Why do people serve in public office?

I imagine for some it’s an ego thing, but for most, I hope, it’s a desire to change things for the better.  Besides, “Maintain the status quo” probably isn’t a good campaign slogan.

I keep asking myself why people serve because I have absolutely no idea why several of our school board members are serving.  One appears to be of the impression that it’s his job to simply rubber stamp whatever the administration puts in front of him, because “they’re the professionals”.

I’m sorry, Dr Otaigbe, but you were not elected to do nothing.  I thank you for your years of service and wish you well, but if you  intend to simply rubber stamp whatever the administration puts in front of you until November, as you have most of your career, then do us all favor and step down.

From Math Investigations, which was sold to the school board on omissions, distortions, factual misrepresentations and disregard for the law, to the pool at the 12th high school and elimination of the Ferlazzo neighborhood school, which were carefully kept secrets and only disclosed when citizen activists began asking questions and exposed their existence, this school division has become monster.   The school division has never been held to account for any of this, because there aren’t enough school board members willing to hold them accountable.

Your job, school board members, is to stand up to school division to ask questions and challenge their assumptions, to look beyond the materials they give you and do your own research, and to hold them accountable when they lie or omit facts that might make them look bad.  You see, the school division has proven time and time again that complete, unvarnished honesty isn’t a virtue they posses.

Look at test scores.  For years we’ve heard that our test scores are just peachy keen, better than state and national averages.  What we haven’t been told is that our scores are consistently among the lowest in the regions, in every group in almost every subject.

Study after study has shown that class sizes matter; that students do better in smaller classes, yet we have no goal to aim for and no plan for getting there.  Were it not for the BOCS, class sizes wouldn’t be coming down at all this year, and teachers wouldn’t be getting a step increase. The majority of you elected school board members have put no effort into reducing class sizes or trimming unnecessary expenditures from the budget, beyond ridiculing and denigrating those who have.  If you can’t be bothered to look for yourself, then why are you on that board, unless you think that buying awards is more important than hiring an instructor for visually impaired children?

I started to speak out against what I saw as a poor instructional program forced on my children when my oldest was in 1st grade.  My youngest is 2 years behind him.   He and his brother will graduate having spent their entire academic careers in schools and classrooms that were jammed to bursting.  They will never know what it is like to sit in a classroom with one teacher and 25 or fewer students.

That’s pathetic.  That’s 14 years, and we couldn’t get our act together.  Pathetic!

Fourteen years is too long to be an accident; to be a bubble.  Fourteen years of overcrowded schools and classrooms is the result of elected representatives who are too lazy or ignorant to look beyond the briefing material provided to them by the administration, and administration officials who bank on that lazy ignorance.

Edmund Burke said that,”All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”

The tyranny of PWCS is flourishing well, fed by the willful ignorance of our elected officials.

Pearson Education Welcomes You to Oceania

New Jersey brought us Felix the Cat, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, David Cassidy, Blondie, and Chris Christie.   The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton was in New Jersey.  It’s the home of Princeton University, and the cast of the Jersey Shore.  Stephanie Plum, one of my favorite literary characters, and Albert Einstein, my favorite hair model, both live / lived in Jersey.

I’m not the least bit surprised that this latest scandal comes from New Jersey.

If you’ve read about the spying scandal in New Jersey, skip ahead.  If not, below is a brief overview.  You can find a more detailed synopsis in this article from the Washington Post.

Several days ago, high school students in public schools in New Jersey took the PARCC exams.  The PARCC exams were developed by Pearson and are one of the two Common Core approved exams offered in the United States.  After completing his / her exam and after school hours, a student sent a text to another student that mentioned one of the exam questions.  Whether the “mention” of the exam question was innocent or was a full recitation of the exam question has not been revealed.  Several hours later the Superintendent of the student’s school district was notified by representatives of the New Jersey Department of Education that Pearson had initiated a “Priority 1 Alert for an item breach in their school”.  In the alert, the NJ Dept of Ed revealed that Pearson was monitoring student posts to and comments on social media regarding the PARCC exams.

