Friday, May 29, 2009

Decision protects injured educators from bogus drug allegations

Baton Rouge educators won a big victory in court this week. For years, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board has required teachers and school employees who were injured on the job to submit to a drug test. Even if their injuries were sustained in an attack by students. Even if there was absolutely no reason to suspect drug abuse was a factor.

If you were hurt, your first obligation was to fill the little plastic bottle.

It was wrong on so many levels. Most importantly, it was illegal - the case had been decided in court, but in another jurisdiction. Because the decision wasn't rendered in a Baton Rouge district court, the board felt justified in continuing the practice.

So even though the result was pretty much a foregone conclusion, the East Baton Rouge Federation of Teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union were forced to file suit.

This week, the suit was decided in favor of the Federation.

Advocate reporter Bill Lodge has the story here.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

LFT works for school building program

LFT Legislative Director Alison Ocmand speaks at a press conference in support of two bills that would help rebuild Louisiana's crumbing education infrastructure. With Ocmand are Representative Karen Clark Peterson, left, and Senator Cheryl Gray Evans.

Louisiana's elementary and secondary schools are in deplorable condition - an estimate by the American Federation of Teachers pegs the cost of needed repairs and new construction at some $7.3 billion.

Two bills working their way through the legislature this year provide an answer to the problem. SB 90 by Sen. Cheryl Gray Evans (D-New Orleans) and HB 689 by Rep. Karen Clark Peterson (D-New Orleans) would set up and fund the Louisiana Statewide Education Facilities Authority.

The seven-member commission would provide funding, coordination, assistance and oversight for the repair, renovation and construction of public school facilities. Identical legislation was passed by the legislature last year, but was vetoed by Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Opponents say that school buildings are traditionally the responsibility of local school boards and voters, and say they are concerned that the commission would make local governments too reliant on state government to solve their problems.

But as Ocmand said in her statement to the news media, “When we consider the enormity of the problem, it is obvious that very few, if any, school systems have the resources to provide the kind of schools that all of our children deserve. We can no longer assume that building and maintaining schools is solely a local issue. The state and the federal government must play a role in replacing our crumbling schools.

Maginnis: Jindal will own broken higher education system

One of the state's most respected political columnists slices and dices Governor Bobby Jindal's plan to defund higher education in this essay, courtesy of the BayouBuzz blog.

Writing that it "is clear that Bobby Jindal does not aspire to be the higher education governor," political maven John Maginnis applies former Secretary of State Colin Powell's dictum about the Iraq war to Jindal's handling of the higher education funding:

Over the next two years, no one will determine the fate of public universities
more than will Bobby Jindal, and vice versa. If, by when his time as governor is
through, higher education is not efficiently restructured but broken instead, he
will own it.

Maginnis notes that Jindal, whose presidential aspirations are pinned to his credibility with an ultraconservative base, is vowing to veto legislation that could delay some of the overly generous tax breaks offered in the recent past.

"(Jindal) may reject the proposed deduction freeze as a tax increase by another name," writes Maginnis, "but his tough-love/tough-luck response to the colleges’ plight falls short of responsible leadership."

Jindal has ceded that responsibility to Higher Education Commissioner Sally Clausen, who has warned the governor that his rigid ideological stance may be devastating to a state whose future success depends on a vibrant system of higher education

The inelegant, but crucial, solution to the problem is the same kind of budget fudging that has kept Louisiana's fiscal head above water for generations. Plugging the holes with one-time infusions of cash is better than watching our colleges and universities crash and burn.

As Maginnis puts it, "applying some less-than-pure budgetary fixes might require some compromise on the governor’s part, to which he is not accustomed, but that’s what on-the-job training is for."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

PulsePoll results: "cyber schools"

Last week's PulsePoll question was about so-called “virtual schools” or “cyber schools” operated by for-profit corporations. Supporters want these virtual/cyber schools to receive MFP funding just as if they were regular public schools.

We asked: Do you believe that funding of these virtual/cyber schools is an appropriate use for state education dollars?

There were 238 responses to the question. Two hundred eight, or 87%, said "no," while 30, or 13%, said "yes."

This week's question:

Do you believe that it is more important to oppose all taxes than it is to fund education, specifically our public colleges and universities?

Please click here to answer this week's PulsePoll.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stop the erosion of teacher and school employee rights

A bill that could seriously threaten the rights of teachers and school employees - including making the contents of personnel files public -will be heard by the House of Representatives in the next few days.

In spite of thousands of messages sent to the House Education Committee opposing HB 851 by Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge), the committee approved the bill and sent it to the full House for a vote. Committee members were heavily pressured by Gov. Bobby Jindal to vote for this so-called "reform" bill.

