Thursday, March 12, 2015

Graduation Rates - the truth is in there somewhere....

Last month, the Everett School District published a "Good News" letter about rising graduation rates in the district.  We are now less than 1% away from the coveted and celebrated Northshore and Lake Washington School Districts in terms of on-time graduation rates.  Seems like good news, doesn't it? 

However, 10 years ago, the same graduation rate in this district was 14% LOWER than it is today. Ten years ago, the graduation rates in Northshore and Lake Washington School District were a mere 3% lower than they were last year.   When you add in the fact that Everett has seen a dramatic rise while having 40% of our students on free or reduced lunches (the ever-present achievement gap between low-income and middle class kids) when LWSD and NS had about 15% of their kids on the same is suspicious.  If we recognize that lower income kids often struggle with school, how is it that in a district where nearly half the kids are "low income" that graduation rates have risen so dramatically to the level of higher income districts?  That's some kind of educational genius to make that happen or the "achievement gap" is a lie.  It can't be both.  

Graduation rates are a GIANT bullet point on an administrator's resume. Showing a dramatic increase during one's tenure creates job potential GOLD! However, they are also pretty darn easy to manipulate.  Pushing kids out of school after 4 or even 5 years is easy.  But, graduating EDUCATED kids who have proven themselves competent and educated is quite another matter.  But, what happens AFTER they "graduate" is not a Superintendent's problem, nor does anyone ask that in a job interview because it's not measurable.  

If you lower the bar far enough, you can create LOTS of graduates. Graduation rates should mean very little in the grand scheme of education.  The real measure of success is how many of those kids met high standards vs. how many were just passed along.  But, once they are released from the public school system, no one blames the Superintendent for their failure to succeed in college.  It's all about the graduation rates for him.  

Has the Everett School District done some things to help increase graduation rates?  I will say they have.  The addition of "Success Coordinators" to make sure kids falling between the cracks get held accountable may have increased the number of kids who actually get a diploma.  However, that doesn't come without the pressure to get those kids to graduation that is patently unfair to those kids.

I have heard several disturbing anecdotes from parents of high school students that I don't believe are isolated incidents.  I believe they are part of the grand scheme to raise graduation rates because teachers have also told me they are pressured to not fail students.  

1. Students are passed along regardless of their grade:  I have heard from teachers that there is pressure to pass students no matter what.  Some will give a minimum grade on a final no matter how bad the student does. Some will pass the student if they do very little in class but pass the EOC exam. One mother told me of her son who had an F in a math class for the entire semester high school student had an F the ENTIRE semester but suddenly got a D on the report card.  The pressure is to pass them no matter what.  I have heard all of these from parents in the district.  So, it doesn't matter how incompetent you are at the end of the semester, you are passed along at the expense of your education just so you can become a graduation rate statistic. 

Fifty-seven percent of WA high school students who enter WA Community or Technical colleges must take remedial classes (that they pay for) in order to be able to sign up for college classes.  Of that 57%, 51% must take a remedial math class before they can take college level math.  So, the education you should be getting for FREE in our public schools becomes something you must pay for in college just so the Superintendent can take a victory lap about increasing graduation rates.  

2. The Bar is lowered to the floor:  Two mothers have told me two very disturbing stories about how their high school students "graduated".  The first was the mother of a Special Ed student who was told that he could "graduate" after 4 years if he wrote a rap song about school.  That was it - his final exam to get out of high school.  She could not accept that so demanded they keep him for another year and expect him to pass some level of actual test that demonstrated that they had educated him.  

Another mother told me that her son couldn't pass the required HS math test. So, they looked back and saw that he had passed the state's 8th grade math test so they lowered the bar for him back to 8th grade and let him graduate. What a service to that student.....  But, he graduated and the "rate" ticked up just a tiny bit because of it.  

3. Minimum Standards are applied:  I have heard of teachers who will guarantee you a passing grade if you do X.  X can be showing up to class every day all semester (or baking cookies for the teacher if you miss a day) or students are guaranteed a minimum grade on a test no matter how you do on it just for "effort".  So, I can show up to class every day and stare at the ceiling and get an A or at least pass.  Seen it and been part of it.

4. Watering it all down: A girl I know took Calculus in a local high school and got an A.  She then went on to a state university and signed up for Pre-Calculus, thinking she'd do well in the class and came out with a C-.  She was shocked at how difficult it was.  She said it was as if she had never seen calculus in her life. A family I know who lived in the Mill Creek elementary boundaries moved to Oxford, Mississippi in the Spring of a school year and was told by the Oxford school district that their three children needed to either repeat the same grade the following year OR attend summer school to catch up.    

