It isn't very likely that placement of the Emergency Operating Center outside of the towers would have saved the civilians, would have saved Brian Graifman's brother, and Jack Hardy's brother.

But if it had been placed where it was recommended, chances are real good that the minute remains of people I grew up with, first responders who proudly followed their parents into the police and fire departments of NYC, would not be scattered among the garbage and 9/11 detritus hauled to Fishkill.

Since 9/11, Rudy has made about $60,000,000 from a combination of Security Consulting businesses and $100,000 per lecture fees to talk about 9/11.

I guess you could say that this post represents my position on the value of teaching kids to think critically, to learn how to research questions, and to learn how to question answers.

This will be the only posting on my blog having to do with a specific presidential candidate, and I appreciate your taking the time to read it.

And I guess you could say this time, it's personal with me. Really personal.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Arts: My Position

Thanks to anonymous, who added the Barry White link to the Pavarotti posting.

There may not be any Pavarotti protegees in Newburyport, but watching and to listening him reinforces the position I have advocated for the past six years on the School Committee and will continue to promote, if re-elected:

A thorough grounding in the Arts provides an extremely important foundation for every student in Newburyport; it teaches them to think critical, develop the ability to see, hear and appreciate the world in new ways, to develop a common language with other cultures. While I doubt I'll win the battle to view the arts as part of a core curriculum, I will never stop advocating against cuts in the arts programs, and do everything in my power to leverage creative additions to our arts offerings.

But you already knew that.

Pavarotti Part II

Some wonderful footage of Pavarotti can be found on you tube, including:

Pavarotti and James Brown

Pavarotti and U2


The world is a quieter place tonight, for the passing of Pavarotti.

A few wonderful YouTube highlights; the first of Pavarotti performing with the late soul legend James Brown, and then Pavarotti joining U2, in a heart-rending version of Miss Sarajevo.

A large voice, and an even larger heart.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The first day of a new school era for Newburyport

Congratulations to the teachers, students, parents, and administration on getting the first day of school, actually the first day of a new era in Newburyport schools, off to a relatively painless start. Traffic flows around the schools seemed manageable, especially around the Bres, and the volunteers organized at the schools to meet, greet and seat kids were terrific; thanks to all the volunteers and School Committee candidate Stephanie Weaver for her efforts. Also notable were the presence of School Superintendent Lyons at the Bres, where he was greeting kids in the traffic circle behind the school, and Deidre Farrell, over at the Molin, who apparently became Mrs. Farrell for a day.

Yeah, the buses were a little late; something about the closing of Water Street without that information being communicated directly to the schools and the bus company. It does appear that departure times will end up being adjusted by 5-10 minutes, although that remains to be seen.

As Dr. Lyons has said, there will be problems, and they will be worked out; given the magnitude of the task facing the administration and school staff, including teachers and custodians, they deserve a round of high fives for substantially getting it done. A lesson for all of us, I think; when a community sets its mind and collective will to accomplish something important, it can; it will.

And the first day at the Bres got a "completely excellent" thumbs up from the progeny here at Lime Street. Did anyone else hear the rumors that the food at the Molin School, the Nock and the High School was really good?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

"Welcome Back to School, kids..."

Welcome back, students, parents and teachers. Thanks to the volunteers who will hopefully make the transition smoother; the teachers, who have prepared the classrooms with love and expertise.

May this school year bring you wisdom, success, and maturity. There is a wonderful saying, written in the commentaries on the Torah, the books of laws that have guided those of the Hebrew persuasion for 6,000 years. It seems fitting to pass it on to you, students, as school begins:

"Above every single blade of grass, there is an angel whispering 'grow, grow.'"

Grow. We will do our best to ensure that the sun and water do their part. You just concentrate on growing.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Going crassly commercial

Over the past several weeks, I have wrestled with the idea of allowing advertisements on this site. Given the nature of the topics, it is hard to gauge exactly how much, if any, revenue would be generated by crossing over to the dark side.

Nonetheless, I've decided to do it; with the following caveat: All money generated by advertising on this site (i.e. they post the ad's, you click, ca-ching for the site) will be turned over to the Newburyport School Department. I'd like to restrict the money to a specific use- art supplies, literacy, science equipment, foreign language textbooks... please let me know your preference on this.

Mountains and Mohammed Meet in the Middle

The Revenue Task Force has set up a first meeting, with nine of us in the same room, and the elusive tenth member available by conference call; September 12th at around 7 PM. To that I say "Boo Yah," thanks, and lets get to work!

Monday, September 3, 2007

Cutting the Gordian Not, or a Just a Rendezvous...

Just a quick update on the School Committee Task Force to Consider Current and Potential Revenue Resources for the Schools (lousy acronym- SCTCCPRRS; how about if I just call it "The Revenue Committee" for shorthand?)

