Monday, November 29, 2010

Setting the Stage for Union Negotations

Considering the MRTA’s declaration of an impasse, not to mention the superintendent’s and business administrator’s imminent departures, it would appear contract negotiations between the Matawan-Aberdeen school district and its teachers union are on hiatus. That would only be technically true. The competition for public opinion is afoot.

The first volley was lobbed by the teachers union in its condemnation of the “wasteful” spending in Board President Kenney’s communiqué as to the status of negotiations. Sadly, the union’s cry of waste is particularly hypocritical in this instance as it was the union’s actions and history that necessitated the letter.

During the last negotiation, MRTA President Kosmyna had complained of “working without a contract”. That was not true then as any similar claim would not be true now. Under law, the teachers continue working under the “expired contract” until a new contract is in place. Practically, there is no difference for any school employee between an expired contract and an un-expired contract.

Given the union’s decision to declare an impasse before negotiating any terms, the school board naturally assumed the worst and chose to pre-empt any miscommunications from the teachers union.

(Note: The following two paragraphs were slightly edited to note a staff member's "step" on the salary guide is frozen under an expired contract.)

The next charge from the teachers union will likely be the teachers aren’t receiving any raises. Well, that's true but not the whole truth.

Once the new contract is settled, teachers and other staff qualify for two raises – moving up the salary guide and adjustments to the salary guide itself. (Though it's a subject of negotiations, those raises are often retroactive.)

Taking this year as an example, let’s say the salary guides for all employees are frozen for one year. In the common parlance, this would mean the staff is getting a 0% salary increase.

But that 0% only applies to the guide itself, not staff moving up the guide. Even with a 0% increase, the staff units represented by the MRTA would receive the following average salary increases during the 2010-11 school year -
Teachers – 2.1%
Clerical – 5.8%
Drivers – 3.6%
Maintenance – 2.2%

To be fair, this doesn’t include the 1.5% employee contributions to healthcare but, to be fair, was it ever fair that teachers didn’t have to contribute to their own health care?

Remember, the above increases assume a 0% increase to the salary guides. Any negotiated raises will be in addition to the above. (On a side note, the teachers union has already conceded the above numbers during negotiations.)

However, if the school board hopes to garner public support, they need to let the public know what’s at stake. For example, one of the board’s priorities is the elimination of “past practices” and a relaxation of work rules.

For instance, the school district must pay a fee to any union officer who is required to proctor his final exams to his classes because proctoring exams does not qualify as a “teaching duty” and the teachers contract exempts union officers from non-teaching duties.

Another example is when the union leadership advised teachers to no longer help children on and off school busses without compensation. To the teachers’ credit, they ignored the recommendation and placed our children’s safety first.

Then there was the question of whether teachers had to be paid extra for analyzing their classes’ assessment scores during school hours to determine how to improve their curriculums and class instruction.

And the list goes on.

This is a public relations campaign the school board needs to win. Remember Marlboro.

On a final note, the school board should inform the union leaders that intimidation tactics and/or a work slowdown will not be tolerated. In addition to further outsourcing, the board has two other arrows in its quiver - the infamous “custodian email” whereby the union threw the custodians under the bus and the case of employee theft.

For a number of years, several teachers, including union leaders, received compensation for work never performed. I uncovered the fraud two years ago but was asked to keep it quiet. Dr. O’Malley immediately halted the practice.

Considering how widespread the practice was and how several administrators were in the know, I don’t foresee any criminal charges, but I wonder how eager these teachers are to have their records permanently stained with the label “thief”. All the information is public and the payouts were part of the board agendas. But nobody had bothered to check if the work was actually being done.

Labor leaders are expected to fight vigorously on their members’ behalf but intimidating board members and poisoning the school environment are beyond the pale. The school board should let the MRTA officers know that unacceptable behavior will have consequences.
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Friday, November 19, 2010

When Teachers Pass as Children Fail

Although few of us would consider ourselves experts, most of us can discern between great food and garbage, an awesome movie and dreck, or a fabulous educator and dead wood. Regarding the last, what thoughts come to mind when you recall your favorite teacher or administrator? Someone engaging, caring, challenging, brought out the best in you? Well, consider this: The Matawan-Aberdeen school district’s Principal Evaluation form states “The formal evaluation process does not include school wide student achievement outcomes or student growth data.” [Emphasis mine]

In case you missed that, I’ll say it again.

The Matawan-Aberdeen school district’s Principal Evaluation form states “The formal evaluation process does not include school wide student achievement outcomes or student growth data.” [Emphasis mine again]

Think that’s crazy? How about this? Principals and assistant principals are evaluated upon “12 Performance Factors”. 12 performance factors but not one that has anything to do with whether our students are actually learning anything.

In case you’re wondering, 100% of our principals and assistant principals met this highly exacting standard.

