Monday, April 26, 2010

Board Vote, Teacher Contract (Results)

Tonight the Board voted 3-2 to approve the teacher contract that we first considered in open session back on April 7th.

There are things to like in this contract, including an improved evaluation system for our teachers. I'm disappointed, though, that the contract still does not address the most pressing issue facing our district- the increasing cost of compensation, including health benefits.

Later this week we have our first meeting of the compensation committee, which is tasked with looking at the long term compensation of the teachers. Hopefully that committee will have something exciting to share with us as their work progresses. Also, teachers will be voting tomorrow on a package of 3 furlough days that are essential to making the budget for 2010-11 work. I'm anxious to see the outcome of that vote.

My thanks to all those who reached out to me over the past several weeks. This has not been an easy process. Some of you disagreed with what I said, and I heard from many people publicly and privately that you were supportive of what we were trying to do. But in any case, I'm grateful for the engagement and the input. Keep those messages coming.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Why I Blog

There have been some questions about why I blog, with some folks suggesting that my blogging makes me untrustworthy. They don't articulate exactly what the concern is, but I feel I should at least explain to the public why I do this. You can then assess for yourselves whether this blog is a good thing or not.

I ran on a platform of improved communications with the public. Indeed, my first contact with the School Board was over an issue where I felt the district's actions lacked fairness and transparency. Having told the voters that I would seek to improve communication, what better place to start than right here, with me?

First, I share what I'm thinking. In this case, I've shared the principle reasons why I was prepared to vote no on a contract. I knew at the time that my actions might not be crystal clear to everyone. My actions might be misinterpreted by our teachers, and parents and community members might also want to know why I was voting the way I did. Not everyone can make it to our Board meetings every week (though I have a feeling our next meeting may be busier than usual). By posting a blog, I felt I could increase the number of community members who could hear about my thinking on a topic of interest.

The second reason I blog is actually to listen. Communication is a two-way street. In the several days since the original post went up, more than 70 comments have been posted to the blog. I've also received in excess of 50 emails on the topic. Listening to the public is extremely important, particularly when facing a tough decision. I care about what the teachers have to say, about how parents feel this will affect their children, and about what the community at large thinks about how we're managing the tax dollars they have entrusted to us. Thoughtful feedback allows me to understand those feelings. Even negative feedback has value. It may indicate that we need to adjust our thinking. I some cases, writers cite incorrect or incomplete data to support their arguments. In those cases, it tells me where we need to improve our communications. (I plan to write some follow-up posts to address some of these topics in the coming days and weeks.)

I'm not a ground breaker in the use of technology to communicate with voters. I receive a mass email from Anna Eshoo (our US Representative), every few weeks. It's an environmentally responsible alternative to sending out mass mailings, as was the custom in the past. I also know of a number of other blogs, both locally and across the country. Some of the blogs might surprise you:

The White House (Note that on the right, you'll find a list of 10+ other blogs, with topics ranging from High Tech to Trade to the economy)
US Senator Barbara Boxer
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
Our State Senator, Joe Simitian

Even local school boards like ours, and Alameda (Mike McMahon)

One final note about my disclaimer. I am only one member of a five member board. My disclaimer reminds readers that this is my opinion, but that it may not reflect the opinions of the Board as a whole. That seems to be a reasonable caveat. I don't speak for my colleagues- only a vote of the board conveys official board action. That seems like a worthwhile reminder.

Blogging has become the media through which elected officials can reach their constituents. I really do feel that more communication is better. I hope that the presence of my blog inspires people to participate, to be active in their local government, and that people feel like they've been given a way to express their opinion. Since my post went up last week, more than 700 people have read my thoughts and many of them have shared ideas about how we might address all or part of this crisis. That's a huge win in my book.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

We Are Not Alone

Usually I like to let a posting soak a while before I post again. I posted my last article a little after midnight, and not many people are reading blogs at 4am on a Saturday. I read an article in this morning's paper, though, that I felt compelled to share.

The city of San Jose is facing a $116M budget deficit. They've asked the firefighters to take a 10% pay cut as part of a broader program to close that gap. The debate they're having sounds similar to ours.

Read the article here

This debate is happening over and over again in cities and towns all over America. We had a city here in the Bay Area actually go bankrupt. Public agencies are all dealing with massive shortfalls in revenue. The problem isn't unique to LASD.

Some folks have suggested that I don't understand the differences between private sector employment and public sector. The firefighters have very compelling arguments why they feel the city is making bad choices, and that their entire contract should stand as is. The City, though, has a $116M hole that they just can't fix. Sounds familiar...

(By the way, please make sure you see the article below on why I changed my vote)

ID for comments

By the way, I've turned on a feature that asks you to sign in to post a comment. We do this at Board meetings too- we ask that people identify themselves, so that we know who is making the comments. It just helps us have context.

You can post under your Google ID, AIM, OpenID, or a number of other technologies.

For those who want a response to your message, I'm responding to every email I receive. So far I've been able to keep pace and answer each message within ~24 hours. I welcome the comments and suggestions.

Why the change in vote?

