Thursday, August 30, 2007

Beckmann Interviews Steve Kovacs on Campaign Finance Pledge

Trustee Steve Kovacs of the Rochester School Board is running for re-election on the 2007 November ballot. He is one of six candidates.

He created a pledge (found here) that he has asked all of the candidates to sign.

The pledge basically affirms that each candidate will put the interests of children first, and refrain from accepting campaign contributions from special interest groups that may distract from that priority.

I think this is a good idea. By signing -- and abiding by -- the pledge, candidates can avoid making choices that may later compromise their objectivity.

I also find it disappointing that one would even need to create such a pledge.

And for those that don't think it's needed, check out this list from the Education Action Group (EAG).

WJR Radio Personality Frank Beckmann interviewed Steve on this topic, and the interview can be
heard by clicking here. (If you would prefer to download the file and listen to it as a podcast, you can right-click on the link and "Save target As".)


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Who does Representative Vagnozzi represent?

I’ve attached a piece by Representative Aldo Vagnozzi (D-Farmington)that appears to have run throughout a number of Eccentric papers in and around Oakland County:

Eccentric: Teacher benefits should not be cut by Legislature (08/26/07)

In it, he attacks Representative Marty Knollenberg for suggesting that we look at responsible reforms to educator retirement and health benefits (I wrote about Knollenberg's article in this post on June 29, 2007). Vagnozzi uses silly and untrue phrases like “severely slash” that entirely mischaracterize Representative Knollenberg’s points. Vagnozzi uses analogies like “depression era wages”, and tries to suggest that any changes would prevent teachers from “enjoy(ing) a decent life after they leave the classroom.”

These outrageous comments are so exaggerated that it's hard to picture who would take them seriously.

Consider these thoughts as you read his article:

First, Vagnozzi’s attack on Representative Knollenberg fails to include any disclaimer that Vagnozzi received substantial contributions from teacher union PAC’s (Political Action Committees). Here is a link to his campaign committee:, which shows he received $5000 – the maximum allowed by law – from MEA PAC, which is the PAC for the state’s largest teachers union. He also received $1200 from the American Federation of Teachers, $250 from the Detroit Federation of Teachers, $375 from the Oakland Educators PAC, and hundreds from various MEA teachers.

With that type of backing, it’s no wonder that he quickly launches the tired old attack strategy that demonizes anyone that dares to suggest that we cannot offer a blank check to educators.

Second, it comes as no surprise that Vagnozzi believes the solution to our state’s woes is to provide unrestricted protection of benefits along with increased pay.

Yet he fails to expand on minor little details, like how he intends to pay for them.

In fact, he fails to explain how we can pay for the current system.

Somehow the words “tax increase” didn’t make it into the final cut of his editorial.

Third, Vagnozzi seems to operate under the delusion that the benefits offered by school districts are reasonable and normal. They aren’t.

They cost at least 25% more than benefits offered in the private sector. And the defined benefit retirement program – with medical coverage – began disappearing from the private sector in the 1980’s. They were discarded by the private sector because they are unaffordable and unsustainable. Our state recognized that years ago and switched plans for most of its employees.

Fourth, the record clearly contradicts the cheap shot Vagnozzi takes at Knollenberg. Vagnozzi suggests Knollenberg is hypocritical, citing the fact that Knollenberg himself is " covered by an excellent (state-funded) life-time health insurance, plus a good retirement plan..."

But in the very article attacked by Vagnozzi, Knollenberg says, "I have introduced similar legislation to reform another lucrative retirement system -- lifetime benefits for lawmakers. It is simply absurd for the taxpayers to fund lifetime benefits for myself and my colleagues after six short years in the Legislature"

And that's not the only time Knollenberg has been quoted as saying that. Here is another article that discusses Knollenberg's ideas on benefit reform for legislators.

Makes one wonder whether Vagnozzi even understands what he is reading -- or writing.

And finally, keep in mind that Vagnozzi is eligible for these very cushy benefits he is fighting to preserve.