So, I'm questioning the district patting themselves on the back.  Of course there is room for improvement for our graduation rates.  But, the dramatic rise in graduation rates is largely inexplicable and almost unbelievable.  And, the question begs to be asked, if Gary Cohn has the magic formula to raise graduation rates like that, why is it when he started at the Port Angeles School District in 2001 that the graduation rate was 4 points HIGHER than when he left at the end of the 2008 school year?   

Monday, February 23, 2015

An Inconvenient Truth.....

I'd like to thank Carl Shipley for putting this timeline together. While we have many great teachers and administrators in the district, many of us believe we have the wrong leadership at the top. Secrecy coupled with a punitive attitude has caused many to become fearful of speaking up for the needs of the students. Add to that the historic DOUBLE FAILURE of the bond last year and we have a problem... 

The School Board is RIGHT NOW working through the Superintendent's performance evaluation. In June, they will announce that they are extending his contract another year or not extending it. Currently, I believe his contract goes through 2017 when they added a year last year. Last year he got a 5.5% raise AND was praised for getting 58% on the bond vote (which failed both times because 60% is required - how a loss became a success is beyond me). 

And, a bit of information that might be of interest is that the Superintendent wrote his OWN performance evaluation grid and then asked the board to use it. Who gets to write their own performance evaluation??? Gosh, let's write all my goals to my own strengths..... 

If you have concerns about what's been going on the last 6 years, please let the school board know your concerns ASAP by clicking on their names and sending each an email with your thoughts. 

In the meantime, click on the little grey book with the S (or HERE) to view the timeline of the last 6 years.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

HELP WANTED! Two Everett School Board Seats Up for Grabs in November!

It is concerning how many school board races take place across the country in which incumbents run unopposed.  Carol Andrews, who won re-election in 2012 made a comment during our interview with the local paper for their endorsement (which I won), that she would like to be running unopposed.  I nearly snorted when she said that - of course she would.  However, that's not how our system is supposed to work.  We should always have a choice.  

In November of this year, there are two board seats up for election.  Both are filled by district appointees who posses the right "rah-rah" district pedigree and support.  Despite an impressive list of applicants when both Jeff Russell and Jessica Olson resigned from the board within a couple of months of each other, the district went ahead and ignored those who hadn't come up through the sacred ranks of appointees to district committees and the Everett Public Schools Foundation.  They even ignored a former candidate who had just narrowly lost to Ted Wenta less than 6 months before.  He was booted out in the first round of cuts (so there, Everett voters!).

So, I am hanging out a HELP WANTED sign.  We need a few good people who have the best interests of our students and teachers at heart.  We need people who are not willing to be a rubber stamp for the Superintendent's desires - but, instead, are willing to ask hard and uncomfortable questions and demand answers to them.  We need people willing to evaluate the Superintendent based on a set of parameters not constructed by the Superintendent himself (no joke - he sets his own goals and parameters).  We need people willing to listen to the public - and not just the "public" the Superintendent tells you to listen to.  

So, how does this all work and what does it entail?  Here's the job description in a nutshell:
  • Able to attend at least two meetings a month on Tuesdays at 4:30
  • Able to stay late when needed
  • Able to visit schools during the day
  • Willing to attend a couple of school board conferences annually
  • Willing to meet with the public and listen more than you talk
  • Willing to serve a 6 year term (or work to roll it back to 4 years like 98% of the other districts in the state serve)

You need a flexible schedule, but, many companies are willing to let you have the time off to serve in a public capacity like this.  

Does the position pay?  

Very little.  You get a maximum of like $4,000 a year based on a per-meeting payment. So, if you're looking at this to increase your income, you'll be disappointed.  You will be a public servant in nearly the most literal sense of the word.  Mysteriously, though, the school board has an annual budget of over $600,000, but that's for the Superintendent to spend, not the school board.  

How do you state your intent to run?

The filing period opens up in early May and runs through about the middle of the month.  It's quite easy to fill out the form online.  They often have a meeting before that for prospective candidates to help you understand the process and the state laws for candidates better.  I HIGHLY recommend attending that meeting.  You can find info in the coming months at the County Candidate page:  You will select one seat or the other to file for.  Since all Everett School Board members are "at large", you don't need to worry about where you live in the district other than the fact that you MUST live within the boundaries of the Everett School District to run.  

What happens after that?

