Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Tenure fight in Colorado - and what it means here

Since I also tend to read a lot about education, I found this interesting discussion that is playing out nationally. This post is more a general observation about teaching, not a specific comment on our teachers per se.

There's an interesting fight going on in Colorado over tenure reform. (Link to article) Colorado is the latest state to take on the concept of tenure.

I "get" the underlying idea of tenure. In a University environment, it may be necessary to protect a researcher who is working on something that isn't politically popular. In a high school or even elementary district, though, I'm not sure I see the value in it.

People in all sorts of jobs are dismissed for a variety of reasons. Some sales people don't make their quotas. Some engineers write bad code. Some doctors have a lousy bedside manner. Waiters don't get orders right, and mechanics take too long to fix a car. And yes, sometimes folks get fired because the boss just doesn't like them.

In the real world, though, it's easy to change jobs. You're always free to seek out a better boss. Why is it that teaching should be different? Teachers work for the community through the local school district. If the local school district has a "bad principal" and that principal fires good teachers, don't we think the community will figure that out -- and fire the principal? Meanwhile, anyone who was impacted by the bad principal has gone on to work for a presumably better principal in another district. It happens all the time in the real world. Why not in teaching?

Education is about the kids, so let's look at this from their perspective. There is some risk that we have a bad principal, and that it will take a couple of years to figure that out and fire the principal. Then you'd have to rebuild the staff. Of course at that point, the district would be aware, and would be moving resources around to make the situation better. The converse, the risk of doing nothing, is that we have a bad teacher in place permanently and they impact kids year after year after year. At a larger level, I also believe it keeps teacher compensation artificially low because people won't support raises for a group that protects poor performers. That drives good teachers out, or keeps people away from the profession because they can't afford the salary cut.

In my mind, the biggest impact of tenure is that it hurts good teachers. Under tenure, bad teachers are protected. The community knows this, and it saps the will of the community to compensate teachers well, because Mrs. So-and-so is a bad teacher, and folks can't justify having her get a great raise.

In addition to Colorado, I applaud Michelle Rhee, Chancellor of the Washington, DC school district. She has taken bold steps and changed the face of tenure in her distinct. It looks like Colorado is on a path to do the same. Here in California, we could learn from them both.

Here at LASD, I think we have some fabulous teachers. I'm not "gunning for someone's job". I just think we could use the flexibility in shaping our program.

[donning asbestos suit...]

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Elections: Bonds and Parcel Tax

First, congratulations to our friends at the High School district. It looks like Measure A is poised to pass, which is great. The campaign was smart, and teh underlying concepts are a no-brainer. Well done!

Looking at LASD, we have been actively discussing putting a parcel tax on the ballot. Last night we had the opportunity to direct staff to take some important steps to be ready for a November election. However, we decided not to do this. I think it was a good idea for a few reasons:

1) We're not ready. We don't have the same level of organization in place that we have typically had in previous campaigns at a point 5 months prior to the actual election.

2. November will be a noisy ballot. The Gubanatorial race and the US Senate race promise to be very intense fights, with candidates spending huge sums of money to buy media time. You'll see campagin ads at every turn. We would need to break through that nosie and have people pay attention to our issue, and be able to get them to listen enough to influence them to vote in favor of the tax. That would take an incredible amount of work.

3. We owe the public a better message. As a Board, we've committed ourselves to building a strategic plan. Having that plan in place will help shape a better message to take to the voters. It's not enough to say "vote for our tax so we don't close the libraries and lay off more teachers". It is far more compelling to present the voters with a vision, of how we want to IMPROVE, and what the incremental money would fund. During this budget cycle, we've also heard loud and claer from the community that they want our financial house in order. There are many components to that, including things like negotiating health care costs with our employees. Hopefully the extra time we're taking will give us a chance to have a compelling story to tell about how the teachers and staff are part of the long term solution.

