Friday, September 12, 2008

REA Rejects Maven

The local teachers union—the Richmond Education Association—has chosen not to endorse the maven in the school board election this year. Who did they choose? Well, I bet it was either John Lloyd, or Jonathan Mallard, or Adria Graham Scott. The REA will make their choice public next week.

I guess I should be bitter. I guess I should complain of discrimination. If they chose Jonathan, I should yell “age discrimination”; if they chose Adria, I should yell “sex discrimination;” if they chose John—well, John is as old and as male as me, so I don’t know what I should yell. But you know as the old saying goes, you can lead the REA to water but…

So what did the REA turn down? I am publishing the REA questionnaire and my responses so you can know.

"1. At a time when expectations for student achievement are increasing and funding resources appear very limited, what actions would you take as a School Board member to encourage and promote student achievement?

First, I am not willing to accept that resources are necessarily limited. When I am on the School Board I will work for adequate funding for Richmond Public Schools. Over the last two years, the mayor and the city council have imposed budget limits on RPS, which have actually lowered the percentage of the city’s annual budget that goes to our schools. I do not consider the School Board to be bound by any future funding limit from the council and mayor. Under state law it is the responsibility of the School Board, not the council or mayor, to prepare the budget for the school system. When the School Board submits a budget based on an arbitrary ceiling imposed by the mayor and council rather than one based on the true needs of our students, it is abdicating its statutory responsibility.

Regardless of the funding available, I intend to establish higher expectations for our students. We must have more rigorous course curricula. We must have more gifted and talented programs. We must have more honors courses in high school. We must no longer be satisfied with our children graduating high school. Our goal for them must be to continue their educations past high school. I have heard some people in this city say that because of their disadvantaged backgrounds many of our students are unable to perform at a higher level. I cannot accept this. We must understand the difficulties many of our children face from growing up in poverty. However, we must never accept poverty as an excuse. I believe that children will perform at the level we set for them. If we ask them to merely pass SOLs that is what they will do. On the other hand, if we insist that they excel, I am convinced they will do so.

2. Are you familiar with the RPS Operating Budget for 2008-2009? If so, are there areas or programs you believe can be reduced or eliminated in order to create a budget savings or free money for other programs or projects? Are there areas or programs you would consider off-limits to budget cuts? Are there areas/programs that you consider underfunded?

I have reviewed the RPS operating budget. Quite frankly, it is hard to tell from the budget what areas or programs money is being spent on. I see RPS spending broken down by Object Class (like salaries, benefits, supplies and materials). I see the budgets for each individual school. I see a long list of budgeted expenditures broken down by the office that spends them. But I don’t see much in the way of program descriptions. I see detailed organizational charts, but no indication of what each box on the chart does. I will have to do more research to determine whether there are programs that can be reduced.

There is one line that I have serious difficulties with—internal audit. I do not know why RPS needs an internal auditor. It also doesn’t seem to me that the internal audit function is working. The one thing that an internal auditor should be doing is making sure that an external auditor does not find serious instances of mismanagement. Obviously, the internal audit function at RPS has not done that. Internal audit is funded at $445,000 for fiscal year 2009, an increase of $22,000 over last year. I’m not sure it is worth it. (The City Council has authorized a study of whether the RPS auditing function should be incorporated into the City Auditor’s office).

I’m also not quite sure what we are getting for the half million dollars we will be spending on New Direction start-up costs.

Since our school administrators and our teachers are the most precious asset that we have in RPS, I would consider any cut in salary or benefits to them to be off-limits. RPS must show our teaching professionals that we appreciate all that they do for us. We cannot consider cutting their compensation.

I intend to add to the RPS budget for next year funding for four International Baccalaureate primary years programs, to be instituted at two elementary schools north of the river and two south of the river. The IB primary years program will teach our children critical thinking skills and show them how everything in the world is interconnected. It will better prepare them for the complex world they will face fifteen or twenty years from now. The IB programs will not be honors or magnet programs. They will be full school programs and all children attending the neighborhood school will be IB students. These full school IB programs are working successfully throughout the country.

I am also open to trying other things. In deciding where RPS goes next, we need to look at such things as extending the school day by an hour each day to provide more learning time, extending the school year to provide more learning time, offering bonuses to teachers to teach in the schools that have the highest concentration of students receiving free or reduced lunches, making pre-K available to all children in Richmond, and providing incentives to students for staying in school and for learning.