If the bill passes, it will give local school superintendents total authority over the hiring and firing of teachers and school employees. Teachers and school employees will be deprived of specific rights to appeal their grievances to the school board.

The bill would allow "information on due process, grievance procedures, hearings and tenure" to be shared with the public, which could put personnel files into the public domain.

Under current law, superintendents make recommendations - including hiring, retirements and terminations - which are voted on by the board. They are listed under "personnel matters" on most school board agendas. This makes government more transparent and holds elected officials accountable to the public.

If HB 851 passes, those decisions would be made by the superintendent alone.
The current law is designed to provide necessary checks and balances against against favoritism and abuse, and to protect the rights of teachers and school employees.

Please click this link and ask your State Representative to vote against HB 851.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Orleans charter principals in elite salary group

Principals at some Orleans Parish charter schools earn lavish salaries in line with those paid at the toniest private academies, according to this article by reporter Brian Thevenot of The Times Picayune.

Lusher Charter School Principal Kathy Riedlinger brings home $203,556, including a $5,000 yearly car allowance. In second place among charter school principals is Lafayette Charter School's Mickey Landry, who earns $186,000 (in contrast, Orleans Parish School Board principals earn between $82,330 and $92,054).

That puts the charter leaders in the same rarefied air as headmasters at the city's most exclusive private schools - $284,828 at Isidore Newman High School, and $217,500 at Metairie Park Country Day School.

They are only following the lead of highly-placed state officials, such as State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek , whose salary package approaches $400,000 per year. Governor Bobby Jindal has been equally generous with his top appointees like economic development director Stephen Moret, who started in his post at $320,000.

Education budgets , health care, roads and bridges, and arts funding all must be slashed because of the state's budget crisis. But these mandarins are all so important to the state that they deserve their generous packages. As our leaders are so fond of saying, you have to pay the top salaries to get the best people.

Why Louisiana needs the Employee Free Choice Act

(Hat tip to The Daily Kingfish)

Last year, Louisiana had the fifth lowest median household income of any state in our nation. Not coincidentally, it also had the fifth lowest union density - only 4.6% of the workers in Louisiana are in unions.

Typically, union workers make about 25-30% more than their non-union counterparts. For many hospitality and service sector jobs, the difference between a poverty-level wage and a family-sustaining liveable wage is a union contract. Given these statistics, and the importance of the hospitality and service sector to the economy of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, it is clear that increasing rates of unionization would lead to a growing shared prosperity - in Louisiana and in our nation.

Click here to read the rest of this post.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ed Department reports exceptional growth in student achievement

Here's some good news, Louisiana: the State Department of Education reported today that there has been exceptional growth in student achievement, as reflected in scores on standardized tests the iLEAP, LEAP and GEE exams.

From this press release issued by the department:

From 2008 to 2009, the percentage of students earning Basic or above increased in 28 of 30 core subject assessments in grades 3 through 11 -- with the exception of 11th grade social studies scores, which remained flat and 4th grade math scores, which dropped by two percentage points from last year. In 25 of the 30 assessments the improvements exceeded the annual historic gains in that grade and subject. While the state has demonstrated gains each year since the implementation of the accountability system, this year represents the broadest improvements, and gains that are larger than any year except the first year of the accountability system.

Here is a PowerPoint presentation that breaks down the growth.

Advocate editors call bill bamboozlement "shameful"

The editors of The Advocate are apparently fed up with a governor who preaches transparency and ethics but practices politics about as Machiavellian as anything we've seen in our state's colorful past.

"Shameful episode" is the term the editors employ to describe the way Governor Jindal's office conspired to deny lawmakers a vote on a tax issue and simultaneously prohibit citizens from voicing their opinions on another, unconnected but still controversial issue.

It was unquestionably one of the more bizarre episodes of the current session. Action on one bill was delayed while the author hid out in the governor’s office to avoid taking a vote on yet another controversial issue. Here are the details:

HB 851 by Rep. Steve Carter (R-Baton Rouge) is opposed by LFT. Under the guise of ending “micromanagement” by school board members, the bill would shift authority away from elected boards and give the local superintendent all power over hiring and firing of teachers and school employees.

Under current law, superintendents make recommendations - including hiring, retirements and terminations - which are voted on by the board. They are listed under "personnel matters" on most school board agendas. This makes government more transparent and holds elected officials accountable to the public.

Carter's bill takes one even worse turn, making it possible for the private personnel files of teachers and school employees to be made public.