As you can imagine, getting so many people to reconcile their schedules to set a first meeting date, so that we can all get together and set other meeting dates, reach some procedural understandings, divide up tasks, and get going so we can provide the community with hard, cold facts has been difficult. Promethian; and to that extent, I am grateful for the efforts undertaken to date to try to make it happen. I'm also grateful for Alexander Grahame Bell for inventing the phone, which has apparently not been the method of choice in contacting some Task Forcer members this process. As some of us don't read e-mail every day, it has put some delay into the effort to set up a first meeting of the group.

After a delightful series of snappish e-mails between two of the appointed members regarding whether or not such a date was possible before September 12th, and whether it was important that every member attend that first meeting, I did finally wade in with two e-mails. The first was to the whole task force, offering a number of creative, sometimes whimsical out of the box options for a first meeting. Getting no response, and reading several more stinging and unproductive e-mails between the two members, one of whom was appointed by the Mayor to serve as chair; I took the liberty of sending an e-mail just to the Mayor and the appointed chair encouraging them to work towards a first meeting of the full committee.

My points to them were simple, although I admit that they lacked the diplomacy so often associated with my written work. They do, however represent my fundamental beliefs about making this a credible report.

Any first meeting of the task force must include all members, or it sends the wrong signal to the entire community; that we are willing move forward without representation from all stakeholders. Even if those stakeholders agreed with me, I would not be willing to take such a step.

Any delay in meeting to schedule a full meeting of the entire group would not likely result in a delay of the work to be done, as we are all very anxious to move forward.

The back and forth which has resulted from the scheduling tiff risks politicizing a process that should never have been a political one in the first place.

And finally, with due respect, I encouraged all to cut the crap and let us get to work as a group. That was frankly one of my less diplomatic moments, but it was an honest one, and I'll stand by it. To those of you reading this and remain undecided about voting for me (did I mention I was running for re-election?), I will try never to use the word "crap" in public debate.

Although I have never set my sails by the prevailing political winds that blow constantly through this wonderful city, that should not be misconstrued to mean that I can't see, smell, feel, and understand politics when I experience it. I've spent six years working for the appointment of a Task Force outside the School Committee to do exactly what this Task Force is charged with. I believe that the range of people chosen reflect the skills needed and the differing perspectives on the issue of school revenues, and will make this a credible, and powerful as well as useful document. And I will be damned if I will let politics, ego, ineptitude, "happy talk" or any other less productive display of human behavior disrupt what I see as a critical task ahead.

Finally, if those leaders, both elected and appointed cannot figure out that it is critical we all meet for the first meeting, I will move very aggressively to encourage the School Committee, to whom the Mayor has insisted the Task Force report, to step in and get the first meeting set up.

Sheesh. I can understand throwing elbows once everybody is inside the tent, but having a spitball fight before we even get there makes no sense to me. And I like spitball fights.

Oh, and all of the above characterizations of motives, process, attitudes, and rationales simply represent the perhaps skewed opinion of one man, running for re-election, but unwilling to let that get in the way of telling it like I see it.

I could certainly be wrong about every bit of it. Then again, maybe not.

Why can't everybody get along? Why can't we just play nice?

Just a personal note regarding Mr. Deans' letter...

I spent more than 12 years in upper management of three human service agencies, twice as an Executive Director, once as an Assistant ED.

I always strongly believed in paying my staff as much as possible, because it always proved to be a good investment. They felt respected, they gave 110%, and they stayed with the organization, learning and growing as employees, providing the best, most humane services that were available. That was my own personal philosophy. I view the salary issue uniquely from three perspectives; as a former member of a teacher's union, who actually struck during the second coldest winter in Buffalo history for changes in working conditions (in 1977, having finished up my Bachelor's Degree in Education, I was working for United Cerebral Palsy as an awake overnight staff person in a community residence, 37 hours per week, for $2,000 a year); as an Executive Director whose practices included running with a low overhead (below 10%) and keeping staff salaries and benefits as high as I could afford (which included fund-raising) to promote staff stability, competence; and as a School Committee member who has had to negotiate a contract that impacted on the quality of education received by 2,500 kids, including my own.

Being a teacher, or working in human services, is noble and useful work; it is always value added to the community. But it doesn't get you a lower mortgage rate, a break on rent, a discount on heating fuel, or discounts on clothes for your kids. I agree with Mr. Deans that we are in a crisis, and that we have scoured the School budget to the point that there really is nothing left- no money hidden behind stairways, or in secret accounts; no staff have take home cars. I agree that every item needs to be considered, and that salaries will be probably the key point to be negotiated in upcoming contract talks. I am hopeful that the dramatic changes of the past year, and the respectful relationships forged by staff, Dr. Lyons, and the NTA will bring us all to the table with a common understanding and a desire to look creatively at how we can move forward; understanding that dollars and cents will be part of the dialogue.
Over the next several days, I'll consider a number of other points raised by Mr. Deans, including sick-leave buy-back, longevity bonuses, the competence of the School Committee to handle negotiations with the teachers, the projected and actual revenues received by the schools over the past 6 years, and several interesting points he makes about where 36% of our teachers end up on the salary scale of public servants.