There are many solutions that school boards – or the legislature – could explore that would reform benefits while still providing comprehensive and effective insurance to our valued educators. These are the same benefits that keep a majority of our citizens healthy, and are provided in a way that doesn’t dramatically impact their finances.

Changes would include shared insurance premiums, increased copays and increased deductibles. These types of changes are effective because they help turn insured employees into more effective consumers. They will give more thought when scheduling doctor visits. They will ask their doctors to explain the purpose of various tests and procedures. They will consider generic rather than brand name drugs.

The bottom line is that legislators like Vagnozzi are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Inflammatory rhetoric bent on preserving the status quo for his supporters will drive our state into bankruptcy. It's time for Vagnozzi to consider a realistic alternative.

Here is the article in case the link doesn't work:


Teacher benefits should not be cut by Legislature

Now comes State Rep. Marty Knollenberg with a proposal to balance the state budget on the backs of teachers and other school employees.

At a time when everyone agrees that educating our children is the most important challenge we face, Mr. Knollenberg, is proposing that we discourage good teachers from entering the profession.

He is suggesting that we take an axe to teacher retirement and health benefits so that teachers can no longer enjoy a decent life after they leave the classroom. His proposal reminds me of the Depression era, when teachers were paid in script, a form of today's food stamps.

Here is a legislator who earns nearly $80,000 a year and is covered by an excellent life-time health insurance, plus a good retirement plan, telling teachers, who often start at a salary of around $30,000 to tighten their belts and see their retirement and health care coverage devastated by action of the state Legislature.

I don't understand how anyone in public office can claim that we need good teachers while at the same time proposing that we severely slash their pension and health care benefits. Why would anyone enter the teaching profession under those circumstances? When you consider that teaching is becoming an increasingly difficult job, what incentive is there in entering the profession?

Consider that college tuitions have just gone up all over the state, leaving future graduates with a substantial debt in earning their teaching degree. Again, what incentive is there to enter the profession?

I would suggest that Mr. Knollenberg read the advice that Lee Iococca has in regard to teacher compensation. In his new book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? he makes an impassioned plea on behalf of teachers.

He makes the statement that pay and benefits for teachers should be at the top of the list for professionals, not at the bottom, as he points out how important they are in helping to develop the leaders of the future.

Iococca is someone we should listen to, because of his vast and successful career in the business world. As the head of a major corporation, he has had the experience to know how teachers impact and what significant role they play in our society.

I urge Mr. Knollenberg to pick up the book, read and absorb what Iococca has to say about teachers and why they should be paid substantially more than they are getting now.

I also urge Mr. Knollenberg to look at what has happened to teacher health benefits in recent years. Through the process of collective bargaining, many teachers have taken a hit on their health coverage. Co-pays have gone up dramatically. Teacher retirees now face co-pays as has as $50 per prescription. Many teachers also contribute as much as $1,500 to $2,000 a year for their health insurance. Compare their benefits with legislators, who get full health coverage after six years of service without any co-pays.

I will oppose any attempt to drastically cut teacher retirement or health benefits. Let this issue be settled by the time-tested collective bargaining system. It has worked in the past. It will work in the future without interference by the state Legislature.

Aldo Vagnozzi, of Farmington Hills, is state representative for the 37th District, representing Farmington and Farmington Hills.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tim Skubick's "Off The Record" (The short version!)

Tim Skubick, senior Lansing Capitol Correspondent, taped an "Education Funding Forum" on August 20, and it first aired on PBS the next day on August 21.

The panelists were Senator Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland, Chair of the Senate's Education Committee), Dr. Ryan Olson (Director of Education Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy), Tom White (Executive Director, Michigan School Business Officials), and Ms. Lavetta Quinn Shelton, the President of the Saginaw PTSA.

It was an interesting forum, with substantial audience participation. Tim Skubick did a good job of challenging audience and panelist comments, although the audience seemed stacked with participants carrying the same message of, "Give us more money!"

I'll be putting together more commentary on this, but for now here is the link:

WKAR: Back to School: An “Off the Record” Special (08/21/07)

You'll need the RealAudio Player, which is installed on most computers. If it's not on yours, it can be found by clicking here.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Open Government and Accountability is likely to be opposed

The Lansing State Journal angered many state employees when it published a database that included each employee and their salary.

