Monday, December 27, 2010

Looking Ahead

Three years ago, was launched at a moment everything started to change. The Great Recession was getting underway and the nation was about to take a dramatic turn to the left, electing the most liberal president in history and awarding super-majorities to the Democrats in both houses of congress.

Locally, Dr. Gambino’s election to the school board shifted the balance of power and a new administration under Dr. O’Malley directed the district toward achieving objective goals.

On the flip side, the popular town manager, Stuart Brown, was summarily terminated after waging an internal battle against corruption and waste. The teachers union was picketing at school board members’ homes for higher wages. And Aberdeen and Matawan were among the top five highest taxed municipalities in Monmouth County.

Over the next three years, the Tea Party was born, Governor Christie was elected, and the country has shifted back to center-right. On the school board, only one of six Aberdeen representatives has served more than one term. In the township, a majority of the council seats turned over although every seat stayed within the local Democratic Party.

So, what will the next three years bring?

Higher Taxes
Nobody living in Aberdeen would expect otherwise. Over the past three years, municipal taxes have increased roughly 30%. The township’s “secret plan” is to offset spending increases with new development through PILOT programs. PILOT stands for “payments in lieu of taxes”.

Property taxes have to be apportioned to each tax collecting body, i.e. school, county, fire, etc. The township’s meager 17% share of property taxes from new development wouldn’t be enough to offset new spending, meaning municipal property taxes would keep rocketing upward despite the added revenue from new development. However, PILOT payments aren’t taxes so the township gets to keep the lion’s share and technically hold down taxes while allowing spending to soar.

No such luck by the school district. The township favors residential development over commercial development because developers prefer residential. Unfortunately for taxpayers, any development that attracts children is a net loss. At over $15,000 per student, any unit with a child will cost the town more than it can recoup through taxes. Furthermore, children from low-income families, on average, require more services and, therefore, cost more. COAH housing could be especially costly to the school district.

Meanwhile, the school district has never developed any significant revenue streams aside from taxes and state funding. There’s some hope of developing an autism program to attract out-of-district students but, until that happens, the focus is cutting costs. The district has already begun outsourcing – cafeteria, substitutes, custodians – and there’s more to go – transportation, secretarial, aides, guidance counselors, child study teams, etc. Classes can be cut, class sizes can increase, and more extra curricular can be eliminated. However, at some point the cutting will stop.

Meanwhile, contractual and statutory increases are on the march. Last year, prior to the budget cuts, the district projected a $3.5 million increases from salary, pension, health, and special education. The average teachers union officer saw his salary increase about 25% over the prior three years.

Some day, in the not too distant future, those annual increases will overwhelm any cost cutting measures.

It doesn’t have to go this way but we all know it will. Governor Christie’s 2% cap should help but don’t discount those wily politicians and public administrators who will use every trick in the book to take your money.

Self-Serving Politicos
The school district has a $60 million budget and the board members are paid zilch. Fire District #1 has a budget equal to 1% of the school district, yet each fire commissioner earns $5,460. As a percentage of the total budget, the fire district spends more money on each fire commissioner than the school district spends on the combined salary and benefits of the district superintendent, deputy superintendent, and business administrator.

Two of those five commissioners, Vinci and Lauro, also earn salaries from the town council as well as their state pensions from years of public service to the township. Add all that to the free land given to Vinci and the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to divert highway workers from driving in front of his house, and it’s still not enough to satisfy their senses of entitlement. In 2009, the fire commissioners voted themselves a 36.5% raise.

Ultimately, the townsfolk don’t care. Both Vinci and Lauro would likely cruise to reelection. This past year, the town elected a board member who testified against the school district in a labor dispute, played racial politics, and acknowledged voting to pay herself for working as a poll worker during a school board election.

And, at some point, Barza will regain control of the school board and appoint administrators to their liking. It won’t happen soon but it will happen. That’s because the largest pools of candidates for local elective office are the PTO’s and the sports leagues. Most of the current school board members come from neither.

School board elections are usually a luck of the draw. Placement on the ballot is determined by pulling candidates’ names from a hat (literally) and the candidates at the top of the ticket nearly always win. Whichever group fields the most candidates over time will ultimately control the board and Barza is in an excellent position to do just that.

That’s why Aberdeen has rejected every property tax increase at the ballot box for nearly a decade but still sees property taxes increase every year – either the people a) don’t think it matters who they elect b) don’t know who they’re electing or c) don’t know what their representatives are doing once elected.

While on the school board, I strongly opposed any tax increase. Had there been two other members of the nine-member board who shared my opposition, school taxes would not have risen this year.

Education Advances Slowly
The first thing that people will notice and quickly forget is that the draconian cuts didn’t undermine the students’ education.

Next, as students from the middle school who benefited from an accelerated curriculum move into high school, test scores will rise.

However, any advancement will be limited. Among the staff, there are several ideological battles underway – Should the district focus upon test scores or preparing students for post-high school? What are the skills and knowledge our students need to acquire before graduating? How do we test and grade our students? What do we do with teachers who can’t teach? How do we help our struggling students? How do we enable our stars to advance according to their potential?

