Friday, March 6, 2015

Salem Superintendent Finalists: Ceilings and Floors

Here's a very short shelf life blog post. The Salem School Committee meets this afternoon (don't want a lot of eyes? Meet at 3PM on a weekday) to discuss moving forward with one of our superintendent finalists. I attended all of their school committee interviews, which were sparsely attended, and the community forum with Ayinde Rudolph. So here are one person's impressions of each, and the order I'd rank them if I were a school committee member.

Let me get this out of the way, first. They all struck me as highly intelligent people. They can probably all do the job. If I were on the school committee I'd be looking for the highest ceiling, versus the lowest risk. What do I want in a superintendent? I want someone who I believe can be a truly dynamic and inspiring leader. We need someone who can build trust with, and inspire students, teachers, staff, school committee and parents. So I'm coming at this from that prism. Here are the candidates, in the order that they interviewed with the school committee.

Ayinde Rudolph

Ayinde Rudolph: I got to see Rudolph twice, and chat with him a little bit. Probably gives him an unfair advantage with me. That said, on paper, I liked him the most before they came to town. He's had classroom experience, as well as 8 years of administrative experience in the Charlotte Mecklenburg schools (a large, urban district with high poverty), with 2 years as an assistant principal, and 6 years as a principal. I'm just going to state this as a fact. Rudolph had a presence about him that the other two lacked. He was engaging and personable. I buy him completely as someone who can motivate and build bridges that have been torched over the years. He also has a doctorate from Vanderbilt. Two school committee members previously expressed an inability to support any candidate (didn't think they should be even considered) without a terminal degree. Rudolph has the only terminal degree in the bunch. He would also have two students at SHS next year, and a future Kindergartner. He talked frequently about asking himself if the services being provided to students in Salem would be good enough for them. I like that.

When asked if he had questions for the school committee, his question to them was whether or not they had the guts to make tough, unpopular decisions. It was better than any question posed by the other candidates. I'm all in on Rudolph as having the highest ceiling for what he can bring to the district. If teachers, staff, students are following any of these three through a wall it's him. I'd put him between the other two candidates for lowest floor, based on level of experience similar to this job.

Ventura Rodriguez

Ventura Rodriguez: Rodriguez was clearly quite intelligent, as well. I could see the potential for him to be a strong, engaging, inspiring leader, but I have a lot more questions with him. First, he simply has less and weirder experience. He has eight years in a classroom as a teacher, with four in San Francisco, and four in Kenya. He also spent four and a half years as principal of a charter school in New York City. In that role, he supervised 35 people. Running the Salem Public Schools seems like a big jump from that. He also has been a full time student for the last three years, and is basically doing a residency with DESE for the last 9 months. I shouldn't have to remind you that at least one School Committee member views DESE like the devil.

During his school committee interview, he said he's not all charter all the time, and specifically chose to move away from that world. There are reports that earlier in the day all of his stories were charter, charter, charter. The other thing I feel the need to point out from his interview is that each candidate was asked to facilitate the beginning of a SC workshop on the student assignment policy. Rodriguez modified the assignment for himself to jump into the middle, and then spent literally the entire ten minutes talking himself. That's not good facilitation. On that exercise, he was clearly the worst of the three.

On the ceiling front, I'd rank Rodriguez second. At the same time, I'd say he has the lowest floor, rated purely on his having less administrative and leadership experience. He also lacks any public school experience, which may be both a positive (fresh perspective) and negative (could totally combust.)

Margarita Ruiz

Margarita Ruiz: Competent is the word that comes to mind with Ruiz. Stable, capable, steady, as well. What I didn't get from her was "inspiring." Not really at all. In fact, I zoned out completely several times while she spoke. For the committee, she's probably the safest choice. I'd tell you that as an inspiring, engaging leader, I'd say her ceiling is lowest. At the same time, her floor is probably the highest, as she's run a section of the Boston Public Schools that is similar in size to our district. She has not, in that time, had to deal with a school committee, and things like that, but her job experience is most closely aligned to our position. She also did the best job on the facilitation exercise, followed by Rudolph. She involved the committee most, and you know they love to talk.

I'm aware of two situations where she's alleged to have directly lied, or changed her story between earlier in the day, and when she was before the school committee. I didn't witness them, myself, but the sources are respected.