If more than two people file for one seat, there will be a primary in August to narrow it down to two candidates.  These are "non-partisan" seats - at least they are supposed to be.  But, expect the district's "pick"- whether that's the current incumbents or another candidate should the appointees decide not to run - to accept endorsements from several political groups on one side of the aisle.  Personally, I rejected such offers - good educational opportunities is not a partisan issue and the variety of members at the Everett School Board Project proves my point.  

Then what?

If you go through a primary and come out as a candidate for the General Election in November of this year, you can do as little or as much as you want. You will watch a LOT of money flow to the district's pick. Fundraising is difficult but you don't need a lot of money.  Basically, you'll have to fight "the machine". The teacher's union will most likely endorse the district's pick (they always do) and set up phone banks with their own money to call voters.  There's not much you can do about that.  But, a clear message, signs and a good website is really all you need.  

There may be a couple of candidate forums sponsored by the Everett PTSA who pretends to be neutral and, frankly, aside from one sponsored by The Port Gardner Neighborhood Association, I wish I hadn't bothered.  The far majority of attendees were not the general public, but district administrators there to support the district's picks.  It was a pointless distraction, in my opinion.  

If you want more information. don't hesitate to contact me at KimGuymon at gmail dot com.  If you are wanting to be part of the change in this district, I will be happy to talk to you about running.  This is a rare opportunity to secure TWO seats.  We won't have another opportunity for 2 seats to change hands for 4 more years.  The madness of the 6 year terms in this district is that it creates a very comfortable spot for the Superintendent if he gets friendly faces in those seats and it creates a situation where our school board really doesn't have to be accountable to the public very often. Serving just 2 terms on the school board covers nearly the entire length of an Everett Public Schools education and means having to face voters just twice in 12 years.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Everett School District Employees SPEAK UP!

I can't tell you how many teachers and other district staff have told me privately that they wholeheartedly support he work of the Everett School Board Project. My kids even come home from school telling me that teachers will take them aside and ask them if they are related to me and then say, "Tell your mom she's doing good work."

I'm sure there are plenty who would like to poke my eyes out or flunk my kids in their classes, too.  But, I'm encouraged by the private "thanks you's" I get. Many teachers get it - the administration of this school district doesn't focus enough on the classroom - they spend a lot of time focusing on things that make good resume' bullet points for themselves while creating, at times, a hostile workplace with low morale for those "in the trenches" at our schools.  

For instance, since our current Superintendent arrived about 6 years ago, the graduation rates in this district have sort of mysteriously and dramatically INCREASED.  Can't quite figure out why other than we are counting "Super Seniors" (5th year high school students) in the mix as well as some others who were dragged back to finish.  Essentially, if they graduate before they're 21, they're counted as a graduate.  The other troublesome bit of trickery is that we also lower the bar for students who really can't graduate under the regular standards.  A mom told me the other day that her child graduated ONLY because they scrapped the High School math requirement for him and lowered the bar to the 8th grade math test - the last one he passed.  Another mom told me that her special needs son was told he could graduate if he made a rap video about what he'd learned in high school.  *BOOM* two more for the statistics....

But, I digress.  

While I know that far more people are reading the Everett School Board Project Facebook page than have actually joined (we are approaching 400 members now), I know that a lot of them are district staff members who dare not join and/or participate.  The recent kerfluffle with Coach Bertrand at Cascade High School has been a bit of a cautionary tale for anyone thinking of "crossing" the Superintendent and making him look bad.  Suddenly, he took an interest in reorganizing the X Country program at Cascade (things must be going so well down there at the new $28 million administration building that he has time to run all the sports teams in the district now) and declared that he wants to see the Cascade X Country program go "in a new direction" and then fired the respected and inspirational coach who had held the position for over 30 years.

Insert public outcry here and here and here.... (with much more not linked here).

So, how DOES an ESD employee speak up without incurring the vindictive wrath of an administration unafraid of punitive punishment?  Well, a recent ESD graduate figured that out.

Behold a completely anonymous way to tell your story:

And, I am NOT kidding when I say this is anonymous.  There is no way to connect you back to any school or position unless you reveal too much about yourself.  Even if the district DEMANDED we reveal who said what, we can't because we simply won't know.  It's a chance to finally have your say about whatever you want to have your say about without fear of reprisal.  

Comments will be posted at Everett School District Anonymous Facebook page so that others will see they aren't alone in their frustrations.  It sort of is for Everett School District employees what the Everett School Board Project is for frustrated parents and taxpayers.  We get to speak publicly because there's no danger of losing our job.  You don't, sadly.  