Opponents and supporters of the bill packed the House Education Committee at 9:00 A.M. Tuesday, ready to voice their opinions. Eleven hours later, they were told the bill would not be heard that day. What happened?

First, action on the bill was postponed when the Education Committee hearing ran long, and members had to report to the House chamber for a full session. Committee Chair Austin Badon (D-New Orleans) said the committee would reconvene after the House adjourned.

But after adjournment, the House Ways and Means Committee was also slated to hear a cigarette tax bill, which is strongly opposed by Jindal. Two members of the Education Committee, including Carter, also serve on the money panel. They could have been compelled to leave the education hearing for a quorum call in the Ways and Means Committee.

In order to deny a quorum in that committee, Carter and his colleague were summoned to the fourth floor home of the governor’s office. There they sat, ensuring that the tax bill could not pass.

But that also meant that HB 851 could not be heard, either. So an apologetic Badon told weary, waiting citizens that the bill would be rescheduled for the next week.

On the plus side, that gives opponents more time to tell Education Committee members to vote against the bill. To register opposition, please click here and send a message to all 17 members, telling them that HB 851 is a very bad idea.

Friday, May 15, 2009

House okays $27 billion state budget

Rep. Herbert Dixon (D-Alexandria) gave it his best shot on Thursday, but his fellow lawmakers denied a budget amendment that would have allowed school support staff to continue receiving a $1,000 pay supplement.

Doggedly sticking to the script written by Gov. Bobby Jindal, the House of Representatives on Thursday adopted a $27 billion state budget that slashes funding for higher education and health care, denies pay raises to school support staff and eliminates over 3,600 state jobs.

The vote was difficult and emotional for members, with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Fannin (D-Jonesboro), the author of the budget, almost dissolving into tears at one point. Rep. Fannin characterized the budget bill, HB1, as “an unfortunate situation.”

Despite the best efforts of members friendly to public education, no amendments were approved that would ease the dire financial situation facing higher education and K-12 schools.

Representatives of the governor’s office prowled the House chamber during the debate, sending warning glances to lawmakers who may have been wavering on Jindal’s hard budget line.

School support staff pay supplement is denied

Rep. Herbert Dixon (D-Alexandria) attempted to continue the $1,000 supplement that school support staff won last year, but was rebuffed by his colleagues.

Rep. Dixon’s plan was to siphon some $48 million away from economic development slush funds in order to prevent what amounts to a $1,000 pay cut for school staff.

Members loyal to the governor leaped to oppose his amendment. One of them, Rep. John Schroder (R-Covington), said the raise is unnecessary because Louisiana support workers “are the best paid in the South.” Rep. Dixon politely but firmly informed Rep. Schroder that he was wrong.

Thirty-four House members voted for Rep. Dixon’s amendment; 63 voted against it.

Higher education funding rebuffed

On a 44-52 vote, the House turned down an amendment by Speaker Pro Tem Karen Carter Peterson (D-New Orleans) that would have siphoned $59 million to higher education from the state’s business incentive slush fund.

The biggest victory for higher education came when Rep. Fannin brought a successful amendment to redirect $13.5 million from the state’s economic development fund to colleges and universities. The money had been pledged to the Shaw Group for projects in Lake Charles, but Shaw Chairman Jim Bernhardt volunteered to give up the money if it would go to higher education.

Lawmakers pointed out that colleges and universities have been given permission to raise tuition and fees, which should somewhat lessen the effects of the $219 million cut to higher education in Governor Jindal’s budget.

School libraries stiffed

Things turned ugly and elitist when Rep. Richard Gallot (D-Ruston) unsuccessfully tried to divert some money from a New Orleans school voucher scheme to save a school library program.

The $500,000 amendment would have paid for a computer search engine used by high school students on research projects. Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) objected, saying that students could do the same research in public libraries.

“Don’t those students have library cards?” Rep. Burns asked in a statement reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s famous “Let them eat cake” quote.

Rep. Gallot tried to explain that many rural students don’t have transportation to libraries that could be many miles away, and that students should have the resources they need at school.
“But don’t they have library cards?” Rep. Burns asked again.

“Maybe in another life I can represent a district as rich as yours,” Rep. Gallot responded. “I represent a rural area, and if they can’t do it at school it won’t get done.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Economist says bring back the Stelly Plan

As LFT President Steve Monaghan pointed out before the current legislative session began...

And as Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu noted on May 5...

An economics professor and member of Louisiana's Revenue Estimating Conference has now confirmed: The legislature made a serious error last year when it reversed the so-called Stelly Plan tax reforms. And unless they undo that reversal, our state will continue its long, painful slide.