Wow- what a response. I'm grateful for those who took the time to provide thoughtful comments and ask important questions about my most recent post. Our budget situation is complex. If we engage in serious dialogue, and are willing to consider new ideas, we can hopefully find a way to both address the ongoing (annual) deficits and also ensure that we have a district that continues to both attract and retain excellent teachers, and helps our teachers know that they are valued in many ways.

Several people posted questions or emailed me asking how I voted in closed session and how that related to my open session vote. I'm happy to share my thinking on both votes.

In closed session, I voted for the contract, but I expressed serious reservations. The information we had then was pretty similar to what we have now, but I've also grown accustomed to watching our forecasts swing pretty substantially over time. The closed session vote was 4-1 in favor of the contract.

Fast forward 6 weeks. In that time, the news has gotten no better, and it's becoming increasingly clear that when the State of CA revises our budget forecast in May, it won't be a positive change. Also, in the interim I've attended Budget Review Committee meetings, closed study sessions, and spent considerable time talking to CACF members, administration, and community leaders. My thinking had shifted from "can we afford this next year?" to "can we afford this year over year?" I also heard from a number of parents and community members that they wanted to see some concrete movement to change the district finances so that we don't keep repeating this cycle. One parent described it as "panic fatigue". That is, every year we cut, so we raise the alarm, do what we can, and still have to cut.

Where we go from here isn't yet clear. We have a closed study session on April 19 to discuss this issue, and an open session on April 26th. I'll see what I learn at those meetings. I also continue to hear from parents and community members on my email, on the blog, and in person. Keep those ideas coming.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Teacher Contract Vote

Last night the Board took a very unusual step - we did not approve the new contract with our teachers union. The mechanics of what happened are pretty simple, and they are described in this post below. The reasons we took this step are much more complex.

As I've said previously, this blog reflects my own personal opinions, not the opinion of the Board as a whole, or that of any other board member. If you want to know how another board member feels, or why they voted the way they did, you'll need to ask them directly.

The Mechanics
Last night, when faced with a vote to approve the teacher's new contract, I indicated in my remarks that I intended to vote no. Two other board members indicated that they would also be voting no, which meant that the proposal would not be passing the board. The administration has expressed concern, and actually recommended that we pass the contract. However, it was clear that there was not sufficient support on the board to do that. Rather than actually vote the contract down, we voted to defer action, and reconsider additional information at our next public meeting on April 26th.

Why Did I Do What I Did?
We have a serious structural problem in our school district. Next year we are short ~$2.5m, and that deficit rapidly grows to $4m over the next several years. We simply can't sustain the costs and program that we have with the revenues we bring in.

Labor costs make up 86% of our expenses. Less than 9% of our budget goes to administration, and the balance goes to materials and operating expenses. That's actually very good- we want to be spending as much as possible on the program where it matters the most- in our classrooms, with our students. The down side of this is that when you're out of money, adjusting labor costs is the only way to balance our budget.

The contract was positioned to the board as being a "cost savings". I did not feel that was an accurate portrayal. The contract saved $41,000 in reduced stipend payouts, but that savings was put right back into the salary schedule. Further, the contract includes automatic raises known as "Step and Column". Those automatic raises increase our costs by $600K to $800K each year. In a year where we sent pink slips to 17 superb teachers (who happen to be the newest teachers in our district), this is hard for me to swallow. We have also not made any meaningful progress in capping employee health care costs. The district bears 95% of all the costs of benefits, as we have done for many years. This increasing costs is a huge issue.

Many members of our community have felt the crunch of this downturn. Many people have taken pay cuts of 5%, 10%, or more. Many people are also faced with increased co-payments and deductibles, or are in some other way paying a greater share of their health care costs. In this environment, where we are asking parents to fund the an ever-growing portion of their children's "public" education, it just didn't make sense to me to approve a contract where the employees were not involved in that sacrifice.

To be clear, our teachers are a fantastic- some of the very best in the profession. I've said it many times- I'd like to pay them all like the rock stars that they are. The reality, though, is that we don't have the money to do that. We have exhausted nearly every possible avenue to save money, scrimp here, save there, and come up with enough to keep the core program- but we're not there. No one wants to cut compensation. It's difficult for everyone, whether it happens in a 20 person start up, a 250,000+ employee company like HP, or to the several hundred employees in our school district. It is unpleasant, but it's the reality of where we are. I simply could not, in good conscience, vote in favor if a contract where we weren't going to address our largest single cost.

I need to acknowledge the work that has already been done. The teachers took a vote this week that permits their bargaining unit to discuss furlough days as a way to help close some of the budget gap. The proposals that have been discussed so far amount to approximately $400K +/-. However, that's a one-year fix, and we have a structural issue that grows to 10x that size. I just don't think we're done with this conversation yet.

I remain open to dialogue on this topic. We will have a further discussion at the next Board meeting, and I invite comments from the public and our employees. I want to hear what you have to say. And I'd love to figure out how we make this work fairly for all parties involved. Please drop me a line at dsmith {at}, or post comments here on my blog.