Monday, April 30, 2007

Center for Teacher Quality: Reward Leadership, not Seniority

Education reporter extraodinaire Jay Mathews covered a new report on revamping teacher pay:

Washington Post: Top Teachers Issue Call for Revamped Pay Plans (04/30/07)

"Tired of reports by business executives and Cabinet officers on how to fix U.S. schools, 18 award-winning teachers produced their own recommendations this month, starting with a major overhaul of how teachers are paid."

Produced by the Center for Teacher Quality in North Carolina, the report can be found here:

The plan is based on, "three tiers -- novice, professional and expert -- and schools should stop paying teachers more just because they have more years on the job."

Quoting from Jay's article:

"In particular, the group said, pay plans should "reward leadership, not seniority." It said that "qualified teachers who take on additional responsibilities -- mentoring novices and peers and preparing new teachers, creating family- and community-outreach programs, serving on advisory councils and the like -- should be paid for their time outside the classroom." And the jobs should go not to the oldest teachers but to the ones with the best classroom results, the group said."

The report has a chart on page 18 that give some good starting points for discussion. There are several components to the proposed pay structure. There would be a base salary, which would be augmented with "Career Salary Suppliments".

Student Learning would be rewarded with evidence of impact, whether it’s in a teachers own classroom or beyond. There would be rewards for using test scores and other measures to improve student learning, and bonuses for building and using new assessments.

Rewards would be provided for participating in or creating researched-based professional development, mentoring new teachers, and spreading knowledge and skills throughout the district and state.

Market needs would impact compensation by paying teachers that chose to teach in high-needs schools, subjects, and assignments.

Leadership compensation would be available for those that would mentor, coaching and leading community development. "Experts" might serve in state and national leadership roles to develop new products help to shape new policies.

Here is a grid from the report that sheds some light on their ideas (the full grid can be found on page 18):

Exp. LevelBase-Salary RangeStudent LearningKnowledge and SkillsMarket NeedsLeadershipCan Earn
Novice (1–4yrs)$30K – $45KUp to 5%Up to 5%Up to $5,000Not ReadyUp to $55,000
Advanced (5–10yrs)$46K – $55KUp to 10%Up to 10%Up to $10,000Up to 10%Up to $85,000
Expert (10yrs+)$56K – $70KUp to 15%Up to 15% Up to $15,000Up to 15% Up to $130,000

We need to find a way to pay more to those that truly make a difference, and do it in a way that is fiscally sustainable.

Obviously the rates would change depending on a market, just as salaries in the private sector vary depending on location. But overall this is a model that looks familiar to those of us in business, and I hope it can be given serious consideration.

==> Mike


Tom Watkins: Nice Beat, But Can Our Schools Dance To It?

Tom Watkins, former State Superintendent of Schools in Michigan, has been a vocal agent for reform since his days at the helm of Michigan's schools.

He continues to keep his finger on the pulse of education, as shown in this article for CHANGE! - Nice Beat But Can Our Schools Dance To It? (04/30/07)

This particular article is full of worthwhile nuggets:

* It is pure fallacy to think that public education can be sustained, let alone thrive, with the old rules of the past.

* Public educators often talk of change, but quickly revert to the comfort of the past once external pressure is relieved.

* Those in public education need to continually ask if our system of education has become so fixated on owning old ideas that it has become a liability.

* Our school leaders need to ask these questions: "If we could create a system that would provide our children with the education they deserve and need to be competitive in the 21st century, global economy, would we create the system that currently exists? "Are all the schools in your state good enough for your child?" If the answers are "no" then every waking hour needs to be devoted to bringing about the necessary changes to create the system they need. Rest assured, the three billion new capitalists in China, Russia, India and other emerging nations are not sitting back waiting for us to get our act together.

The real question is what do you do with wonderful articles like this? Those that believe in reform already "get it", and don't need to spend valuable time reading what they already know. However, those that do need to read this, those that could benefit from it the most, refuse to even consider this type of talk. They believe that the education system doesn't need to change, or has already changed enough. Unfortunately, they seem to be in the majority.

In the end, the change needs to begin with the vast majority of school boards that are satisfied with the status quo.

==> Mike.


Friday, April 27, 2007

Making a Mountain out of a Mole Hill

The following article chronicles "a stir" that was created by a ten-sentence email reply I sent two weeks ago.

Birmingham-Bloomfield Eccentric: Rochester trustee weighs in on BH election (04/27/07)

So here's the whole story...

The Bloomfield Hills School board continues to follow the rest of the school board herd by spending $60,000 on a May election, rather than using it to educate children. The ballot offers candidates for two board seats and a bond proposal.

I have campaigned at several events in support of Jenny and Don Greenwell, two people that I believe would make great board trustees. You can read more about them at

I have not campaigned either way for the bond, which if approved (and when combined with sinking fund money) would spend $140 million to build two 1000 pupil high schools.

A tongue-in-cheek email remark - made in response to a questionable strategy suggested by bond supporters- is now being twisted for political purposes.

Don and Jenny are not in support of the bond plan, and I believe they would prefer to look at more cost effective renovations. Naturally, many of the supporters of Don and Jenny do not support the bond.

Because of the overlap, I have received emails from Greenwell supporters who also discuss the bond issues.

In one such email an individual -- whom I did not know -- sent an email describing his experience at what was billed as a public meeting of the Bloomfield YES group (which supports the bond).