Think that’s bad? Teachers are only evaluated in five areas - Grade Book, Lesson Plans, Implementation of the Lesson, Classroom Management and Interpersonal Skills/Learning Climate.

As for the question of whether students are learning, that’s irrelevant to a teacher’s evaluation. (Thankfully, non-tenured teachers are evaluated according to “pupil progress”, including test scores and parental feedback, but non-tenured teachers are a small minority among the total staff.)

So, how did our teachers do in their five areas of “measured” expertise? Among the 364 teachers, only 7 were found to be not “acceptable” – 3 in the high school, 3 in the middle school, and one at Strathmore Elementary. Congratulations to the other three schools that scored 100%. (Cambridge Park was too small to be evaluated.)

I strain to think of what other profession specifically excludes the very purpose of the profession from job evaluations.

Are auto mechanics judged on their ability to fix cars? Police to enforce the law? Firemen to extinguish fires? I believe so.

How about showing up for work? Should teachers be evaluated for that? Last year’s 7% absenteeism rate was double the 3.5% that school policy defines as unacceptably high.

How about the fact that a third of high school seniors were at risk of not graduating because they couldn’t score 50% on a state assessment exam? Does that suggest something about the “learning climate”?

Obviously, this is all about state law forbidding school districts from actually evaluating teachers. It’s not enough that teachers have tenure, that it’s been well over a decade since any tenured teacher in the State of New Jersey was fired, or that tenured teachers have a job for life whether they do that job or not. Teachers are even protected from being labeled as teachers that “need improvement”. That is, unless they can’t manage their grade books.

Reminds me of the days when school policy barred teachers from engaging in the tedious work of grading homework assignments. I wonder if that policy remains in force.

For me, the greatest mystery is how hundreds of teachers who plainly love their students and want their students to succeed could vigorously support a union whose policies are downright hostile to those very students. You simply cannot be both pro-teachers union and pro-child. Not in our school district.

(Note to those who our irked by my continued use of the possessive pronoun “our”: Good)
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Thursday, November 11, 2010

On This Veterans Day

The following are excerpts from President Kennedy’s Veterans Day speech in 1961.

Today we are here to celebrate and to honor and to commemorate the dead and the living, the young men who in every war since this country began have given testimony to their loyalty to their country and their own great courage.

I do not believe that any nation in the history of the world has buried its soldiers farther from its native soil than we Americans -- or buried them closer to the towns in which they grew up.

We celebrate this Veterans Day for a very few minutes, a few seconds of silence and then this country's life goes on. But I think it most appropriate that we recall on this occasion, and on every other moment when we are faced with great responsibilities, the contribution and the sacrifice which so many men and their families have made in order to permit this country to now occupy its present position of responsibility and freedom, and in order to permit us to gather here together . . .

For our part, we shall achieve that peace only with patience and perseverance and courage -- the patience and perseverance necessary to work with allies of diverse interests but common goals, the courage necessary over a long period of time to overcome an adversary skilled in the arts of harassment and obstruction.

There is no way to maintain the frontiers of freedom without cost and commitment and risk. There is no swift and easy path to peace in our generation. No man who witnessed the tragedies of the last war, no man who can imagine the unimaginable possibilities of the next war, can advocate war out of irritability or frustration or impatience.

But let no nation confuse our perseverance and patience with fear of war or unwillingness to meet our responsibilities. We cannot save ourselves by abandoning those who are associated with us, or rejecting our responsibilities.

In the end, the only way to maintain the peace is to be prepared in the final extreme to fight for our country -- and to mean it.

As a nation, we have little capacity for deception. We can convince friend and foe alike that we are in earnest about the defense of freedom only if we are in earnest -- and I can assure the world that we are . . .

On this Veterans Day of 1961, on this day of remembrance, let us pray in the name of those who have fought in this country's wars, and most especially who have fought in the First World War and in the Second World War, that there will be no veterans of any further war -- not because all shall have perished but because all shall have learned to live together in peace.
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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Revenge of the Do-Nothings

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it." - Yogi Berra

Based upon comments to the blog, it appears the Monday quarterbacking armchair analysts are seizing Dr. O’Malley’s and my departures as an opportunity to repudiate everything the Matawan-Aberdeen district has accomplished under his leadership. This party of malcontents never has anything constructive to offer but their baseless criticisms, which are immune to logic and fact.

For example, when the school district was facing a $7 million budget shortfall and the Matawan-Aberdeen community hadn’t supported a tax increase since 2001, the do-nothings were opposing steep staff reductions. Did they offer any alternative to close the budget gap? No. To this day, they’re happy to criticize the school board for outsourcing the custodians while ignoring the million dollars it would have cost each year to retain the custodians.