The bottom line is that we think the Everett School Board needs to take district leadership in a new direction. We need to find a leader who is engaged and participating in our schools.  This year a new contract will be negotiated for teachers - and I know based on comments I got three years ago, that this secretive process is as frustrating for teachers as it is for taxpayers.  

Have your say about:
  • Learning Improvement Fridays
  • Workdays
  • Assignments
  • Leadership
  • Paperwork
  • Funding
  • Transparency
  • contract negotiations
  • Union leadership
  • Morale
  • Maintenance
  • Curriculum
  • ?

It's your turn to speak up and we hope you will!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Conversation about the Community Conversation

Tomorrow night, the school board will engage in a "Community Conversation" regarding over-crowding in the schools in the south end of the Everett School District.  We DO have some issues, however, I don't always believe they are as dramatic or accurate as presented at times and the information seems to be constantly shifting.

As you may remember, if you follow this blog, the Everett School District suffered from an historic double failure of a bond earlier this year. And, oddly, the school board based the Superintendent's 5.5% raise, in part, on the fact that they got 58% of the vote in FAVOR of the bond that failed (it required 60% to approve).  So, they called a failure a success?  But, I digress.....  They've failed a bond in the past, but then managed to get it through the second try.  But, this time, the public said, "Nope" twice in about 8 weeks to a record quarter billion dollars capital funds request (used for building and upgrading facilities, not classroom dollars). I think everyone at the brand spanking new district office was stunned by the defeat because the word is that Everett voters are called "generous" by the district.  Well, the brand new district office built with money that could have been used to alleviate some of the over-crowding issues didn't sit well with the taxpayers.  While the administration was crying about their over-crowded, poorly maintained and outdated facilities, they were turning a blind eye to the students being in the same.  While portables at the old district office were being cried about, students were being stacked into them at some of our schools.  The community failed to see the benefit of their $27 million new and oddly named, "Community Resource Center" that was never approved by the taxpayers and came at the expense of some of our schools.  

So, here we are.  First of all, passing the bond this year wouldn't have done much for over-crowding for 3-5 years at the elementary and middle school level and up to 10 years at the high school level. Which brings me to my first question: If they knew this situation was coming, why didn't they take action before this year?

Anyway, the first hour of the Special Board Meeting held tomorrow night at our district's MOST over-crowded school includes a Power Point presentation for the School Board.  The next hour is an opportunity for the community to have one-on-one conversations with school board members.

I went through the Power Point slides today and see some "embellishment" and over-statements that I'd like to comment on.  One thing I think we have ALL learned about government agencies who want your money is that they tend to be a bit melodramatic in the presentation of their information.  We learned that with the King Count Transit fiasco where voters were told that if they didn't approve a large increase for transportation that basically, it would be "Busmageddon" and the cuts to service would be MASSIVE.  Well, when the voters rejected their request, the TRUTH was that there WAS enough money and not a single route was cut.

So, I have picked out some slides to comment on and hope that if you're going tomorrow night that you'll at least think about what I've said and perhaps use your one-on-one conversation to seek clarification from the district.

Again, I am not disputing that there is over-crowding.  But, I am questioning how bad it is and whether the ONLY solution is to build new schools.

Ahhhh... right for the throat right out of the gates.  Yes, there IS an impact to the failure of the 2014 bond.  However, don't blame the public....  I think the point about reduction of funding for teachers and classroom support is a little "bogey man".  Why is there reduction?  Because maintenance will have to happen now on schools they are letting go downhill because they thought they would be remodeled or replaced soon.  They will actually have to fix the walkways at North Middle School - which should have been maintained all along. Sadly, though, the maintenance department is pretty skinny.  The budget has been shaken down time and time again and is now over-worked and understaffed.  Who needs maintenance when the taxpayers are going to give you whatever you want (until now)?  And, thankfully the district is going to be forced to potentially sell unused or underused properties. Why are we mowing the lawn at the old District office location when they can't even lock the bathroom doors at the high school because the locks are all pulled off?

Again, though, passing the giant bond this year wouldn't have done much to alleviate the over-crowding.

I don't think looking back to 1950 does anything but provide a dramatic red line.  Look what happened in the 70's.  And, if you were to do a graph just since 2000, it's been a pretty flat line.  The district predicted in 1990 that there would be 20,000 students by 2000.  We have never gotten to 20,000 and finally just passed 19,000 last year.