It appears that Pearson initially indicated to the NJ Dept of Ed that the social media posting in question had occurred during the exam and was a photo.  Further investigation by the school division revealed that the posting was after the exam was over and after school hours, and was a comment, not a photo.

Controversy has now erupted over whether Pearson is justified in monitoring our children’s social media postings and accounts for mention of questions asked on their exams.

Was the student who posted the comment cheating, or helping his / her friends cheat?  Possibly.  We don’t know what the student posted, so no one, except the student and recipient of the posting, know.

If the post was along the lines of,  “that exam was so easy” or “PARCC stinks” or “that question about owls was straight out of our textbook” then I’d say no.  That sort of banter about exams happens all the time and clearly isn’t cheating (though Pearson using extracts from their textbooks as exam questions certainly rises to the level of cheating in my opinion).

If the post was along the lines of “there’s a question about negative integers,” or  “be sure you know the first 12 multiples of 8,” or, “don’t worry about stem-and-leaf plots, they aren’t on the exam” and the post went to someone who had not taken the exam, then the post is clearly cheating.

Whether the post rises to the level of cheating and what, if any, punishment is delivered as a result of the post, in my opinion, is something the student’s local school district should determine and isn’t something any of us should be involved in.

The issue of monitoring of social media accounts by a private company or public entity is something we should all carefully consider.

Private companies monitor social media for comments about their products and services all the time.  Bad reviews on social media can destroy a company. Candidates for public office monitor social media for comments about themselves to see how certain phrases or statements are faring in the public eye, and to watch for and respond to attacks.

These days you can buy software or subscribe to applications and services that will do the monitoring for you, for little money.

That a private company would monitor social media for comments about the products they sell and services they provide, shouldn’t shock or surprise anyone.  If you are shocked by it, then you need to get your head out of the sand.  Successful companies generally aren’t run by stupid people, and those not-stupid people know that social media has the power to make or break their company.

Pearson is a big company.  The people who run it are not stupid.  They’ve managed to insinuate themselves into almost every aspect of public education in the US today, and have bought donated to and entertained enough politicians and public officials that their position of power borders on monopolistic.  I stand behind my belief that Pearson owns public education in my home state of Virginia.

Pearson’s monitoring of students taking the PARCC exam falls into the creepy category because what they’re monitoring for are comments by minor children about tests they were given in public school, with the full knowledge and consent of their state’s Department of Education.

I think the fact that their children were being monitored without their knowledge has some parents a bit freaked out.  Reality check here folks – your child has been monitored by organizations and individuals outside your control since the day you let them establish social media accounts.  Every time your child posts or tweets something, it gets picked up.  If their comment, post, or tweet includes the name of a business, public individual, or product, then there is a high probability that their comment was picked up by that business or public individual.

Like it or not, your social media account is not private.  Nor is your child’s.  It is public, and everything you post on it is subject to public scrutiny. That’s reality and the sooner you educate yourself and your children about it, the better.

What makes Pearson’s monitoring controversial, is that they developed the PARCC exams as a proxy for our federal and state governments.  This isn’t the local Tippy’s Tacos monitoring social media for positive reviews, or hiring people to post those positive reviews. This is Pearson, a company with near monopolistic control over education in some states, acting on behalf of our state and federal government and monitoring our children’s social media.

Pearson secured the contract to develop the PARCC exams under the Common Core State Standards.  Gathering data about students and their families is part of the state-wide longitudinal data systems, which are mandated by the US Dept of Ed under the guise of the Common Core Standards.    Included in the data points that must be gathered about our children are things like whether their parents are registered voters, whether they and their families have health insurance, whether their parents voted in the last election, and other data points that really don’t seem to have much to do with whether the child can read or write effectively.