LSU economist Jim Richardson spoke to the Press Club of Baton Rouge yesterday, and as Advocate reporter Michelle Millhollon writes here, he said that last year's massive tax cuts were a mistake.

To briefly recap: the Stelly plan was an effort to make our tax code more progressive and less dependent on the price of oil (as it was in the 1980s, the last time an oil bust ruined our economy).

The Stelly plan reduced sales taxes on food, utilities and prescription drugs because those taxes were disproportionately high for poor people. It lowered income tax rates for the poorest citizens, and raised them slightly for the wealthiest.

But when some of those better-off citizens had to pay a bit more, they ran screaming to the legislature. And because the price of oil last year was over $150 per barrel, lawmakers felt free to ratchet back the Stelly Plan.

Now oil is hovering somewhere around $60 per barrel, and losing the Stelly Plan is costing the state $359 million.

That is why economist Jim Richardson, a member of the state's Revenue Estimating Conference, says that lawmakers should take another look at Stelly and perhaps reinstate its tax rates.

Which could very well be why Speaker of the House Jim Tucker, a Republican and great friend of tax cuts, says he does not believe the Revenue Estimating Conference needs to meet again before the end of the current legislative session.

It is customary for the conference to meet in May, but Tucker, according to this article by Times Picayune bureau chief Robert Travis Scott, does not want a meeting in which Richardson could express his views.

Tucker and Richardson are two of the three conference members; the third, Senate President Joel Chaisson, a Democrat, says he believes the conference should meet.

Monday, May 11, 2009

PulsePoll results: Can you wait three years for a pay raise?

Last week's PulsePoll asked:

Governor Bobby Jindal appears satisfied that Louisiana teacher salaries may be approaching the Southern Regional Average. He will not support any bills to raise more state revenue.

Meanwhile, state education funding - the MFP - is frozen. It now depends on the infusion of federal stimulus dollars just to maintain current funding.

Given this financial situation, are you content to go without pay raises until Governor Jindal’s term ends in 2012?

RESULTS: There were 520 responses to the question. Fourteen (3%) said "yes," 505 (97%) said "no."

This week's question: Do you believe that grade inflation is rampant in our public schools? (Please click here to take the survey)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Vaguely worded bill approved by trusting panel members

The extremely trusting members of the House Education Committee have approved a vaguely worded bill pertaining to the state Recovery School District, even though the bill’s author could provide no details about it.

HB 752 by Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans) would allow the RSD to enroll students “in a virtual or cyber school or educational program.”

When committee members asked Badon – who is also the chairman of the committee – about the meaning of the bill, he said that he had no answers for them. He asked members to approve the bill, and said that he would provide more information before it comes to a vote before the full House of Representatives.

Testifying against the bill, LFT President Steve Monaghan urged caution, noting the vagueness of the bill and its serious policy implications. Monaghan noted that there is a national proliferation of virtual schools which channel millions of dollars to private educational contractors.

Badon was accompanied at the witness table an attorney from the Adams and Reese law firm, which formerly employed State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek. Sources said that the firm has represented Edison schools, a private educational contractor.

In his closing comments, Badon repeated that he would work out the bill’s details once it was approved by his committee. It was unanimously approved and sent to the full House for further action.

Strange bedfellows

What idea can be so bad that it brings together such disparate groups as the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, Council for a Better Louisiana and the City of New Orleans?

You can read the answer in this editorial in today's Shreveport Times. Here's a hint: it's increasing the homestead exemption.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Retired educators ask for insurance relief

From left, retired New Orleans teacher Sylvia Barial, Representative Charmaine Marchand Stiaes, Representative Herbert Dixon and United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter at the capitol on Thursday.

More than 100 retired teachers and school employees from New Orleans visited the capitol today to ask for relief from skyrocketing health insurance premiums.

The educators, who were summarily fired by the Orleans Parish School Board in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, are ineligible for Medicare because the school board did not pay into the Social Security System while they were employed.

They have been notified by the school board that their health insurance premiums will more than double on July 1 unless the legislature comes to the rescue.

For the past three years, lawmakers have appropriated money to keep retiree insurance premiums at a more reasonable level. This year, the United Teachers of New Orleans is building support for two bills, HB 848 by Rep. Pat Smith and SB 42 by Sen. Ed Murray, that would provide permanent funding for relief from the premiums.