I didn't know the writer, but was impressed that he stood his ground, despite being asked to leave. So, I wrote, "Eric, your willingness to infiltrate is admirable and impressive!"

The word "infiltrate" is apparently at the bottom of the tempest in this teapot, and in retrospect, "persevere" or "stand your ground" would have been more accurate, but email communications sometimes forfeit accuracy for spontaneity.

I do believe that Eric was being courageous, and that was the thought I was trying to convey.

Yet the purpose of my note was not to congratulate him. Rather, I was addressing the Bloomfield Yes' proposed plan to put flyers on windshields. The writer had indicated that the superintendent and two board members were also in attendance at that meeting, and I was quite surprised officials would allow that type of political activity at schools. I was also skeptical that they'd allow the opposition the same opportunity.

In the interest of fair play, I suggested that someone from the opposition group contact the superintendent and ask for the same permission, echoing the writer's own comments.

The end.

Again, for the record, I haven't issued any statements on the bond because I believe that is a local taxpayer issue. But, I believe we all have a vested interest in bringing common sense leadership to school boards statewide.

I have been active in trying to support Jenny and Don Greenwell because I believe we need to end this rubber-stamp herd mentality of school boards.

The collective actions of school boards across the state are forcing our government to choose between cuts to other vital state programs and tax increases. We need leaders like Don and Jenny who will move the focus off buildings and adult issues, and back on to children and learning.

For some to suggest that I shouldn't get involved serves as one more example of how the "school insiders" like to think they are somehow different than other elected officials. For example, it is fairly commonplace for one elected official to campaign for another candidate in county commissioner, state senator or representative, and beyond. President Bush -- and President Clinton before him -- frequently campaign(s) for Michigan candidates.

I believe I have a very informed perspective on school governance to offer citizens, and people are free to consider or dismiss my opinion.

This is clearly an effort to amplify what was nothing more than a supportive comment to someone who found himself in an awkward situation. It appears there's an effort to turn this into something bigger than it is for political purposes, and it's puzzling to me why this has become such a fuss.

In the end, those in Bloomfield who are "pro-bond" they are going to be unhappy that I replied to the email, regardless of my choice of words.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Deflecting the arrows

The following article appeared last week:

Rochester Eccentric: Board of education believes cooperation is road to follow (04/19/07)

I wonder what the title is supposed to imply?


I was unaware that Ms. Janulis was given permission to serve as the board spokesperson, but the document is full of words like “we”, “us”, and “our”. I’m going to assume that she is speaking for the board, and I've provided a few responses.

This apparently started out as a rebuttal to a letter from a citizen in the community. Notice how it quickly veers into an attack on Trustee Steve Kovacs, and to a lesser extent myself.

This is a pretty long post because it includes almost all of the 800-word essay by Trustee Darlene Janulis, plus my comments. This is probably only for the diehard Rochester politicos, but it's an interesting read for those that would like a peek at how the “Education Inc” establishment can twist things, “for the kids”.

I skipped the “preamble”, which is basically summed-up in the first sentence:


Rochester is such a great place to live and raise a family.

Mr. James Heughens, who appears to be the political ally of (school board members) Mike Reno and Steve Kovacs, stated that I accepted "large campaign contributions from the MEA." This is an outright fabrication.

Why does Ms. Janulis find it necessary to mention trustee Kovacs or myself? Mr. Heughens seems to be a bright guy that suddenly appeared at a school board meeting. I've talked with him once or twice since he first approached the board. I have agreed with the few things I’ve read and heard from him, but where does the “political ally” comment come from? Is Janulis trying to somehow "implicate" others in Mr. Heughens apparent error?

He has raised the topic before in a letter to the board and at a public meeting. I called his home to inform him that I had never received any contributions for any of my school board races. My campaigns have always been self-funded, turning down checks from even my closest friends.

Does this mean she believes accepting MEA money is a bad thing? Perhaps someone should ask for a specific answer.

Years ago, I ran for state representative, but did not receive any MEA money or the MEA's endorsement. This is a matter of public record and is at Mr. Heughens' disposal. At that time, he told me he was just repeating "rumors" and no follow up was necessary.

She is right about the MEA contributions.

Here is a link to her campaign committee financial statements.

There are plenty of contributions from MANY district employees, James Redmond of the Oakland ISD, the Oakland Educators PAC, the Rochester Administration Association (the Principal's bargaining unit), the president of Etkin (a large school construction firm), the School Administrators Political Action Committee, and the Vice President of French and Associates (the architectural firm that receives it's work on a no-bid basis from Rochester Schools).

However, there is no MEA money on the list.

What would possess him to write about this now? If he wants to raise the question of ethics, shouldn't he subscribe to the same dogma?

His slant on the teachers' contract settlement is just as Machiavellian. Whether you agreed with the contract settlement or not, understand that the majority of the board made its decision to approve the contract after having listened to the thoughts of the state-appointed mediator. This was after 10 months of intense negotiations.

The mediator is there to facilitate communication between the two sides. He serves as a “go-between”. The two sides are separated—literally—in different rooms and the mediator shuttles proposals between them.

He has no interest in whether the agreement is fair or not. His sole interest is in forging some sort of agreement between the two sides, and moving on to his next job.

So, quite frankly, I’m not sure what a mediator’s support for an agreement has to do with anything.

Still it's worth noting how Janulis spins her position. The meeting attended by this mediator was a closed session called AFTER the agreement had been reached, presumably to make everyone feel good and get their message together. So how did the mediator's thoughts impact the board's decision if they were shared AFTER the tentative agreement?