We DID have a jump last year and it will probably continue to climb, but it WILL level off at a certain point - and, I believe even decline as the land in the district is finally completely built out and the demographics change.  Anecdotally, in my cul du sac, we had 18 school age children when my children started school.   There are now just a few high schoolers, even fewer middle schoolers and just 1 elementary school child.  Most neighbors are empty nesters with kids in college and we have ONE young couple who moved in and had a baby.  While there is a lot of building going on in the south end, there are also a lot of mature households without school age children.

I'm calling FOUL on the Jackson number.  If you got the email invitation to the meeting from the district, they made the following claim: Henry M. Jackson High School, built in 1994 for 1,500 students, and expanded in 2005 to 1,783 students, now has over 2,100 students! (exclamation point is theirs, not mine)

Look at THIS Seattle Times news story from 1993. Here's the relevant quote from it if you don't want to go read it yourself:

"The new high school, just north of Mill Creek, will open in 1994 with 667 students because it will serve only the ninth and 10th grades. This way, current high-school students will be allowed to graduate without changing schools. When the school is open for ninth through 12th grades in 1996, its enrollment is expected to be about 1,900, said Marijo Rymer, district spokeswoman."

So, was Jackson REALLY built for just 1500 students?  It doesn't look like it.  Having 1500 students is their TARGET - it's the number they have somewhere along the line decided is the magic line that once crossed turns a high school into an over-crowded high school.  No one was apparently freaking out about 1900 students in 1993 - they ASSUMED it would happen.  

UPDATE: I arrived at the meeting last night and was handed a pamphlet that the district seemed to use to try to refute a lot of our information.  This part was amusing as it was a direct shot at us (at least use our name and give us credit.....).  I'm sorry, but I didn't write the Seattle Times article, nor did the Seattle Times make up the number themselves.  The district spokeswoman at the time said herself that Jackson was expected to have 1,900 students when it opened as a full high-school.  Generally, just shooting the messenger is an ineffective method of refuting a claim. Saying that we "misinterpreted" is a head-scratcher since there's nothing to interpret.  The statement in the article is really quite clear.  Someone said, "Well, it's a 20 year-old article."  Again, so what?  I didn't make it up and as far as I know, 1,900 is still 1,900 even 20 years later.  

 The headcount of 19,244 is the September headcount of all students.  The October headcount, which USUALLY increases slightly over September in the past was actually 19,226.  Not a huge difference, I know, but still, they lost 18 students in a month.  That being said, there's something to understand about headcount; it is bodies who come through your door or programs at some point during the day and not necessarily bodies sitting in a chair from bell to bell each day.  The FTE number - or Full Time Equivalent count is the one that, in my opinion, matters more.  If you have a home-schooled child taking band or PE at school for just one or two periods a day, they get included in the headcount - no matter how many of them there are.  But, for the purposes of FTE, it takes several of those students to make up 1 FTE - depending on how many periods or hours they are physically in your school or program.  This is probably MORE relevant for upper grades, but it's STILL relevant.

I haven't seen the October FTE number, yet, however, the September FTE number is 18,274 (rounded up slightly).  That is a decrease of 970 students over the straight headcount.  So, we have just more than 18,000 rear ends that need to have a chair from bell-to-bell each day.  It's not the same 18,000 rear ends, but at some point, the equivalent of 18,000 rear ends need a place to sit. Those other kids might be at school for just a few hours or not at all as they are doing Running Start or other programs administered by the district but not necessarily at a regular school in a traditional sense.

So, looking at these numbers, you see that we have a lot of elementary schools "over capacity".  However, let's look at the numbers using FTE numbers and even the headcount numbers.  

If you take the September FTE for K-5 of 8,807, that alone tells you that the district still has FTE capacity for 170 K-5 students when compared to the capacity of 8,977.  Of course, that's spread across ALL elementary schools so it's not going to help, say, Woodside.  But, it's important to note that for the purposes of FULL-TIME-REARS-IN-A-CHAIR students, we are UNDER capacity districtwide.

If you take the September headcount of 9,332 (the actual reported headcount, not the projected enrollment as stated on the slide)  and strip out the 255 out-of-district variances, then the district is really only over capacity by 100 headcounted K-5 students across the district.

Let's look at the high schools.  The September headcount for 9-12 is 5,537.  That alone is under the combined capacity of all high schools by 37 heads.  The FTE count for September is 5,373 which is 381 full time equivalent high school students UNDER capacity.  And, let's not forget that while Jackson's capacity is stated at 1,738, they expected 1,900 the first year it was used as a 4 year high school, yet it wasn't "over capacity" at that time.  

