I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shorter @tomamoran: We Had To Destroy Camden to Save it

The fact that Tom Moran gave himself gobs of print space in the op-ed section of today's Star-Ledger solely for the purpose of kissing South Jersey Democratic boss George Norcross's posterior pretty much tells us all we need to know about that newspaper's sad decline.

But I just want to point out a few things for the record that Moran, as usual, completely misses:

- Let's start with Moran's rather selective memory about the history of policing and Camden:
For the drug dealers and gangs, things got even better when Camden was hit by the double-whammy of the Great Recession and cuts in state aid. City leaders raised taxes by 23 percent in 2011, but with so little property to tax, it wasn’t enough. 
They went begging to the police for concessions, but the union wouldn’t budge. So despite the crisis in violence, nearly half the force was laid off in 2013. Violence, predictably, exploded. Response time mushroomed to 60 minutes.
You'll notice that Moran's construction, true to form, glosses over the massive cuts in aid to Camden Chris Christie made -- all while lowering taxes on the wealthy and handing out tax goodies to corporations -- and instead places most of the blame on public workers.

Moran goes on to catalog the many alleged abuses of Camden's Finest, neglecting to mention that these brave men and women went out every damn day into what is arguably the most dangerous city in America, risking their lives. When's the last time Moran ever wrote an op-ed thanking these people for their work, instead of publicly shaming them?

I won't pretend there aren't bad cops and I won't pretend there weren't abuses -- I honestly don't know if there were. But Moran's blithe dismissal of the police is typical of his smug attitude toward unionized public workers: if there's a fiscal problem, it's always our fault.

It never, ever crosses Moran's mind that maybe if we raised taxes on folks like Norcross and his other billionaire buddy, David Tepper, cities like Camden wouldn't face a continuing string of crises.

- If you really want to know the story of the Camden police, read Matt Taibbi's excellent article last year for Rolling Stone:
The city for decades hadn't been able to pay even for its own cops, so it funded most of its operating budget from state subsidies. But once Christie assumed office, he announced that "the taxpayers of New Jersey aren't going to pay any more for Camden's excesses." In a sweeping, statewide budget massacre, he cut municipal state aid by $445 million. The new line was, people who paid the taxes were cutting off the people who didn't. In other words: your crime, your problem. 
The "excesses" Christie was referring to included employment contracts negotiated by the police union. A charitable explanation of the sweet deal Camden gave its cops over the years was that the police union had an unusually strong bargaining position. "Remember, this was the only police force in South Jersey whose members regularly had to risk their lives," says retired Rutgers-Camden professor Howard Gillette. The less-charitable say these deals were the result of a hey-it-isn't-our-money-anyway subsidy-mongering. Whatever the cause, until Christie came along, the Camden police had a relatively rich contract, with overtime up the wazoo and paid days off on birthdays. If a cop worked an overnight, he got a 12 percent "shift enhancement" bump, which made sense because of the extreme danger. But an officer who clocked in at noon under the same agreement still got an extra four percent. "Every shift was enhanced," says a spokesman for the new department. 
But a big reason that Christie hit Camden's police unions so hard was simply that he could. He'd wanted to go after New Jersey urban schools, which he derided as "failure factories." But a series of state Supreme Court rulings based on a lawsuit originally filed on behalf of students in Camden and three other poor communities in the Eighties – Abbott v. Burke, a landmark case that would mandate roughly equal per-pupil spending levels across New Jersey – made cuts effectively impossible. The courts didn't offer similar protection to police budgets, though. By New Year's 2011, the writing was on the wall. After Christie announced his budget plans, panicked city leaders got together, pored over their books and collective-bargaining agreements, and realized the unthinkable was about to happen. Camden, a city that even before any potential curtailing of state subsidies made Detroit or East St. Louis seem like Martha's Vineyard, was about to see its police force, one of its biggest expenditures, chopped nearly in half. 
On January 18th, 2011, the city laid off 168 of its 368 police officers, kicking off a dramatic, years-long, cops-versus-locals, house-to-house battle over a few square miles of North American territory that should have been national news, but has not been, likely because it took place in an isolated black and Hispanic ghost town. [emphasis mine]
The New York Times, back in 2011, reported on how the cuts imperiled the city:
But after the layoffs of 163 police officers, Camden is feeling the impact. Callers to 911 who report things like home burglaries or car break-ins are asked to file a report over the phone or at police headquarters; officers rarely respond in person. “If it doesn’t need a gun and a badge at that location,” officers are not sent, the city’s police chief, J. Scott Thomson, said last week. 
Residents have taken their own precautionary measures. One homeowner, Randolph Norfleet, has used the heavy snow this winter as a deterrent to local drug dealers, shoveling each storm’s accumulation onto the footpath where the dealers lurked alongside his home. 
Police headquarters now sits nearly empty, its front reception window sometimes closed, as most of the department’s staff has been pushed onto the street for patrol duty. Detectives cannot devote as much time to investigations; a widely praised bicycle unit was disbanded. Even the canine unit lost two of its three dogs. 
[...]
The layoffs of 163 officers came at a time when the South Jersey city of 80,000, long a symbol of urban blight — it has no movie theater, few supermarkets and a severe shortage of jobs — had finally started to feel safer, residents say. In each of the last two years, Camden recorded fewer than 40 murders, significantly less than the 54 murders of 2008, when the city was ranked the most dangerous in America, according to a widely quoted survey. 
Then a $14 million deficit in the Police Department’s budget, combined with failed union negotiations, led to the unthinkable: laying off officers in a city that clearly could benefit from more police, not less. The layoffs left Camden with 204 police officers, its smallest department since 1949, when a mentally ill man, Howard Unruh, shot to death 13 of his neighbors in East Camden. 
[...]
Chief Thomson, 39, has cut his salary by $15,000 and hits the street himself — he personally has made about five arrests since the layoffs. 
Still, at times, the department is fielding as few as a dozen patrol cars during the day, according to three current officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss department staffing. 

Two takeaways: first, the takeover of the Camden police was never about "reforming" the department. Chris Christie wanted to slash Camden's police costs so he could slash taxes on the wealthy -- period. Let's not pretend for a second there was anything else going on.