3. a) Are you familiar with the Richmond Public Schools Capital Improvement Program Budget FY2008 – 2012 and the Capital Improvement Projects Ordinance No. 2007-59-108? a) Do you believe that this program budget will address all of the school maintenance, renovation and replacement needs of Richmond Public Schools? Explain your response. b) As a member of the School Board what will you do to make sure this plan is implemented?

a- I have studied the capital improvement budget and the ordinance. However, without examining every building in the district, I cannot possibly know whether adequate funding has been budgeted to cover all the needs of the system. I must trust that the incumbent board, RPS administration and their contractors have adequately assessed the district’s capital needs.

Having spent most of my career at the Government Accountability Office examining the operations of large organizations, I know that there are often significant changes made between planning and completion of projects. I assume that as we go forward with these capital improvements we will find that the program budget probably underestimates some of the costs.

b- In the ordinance, the City Council has assigned to the mayor and the Chief Administrative Officer responsibility for implementing the capital budget. Therefore, as a member of the board I can make sure that the plan is fully implemented only by watching and by using the board’s political influence to keep pressure on the Administration. If there is insufficient progress I will ask the citizens of Richmond to pressure the mayor to get the job done.

4. In the last five years, two high schools and two middle schools were consolidated, three elementary schools were closed, and two alternative programs were moved into existing school buildings. Do you support further restructuring which could include the closing of additional schools and changes in attendance zones?

The School Board is responsible for making sure that the taxpayer’s dollar is being spent lawfully and efficiently. If it is clear that restructuring will save money, I will support it. The disruption of restructuring can be minimized by tying school closing and zoning changes to the construction of new facilities or renovation of existing facilities. Without having studied the performance of every school in the system, I cannot now address specific needed restructuring changes.

5. Do you believe that there is a correlation between staff morale and student achievement? If so, what would you do as a board member to improve the morale of RPS employees?

There is certainly a connection between teacher morale and student achievement. If a teacher does not look forward to going to school each day; is not enthusiastic about helping students to learn; feels unappreciated by administration, parents or students, it has to affect student performance. Both my wife and daughter are teachers and I know that their students learn better when their teachers are “up” for the day. I have seen this in classrooms both at Westover Hills and Carver schools. When a teacher is having a good day and is really enthusiastic about teaching, the students sense this and they catch the enthusiasm. When, however, the day is not going well, the students sense this and they have more difficulty learning.

When I am on the School Board, I intend to spend as much time as possible in the elementary, middle and high schools in the fourth district. I intend to interact with teachers and let them know that I appreciate what an important job they are doing. I will also be there to listen to them so that I can really appreciate their concerns. I will work with school administrators to establish some kind of awards or recognition programs for teachers. It is not enough to wait for one week per year to show teachers that we appreciate them.

6. Health insurance costs have been rising for many years, and the costs to RPS employees for their share of health care premiums are becoming prohibitive. Would you support maintaining the same benefits for employees without increasing the cost to employees?

To me, any increase in health care costs for employees is equivalent to a cut in salary. Therefore I will support the same benefits without increased costs for employees.

7. In your opinion, is the administration of RPS structured in such a way as to optimize both its efficiency and effectiveness? If not, what changes do you believe would lead to a more efficient and effective administration?

After carefully examining the RPs organization charts included in the 2009 school budget, I can honestly say that I can’t answer the question. However, I understand from School Board Vice Chair Lisa Dawson that RPS is finally getting around to hiring a consultant to do the staff audit recommended last fall by the Crupi Report. This study will inform the School Board whether particular functions and positions within the RPS structure are providing adequate value to merit being funded in the future.

Further, as I stated on my blogOur next superintendent must understand organizations. RPS is often accused of having too much bureaucracy. The superintendent needs to be able to analyze the RPS organization and eliminate those positions that are unnecessary in giving our children an excellent education.” Assuming that the next superintendent is chosen after I am on the board, I will try to assure that the successful candidate has that skill.