It really appeared to me that she walked into the room as the favorite. I can't begin to guess why. What I can say, is that the School Committee frequently broke the protocol they had set for the interviews by asking several follow ups during the standard questions, starting with the mayor right from the first question. They also allowed her interview to go a full 15 minutes longer than the time limit they had enforced on the other two candidates. Additionally, why wasn't the candidate who lives in Salem, and likely has SATV at home, the first to interview? Does anyone believe she wasn't watching Rudolph's interview on TV? The School Committee also had a different level of attention and interest during Ruiz's interview, and I don't think it was caused by the candidate. Was it the aura of the giant Boston Public School district? I can't guess, but at times it almost seemed like they were drooling over her. At one point Mr. Fleming, who had screeched about how they MUST demand a terminal degree, told her how unimportant it was for her to have one, and he was nearly applauding her answers.

As I said, Ruiz is probably the safe choice. Dr. Russell was the safe choice last time. Cameron before that. She reminds me more of Cameron than Rusell, but I'm sure she's more capable than Cameron. Like him, though, I can picture her telling different groups what they want to hear, even if the messages conflict. We've tried the safest. The safest hasn't worked. We should try the inspiring.

If I were ranking them I'd absolutely rank Rudolph first. I believe we need high ceiling and potential, so I'd put Rodriguez second, though I struggle with that when comparing floors. I'd put Ruiz third, but I fully expect the school committee to take the safe, if less potentially inspiring, choice. Let me also add, I only have access to the info I have. I think, and hope they have more. I'm only going on resumes and interviews.

Let me finish with this. I think the school committee is really rushing to judgment trying to make a decision today. Two of the finalists spent the entire day in the district yesterday, meeting with many, many people. The School Committee hasn't had enough time to truly gather feedback and review it in detail. If you say you want an open and collaborative process you need to allow enough time for that to happen. They aren't really allowing that time.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The 2014 state election: Say no to Coakley

It's election time again. Here's one Klassy ballot, at least the interesting parts.


I generally loathe the concept of voting against a candidate, but my approach in this case is absolutely #ABC (Anybody But Coakley). Charlie Baker gets my vote, but not particularly because of anything about him. He seems OK enough. A non-ideologue Republican check on a far too unbalanced to one end of the political spectrum legislature. I'd be a little more concerned about him in a federal election, but we aren't in danger of too much Republican influence in Massachusetts. I also really like Evan Falchuk. If he were the more likely to beat Coakley I'd gladly vote for him. In this case, a vote for Falchuk is, unfortunately, as good as a vote for Coakley.

So, on to Coakley. Please read this. I'll wait. It was written by Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the 1980s daycare ritual abuse hysteria. She's a foremost expert on the topic.

So now that you've read that, I have a few questions. How do you vote for Martha Coakley if you're a woman? She seems to have a disrespect for your ability to make your own decisions.

How do you vote for Martha Coakley if you're a man? She seems to have a disdain for the male gender. We're pedophiles who drag our innocent womenfolk down a path of evil with us. Never mind, of course, the fact that none of the accusations in the Amirault case ever happened.

How do you vote for Coakley if you're me? I was a Fells Acres student. I remember Miss Vi. I remember Miss Cheryl. Heck, I was at Cheryl Amirault LeFave's wedding. Gerald used to pick me up at my house in a giant station wagon to take me to school. We loved the Amiraults. My brother and I loved our time at that school. My family has lived through the hell of those trials, being called by the police for questioning, the fear, all of it. My parents were able to figure out it was crap in the 80s. And they aren't qualified to be governor, either.

The daycare abuse hysteria reminds one of the witch hysteria that we know about all too well. Here's the thing. Coakley's role was after the daycare hysteria was over and thoroughly debunked. Every thinking person knew they were innocent. Coakley lied through her teeth while protecting the modern day witch hunters well after the bitter end. The Salem witch trials ended in 1693. Coakley's actions are those of someone who in 1710, years after the legislature passed a law making the witch trial results unlawful, stood up and screamed "Burn them, their witches!" How are we not all laughing at her candidacy? The level of naked political viperism Coakley has displayed in this case is chilling to my soul. Salem, let's show we're better than that today.

The worst thing about this is that she'd still tell you she's right today. Anyone who would act in such a way is utterly unfit to be our governor.

This case ought to leave no one feeling confident except for one thing: justice was not done.

— Judge Isaac Borenstein, 12 June 1998


This has been an ugly campaign by both major candidates. I don't really want to vote for either. For Tisei, I would very much enjoy our district sending the first openly gay when elected Republican rep to Congress. He'd also have to be a moderate if he had any hope of keeping the seat, and if you don't want the Republicans to be a nutjob party, you have to elect non-nutjob Republicans. Additionally, we're going to have a freshman Congressman. It's probably slightly better to have a freshman in the majority. If it were Tierney in the general, Tisei would get my vote in a second, just as he did two years ago.