Second: how many people in Camden literally died so Christie could play games with the city's budget? If anyone really believed the Camden police -- again, assuming a higher level of risk than any other force in the region -- had somehow become too fat and lazy on the backs of New Jersey's taxpayers, that's one thing.

But it's insane to think the only way to reform the contract was to decimate the police and let Camden become a war zone. Camden is not Bến Tre; it didn't have to be destroyed to save it. The city, according to the Times, had actually made some progress before Christie came in and busted the police union.

The thought that Chris Christie destroyed an American city's police department, and put tens of thousands of lives at risk, just so he could bust a union should not make Tom Moran want to cheer -- it should make him feel disgusted.

- I don't know what George Norcross's role was in all this; Taibbi doesn't mention him once in his article, and Moran doesn't clearly state how Norcross influenced the deal. But Moran, as always, doesn't understand how to measure the outcomes:
From 2012 to 2014, the rates of murder and rape have dropped by half. Assaults with guns have dropped by nearly one-third, and robberies are down 12 percent. Police response time has dropped to 4.5 minutes.
Tom, the appropriate comparison is not from 2012, after Christie gutted the police force; the appropriate comparison is to the time before Christie callously slashed aid to the city. Again, the Times reported the city was on the right track.

An actual journalist would look into whether that's true.

- And an actual journalist wouldn't let stuff like this fall down into the memory hole:
For several years, even as the Camden city administration warned that it was unable to financially support its police department, more than half of $12 million in federal and state grants that poured in during that time lay unused.
Most of that money couldn't be used because the city failed to keep police staffing at levels required by the grants.
But more than $500,000 in grant money that the city was free to use sat around for two years until recently when the police department purchased various items, including new cars, portable radios, and tires, according to an Inquirer analysis of police-related grants the city has received since 2009.
In addition to the unused grant money, the city also had $1.8 million in money from a 2001 municipal bond issue lying unused that it recently decided to divert from the fire department to fixing the police administration building.
The beneficiary of the city's newfound largesse is the new Camden County Police Department, whose metro division took over policing in the city this month.
The city has leased the administration building to the county for $1, and it has also transferred the former department's equipment to the county for $1.
"It's amazing how we say we don't have money and now all of a sudden we have all this money to spend," said Councilman Brian Coleman, who has been critical of the way the new county police force was assembled. [emphasis mine]
Amazing, indeed. And amazing Tom Moran never thought to ask Norcross about any of this.

- Finally, what would a Tom Moran column be without an ode to charter schools?
Norcross had seen that state takeovers in Newark, Paterson and Jersey City did not lead to dramatic improvements. And he saw that the rapid growth of charters in Newark had fed a political backlash that threatens the whole reform effort.
“You can learn from the mistakes other people make,” he says. 
His crew came up with Renaissance schools, a hybrid between conventional ones and charters. These are neighborhood schools where local kids are assigned, as in traditional schools. But Norcross recruited the most successful charter organizations to run them. So you get the innovation, but not the trauma of shifting kids to strange neighborhoods, as in Newark. 
“When George came knocking, we politely said, ‘No thanks,’” says Drew Martin, who is running one of three new Renaissance schools in the city. 
Martin is part of the KIPP network, a charter chain that is working miracles in Newark, where its one high school sends more African-American males to college than the entire city of Camden does.
We've been over this about a million times: KIPP/TEAM may be a fine school, but it is not "working miracles." It serves a different student population, with fewer special needs students than NPS. It benefits from serving a larger proportion of children who, while certainly in economic disadvantage, are not in the deeper disadvantage found in most NPS schools.

Another charter operator coming into Camden, Uncommon Schools, has very high rates of attrition. Mastery, the third charter management organization, is well-known for its discipline practices, requiring "submission, obedience, and self-control."

It's also worth pointing out that TEAM spends quite a bit on its schools and students. This is a good thing, but it certainly tempers any claims of "working miracles."

But acknowledging any of this wouldn't get Tom Moran the story he wanted, would it? Because Moran isn't so much a journalist as a scriptwriter. He makes movies starring brave, noble plutocrats like George Norcross, and evil shadowy villains like police and teachers unions.

I'll admit that the legacy of George Norcross is complex. It's hard to imagine where Camden would be today without Cooper Health Systems. Norcross's machine keeps South Jersey in the Democratic column, and that has national implications. I'm even willing to wait and see what happens with the Renaissance schools, although I will never relent in pointing out that Camden's own citizens should have made the call as to whether they wanted to charterize their district or not.

But Tom Moran's column today is not a serious exploration of Norcross's legacy. It's just another worthless paean to wealth; another useless smooch on the rear-end of plutocracy, at the expense of unionized public workers.

No wonder the Star-Ledger continues to circle down the drain...

Tom Moran never met a billionaire he didn't love!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

You Get What You Pay For: @GovChristie's Superintendents Pay Cap Fails

Yet another New Jersey school leader announced this week that he's leaving the state rather than taking a huge, arbitrary pay cut:
James Crisfield, the superintendent of Millburn’s public schools, was among the last class of New Jersey school leaders to seal his contract before Gov. Chris Christie imposed strict salary caps on superintendent pay. 
In the four years since, the caps have been as controversial as anything on Christie’s education agenda, with some saying it gave the system a needed jolt, while others claim it has led to an exodus of talented leaders. 
And now, Crisfield has bolstered the arguments of the latter camp, announcing this week that he taken the superintendent post in the Wissahickon School District in Montgomery County, Pa., near Philadelphia -- in large part due to the salary constraints he faced in New Jersey once his contract expired.[emphasis mine]
Full disclosure: Jim Crisfield hired me for my first permanent job when I moved back to New Jersey years ago. I had several offers, but I took the job, among other reasons, because the pay the district was offering was close to the highest of all my offers.

(Clearly, I don't care enough about children to set aside rational decision making in the interests of my family...)