8. The REA believes that the RPS Standards of Student Conduct contains appropriate standards for student behavior, as well as fair and suitable responses to violations of the code. What actions do you believe should be taken when the building administration does not enforce the RPS Standards of Student Conduct? What actions do you believe should be taken when the central administration does not enforce the RPS Standards of Student Conduct?

All RPS policy must be followed both within schools and at central administration. The job expectations for all school administrators and all employees at central administration must make it clear that the board expects that the Standards of Student Conduct will be enforced. There must be some disincentives described for those who refuse to enforce these or other policies.

We need to experiment with incentive programs to discourage unacceptable behavior in school. When my wife was teaching at Langston Hughes Middle School in Fairfax County, she planned and implemented an experiment called “Panthers on Track.” Using money supplied both by the School Board and by the private sector, Panthers on Track provided a May out-of-school reward for those students who had a certain number of points by a cut-off date. Each child in the school started the year with sixty points and would lose points for each disciplinary problem. For those children who did not have the requisite points the reward day was spent attending presentations by police or guidance counselors, making up missing work, or spending time setting goals. During the first year of Panthers on Track, the number of school incidents requiring discipline decreased by half.

9. What motivated you to seek election to the Richmond School Board?

First, when I was a child, my father had a severe case of Multiple Sclerosis. He was unable to work. My mother had to stay home to care for him so she also couldn’t work. If it were not for my grandfather, who provided housing and financial support, we would have had to go on welfare. Coming from this poverty situation, I am convinced that had I not received a high quality public school education I would never have achieved what I did in my life. I thus owe a debt to my parent’s generation for providing me with a first-class public school education. Now that I am retired, I have time to pay that debt forward by working to make sure that all the children of Richmond receive a high quality education to prepare them for achieving their life goals.

Second, since I have been in Richmond I have volunteered in the schools as a Micah volunteer at Westover Hills Elementary, as a CAG member at Westover Hills, and as the Micah team captain for my congregation at Carver Elementary. I have watched excellent, dedicated teachers enabling their students to learn. I have worked with individual students helping them overcome their learning difficulties. Now, it is time for me to move into a position where I will be able to help more than just a few children.

Finally, I have two grandchildren living in Richmond, the oldest of which will start RPS in 2009. So, I have a selfish reason for wanting to make sure that the education we give our children is the best possible.

For me, providing a world-class education to all the students of this city, regardless of ethnicity or economic situation, is a matter of social justice. This city’s future is its children and I am committed to making sure we provide them with the skills they need to compete in the world they will face in ten or fifteen years.

10. Like most school districts, Richmond is experiencing a teacher shortage as many veteran teachers are retiring and teachers with less than five years of experience are resigning to go elsewhere, while the supply of new teachers remains low. What ideas do you have for retaining experienced teachers and for attracting and retaining new teachers?

First, we must make sure that RPS’s compensation package for teachers is as good as the surrounding jurisdictions. We cannot attract teachers if we don’t pay as much as our competitors.

Second, we must demonstrate to our teachers that we value them by treating them as the professionals they are. We must show them recognition for the miracles they perform on a daily basis. We need to create something like an “order of Richmond heroes” for those of our teachers who choose to teach in our more difficult schools. Everybody in the city, from the mayor on down, has to make honoring teachers a high priority. We need to make each week “teacher appreciation week.”

We must also provide more help to our younger teachers. We must use our experienced teachers or retired teachers as coaches. We need to provide as many professional development opportunities to our teachers as we can. There will probably be some beginning teachers who discover in their first two years that teaching is not the right career for them. However, we must make sure that none of them abandons teaching because we didn’t provide them with the help they need to succeed.

As I indicated in my answer to question 5, I intend to spend as much time as I am able interacting with the teachers in Fourth District schools. I will demonstrate to them as best I can that I really appreciate what they are doing for our children.

11. Describe what you believe should be the relationship between the Richmond School Board and the Richmond Education Association.

In most areas, the School Board and the REA should be partners. As I indicated in the statement declaring my candidacy, the School Board shouldn’t make decisions or implement new programs without consulting with the REA.

I attended two of the public meetings for the board’s New Direction last fall and I was very upset to learn that teachers knew almost nothing about the plan. How can the board plan an entirely new framework for our public schools without involving teachers in the decision making? How can the board implement a proposal that will require teachers to do much more work without talking to the teachers first?