The bills would also provide relief for retired educators in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, which were also hit hard by Katrina.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Beating the odds, achieving excellence

Delhi High School in Richland Parish had been declared a failure and was, in fact, labeled an "Academically Unacceptable School" by the State Department of Education. But with grit and determination, and with the support of an entire community, the students achieved what few believed they could. It took hard work, but every one of the school's 38 seniors passed the state exit examination and will graduate this spring.

In recognition of their achievement, the senior class visited the state capitol on Wednesday, and received a round of applause from the Senate.

Shown with the 2009 graduating seniors from Delhi High School are, from left in the front row, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan, State Senator Francis Thompson, Richland Superintendent of Schools Dr. Cathy Stockton, State Representative Charles "Bubba" Chaney, Delhi High School Principal Floyd McDade and Luke Letlow, representing Governor Bobby Jindal.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Leges look at property taxes

On the same day that Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that the state economy is on the brink of disaster because of overly generous tax cuts, a legislative committee began consideration of more tax cuts that could devastate local governments.

As Robert Travis Scott of the Times-Picayune reports here, the House Ways and Means Committee is looking at some 28 plans that would affect property taxes. Since there is no state property tax, these bills would only have an impact on local governments such as school boards.

Gov. Bobby Jindal supports at least some of the property tax cuts, which would increase the homestead exemption for home owners. That puts him at odds with some of his loyal supporters, the big businesses represented by the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry. LABI is concerned that local governments would increase taxes on business if revenue from homeowners falls.

Landrieu: Maybe all those tax cuts weren't such a great idea

With the state teetering on the brink of fiscal disaster, Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu delivered a much-needed dose of reality to members of the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday.

Landrieu told the press that if the state remains on its current track, this year's $1.3 billion deficit could grow to as much as $6 billion within three years. Because the state cannot adopt a deficit budget, we would have to endure cuts much more drastic than those under consideration now.

As Advocate reporter Sarah Chacko writes here, Landrieu said lawmakers should reconsider last year's elimination of the Stelly plan reforms. Those changes to the tax code slightly increased income taxes for upper income citizens. As a tradeoff, our dependence on the price of oil was finally abated.

Last year, state finances seemed rock-solid, so lawmakers repealed the Stelly plan. But with the national economy in recession and the price of oil less than half of what it was just a year ago, the move no longer seems very smart at all. The $359 million surrendered by lawmakers last year could certainly be used now.

Monday, May 4, 2009

PulsePoll: Can teachers wait three years for a pay raise?

Here's this week's PulsePoll from the Louisiana Federation of Teachers:

Governor Bobby Jindal appears satisfied that Louisiana teacher salaries may be approaching the Southern Regional Average. He will not support any bills to raise more state revenue.
Meanwhile, state education funding - the MFP - is frozen. It now depends on the infusion of federal stimulus dollars just to maintain current funding.
Given this financial situation, are you content to go without pay raises until Governor Jindal’s term ends in 2012?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Lawmakers turn down school board term limits

While Gov. Bobby Jindal has had his way with lawmakers thus far on fiscal issues, legislators bowed up a bit on Wednesday and denied him and Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek one of the school board reforms they sought.

As Advocate reporter Will Sentell writes here, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee voted down HB 664, Rep. Steve Carter's (R-Baton Rouge) proposal to limit school board member terms to 12 years. Opponents accused the administration of overreaching, saying that term limits should be decided by the voters in a school system, not imposed by the legislature.

Committee members hammered Carter on another of his bills, HB 371, which is intended to limit the ability of school superintendents to hire their relatives. Opponents say there are already nepotism laws in effect, and questioned whether Carter's bill would have unintended consequences.

Carter temporarily withdrew his bill from consideration in order to reconsider some of its language.

For much more coverage of legislative issues, check out the Louisiana Federation of Teachers' Weekly Legislative Digest at this link.

Retired teachers will protest system changes May 28

Retired teachers from around Louisiana will be at the state capitol on May 28 to protest proposed changes to their retirement system.

According to this Alexandria Town Talk article by reporter Robert Morgan, retirees are opposed to a proposed merger of the state retirement systems.

The last time a merger of retirement systems was considered, a flood of protests doomed a plan by former Senator Walter Boasso to consolidate the Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana and the Louisiana State Employees' Retirement System. That was in the 2005 legislative session.

This year's proposal, House Bill 230 by House Speaker Jim Tucker (R-Terrytown) and Rep. Jeff Arnold (D-New Orleans), is even more ambitious. It would also bring in the other two statewide employee retirement systems, the School Employees' Retirement System and the State Police Retirement System.

Supporters say that consolidating the systems would make their management more efficient. Opponents suspect that the larger issue is the vast sums of money that a single board could funnel to favored investment firms.