Jim went to Millburn a few years later, and, while no superintendent can make every stakeholder happy, I heard many good things about his tenure there. So it doesn't surprise me when he says he had planned on staying in Millburn, consistently one of the highest-performing districts in the state:
Q: So, tell me what happened in your decision?
I always thought I’d finish out my career in Millburn. It’s a great district and I can’t think of one any better. But then things happened. I had my pay frozen for the last four years, which I found reasonable given the economic times. But then once my contract expires this coming June, I would have been subject to a 24 percent pay cut, and that just didn’t seem reasonable, not something I thought was fair and certainly not something the local board thought of. But the rules are the rules. 
Does anyone really think this is an unreasonable response? Does anyone really think that public employees don't respond to labor market incentives? Does anyone think, in a kinda-capitalist economic system, that people won't look to move on when one-quarter of their pay is cut?

Christie himself has tried to play down the issue, even as the school leader bleeding continues:
A recent survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association found that 219 out of 561 districts had turnover among superintendents, sometimes more than once, since the cap took effect. 
In 97 cases, districts cited the cap as the reason for the leader's departure. Many headed to jobs in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. Some retired.
The governor's spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the cap will be revisited when it sunsets in 2016. He wouldn't predict whether it might change. 
"Superintendent salary packages had clearly become unjustifiable and in many cases outlandish and had to be reined in," he said in an email. [emphasis mine]
Aside from the cluelessness about basic economics, Drewniak's statement is foolish for its lack of understanding of how pensions work in New Jersey. Because some of the superintendents who left were old enough the start drawing on their pensions:
Some superintendents who get jobs out of state also tap their New Jersey pensions at the same time. That includes 59-year-old Frank Alvarez, who left Montclair two years ago to run the schools in Rye City, N.Y. He said he draws about $123,000 a year from his New Jersey pension, while making $248,500 at his new job. 
"You have many superintendents who retire from New Jersey and begin drawing pensions much earlier than anticipated, rather than continuing to work and contributing into the pension system," Dr. Alvarez said. "It doesn't make sense. This is a failed policy on many levels and the damage will take years to reverse."
Amen: the cap is driving qualified, experienced school leaders away from New Jersey, and it's putting an early and unnecessary load on pensions.

But let's also acknowledge a third, perhaps even more important effect of the cap:
Michael Osnato, who runs a Westwood, N.J., superintendent search firm, Leadership Advantage, said the cap has cut the number of applicants for vacancies, and many candidates are younger than before. 
Dr. Osnato said many principals and assistant principals no longer aspire to be superintendents in New Jersey because they already earn more than the cap allows. They don't face such limits, and some make more than their bosses.
"It really has changed the dynamic," Dr. Osnato said.
Think about it: if you can make more by staying in a principal's job, why would you ever consider becoming a superintendent? And if talented, experienced school administrators won't consider becoming district leaders, what is going to happen to the quality of the applicant pool for superintendent jobs?

Chris Christie has imperiled the future of New Jersey's schools by imposing his superintendent pay cap on local districts, jeopardizing the quality of new applicants for leadership positions.

Don't believe me? Let's look at an example -- the one that started it all.

Back in 2010, Chris Christie was facing the wrath of his suburban base when he cut state aid to schools, resulting in big program cuts in both urban and suburban districts. He tried to blame the cuts on "greedy" teachers and demanded they take a pay freeze; the state's Office of Legislative Services later showed, however, that the freeze would have done little to make up the difference.

But the truth never matters much to Christie -- especially when it comes to education policy. Rather than admit his failure to renew the millionaires tax would have done much more to help fund state aid than any teacher pay freeze, he continued to insist that runway school spending was the culprit.

Unfortunately for Christie, he couldn't just unilaterally slash teacher compensation. So he went after the one school job where he could slash pay: superintendents. And, as usual, he made up a villain who would suit his needs:
The New Jersey school district singled out by Gov. Chris Christie for its “greed and arrogance” is fighting back.
Instead of rescinding the superintendent’s contract as ordered by the governor, the Parsippany-Troy Hills school board on Tuesday pushed for official approval for a five-year contract worth an average yearly salary of more than $225,000 — or $50,000 a year more than what would be allowed under Christie’s salary cap, set to take effect in February.
Last week Christie made Seitz his new “poster boy” for “greed and arrogance” during a town hall-style appearance in which he accused the superintendent of trying to flout new pay rules. Christie even publicized a video showing his denunciation of Seitz on his gubernatorial Twitter account.
“I suspect that the executive county superintendent is going to look very poorly upon someone who is trying to game the system and take from the taxpayers of Parsippany — and by extension, the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey,” Christie said. “If Lee Seitz wants to try to put his greed and his arrogance ahead of the taxpayers of New Jersey, you elected me to stand up to people like Lee Seitz and others across the state, and I will.” [emphasis mine]
Remember: this was back in 2010, long before we had seen the full extent of Chris Christie's hypocrisy. The gullible folks who populated Christie's phony "town halls" and called up to vent on talk radio loved the idea wagging their fingers at allegedly rapacious school leaders gobbling up their hard-earned tax dollars.

Only later would they learn that Christie would suspend his own rules if it meant getting his favored neophyte superintendents into state-run districts. The always excellent Deciminyan over at Blue Jersey detailed just how hypocritical the Governor could be on this point:
Here’s a comparison of Seitz and Rouhanifard: 

Seitz
Rouhanifard
Salary
$216,000
$210,000
Relevant Experience
School Principal – 7 years
Asst. Superintendent – 1.5 years
Superintendent – 18 years
President – Hunterdon County Association of School Administrators – 4 years
Teacher – 2 years
Certifications
Superintendent of Schools – NJ and PA
Secondary Principal – NJ and PA
Two year provisional granted immediately.
Awards
Child Assault Prevention Administrator of the Year
Star School – NJ DoE
National Blue Ribbon School – US DoE

Degrees
Doctor of Eduation – Penn
Master of Education - Lehigh
Economics and Political Science - UNC – Chapel Hill 
Field as specified on LinkedIn Profile
Education Management
Investment Management

Yes, Paymon Rouhanifard, who doesn't even have a superintendent's certification or any advanced degrees, was hired by Chris Christie at a salary nearly as high as the "poster boy for greed and arrogance."