But I think I'm voting for Moulton. He's run ugly ass primary and general election campaigns reminiscent of Tierney's run two years ago. I dislike it a lot. At the same time, I'm very concerned that there's a decent chance (Nate Silver put it at about 75% this weekend) that the Republicans will take over the senate. Because of that, I don't think I want to add another Republican to the house, even a moderate one. I'm basically making this vote based on the national level. The other thing that I really like about Moulton is that he really annoys super dems. The kind who during the primary talked insane amounts of trash about the guy daring to challenge Tierney. The kind who within a day after the primary were such partisan Kool-Aid drinkers that they were asking "What kind of Kool-Aid? I love that kind!" before they had an answer to what kind it was. Moulton bugs them. I like that. Moulton claims he'll be a bipartisan problem solver. We'll see. I think Tisei would have to try to be.

If this wasn't a tight race I'd vote for Stockwell. I like what he's selling. Basically, if you think the problem is partisan politics stop electing the partisans.

I may get in the booth and totally change this one tomorrow.

State Rep:

Paul Tucker is basically running unopposed (his opponent hasn't campaigned or filed required campaign finance paperwork). Good for him, after the recent PD issues and the way he was thrown under the bus by city hall in the aftermath, in what I'd guess was a power play making sure he knew who was in charge around here. I'll vote for him, and I think he'll do a fine job.

State Senate:

Joan Lovely unopposed. She's been fine so far. Her votes I've disagreed with the most have seemed to be going along to get along.

Question one:

Yes. Repeal the gas tax indexing. Why? The legislature has the ability to vote on the gas tax annually if they want. Their unwillingness to do so shouldn't be rewarded. In fact, they just did, and I have no problem with that. It's currently 24 cents a gallon (not the dime Martha thought it was) which is fairly middle of the pack. If it needs to go up again, I get it. Roads and bridges are important. We have to pay for them, and a lot of ours are old.

The automatic indexing basically amounts to chickenshit government, and I don't like it. I've heard the argument that plenty of our other taxes are already indexed, but they aren't really. The income tax has been mentioned. The only thing that's indexed to is my income. If I make more, I pay more. If I don't, I don't. Same with the sales tax. If I spend more, I pay more. If I don't, I don't. And by the way, that "already indexed" tax was increased recently anyway ... Most importantly, we are in a prolonged period of wage stagnation for low and middle income workers. It's fantasy to say that the indexing is designed to not make it feel any different down the road when so many people aren't seeing income growth.

One final point, remember that many of the legislators who instituted this indexing barely pay the gas tax at all, as they collect per diems for reporting to the state house. If this bill had ended that practice for legislators inside 495 I'd be a little less opposed.

Question two:

I'll support this, barely. And really only because so many Salemites or visitors are slobs. My next door neighbor's house goes through from one street to the other, and his back yard is next to me. It has a fence, so they can't see the sidewalk behind it. I picked up 14 pieces of plastic, none of which required a deposit, from that sidewalk the other day. There were no deposit containers. That's about it for me.

The truth is, this is a crappy way to do recycling, that is way more expensive to people and businesses than increasing curbside, etc. The vast amount of uncollected deposit money, which will provide more windfall (cash grab) to the state, is all the proof you need of that. If I lived somewhere cleaner I'd vote no.

Question three and four:

Question three undoes the casino law, and puts the prohibition back in, basically.

I'm conflicted, but think I'll vote yes on it. I'm not a casino fan. I think they tend to prey on those who can least afford it. It also appears to be at least a faltering industry, and I don't think the law would pass the legislature today, even with the state managing to finagle 25% of the take. I don't think this is a sound economic development policy. There are better ways to get jobs.

Question four mandates that many employees be able to earn paid sick leave, and others would be allowed to use unpaid sick leave. It's a noble idea. I wonder some about the practice, and how it will impact some service industries, (like restaurants) especially. I will probably vote yes on question 4, unless Diane Wolf tells me it would close the Lobster Shanty.

There's plenty of other stuff on the ballot, but this was the interesting stuff.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Future of Bentley Elementary School

The School Committee meets tonight with the intention of voting on MOU A between the Salem School Committee, Empower Schools, and Blueprint Schools Network, which will lead to Salem applying to the state DESE for a Horace Mann III charter. This would allow the district to switch from the Transformation Model that the district chose when Bentley became level 4, and move to the Restart Model. The Transformation Model could also be called the "model of least resistance." I won't say I told you so, but one blogger questioned whether the transformation model was really the right choice when it was made. (Check the archives.) Subsequent data on emerging practices has shown that schools that choose the transformation model see less improvement than school that pick one of the more painful models. We've certainly seen less than impressive results locally.