When I am on the board, I will make sure that we get REA input on matters we consider before making decisions.

12. The perception exists that cronyism is rampant in RPS. If so, do you view it as a problem and how would you address it?

I’m not sure whether the perception of cronyism is accurate. If it does exist in RPS, it certainly is a problem. Every position in central administration and every position in each school should be filled on the basis of merit, not on the basis of who you know. If the problem is real, we must make it clear to everybody with authority to hire personnel that decisions must be based on merit. We cannot afford the public perception that hiring or promotion decisions in RPS are made on other than a merit basis.

13. Richmond must compete with surrounding school districts (Henrico, Hanover, Chesterfield, etc.) to employ personnel. Do you believe that Richmond must maintain competitive salary schedules in order to retain and attract employees? What would you do as a member of the School Board to ensure that this happens?

I certainly agree that Richmond Public Schools must maintain competitive compensations packages in order to retain and recruit personnel. As a member of the Board, I will examine the compensation packages of surrounding jurisdictions to assure that we remain competitive.

14. Are you familiar with the current salary schedules for Richmond Public Schools employees? If so, do you think any adjustments need to be made in these schedules? Please explain your answer.

The current salary schedule for teachers is very strange. If my math doesn’t fail me, teachers spend two years in step 4, four years in step 5, three years in step 6, two years in step 8, seven years in step 13, two years in step 15 and reach step 20 after thirty two years of service. This makes no sense to me. Time in step requirements should be fairly uniform over the salary schedule. Freezing teachers with eighteen years experience in a single step for seven years can’t possibly be good for morale.

15. Some people believe that teacher compensation should be based upon how well their students score on certain standardized tests, such as the SOL assessments. What thoughts do you have concerning pay for performance and merit pay plans?

Generally, I support merit pay systems. I believe they provide incentives to employees to perform better.

However, I have serious reservations about measuring teacher merit by the achievements of their students, especially on standardized tests. There are too many factors other than teacher quality that affect student performance. This year at Carver, I worked with one girl who was trying to cope with watching her uncle die of gunshot wounds, another child who was living with her grandmother because both her parents had “passed,” and another child who was kept out of class for two weeks just before SOLs because her vaccinations were not complete. Obviously, how these children perform on standardized tests depends on a lot more things than their teacher’s skills.

Merit pay for RPS teachers would make sense only if the system is “handicapped” to take into account the difficulties that many students experience for many years because they have not been properly prepared before beginning school. A teacher who has a class of 18 students, all of whom receive free or reduced lunch, cannot be fairly measured against a teacher who has a class of students, none of whom need meal subsidies.

I read that Prince Georges County, Maryland, and its education association have agreed on a merit pay provision in their contract. I also understand that the District of Columbia has merit pay provisions in its teacher’s contract. I have heard that these are based on teacher choice. Teachers can opt to remain subject to a seniority system for salary promotion. Or, they can opt to participate in the merit pay system, which will allow for more rapid salary promotion for those teachers that excel.

16. The Standards of Learning and Standards of Accreditation are having an enormous impact on student instruction. Do you believe that RPS should be doing more to insure greater success for all of our students?

Clearly RPS should be doing more to promote the success of all our children. However, I am concerned that our SOL-based curriculum is not teaching our children what they need to know.

Because they are multiple-choice tests, the SOLs require our children to learn facts. They are “what” and “where” and “when” tests; they are not “how” and “why” tests. We should be teaching our children skills, not facts, but the SOLs push us in another direction.

We need to prepare our children to compete on a global scale. Teaching them facts makes no sense because most of what we teach our children today will be just historic curiosities in fifteen or twenty years. We have to teach our children how to think, how to gather information, how to make decisions, how to understand that everything is related, how to communicate (even though I cannot even imagine the technology they will use for communication) and how to relate to a world of different people from different cultures.

Our teachers need to find a way to prepare our children for the SOL tests they must take and at the same time give them the tools to succeed later in life. We need to teach our children the skills they will need to function fifteen or twenty years from now. If we teach them how, they will be able to find the facts they need to know electronically or, if they still exist, in books. At the rate knowledge is expanding we can never teach our children all the “facts” they need to know. We need to teach them to think.