But what happened to Seitz? Well, after a period of general nastiness, Seitz left Parsippany and retired -- but not before paying a financial penalty, despite the well-wishes of his board. Parsippany hired an interim superintendent, and began a search for Seitz's replacement. Eventually, they settled on a fellow named Scott Rixford:
Rixford, a graduate of the University of Miami with a master's degree from Rutgers in education/educational leadership, has more than 18 years of experience in education. He has been an elementary and middle school teacher, principal, district level supervisor, and assistant superintendent in the Paterson School District and superintendent of the Woodland Park School District. 
Additionally, he was the executive director of the New Jersey Department of Education's Regional Achievement Centers. It is his wide range of education-related work experience that Rixford believes will enable him to ensure that "every layer" of the Parsippany district will have the necessary tools and resources.
The RACs are former NJDOE Commissioner Chris Cerf's brainchild, and have produced some notable flops in school leadership. When the district that would be under Rixford's watch while he ran the RAC heard he would be overseeing their operations, the reaction was decidedly mixed:
Scott Rixford, who had been principal of Alexander Hamilton Academy and an assistant Paterson superintendent, was named executive director of the state education department’s Regional Achievement Center (RAC) covering Passaic, Bergen, Sussex and Warren counties.
The Christie administration this year created six RACs in different parts of the state in a controversial effort to reform New Jersey’s worst school as well as those that have low graduation rates or other problems. Under the plan, the so-called “Priority” schools face state-mandated closure or private takeover if they do not improve in three years.
Rixford’s appointment drew mixed reaction among city education officials and advocates.
“Why are these retreads being brought back?’’ said school board member Errol Kerr. “He never came off as one of the people that you would entrust the district to to make better. He did not distinguish himself when he was here.’’
“We’re not too happy about this,’’ said Board of Education President Christopher Irving.
But former board president, Willa Mae Taylor, had good things to say about Rixford. “He did a good job at Alexander Hamilton,’’ she said. “”He was a quick thinker and a quick mover.’’
The district’s security director, James Smith, said Rixford brought to his attention allegations of a Paterson teacher who was “stealing time” from her duties tutoring a handicapped student. The case proved true, Smith said.  “I found him to be an effective principal and an effective assistant superintendent,’’ Smith said of Rixford.
[...]
The president of the Paterson Education Fund (PEF), an advocacy group, said she was very concerned about Rixford’s new role. “Scott Rixford has a history with the district and I’m concerned about his ability to be disinterested,’’ said Irene Sterling of PEF. She added that Rixford was “very ambitious” and indicated that might affect his “impartiality.’’
And Rixford has had some other bumps in his career:
WOODLAND PARK: A state examiner has found that Schools Superintendent Scott Rixford retaliated against district employees whose union filed grievances against him and wouldn't agree to his plans to change employee negotiations and working conditions.
Rixford on Wednesday denied he retaliated against district staff and said he was a union member and representative of the New Jersey Education Association for many years.
“I certainly don't have any union animus,” he said.
In a 75-page report released March 31, Wendy L. Young, a hearing examiner for the state Public Employment Relations Commission, wrote that the Board of Education violated the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act through Rixford's actions.
“I think the decision speaks volumes,” said Cassandra Lazzara, president of the West Paterson Education Association, the union that represents teachers, secretaries, custodians and librarians. “There was no reason for them to go after us the way they did.”
OK, that's not good... but everyone's entitled to make mistakes, there's two sides to every story, and I wouldn't suggest that anyone should have a spotless record before they are hired for any job. The Parsippany board must have thought these incidents didn't disqualify Rixford from the position... especially when compared to the other applicants for the job.

Again, according to the recruiter in the story above, "... the cap has cut the number of applicants for vacancies, and many candidates are younger than before." Rixford was only going to get $175,000 per year, a big drop from Seitz's previous salary. We're left to wonder: what might the pool of candidates have looked like for the Parsippany superintendent's job before Christie had imposed his cap?

We'll never know, but we can ask this: how's the new superintendent working out, Parsippany?
The Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association (PTHEA) confronted Schools Superintendent Scott Rixford Thursday night on an array of issues, including adequate time to meet state mandates, an impervious administrative culture, and acceptable styles of corduroy pants under a new dress code.
The meeting ended with the superintendent announcing initiatives that effectively bypass the PTHEA, some 100 disgruntled teachers filing out, and both sides still at loggerheads. [emphasis mine]
Wait right there. "Corduroy pants"?
Adding to the overall discontent is a new no-jeans dress code that was implemented by the administration, according to [Parsippany-Troy Hills Education Association President Joe] Kyle, who said lots of teachers bought corduroy pants since they comply with the code.
"But they've asked some teachers to lift our shirts up to see if our corduroys have a certain pocket design which they're defining as jean pocket design," Kyle said. "We're asking for time to learn technology to teach our kids and they have building principals looking to see if we have a rivet on our pants, which they define as jean rivets.
"I wouldn't be able to make this up," he said. "This is akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burns."
I think we can all agree that our children have been falling behind Shanghai's students largely because of their teachers' pocket designs...

Well, maybe this is just a little misunderstanding. What else is bothering Parsippany's teachers?
What bothers the teachers, according to Kyle, are what the union calls weak policies that take away from teaching as well as the indifferent or hostile tone with which the administration responds to teachers when they raise concerns.
"Things have been building up for three years," Kyle said. "We've been asking for a slowdown. We've gotten some really good things like iPads and Smart Boards. We just want time to be able to figure them out and teach more in the classroom.
"But the new administration, along with the new assistant superintendent of curriculum, just keeps adding on new stuff."
Per an administrative directive, he said, teachers must give quarterly instead of final exams, which means they're writing the extra tests on professional development days. Elementary school teachers, who need better training on a new literacy program, have been told to train during their lunch periods.
Further, all teachers must now develop state-mandated Student Growth Objectives (SGO) for groups of students and then test them at year's end. The test, Kyle said, is a way to evaluate teachers' performance.
"Instead of giving us time to do these things, the administration tells us, 'Do it on your own time,'" Kyle said. "Very few of them have experience in the classroom. We do. We know what's best for the students. What we say, though, is met by condescension and derision. We were told the other day by one of the assistant superintendents, 'If your teachers were more qualified, maybe you wouldn't need all this time.'
"So it's this attitude," he added, "that just really has to stop."
Does any of this sound familiar? Contempt for the professionalism of teachers? Disregard for collective bargain rights? Focus on inconsequential nonsense? Where, oh where, could this attitude be coming from?