So what the heck does that all mean? Let's dig in.

The players:

Salem School Committee: OK, this one is a given. If you don't know the School Committee I probably can't help you.

Blueprint Schools Network: Blueprint is the proposed operator for grades 3-5 at Bentley while the charter application process takes place. After one year the "operator" for all grades would be the newly formed Horace Mann Charter School Board of Directors. Blueprint would be responsible for hiring the principal and all faculty/staff for the "new Bentley." They would also be responsible for decisions around what the new Bentley looks like. Much is left to their discretion. When does the school year start? End? How long are the days? All basically up to Blueprint.

If you listened to the school committee meeting last week you heard Dr. Walsh talk about the fact that the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) includes a lot of "shalls" for the Salem Public Schools, and a lot of "mays" for Blueprint. He's not wrong. However, the "mays" that exist for Blueprint basically define the options they have to reach a "shall." Here's an example.

7. School Calendar. The School Operator may collaborate with SPS and may replicate SPS models with such modifications as the School Operator deems appropriate for the School, or the School Operator may develop and implement new initiatives, with respect to the daily, weekly and annual schedules of students and personnel, including, without limitation, the schedule for classes, tutoring, professional development, recess and planning, the number of these scheduled, and the start and end times of each, and when attendance is required by students and/or personnel. In all events, the School Operator will consider the SPS calendar before developing the School calendar.

Re-written, you could just say "Blueprint shall develop a school calendar." A huge part of the attraction to a restart is the large amount of flexibility that it affords. As such, the MOU contains language guaranteeing the operator a lot of leeway. There's really no point if it doesn't.

The primary Blueprint person that we've seen here in Salem is Matthew Spengler, who is the founder and executive director of Blueprint Schools Network. Read his bio here. I've been impressed with what I've seen from him, and his resume is nothing to sneeze at, either.

The MOU only guarantees Blueprint the right to operate the new school in year one. Make no mistake, though. It is Blueprint's intention to be involved long-term. Blueprint is currently working with 10 Denver schools on turnarounds, and tutoring in an additional 39 schools. In Massachusetts they are working with two Boston schools right now, and will be the state appointed receiver for another elementary in Dorchester next year.

Principal Gaga: Justin Vernon is the proposed principal of the "new" Bentley. Next year, Bentley will have a grades 3-5 principal employed by Blueprint, and a K-2 principal (or two, like currently). The following year Vernon would presumably be principal of the entire school. So why do I call him Principal Gaga? This. I'll admit I think that is absolutely fantastic. Give me school leaders willing to do this sort of thing.

Justin Vernon was active in the original meeting held at the Bentley School discussing this potential path forward. However, he hasn't really been seen since. He's not without controversy. He previously interviewed for two Salem principal jobs unsuccessfully. I hear at least one interview went really terribly. It's unclear if he's still the choice to run Bentley, but he did give his notice at the innovation school where he's currently principal. Fun note: he lives on the same street as Mr. Fleming, who will likely find a convoluted reason (I'd guess some contract language someplace) to vote no Monday night. He really should be Jim Hedging.

Empower Schools: Empower is sort of the great unknown in this equation. They're a party to the MOU, but their role is kind of unclear. If I had to label them something, I guess it would be either "matchmaker," or "middleman." I got the feeling that it was Empower, rather than Blueprint, who identified Vernon as the correct person to lead Bentley as principal. I think Empower also identified Blueprint as a good partner for Salem.

Here's the thing. I'm not sure how Empower gets any revenue. We aren't paying them anything. Is Blueprint? Maybe they don't need money. The co-founder of Empower Schools is Chris Gabrieli. He's the same Chris Gabrieli who finished second to Deval Patrick in the gubernatorial primary in 2006. He had an extremely successful career in venture capital, before turning his attention to education. He's also the founder and chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning, which we've sought expanded learning time grants from. Additionally, he's a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In short, he knows his stuff. Maybe Empower doesn't need revenue. Feel free to start some rumors about Gabrieli being Kim Driscoll's next big political benefactor. May even be true.

Gabrieli largely led the original meeting about restart held at the Bentley school, and was the person who introduced Vernon. Blueprint may have been referenced at that meeting, but they weren't running the show.

So those are the players, but what's the game?