Unless someone becomes a powerful and incessant advocate for moving in one direction, the district will always drift along the path of least resistance. That means the least work and the least headaches. The community won’t fight for higher standards and neither will most of the staff.

Local Reporting Will Continue to Deteriorate
The local papers lack resources for investigative reporting. As they continue to struggle, fewer town meetings will be covered. Excluding bloggers and the rumor mill, the community will continue to know less and less about what’s happening. And the opportunities for corruption and incompetence will expand.

Housing Will Continue to Struggle
Huge backlog of unsold and foreclosed housing. High unemployment and underemployment. As the economy recovers, interest rates will rise to combat inflation. Many underwater homeowners will put their homes on the market at their first opportunity to cover their mortgages. Meanwhile, high taxes will continue to depress prices and push more seniors to sell.

Most New Development Will Be Residential
It is an absolute disgrace that public education has become so expensive that it makes financial sense to deter families from moving to the neighborhood. But that’s the reality. Developers, however, prefer residential because they’re easier to finance and sell and often have higher profit margins. The town could easily encourage commercial development through zoning laws and PILOT programs but don’t expect it. The town council wants the tax/PILOT money, not to mention all the behind-the-scenes hand greasing that enriches their handlers, and care little about the burden new development imposes on the school district or the rest of the township.

Corruption Will Continue Unabated
People mistakenly believe corruption necessarily involves criminal activity. That’s not the case at all. Political corruption is the use of office for anything other than the public good. For example, taking tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions from CME Engineering and then awarding it millions of dollars in no-bid contracts is corrupt because there’s an assumption CME is not being awarded the business based solely upon price, service, and community benefit. Furthermore, when people and corporations are legitimately concerned over retribution if they don’t contribute to political campaigns, that is corruption. When people and corporations are able to use their political connections to “un-level” the playing field or seek business from third parties, that’s corruption.

Again and again, we hear about how there’s been no proof of corruption but that’s a lie. The free land given to Councilman Vinci, and how that land was kept off the tax rolls, is public record. Vinci being paid “consulting fees” to work on his own reelection campaign is public record. The county spending $400,000 to divert traffic from Vinci’s home on a dead end street is public record.

CME’s contributions and millions of dollars in no-bid contracts are public record.

Fire commissioners, who should be working for free, awarding themselves a 36.5% pay increase during a steep recession is public record.

Any suggestion that “corruption” only applies to criminal activity is morally repugnant and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the people who write the laws know how to avoid them.

The Teachers Union Will Continue Being Anti-Community
It’s astounding how teachers, the very people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to teaching and with whom we’ve entrusted our children, would repeatedly support anti-community agendas but that’s the reality.

When faced with a pay freeze or scores of colleagues losing their jobs, the teachers kicked their coworkers to the curb and then launched a fear-mongering campaign insisting the community’s children would be in jeopardy unless we raised taxes to save jobs.

Now, the union is doing the same to the bus drivers, the secretaries, and everyone else who could be outsourced.

When the school board offered to help three custodians save their lifetime health benefits, the union offered nothing to offset the costs.

Again and again, the union protects teachers who can’t teach, bars the district from enacting changes that would help students and save money, and prevents the district from rewarding outstanding teachers.

I hear the district used to recognize “Teachers of the Month” and give them prized parking spots and other tokens of thanks and recognition that cost nothing to the district. However, the practice had to stop after the union objected to the district “singling out teachers” for recognition when “all” teachers deserved recognition.

That sense of “we’re all wonderful and entitled” appears to be have become contagious as Christmas Friday Fever has swept through the district. Christmas Friday Fever is the infectious disease that hits about a quarter of our teachers every year on the last Friday before Christmas break, forcing them to call in sick and get some therapeutic shopping at the malls.

Local Blogging Will Decline
Normally, success attracts competition. Not in this case. Despite the widespread popularity of (many would say infamy), the only other local blog is AberdeenNJlife, which doesn’t do investigative reporting. Researching issues is very time consuming and won’t win you many friends. However, for those considering blogging, the experience can be quite rewarding and you truly have the power to make positive changes within your community.

As for this blog, I’m hoping someone will volunteer to manage it but, so far, no takers. However, the forces of darkness shouldn’t relax just yet. There’s still some life in this blog.
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lessons Learned on the BOE

If You Want Change, Join the BOE
Shortly after joining the BOE, Mr. Somma, a local resident and New York City schoolteacher, began petitioning the school board to change the start time for high school to a later hour. He appeared before the board on several occasions and provided studies showing that high school students don’t get enough sleep, the benefits of getting a full night’s sleep, and the experiences of other school districts that moved to a later start time. Selma then proposed a brilliant idea – Most of our students graduate with more credits than the state requires. Allow those juniors and seniors who are performing well in class and are on track to graduate with extra class credits to substitute one of their non-core classes for an online class on condition that they will be responsible for morning transportation.

The idea presented a win-win scenario – Teenagers would get more sleep, students would have an incentive to do well in class to earn the privilege, and the district would save money by offering fewer classes.

Intrigued by the idea, then-board member Larry O’Connell requested the administration to provide the board with guidance, which it did. Later in the year, the administration considered the idea as a means to cut expenses.