Chris Christie: “If Lee Seitz wants to try to put his greed and his arrogance ahead of the taxpayers of New Jersey, you elected me to stand up to people like Lee Seitz and others across the state and I will.”
Rixford, for his part, thinks the problem lies with his local union:
In a 20-minute statement, Rixford referenced that the "high-level and high-profile drama" of the PTHEA are really about setting "a tone for this current negotiation year."
He said he chooses to differentiate between "teachers in the classroom" and the PTHEA leadership. In reference to the union's strategies, the superintendent said he prefers an President Abraham Lincoln quote: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
Again: where have we heard this before? That teachers are so gullible that they are being manipulated by their elected union representatives?

Chris Christie: “I don’t think teachers are the problem. I think unions are the problem.”*
But, of course, when enforcing ridiculous policies, it's never the fault of the enforcer, is it?
Rixford said he understands all the new stressors that make teaching harder and noted PTHEA literature in which it is written, "We're struggling to teach a curriculum with increasingly high standards."
"Yes, we are. All of us are," the superintendent said. "And yet the Association has to date expended its energy on planning a dress code challenge day and the huge effort of organizing this evening's rally."
[...]
"We find it unfortunate the association has opted for a house divided," Rixford said at the end of his statement. "We remind you that your administration will continue to operate this district as a big tent."
He finished his speech to silence. No one clapped.
Some PTHEA members called Rixford's speech insincere and a manipulation of facts. Kyle said he plans on asking for a full 20 minutes to address the board, too.
Sounds like a great place to work, doesn't it?

Look, I won't pretend we haven't had really awful superintendents in the past when there wasn't a pay cap. But Parsippany is a case that should be considered when debating its effects. No superintendent is perfect, but Lee Seitz at least had the respect of his teachers:
Still Seitz was praised by union representatives and most Board members for all he has accomplished. Judy Mayer, who heads the teachers’ union, and Susan Raymond, representing the secretaries’ union, thanked him for the many initiatives he undertook and for always respecting the staff.
That stands in stark contrast to Scott Rixford, whose RAC tenure links him directly to the Christie administration:
"You see, it’s not just the policies, or the lack of awareness on how those policies are affecting teaching, or their lack of empathy at what we’re going through that is hurting this district;" the letter from the executive board said "It’s the smug, superior attitude that we should learn our place, it’s the disrespectful insinuation that our elementary teachers are somehow ineffective and unqualified because they ask for assistance, and it’s the arrogant refusal to listen to any suggestions on educational policy that counter their own, even the state’s." [emphasis mine]
Again: there's no guarantee that removing the pay cap will always ensure New Jersey's schools have great superintendents.

But it amazes me that "conservatives" like Chris Christie think they can ignore labor markets and impose arbitrary pay caps and that somehow the quality of candidates for school leadership jobs won't suffer.

Parsippany is a cautionary tale: you need to pay people well if you want the best. Don't be surprised, New Jersey, when more school leaders like Jim Crisfield leave and more candidates like Scott Rixford take their places.

I know rescinding the cap will not be good for Chris Christie's impending presidential campaign. But I'm asking Republicans of good will (like Assemblyman David Wolfe) to work with him to find a way to get rid of this terrible policy while saving face, if that's what's required.

We simply can't afford to wait until the cap expires to restore sanity to our state's education policies.

Enough.




* I've said this before, but I think it bears repeating: does anyone else hear a distinctively misogynist  tone in Christie's idea that teachers unions are duping their members?
He "feels badly" for teachers; the poor dears can't see they're being suckered. No wonder he reminds me of Ralph Kramden, patronizingly patting Alice on the head as he tells her what's best for her. Alice, of course, was ten times as smart as Ralph, and could see through his hair-brained schemes the minute they were hatched. In the same way, teachers know that Christie is completely full of it: he cuts teacher pay, slashes benefits, pushes to eliminate workplace protections, and personally insults teachers (he can't help himself).
Yet he condescendingly claims it's the unions that are the source for teachers' current woes. It's telling that he never pulls this crap with the police unions, or the firefighters, or even the CWA; he's only gone to war with the NJEA. Why is that, do you suppose?
That's back from 2012, and I think it's just as relevant today. Women make up around three-quarters of the teaching corps. The War on Teachers has always been an extension of the War On Women.

Tell me I'm wrong. 


ADDING: I see Bruce Baker has been hanging out on the message boards:
 have a possible to the salary cap problem. One that can be drawn from lessons from CMO (Charter Management Organization) operated charter schools. CMOs like Uncommon Schools in particular (KIPP/TEAM fails to report their compensation data on their IRS 990s) have "administrators" paid above the NJ district admin cap level (over $200k), including middle level operational managers assigned specifically to NJ charters. These individuals appear on IRS filings as compensated by the non-profit CMO, but do not appear as NJ district employees in the state personnel data files (as do superintendents, etc.), despite the fact that their salaries are largely supported by the public expense of the management fees (and yes, plenty of additional philanthropy). 

So, what's the lesson here? New Jersey superintendents simply need to form a "non-profit" district management company, like a charter CMO. They can then convince local boards of education to not hire a superintendent and instead, contract that management company, paying an annual management fee (as do charters) to the management company (let's call it a DMO - district management organization).

Under the umbrella of the DMO, the managers assigned to oversee individual districts could be paid whatever rate the DMO board of directors (private citizens, not public officials) sets, assuming it collects high enough management fees, which it could with local school board approvals, as a contracted service. These assigned district managers would no longer be district employees. They would be DMO employees. Their compensation could certainly be (unofficially) agreed upon by individual local boards of education, but the officially approved expense would be the management fee to the DMO, not the salary of the DMO assigned manager (uh... superintendent).