The game:

As I mentioned, we'd be agreeing to allow Blueprint to run grades 3-5 at Bentley next year, while applying for a Horace Mann III charter for the entire school. So what's a Horace Mann III? There are 3 types of Horace Mann charters. Types I and III are nearly identical except for one thing. A Horace Mann I requires that there be an agreement in place between the district and the teachers' union. In a Horace Mann III prior agreement is not necessary.

From the state's description of a Horace Mann III:

An agreement with the local collective bargaining unit is not required prior to Board approval, however, the charter school’s board of trustees must negotiate with the collective bargaining unit and the school committee in good faith regarding any modifications to collective bargaining agreements following the award of a charter. ... it is our understanding that the charter may be fully implemented if an agreement on such an MOU is not reached at least 30 days before the school’s scheduled opening.

Basically, the union has a weakened position in a HM III. We apply for the charter without their approval, and if agreement can't be reached, we can implement anyway. Not being hamstrung by collective bargaining agreements is a common theme throughout the MOU. For example:

SPS acknowledges that the School Operator’s ability to take the actions required and permitted to be taken pursuant to this MOU during Phase I, including but not limited to actions with respect to personnel, recruitment and hiring, working conditions, school organizational structure, job descriptions, policies, training and professional development, teacher evaluation, non-renewal, and termination would be limited to the extent that local collective bargaining agreements and the past practices of SPS and the School continued to apply to the School and the School Operator. Accordingly, the parties acknowledge and agree that if the School Operator decides in its sole discretion during Phase I that it is not sufficiently exempt from the local collective bargaining agreements and past practices at SPS and the School, the School Operator may terminate this MOU.
So if we don't make it so that our current collective bargaining agreements don't apply to the new school the operator can terminate the agreement. Joyce Harrington won't be happy about that. There are clearly some timing concerns that lean towards a Horace Mann III rather than a HM I, which requires pre-agreement, but I'm fairly certain that the ability to have that 30 day window as leverage is a big part of it as well.

Exhibit C at the end of the MOU calls this out even more.

Teachers Union
It is intended that the Bentley Elementary School shall be exempt from local collective bargaining agreements and the past practices of Salem Public Schools with respect to personnel, recruitment and hiring, working conditions, school organizational structure, job descriptions, policies, training and professional development, teacher evaluation, non-renewal and termination. As expressly set forth below, the Bentley Elementary School shall be exempt from the following provisions of the Agreement Between the Salem School Committee and the Salem Teachers Union Local 1258 – Teachers Agreement (2011-2014) (“Teachers CBA”), and all past practices pertaining to the relationship between the Salem School Committee (“Committee”) and the Salem Teachers Union Local 1258 (“Teachers Union”) contained in or related to the following sections of the existing Teachers CBA, as well as any corresponding sections of any future collective bargaining agreements with the Teachers Union, and any Side Letters or Letters of Understanding thereto:
Working Conditions
  • ;  Article I (“Union Recognition, Jurisdiction and Definitions”)
  • ;  Article III (“Salary and Rates of Pay”)
  • ;  Article IV (“Supplemental Benefits”)
  • ;  Article V (“Leaves of Absence”)
  • ;  Article VI (“Working Conditions”), including but not limited to the length of the school day and the school year, and any professional development requirements
  • ;  Article VII (“Transfers; Promotion”)
  • ;  Article VIII (“Grievance Procedure”)
    Union Negotiations
  • ;  Article IX (“Union Privileges and Responsibilities”)
  • ;  Article X (“Handling of New Issues”)
  • ;  Article XI (“Savings Clause”)
  • ;  Article XIII (“Mandated Change in Length of School Year or School Day”)
  • ;  Article XV (“Duration”)
    Side Letter

I imagine that the ones they really care about are articles VI, VII, VIII and XIII.
Why? they don't want to give bumping rights to teachers they don't retain, they want the ability to change the length of the day, the year, and the amount of professional development time, and they want the conversation to be solely about what will be paid for those things, not whether or not they happen.

Want to be a teacher at the new Bentley? You'll likely have to report for professional development days starting on or about August 6. During the school year, which will start in August, you'll work from 7:20 to 3:20 each day. You'll also complete 100 hours of professional development annually, with more than half occurring before students arrive in mid/late August. You'll also be encouraged to participate in Saturday or vacation academies. Are you a Bentley parent? This should give you a good idea of where things are headed.

Tonight will be a historic night. Joyful? Absolutely not. It's a failure, yet again, that we're here. I've seen enough to believe that this is a necessary step, and I'm more hopeful for the future of Bentley than I have been. I'll be at the meeting tonight, probably posting on Facebook. I don't know if you've heard, but the American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts Chapter has promised a demonstration before the meeting. Can't wait.