Saturday, February 23, 2008

If the legislators are going to pay themselves for all of the extra meetings and taskforces, why not pay them to participate in "working" meetings?

I posted yesterday about the Senate Education Committee's rejection of HB266, a bill allocating state funds to help pay for the International Baccalaureate program already in place at seven Utah high schools. I have also included the text of both the original article and today's follow-up.

(In an interesting sidenote, the second article had a less respectful headline when I first cut and pasted it here, indicating that some students were ridiculing the legislators' opinions. It has now been changed to a much more understated title. I wonder if some young copy editor just got demoted...)

The follow-up article confirms my suspicions about what the legislators knew about the program. Senators Dayton and Peterson had not seen or even spoken to anyone enrolled in any of the existing IB programs in the state, but instead relied on obscure conspiracy theories from the internet. Seriously. Let's see the quotes:
Dayton acknowledged Friday that she's never witnessed an IB class in session. She also said it's possible "good things" are happening in the program. It's the language she says is associated with IB that galls.
She has a problem with the program's association with the International Baccalaureate Organization, based in Geneva. She issued a written statement Friday that contends Switzerland's replacement of its arbitration rules in 2004 with those of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law taint by extension the IB itself.
This means, she said, that high schools signing on to the IB program must also by extension submit any program disputes and frustrations at the local school level to UN-inspired regulations and the goal of creating "global citizens."
"I would like to have American citizens who know how to function in a global economy, not global citizens," Dayton said.
Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, said as he walked into last week's Senate committee meeting that he was prepared to vote in favor of HB266 until he conducted an Internet search linking IB with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). After reading a line in reference to "worldwide socialization and training for a global work force," along with words such as "independence movements, exploitation and colonialism" his decision became clear.
"Socialization has been a failure everywhere it's been tried," Peterson said. "It's not the system we work in, and it's not the system that pays our education bills."

I wonder of Sen. Peterson was reading the exact article I linked to in my last post. There are seven operating IB programs along the Wasatch Front where one could obtain firsthand information regarding the content and effectiveness of the curriculum, and these two senators voted the bill down because Switzerland's arbitration laws resemble the UN's arbitration practices, and the IB program is based in Switzerland, and therefore students will have to argue their grades in front of UN-friendly Swiss tribunals where clever internationalists will brainwash them into reading books written by people from Africa and joining the Peace Corp. My comment here is ummmmmm....AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH! I try and teach my junior high kids to look at all sides of an issue. I don't even care about the IB program; I just want more care given to finding out as much personally about the issues as possible.

Let's look at a contrasting experience. Here's a nice little article about two Davis County Commissioners going above and beyond to try and stay connected with their constituents. In the same vein, I really appreciated when Senator Dayton and a couple others held an open meeting at the nearby elementary school. The legislators need to talk to more of us more often. I know they're busy and their time is more valuable than teachers' time, but I think we need more than email contact. Lobbyists are so effective because they sit one-on-one over dinner and talk about issues. They connect. While still disagreeing greatly with many of Senator Dayton's positions, I have felt like it was much easier to respect each other and find common ground the two times I have been able to speak with her briefly on an individual basis. I know I could explain my concerns about education more effectively if we could spend some time in my classroom, see some of the same things, and discuss them for 30 or 40 minutes. We could both move beyond quotes in the paper to our personal experiences and philosophies. I bet other voters with different concerns feel the same way.