Now, this will add some expense - the overhead of the DMO - as it does in charters (most charter to district spending comparisons totally miss the redundant additional layers of charter management expense which are kept on a separate set of books and may not be fully covered by the management fees).

This approach would have the added benefit for superintendents and their DMO of shielding many of their activities and finances from public disclosure (as it does in privately governed/operated charters).

So indeed there are some lessons to be learned from the charter sector!

[Yes, this is a sarcastic proposal, but indeed the cap is arbitrary, and deeply problematic. see: http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/new-jersey-superintendent-salaries-in-context/]
Hee-hee.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

State Control Sucks

Here in New Jersey, four large urban school districts -- Newark, Jersey City, Paterson, and Camden -- are under the control of the state. The elected school boards have little to no power over operations and personnel. In addition, several districts have state-appointed fiscal monitors, who exercise power over many, if not most, decisions.

So, how's this working out for the schools in these districts? [all emphases mine]

Trenton (fiscal monitor, 4 years):
A decrease in enrollment at Trenton elementary schools led the district to reassign 10 teachers, taking them away from classes they had already started in and putting them into other roles.  
“We should have been informed about this change,” said Pesha Garner whose son was in the second-grade classroom of a teacher who was reassigned. 
Garner, who spoke during Monday night’s school board meeting, said her son no longer wants to go to school now that he is in a much larger classroom with more students. Garner said previously, the teacher paid special attention to him, making sure he was keeping up and learning how to read.  
Despite Garner’s complaints, the board voted unanimously in favor of reassigning all 10 teachers who were given new positions because of the decrease in enrollment.  
Superintendent Francisco Duran said he did not know why the enrollment had decreased more than what the district had anticipated when planning the number of staff for each school, but last week the district said that a larger than anticipated number of students had left the district schools in favor of charter schools. The district has no schools that are overenrolled, Duran said. 
The increase in charter school enrollment has had a role in a budget deficit for the district, causing the administration to freeze all purchases that are not funded by grants.
Paterson (state control, 23 years):
During the past 40 months, Paterson education officials have not filed any requests for state funding through a program designed to provide money to fix impending health and safety problems in urban schools. 
The lack of applications under the state’s “emergent repairs” program has frustrated local education advocates, especially because state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans has said that the Paterson district ranks high in New Jersey in terms of facilities’ needs. 
“So our kids got to sit in run down schools?” said Linda Reid, president of the city’s Parents Education Organizing Council. 
“We’re always blaming the state, the state, the state,” said city school board member Flavio Rivera. “But the state has resources and we’re not trying to take advantage of that. Who’s been minding the store?” 
Rivera initially made comments about the district’s lack of emergent repairs at a board meeting in October. To verify what Rivera was saying, Paterson Press filed a public records request for all emergent repair applications that the district filed with the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, the agency that runs the program, since July 2011. The district responded that no applications existed. 
“That is going to be corrected,” said school board president Chris Irving.
No, it's not -- turns out all the money is gone:
It’s not clear whether the state would have provided any funding for Paterson projects if the district documented the need for any emergent repairs during the past three years. Officials in Trenton say the $100 million was already allocated for scores of projects around the state and nothing else was available. But Rivera said he believes Paterson may have had a chance at getting something if it made a strong enough case for the repairs.
Jersey City (state control, 26 years):
Jersey City public-school administrators and teachers, already at odds over stalled contract negotiations, are engaging in another battle that may disrupt upcoming parent-teacher conferences. 
The disagreement, which finds both sides saying they are being attacked by the other, stems from the district's plan for 30 minutes of extra parent-teacher conference time. 
The district wants the conferences, also called "report card night," to start at 6 p.m., and the union says they should start at 6:30 p.m. 
Even faced with the district's threat of disciplinary action if teachers don't show up tonight at 6 p.m., the union is not backing down and has ordered its members not to report to the conferences until 6:30 p.m. 
JCEA President Ron Greco said any changes to teachers' schedules need to be negotiated. 
"The superintendent refuses to engage in any dialogue with the JCEA," Greco told The Jersey Journal. "I met with her many times in an attempt to resolve this, and she has stated, 'I am not discussing it' or 'I am not negotiating it.'" 
District spokeswoman Maryann Dickar denied that claim, saying Schools Superintendent Marcia V. Lyles is "open to continuing dialogue."
Sounds like an awesome work environment; I'll bet the resumes are just piling up...

If you read this blog or Bob Braun's, you'll know there's been plenty of mismanagement in Newark (state control, 20 years). But just when you think things can't get more screwed up...
A labor group representing some of the Newark school district’s lowest earning workers rallied this afternoon to protest wages they say have failed to increase over the last five years. 
Members of local Service Employees International Union chapters, including cafeteria workers, security guards and custodians claim they have been deprived of raises while top administrators receive huge salaries and even sizable bonuses. 
Held outside the district’s central office on Cedar Street, union officials and others contended that the employees, many of them women and minorities, are struggling to stay above the poverty level.  
“We’ve been very patient over the last five years in terms of the little people who work with the Board of Education,” said Assemblyman Tom Giblin, D-Montclair. “All they’re looking for is to kind of keep up with inflation.”  
[...] 
In a statement, Newark Public Schools Chief Talent Officer Vanessa Rodriguez said the district was in the midst of negotiations with the union, and is “optimistic that we can come to an agreeable terms that will be beneficial to both parties.”
For the record, Rodriguez was making $162,500 a year with another $25K in "post-employment benefits." But State Superintendent Cami Anderson upped her pay by another $11K, along with many top executives in NPS. Plus -- free eats!

