Saturday, July 31, 2010

The local yokels

In a forward to the Handbook of School Improvement (2010) by Blase, Blase, and Phillips our superintendent describes his difficult job: "Currently, I am superintendent of a small, fast-growing school district, which I am leading through significant improvement activities; this I do in a community and environment long committed to local traditions and provincial viewpoints that have been embedded and permeated the schools and community for generations." He discusses "teacher resistance to improvement activities requiring significant change" and praises the authors because " . . . the information in this book is presented in a usable format that will allow me to simplify and contextualize sophisticated concepts for neophyte leaders and non educators."

We may be unsophisticated country bumpkins but I think we know when we've been dissed.

Hunter apparently believes he is here in this provincial backwater to save us from ourselves. He should have read the other forward to the book by Susan Usry who notes that "the development of a school's system and its supporting subsystems [is] a bottom-up rather than top-down process" and that when administrators do all of the planning and simply pass it down the line to classrooms, "trust is abridged and ownership of improvement efforts is reduced."

If there are teachers reading this blog, I would like to ask you: Have you felt that your active participation in planning improvement activities was welcomed and encouraged? How much influence do you feel you have had over the process? How would you describe that process - bottom-up or top-down? Perhaps my impressions are mistaken but it seems that a good many of our problems have stemmed from a top-down management style and philosophy that was, from the beginning, disdainful of our teachers and schools.

There is always room for improvement and any teacher worth their salt is constantly evaluating his or her performance in the classroom and striving to do better. I know I spend a lot of time in conversation with my colleagues sharing ideas for student activities and discussing what does and does not work. What I know about effective teaching has emerged from those discussions and from honest, and sometimes painful, self-reflection. As a professional educator, I have been impressed with the teachers in our schools and I've even borrowed some ideas from them to use in the university classroom. They work very hard to develop interesting, integrated lesson plans than will stimulate student curiosity and enhance student engagement. They are light-years beyond the "skill and drill" teachers of my youth. We had a lot of good things going on in this district before the current superintendent arrived. Instead of dismissing our teachers (and our entire community) as recalcitrant and mediocre, why not build on what we have and truly improve our schools from the bottom up? There is apparently quite a body of educational research that supports just such an approach.

Friday, July 30, 2010


This is actually the superintendent's most recent letter of evaluation and the one he received after the vote of no confidence. I have deleted some of my comments below on the 2009 letter but have left the letter as a comparison to this year's. The 2009 letter was written before the vote of no confidence and should be read in that context. Thank you to an alert reader for noting the discrepancy in the dates and helping to keep me honest. I apoligize for my mistake in indentifying thw 2009 letter as his most recent evaluation and I will endeavor to be more careful in the future.
As for this year's letter - It does take note of the criticisms leveled at the superintendent over the past year, as it should. It goes on to praise the superintendent for his efforts to rebuild trust with district staff and with the community. I have to admit I am a bit confused. Does anyone know what these efforts have entailed? I thought I was paying fairly close attention to events in the district but perhaps I missed something . . . If you know the details of the trust-rebuilding project, please enlighten me.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Old Boys' Club

Well, Jack Stoops did manage to get himself back on the WESD Board even though he couldn't get elected. He was appointed by the other Board Members to one of the non-elected positions. Just how badly does someone have to screw up before they are considered unfit for public office? I'm afraid we don't yet know the answer to that question.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Double-Dipping + Green Fees = Outrage

One of my other public records requests has concerned expenses reimbursed to the superintendent. I now have some of the records but not yet, I suspect, all of them. What I do have, however, I personally find to be outrageous.

While our kids do without essential programs, while teachers and other employees lose their jobs, the district has been paying for the superintendent to take his buddies golfing. Yes, that's right and I have the documentation. Two of those golf outings were for CHS fundraisers. If the district foots the bill, how does the superintendent's participation raise funds? This past fall the district paid out $300 for the superintendent to take his friends Forrest Bell, Jack Stoops, and Mike Maloney golfing at a Monmouth-Independence Chamber of Commerce fundraiser. That didn't even raise money for the district; how can it possibly be regarded as a legitimate expense?