So, while Pearson is a private company, what concerns me, and ought to concern you, is that when it comes to state and federally mandated exams, Pearson is acting on behalf of the state and / or federal government.

I think this controversy highlights an issue we all ought to contemplate.

Years ago we learned of “warrant-less wiretapping”, wherein the federal government, in an effort to protect us from terrorists, began monitoring phone calls and social media accounts of individuals linked with known or suspected terrorists.  With “warrant-less wiretapping”, at least in theory, you had to be linked in some way, shape, or form with known or suspected terrorists to be subjected to extra scrutiny.

This action by Pearson takes that one step further because they were monitoring the social media accounts of students just because they took an exam that was mandated by state law. These students did nothing wrong.  They weren’t linked with known or suspected cheaters.  All they did was take an exam that had to taken, by law.  In exchange for following state law, their social media accounts were monitored by a private company under contract with the state government; not just during the exams, but after them as well.

Even though Virginia isn’t  PARCC state, the exams our public school students take are Pearson exams.  Is Pearson monitoring the social media accounts of Virginia public school students?

That’s probably a question our state representatives and Governor ought to ask.

To me, as I think about it more and more, it seems pretty clear.  Welcome to Oceania.

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Sometimes smart people do really stupid things. Sometimes smart people make really stupid decisions.  Sometimes smart people sit by and do or say nothing when other people do stupid things.

I’m getting very tired of the stupid from PWCS.

For years PWCS has held budget work sessions after school board meetings.  These so called work session always run into the wee hours of the morning.  Everyone in attendance giggles and snickers at how late it is and how they hope they won’t have an accident on the way home.  Some even joke that they might as well sleep in their offices since they’ll have to turn around and come back in just a couple of hours.

This is stupid.  Idiotically stupid.

People can’t think straight when they’re tired.  They don’t pay as close attention to details.  They make silly mistakes they wouldn’t otherwise make.  That’s why there are laws about truck drivers and pilots having to rest after a set number of hours at work.  Sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture by some.

It is high time the school board recognize that these late night budget work sessions are doing a disservice to the citizens of this community.  We elected each of you to serve us and represent our interests.  You can’t do that effectively at 1:00 in the morning.  Not after a full day of work, a multi-hour closed session, and a multi-hour public board meeting.

We citizens deserve better than this.  We’ve deserved it for years.  PWCS clearly isn’t going to stop the late night sessions because it benefits them when the folks tasked with oversight are numbed by sleep deprivation.  It benefits them for you to be too tired to ask questions, challenge their statements, or even follow the conversation.  A school board that it too exhausted to challenge them is exactly what they want.

I’m asking our school board members to let last night be the last of the late night sessions.  Hold the budget work sessions on the weekend.  Hold them on weeknights when there isn’t a public school board meeting.

If you won’t do ti for yourselves, do it for your citizens, because we deserve better.

 

Budget Crisis, What Budget Crisis? (updated)

I hear from teachers all the time about how few funds there are in their schools.  While PWCS doesn’t like us to talk about it, many schools continue to ration copy paper.  Toner for printers is increasingly difficult to attain.  Those of us with children in the school system have all seen how overcrowded our classrooms are.

Lately we’ve been hearing that the school system as we know it may cease to exist if the 1.3% tax increase is approved.  Everything is on the chopping block; from full-day kindergarten and specialty programs to middle school sports and extra-curricular activities.

With money this tight, why then would PWCS send the following home with every single child in the public school system:

 

IMG_0625IMG_0624

This is a two sided, legal size, color flyer, printed on high quality glossy paper.  Not the cheap-o cool paper you can buy at Walmart for a few dollars.  Not black and white.  Not even letter size.  Nope.  Legal sized.  Glossy paper.  Color copy.  Two sided.  Given to every child in our school system to take home to their parents.

What was so important that PWCS had to go to the time and expense to prepare, review, print, and distribute this to every single one of the 86,000 plus students enrolled in our school system?