Once again, I thought that closed session discussions were supposed to remain confidential. Sharing the guest list, which has never been done before, is just another ethical breach.

If Mr. Reno would have been in attendance at that meeting and if Mr. Kovacs would have been on time to hear what the mediator had to say, perhaps they would have felt differently about the outcome. By the way, we're not so foolish as to have the union representative serve as the sole chairperson of a committee to study improvements in health care. Mr. Heughens' comment on that was also inaccurate. Lori Ekelman, the district's director of Human Resources, will be co-chairing that committee with the Rochester Education Association's representative.

I knew exactly what the mediator was going to say. The mediator’s comments were shared with the full board on numerous occasions. And, the board had been provided with the details of the agreement – in writing – so there was no clear purpose for this meeting, unless of course one hadn’t been paying attention to the discussions over the past year.

And while the mediator may have made some feel good about their decision, his perspective doesn’t erase the fact that the cost increases in this contract greatly exceed the projected revenue increases.

The cost of the contract will increase by $5.3 million next year, which breaks down to $357 per pupil. That is double the rate of the increase proposed by Governor Granholm, which is presumably contingent on a statewide tax increase.

That is because the majority of the board believes that cooperation is the way to achieve a win-win for our staff and the community, making our kids the ultimate beneficiaries.

OK, the district and union have agreed to form a committee NEXT YEAR to “study improvements in health care.” What does that mean? Are there any objectives for this committee, such as achieving a cost savings target?

Note that anything produced by this committee MIGHT be considered in the negotiations for the 2008-09 school year.

Many district employees began sharing in the cost of their health care in 2005. That was two years ago; the writing was on the wall then. So there has been plenty of time to discuss this issue.

Plus, the union and the district had already had committee meetings for 10 months now to discuss this very issue; they were called negotiating sessions.

Talking and cooperating are certainly worthwhile goals, but the wording here implies that a positive outcome is guaranteed.

It also glosses over the fact that the district is projecting a $5 million dollar deficit next year, and $9 million the following. Neglecting that is hardly in the best interests of our children.

I think the people of Rochester are intelligent enough to understand that if any of the board members were really in the union's pocket we would have settled the contract a lot sooner and avoided the picketing and disruptions that occurred throughout the process.

Those board meetings last fall were very uncomfortable. They distracted the board and administration from our respective roles of providing improvements in our programs and services for students. The school district is well served to put this behind us and look forward to working with staff in a spirit of cooperation.

Yes, negotiating is sometimes uncomfortable, especially when pressure tactics are used, like picketing and disruptions.

But the district cannot “put this behind us” when facing such large deficits.

And the “distraction” comment is particularly disturbing. I believe the teachers in Rochester schools conducted themselves in a very professional way, and for the most part sincerely tried to minimize the disruption to student learning. For example, the district conducted a long series of meetings on the new high school graduation requirements, and many teachers participated.

And, I would wonder what board initiatives were slated for discussion during that time, but deferred because of picketing?

No, the board had to have additional closed sessions to periodically discuss the situation, but I am not aware of any progress that was impeded, and to suggest otherwise is simply misleading.

With regard to Mr. Heughens' reference to what he calls Mr. Kovacs' "clear rationale," Mr. Kovacs recently indicated in a written statement, that he would have approved over a 3 percent base salary increase to obtain a 5 percent co-pay on the teachers' health care premiums. In other words, Mr. Kovacs would have spent over $2 million dollars to save half a million. He speaks of fiscal responsibility, but the numbers don't reflect that.

Trustee Kovacs is more than capable of defending himself, but a little division reveals that each percentage point in raises equals roughly $700,000. I believe what Mr. Kovacs was proposing was to pay an additional percentage point in a pay increase in order to achieve direct cost savings on health benefits.

The “$2 million dollar” reference is very misleading because it seems to suggest that the 3% increase would be in addition to the settlement. It is not.

The contract provided a 2% raise for next year. Mr. Kovacs’s statement explained that he would’ve preferred to offer a 3% raise, but expected the same 5% healthcare contribution paid by four other district bargaining units.

The accurate way to portray his point would be to say, "Mr. Kovacs wanted an additional $700,000 in pay in order to obtain a $500,000 savings in health care."

There is merit to this idea. By asking employees to contribute to the cost of their health care, you are essentially making them partners. The theory is that you want them to think about unnecessary doctor visits. You want them to ask how much a procedure will cost, and maybe even consider getting a second opinion, and even a second bid. Employees need to understand that usage leads to increased costs. Certainly, if someone is sick, then you want him or her to visit the doctor. But, they need to become smart consumers.

By agreeing to pay less, I believe the district is merely attempting to balance its budget on the backs of its employees.

My objective was to try to control health care costs, and not simply save money.

I think that Rochester residents are smart enough to know when they see dirty politics in the works. I would have thought that the aforementioned people would have at least waited to see if I would run for another term before they start their personal attacks, political pandering and smear campaign tactics.

I guess I’m wondering if I’m supposed to view this Eccentric article by Ms. Janulis as a public service announcement rather than a pandering political statement intended to smear and personally attack… :-)

When I make my decision, the community I serve will be the first to know. In the meantime, stay tuned for the dirty politics that pre-empt a fall campaign. It may be a long hot summer.

I'm not sure if Janulis is making a threat or a promise, but judging by this effort, it appears she's got something in the works!