Let's take a quick look at in-district and out of district variance information.  I'll let you do the math, but if you start limiting variances from both in and out of the district or encourage them liberally for space-available schools, you could really clean up the overcrowding at all but a couple of the elementary schools.  And, keep in mind, the "projected student enrollment" numbers are not accurate - they are projections.  So, the actual numbers may be lower or higher.  But, you get my point.  Moving those rears around a bit could save the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.  

Okay, I'll just say it.  Yes, the district HAS 84 portable classrooms, but no, they are not ALL in use as classrooms right at this minute.  I mean, brand new James Monroe Elementary has two of them installed still and I bet if they are being used at all, it's storage or temporary activities. This slide was particularly heavy on the melodrama. Having portables isn't the same as USING portables as a classroom.

And frankly, give me 31 more portables for $4.65 million over a $259 million bond.  Portables (I call it the "P Word" because everyone freaks when they hear it) are not the devil.  Many teachers LIKE teaching in them because they are much quieter and students have fewer distractions.  Snoqualmie Valley School District calls them movable rooms and they give the district flexibility.  Read about it HERE.  That being said, you CAN have too many at one school.  Silver Firs had about a dozen of them on the playground before Forest View was built.  At a certain point, they DO tax the common areas like bathrooms and cafeterias, but we need to stop freaking out if our child has to go to school in one  It's truly a first world, 21st century problem.  Kids can learn in a portable as well as they can in a permanent classroom - it's the quality of the teacher that matters, not the location of the class.

APPLAUSE!  This is using the old noodle!  One good thing the double failure of the bond did was to force the district to be creative with the resources they have.  We should ALWAYS expect that, but sadly, many larger school districts in Western Washington have become dependent on a never-ending flow of "yes" votes and have not really had to figure out anything beyond than how to spend the money. 

While some might go catatonic over the idea of these possible solutions, I applaud the creativity.  Again, none of these solutions are going to cost as much money as building three+ new schools when we really DO have capacity around the district that is roughly equal to the number of full-time students.  That doesn't mean that we don't need some extra space, but even then, a little creativity applied to the situation may mean we don't need to tap the taxpayers for quite as much money.  The north end of the district will probably continue to drain and with the recent remodel of some of the EHS facilities and planned remodels of North MS, we need to look for creative ways to get students into those seats rather than just building more. 

Throughout my life, I have lived in areas where school districts had to do one or more of these things at times.  People survived and kids still learned.  As a parent in this district, I live nearly on the southern edge of the Jackson/Cascade boundary.  Jackson HS is not too far from my home, yet, my kids go all the way to Cascade.  And, that's okay.  At times I grumble and resent my many trips to the other side of town, but we're surviving and I get it.  The line has to be drawn somewhere.  

What is the solution for the challenges we have right now?  I don't entirely know.  I hope the community will speak up - and not just the parents in the south end of the district because, frankly, the ENTIRE district will be tapped for money for the south end schools.  Everyone needs to speak up and offer solutions. 

I believe the BEST solution will be one that involves BOTH building AND shifting.  You will get the biggest bang for you buck that way and it will cost the fewest bucks.  The challenge is that the district isn't happy to have to use operations funds (Levy) for what they perceive to be capital funds (bond money for building and remodeling/expanding) issues.  So, busing kids from an overcrowded school to a school with space costs money that has to come from somewhere.  I offer them the $660,000 bloated school board budget.... (ours is one of the highest in terms of cost per student).  

Reworking priorities will be a given.  This district appears to put adults over students in terms of money.  It's time, past time, actually, that should change - even at the expense of some of the adults.  Some hard decisions might have to be made to make sure our students are served first and best by the people in the new administration building.  One of the stated goals of that building was to inspire staff to do their best work.  Time to get crackin'

Friday, July 11, 2014

I Reached Out and Got Slapped...

The week after school was out, another member of the Everett School Board Project and I went and had what I would call a nice meeting with School Board President, Pam LeSesne and School Board Director, Caroline Mason.  

Was it testy at times - yes.  We haven't exactly had a friendly relationship. But, overall, it was a respectful and productive conversation.  I decided that it was time to go talk about the historic double bond failure and talk about possible reasons why it failed.  The district's official line seems to be that people just didn't have enough information.  Not sure where THAT information came from, but it seemed to be merely their opinion.  As far as I know, they did nothing to figure out why it failed twice.