We're still discussing when the actual ballot might occur. Most of that discussion centers around a vote in the spring of next year (March or May). If we do that, the funds would be available for the 2011-12 school year, the same as if we'd been on the Nov 2010 ballot.

I'd very much like to hear from folks on this topic. I'm particularly interested in what you think is critical for our strategic plan. That will form the backbone of the not just the parcel tax, but of how we try to guide the district for many years to come.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Deja vu - part 2

This week BCS filed their appeal brief for the lawsuit that LASD won last fall. It's one of those things- I knew it was coming, but I'm still disappointed when it arrived.

BCS has mostly rehashed the same arguments that Judge Kleinberg already ruled on last fall. I fully expect that the appellate court will uphold the lower court's ruling, which said that the LASD board has met our obligations in the facilities we have provided for BCS. It's the same verdict in the prior litigation filed by BCS.

I'll continue to post about this, but sadly, I don't expect them to change their behaviors.

Deja vu all over again (BCS)

There's an important difference between BCS and LASD. The LASD board is elected by the public. We have to answer to the public, and everyone registered to vote in our district has a say in who serves the children of our community.

Like all charter schools in the state, BCS, on the other hand, appoints their board. I'm sure the legislature, when they created this structure, was thinking it would be important for charter schools to have boards that are consistent with the school's vision. IN this case, though, I struggle with the notion.

From a purely economic perspective, charter schools are tax-payer funded. As a matter of principle, I like to see the people who spend tax payer money to be answerable to the same taxpayers. In the case of the charter school, they aren't really accountable to anyone- not even the parents whose children attend the charter school. I'm not suggesting that they've done anything financially improper- just that when taxpayer dollars are spent, taxpayers should have some say in how the money is spent.

More concerning to me, though, is that there's little turnover within the BCS board. There are three members of the BCS board whose terms expire this year. I was disappointed to learn that the BCS Board is planning to reappoint those same members to another 4-year term.

When I first took office, I met with several members of the BCS Board. Each one of them delivered the same message. they said that they each were hopeful that the new blood on the LASD board might be a way to improve relations between our two Boards. I'm saddened, then, that they've chosen to re-appoint the same people to their own board. Apparently the BCS Board felt that LASD was the only party that needed to change.

I'm not directly criticizing the three BCS Board members in question. I've worked with two of them and met with the third. We certainly don't see eye to eye on a number of issues. But still, if "fresh blood" is good for LASD, why isn't it good for BCS?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Prop 13 - Commercial properties pay less

There have been several interesting articles lately that explain an unintended consequnce of Prop 13. The goal of that law was to protect homeowners from increasing property taxes. Interestingly, the biggest beneficiary has been business.

In 1978, when we passed Prop 13, the thinking was that as properties changed hands, they'd get reassessed. The missing links in the chain are this:

1) Commercial property changes hands a lot less often than residential property. Typically homes change hands every 7-10 years. When was the last time a McDonald's moved down the street?

2) Given the high stakes involved, businesses use a number of clever maneuvers to make it look like the property hasn't chnaged hands. For example, if I want to sell you some commercial property and not have it reassessed, I just create a holding company. Then, I just sell you the entire hodling company. You bought the company, not the property. Believe it or not, that doesn't trigger a reassessment. (CVS did exactly this when they bought Long's Drugs).

Anyway, the net effect is that residential property now pays roughly 62% of property taxes compared to the 41% we used to pay 30 years ago. The burden of supporting schools (which benefit businesses, by providing them with educated employees) has shifted increasingly to homeowners.

The proposed solution is a "split roll"- commercial properties could be reassessed periodically, but residences could not.

Lest you think this is unfair, remember that businesses are actively requesting reassessments in record numbers. The city of San Francisco has lost several tens of millions because BofA and a few other large buidling owners have applied for reassessment to LOWER their tax liability during the economic downturn.

Business Week Article
SF Examiner
NY Times