17. For a number of years, RPS has had difficulty finding qualified substitutes to place in the classrooms when regular teachers must be absent from their jobs. As a solution, current employees are often asked to teach the students of absent teachers in addition to their own class. Do you believe that those employees should receive additional compensation for assuming the extra workload?

I believe that teachers or other school professionals who are asked to serve as substitutes should be compensated for the extra work that they do in dealing with the additional students.

However, this is only a Band-Aid approach. We need to fix the substitute problem. We must make sure that we pay substitutes enough to attract them. We also need to do some serious marketing. We need to dispel the belief among potential substitute teachers that RPS is not a good place to work. We also need to make use of student teachers as potential substitutes. Further, students in our three local universities could make excellent substitutes. We need to work with the universities to find a way to use these students as substitute teachers.

18. Do you support outsourcing RPS school services by contracting for these services from private, for-profit companies? (Such as, transportation, school security and custodial services.)

As a taxpayer in the City of Richmond I am in favor of procuring services at the lowest possible cost so long as the services are performed competently. If, in fact, the private sector can provide those services as well and more cheaply then we can do them in house, we have an obligation to outsource. On the other hand, as someone who has spent his entire career as a government employee, I question whether the private sector can really provide services as well and as economically as public employees.

19. Should RPS provide training to educational support professionals to become licensed teachers and/or to advance to other higher positions?

Yes, RPS should provide training to educational support professionals to help them become licensed teachers or to advance to higher positions. Money spent improving the qualifications and abilities of staff is always a good investment. It also shows that RPS cares about its employees. Further, because these individuals are already working for RPS, it is more likely that they will continue their careers at RPS.

20. Truancy is a major issue in Richmond Public Schools. The city now has the responsibility for addressing truancy. The program has not been successful and the truancy rate is increasing again. As a School Board member, what will you do to address this very serious problem?

Truancy is a serious problem. However, to deal with it we need to determine its underlying causes. I think that truancy at the secondary school level may be caused, in part, by a student’s unsuccessful experience in elementary school. If a student feels he is not succeeding in school or that she is stupid, that child is not going to want to be in school where his or her negative perceptions might be shown to be true. Providing a better elementary school experience for children will make them more anxious to go to middle school and high school.

If on the other hand, a child is truant because he doesn’t have adequate clothing, or has inadequate health care, or she has to babysit for a sibling, we are facing entirely different problems. We need to have greater support from Communities in Schools or similar organizations to deal with those non-academic problems that make it less likely that our children will attend and succeed in school. These are not problems that our schools are designed to deal with. Richmond needs to minimize these problems for our children if we expect them to stay and succeed in school.

We need to consider incentive programs to get our students to come to school and concentrate on their studies. I have read of some schools that actually promise students a cash payment at the end of the year if they meet attendance requirements and they perform well academically. We might combine this with a team approach in which the rewards are given to all members of a succeeding team. This will provide peer pressure on all the children in the team to attend school and do their best.

21. Are you familiar with the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also referred to as “No Child Left Behind”? If so, what is your understanding of this law?

As I indicated recently in my blog , I am very much opposed to the No-child-left-behind law. “I am convinced it was planned by people who are opposed to public education. With its constantly escalating requirements it seems deliberately designed to make public school systems fail.” No-child—
· encourages teachers to teach to the test,
· assumes that the only factor that determines a child’s success is the school,
· places its emphasis only on reading, writing and math, which discourages schools and teachers from teaching other subjects,
· makes no allowance for students who do not speak English,
· is based on the assumption that standardized tests can actually measure student learning, and
· makes it harder for some school districts to hire “qualified” teachers.

We can only hope that the Congress, in its wisdom, will make significant changes before extending the law. In the meantime, as I suggested in my answer to question 16, we must help our teachers to teach in a way that guarantees our students do well on their standardized tests and at the same time teach them the skills they need to survive in the future world they will face when they finish college.

So, trusted reader, I ask you, why would REA choose someone else? I trust the voters of the fourth district will disagree.

1 comment:

gray said...

First of all, I don't like the REA nor trust it. I believe it is a political organization under the influence of other political organizations.

Second of all, Thank you so much for publishing that questionaire with your answers -it shows your honesty, transparency, and courage. There is a lot I agree with like the SOL stuff and just a little I disagree with but honesty trumps a little disagreement. Again thank you.