The evil BOCS has threatened to only increase taxes and the school division’s budget by 1.3% next year and the increase isn’t enough.  PWCS wants more.  Lots and lots more, because they’ve squeezed every penny dry and there isn’t anything left to squeeze out.

Except they were able to find the money to proceed and distribute this flyer.

An email would have been sufficient.  That’s all PWCS has sent in the past.  This year, despite the financials hardships under which the school division is operating, a legal sized, glossy, two-sided, color flyer was mission critical.

If the message in this flyer was so vital that PWCS was willing to spend its scare resources producing it, then I question their ability to accurately gauge critical needs . If anyone in PWCS is wondering why their list of strategic programs and critical unmet needs has been scoffed at by the population in general, they need look no further than this flyer.

UPDATE:

Here’s a link to the fact sheet distributed to our students at taxpayer expense by our impoverished school system.

http://financialservices.departments.pwcs.edu/modules/groups/homepagefiles/cms/1007128/File/Budget/2016/Budget%20Proposal%20Facts.pdf

 

 

Has PWC Underfunded Our Schools?

Over that pst several weeks we’ve been inundated with complaints about PWC and the evil BOCS underfunding schools.   The BOCS has been excoriated for cutting education and not caring about our children.

Too bad those statements have nothing to substantiate them.

As always, it starts with charts – see here debt service.  Pull it up and look at it, because I’m going to reference it.  For folks who question sources, the revenue numbers come for the PWCS budget for each school year.  The enrollment numbers come from the VA Dept. of Ed’s report on September 30th enrollment.

For the most part, PWCS is funded by money received from three sources, local taxpayers through the county, state taxpayers through the state, and federal taxpayers through the federal government.

Money received from the county taxpayers is used for debt service and general education.  It accounts for about 50% of the total PWCS receives each year.

Money received from the state taxpayers is used for special programs and general education.  It accounts for about 46% of the total PWCS receives each year.

All money received from the federal government is restricted.  It can only be used for specific programs, generally programs designed to help children with special needs and economically disadvantaged students.  General education students who are not special needs or economically disadvantaged do not receive a single penny from the federal government.  Money from the federal taxpayers accounts for about 3% of the total PWCS receives each year.

Since 2010, county funds for PWC public schools have increased 18%.

Since 2010, state funds for PWC public schools have increased 30%.

Since 2010, federal funds for PWC public schools have decreased 20 – 25%; 57% if you include ARRA funding.  Those cuts have primarily affected programs for special ed students.

The net increase in funding since 2010 for PWC public schools, from these three sources, has been about 17%.

Enrollment in PWCS has increased about 13%.

That’s a 17% increase in funding for a 13% increase in enrollment.

State and county funding alone has increased 24% since 2010.    That’s a 24% increase in funding, for a 13% increase in enrollment.

Inflation since 2010 has been about 9%.  Inflation plus enrollment increases total about 22%, so the state and county funds for education have kept up with inflation and with student enrollment growth.

I have to admit that this shocked me.  If state and local dollars provided for our schools have exceeded enrollment and inflation increases by about 2%, why have class sizes increased so much?  Why are our schools struggling to have enough paper for students?  Why haven’t our teachers received the salary increases they deserve?

Debt is part of the reason.

Since 2010 PWCS’ debt service costs have increased 27%; from $799 per pupil to $900 per pupil.  Debt service has increased to about 8.7% of the total PWCS budget this school year, from about 8% in 2010.

PWCS wants to issue $100 million in debt for construction projects this year.  That will cost us about $10 million more in debt service costs next year – more than a 10% increase in debt service costs in one year.  For those of you think debt is free and doesn’t matter, this is why it matters.  A $10 million increase in debt service costs means close to 20% of our local tax dollars will go towards paying off our debt instead of hiring teachers or supplying our classrooms.