Another example is O’Malley’s raise. In 2008, O’Malley negotiated a reasonable compensation package in exchange for the expectation of salary increases once he proved himself. In his first year, O’Malley introduced numerous educational initiatives, made several personnel changes, and produced a budget that actually reduced year-over-year spending and didn’t raise taxes. He asked for a $9,000 raise and got it.

People were in an uproar. How could the school board pay a person more than contractually required? How could we reward someone for just one year’s performance? (To be fair, nobody was so upset as to actually attend the school board meeting, just upset enough to complain on this blog.)

Well, the following year, O’Malley did more of the same and didn’t get a raise beyond his contract guarantee. Every taxpayer and district parent can see the changes O’Malley has wrought, from special education to legal fees, to writing curriculums, to the academies, to testing and data analysis, to accelerated math curricula, to a renewed focus on college preparation, to safer schools, to restrained tax increases, and so on.

Nobody argues that O’Malley would have done more without the raise and we’ll never know if he would have done less. All we do know is that the board was absolutely correct in assuming O’Malley was a flight risk; Edison, New Jersey’s 5th largest school district, recruited O’Malley with a $25,000 salary increase.

Once again, what would the malcontents have done to retain and incentivize exceptional talent? Absolutely nothing.

Of course, now the malcontents want to argue that the raises were a waste of money because O’Malley is leaving anyways. Nonsense. That’s like saying you should only wear seatbelts prior to certain types of accidents, as if such things could be predicted. The school board did its best, within reason, to encourage O’Malley to do the best job he could and to remain within the district. That’s all the school board could do and it was right to do so.

People complained that eliminating the Director of Security position would endanger our children (the same complaint made when the district outsourced custodial services). Instead, our schools continued to become safer.

The special education department objected to Mr. Schweitzer’s appointment as Director of Special Services. In fact, the special education department under his direction has improved dramatically and saved the taxpayers more money than it ever had in the district’s history. Out-district placements are decreasing, special ed lawsuits have virtually disappeared, and parental complaints are way down.

Our school district is under constant pressure to improve academics and reduce the tax burden but the do-nothings never have a single substantial idea to move our district forward. Instead, their strategy is to complain about everything and then, at that one time when by pure chance they happen to have been right, they can holler to the skies “I told you so”.

These do-nothing malcontents are bankrupt of any leadership or accountability. They jeer from the sidelines and cheer when you stumble but they’ll never get off the bench and play ball.
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Friday, November 5, 2010

Smoke at the Firehouse

I’ve always had the good sense to avoid writing about Aberdeen Township’s police department and its two fire districts. However, last February there was a heated altercation in the firehouse at the corner of Church and Lloyd (Fire District #1). The time had come to have a look.

Although I have spoken with a number of people, I cannot obtain any documentation regarding the incident since it is a personnel matter. However, I believe that fire district chief, Lou Auriemma, acted in a manner unbecoming an officer and he should have, at the very least, been reprimanded by the fire commissioners. Furthermore, I do not believe the district chief is supported by a majority of his command. Although I have heard many wonderful stories about Chief Auriemma, the only chief that firehouse has ever had, I think it’s time for a change in leadership.

Notwithstanding the above, the fire commissioners chose to ignore the incident and there is no consideration of relieving Chief Auriemma of his command.

As for firehouse shenanigans we can talk about, there is some of that. (Full disclosure: When applying for my certificate of occupancy, the fire department dinged me for $2,000 in repairs for small violations that passed inspection when I purchased the house four years earlier, plus requiring a certified inspection for my chimney.)

For starters, the fire commissioners voted themselves an eye-popping 36.5% raise to $5,460 a year. That august body includes our honorable councilmen Vinci and Lauro. Apparently, Vinci needed the money after losing his consulting gig. (Is Councilman Lauro related to Samuel Lauro? Sam is on the fire district payroll as well.)

Vinci, by the way, is transferring his house and his ill-gotten land to his daughter. Looks like he’s freeing up some money to buy another place.

Chief Auriemma only works 20 hours a week. However, the ordinance creating the fire chief position requires “a minimum of 40 hours per week.” The fire commissioners are aware of the discrepancy but don’t care enough to ask the township to change the ordinance. Remember that next time you’re told the town can’t bend for you because it has to follow the law.

The fire district has about $688,000 in reserves that’s budgeted for replacement vehicles. The reserves are apparently immune from the town council’s grubby hands since they’re still in the bank. (The fire district is another unit that should consider merging with Matawan to save expenses.)

Alan Falk, Aberdeen’s former town prosecutor, is still on retainer at the Fire District but there’s talk that may come to an end after Falk refused to participate last year in the democrats’ pay-to-play election campaign. (That’s why he’s the “former” town prosecutor.)

As for the men who volunteer their time in the fire department and the EMT, they have my highest respect and gratitude and I hope they get the leadership and recognition they deserve.
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