Darlene Janulis is a member of the Rochester Community Schools Board of Education.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Southfield Eccentric ran a piece today by the editor of the Troy Eccentric. It can be found here:

Southfield Eccentric: We need some storm chasers to settle the mess in Lansing (04/22/07)

Here are the first few paragraphs:

While all of southeast Michigan has entered into "tornado season," which begins this month,a real hailstorm is about to strike some parts of the our community.

Forget being issued a storm "watch," school districts throughout the state have been issued a dire "warning" of substantial cuts in state funding. Some figure the cuts could amount to well over $100 per student. Multiply that by the number of students in your home district, and you can see officials there are facing an F-4 crisis.

The problem is that the district, like its peers elsewhere in the state, has already spent that money. This is April; the next school budget begins in July. And that's not even considering what will happen during the 2007-08 budget year.

The financial warning is accompanied by a funnel cloud of confusion, with high winds emanating from Lansing. The yearly uncertainty that school officials face over funding is heightened now by the collision of two cold fronts, known as the two bodies of the state Legislature.

The latter part of this editorial is right on, but the inflammatory rhetoric quoted above serves as an example of why things can't solved in the state.

To follow this analogy of "storm chasing", we should also ask the question of what responsibilities the victims of tornadoes have when they ignore warnings of the impending storm.

Schools were issued their "warnings" last November when it was clear there was a HUGE shortfall in the school aid fund. In fact -- guided by their various legislative advisors -- many school officials believed ALL of the state funding increase of $220 was going to be rescinded for this year.

How many took action?

The governor came back in January proposing no cut, but anyone who follows this knows that her proposal was just that -- a proposal. No guarantees.

But is was that PROPOSAL that school officials decided to follow, despite the fact that there was still a shortfall and that the governor's proposal was predicated on an immediately unpopular -- and unlikely -- tax increase. Plus, the state has had to take back money several times over the past several years, so a mid-year proration is not unprecidented.

So, to claim that the treat of a cut coming in April is a surprise is completely misleading.

Painful, yes, but there was ample time to try to do SOMETHING.

But the bigger problem with this rhetoric is that it attempts to drive an emotional wedge between legislators and their options. Its intent is to force budget cuts in other important state areas, or to encourage tax increases.

Many of these districts that that are complaining loudest of shortfalls are the ones that have done the least to control their budgets. They approve employment contracts they cannot afford and continue outdated business practices that waste money.

This state is facing a major crisis and EVERYONE needs to pull together to fix it -- no exceptions.

==> Mike.



Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Board Supports Outdated Business Practices

I don't know exactly how many pieces of mail are sent out annually by Rochester Community Schools, but I'm sure it's a fair amount.

But rather than consider alternatives that could provide cost savings, or entertain a discussion on moving more written communications to email, the Rochester School Board chose to continue to support outdated business practices that needlessly consume precious education dollars, and potentially chewed up $45,000 that could've been put to better use.

This is a small example of a big "thinking process" problem in education, and a sad example of the poor oversight provided by school boards.

The volume of mail generated by the district should allow the district to take advantage of the presorting services offered by service bureaus that provide substantial postage savings. These businesses make their profits by presorting the mail BEFORE it gets to the post office. The discount provided by the U.S. Post office is split between the service bureau and the customer. Here are a few examples of these service bureaus:

If the savings equal 15% - 20%, the service bureau might take 5% and the customer -- in this case the district -- would see a 10%-15% savings.

The board has not seen any figures on the total postage spent by the district, but it's not hard to picture a hefty annual postage bill for 21 schools and 2 administrative centers that support nearly 15,000 children and nearly 2000 employees. Other smaller school districts utilize such services and enjoy the cost savings.

But rather than even consider such a service, the Rochester school board chose to pay over $45,000 for a brand new postage meter. Purchasing this machine did have some advantages. The board was told that the machine will pay for itself within 2 years by eliminating the need to label envelopes by hand. That's great, but it doesn't take a $45K machine to eliminate that task. And, that machine does not entitle the district to the substantial presort discounts available from the U.S. Postal Service, which would generate tangible and immediate savings. Plus, keeping the work internal keeps another person on the payroll, with benefits.

Perhaps the administration and the board were unaware that these types of services and service bureaus existed, which would explain why no comparison or analysis was done prior to the recommendation. But the real concern here is that once this alternative was suggested, there were no questions or curiosity about the service, or the potential savings. Perhaps there might not be any savings, but nobody wondered whether the decision should be delayed in order to investigate the potential cost savings. Every comment was designed to defend the original administration recommendation.

Even in light of new information, school boards are programmed to press ahead with the original plan and unwilling to consider alternatives.

I believe this is worth mentioning because it serves as a great example of the narrow-minded thinking that is making Michigan schools so expensive to operate. Rather than considering other options, school boards simply rubber-stamp whatever is put in front of them.

The other point, raised by Trustee Steve Kovacs, was that the district should really be focused on trying to move more of the communications to email. Of course, there was resistance to that as well. Surveys conducted years ago were cited as the reason the district should stick with the U.S. Mail. That seems absurd, given that many of us receive some -- or all -- of our bills, checking account and investment statements, and many other documents electronically. In fact, millions of taxpayers filed their income tax returns electronically. How is it that schools are so far behind?