I don't know that I like paying legislators to get involved, but if that's what it takes, I would be willing to pay that price. What if legislators in the various committees were paid a certain amount each year at their normal rate for meetings to spend time at the type of business or government concern they are over? Senate or house education committee members would all spend a day at a school; (I'm generalizing the committee names for lack of desire to look them up right now) rural issues members could spend the day at a ranch in Cache County or one that was affected by the Milford fire last year; business committee members could actually go to a recreation center or Payday Loan place, observe the clientele for themselves, and ask those people questions about the service; healthcare taskforce members would spend the day in a hospital or doctor's office, talking to patients and hearing their stories, making their own observations and conclusions about the problems, and maybe even reading a few dozen files of anonymous insurance information to really see what people are experiencing. They would be required to visit different places each time; they couldn't go to companies owned by registered lobbyists or be accompanied by lobbyists; and they wouldn't generally visit companies in their own industry--i.e. developers wouldn't visit the offices of other developers, bankers wouldn't visit banks, etc. It would be just an individual legislator, talking one-on-one to various people, getting the direct suggestions of ordinary people in the community, and observing for the day. Maybe throw in an extra $50 if the legislator then blogged about their experience and impressions on the Senate or House website.

You could call the program "Community Outreach Meetings" or cynically, "Reality Check Days."

What do you think? I would love to have a legislator's ear for an hour and hear their point of view while expressing mine.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The text of the original Tribune article on International Baccalaureate programs plus the follow-up

Original Article

Utah lawmakers, fearing UN conspiracy, kill funds for International Baccalaureate program

By Lisa Schencker
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 02/21/2008 08:25:06 PM MST

Lawmakers decided against helping Utah schools pay for International Baccalaureate (IB) programs after one legislator called IB's philosophy "anti-American" today.
"I'm not opposed to understanding the world," Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, told members of the Senate Education Committee. "I'm opposed to the anti-American philosophy that's somehow woven into all the classes as they promote the U.N. [United Nations] agenda."
HB266 proposes allocating $300,000 to help seven Utah high schools pay for IB programs. IB students can earn college credit by taking rigorous courses that expose them to world perspectives. More than 800 U.S. schools offer IB.
Though the House passed the bill unanimously earlier this month, the Senate committee shot it down on a 3-3 vote. When a bill vote is tied in committee, the bill fails.
Dayton's characterization of the program frustrated IB proponents.
"It's the most preposterous thing," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored the bill. "I was stunned."
Skyline High School IB coordinator Ruth Dallas and Rebecca Odoardi, director of Davis School District gifted programs, said IB is definitely not anti-American.
"I have seen nothing in any of these courses to indicate there would be any anti-American sentiment,"Odoardi said. "In fact, quite the opposite is true."
Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Salt Lake City, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said IB emphasizes the kind of world-class education legislators have been "championing up here for a long time."
Paul Campbell, head of outreach for IB North America, said he's heard allegations about IB being anti-American before. He said, however, IB is neither anti-American nor connected to the U.N.
"We would never have survived 40 years if we had a hidden agenda or ideology that we were trying to push on schools," Campbell said. "Ninety percent of IB schools in the U.S. are public schools that have to answer to their local school board and communities and that's exactly the way we feel it should be."
Clearfield High School IB coordinator Rebecca Van Dyke said the program gives students the chance to compete on an international level. Teachers are expected to integrate other cultures into their lessons and educators from around the world grade tests and projects. Van Dyke, for example, is required to teach three works in translation in her English class each year. In the past, she's taught books such as "The Metamorphosis," "Crime and Punishment" and "The Stranger."
"If there is any emphasis on this program in internationalism, it is saying we're all human beings," Van Dyke said. "We need to respect each other as human beings."
The PTA and Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City also spoke in support of the bill. But ultimately, Dayton, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, voted against it. Stephenson said only, "I'm not yet comfortable with this based on some of the input I've received."

Text boxes:
About the bill

HB266 proposed giving $300,000 to seven Utah high schools to help pay for International Baccalaureate programs.

What is IB?

IB, or International Baccalaureate, is a diploma program offered at seven Utah high schools. Launched in Switzerland in 1968, the International Baccalaureate was intended to create a curriculum and diploma recognized worldwide. A growing number of schools are working toward approval from the international organization to offer the program.
Earning an IB diploma means a student completed two years of IB courses, which have a more international focus and are taught by IB-trained teachers. Courses offered include foreign language, theory of knowledge, social studies, science, math and other subjects.
Students must demonstrate their mastery of subjects through essay-based exams and take greater responsibility, teachers say, through independent projects. A 4,000-word essay is one of the culminating assignments. Students must also complete community service.

