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.

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