As long as schools continue with these outdated business practices, and are slow at adopting current business practices, the cost of educating our children will continue to needless rise.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Education Town Hall - Channel 7 WXYZ

Detroit's ABC affiliate -- WXYZ News, Channel 7 -- is putting on an EDUCATION TOWN HALL that will air live on Thursday, April 19 at 8 p.m.

More details here:
They've put together quite an interesting panel. Be sure to tune in!

==> Mike.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

State Superintendent Flanagan Podcasts

Our State Superintendent, Mike Flanagan, has been podcasting for several months. He does a great job, and I hope local superintendents consider using this technology to communicate as they try to reshape their districts.

These podcasts are available in both audio and video forms here:

Michigan Department of Education: Superintendent Podcasts

His most recent topic is the consolidation of services.

I'd like to add some commentary for you to consider as you listen to his thoughts.

"Consolidation of Services" refers to the effort to move district operations up to a regional - typically countywide - organization.

Flanagan cites as an example the thought of shifting responsibility for transportation from each individual district up to the county ISD level. That way, rather than having individual transportation directors in each district, you might instead have "hub managers". The ISD would presumably assume responsibility for stocking parts, routing, employing mechanics, etc.

The idea has merit, and would likely save districts money.

But, I have a concern that the effort to promote regional services is not likely to produce significant savings in suburban districts, and will derail any efforts to consolidate districts, which I believe would yield significantly more savings.

Regionalizing services would increase purchasing power, especially for the smaller districts. And pooling workers will undoubtedly generate savings. However, I question how much savings can be achieved.

One of the theories behind consolidating services is that centrally locating the "worker bees" will increase efficiency. It is based on the assumption that not every worker is operating at 100% of their possible productivity because of fluctuating workloads, and by pooling larger groups you will increase the overall productivity level.

All good theories, and they will save money, but how much will it really save?

And, I really think we need to compare those potential savings to those that can be achieved through district consolidation.

Oakland County has 28 districts, 8 of which are approximately 5 square miles or less. 10 of them have less than 4500 students. The structure is absurd.

I have looked at this in great detail and believe consolidating down to 5 districts could save $20-30 million per year just in the elimination of duplicate executive management at the director level and above. This is based on the premise that smaller districts seem to have 2 executive administrators per thousand students, while larger districts have 1 per thousand.

As districts grow, they certainly need to add more "worker bees" and supervisors/managers, but they do not necessarily need to add more executives. I know there are limits on how much could be added to an executive's workload, but I also don't believe the executive functions or workload changes much by adding more students into the system.

Consolidating to five districts would likely eliminate 150-175 executive positions in Oakland County -- and yield the savings I mentioned above.

And this could be done without consolidating one single school, which seems to be the primary fear in consolidating.

But the purpose of this blog entry was not to necessarily to promote district consolidation, but was instead to point out Flanagan seems to unnecessarily equate the consolidation of districts with the consolidation of schools. Districts can be consolidated without merging schools.

I wholeheartedly agree with Flanagan's position that smaller high schools are better, and I would not support the idea of making more "big-box" high schools.

I also agree with his premise that schools are the fabric of a community. But I believe MOST people have an affinity to their school, and not necessarily their district. In fact, I would wonder how many people even know who their superintendent is, let alone know any of the administrative executives!

Consolidation of districts means the elimination of some of the redundant executive management, which is far removed from the classroom. It also means providing some of the executive insight and oversight that is lacking in smaller districts, such as an assessment director, or a director that is focused exclusively on primary or secondary instead of focusing on both.

So, as you listen to his commentary be sure to understand the difference between between DISTRICT consolidation and SCHOOL consolidation.


Monday, April 9, 2007

Union Label on the Ballot Box

I've referenced this piece in past articles, but I thought it might be a timely link:

Hoover Institution: Union Label on the Ballot Box (Spring, 2006)

Terry M. Moe is professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. The studies presented here are adapted from an article in the Spring 2006 issue of the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization and from Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics, edited by William G. Howell.

I wanted to pull a few good quotes, but I found so many that I decided to pull the first few paragraphs! For anyone watching this stuff, you'll find your head nodding so much you'll feel like a school board trustee! :-)

==> Mike.


From their origins in the 19th century until the present day, school boards have been regarded as shining examples of local democracy, the keystone that links public education to ordinary citizens. But this is one of the enduring myths of American folklore. The reality is that, while some 96 percent of school boards are elected (according to data collected by Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute), these elections are usually low-turnout, low-interest affairs in which the vast majority of ordinary citizens play no role at all. Special interests, well organized and largely unchecked by the public, often have ample opportunity to engineer outcomes in their own favor.

This is not a good thing for children or schools, but there is nothing surprising about it. Americans are apathetic about almost all aspects of politics; they’re just more apathetic about school-board politics. School-board elections are often held at odd times, when no other offices—particularly major ones, like president or governor—are being voted on. Moreover, roughly two-thirds of registered voters are not parents of school-age children and so have only weak incentives to pay attention or participate. To make matters worse, the vast majority of these elections, about 89 percent (according to Hess), are nonpartisan; and without party labels to guide them, most voters have no information about the various candidates running for multiple board seats, and so are confused and even more uninterested than they would normally be.

Who Cares?

But apathy stops at the schoolhouse door. One group of local citizens—teachers and other employees of the school district—has an intense interest in everything the district does: how much money it spends, how the money is allocated, how hiring and firing are handled, what work rules are adopted, how the curriculum is determined, which schools are to be opened and closed, and much more. The livelihoods of these people are fully invested in the schools, and they have a far greater material stake in the system than do any other members of the community.