So, what happened? Absolutely nothing. It remains a great idea and one that would have board support but, without a champion within the administration or on the school board, it will go nowhere.

Board Members Have the Power to Make Changes
Any board member who’s informed, well liked, and has a good relationship with the administration can deeply affect the school district. Most board members only appear at meetings to raise their hands but they do have the power to take the initiative.

Board Members Are Not the Best Informed
Before joining the board, I once asked then-president Demarest whether the $2 million a year Response to Intervention program was helping or hurting students. She didn’t know.

Aside from the public agenda, board members receive three things – Information from the superintendent, updates from the attorney, and financial reports from the business administrator. Board members also have the privilege of access to the superintendent and business administrator. Ultimately, board members only know what they’re told by the administration. Their access to raw data is no different from the public’s access.

Ask a board member how many students take at least one advanced placement class and he probably won’t know. (It’s about 10%) Or how many students are expected to earn a bachelor’s degree. (Less than 30%) Or the cost per student for a ceramics class. (Over $700)

Aside from legal issues, personnel, and criminal activity, the board may know information before the public but they rarely know more than any involved member of the public.

Elections Matter
Elections do matter. The battle within the school board is focused upon the following lines –

  • Should the district’s sole focus be student achievement or should the district also consider public service (i.e. giving preference to hiring local residents)?
  • Should we measure student achievement through objective measurements or teacher feedback?
  • Should the focus be educational and character achievements or opportunities offered?
If the former, you’re among the standards wing that currently control the board. If the latter, you’re among the “progressives” or Barza wing.

However, despite the importance of elections, the electorate cares little about board issues and is woefully uninformed. As a result, the winners of any board election are usually the first two names on the ballot.

Where I Was Wrong

I don’t regret a single vote I cast. However, there are two areas where I changed my mind upon joining the board.

The first is the issue of grants. The vast majority of grants support new spending, not ongoing operations. That means grants can only be used for short-term projects. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating new programs that keep running long after the grant funding has vanished.

The other issue was my perception of the community. I had assumed the vast majority of parents wanted their children to receive an excellent education and, once they knew the truth of what was happening in the classrooms, they would demand improvements.

I was terribly wrong. Only a minority of parents value education as an end in itself. A large percentage of parents considers school as substitute parenting. And a majority of parents view education as merely a gateway to a better livelihood.

Those kids who learn just enough to get decent grades and graduate high school are unlikely to develop the skills necessary to succeed in college. And with over a third of our graduates going to a college whose only entrance requirement is a heartbeat, many of our students don’t challenge themselves in high school and then are shocked to discover they’re woefully unprepared for college academics.

Where I Was right
Aside from preferring my original mission statement – To build scholars and leaders – I still believe Everyday Math is a terrible curriculum that doesn’t provide a foundation for higher level mathematics and we should have outsourced as much staff as possible in one fell swoop.

Where I Was Surprised
I was shocked by how weak, incompetent, and dangerous the teachers union is. Weak, because the only people they’re able to intimidate are children. Incompetent because, despite multiple opportunities, the union leadership has consistently failed to work to the mutual benefit of their members and the community. Dangerous because their only tactic is to threaten harm to the children.

If teachers wonder why they don’t get the love and respect so many of them richly deserve, they only have to look at the rodeo clowns who represent them. In the meantime, considering the economic reality and their union leaders’ disdain for the rank and file, more school staff should expect to be outsourced next year.

Where I Failed
I would have liked to establish clear expectations for what education and experiences a student should obtain prior to graduation. I also would have liked to have had a hand in contract negotiations. However, my single greatest failure was not establishing a social organization to recruit and develop future community leaders. For now, the only people doing that are the Aberdeen Democrats, the parent groups, and the sports leagues.

When People Care
For the most part, people don’t care. Excluding the union stampedes, the only time the school board ever sees members of the public is when somebody’s child is being directly affected or when students appear to defend a teacher or program. Considering the sky high property taxes and the rock bottom test scores, you’d think the community would care more but it doesn’t. Or at least not enough to actually do anything.

The Teachers
During my stint on the school board, only one teacher ever came before the board with a proposal to change the class curriculum to better prepare students for college – Dr. Kaplan, the physics teacher.

Considering our poor academic record, you’d hope teachers would take the initiative to raise standards but, by and large, they don’t. If the students’ education and futures were the primary concerns of our teacher body, I certainly didn’t see any evidence of it.

When English teachers don’t test writing, when math teachers support a math curriculum that promotes calculators for hard problems, when history teachers use a textbook that devotes more time to the Zoot Suit Riots than Benjamin Franklin, and when high school students are assigned Harry Potter, then teachers are part of the problem.

No Accountability

We have a system where no one is accountable. Everybody blames everybody else. Until parents have the power to choose the best school for their kids and thereby force the educators to become accountable, the system will never work.

Predictions for the Future
  • The draconian cuts to staff and funding won’t have any measurable impact on the quality of education
  • At some point, the Barza wing will regain control
  • Educational progress will be stifled by teachers who are not highly educated or motivated and by parents who don’t know better
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