 Camden (fiscal monitor for 8 years, then state takeover in 2013):

Just one out of every seven students in the Camden school district have shown in standardized tests to be proficient in math and English, according to city and education officials. 
Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard addressed the latest test scores in Camden during a press conference at Octavius V. Catto Community School on Monday, stating, "We can and must do better." Rouhanifard said the district will in the coming weeks begin formal reviews of all of the city's schools — including district, charter and renaissance — ahead of taking whatever action officials see necessary. 
"We will take action," he said. "They will not be easy decisions to make, but incremental progress is not enough." 
[...]
Addressing the gulf between the scores of district students and their peers attending charter schools, Rouhanifard said he wouldn't "draw any conclusions" regarding the worth of one learning environment over the other. 
However, he acknowledged a point made by many in the past, that charter schools may not "reflect the same diversity" as the rest of the district. 
"The number of students who are English language learners, and children with disabilities, at charter schools may be lower than the rest of the district," said Rouhanifard. "We just want to make sure charter schools are serving all students."
"May be"?




Charter school expansion was always part of the "secret" plan for Camden's schools. But the State Superintendent is only now coming to the realization that the charters "may be" serving a different set of students than the district schools. Perhaps he should have thought of this earlier...

Look, there is an appropriate set of circumstances that can lead to state control or fiscal monitoring. It was certainly warranted in Lakewood, and it's warranted now in Belleville (thank the lord for our state's excellent teacher tenure protections, which allowed the waste there to be exposed!).

But long-term state control of New Jersey school districts is a failed policy. The state ought to immediately form plans with set deadlines to return control of these districts to their citizens.

Local control: it should be for everyone.

Monday, November 17, 2014

York, PA and the Death of Public Education

Earlier this year, I wrote about the sick, sad story of York, Pennsylvania's school district, starved to death thanks to the cruel indifference of outgoing governor Tom Corbett. Back in 2012, Corbett cut $8.4 million - over 15% - from York's budget. The district slashed programs in the arts and student services and increased class sizes to try to make up the difference, but it didn't matter: York's school district went into a fiscal tailspin.

Corbett then sent in his hand-picked minion, David Meckley, to lay the groundwork for the privatization of the district. Meckley has been insisting that the best thing for York's children isn't a well-funded, democratically controlled school system; instead, York should turn over its entire district to charter school operators.

On Wednesday of this week, Corbett and Meckley's plans may finally come to fruition:
Three members have already been appointed to a new nonprofit called the York Community Foundation Charter School, formed to manage the proposed transformation of the York City School District into a charter school.
On Wednesday, the district's school board will meet to consider the potentially history-making proposal.
If it is approved, York would join New Orleans' public schools — converted to charter schools after Hurricane Katrina — as one of the first public school districts in the nation transitioned completely to a charter-style education model.
David Meckley, the state appointee who has been steering the district's financial recovery process for two years, has drafted an agreement with a for-profit company to operate the district through July 1, 2020, barring any major breaches of contract. 
If Charter Schools USA meets the performance goals outlined in the contract, the agreement could last 15 years. [emphasis mine]
We'll get to Charter Schools USA's record in a minute. But let's take some time first to fully appreciate just how truly rotten this deal is:
The ultimatum: Meckley is urging the school board to approve the contract Wednesday — just 10 days after they first received it.
If the school board rejects the contract, Meckley has said, he will advise the state Department of Education to pursue a state takeover known as receivership.
Meckley released the contract to the public Friday. [emphasis mine]
That's right, folks: Meckley has told the board to hire CSUSA -- or else. And the good people of York have only 10 days to review a contract that will turn their schools over to private control for 15 years. How closely do you think that performance clause will be vetted in such a short time?

And if you wonder how CSUSA is going to make out on this deal, you're far more curious than David Meckley:
The money: Funding will be initially allocated to Charter Schools USA at a rate of $12,500 per student, according to the contract.
Meckley said he has applied to the state Department of Education for a $2 million grant, which would fund Charter School USA's six-month planning phase.
"In the planning period, we're trying to take what the district does well and what Charter Schools USA does well and create a new operation here in York and do the best of both," Meckley said.
Asked how much money Charter Schools USA can expect to pocket as profit, Meckley said: "You'll have to ask Charter Schools USA that."
Let's recap:

  • Tom Corbett abdicated his responsibilities to the children of York and defunded their schools.
  • He sent in his personal hack to force the district to turn those schools over to a private, for-profit corporation through a shell non-profit.
  • The hack -- as if he were a made man -- told the district if they didn't take his offer, he'd take over.
  • No one knows how much money the charter company is going to make on this deal.
Trust me, folks, we're just getting started...

Meckely believes this plan is warranted because York's schools aren't performing up to snuff. But the truth is that they are exactly where we'd expect them to be, given the demographics of the city.


This is as quick and dirty as they come, but it makes the point. Every dot here is a school in Pennsylvania. The x-axis shows how many kids taking the state's reading test are in economic disadvantage, as measured by qualifying for free/reduced price lunch. The y-axis shows how many test takers scored "below basic," meaning, out of PA's four test proficiency levels, these students scored at the bottom. 
Once again, note how economic disadvantage correlates to test score outcomes. Were I to do a simple linear regression here, 60 percent of the variation in this test-based outcome could be explained by student economic disadvantage.
The truth is that the hard-scrabble York schools are right where we would expect them to be. If Corbett and Meckley and anyone else gave a damn, they'd be pouring more money into the district, as "there exists an increasing body of evidence that substantive and sustained state school finance reforms matter for improving both the level and distribution of short-term and long-run student outcomes."