Now there’s talk – just talk – that schools should do the same. It’s discussed in an interesting article:

Lansing State Journal: Privacy vs. openness: A delicate balance (08/12/07)

This is probably not welcome news to anyone that would be subjected to such a policy or law. It probably does feel like an invasion of privacy.

But, as one quote from the article points out,

"... such concerns aren't new.

"The exact same things were said when photographs started appearing in the press that were taken when a person had not posed and didn't necessarily represent them in the best light,"

The philosophical question is, as the headline suggests, a question of taxpayer-funded employee privacy versus the taxpayers’s right to know where their money is going.

The article covers a few of the risks, the most prominent being identity theft. But I believe there are laws that already protect the confidentiality of social security numbers and other private information. If not, then lawmakers could include that provision in any legislation.

And, granting access to this data is nothing new; taxpayers can already obtain it through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). But that system is cumbersome and inefficient, which would be corrected by internet access.

What caught my eye was the great point offered by State Representative Dave Agema, R-Grandville:

"If people see what their money is being spent on and they can easily obtain it through their own personal computer, there's a greater degree of accountability, which forces those colleges more to toe the line," Agema said.

He acknowledged that university and school district employees could perceive that - the posting of their salaries in particular - as an invasion of privacy. But the benefits, he said, would be worth the cost.

"My goal is not so much the individual, it's the excesses," he said. "But the only way I can show the excesses is to show all the individuals."

I think this concept, as applied to public schools, would primarily help to shine a spotlight on the absurdity of the current pay structure, which is based on the number of days worked, and not on achievement or results.

People already know the system is ridiculous, but seeing it in writing is much more powerful.

One might argue that if this is truly good policy, then why isn’t it applied in private sector? Well, it already is. Salary information is available to the owners and managers of a company. In fact, a good manager will regularly look at – and compare – the salaries of employees to make sure that those who are most productive and effective are earning more, or at least seeing their wages increase faster.

The concept discussed in the LSJ article provides a means for the “owners” of the school system – the taxpayers -- to make similar evaluations of not just employee salaries, but of the managers that are responsible for setting the compensation of district employees and of the elected officials responsible for overseeing the system.

Of course, they’ll come up with other excuses to oppose this idea, but it’s this “accountability factor” that will cause the education establishment to vigorously oppose this step towards a more open government.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Detroit School Board deviates

Here's a link to an enlightening editorial concerning school board oversight responsibilities in Detroit Public Schools, which succinctly spotlights a problem facing so many passive school boards in this state:

Detroit Free Press: Begin repairs on Detroit Public Schools (08/01/07)

A board member -- fulfilling her oversight responsibilities -- drew attention to a potential problem, and now the board is investigating.

Unfortunately for children and taxpayers, this type of leadership and attention is rare among school board.

The Michigan Association of School Boards (the MASB) encourages board members to stay out of such operational matters, deeming them
the superintendent's job. Indoctrinated MASB trustees then passionately promote the notion that school boards should focus SOLELY on policy matters, which in effect undermines operational oversight.

Fortunately, it appears there are some trustees in Detroit that recognize the danger inherent in such passive oversight.

To quote the Free Press:

"Also encouraging, it was a board member, Paula Johnson, head of the contracts and procurement committee, who first raised concerns about the pattern of wire transfers of funds. She asked the kinds of questions that voters should expect from their elected stewards but have not traditionally been aired by school board members. More important, Johnson's board colleagues did not engage in their usual infighting and factionalism to stall the probe. It went promptly forward."

Perhaps there is no impropriety by the DPS administration, but a vigilant school board sends a clear signal to administrators and the public that an effective system of checks and balances exists.

Equally impressive was the fact that other board members -- presumably the traditional rubber-stamping MASB-trained type -- didn't stand in the way.

Hopefully whatever they're putting in water in Detroit's that's influencing their trustees will make it's way up here to the suburbs!