Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Arbitrator slams Jefferson School Board for layoffs

In a sharply worded decision, an arbitrator ruled yesterday that the Jefferson Parish School Board wrongly fired 50 teachers based solely on one performance evaluation, while claiming that it was instead a reduction-in-force layoff.

Arbitrator James Sherman minced no words in his May 28 ruling that the Board “cynically and improperly” mislabeled the discharges, based on a single sub-optimal performance appraisal, as layoffs. “They did not get what they were entitled to…Instead, they got the shaft,” Sherman wrote.

He went on to say, “You can call it a layoff, but if it looks like a discharge, walks like a discharge and quacks like a discharge, then it is not a layoff. It is a discharge. These were not layoffs. They were discharges for unproven causes.”

Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch said, “The Jefferson Parish School Board should be collaborating with teachers.  With few exceptions, the best teachers are made, not born. That’s why we need an ongoing professional development program, closely aligned with teacher evaluation and due process, to improve teacher quality.”

Munch said that the arbitrator, in his strong condemnation of the Board, seemed to agree that it was an outrageous misuse of the evaluation system.  Sherman wrote, “The Board transformed the evaluation program into a disciplinary railroad.” 

“I have never seen a ruling that is so vivid and pointed towards a school board. This ruling validates our long-held complaint that the Board has been making bad decisions for students and teachers,” Munch said.

Munch went on to say that the Board is making not just bad decisions, but illegal ones.  This is the second time in two months that the actions of Jefferson Parish School board have been overturned and rejected.  Just last month, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the school district illegally imposed a furlough day on school employees. 

“We’ve been out in the community talking with parents, business owners, and community groups and listening to their concerns.  We’ve been working toward finding solutions to make schools better,” said Munch. 

However, she continued, “We’ve also been hearing from people that they are concerned with the Board’s bad decisions.  This is another one. They took this callous, illegal act and it impacted numerous employees and families in our parish.  The new board is acting recklessly, irresponsibly and without regard for the law.  And the community is supposed to trust these people to decide what is best for our students and teachers?”

You might not be a public school if...

Education curmudgeon Diane Ravitch has a new post online in which she asks the question, "Are charter schools public schools?"

After an introduction in which she gives Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers, credit as a founder of the charter school movement, Ravitch questions the direction that charter schools have taken.

Shanker, she says, thought "that charter schools should be created by teams of teachers who would explore new ways to reach unmotivated students. He envisioned charter schools as self-governing, as schools that encouraged faculty decision making and participatory governance...He never thought of charters as non-union schools where teachers would work 70-hour weeks and be subject to dismissal based on the scores of their students."

Ravitch says that the vision of Shanker and others has been corrupted by charter schools run by "for-profit corporations or by nonprofit corporations with private boards of directors...Most charters are non-union and rely on young teachers who work long hours and leave after a few years, thus keeping costs low."

While charter schools are ostensibly public, Ravitch wonders if  the corporate model followed by so many schools is in keeping with the spirit of public education.

So with apologies to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, here are some indications that some charter schools might not really be public schools if...

Charter schools might not be public schools if...a non-profit charter holder subcontracts operation of the school to a for-profit corporation, it might not be a public school.

Charter schools might not be public schools if..."a charter sponsor is involved in complicated real-estate transactions that profit the sponsor," it might not be a public school.

Charter schools might not be public schools if...courts can rule that a charter school is not a public school when it comes to protecting the rights of teachers and other employees, it might not be a public school.

Charter schools might not be public schools if..."a privileged group of schools called charters...can select their students and exclude the ones that are hardest to educate; and the remaining schools are composed of students who couldn't get into the charters or got kicked out" they might not be public schools.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Treachery, contempt and the House Retirement Committee

Treacherous is just one of the words describing the actions of the House Retirement Committee on Wednesday. The committee’s utter contempt for the people of the state and the rule of law is surpassed only by its craven submission to the will of Governor Bobby Jindal.

Not that all members were compliant when a bill’s intent was completely transformed so the governor could get his way and merge the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana and the Louisiana School Employees’ Retirement System.

Democrats on the committee, led by Rep. Sam Jones (D-Franklin) boycotted the vote, leaving only Republican members to do the governor’s bidding.

Here are the sordid details.

The committee was slated to hear SB 6 by Sen. Elbert Guillory (D-Opelousas), an innocuous bill calling for an annual report to the school employees’ retirement system on privatized jobs.

But as has happened too often this session, the bill was hijacked by a surprise, 47-page amendment crafted by the governor’s office. The new language resurrected the system merger, which was originally contained in HB 1198 by Rep. Kevin Pearson (R-Slidell).

HB 1198 was approved by the Retirement Committee, but has languished on the House calendar for lack of enough votes to guarantee its passage.

House rules say that substantive amendments must be submitted 48 hours in advance of the meeting. But Rep Pearson, who chairs the panel, ruled that the amendment was not new information to the committee, and allowed it to be considered.

Reaction to the maneuver was immediate and explosive. Calling the move a “farce,” Rep. Jones walked out of the meeting. Without a quorum present, Rep. Pearson recessed the meeting to round up enough allies to pass the bill. When the panel reconvened, Democratic members stayed away, leaving only Republican lawmakers present to approve the bill.