Well, here's the key. Although the superintendent's contract says that he is to maintain and submit monthly expense accounts and that expenses must be approved by the School Board, that's not what happens. Instead, he gets a subordinate to approve the expenses. How can someone who works for him say "No" when he asks them to sign his requests for reimbursement? Answer: they can't. The fox is guarding the hen house and the School Board, which is supposed to be overseeing its employee, is left completely in the dark.

It would appear that the superintendent has been double-dipping when it comes to mileage reimbursements. In the contract in effect from July 2007 - July 2010, it was clearly stated that the superintendent would receive $150 per month as an in-district travel stipend and $500 per month as an out-of-district travel stipend. But he has also been submitting mileage reimbursement requests for out-of-district travel to meetings in places like Salem. He is being paid twice for the same mileage! And we're being taken for a ride.

He has also had the district reimburse him for "working lunches" with district staff at local restaurants. Our budget situation is dire and crucial needs are going unmet - why are we paying for his lunch?



Paid Vacations

These are copies of the superintendent's leave since July of 2007. He has a twelve month contract that specifically states that everyday is a working day with the exception of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal holidays. According to these documents it would appear that he has not taken any time off over the holidays for the past two years. What seems more likely to me is that he has in fact taken time off but has not declared it as leave. That would not be so bad except he then cashes out "unused" vacation days each year to the tune of about $4,400 annually. Last year, for example, he "gave up" nine days without pay because of the budget shortfall but was then reimbursed for ten "unused" vacation days. As far as I know, no other administrators, nor teachers, nor classified employees had that option. The days they lost to the budget were truly lost income.

The Superintendent's Evaluation

The superintendent's annual letter of evaluation is a public document. I received a copy as part of my public records request. Their evaluation is based entirely on his own assessment; they never solicit input from anyone else! While I was on the Board they actively resisted my attempts to do so and to make it a regular part of the evaluation process. I don't know of anyone else whose job performance is assessed in such a limited and self-serving manner. It is not, in my opinion, a real evaluation.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Three Year Contract

Why would the Board offer someone a three year perpetual contract after that same someone recieved a vote of no confidence from 90% of his staff? It was adopted by a vote of 4 to3. Board members Stoops, Hamilton, Ramirez, and Plude voted in favor of this contract; Board members Evans, Zehner, and Shellenbarger voted against.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Supe's Contract, Pt. 2

Just got off the phone with a Board member and apparently they didn't see the superintendent's contract until it was time to vote on it last Monday. So it wasn't just the public who were kept in the dark. The contract was distributed to Board members for the first time at the meeting and then ratified. The contract details had been worked out by the superintendent, the Board attorney and the Board chair and vice-chair. At least three Board members had the common sense to vote "No" on something they hadn't had time to read thoroughly. The other Board members, unfortunately, voted "Yes" so now the supe has a new three year contract that only four people had any knowledge of before-hand. The superintendent had to be a little uncomfortable, though, when the three dissenters asked so many questions about how much the district would have to pay out if they fired him. That part of the discussion went on for at least 15 minutes!

Independent Bond Audit

We need an outside, independent audit of all bond expenditures. At this point, I'm not sure anyone really knows what has been spent or where it has been spent with any precision. When I have asked the district's business manager for information she has told me that she does not have access to all of it, that it is stored in the bond manager's office. The documents that have been finally posted to the district's website are woefully inadequate and essentially unintelligible, even to those with some knowledge of public finance.

This, for example, is the final budget for the bond as it was presented to the Board and as it appears on the district's website:

Seriously? Most household budgets are more specific. It's like they've been running a $47 million tab.

Since this initial budget, the information received by the Board and shared with the public has been equally broad and hazy. The Board does get to see construction progress each month but there is no detailed discussion of where the money has been spent.

This is the number one reason I asked for an oversight committee for this bond project while I was still a member of the School Board. Oversight committees composed of community members are extremely common and are, in fact, a legal requirement for bond projects in some states such as California. The superintendent was adamantly opposed to oversight for reasons that were never clearly articulated. He seemed to think that oversight created a lack of trust. I think it is actually the lack of oversight that creates distrust. His "superintendent's key communicators" group was not an oversight committee; it was the alternative to oversight. It was the alternative to a committee with the authority to truly monitor the project and the budget.

If you think the key communicators or the Board have been apprised of the real money trail for this project, then call and ask them the following questions:

1) What happened to the savings gained by the advantageous sale of the bonds and the lower than expected guaranteed maximum price from the general contractor? The total amount of those savings was several million dollars.

2) Where was the money saved by not completing the 16th Street project spent? Because of the language used when the Board voted to approve the bond project only a small amount could be spent on turf. That leaves $1.3 million. Where did it go?

3) Why has the district borrowed $2 million to finish up projects promised within the original bond? Again, a small amount is going to the turf (around $300,000), some is going to the promised HVAC upgrades at other schools (now expanded to $765,000). Where's the rest?

This is OUR money. We deserve answers, not vague generalities. The only way to get those answers is through an outside, independent audit. Maybe the answers will reassure us; maybe they won't. But we need to know.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fun With Numbers

I finally received a copy of the 10-11 Budget a couple of days ago and have been busy analyzing the numbers therein. As everyone knows, we are still in a tough budget cycle with more cuts looming before us. This is a result of a national economic melt-down that the district has absolutely no control over. All we can control is our response to a problem we did not create.

Budgets are projections; the current budget indicates where the district plans to spend its money next year. It reflects both legal requirements as well as the administration's priorities. The district administration always says that its priority is kids - "Kids first" "There are no acceptable losses" and so on. But does the budget reflect this? You be the judge.

In an article published in the Polk County Itemizer-Observer on June 29, 2010, Superintendent Hunter announced the potential loss of nine teachers, twelve classified workers, and half an administrator for next year. ""We cut in all the flexible places - travel, supplies - last year," Hunter said. "We don't have those places to cut that aren't personnel anymore."" Well, they may have cut some travel last year but what he didn't mention is that it is all back in the adopted budget. In 07-08 (before the current recession), the district spent $35,906 on travel reimbursements; this year it plans to spend $39,395. This is an increase of 10 percent even as our general fund dollars diminish. In addition, administrator's receive a mileage stipend each month which in the budget is recorded as part of their salary. This means they receive that money regardless of how much they do or don't travel each month as part of their duties. This year the district will give administrator's a total of $36,600 in monthly stipends which is slightly higher than in 07-08. Taken together, then, there is still $75,995 in the budget for travel. Since each teacher costs the district about $70,000 in salary and benefits, that would be enough to save one teacher with a bit to spare.

The district also gives administrators, but no other employees, a tax-deferred annuity which will cost us $37,591 this year. It's in their contracts so the district cannot unilaterally rescind those payments; if one party to a contract can unilaterally change it, it is not really a contract [Don't get me started on the mandated furloughs, i.e., pay reductions, we faced at OSU!] Did the School Board ask them to give up their extra benefits? It seems to me that "extras" are always the first place to cut. Administrators already receive very high salaries. Why do they need benefits over and above the package received by other employees?

Compared to 07-08, the district has cut licensed salaries (i.e., teachers) by six percent. For the same period, administrative salaries (overall, not individual salaries) have increased by 23 percent! In just four years! What priorities are reflected in those numbers? Why are the employees who interact directly with students paid so much less? Are administrators more important than teachers? Why do administrators earn roughly twice as much as teachers? Do they have twice as much education? Do they work twice as hard? Do they put in twice as many hours? Or is it a function of who controls the budget? Kids first? Or last?

The high school has faced steeper cuts than any of the other schools. Teacher reductions at the other schools have averaged two percent since 07-08. (Remember this is in terms of salaries, not the number of teachers.) At the high school, however, the reduction has been a whopping 12 percent despite its current "in need of improvement" designation. Our high school staff work very hard and put in lots of extra hours. But it's hard to be successful, or even feel good about coming to work everyday, without support. If the administration truly wants the high school to be successful (according to admittedly arbitrary state and national policies), shouldn't the high school be receiving more funding rather than less? It's almost as if the administration is setting them up to fail. Have they never heard of the self-fulfilling prophecy?

The district is also retaining its bond manager - after the bond is done. Not only that, he's getting a 12.5 percent raise! He will oversee the last part of the high school reconstruction this summer and then oversee installation of $765, 000 in HVAC equipment at various schools. His services will cost us $165,312 or the equivalent of two teachers. He earned less to oversee a $47 million bond. When this was brought up by a Board member, she was told this was an "administrative decision" (see the minutes of the June meeting). Even though the Board retains legal authority over the budget, they shouldn't get the idea they have any real authority.

Kids first? You be the judge.

Note: I would be happy to share my analysis in more detail. Simply email me and I will explain how I arrived at these numbers. Click on "view my complete profile" in the right-hand column and then "email."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Comments Welcome

I have reason to believe that at least a few people are reading this blog. It was my hope that the blog could become a forum for discussion. To that end, I have permitted anonymous comments. So if you would like to comment on my posts you can do so without revealing your own identity. While I thought it important that I identify myself publicly, I also understand that there are staff members who feel vulnerable to resprisal. So please feel free to add comments, to disagree with me, to bring up new topics for discussion. If you feel comfortable identifying yourself, so much the better, if you don't, comment anonymously.

If this does become a forum for discussion, I would like to see us focus on issues related to the structure and culture of the district. We can talk about processes and policies without personal attacks on individuals. That does not mean that individuals are beyond reproach, however, when they are acting in an official capacity. But criticisms need to focus on behaviors rather than personalities. Even public figures have personal lives; comments on their families will be strictly off-limits. I will delete any comments that I feel are libelous, because libel is wrong and because it would leave me open to lawsuit. Libel occurs when someone knowingly makes false claims against another person with malicious intent. So tell the truth, provide documentation when you can, and state personal opinions as such.

I hope you will join me in discussing the issues we confront.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Knowledge is Power

"Knowledge is power. " As parents and as teachers that's what we tell our kids to encourage them to stay in school and learn as much as they can. Knowledge allows us to control our own lives - to find work that we find personally rewarding, to choose whether to become parents, to explore the natural and social worlds around us, to participate as active citizens in a democratic system.

Lack of knowledge, then, is disempowering. Withholding information is always a power play.

When "communication issues" arise in an organization it's almost never about understanding one another (language differences or miscommunication). It is much more likely to be about who controls the flow of information and to what end. Controlling information is about controlling people.

Even as a board member I often lacked the information necessary to make good, balanced decisions. Information would be parceled out to board members on a "need to know basis." I generally felt we only "needed," i.e., were allowed, to know that which would lead us to a predetermined conclusion. I suppose that is one way of heading off potential dissent but to me it often seemed manipulative and sometimes just dishonest. Prying loose information seemed like a full-time job and I even had to get some information (as a board member, mind you!) through public records requests.

The up-side is that now I know quite a bit more about making such requests. In addition to the requests noted below, I've also asked for a copy of the document outlining the tiered cuts that will be implemented under various budget scenarios. The district has already indicated that they consider this document to be "internal work product" that is exempt from public disclosure (see ORS Chapter 192, section 502). I would argue, however, that the public, and even more so, staff, has a right to know the nature and extent of potential cuts. This is especially true since the document in question has been mentioned in at least two public meetings and one newspaper article ("Central Staffing Cuts Likely," Polk Co. Itemizer-Observer, June 29, 2010). To talk openly about the existence of a plan to cut jobs and then withhold the details from the very people who will be affected seems not only controlling but downright cruel. Should the district refuse my request I intend to appeal the decision to the Polk County District Attorney (see ORS Chapter 192, section 470).

Knowledge is power. Let's educate ourselves.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Public Records

I've just submitted a request to the district for the following public records: 1) a copy of the supe's contract; 2) a copy of the supe's most recent letter of evaluation; 3) copies of all time sheets submitted by the supe over the past three years. I'll keep you posted on what I learn.

By the way, law is not that complicated and searching Oregon Revised Statutes is easy and quite enlightening.

Public in name only

During last night's discussion of the supe's contract, I searched frantically through the Board packet for the information that was being discussed but it wasn't there. I raised my hand to ask a question and was told by the Board chair that she "wasn't taking questions or comments." At the end of the meeting I approached her and the following exchange ensued:

Me: "There was no information on the new contract language in the packet. How can the public comment or ask questions when we don't know what will be discussed?"

SS: "It was on the agenda."

Me: "But there is no accompanying information, just the agenda item. How can we ask questions or weigh in on a discussion without any information?"

SS: "I don't see that you need to. It is up to the Board to negotiate the superintendent's contract."

Me: "But the public has a right to know and to let their wishes be known. You need to allow public comment at other times, not just at the very beginning of the meeting."

SS: "I will not discuss this with you. I have a training to go to."

This is a hell of a way to run a public school district. They hide information, they make all the real decisions in "work sessions," and they treat members of the public as nuisances. They're happy enough to have our money but our opinions are of absolutely no consequence.

The superintendent's contract

Last year the Oregon legislature passed a law eliminating the "golden parachute" enjoyed by many high-level state employees. The golden parachute was the extemely generous severance package paid to those employees when they lost their jobs. The state decided employers could no longer pay people for work they did not perform. Now, according the the school district's lawyer, the supe's contract used to specify that he would receive 6 months severance pay if the Board decided to let him go. That is now illegal. So, instead, he must be permitted to work out the duration of the contract and then be "non-renewed." Sounds fair but here's the kicker - he has a three year contract! A contract that just got renewed! The only other way to get rid of him is to fire him for cause.

Kicking Babies to the Curb

The above is the text of my statement at last night's school board meeting. At the conclusion of the meeting the superintendent informed me that there was never any intention of turning the teen parent building into admin offices and that the building would be "moth-balled." He said it was the "Board's decision" to close the day care - which was news to the three board members I spoke with briefly after the meeting. If they do turn the building into administrative offices, you have my promise that I will be outside holding an informational picket with signs saying "Shame on You." I half hope they try it although my greater hope is that they restore the program.

Jackie Hachtel had been busy over the weekend. We ran into each other on the way into the meeting and discovered we had been planning to speak on the same topic. According to her research, the district is required by law to provide day care to teen parents and the district, in addition to all the adjustments to ADM outlined above, was also receiving block grants to help pay for the day care.

Which brings us back to the original question - If the program pays its own way, why is it being eliminated? I think it is so they can use the additional monies they receive to educate those students to back-fill the general budget. Robbing Peter to pay Paul and kicking teen mothers and their babies to the curb. For shame!

Monday, July 12, 2010


I was quite surprised to see in this morning's Statesman-Journal that Jack Stoops has applied for one of the appointed positions on the WESD Board. As chair of that Board over the past few years he presided over a fiasco of epic proportions. When it became clear that he couldn't get re-elected he withdrew from the election and now wants back on the Board through this back door process. What hubris.

This method of selecting ESD board members is part of a pilot program in which five members are elected by the school districts who make up the ESD and the remaining four are chosen by those five "elected" board members. Public institutions should not be run on political patronage which, in my opinion, the current process fosters. Let's go back to the direct public election of ESD board members.

The Purpose of this Blog

This is my first ever blog so bear with me as I get the hang of it. I've started the blog in order to comment on events and processes in the Central 13J School District. I've lived in this community for 20 years and have come to love it. It pains me greatly to see the tension and anxiety in our district. When I joined the school board five years ago I guess I was pretty naive about the ways things worked. Although I thought I could make a difference, I was swiftly disabused of that notion. Serving on that board has been the single most disillusioning experience of my life (and, no, I've not been that sheltered). I have come to the conclusion that the only thing that will make a difference is concerted community involvement. To that end, I invite you to join me in discussing the issues we confront. Let's get the conversation started!