As individuals, then, district employees have strong incentives to get involved in school-board politics and to take action in trying to elect candidates who will promote their occupational interests. The things they want are simple and straightforward—and have nothing to do, at least directly or intentionally, with quality education. They want job security. They want higher wages and fringe benefits. They want better retirement packages. They want work rules that restrict managerial control. They want bigger budgets and higher taxes.

School employees have the additional advantage of being well organized. Unlike parents and other citizens, who are typically atomized and ineffectual as political forces, most school employees are represented by unions. Many of these employee unions get engaged in school affairs. But among them, the teacher unions are almost always the most active and powerful, and they generally take the lead in championing the cause of employee interests in politics.
In school-board elections, the incentives of the teacher unions are strong and clear. If they can wield clout at the polls, they can determine who sits on local school boards—and in so doing, they can literally choose the very “management” they will be bargaining with. (Private sector unions, which square off against independent management teams, can only dream of such a thing.) These same elected board members, moreover, will make decisions on a gamut of policy issues, from budgets to curriculum to student discipline, that teachers have a stake in and can benefit from enormously. Under the circumstances, it would be irrational for the unions not to get actively involved in school-board elections.

They have the resources, moreover, to do just that. While unions are nominally collective bargaining organizations, they can readily turn their organizations toward political ends. They also have guaranteed sources of money (member dues) for financing campaigns, paid staff to coordinate political activities, and activist members to do the invaluable trench-work of campaigning. For these and related reasons, the unions have major advantages over other groups, which can often translate into electoral power.

I encourage you to follow this link and read on!


Frank Beckmann's Excellent Coverage of Education Issues

I've taken quite an interest in Frank Beckmann's latest coverage of school issues.

He can be heard on 760 AM, WJR, weekday mornings from 9:00 - 11:30. Details can be found here. He also does a column for the Detroit News.

He has taken a brief look at a local Rochester issue and has commented on the recent teachers contract, and union PAC contributions to board members. I've had concerns about both of those issues and I'm glad he's help to bring them to light.

But more than that is the fact that I'm really intrigued and impressed with his overall grasp of the issues facing education, and his willingness to devote airtime and ink to discussing them.

Here are two great interviews that mention the Rochester issues, but they are discussing in the larger context of the issues facing public education in Michigan.

Frank Beckmann speaks with Nolan Finley regarding the MP3 player spending plan (Apr. 6) – Frank Beckmann speaks with Nolan Finley, Detroit News Editorial Page Editor, regarding the purchase of MP3 players for every school child in Michigan.
Download Audio (right click on the DOWNLOAD AUDIO, then choose "Save Target As.."

Frank Beckmann questions Tim Melton about school children having MP3 players (Apr. 9) – Frank Beckmann questions State Representative Tim Melton about school children having MP3 players.
Download Audio (right click on the DOWNLOAD AUDIO, then choose "Save Target As.."

Both clips reference articles that ran on Friday, April 6 in The Detroit News. One is by Frank Beckmann, found by clicking here, and the other is by the The Detroit News, and can be found by clicking here.

==> Mike.


Sunday, April 8, 2007

Why do education funding articles lack balance?

I wondered whether the headline in today’s front-page story came from an MEA press release:

Oakland Press: Teachers fear pink slips; reform of Proposal A suggested (04/08/07)

It was full of sources bemoaning “revenue problems”, with one lone parent tucked in the middle suggesting that schools look at their spending.

The article begins with “Johnny’s favorite teacher might not return to school next year”, but offers hope of “a callback in the fall if money becomes available to their school district”, as if more money is the only possible solution.

The article completely ignores the possibility that districts might’ve gotten themselves into the mess in the first place.

The article quotes Joan Sergent, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education. (Her office is based at the Oakland Schools intermediate district. Who's paying for that office?)

She wants a “stable funding source… one with regular inflationary increases

How is it that she is unaware of the state-funded report by the Anderson Economic Group that has shown – several times – that state funding has increased 59.6 percent since Proposal A was passed, compared to an inflation rate of 24.9 percent? The report can be viewed by clicking here.

The article goes on to sites the finances of two neighboring districts:

The Avondale School District is also among the many districts facing formidable budget challenges, with a $2 million deficit and no fund balance. Rochester is also in deficit spending, but has a $30 million fund balance to cushion the blow over the next few years.

But there was no mention of the “dueling editorials” that ran in The Oakland Press regarding the subject of merging those districts. I had suggested looking at consolidation as a way of saving $1.2 million per year. The Rochester board showed no interest and the Avondale board completely rejected the idea. The series can be viewed by clicking here, and much more can be reviewed under the "School District Consolidation" category on the right side of this blog.

Then, just two weeks ago, the Rochester board approved a budget-busting teachers contract. The spending associated with that contract will increase 6.4 percent next year. That equals $357 per pupil, or DOUBLE the best-case scenario in revenue increases out of Lansing. (I have two blog entries on this here and here.)

This is entirely the result of local control, and has nothing to do with Proposal A or state funding.

State Representative Tim Melton (D-Pontiac) suggests the Education Committee in the Michigan House is looking for an “11-point Plan” to address spending and revenue. “Consolidation (of services) is in first place. But I don’t think it is going to solve the problem,” said Melton.

He’s absolutely right. Consolidation of services means that schools will share some services, and typically looks at non-instructional items such as bus service.

