Friday, February 21, 2014

Education and Wisdom can be mutually exclusive

by Kim Guymon

We have a whole lot of "smart people" sitting on our school board.  Between them all, we have a Mechanical Engineer with a BS in Chemistry, a CPA, a BA in Speech Communications, an MBA and a Pharmacist.  All very educated, yet none can seem to figure out why the bond didn't pass.  

Honestly, though, I don't believe they are really as stumped as they want us to believe.  Pride and stubbornness are the true drivers of their head-scratching. They refuse to admit they have created a trust and respect issue when it comes to the "generous" taxpayers of the Everett School District.

For a generation, we have freely opened our wallets and given them what they wanted, trusting that they would do what was best for our kids.  But, suddenly, they took us for granted and, without asking us and with a whole lot of closed doors and inconvenient meetings, they used money meant for kids to take care of themselves.  

Now WE are the problem.  We have "misconceptions".  We don't understand.  We don't know how hard the old administration buildings were to deal with.  Because, if we really DID understand all that, we would have gladly let our children continue to crowd into portables and break legs on grass fields and welcomed the new "Community Resource Center" with applause and adoration.  

No one that I have run into doesn't think there are needs in the district.  Many people RELUCTANTLY voted "No".  But, they did because this is an issue of TRUST and RESPECT. It has very little to do with ignorance of needs in our schools.  This isn't a response to the poor economy because, frankly, we passed a levy in 2010 just fine.  This about a loss of the public's trust and a disrespect toward the public by the board and superintendent that has been brewing for several years - end of story.  

Now, that we've cleared up THEIR misconception, here's what they should do in an easy-to-read bullet list.  I can pretty much promise that if the school board took these steps in a very public manner and with sincerity, that the next vote would swing their way.  

  1. Talk to the public:  No, don't get a little group together at Rotary that consists of all the usual "community leader" last names like Rodland, Shockey, etc.   Your community leader friends are just ONE part of the "public", and, frankly, don't impress many of the rest of us. Go to the PTA meetings and the Boys and Girls Club, and the Senior Centers.  Set up an information booth at the concerts and the school sporting events and LISTEN more than you talk.  Honestly, most of us with kids in school aren't found at community clubs.  We are too busy driving our kids around and making sure they've done their homework.  Heck, start a Facebook page that isn't just a string of propaganda but invites people to talk to you and bring their concerns to you.  This district is extremely "scripted".  It's time to just TALK and stop trying to control every conversation.  Other districts around us are doing it. 
  2. Open your door:  That ridiculously inconvenient 4:30 meeting time does more damage to the school board's reputation than they want to admit.  During the campaign, Carol Andrews very flippantly said that she'd consider changing that  meeting time IF you could show her how it would change "one child's test score".  That statement still burns my ears. How completely disrespectful to the very public she's elected to represent.  Well, I believe making public meetings more convenient to the public CAN change test scores.  A lot of research shows that when a parent is involved in their child's education, the child does better.  When a parent attends a school board meeting, they learn about the workings of the schools.  How is that ever a bad thing?  We are literally the only district in the area that insists on holding school board meetings at such an inconvenient time.  It's clearly designed to keep the public at bay.  It's a simple change but they embrace that time with stubbornness for no valid reason other than their OWN convenience.  The message to the public is pretty clear - it's about US, not you.
  3. Change the language in the new bond proposal to be binding:  If we knew that they could and would NEVER do an Administration Building-type move to the public again without our consent, it would change everything.   Rodman has a suggested change of language HERE.  The school board is fighting too hard to justify the righteousness of their decision to build the Administration Building.  But, you know what?  If the cause was so righteous and MORE necessary than, say, a remodel of North Middle School, then they should have made that case to the taxpayers and let US decide.  But, we didn't get that respect. Sadly, we didn't forget it either, as they hoped we would.  
  4. Ditch the platitudes:  So little actual information was presented on the pro-bond website. They are asking for an investment of a quarter of a billion dollars.  You don't convince investors to give you money by telling them it's "for the kids" and "the right thing to do" and to ignore what you've done in the past.  I, personally, found their campaign light on facts and heavy on emotional blackmail.  But, school districts are used to doing only that. That's why they do everything they can to NOT hold these special votes during regular elections. They would be obligated to present Pro/Con positions in a voter's pamphlet. When one is not printed by the county, they only need to present the rosy side of the situation and hope the masses are really too ignorant or forgetful to mess up their plans. If they HONESTLY wanted to encourage as many taxpayers to participate as possible, they'd hold these things alongside an August Primary or a November General Election. But, that's when the voter's pamphlets are printed....  So, outside of that idea, how about they make a REAL website with deeper levels information on it or hold Town Hall-style meetings where people can openly speak about their concerns and ask questions?  
There you have it.  In four simple steps, this nearly brand-new School Board, can set a new tone of openness and respect and start re-building the public trust which was lost.  It's not rocket science and doesn't take an advanced degree to figure out the situation.  It just takes some humility and a willingness to stop acting like Community Leaders and start acting like Public Servants.  