Follow-up article the next day

Lawmakers' conspiracy theories leave high school students giggling
International Baccalaureate program part of a U.N. conspiracy to control our kids, they say

By Ben Fulton
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 02/22/2008 09:11:09 PM MST

Anna Roth, 18, had but one response when she heard a Utah lawmaker's characterization of the International Baccalaureate program as an agenda wrapped in an "anti-American philosophy" designed to "promote the U.N. agenda."
"I honestly started to giggle," she said.
A senior soon to complete her IB diploma at West High School upon graduation this spring, Roth can't say enough good things about the program.
While studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she learned to evaluate historical documents independently of her instructor, then reach her own conclusions. She said she's rarely attended an IB class where a teacher's lecture dominates the classroom. "Pretty much every IB class is a discussion class, and students often direct that conversation. It teaches you to think critically."
Hanne Paine, a 15-year-old sophomore attending West's classes in preparation for the IB program, concurs. "I don't think I've ever been taught anything specifically anti-American," she said.
Such criticism of IB may be new to Utah students, but some conservative groups have fought the program for years. Complaints in Pennsylvania and Virginia that IB perpetuates an "anti-Christian" and "anti-American" agenda have successfully removed IB programs from some schools. A model, online petition against IB at Target="_BLANK"> states the curriculum is used by the U.N. "to brainwash our kids and teach them to despise our country." Utah's conservative Eagle Forum is also a critic.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, is familiar with this criticism. It prompted her comments Thursday that helped kill a bill to provide more funding for Utah's IB programs. In voting against HB266, she said she is "opposed to the anti-American philosophy that's somehow woven into all the classes as they promote the U.N. agenda."
Dayton acknowledged Friday that she's never witnessed an IB class in session. She also said it's possible "good things" are happening in the program. It's the language she says is associated with IB that galls.
She has a problem with the program's association with the International Baccalaureate Organization, based in Geneva. She issued a written statement Friday that contends Switzerland's replacement of its arbitration rules in 2004 with those of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law taint by extension the IB itself.
This means, she said, that high schools signing on to the IB program must also by extension submit any program disputes and frustrations at the local school level to UN-inspired regulations and the goal of creating "global citizens."
"I would like to have American citizens who know how to function in a global economy, not global citizens," Dayton said.
Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, said he was prepared to vote in favor HB266 as he walked into last week's Senate committee meeting until he conducted an Internet search linking IB with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). After reading a line in reference to "worldwide socialization and training for a global work force," along with words such as "independence movements, exploitation and colonialism" his decision became clear.
"Socialization has been a failure everywhere it's been tried," Peterson said. "It's not the system we work in, and it's not the system that pays our education bills."
Peterson's vote, along with that of Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, doomed HB266 despite the fact that the legislation earlier received unanimous support in the House.
Jenny Nichols, who teaches AP and IB history at West High School, wishes lawmakers and others would witness the IB curriculum in action themselves before making decisions and issuing declarations. "This is the first time I've heard of any U.N. connection. I was very surprised," she said. "Certainly we cover the U.N. as a topic from time to time, but not as a governing principle or institution."
Members of Utah State Board of Education on Friday called accusations about the program unfounded and emphasized their support for IB.
"IB is a solid program. It provides solid college preparation," board member Thomas Gregory said.
- ROXANA ORELLANA contributed to this story.

Text Box:
IB notes

HB266 would have provided $300,000 to help school districts pay for International Baccalaureate courses.
Utah high schools with IB programs include Salt Lake City's West High, Midvale's Hillcrest High, Clearfield High, Bountiful High, Provo High and East Millcreek's Skyline High.