Well, we did make an attempt to at least get some ideas and opinions from the general public as to why it may have failed.  We took an informal informational survey through Facebook and paid several hundred dollars to "boost" the post onto the Facebook walls of over 15,000 Everett school district voters age 18 and over.  It was as random as we could possibly get.  And, while the gist of the survey was to figure out WHY it failed, we didn't prevent anyone who voted to approve the $259 million bond package from participating.  The result was that about 40% "yes" voters and 60% "no" voters.  It was roughly flipped from the actual results, but it was NOT an extreme amount of "no" votes that would have made the survey extremely skewed.  We also kept a close eye on the responses so no one from the district could try to skew it as happened with a previous poll we posted (we can see multiple answers and trace the IP address to home addresses - we remove multiple votes before analyzing results). And, we allowed comments on some of the questions - which we felt would be more beneficial than just marking a box.  We understand that our opinions may not be the opinions of everyone.  So, where appropriate, they got to create their own response.  

Mark Twain famously said once, "There are lies, damn lies and statistics".  My educational background is in sociology and my favorite class (oddly, because I'm not a math person) was Social Statistics.  I understand and can smell a badly written poll or survey a mile away.  And, let me tell you, if anyone is guilty of "voodoo" polls that practically guarantee the outcome they want, it's the school district.  I attempted to provide a platform in our poll to let people express their opinions if they chose to participate.  Was it somewhat biased towards the "no" voters?  Of course it was.  But, the point of the poll was to figure out WHY people voted against the bond.  

So, as my compatriot and I wandered into the new administration building on a Monday morning, I had in hand, copies of the results of our poll thinking that since the district didn't reach out to voters with any sort of poll to figure out why the bond failed, that they might find our information useful as they construct another package for the future.  

The meeting was just four of us.  I specifically requested that it not include any district staff.  This was a meeting between two voters and two elected school board members.  It was the second time the ESBP has sat down with the district.  The first time was quite unproductive due to the absolutely rude nature of then Board President, Jeff Russell.  It was clear from his body language that he had no intention of being mentally present at that meeting. This meeting was at least productive because we had two Board members willing to listen.  

The discussion revolved mainly around public perceptions.  The district might feel perfectly justified in doing what they do, but they can't ignore the perception of the voters.  Continually patting themselves on the back about spending $29 million that could have gone to solve some of the needs in the schools doesn't sit well with the taxpayers.  There is also the issue of the vague numbers and needs. The public is having a hard time seeing the crisis.  Are some of our schools overcrowded?  Yes.  But, the problem may be solved for less than $259 million with a little creativity and courage on behalf of the School Board.  We have some schools with empty classrooms - they just aren't in the areas of growth. 

The package I left Pam and Caroline with included a copy of the poll we did and several pages of other information that we felt provided some positive examples of good bond language and packages.  I'm not sure we came away as "friends", but the lines of communication are now open in a way that they haven't been before.  I felt like it was a good step forward.  The Everett School Board Project members should be shown the same respect as any PTA, Rotary Club or union membership.  When you operate for the public, it's unreasonable to think you can ignore dissenting voices. 

So, with a little hope in hand, we left the new administration building.  I had no delusions that a full report wasn't going to land on the Superintendent's desk within minutes of us leaving.  In fact, part of me believes we may have been recorded since we were in a public building.  But, I figured that if we didn't reach out after being so critical during the two bond campaigns, that we were not really serious about wanting to be part of the solution and, more importantly, part of the change.  

Every Friday, Superintendent Gary Cohn produces an internal report for district staff. It's a "newsy" report of what's gone on during the week - awards, grants, retirements, meetings and communication between board members, administrators and the general public.  Since it's public record, our ESBP member and blog contributor, Rodman Reynolds, makes a request for the reports and posts them at the ESBP.  While most of the report isn't of much interest to those outside the employ of the district, there is often commentary in the section labeled "Board-Superintendent Communication" that may be interesting to members of the public.  It's where the Superintendent selects and links (although we don't get the links) emails between members of the board and/or himself and the general public.  I'm not really a fan of that section, though. While I understand that when you email an elected official, it becomes public record, I think that people expect a bit of discretion at times. For instance, last Summer there were some complaints about a teacher getting a contract renewed even though the district had essentially re-assigned that teacher and was hiring a replacement.  When the teacher was re-instated at the last minute, several parents complained.  Those emails (with the last name of the family in the link) made it into the Friday report.  I think it's inappropriate to create contention between parents who must then support that teacher and the teacher who must then teach their children.  I don't know how the Superintendent determines who gets a mention in the Friday report, but it's usually just a handful of emails that are included and I'm assuming it's not ALL that were received.  And, even if it IS all that were received that week, he doesn't have to put them in the report.  It appears to be either thoughtless or petty at times.   