Cuts in federal funding for special ed are another part of the reason.  Special ed students are some of our most at risk, and federal funding for programs the federal government requires have been cut by more than 25% since 2010.

Neither of these two, increases in debt service costs and decreases in federal funding for federal special ed programs, explain why our schools are struggling to make ends meet.  While there certainly are funding issues, what these numbers  show is that we don’t have as much of a funding issue at the state and local level, as we have a spending issue at the school division level.

UPDATE:  As was pointed out in the comments on Facebook, non-economical disadvantaged students at Title-1 schools benefit from the additional Title-1 funds because their class sizes are smaller and the school can provide programs other schools can’t.  So I’d like to clarify my comment that general education students who are not economically disadvantaged don’t receive a single penny from the federal government.  General education students who are not economically disadvantaged and do not attend a Title-1 school do not receive a single penny from the federal government.

Carrying Money Forward is Good Fiscal Policy??

Several days ago I posted an article called “The First Cut“.  In that article I suggested that PWCS ought to cap the beginning balance at $15 million next year, and each year thereafter.  Some folks expressed concern with this idea as having money left over at the end of the year seemed like a good thing to them. After all, a good financial person always budgets expenses a little higher than they expect them to be so that they don’t get caught short.

Those folks would be absolutely correct, good financial managers do plan for expenses to be a little higher than they actually expect them to be, and the financial folks in PWCS are very good financial managers.

In my opinion, $50 million to $70 million extra each year is probably a bit much.

It’s not like PWCS doesn’t have a plan for contingencies – they do, in the reserves (see this chart – reserves).  Each year, for the past 3 years, PWCS has budgeted $35 million to $40 million in reserves.  So they’ve got a huge budget for contingencies.

In addition to the reserves, they’ve planned to have between $50 million and $64 million left over at the end of each year to carry forward as Beginning Balance.

I can’t imagine any financial manager budgeting $40 million for contingencies AND planning to have $50 million left over at the end of the year, yet that’s what PWCS has done every year.

Capping the Beginning Balance at $15 million isn’t unreasonable, it’s the first cut.

The First Cut

Must ado has been made over the challenges PWCS faces in developing a budget for next school year.  Most parents and teachers are aware that the school division’s finances are tight.  Many of our schools have continued to ration paper and toner. Rather than hire substitute teachers, some schools require teachers to use their planning period to cover for absent teachers.

Citizens across the county have been writing their hands over the Chairman’s proposed budget guidance.  The thought that full-day kindergarten and transportation to specialty programs might be eliminated has engendered tremendous controversy.  Channel 7 sent the local TV news crew to the school board meeting last night to cover it.

It would probably surprise you to learn that PWCS had $76.5 million left over at the end of last year, then, wouldn’t it?

That’s $76.5 million that could have been spent on paper and toner and substitutes and tuition for teacher CPE and increasing the bandwidth at our schools, but wasn’t.

$27 million of that $76.5 million was transferred to the Construction Fund, but $49.5 million was carried forward to this school year as a beginning balance.

PWCS plans on having $30 million left over at the end of this school year, and every other school year, for as far as the budget is presented.

That’s $30 million that could be spent on paper and toner and substitutes and hiring more teachers to bring down class sizes and tuition for teacher CPE and funding full day kindergarten and increasing the bandwidth at our schools.  But that money won’t be spent on our children.

No, no.

It will carried forward, every year.

This, despite budgeting tens of millions in reserves for unplanned events every year.

Loudoun County Public Schools plans to carry forward about $10 million from year to year.  Loudoun’s school system is almost as large as our’s.

Fairfax County Public Schools planned $45 million in carry forward this year, less than PWCS planned.  Fairfax’s school system is more than twice the size of Prince William’s.

So here’s the budget guidance I’d like to provide my school board member and the Superintendent.

Plan your budget to have a beginning balance of no more than $15 million: next year, and every year thereafter.

Thank you.

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