But that is only going to save pennies. Consolidation of services assumes that consolidating “the worker bees” in school districts is going to bring new efficiencies.

From what I’ve seen, it’s not the worker bees that need to be addressed; it’s instead the matter of school districts duplicating effort, with administrators who are only miles apart essentially doing the same thing.

Oakland County has 28 school districts to educate 200,000 children. There are academically high-performing districts around the nation that have 35,000 to 50,000 pupils. Consolidating Oakland districts down to 5 districts could save $180+ per pupil per year – totaling $36 million – just in Oakland County.

But even district consolidation – with it’s substantial savings – only addresses waste and is not a complete solution.

The true culprit is the excessive annual spending increases that administrators propose, and school boards approve.

The insulting part is that these school boards seem oblivious to the problem, and engage in hand wringing instead of problem solving.

As an “outsider” I was always puzzled why that happened. It wasn’t until the Rochester board’s vote on the teacher’s contract a few weeks back that it became crystal clear to me.

There is a prevalent belief statewide that that much of the spending increases in schools are automatic, and uncontrollable. (I address that in a blog entry here.)

Indeed they are, given that boards view these increases as nothing short of an entitlement.

Statewide, school boards and administrators feel powerless, and cannot think of any solution except ask for more money, or lay-off teachers.

The problems in Michigan’s public education system are unlikely to change until school boards and administrators face the real issues get over their fear of trying new solutions.

==> Mike.


Friday, April 6, 2007

MEA money on board!

Frank Beckmann’s column today covers an issue that focuses on Rochester, but extends into school boards all around the state.

It is MEA Political Action Committee contributions to school board candidates.

Detroit News: Did donations fuel school pact? (04/06/07)

The State of Michigan has a searchable database of Political Action Committees, or PACs. It can be reached by clicking here. You simply enter the name, or part of the name, and the system will find all of the PACs that meet your search criteria. It can be fun to try to a guess what names they've created. Try the name of your city, or the name of your county. Type in "Educator" or "Education". The MEA has created many of these PACs, so it's not hard to stumble onto them.

The link to the MEA PAC records can be viewed by clicking here. Select the report, and then look at the INTERNET FILED DATA, then ITEMIZED DIRECT EXPENDITURES. If there is no internet data, then click on the PDF copies.

What you’ll find is a complicated series of transactions that shuffles money to and from various PACs. The MEA PAC will provide money to local PACs, who sometimes spend it on local candidates, and sometimes funnel it back to the MEA PAC.

Viewing July statements will typically reveal the contributions to school board candidates (because of the goofy May elections).

The local PAC in Rochester (which includes Avondale) is nicknamed EPAC, and can be viewed by clicking here. You'll need to look at the PDF version. If you check out the July statements, you'll find many recognizable names, even dating back to 1995! Also notice that in addition to direct contributions, the PAC also does "member mailings", where they apparently campaign on behalf of the candidate by sending endorsements to union members.

Macomb County residents will find that many of their school board trustees receive contributions from the Local 1 PAC, as shown here. For example, going back just a few years and looking at the July statements shows regular activity for two districts:

$500 (max allowed) to EACH of the following:
April, 2006: Committee to Elect Sara Murray (Romeo)
April, 2006: Committee to Elect Sue Heir (Romeo)
July, 2005: Committee to Elect Dale Chesney (Romeo)
July, 2005: Committee to Elect Denise Aquino (Chippewa Valley)
July, 2005: Committee to Elect George Sabah (Chippewa Valley)
July, 2004: Committee to Elect Harry Chiodina (Chippewa Valley)
July, 2004: Committee to Elect Kathleen Wreford (Romeo)
July, 2004 Committee to Elect Kenneth Pearl (Chippewa Valley)
July, 2003: Committee to Elect Frank Bednard (Chippewa Valley)

This MEA PAC money is sloshing around everywhere, where many of us believe it is working to the detriment of our schools, and our children.

==> Mike.


Frank Beckmann
Did donations fuel school pact?

We've heard many cries for campaign finance reform at the national and the state level.

To date, effective change has eluded us, leaving the public numb from the fruitless process and leaving some candidates free to pursue donations from sources that create a politically incestuous relationship.

The Rochester school contract provides the perfect example.

The deal provides very modest pay increases of 1 percent and 2 percent for top of scale teachers over the next two years, but the dissenting members claim the devil is in the details.

Board members Mike Reno and Steve Kovacs charge that their colleagues approved a pact which grants much larger percentage pay raises to teachers with less experience.

The union pay scale advances by what are called "steps" in the contract.

Various "steps" in the new deal will see teachers receive pay increases of 7.3 percent on one riser, 8.4 percent on another, and 11.6 percent on a third.

In addition, Reno and Kovacs say their district has failed to deal with rising health care costs because the new contract does not require teachers to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

They say this will leave the district with a $5 million shortfall next year and a $10 million budget hole in 2008-2009.

Typically, school board candidates don't have to file campaign finance reports because they spend less than the threshold amount of $1,000 on their election bids.

But a pair of Rochester board members, Tim Greimel and Vice President Michelle Shepherd, may have set a record standard.

Their finance reports show they each received $3,000 contributions from the Michigan Education Association PAC.

Much of the remainder of their 2005 campaign dollars came from individual teachers who benefited by the district's new deal.

The two, who approved the costly new Rochester contract, received a combined total of more than $17,400.

The interests of the MEA and its members are protected by friends in many high places.