Plus, ridiculous paranoia about the UN infiltrating Bountiful and Provo

Next, hat tip to The Third Avenue where Oldenburg caught a Tribune article I had missed about state funding to support schools offering the International Baccalaureate degree. (Though, I disagree with his jab at public ed. quality in Utah.) Now, I am not a huge International Baccalaureate program devotee. It ensures a rigorous curriculum with critical thinking and international studies, including the requirement to learn a language. In my opinion, it's part fine program and part hoop to attain resume padding, as are most high school recognitions such as National Honor Society and the Sterling Scholar awards. I don't know if spending $300,000 to fund these programs is a good idea in light of other crucial funding needs.

But...that doesn't excuse parochial silliness:

Lawmakers decided against helping Utah schools pay for International Baccalaureate (IB) programs after one legislator called IB's philosophy "anti-American" today.
"I'm not opposed to understanding the world," Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, told members of the Senate Education Committee. "I'm opposed to the anti-American philosophy that's somehow woven into all the classes as they promote the U.N. [United Nations] agenda."

But ultimately, Dayton, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, and Sen. Darin Peterson, R-Nephi, voted against it. Stephenson said only, "I'm not yet comfortable with this based on some of the input I've received."

Huh?! What "input" are you receiving from what sources? Anti-Americanism is "somehow woven" into classes at Provo, Skyline, and Bountiful High Schools? That would be news to the many parents who drive their kids miles to attend these programs. Have any of those three senators been to an IB school, let alone talked to an actual student in an IB program in a Utah school? I seriously would like to know who is putting these ideas in their heads to be promptly and blindly accepted as truth.

The concerns apparently come from articles such as this one from EdWatch. There's a more recent article that I can't individually link to. Go to EdWatch and click on the February 18 article about International Baccalaureate and notice all of the CD's and books being sold to conspiracists across the nation. To paraphrase for you: Every statement in every unrelated UN proposal or document (and I will grant that there are plenty of wacky/scary examples) is being propagated in IB classes because the mission statement talks about "understanding that other people can be right" and you are required to learn about international points of view. ... Wouldn't that be an incredibly useful and moral thing to learn rather than a scary assimilation agenda?

I challenge any interested party to attend an IB class at one of the schools participating in the program. Don't even give notice. Just be sure to actually listen to what is being taught and talk to the teachers and students. Ask them your bogey-UN-man questions, look at their curriculum, and see for yourself. As I said, these programs would probably not be my first spending priority either, but base your decisions on facts and observation rather than hearsay.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do you believe Senator Madsen, or...Who does Senator Madsen believe?

Senator Mark Madsen of Lehi claimed 25% of Alpine School District funds were spent on district administration when it's really less than half of 1%. He believes Utah as a whole spent 35% on administration. I already explained how that was false and was backed up by the district numbers in the article. He then claimed he was "misinterpreted" by the local media and expressed frustration that the Alpine District didn't come to him and "ask if I had been misquoted." See the D-News article here:,5143,695254916,00.html

I see two problems with Madsen's claims:

1. The inherent assumption that others should assume "local media" would "misinterpret" or "misquote," thus the need to vet your information with the assumably more trustworthy legislators.
2. The fact that he then apparently expects Alpine District Officials and others to only accept and believe his version of events, despite his uncritical acceptance of misinformation, or if you will, "misinterpreted information," from a corporate group with an anti-public-education agenda,

First, I've been to two local meetings with legislators in the last few months, one at Orem City Hall and one at Cherry Hills Elementary. They were both very informative and interactive...after the legislators finished their initial comments of over 30 minutes each time. Teachers were payed lip service both times, but were accused of lying about vouchers or opposing reform soon after. Both Senators at the Cherry Hills meeting falsely claimed the districts were mismanaging tax dollars and conveniently accused the media of "bias" when they talk negatively of the legislature. Having experienced these meetings, I would believe the words of a local paper or blogger over what the legislator claimed when in conflict. I would like more information here. Does anyone know what "local media" the article refers to? Were any of you there? I have a hard time believing that Senator Madsen claimed that Utah districts spend 35% of funds on administration...but of course, not Alpine.