Instead, they are allowing CSUSA to come in and snatch the hard-earned tax dollars of Pennsylvania's citizens on the basis of a record that is hardly stellar:
Charter Schools USA (CUSA) has been operating charter schools in Florida for 20 years, including recently-opened schools in Hillsborough County: Woodmont Charter, Winthrop Charter, and Henderson Hammock Charter. Although charter schools sometimes struggle financially at first, CUSA eventually collects a 5% management fee from each to provide administration and guidance.
But 10 Investigates found a much bigger pot of money CUSA has been able to tap into: rent. When the company helps open a new school, its development arm, Red Apple Development, acquires land and constructs a school. Then, CUSA charges the school high rent.
For example, Winthrop Charter in Riverview may struggle to balance its budget this year thanks to a $2 million rent payment to CUSA/Red Apple Development. The payment will equate to approximately 23% of its budget, even though CUSA CEO Jon Hage has been quoted as saying charter school rent should not exceed 20%. [emphasis mine]
Is this the sort of fiscal responsibility Meckley wants for York? Or maybe he was impressed by this?
Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees! [emphasis mine]
And what kind of performance have the good people of Florida received for all of that money?
The chain was considered high-performing until this year. And on Tuesday the Orange School Board voted 7-0 to deny its applications for three new campuses.
Because charters are publicly funded per pupil, Charter Schools USA would receive about $27 million a year to run the three schools at capacity if approved.
"Their performance in Orange County is abysmally poor," board Chairman Bill Sublette said of the Renaissance schools. "They're underperforming the schools in the area that they're drawing from. How can we look taxpayers in the eye and approve them?"
But Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, said he is proud of all of the company's schools, including Chickasaw.
"We do an excellent job over time, even with the lowest-performing students," he said. "We knew we wouldn't be able to turn those scores around in a year." [emphasis mine]
I guess David Meckley knows better than the entire Orange School Board. Maybe CSUSA's history in Indiana convinced him:
The four takeover schools in Indianapolis lost huge numbers of students — between 35 and 60 percent at each school — between the start of classes in 2011 and when the takeover operators took over in 2012. Schools are mostly funded on the basis of their enrollment, so the departures came at a steep cost for the private operators.
On top of that, the takeover schools saw their share of a pot of federal funds for low-performing schools that is controlled by the state shrink as more state schools became eligible to claim that money. Tindley lost $212,000, and Charter Schools USA's three schools lost more than $601,110 because of across-the-board reductions.
Together, the cuts have left takeover operators with much higher costs than they anticipated.
Sherry Hage, CSUSA's chief academic officer, says the operator is planning to stick with its schools despite the costs. But for some, the price tag is proving too high. Earlier this month, Tindley shocked state education officials by threatening to pull out of Arlington shortly after the start of the school year unless the nonprofit could get $2.4 million in additional aid.
Hey, I'm sure Meckley will find more money for CSUSA to stick around York. After all, CSUSA's CEO, John Hage, has some expensive hobbies to maintain:
Gone Fishin’
Our story starts in a locale from which so much excellence and achievement springs these days: Florida, USA. That’s where Hage, who runs one of the country’s largest networks of for-profit charter schools, and his attorney/first mate, Edward Pozuolli Esq., registered their yacht, Fishin’ 4 Schools, along with an LLC of the same name. (Major shout out to Coral Springs columnist *Sharon Aron Baron* for dragging this story out into the Florida sunshine.)
The Fishin' 4 Schools, now 4 sale 4 $350K.
THE FISHIN’ 4 SCHOOLS, NOW 4 SALE 4 $350K.
Double or nothin’
Now as you no doubt recall from your own summer idylls floating off of the French Riviera, *Fishin’ 4 Schools* belongs to a figure of speech that the French know fondly as le double entendre meaning that it means two things at once. Hage and Pozuolli’s handsome vessel is literally fishin’for schools of fish unlucky enough to be lingering in the depths off of Florida’s Gold Coast. But the fast-growing charter chain is also fishin’ for schools. Charter Schools USA currently operates 58 schools in 7 states and has ambitious plans to reel in many more in the coming years. And both kinds of fishin’ involve *chartering*—or for our purposes, *charterin’.*
charteringDoing gr8 by doing good
Speaking of schools, Hage and Pozuolli belong to one that I think of fondly as the *Doing Gr8 by Doing Good* school. In their fiercely urgent drive to bring outstandingness, excellence and achievement to Florida’s little ones, the two men are also doing, ahem, rather well by themselves. Just how well? Consider Charter Schools USA’s recent fishin’ trips for the financing needed for the company’s aggressive expansion plans; since 2010 Hage et al have hauled in more than $200 million in financing. And as the excellent Florida blogger Bob Sikes documents on his Scathing Purple Musings, all that bank has enabled the company and its captain to do things like run TV advertisements for one of their charters, while conveniently forgetting to mention its *F* grade. And don’t forget all the love that Hage has laid on GOP politicians.
That's the always fresh and excellent Edushyster, doing what she does best. Hage, however, isn't the only charter operator getting fat off the Pennsylvania taxpayer. Vahan Gureghian -- Tom Corbett's biggest contributor for his first race -- made huge bank at the expense of the Chester-Uplands school district.

How long until York faces the same fate? How many more districts full of deserving kids and concerned families will have to fall for the benefit of the Hage and Gureghian and their ilk before Pennsylvania finally comes to its senses?

I'd like to be able to lay blame for all of this at the feet of Corbett. But there's a special group of folks we really need to pay tribute to here: the ones who provide the pseudo-intellectual cover for this wholesale ransacking of the public treasury.

You see, for several years now, a group of highly influential academics have been promoting a few particularly pernicious ideas:

  1. School funding reform doesn't really matter; properly funding schools is little more than "throwing money" at them.
  2. The real problem is efficiency; schools already have enough money, so they need to learn how to spend it better.
This is the theoretical platform from which the school privatization movement was launched. If we could just get some market forces involved, the reasoning went, we won't have to raise taxes on the wealthy to properly fund our public schools. Just get a few more for-profit charter operators in there, and maybe some vouchers while we're at it, and -- presto! Awesome schools, awesome profits. Everybody wins.

The problem with the argument is that money does actually matter, and worries about efficiency are a smokescreen. You can't expect York to educate its children without the proper resources; turning its schools over to private interests won't change that.

It's sick and it's sad that we have come to this: a large segment of our political class has willingly convinced themselves, thanks to the prodding of misguided economists, that modeling our schools after the military-industrial complex is a good thing. 

It's quite clear, however, that the wholesale destruction of our public schools systems, while clearly sending shivers up the spines of libertarian fantasists, will be bad for taxpayers, bad for families, and bad for students.

Stay strong, York. I don't know what it will take to resist, but let's hope, for your children's sake, that you can find a way for your schools to survive. 

God bless York, PA.

ADDING: A message of hope from York:
don't count us out yet. Bearcats never give up! We will fight to the end!
Now that's a city with guts and soul.