Early responses to the survey at the top of the page

Thursday, February 20, 2014

"The Need Doesn't Go Away..." and That's Exactly What They Were Counting On

by Rodman Reynolds

I've never found law enforcement particularly interesting; I've never considered a career in it, I rarely read in the true crime genre, I don't watch detective shows and I find the FOX show COPS downright repulsive.

For some strange reason, however, I make an exception with the Secret Service. That agency's unique function, methods, and training have fascinated me for decades. Out of the excellent books published about the Service in recent years, one of my favorites is
Standing Next to History, by former Presidential Protective Detail agent Joseph Petro. While I read it, this anecdote of the author's first impressions of air force bases fixed itself in my memory:
“Anderson AFB was a treat, a far cry from the naval stations I'd known during the Vietnam war. The navy doesn't live as well as the air force, and a four-star general there once told me why. 'When we get an appropriation from Congress to build an air force base,' he said, 'we build the Officers' Club, the Enlisted Men's Club, the NCO Club, the commissary, the movie theater, and all the other creature comforts. Then we go back to Congress for a supplemental to build the runway. What can they say?' He was probably being facetious, although I've never been sure, because from what I know about how the government pays for things, it might well have worked like that.”

We need look no further than our own back yards to see how government spending practices work just like that. After it became clear that the Everett school district's 2014 bond proposal measure was going to fail, school board president and retired Navy captain Pam LeSesne told the Daily Herald, “The need doesn't go away.”

Indeed, the need does not go away, and that was exactly what the school board and superintendent were counting on when they made the conscious decision to revise their statement of intent for how state matching funds were to be used from the original 2006 bond proposal. There were certainly plenty of capital project needs around the district at the time of their decision to re-purpose the state matching funds in 2011, but they chose instead to make those needs wait while they took care of the creature comforts for the superintendent and central administration.

Those needs didn't go away, and while we heard nary a whisper of them in 2011, they re-emerged all drawn up in an impressive list once the new administration building was built and it was time to ask district taxpayers for more money – an unprecedented quarter billion dollars more money. What they weren't counting on was that a lot more of us have been paying attention than they had estimated. They also didn't count on our memories being longer than they had estimated, either. And they sure didn't count on us not falling for the bond/levy PAC's $34K campaign to push the measure through.

What to do now? This voter will probably vote “no” on every district request for more money so long as the funds have to first pass through Supt. Gary Cohn's hands before they “benefit the kids.” But, not every “no” voter feels the same way, and there are a few steps the current board could take as it begins to build back some public trust:

  • The proposed projects can stay on the list. The list itself, however, should be broken down into smaller chunks. Rather than voting to approve ten years' worth of money for projects that may or may not happen, let's just stick to a smaller, specific list of projects where the need is the most urgent and which can be addressed and completed within the next four or five years. Costs can be estimated more accurately for projects in the near future than farther-off. Once we see the district is staying true to its word, they can come to us again with the next installment.

  • If the board truly wishes to build confidence and trust from the taxpayers, it needs to use the capital bond and state assistance funds for exactly what it states up front. If the needs truly “don't go away,” the board should have no trouble doing exactly that.

  • To this end, the board needs to change the language of the escape clause written into the bond resolutions that essentially reduces the contract between the district and taxpayers to handing the district a blank check. A simple change could be as follows:

    If, in the opinion of the Board, the needs of the District change in a manner that results in a circumstance wherein any portion of the above-referenced capital improvements is not required or in the best interests of the District, the Board retains the right not to acquire, construct and install such capital improvements and to reallocate the money originally contemplated therefor to other capital improvements to the Districts facilities deemed more necessary by the Board, or to deposit such money into the District’s Debt Service Fund to make debt service payments on the Bonds outstanding or to call and redeem a portion of the Bonds prior to maturity; provided, any change in use of Bond proceeds shall be in the form and manner required by law.