“Offensive” was one word LFT Legislative Director Mary-Patricia Wray used to describe the tactic. “I think that the good faith of this Legislature with the citizens of this state has been breached," she said.

The underhanded tactics endorsed by Rep. Pearson and Sen. Guillory meant that teachers and school employees whose retirement will be affected did not have a chance to comment before the committee voted. And because SB 6 had already been approved by the Senate in its original form, the amended version now faces scrutiny only on the House floor.

The merger would abolish LSERS and transfer all its property, rights, obligations and employees into the Teachers’ system. In the process, 30 employees would lose their jobs within a year. That greatly increases the work load on remaining staff, and could cause a reduction in services for the members of the merged systems.

Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Adelson covered the meeting for this story; Marsha Shuler of The Advocate filed this report.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Sneak attack revives assault on sick leave

Last week the House Education Committee voted down a bill that would have decimated extended sick leave, and that should have been the end of it.

So nobody saw it coming when the Senate Education Committee quietly switched the intent of one bill to include language even more offensive than the bill defeated on the House side.

At less than two pages long, SB 494 by Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Metairie) was a minor bill intended “to assist local public school systems in developing methods for selecting certain teachers.”

But when it was heard by the committee, SB 494 had miraculously and secretly grown from two to 12 pages “relative to teacher selection and the granting of extended sick leave and sabbatical leave for teachers and other school employees.”

As heard by the committee, the bill included all of the language in the sick leave bill killed by the House Education Committee earlier, with one exception: a “shall” was changed to a “may.”

If Sen. Appel’s bill becomes law, it will stipulate that school systems may grant teachers and school employees 45 says of extended sick leave (instead of the 90 now mandated by law) at 50 percent of their salary (instead of the 65% now mandated by law).

There will no longer be any requirement that extended sick leave be provided at all.

The amended version of the bill was not completely secret. Officials of the Jefferson Parish School Board, including the superintendent, were at the meeting to testify in support. Somehow they had information that was kept secret from the rest of the education community.

The bill will be heard on the Senate floor. If it passes there, it must be approved by the House Education Committee. Members of that panel will be reminded that they turned down an almost identical bill just a week ago.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Senator tells retirees: Go on welfare

State employees who can’t make it on the new, stripped-down retirement benefits under consideration in Baton Rouge will just have to apply for food stamps and go on welfare, according to State Senator Elbert Guillory (D-Opelousas).

“We cannot afford to protect people from making bad decisions in their lives,” said Sen. Guillory about a bill that eliminates state pensions in favor of a market-driven “cash balance” retirement plan for newly hired state employees.

The Senate voted 23-11 for HB 61 by Rep. Kevin Pearson (R-Slidell), which will affect employees hired on or after July 1, 2013. It will impact the retirement plans of rank-and-file members of the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System and higher education members of the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana. Click here to see how Senators voted on the bill.

Both LASERS and TRSL opposed the bill, and have threatened lawsuits challenging its constitutionality.

Opponents say the bill will have a crushing effect on future retirees, giving them less retirement security than they would have under federal Social Security, which does not apply to public employees in Louisiana.

Under the plan, retirees would contribute eight percent of their salary to the plan, and the state would kick in at least four percent (private employers who pay Social Security must contribute 6.2 percent). Currently, the state’s retirement contribution is over 20 percent of the employee salary.

Money in the plan would be invested by the retirement systems. Employees would be credited with money earned when investments perform well. Unlike 401(k) investments, employees would be protected from actual losses if the market sinks.

When they retire, employees could either convert their balance to an annuity that pays regular amounts over time, or take it in a lump sum. Unlike the state’s current defined benefit retirement systems, which guarantee an income for life, retirees could spend all of the money saved under SB 61.

Because state employees do not have the safety net provided by Social Security, some senators questioned the morality of a plan that could leave retirees destitute if they outlive their savings.

“We cannot afford to protect people from making bad decisions in their lives,” Sen. Guillory said, echoing Ebenezer Scrooge’s famous response when asked for charity at Christmas: “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses. Are they still in operation…those who are badly off must go there.”

For more information, read Advocate reporter Marsha Shuler’s account here, and Times-Picayune reporter Jeff Adelson’s story here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

LFT urges rejection of education budget

LFT President Steve Monaghan
 (Baton Rouge – May 10, 2012) The Legislature should reject a proposed $3.4 billion public education budget because it violates the state constitution and could enrich as-yet unidentified private companies at the expense of public schools across the state, Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Steve Monaghan said today.

If the Minimum Foundation Program formula proposed by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education goes forward, Monaghan said, it will constitute a radical redefinition of the meaning of public education. The plan would pay for a dramatic expansion of charter schools in the state, and for the first time make tuition for private and religious schools an official part of the education budget.
“This is the worst Minimum Foundation Program ever submitted,” Monaghan told the Senate Education Committee.

In spite of Monaghan’s objection, the committee voted four-to-one to report SCR 99 by Sen. Conrad Appel (R-Metairie) favorably to the full Senate.

To read the rest of the story, please click here.