Mr. Deans, please feel free to comment on these posts.

So little money, so much responsibility...

Mr. Deans believes that the combination of the two types of raises teachers receive annually is "exorbitant" and is the main reason, and perhaps only reason services to our students have been severely reduced. I can't disagree that overall raises (the combination of the two types) look exorbitant (depending on where teachers are in terms of seniority and professional development); they have ranged annually from 7% to 11.6% over the nearly six years of the last two negotiated contracts. But I would have to say that the pressure teacher salaries put on the budget is one of several factors, the most prominent of which is the astonishing disappearance of several critical sources of revenue-- the $750 thou removed by the state in 2004, the decision at the state level to stop funding transportation costs (a $400,000 per year additional cost we've borne since 2004); the removal of state funding for programs like MCAS tutoring, health services, and such. We are required to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind regulatory menu, despite the fact that NCLB has not been funded at more than 15% of the recommended budget to accomplish that task since it's inception.

The problem is one of expense and revenue; Mr. Deans is right to encourage us to try to control expenses where we can. We agree on this.

I would point out the largest raise occurs when a teacher achieves professional status (completes their Master's degree), meeting state requirements for both the individual and the the requirements that the School system is also expected to meet. I don't disagree that salaries across the city, have put a lot of pressure on the city-- it isn't limited to the schools by any means. On the other hand, there probably is not a single employer in the city outside of Anna Jacques who requires a work force to be so highly educated and professional. Once the sun sets on those remaining teachers who have been grandfathered into the regulations, if you want to teach in a Massachusetts public school for more than five years, you will need to have a Master's Degree. That's reality. The rate of health insurance increases over the past three years alone exceeds (far exceeds) the total 38.9% in raises Mr. Deans calculates by combining the totals of the two tiers for teachers for five years. That is also a reality. In Salem, two years ago, failure to plan for unexpected increases in utilities resulted in the layoff of teachers in the middle of the school year.

I agree with Mr. Deans that we should make every effort to control costs where we can. I agree that the bargaining table is one place to make that happen, for every union negotiated contract in the city.

I would also encourage Mr. Deans to check out the annual list for city salaries for the last three years; and find out how many teachers, some of who have worked for our system for 25 or more years, are in the top third, or even the top half of city salaries. He might also note who occupies the upper ranges of those salaries; I'll bet that aside from the Superintendent and the Assistant Superintendent, and perhaps some of the principals, he will find city employees with far less service-time on the city payroll receiving far more money than any teacher. I'd further suggest that it is unfair to raise this as the sole reason the schools are financially screwed up; and encourage him to talk with the Mayor and City Council about who is actually making the big bucks off the city, and what can or is being done to rein in those costs.

Why are the "real raises" received by teachers so darned much?

Mr. Deans points out that the teacher salary schedule provides for binary, or two types of "raises" each year: those that occur by moving up the "steps"- seniority, as it were, and those raises that allow for (or encourage) teachers to receive additional money as they solidify and improve their credentials. This results in raises that are actually "larger" than those that are reported out as having been negotiated. This two-tiered system has been the standard for virtually every teacher's contract in the state in every community for probably 30 years; and in a majority of other states as well. From the perspective of the State, regulations now exist that require all teachers to achieve "Master" status if they are to continue to hold a license to teach in the state; and to continue their education past a graduate degree if they are to maintain their license. Most School systems feel that the best teachers are those who are keeping up with the remarkable changes in theory and technology that occur in education literally overnight; and incentivize teachers to comply with the state regs and bring that knowledge back into the classroom for the benefit of the students. If you read the help wanted section of any Sunday paper, you will find that every industry does the same thing.

With regard to the annual raises negotiated for each year with the teachers, above and beyond steps and the incentives for proficiency, he notes a dramatic increase in the '03-'05
salary schedules. Having negotiated that particular contract, I can shed some light on those increases. The School Committee went into those negotiations making a public commitment to significantly raise teacher salaries. After an exhaustive study , we realized that our starting salaries were significantly below the state average, a fact confirmed for us by the rate at which we were losing teachers at the earliest step levels, and with the least seniority. We were also experiencing a great deal of difficulty hiring teachers; we would interview a teacher (especially in the maths and sciences), only to lose them to another comparable school system that was starting them at $5,000 more than we were offering. We found we could not compete in the market, and informed the teachers that significant resources would be put into salaries for the term of the contract negotiated; our projections were that we would achieve a base salary that was competitive by the third year; and that this goal, once achieved, would not be replicated again; it was a one-time infusion committed by the community to bring salaries up to or near the state average. So the significant salary changes made during that contract were intentional, were not frivolous, were based on projections of the quality of the staff we wanted to attract and retain. If, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for, the corollary is also true-- you don't get what you don't pay for.

Next up, are these raises "exorbitant'?