    While we're at it, cross out any instance of “administrative support.” If they identify a true need for a central administration capital project, let them put it on the proposal list and include it on a future bond request for all to see.
  • Rather than just rely on information provided by the superintendent and district staff (or consultants hired by the superintendent), the board should retain independent consultants and auditors who report only to the board to verify and corroborate what the staff reports.

Anyone who's tried to rebuild bad credit knows that it's a laborious process that requires not only trustworthy behavior, but also a lot of time. The same goes for restoring credibility.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Rebuilding Public Trust or "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me"

by Kim Guymon

The last time an Everett School District Bond failed to pass was 1996.  It got only 54% on the first try and barely over 60% on the second try in April of that year.  To put it in an educational perspective, the students of the class of 2014 were newborns the last time a bond failed in Everett.  It has been a generation since Everett voters told the district they didn't agree with their financial priorities.

Historically, school bonds in Everett have passed with an average rate of just over 62% since 1980.  They have passed with approval rates as high as 74% (1986) and failed with rates as low as 54%.  Levies have passed with an average rate of 67% since 1980, so their 61% approval on the levy is still 6 points below their historical average. The 2006 Levy passed with nearly 68.5% approval.  Clearly, a message was being sent by this year's voters.  

The Citizens Bond and Levy Committee, financed largely by district employees,school board members, PTAs and community friends of the district, has spent $24,000 since last Summer trying to convince the voters that the district’s new $28 million office building that they cleverly and mysteriously named the “Community Resource Center” was irrelevant in this new bond.  They have worked overtime to convince the public that they didn't use our money to build it without our consent.  But, despite the time and effort they have put into convincing themselves of that fact, they apparently failed to convince the public.  It’s hard to ignore the elephant in the {class}room… 

School board President, Pam LeSesne, said after the February 11 vote that the needs don’t go away because the bond didn't pass.  To that we say, the needs were there long before this bond was put before the voters and the “Community Resource Center” was built.  Parents, students  and teachers knew that there was quite a bit of updating and remodeling that needed to be done and expressed their concerns over the district ignoring dangerous and decrepit conditions in our schools.  But, concerns fell on deaf ears. 

The Everett School District claims that the money used on the new administration building was saved from projects, rents and leases over the last 20 years and, therefore, had nothing to do with the 2006 Bond. New School Board appointee, Caroline Mason, claimed the money came from State Construction Assistance Funds, not from local bond funds.  So, which is the real truth?  They keep throwing excuses at the taxpayers and hoping something sticks.  But, the smoking gun that disputes their claims is that in 2011, despite their best efforts to get around it through legal counsel, they were obligated to amend the language of the 2006 Bond Resolution and change the number of it to add both the tracks at Jackson and Cascade AND the new administration building.  Thanks to language in bond resolutions in this district, the lists presented to the public during a bond vote are non-binding.  The school board can add projects as they see fit based on their decision that the need is greater than what’s on the public list.  And, they did.  Then they set a PR campaign in motion to try to convince the public that the $28 million  was never meant for student facilities and came from some magic pot of money that wasn't from anyone they had to be accountable to.  Meanwhile, North Middle School continues to fall apart around their ears and kids are breaking their legs on outdated grass fields that other school districts replaced long ago. 

Does it REALLY matter if the money came from their left pocket or right pocket?  State Construction Assistance Funds were meant to enhance local bond funds so that they might do more for local educational facilities such as school remodels and construction.  At no point, that we can find, did the Everett School District declare in the last 20 years that they intended to save money to build a new Administrative Office.  It may have been a desire and a dream, but they never took it to the taxpayers and allowed them to vote on it at any point in any bond.

The Citizens Bond and Levy Committee spent almost $15,000 on a phone survey last summer that was carefully designed to give the district a high level of false “public approval”.  Each question gave you no choice but to pick a level of agreement.  There was no room to disagree with their pro-bond statements.  The same group phoned local residents in 2011 at a cost of over $10,000 to give the district a false sense of public approval regarding the “Community Resource Center”.  The surveys were carefully crafted by The Public Affairs Counsel in Salem, Oregon.  They are a political survey group who attracts clients by advertising their success in getting tax packages passed for government agencies.  They are in the business of ramming these things through and marketing themselves through their success rate – hardly a fair survey.  In fact, during the 2011 “Community Resource Center” survey, I asked who was conducting the survey and was given very vague answers that lead me to believe the survey taker was just a local citizen. 