Anyway, Rodman posted the Friday Report from June 28 and, no surprise, the string of emails I sent back and forth to Pam LeSesne and Caroline Mason are included.  I assumed that as I had the communication exchange with the Board members that I would probably land in the Friday report.  And, I did. However, what I didn't expect was to land in the Friday report with extremely condescending commentary and a dismissal of credibility by the Superintendent.  You can read the whole report HERE.  Or, the short version is:

The second and third are brief exchanges between a patron and Director Mason and Director LeSesne as a result of a recent conversation scheduled in response to the board president's call for community members to contact her to provide opinions regarding the recent capital bond elections. (An Internet website poll is also attached. See below a Daily Herald editorial criticizing a city council for relying on unscientific Internet polls for policy making decisions that are responsibility of elected officials.)

Essentially, my attempt to provide some clarity into why the bond might have failed was dismissed as "VooDoo Polling" by the Superintendent, who apparently thinks The Herald is the expert in polling because he also links THIS opinion piece to his snide remarks.   Side Note:  The Herald endorsed me when I ran for school board.  I hardly think he called them "genius'" when they did that.  This is without knowing the details of how we gathered the results or conducted the poll.  He must assume we just put the link on The Everett School Board Project and no where else.  It wasn't simply enough to say, "An unscientific poll taken by the patron is attached".  He had to passively-aggressively tell the staff to completely ignore whatever the poll says.  And, he also managed to tell those who took the time to complete the poll to "shove it" - their opinion doesn't matter.

His comments are extremely ironic, though.  Through the process of building the new administration building and during a few other issues, the district has either employed someone to conduct surveys for them or constructed them themselves.  They have not been scientific, but somehow, the results were "holier" than the results of our survey (which - again, we NEVER claimed was scientific).  

In 2011, many Everett voters received a phone call "survey" that lead us to believe was being conducted by the district.  It was to gauge community support for the proposed "Community Resource Center".  It was so incredibly biased that we put it on speaker phone and laughed our heads off over it. Every single question was designed to sweep you into a corner so that your "support" could be declared in the end.  If you didn't answer positively to one question, it was rephrased and asked again in another format that started with something like, Which of these are you MOST LIKELY to support?"  You always had to offer a measure of support.  It was hysterically biased and manipulative.  And, later on, through the Public Disclosure Commission, I found out that the district paid about $14,000 to a lobbyist group in Oregon to conduct the survey.  The general goal of their group is to get "yes" votes and support for governmental agencies seeking increased funding and new projects.  Clearly, the survey was totally unbiased.... *roll eyes*

Then there was the survey sent out by the district when they were discussing messing up the start and end times of the school day to work out some busing issues.  It was probably one of the most confusing and poorly written surveys I have ever seen.  The results were presented in a very skewed manner that when analyzed correctly, basically said that parents were opposed to the change of school day times.  But, that's not how it was presented.  In the end, the idea was scrapped.  

Then there are the district's "Public Forums" in which they pay a highly trained moderator to come control and manipulate the unsuspecting public to "prove" that they agree with the district's goals and wants.  You can read about it HERE.  It's hardly scientific and open dialogue when you seek to control the conversation to the point that the only option the public has is to support at least one of your proposals.   

And, then, during the first bond campaign early this year, another phone call from the same lobbying group was made to district voters and again, was so badly manipulative that a friend told me she interrupted the caller and asked, "When do you let me express my opinion on this because so far all you're doing is just attempting to force me to agree with yours."  Yes, totally scientific and unbiased....

So, as The Everett School Board Project reached out to the School Board and tried to find ways we could come together on getting some very needed projects done to upgrade and remodel our schools, I feel like the Superintendent just punched us (all four of us in the meeting) in the face. Rather than appreciating that his critics are willing to work with the district to improve education for our kids, he clearly implied he wasn't interested in our help, opinions or information.  

And, then he cashed his paycheck with his new 5.5% raise....


Monday, May 19, 2014

Possible Explanations for Why the Everett School District Bond Failed

After running our poll from a few days after the bond failed in April until last week, we decided it was time to publish the results.  This certainly isn't scientific, however, through the wonders of Facebook, we managed to randomly reach out to as many as 20,000 Everett residents of voting age to offer them the opportunity to respond to the poll.  Of course, not all of them did, but we got a sample size of several hundred from that outreach and the results were fairly consistent throughout the polling period. We did not discriminate by political party or specifically seek those who may have voted against the bond.  We just put it out there and let it happen.   We are confident we got the best sampling we could have.  Where comment space was offered, we included all the comments left by those taking the poll.  Here are the results: