Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Kids First, or MEA First?

The Howell school board continues to be the “poster child” for Mark Twain’s quip:

“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

The most recent attraction at the Howell circus was a surprise meeting in which the board majority fired the superintendent, despite the fact that he seemed to have community support and despite the data that shows he had made a positive impact on student achievement.

The firing could not have been done in a more unprofessional way.

The good news is that it may have awakened the community, and there is now an effort to recall three of the ringleaders.

I thought this was newsworthy because it is a crystal clear example of how much influence the MEA has over school boards. Not only did they publicly influence the board, but, as is often the case, there are other MEA-related conflicts of interest swirling around in the background.

The local paper makes a great case here about the direct MEA influence:

Press & Argus: Howell school board sends message with its capitulation to teachers' union (7/8/09)

The other interesting twist is the how the personal interests of board members are weaved into the story.

Ed Literski, the board president, apparently sees nothing wrong with serving on the board, despite the fact that his wife works for the district.

But consider the conflict of interest – or the appearance of a conflict – as shown in this
Livingston Daily Press & Argus article:

Furthermore, in a timeline of events written by Gardella according to Day (Wendy Day… a courageous reform-minded board member -- Mike), the superintendent claimed Literski threatened him April 30 because he "(expletive) with his family."

Literski's wife, Cathy Literski,
is a counselor at Highlander Way Middle School. Gardella, according to the timeline, shared with Parker (another board member) information about a grievance Cathy Literski made against the middle school's principal, Jason Feig.

The grievance had to do with Feig denying Cathy Literski a day off from work, according to documents the Daily Press & Argus received under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cathy Literski's request was apparently the seventh request submitted for time off on that day — the first six were approved, according to contract guidelines.

She sought reimbursement of $316 she spent on airline and concert tickets, which she purchased prior to getting approval for time off.

Wednesday, Literski said his wife had nothing to with "the position Mr. Gardella finds himself in."

Hmmm… the request was denied, and suddenly the superintendent finds himself in hot water with the board.

Purely coincidental, I’m sure.

And lastly, it’s unfortunate that the Livingston County Clerk’s office does not post campaign finance records online. I would not be surprised to find MEA PAC contributions to the board majority members. This is a very common practice, as shown on the Education Action Group’s website here: Follow the Money. There is also a detailed article from the Mackinac Center's Education Report.

The MEA influence over this board is so troubling because this whole matter appears to have nothing to do with kids, but is instead about adult issues. The district made AYP for the first time under this superintendent, and test scores appear to be improving. Their budgets appear to be under control. By most objective measures this superintendent seemed to be doing a good job.

His mistake?

There were union related staffing issues, and he annoyed the board president by "(expletive) with his family."

You can follow this drama at Wendy Day’s blog,

I’ve pasted below the full text of the editorial in case the link doesn’t work:

Howell school board sends message with its capitulation to teachers' union

When the Howell Public Schools Board of Education conducted a hastily called special meeting on June 26, the biggest news was the unexpected firing of Superintendent Theodore Gardella, who was completing his first year on the job.

Questions still remain from the decision that Friday. One of the most important: How did such a vote occur when neither his status or his evaluation was on the special meeting agenda? Such action suggests that some board members had privately come to the meeting expecting to fire Gardella, or it suggests that this was an emotional, almost knee-jerk decision.

As important as these questions are, what has been lost in the uproar has been another item on the agenda. That item, in which the board sent a clear message that it will cave to the agenda of the teachers' union, could have much greater impact on the district than did Gardella's firing.

The issue began when the leadership of the Howell Education Association, which represents the district's more than 400 teachers, didn't like the way that staffing was progressing after a meeting on June 23. So the next day, union President Karen Lessnau e-mailed the board's president and vice president to request a special meeting to lodge what it called a formal complaint.

Some of its charges were startling, including an assertion that there had been a "deliberate attempt" by Gardella "to defy" a staffing directive given by the school board.

As it turns out, that assertion may have been overblown, or at least open to alternative interpretations. At the very least, the administration might have had its own version of this accusation of insubordination.

You would think, as employers, the board would have wanted to hear the facts before jumping through the union's hoops. You would be wrong.

There was an appropriate way to handle this, which is to refer the matter back to the administration, which is paid to handle labor issues. If the union doesn't believe the contract it being followed, it can file a grievance. If it wants to address the board, it can take its turn at a regular meeting.

Administrators are trained in labor issues. They know the complexities of the contract and the dynamics of staffing. They also know the tactics that unions use when they want to pressure school board members who, frankly, don't have that expertise.

What you don't do, if you want to run an effective school board, is send the union a message that it is acceptable to do an end-run around your paid administrative team.

But that is exactly what the Howell school board leadership did.

Lessnau's e-mail went out late on that Wednesday afternoon. By 9:30 a.m. the next day, board Vice President Jeannine Pratt had e-mailed the rest of the board with the message that she and President Edwin Literski wanted a special meeting at noon the next day.

The union said "jump," and the board leadership answered "when and how high?"

Perhaps the union complaint was just a pretense used by Pratt and Literski to add momentum to the movement to fire Gardella.

But the capitulation to the union will send a clear message to the next person who is persuaded to become Howell's next superintendent. If he doesn't want to become the third superintendent fired in three years, he will do well to make sure he doesn't cross the union. The board won't have his back.

That's good news for the Howell Education Association, which is maneuvering for bargaining power now that its current labor contract has expired. But it won't be good news for the district's taxpayers.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that Mr. Reno cites the lack of information at the Livingston County clerk regarding election contributions.

It is Sooooooo easy to circumvent any records.

1) You simply get a PAC to do ALL your heavy lifting. MEA does this too.

2) You get copious amounts of "in-kind" contributions that are not traceable as to their REAL value. A few hundred DVDs for instance.

3) The candidate files stating that they recieved nor spent over $1000.

This way nothing is traceable.

Dorothy said...

Interesting how Anonymous fails to cite the unions’ own legendary practice of utilizing ”copious amounts of ‘in kind’ contributions that are not traceable as to their REAL value”.

You know, like using school supplies, facilities and communication tools (mass mailings, PTA email lists and other social networking tools) for political purposes, to reach local school employees as well as the extended 'union family’. Or flyering neighborhoods with scary-sounding ‘friend-to-friend’’ letters dispensing union insider gospel about 'hidden agendas’ and who 'really cares about your kids' in this year’s school board race, or using school emergency or PTA contact lists to lobby parents on behalf of those same 'really caring' candidates, or best of all, stuffing kids backpacks with political flyers supporting the 'best for our kids' political position.

It's always MEA first which is why they do what it takes to cover their school board bases so very carefully.

But Anonymous already knows that.