Sadly, taxpayers cannot always claim the same.

Frank Beckmann is host of "The Frank Beckmann Show" on WJR (760 AM) from 9-11:30 a.m. Monday-Friday. His column is published on Friday. E-mail letters to


Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Athletics Prevails over Academics

A decision by the Van Dyke Board of Education perhaps best illustrates the point that Michigan is lacking a serious "education culture."

Macomb Daily: School district axes 33 teachers (04/03/07)

In a nutshell, when faced with crippling budget problems caused by out-of-control health care and retirement costs, the district administrators evidently reached the conclusion that cutting athletics was the only option left if they wanted to save academics.

The school board, with the support of some parents, decided athletics was more important. After all, "they've had a successful wrestling team and basketball is on the comeback ".

The parents applauded.

And, in a continuing show of wisdom, the school board is now discussing raising taxes in the community by passing a bond "to renovate buildings and purchase new equipment to help attract new students to the school district."

They must be seeking athletic equipment, and hope to attract athletes. What parent truly concerned about their child's education would give serious thought to this distict after a decision putting athletics ahead of academics?

By the way, there was no mention in the article about why the school board didn't do something to control benefit costs.

==> Mike.

School district axes 33 teachers
Proposal to scrap athletics rejected.

By Mitch Hotts
Macomb Daily Staff Writer

The Van Dyke Board of Education on Monday voted unanimously to eliminate 33 teaching positions as part of a plan to wipe out a $5.6 million budget deficit, but also rejected a proposal to end athletics.

Administrators in the south Warren district had suggested getting rid of all middle and high school sports to save $427,000 from a $41 million budget, but the school board refused to go along with the plan.

School board members felt the sports program -- Lincoln High School has had a successful wrestling team and basketball is on the comeback -- was too important to end.

"Sports is one of the things that draws the kids together and helps promote our district," said board President Richard Carloni. "We're just going to have to find the money to pay for it."

That job will fall to Superintendent Kathleen Spaulding. Van Dyke Public Schools officials will either have to take the money out of the district's $3.2 million fund equity or make more reductions elsewhere.

"We'll have to sit down and consider our other options if we're going to continue sports," Spaulding said.

The vote on athletics came at a special board meeting held at Lincoln Middle School's cafeteria with about 180 parents, students and employees in attendance. The audience applauded the move to save sports but was not happy with other cuts.

Board members voted to issue layoff notices to 52 employees including 33 teachers for the 2007-2008 school year.

Parents upset by the layoffs praised the teaching staff for helping their children learn and expressed fear that the cutbacks would boost class size and make it harder for educators to handle their classes.

"These are the people doing the parenting and the teaching when we're not here," said Jennifer Grabil, who has one son in the district.

And there's more pain on the way for the district, where the enrollment has plunged from 4,154 in 2002 to 3,812 in 2006.

Assistant Superintendent Kay Dankovich said Van Dyke -- like many other Michigan school communities -- has lost corresponding state aid from the loss of students. At the same time, retirement and health care costs continue to soar.

Since 2002, Van Dyke's health care costs have climbed 48 percent while the Michigan Public School Employee Retirement System's costs went up 36 percent. The district's revenue has only risen 5 percent in the same time frame.

To try to maintain programs, the school board has eaten into its fund equity -- the so-called rainy-day fund -- to make up budget shortfalls. The fund equity has dipped from $13.5 million in 2003 to $3.2 million this year.

Van Dyke is also eyeing closing at least one of its 10 buildings to further reduce costs later this year.

School officials say they also are considering asking voters to approve a bond issue to renovate buildings and purchase new equipment to help attract new students to the school district.


Monday, April 2, 2007

Compromised Discussions

I think the Rochester Board of Education has some difficult times ahead now that it is unclear whether what is said in closed session will stay in closed session.

I much prefer public meetings, where everyone can watch the meeting unfold, and hear what is said in the context in which it was said. But the law does allow for private, non-public meetings for a few specific reasons, one of which is to discuss negotiation strategies. After all, it wouldn't be much of a strategy if the other side knew what you were thinking!

If the board is to hold these closed sessions, one should be able to trust that discussions held in those closed sessions will stay confidential, so they are not taken out of context or used for political purposes.

At the last two board meetings, trustees -- including me -- began flirting with the confidentially by making public statements that include generalizations about topics of discussions which have occurred in the board's closed sessions.

I believe allowing a conversation to go there is risky, but perhaps necessary to make a point. Done tactfully, such generalizations should be OK as long as the point is not to put words is someone's mouth.

However, at the last public meeting Trustee Tim Greimel took the next step on that slippery slope by essentially saying, "In closed session, Mr. Reno said..."

Despite the differences I've had with other board members, I have never tried to publicly attribute to them any specific comments they may have made in private, whether in closed session or in individual conversations or emails. I have respected the privacy of those discussions, despite the fact that revealing specific comments would've come in handy during various public debates.

Closed sessions allow for a different level of conversation. Participants can float ideas, be straightforward, and explore concepts without fear of having them taken out of context, or without having to make sure they cover every possible detail in a "statement". It's more like a conversation, or a "normal" business meeting, where a dialogue happens and ideas can develop in a "risk free" environment.

That is, until now.

Even politics, as ugly as they can be, need to have some basic standards of decency and professional conduct, and those have now been compromised.

And now that we've seen that line get crossed, I must wonder if it will lead to a further downward spiral.