Friday, May 4, 2012

JFT/PSRP Chair Laura Harper wins national award

Laura Harper, center, with AFT Secretary Treasurer
Lorretta Johnson (left) and PSRP Chair Ruby Newbold.
Laura Harper is a fierce defender of public education who has served for 23 years as Paraprofessional and School Related Personnel Chair of the Jefferson Federation of Teachers. At the recent AFT/PSRP Conference in Washington, D.C. Laura received this year's Albert Shanker Pioneer Award.

Laura was selected "for her willingness to speak out and speak up when confronting injustice," said AFT/PSRP Chair Ruby Newbold, who presented the award. "If you are not doing right by our members, you will hear about it" from Laura.

In accepting the award, Laura cited her role model, Mother Jones, who "used to say 'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.' I say pray for the school board and fight like hell for the PSRPs!"

To read the rest of this article, please click here.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lynette Thomas is AFT’s PSRP Everyday Hero!

AFT Everyday Hero
Lynette Thomas
Thanks to the strong support of her Louisiana brothers and sisters, Lynette Thomas was voted the American Federation of Teachers’ Everyday Hero among Paraprofessionals and School Related Personnel. Lynette, who is the food service manager at St. Martinville Primary School in St. Martin Parish, will be the AFT’s guest at the union’s upcoming national convention in Detroit.

The AFT Everyday Heroes election takes place annually to recognize the extra efforts that teachers and school employees make to improve their communities. Heroes are elected from categories that include classroom teachers, PSRPs, higher education, public employees and healthcare workers. Winners are determined by an online vote.

Here is the inspiring story that won Lynette Thomas the AFT Everyday Hero award:

In her day job for the past seven years at St. Martinville Primary School, Lynette serves healthy meals with a heaping side of confidence. She hosts a celebration every month for all the birthday kids, who sit at their own table in the middle of the cafeteria and are feted with cupcakes, ice cream and presents. For some children in St. Martin Parish, this is their only birthday party.

Every Halloween, Thomas and her team of six food service workers create a haunted house in the gym, with treats for all. Up the road at her hometown of Parks, where "kids can't go trick-or-treating like they used to," Thomas puts on a Halloween extravaganza, closing off two blocks, manning a table with neighbors who give out candy and balloons to the younger set, and enlisting high schoolers to create a scary graveyard and haunted house for the older ones. Hundreds come every year for "Trick or Treat on Simon Street."

To read more about the amazing Lynette Thomas, please click here.

Panel denies whistleblower protection for charter school employees

(Baton Rouge – May 2, 2012) Despite evidence that charter school teachers have lost their jobs for reporting criminal activities, a legislative committee today rejected a bill aimed at protecting whistle blowers.

Charter school teachers are at-will employees with few job protections, and many are afraid to speak out when they see laws and policy procedures broken, according to United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter.

“Because of pressure to do as they are told, teachers and school employees in New Orleans charter schools are afraid to bring issues to light,” Carter told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. “They fear reprisal.”

The UTNO President and Louisiana Federation of Teachers Legislative Director Mary Patricia Wray urged lawmakers to approve House Bill 1149 by Rep. James Armes (D-Leesville). The bill would have doubled the penalty on charter schools for punishing educators who report infractions. It would have also required action on complaints within 90 days. Currently there is no time limit, and some complaints have languished for more than a year.

Carter told the panel about shocking cases in which charter school employees were punished for reporting violations.

In one well-reported scandal, Carter said, three teachers at Abramson Science and Technology Charter School in New Orleans lost their jobs after reporting cases of sexual misconduct between students at the school. One was terminated within weeks of the report, and the others’ contracts were not renewed for the next school year. A state education official who warned of problems at the school was also fired.

While the school’s charter was eventually revoked, the three teachers were never rehired.

In another example cited by Carter, a middle school teacher in a charter school sent his principal an e-mail about special education students who were not receiving the services they needed. Within a week, he said, the teacher was suspended and later terminated.

Rep. Armes told the committee that “We are here because of things that are happening in charter schools in New Orleans. Terrible things.”

The bill was opposed by the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

LAPCS policy director Veronica Brooks said the bill is unnecessary because existing laws should protect educators. She also said it is unfair to double the penalty for charter schools over what would be imposed against traditional public schools.

If schools are are doing the right thing, Wray responded, they don’t have to worry about the penalty. “We are here because charter schools are the ones who are not following the law,” she said.

Faced with opposition from both the politically potent charter school organization and the state education board, the committee quickly killed the bill. Only one member, Rep. Girod Jackson (D-Harvey) voted in favor. Casting “no” votes were Reps. Taylor Barras (R-New Iberia), John Berthelot (R-Gonzales), Stuart Bishop (R-Lafayette), Mike Danahay (D-Sulphur), Tony Ligi (R-Metairie), Gregory Miller (R-Norco) and Tim Burns (R-Mandeville).

United Teachers of New Orleans President Larry Carter, right, argues in favor of a bill that would protect charter school employees who report illegal or improper activities. With him are Rep. James Armes, author of HB 1149, and Louisiana Federation of Teachers Legislative Director Mary-Patricia Wray.