The district also hosted 2 public meetings about the proposed $89 million new high school where they enthusiastically employed the Delphi technique of manipulation and crowd control.  Attendees were broken up into small, manageable pre-assigned groups which included a district “handler” to guide the discussion.  You simply could not offer counter-suggestions or speak against their proposals – the rules were made very clear in the beginning by the moderator. Groups were told they might have to “support projects they wouldn't normally support” and come up with only “positive statements” about the proposals.  When some started to ask questions towards the end of the meeting and free discussion started to take place, the facilitator shouted over the growing dissent to remind people they were only allowed to ask question pertaining to the district's guided discussion.  Once again, this creates a false notion of public support that the district can use against those who question their motives. 

I do not disagree with many of the projects on the bond.  They are not all misguided or unneeded. We have some serious updating that needs to take place and I believe we need to teach how today’s students learn and employ technology in meaningful ways.  However, I don’t feel like the district has done due diligence in giving us valid numbers based on real estimates and fair facts. I feel like they found the “sweet spot” that doesn't raise your taxes and then assigned some fairly arbitrary guesstimates to some heart-tugging projects without providing a lot of concrete information to the public.  For example, few people I spoke to with children in the south end of the district knew that the proposed new high school won’t be built for about 10 years.  It will not alleviate any immediate over-crowding needs and doesn't address future changes in the way students might attend high school.  I asked the district if potential future changes to high school attendance such as the increase of online classes, the growth of Running Start and even charter schools were taken into consideration as possible ways to relieve over-crowding.  The answer was vague but it was “not really.”  Couple that with projections about growth that may or may not be correct.  In 1990, the district was growing and their “experts” predicted that the Everett School District would have 20,000 students by 2000.  We are 24 years past that prediction and we have yet to reach 20,000 students.  What makes them so sure it will happen now?  There is growth, but there is also maturation of households in the south end of the district that might mean more empty nesters and fewer households with children.  Basically, it’s nearly impossible to predict.  Let’s cross that bridge down the road.  Why are we paying now for a high school we may not need in 10 years?   

Meanwhile, Everett High School is approximately 600 students UNDER capacity according to the OSPI capacity report.  The School District recently started exploring ways to fill those seats.  But, given that our 2006 bond funds just beautifully remodeled the Everett High School Gym and Little Theater, the district should be more determined to fill that school and more creative in ways to do it.  Will we let EHS drain out for the growth at the other end of the district?  We would still have to maintain and pay for that school.  Why not use the space? 

I expect the district will scramble to put together another bond package by the March 7 deadline.  They are starting the process today  (Feb 19) with a "study session" of the school board to discuss it.  The next possible time we can vote on it is April 22.  I am assuming they will ask again at that time to keep from having to do it during the August primary. School Districts like their bonds and levies to be conducted outside of regular election cycles.  It keeps a large percentage of the voters away from it (thus ensuring only those voters most passionate about the schools bother to vote) and prevents them from having to present a Pro/Con position when the county produces a Voter’s Pamphlet. 

The question is…. Did they get the message?  So far, they are pretending like they didn't.  The Superintendent hasn't said a word publicly and the district PR person said she isn't sure why it didn't pass, according to press reports.  One local story said they are “stumped”.  Really?   That’s concerning that we have an administration who is going to play dumb with the voters.  They are quick to point out that it got over 50%.  So what?  It didn't pass, end of story. 

The proof will be in the next package.  Will the package be more honest with binding language that requires them to ask voters about any deviations from the list of projects they present?  Will they divide it into a “new construction” bond resolution and an “upgrade/technology” bond resolution and allow us to vote on projects independently?  Or, will they prioritize and ask JUST for immediate needs now?  That would mean less money and lower taxes.  And, we all know that the idea of letting anyone’s taxes go down strikes fear into the heart of every government agency. 

Or, will they present the same package and just ratchet up the platitudes and emotional pleas about it being “for the kids” and “the right thing to do”?  I am sure they are calculating that they need just 2% more for it to pass.  Was it a clear message from the taxpayers or a minor inconvenience and “misunderstanding” they will aim to “correct”?  As the old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”  This is an opportunity to re-build public trust.  Will they do it, though? 

We will know on March 7 when they submit the new package.