Things have boiled down to a nasty gurgling simmer in Wisconsin since the fracas over Governor Scott Walker’s plan to require public workers to contribute more to their healthcare and retirement. Union protestors claim they are willing to deal but they refuse to deal on losing their rights to collective bargaining. In the meantime the Democratic members of the Senate have skipped town for the friendly confines of Illinois to shut the government down. Things may be simmering, but they’re ready to boil over.
We’ve had protest groups and counter-protest groups. We’ve had polls that seem to favor Walker and others that seem to favor the unions. We have allegations of plutocracy, autocracy and the obligatory reference to Nazis. I could write on all this ad nauseam but I thought I would spend some time talking about what I know most about — working with a public employee union.
As you may know I spent several years on the Round Lake Area Schools Board of Education, the last three of them as its president. I stayed out of union negotiations for the most part. Why? For much of my tenure I am the son of one of the members of the bargaining unit in Round Lake, the Education Association of Round Lake (EARL), a local of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) the biggest teacher’s union in Illinois.
Without going into a whole lot of detail into that experience (that would be a very long post) suffice it to say I have participated in collective bargaining negotiations, grievances, stayed up until the wee hours of the morning negotiating with the association and fielding hundreds of phone calls related to union matters. I’m not a lawyer but I consider myself well experienced in this area and familiar with the process.
I respect the core tenets of unions and what they stand for — protecting the rights of workers and ensuring that everyone receives fair treatment. The problem is when you deal with things as a collective you soon run into difficulty dealing with the individual and on more levels than one.
Governor Walker has a budget deficit looming and his state spends a lot of money on two things in particular — public employees and entitlements (Medicaid, welfare, social programs). Wisconsin is not different from any other state in this regard. Most of what the state spends on education does not go directly into education – it goes to the local school districts in the form of state aid. School districts receive federal money (usually for special programs for at risk students), state money (general state aid and categorical grants – money earmarked for specific programs if the district complies) and local money (property taxes).
If you broke down the figures most districts receive little to no federal money, it mainly goes to poorer districts or districts with a large population of kids with special needs. All of them though rely on state and local money . The biggest expenditure the local school district makes? Overwhelmingly (to the tune of 70-85% in many cases) salary and benefits for its employees, mostly teachers. So, this is how the different levels work and how it is broken.
Governor Walker wants to balance his budget, he needs to cut spending by a billion from somewhere. For the purposes of this exercise let’s say he wants to take it all in education. Does Governor Walker now go to the state teachers unions (most states have two) and get their approval? He could, but it would be as meaningless as any state union assurance now they will take the deal on reduced benefits. They don’t negotiate the contracts, the local teachers unions do!
So Governor Walker puts together a plan and tells the state Board of Education to reduce spending by $1 bil. The state board comes up with the formula in elimination of categoricals (very common here in Illinois) and then reduction in general state aid. Or, maybe a state aid payment or two, or four gets skipped. Now imagine you are the local school district — your boss came to you and said that work you did last week on that special project? Sorry, not paying for it, it was very nice work but we have to cut expenses. Also, “I need to dip into your pay a bit, I’m not going to pay you this week, I might pay you again in two weeks but I’m not sure yet, I’ll let you know.” That’s reality here in Illinois and I doubt it’s much different in Wisconsin.
What would you do? You would cut back your expenses right? Well imagine for a moment if you went to cut your biggest expense then, let’s say it’s your mortgage. Do you think you could get a reduction in your mortgage? Maybe eliminate some of the things you built into the loan or you could sell your house and live in a smaller one though, right? Maybe sell and rent a smaller place? Not if you’re a school district. No, see you collectively bargained a contract with these folks a year or so ago and not only can you not do anything to change that you said you were going to give them a raise next year and they want it. They are also going to enforce the class size provision that we bargained for. Some locals will see the district is in trouble and negotiate, this has been happening in Illinois and to the credit of those locals, others won’t. It’s up to the local to decide how they wish to balance reduced benefits for their members versus loss of members in the form of layoffs.
So what is left for the local school district to do? Cut administrators and lay off the teachers you can. Maybe the union will bargain with you on how many of its members it will let go without too much of a fuss. Only bad teachers would be let go right? Nope, can’t do that, because a union is about seniority. No, you can’t lay off Mrs. Smith who has been mailing it in for the past decade trying to get enough years in to retire early. You need to lay off Mrs. Jones who is a new and enthusiastic teacher getting great results in her classroom. She’s only been here two years though and doesn’t have the protection of tenure.
This, my friends, is a glimpse into how things are done year after year in a school district. It doesn’t make unions all bad – it makes them misguided by tradition. It doesn’t make all school districts right, many of them planned recklessly. At the end of the day though the money comes from somewhere, not a magic tree or pot of gold over the rainbow. The taxpayers have been taking a haircut for the past few years and it’s coming time for the public employees’ turn in the chair.
The system is unsustainable as it is constituted so call me a little crazy for secretly hoping Wisconsin will become a disaster. A little revolution every now and then is good, no? Maybe then we can talk about what the real problem is.
I’m floored. I can’t believe this education proposal has come out of this administration. I had figured the President was in the back pocket of the NEA and AFT given the tremendous sums they gave to his election but he proved me wrong today. In this case I have no problem being proven wrong — bravo President Obama and bravo Secretary Arne Duncan.
Now this is just a proposal at this point so while I am giddy as all get-out about it I’m still not holding my breath. He can champion this all he would like but he still has to turn to Congress to get this done. I’m hopeful there is support in Congress for this and I’m hopeful Republicans are leading the charge because this is a transformation of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NLCB) and takes important steps to fix what is wrong with it while still insisting on accountability.
First we need to talk about what is broken with NCLB and that is ever increasing standards that can’t possibly be met. Standardized tests are based on percentiles so if you require schools to place within a certain percentile you are creating a glass ceiling — there will be a point where you can’t improve and if everyone improves someone still has to be at the bottom. This is the fundamental flaw of NCLB — it punishes districts even if they are making improvements.
While the administration has put out what it is calling a “blueprint” and not legislation, and I’ve been unable to find any outline yet what Duncan and Obama are saying is highly encouraging. According to the USA Today:
- Raise the current standards by 2014.
- Scrap the 2014 reading and math requirements and replace them with “college readiness” requirements by 2020.
- Use subjects other than reading and math in their ratings.
- “Value-added” indicators for teachers and schools.
- Use indicators other than just test scores in assessing teachers.
These are all great changes to NCLB. The only one I am leery of the teachers unions getting their hands on is the subjective assessments. They could twist this into a means of keeping teachers who are not up to par by subjective means. That needs to be discouraged. The rest of these are great improvements on NCLB that open up the restrictions and bring reality to eduction — it’s not all reading and math.
What they added next though was the real kicker. For schools that are struggling, down in the bottom 5% they would have to take one of the following actions in order to maintain federal funding:
- Shut the school down.
- Bring in an outside company to manage the school as a charter school.
- Fire the entire staff and rehire no more than 50% of them.
- Fire the principal and bring in a new one with a transformation plan.
Wow. That’s about all I can say about that, wow. This is absolutely, without a doubt, EXACTLY what is needed to put teeth in NCLB. Right now a struggling school will only get worse; most of the parents will have nowhere else to go, that school will lose federal funds and with less funding it will only get worse. That’s broken. This puts the teeth in NCLB and frees school districts to make the kind of changes they would need to transform a failing school.
You can guarantee the teachers unions will be fighting these provisions tooth and nail in Congress. ”Let me be clear” here for a moment if I can steal one of the President’s lines, I have a message for teachers. I have nothing against the rank and file teacher doing everything he or she can to educate our kids. It’s a tough and often thankless job. You get to deal with a slew of parents who just don’t care. However, there’s no legislation on the planet that is going to make them care. This is all that can be done.
The prescription from NCLB right now just gets in the way of a teacher being able to be a teacher. A slew of requirements are put on them, the district office is in their classroom, creating some new set of guidelines for them to follow or the like. Teachers aren’t allowed to innovate and educate. You need to tell your leadership right now that the President’s plan will let you innovate and educate again and stand on your own.
Your leadership is about to barrage you with a mountain of scare tactics and try to get you behind opposition to this plan. You need to stand up to your leadership and tell them no. Have you seen the headlines over the past few weeks? In Illinois we have a complete disaster on our hands and districts are cutting staff left and right. This is what your leadership has gotten you with their hold on power and their refusal to innovate. Many a good teacher is being fired so many a bad teacher that’s been doing it forever can keep his or her job. That’s not right and you need to stand up for it as not right.
I’m sure you can easily count the bad teachers in your building right now. The ones who don’t care, the ones who “phone it in”, the ones you are constantly covering for. Admit it, you know they are there. Are you prepared to lose your job for them? That’s what your leadership will be asking you to do. Under this proposal YOU will be responsible for YOUR own results. If you are doing all that you can it will be seen and measured and you won’t be held responsible for your failing peers. This plan is a plan for good teachers and good teachers should stand up to their national leaders and get behind it.
I’m hopeful this plan can be put into place and it stays as it is outlined. You can rest assured I will be watching it as it comes out, but this is a great start and the first reason for hope and change I’ve seen out of President Obama. Well done.
I didn’t know Christopher Campos, but I wish I had after the sights I saw today.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
- M. Gandhi
Graduation is usually the best day of the year to be a school board member. After all the trials and tribulations that go on throughout the year graduation at Round Lake High School has been a welcome ending to the year. Last year I missed out when I had gotten tickets for the Indy 500 pretty early and it happened to fall on graduation day. Aside from that one I’ve been at every RLHS Graduation as a board member and spoke to the Class of 2007.
We had a full board at graduation this year so not wanting to clutter things with myself I just got both tables situated with three board members at each. ”Remember to smile, you’re about to be in a few hundred pictures that will be on someones mantle for the next thirty years or so” I said to our newest board member. A few quick instructions and a repositioning of the one “line” to help the photographer out and I stood to the side to take it in while they presented. And so it was, I didn’t think I would present any diplomas this year but that was fine by me, better for those who haven’t had the experience I had thought.
In the flurry that is board work at many times we forget many of the things that happen throughout the year. While I certainly remember when Chris passed away, I called for a moment of silence for him at our board meeting, I had forgotten he was a senior. So after a rather nice and well paced graduation ceremony I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next when two students took to the center in front of the stage for something that wasn’t on the program.
It was then that RLHS Principal Kurt Sinclair reminded those present of Chris’ death in January and the two students sang a lovely song in his memory. I was unable to hold back the tears almost immediately marking the memory of a student I wasn’t lucky enough to know but was taken from us much too soon. It’s not right for kids to have to learn they’re not immortal at such a young age but the Class of 2009 learned that in January.
So as the song progressed Kurt got my attention and presented me with a sealed diploma and asked me to present it to his family. As soon as it entered my hands I looked down at it and either one of my tears or one of Kurt’s had already hit the sleeve containing it. I was filled with thoughts of my friend David Thomas who passed away this year.
I remember thinking how Dave was the first of my classmates I knew to die and how I felt old seeing one of my classmates, one of our most beloved classmates, in his casket. Reverend Lisle Kauffman gave a stirring and wonderful eulogy reminding us that our tears and our grief are for ourselves and that Dave was in a far better place. Dave was someone who simply attending RLHS was an achievement for him, let alone to graduate, let alone to become one of our most loved friends. I told his mother at the funeral that we didn’t know it at the time but Dave taught us a lot about life and about ourselves. He taught us about bravery and courage and every time the words “I was just thinking” left his lips we may have held back a laugh but what usually followed may be crazy, may be hair-brained, but it was always full of pure innocence. Innocence you just don’t find much any more.
Then there was the loss of Bobby Weinger earlier this year in Afghanistan. Bobby, a member of the Class of 2002, was killed in action and had another poignant service at Wauconda High School. I remember standing in line looking at all the mementos of a life cut all too short to help preserve the freedoms we have. I paused at his casket to pray and think of the words I would say to his father and family who were there. When I got to his father, the tears again flowing down my face, I was barely able to speak. I couldn’t put together what I wanted to say, what could I possibly say to assuage the grief of this family? All I could do was thank them, thank them for the life they gave us.
So as I stood with this diploma for a boy I never knew, with the thoughts of my departed friend and a noble soldier in my head, I tried to pull myself together. I didn’t have anything that I could possibly say. I stopped by the table and picked three roses that were there for graduates and presented one to each of his family and then the diploma to them. There were many tears as I presented the only diploma I presented today.
The song sung at the end was a moving tribute to Chris but the whole ceremony was really. Mr. Sinclair’s speech was about the “two minutes” that make the difference in all our lives. The Panther Voices sang “Finale B” from one of my absolute favorite musicals, Rent. Jonathan Larson, the composer and creator of Rent died at 36 the evening of the final dress rehearsal for Rent‘s off-Broadway opening.
If I had to pick just one song from Rent that I love the most (and that is incredibly hard) it would have to be “One Song Glory”:
before I go
one song to leave behind
one last refrain
from the pretty boy front-man
who wasted opportunity
It’s a song that’s always stirred something in me because in many ways I see my life a lot like Roger’s — one of wasted opportunities and the search for the ever elusive one thing to be remembered by and one love to make it worth it. Most of the time I have my hands in too many pots to find that one thing so the fault is without a doubt completely mine.
Somehow after it all I feel completely unworthy of the opportunities that I’ve had and wasted amongst the man who never let his disability hold him back, another man who gave his life for his country and another man who had his life taken from him before he could even get those opportunities. So in that moment I held the diploma for someone whose life was cut way too short, the single drop of water on the cover, hoping that it was one of my opportunities that I was giving him instead of one of my tears.
As the song for Chris was sung the Class of 2009 joined in trying to give something to him as well. They started collecting the roses they had just been given and left them on the table that held their diplomas in tribute to him. As I reflect on this poignant day at RLHS, the ending to a very tragic year, I came to the words of Gandhi that I captioned above.
We never know for how long we are here so it is important to live our lives like tomorrow will be our last (also wonderfully reflected in “Another Day” from Rent). Because of that it is imperitive for us to try to learn and pass on what we have learned as if we would be here forever. That is the glory we can pass on to those who follow us, knowledge to be built on for the future and hopes for a better future for the generations to come.
Generations where a mental disability can be cured.
Generations where people don’t have to die to preserve freedom.
Generations where the young need not be taken from us.
It may be impossible, it may never happen, but we must do our best to try. I think we owe it to Dave, Bobby and Chris to try.
I’ve had a few blogs that I’ve been meaning to post but after Saturday night I definitely needed to post this one and that’s about the power of the coolest social networking app to hit the web called Facebook. Think of Facebook as MySpace for adults or for people who get majorly irritated with hideous HTML embedded on MySpace pages that take forever and a day to load no matter how fast your connection is.
It started out as a social networking app for college students and you had to actually be one to get a Facebook page before they opened it up to everyone. It has a slick AJAX interface that makes things just click and go so that even the most novice web user can quickly get a profile up and going that looks decent. It has “apps” which are various little games and diversions that keep people interested or embarrass the heck out of you.
However, where Facebook really shines is in the power of its feeds. A feed is where you see what your friends are up to be it posting their own items or commenting on someone else’s stuff they put on their own page. At a glance you can see what all your friends are up to and it encourages communication since it only takes a second to comment on the item or post one of your own. I witnessed the raw power of Facebook this past Saturday night when a group of RLHS alumni got together — for no reason really but just to get together.
We started an RLHS Alumni Nights group, basically after homecoming this year, we put together a place where RLHS alumni who are still in the area or might be coming back to visit can get together and hang out with old friends. For someone like me who can be a bit distant, getting to know people is tough. What easier way to hang out and have fun for someone like me than with people I grew up with, spent years with, shared embarrassing moments with? Heck, they already know my history. That’s my reason for starting the group and getting into it but the group has nearly a hundred members now and they each bring different reasons for why they are there.
So this past Saturday we had a get-together at The Vine in Grayslake. I had one of my online gigs but as soon as it was over I got dudded up and headed on over a bit later than most everyone else. When the girl who greeted me pointed out the corner where the group was I couldn’t believe my eyes as RLHS alumni had packed a whole section of the pub. The graduation years really ran the gamut but it was mostly late-80s to mid-90s graduates all getting together and having a good time. It wasn’t like your typical reunion though where you spent all your time about where you’ve been, what you’ve been up to and how your life has been for the past ten years.
Instead of reunited it was old friends reignited again just having a good time. The various classes bled so that you had groups of people who weren’t from the same class or weren’t even in RLHS at the same time grouping together. It didn’t matter, our experiences and our common background at RLHS were all the things we needed to share some drink and some good times. Looking at that corner of people, several had come from many miles away and just happened to be in town, it really struck me at how amazing Facebook and my friends from RLHS are. Sure, there’s other social networking sites that do similar things but at my 10-year reunion I would have never anticipated anything like this now.
At the end of the night, walking back to my car after parting with the last of the group it really struck me why I do what I do on school board as well. We weren’t just taught about learning at RLHS, we were taught about life. Many of my classmates are immensely successful and they’re strewn all over the United States and even overseas now. We all came from the same place though and had our lives forged in the same crucible together because, let’s face it, we fought a less than desirable reputation then just as we do now.
So I try to do my part to give the kids the best environment and learning experiences I can give them because in my own way I’m trying to do my small part to help them become who they’re going to be. People talk about the passion I can bring to the board table sometimes and I won’t deny it. I will fight for these kids, come hell or high water, there is no reason they can’t succeed and we can’t do more to help them get there. I will not settle for excuses for why Round Lake kids can’t achieve and thrive and not just merely survive. That will never change and spending time with my friends from RLHS just reinforces that for me all the more.
As indicated in the article last night the Board of Education and the SFA met to discuss transition plans. No school district in Illinois has emerged from an SFA, they either dissolved or continue to be governed by an SFA (East Saint Louis, Chicago, Hazelcrest).
This shows the enormous progress the district has made in just 7 short years since the Financial Oversight Panel (the predecessor to the SFA) was put into place. Short term debt has been eliminated, long term debt is well under control, fund balances are up across the board and the district has more cash on hand than many districts would ever dream of having.
There are many folks responsible for this: first the taxpayers who absorbed a tax increase when the tax cap was reset three years ago, the FOP members who first helped to start getting us on track, Walter Korpan our former business manager and CFO, Dennis Stonewall who helped right the ship in a number of areas and worked building bridges with the community, the current SFA members who have gradually allowed the Board to take back most control as we have continued our recovery. Finally Dr. Ben Martindale deserves a large amount of credit for coming in with a plan to get our district back to local control. After almost a year and a half we are well on our way.
I’ll be running for re-election in April and I hope to be fortunate enough to be returned to office and help with our transition back to local control. I’ve had many proud moments in the past few years on the board but of that accomplishment I would be the most proud.
As many of you are aware my son attends New Connections Academy in Palatine, it has turned his life and his educational experiences around. There is no other school like it in the area that I’m aware of that specializes in programs for kids who suffer from autism but are high-functioning or have Asperger’s Syndrome.
This is also a great example of where a privately run program has stepped in to fill a void not being filled by the public schools. It’s a well-run facility with an incredible staff making differences in the lives of these kids every day. I’m glad to see more kids will be able to benefit from this program instead of trying to be placed in a program not designed for their disability. Too many times HFA and AS kids are being placed in ED (formerly “BD”) classrooms where they fall under bad influences (think of a child with HFA or AS as a giant button waiting to be pushed by a child with emotional issues). Or they get put in an LOP or similar classroom with students with more profound learning disabilities where they get bored and cause problems.
As the demand for these programs increases they will continue to expand. So if you have a child who suffers from HFA or AS I encourage you to insist on a placement that fits your child’s disability. It is your child’s right under IDEA to be placed in a such a program — the fit that is right for your child not the fit that is right for the school district. There is no greater advocate for your child than you, it’s up to you to insist on the proper placement so I encourage you to go into your next IEP meeting prepared and with the facts on what’s right for your child. By simply going along with a placement that may not be right for your child you aren’t doing him any favors and you’re ensuring there isn’t enough demand for programs like New Connections Academy.