That leads to the second problem. He got these numbers from the American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate lobbying organization which advocates vouchers for the supposed full amount of spending per student and believes Classroom Size Reduction is unnecessary if we just teach better and use more alternate teacher certification. (I'm not kidding. Look at the first paragraph of the link below.)

ALEC on vouchers.

ALEC on Classroom Size Reduction.

ALEC also inflates spending-per-student in its state report cards besides dishonestly inflating administration costs.

Madsen said it was the American Legislative Exchange Council in December 2006. He was told that in 47 states in the country, the administrative costs for public education exceed 35 percent of their budget. He was told Utah had just crept into the "above 35 percent" category, upping the total states to 48.

Look at some of the comments after the article and see how they begin to arrive at the same conclusions as ALEC. Everything not in the "student instruction" category of the budget--i.e. teacher salaries--must be administrative waste. That includes the 6.52% on school administration (principals and vice-principals), 3.09% for support staff such as counselors and secretaries, 5.12% budgeted for instructional staff such as librarians, 8.55% on operation and maintenance of facilities, 3.75% percent on transportation, and 0.60% percent for the district business office, including accounting (and legislative audits...).

Those assertions go right along with Senator Madsen's bill to reward teachers for passing a test given by the ABCTE, a teacher headhunting company which alternatively certifies teachers for the low, low price of $850. Senator Madsen apparently believes that teaching is easy and that audits, buses, lunches, secretaries, and supplies are "luxuries" for a school.

A request: does anyone know of links to the "local media" who reported on the town meeting with Senator Madsen?

Monday, February 18, 2008

What do Utah state legislators say to themselves before they go to bed at night? Or legislative mixed messages…

State legislators, to put it mildly, seem to be sending some mixed messages these days. I’m not asking how do they sleep at night, just what they say to themselves. I wonder, from their perspective, what does the world look like? I seriously wonder what goes on inside of their heads. How do they internally reconcile conflicting actions or input? What is truth? These are just some of the recent education-related mixed messages:

1. As I blogged about on Jan. 21, the legislative audit of the classroom size reduction money specifically said that the school districts money were spending the money correctly…but that the legislature hadn’t allocated enough to cover smaller sizes and normal population growth. The lack of reduction was purely about not enough money for too many kids; NOT mismanagement by the districts. Cameron at Magic Valley Mormon explains the findings of the audit even better here and here.

But the Senators I heard speak at a neighborhood meeting claimed the opposite. Senator Stephenson has gone further and said that it’s not the state’s job to reduce classroom size. He wants to take away the classroom size reduction money the districts now receive unless they magically reduce classroom size.

Mixed message to districts: We didn’t assign enough money to reduce classroom sizes, but we’re mad that you didn’t reduce classroom sizes. Now as punishment for not accomplishing what we didn’t assign you enough resources to do, we’re going to take the already insufficient state money away and demand you reduce class size with local money. All of this, even as Rep. Dougall runs a bill eliminating some of the local revenue streams in favor of taxes distributed by the state legislature. (Does this sound like an educational Dilbert comic to anyone else?)

2. The legislators insisted that the voucher bill was not about privatizing the public education system. In fact, vouchers were only going to strengthen public schools.

That assertion is hard to believe when Rep. Frank and Sen. Stephenson are running HB0075 and HB0076. These bills seek to create special “Privatization Commissions” at both the state (both HB0075 and 0076) and local (HB 0076) levels with business interests representing the majority of the commissions. These commissions would have authority to disallow any government service that could be provided privately (with very few exceptions), regardless if that service would be more expensive or of it even would be provided. Local governments would have to comply with large amounts of paperwork to justify their actions to the commission. (Rep. Frank has been correctly zinged for the bills’ effects and for talking out of both sides of his mouth on his blog. He passionately claims that he is ONLY going after state government, citing HB0075, while conveniently ignoring the other bill he is sponsoring, HB0076, that would specifically disallow public pools from “competing” with private pools.)

So the legislators want to privatize public pools, recreation centers, golf courses, garbage collection, etc. but they of course have no interest in privatizing education…or financial stake.

3. Senator Bramble similarly danced around the truth. I asked him at the local meeting if the legislature was going to change what I regard as already tough referendum laws to make it even harder for citizens to vote on a controversial law. (The referendum last November was the first successful state referendum in over 30 years. Not successful as in passing—it was the first state referendum to even get enough signatures to be voted on in that time.) The senator went on for several minutes about why he thought referendums were a bad thing. I thought the arguments didn’t hold a lot of water. But he finally said that they weren’t going to change the requirements, though they might for citizen initiatives. (To the best of my understanding, voter initiatives are bills/proposals/laws written by non-legislators. If a high enough percentage of voters sign a petition, the bill is put on the public ballot, thus bypassing the legislature. Voter referendums involve laws that the legislature has already passed. Afterwards, if a high enough percentage of voters sign a petition, the passed bill is put on the public ballot, thus potentially overriding the vote of the legislature. The legislators I heard speak seem to hate both. Go figure.)

Senator Bramble was misleading. They are leaving State Referendums alone, but SB0054 attempts to change both county and municipal referendums, as well as state, county, and municipal initiatives.

If it passes, the deadlines will be moved up over two months for all of those vehicles of citizen redress, making it even harder for a group to gather the necessary signatures before the arbitrary deadline. They left state referendums out because that move would attract too much attention after the successful referendum last November. Does anyone doubt that within a year or two the requirements of state referendums will also be changed to match all of the other citizen referendum and initiative laws?

4. Last, the legislature has been hit hard in the media and by bloggers this year over the influence of lobbyist gifts and campaign contributions. Speaker Curtis, State Attorney General Shurtleff, and Senator Dmitrich have all publically claimed that these perks do not corrupt or influence the legislative process. Senator Dayton told the Cherry Hills meeting that “The voters should be offended” that the media would make such a claim. Senator Bramble gave one-sided examples where supposedly lobbyist gifts helped the legislative process and childishly asked the attendees to raise their hands if they disagreed with him.

This is where I really wonder. What are they thinking? Really. They can’t see the appearance of impropriety…even if we buy their claims of perfect integrity against all financial temptation? I wish I had been saving articles last year and knew the details of the proposal last legislative session to ban teachers from accepting Christmas gifts from students. I don’t think it ever got anywhere, but can’t they see the disconnect there?

Look at this scenario: I’m a teacher. Let’s suppose that I honestly am a longtime friend of two families. All of our families have honestly spent time as legitimate friends before now. Let’s say the other two families have children of the same age and I end up with both of them in my class at the junior high. The night before an end-of-level test, the other two families just happen to treat my family to a nice dinner followed by a Jazz game with luxury box seats. My family pays for none of this. The test is given the next day and both of those students just happen to get perfect scores.

It is course possible that their scores were legitimate and that these families always give me generous gifts in appreciation for my friendship. But would you believe that was the case? Can you not see how it appears? Would you blame other students and parents for being suspicious or angry if they found out about the situation? Would you perhaps propose rules regulating teacher/student relationships?

Can you see that the public and you are often viewing the issues from conflicting points of view? Is it at least possible that the public is right?

Jan. 27 Tribune Article on Legislators Profiting on Charter Schools...referenced in my post above

Charter schools in Utah: Building schools, at what price?
Some schools pay more than market value to buy buildings

By Julia Lyon
The Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated: 01/27/2008 07:29:47 AM MST

When Larissa Powell first dreamed of starting a new public charter school near her Cedar Hills home, a private company made construction of the school sound like a bargain.
Some parents say it did turn out to be a heck of a deal - for someone else. The current and former Utah legislators who helped finance and build Lincoln Academy were among investors receiving more than $500,000 beyond the appraised market value price when they sold the building back to the school.
"We caved," said Mark Bishop, Lincoln's chief financial officer.
Charter School Properties III, whose investors include current state Rep.Mike Morley, R-Spanish Fork, and former Utah County Republicans legislators Jim Ferrin and Glenn Way, never was willing to reveal to Bishop how much it cost to build the three-year-old structure with a roof that has always leaked. Like homeowners everywhere, the parents believed it was better to pay a mortgage, saving money in the long run, rather than watch the lease climb. But buying came with consequences.
"[The company] would have us believe that they loved the ongoing, safe investment of the lease so we had to pay a premium to purchase the building," Bishop wrote in an e-mail. "Very altruistic of them."
Lincoln is not the only charter school signing big checks. Reagan
Academy, a charter school in Springville, purchased its building from Charter School Properties #4, which includes the same trio as investors. The school paid $700,000 over appraised market value. Noah Webster Academy in Orem paid $600,000 over its appraisal to Noah Webster Properties owned by Ferrin and Morley.
The private companies developing and financing charter schools in Utah stand to make enormous profit in a booming industry with little oversight and minimal competition. Without legal representation or construction expertise, some starry-eyed school founders may not be in the best position to protect their schools' interests, parents say. They make mistakes that could cost the schools and taxpayers money.
"I wish the state could find a way to not put us at the mercy of the charter developers," said Stephanie Colson, a founder of The Ranches Academy, a charter school in Eagle Mountain.
Each year, charter schools' funding and future are in the Legislature's hands. Ferrin was among lawmakers who championed legislation aiding charter school growth. When the charter movement began in the 1990s, these schools were conceived as cost-efficient innovators. Schools took root in old buildings rather than the gleaming new facilities typical today. Over time, planning a multimillion-dollar building before the first student enrolled became the norm.
"They want the enrollment, so they can have the multimillion-dollar building and kids will want to come to their facility because it looks good," said Marlies Burns, director of the state charter school office. She was unaware of parents' frustration about the purchase prices.
Despite some parents' frustration, though, many schools see these businesses as saviors willing to take a significant financial risk to make their charter schools a reality. "Our mistake was we didn't have signed papers saying, before we started. . . how much it's going to cost," Larissa Powell said. "Who would buy a house if the price was constantly going up and you never knew what the final price was going to be?"
For one charter school developer, selling schools for far more than the appraised value is "egregious."
"The reason I feel so strongly about it - it gives us a black eye, too," said Tom Pitcher, president of HighMark School Development, previously known as a related company, Excel.
"There are a lot of guys out there doing business the right way."
Charging above-market rates on leases can impact the appraisals, he said
Then schools are charged even more to buy themselves out of their leases.
Other schools can see the logic of a higher-than-appraised price. Reagan had no option to buy in its original lease, but doesn't feel it got trapped, according to board chairman Todd Powell.
"I understand that feeling . . . that it's public money and a school, but I also understand that there are market economics that apply like risk and finance, like cost of land and cost of construction," he said.
Sharon Moss, a founder of Noah Webster Academy, shares a similar view.
"The market conditions drive what the market pays for property," she said. "When we originally secured the [property] we paid a premium price for that because that's what property was going for at the time."
Appraisals are probably trickier for charter schools because there are a small number of schools and "a handful" that have been sold, Ferrin said.
Appraisals are based on past sales, which don't always indicate the current market, according to Jeff Heaton, a commercial real estate specialist at NAI Utah Commercial Real Estate based in Salt Lake City. That could explain why an investor would demand a higher price, he said. Utah's commercial real estate market remains strong.
Lincoln bought its building for less than what a formula in its lease could have yielded, Ferrin said. But the purchase price was more than the appraisal price. Unhappy with the purchase formulas but happy to have a purchase option, the school had agreed to the provisions after weeks of negotiation.
"We were so desperate to have some way to purchase the building," said Bishop, the school's CFO.
But not everyone is paying above appraised market value. American Leadership Academy, a Spanish Fork charter school, bought its school from Charter School Properties V, made up of another group of investors that included Ferrin, Morley and Way, for roughly more than $2 million below appraised market value. Morley's and Way's wives are on the school's board.
"I kind of thought we paid what was appropriate at the time," said Rob Muhlestein, the school's director, noting that the wives recused themselves from the real-estate decisions. "It was more than originally what everyone thought it would be."
Ferrin described the appraisal as "subjective."
"We sell the schools to the schools at a price they can afford," he said.
But he acknowledged his business is designed to make money.
"Our California investor group - I have to be able to show them they ought to be putting money into this charter school rather than into a shopping center," he said.
Once the state approves a new charter school, no public money is automatically provided to build a building. Newly available charter school loans from the state max out at $300,000. Although some federal startup grants can be won, the first operating dollars arrive on the last day of July before the school opens.
That leaves parents scrambling for private financing for properties that may eventually cost as much as $21.5 million and will be bought back with public dollars. Interviews with charter schools reveal those loans can be extremely difficult to arrange, something they would like the state to change.
"It's the mighty dollar," said Colson, a founder of The Ranches. "Whoever has the money is who's going to be able to build the school for you."
Not every school has a nightmare to share and not all development companies or deals are alike. The experience building Summit Academy's junior high through Academica West's affiliate One West Construction was so positive that a board member said he would give the company the builder-of-the-year award. Lakeview Academy in Saratoga Springs locked in a purchase price formula in its lease with Lakeview Project Development, a company related to Excel, and bought its building for more than $1.5 million below appraised market value.
Depending on the arrangement, the development company may arrange the initial financing and construction. A related company may act as landlord and eventually sell the building back to the school. Rather than shopping for contractors, the same builder may be regularly hired, part of the arrangement that some question.
"It does not seem ethical," said Tiffany White, a founder of George Washington Academy, a St. George charter school. "Their hand is in every inch of the pot. They find the land - they pick their own builders. They pick their own architects."
In some cases, the developer is working with parents before the school is approved by the state, helping to develop an application and plan a school that may eventually become a money maker. Contracts that are made before a charter school is officially approved by the state are assumed to be outside competitive bidding rules, according to Carol Lear, the director of school law and legislation for the Utah Office of Education.
Lack of competition is always a concern, said Brigham Young University associate professor of economics Robert Crawford.
"A contractor who comes out and says 'I'll do this for you because I'm such a nice guy' - that's not why they're doing it," he said. "They're interested in the business of providing services and product, and they most likely will try to get as high a price as they can for their services."
If contractors don't have to worry about competitors, they may choose to use poorer quality construction materials, allowing them to make a larger profit, he said.
Even now, as the number of companies increases and the state pushes the importance of following bidding rules, new schools are not always asking for formal bids from companies though investors will eventually receive millions in taxpayer dollars. That appears to have been a larger problem in the past.
State education officials say it's not up to them to ensure the competitive bidding process standard in traditional school districts is taking place. That bidding is designed to ensure that public agencies wisely spend their public funds and businesses have an opportunity to compete.
"They would be responsible kind of like a district for policing themselves," said Burns, the state charter school director. "That doesn't mean we wouldn't need to take a more active role if there ends up being a serious concern in this area."
Some schools are reluctant to talk about their developer. They may be wary of jeopardizing a future sale, further damaging a tenuous relationship or harming charter schools' reputations. They are well aware of the power of these companies.
In an amendment to a purchase agreement, Channing Hall, a Draper charter school involved in a negotiation with Utah School Development, which is related to Excel, essentially agreed to silence certain school employees, preventing them from talking about the company.
"They were concerned we might cause them to lose clients if we talked too negatively," said Deena Pyle, the board's chairwoman.
Students at the Salt Lake City-based Dual Immersion Academy, a charter school, are still eating lunch in a heated tent on the playground because of a contract disagreement between the school and U.S. Charter Development, also owned by Ferrin, Morley and Way. When asked by the company to sign a positive reference letter last year, the school refused.
Because the state now approves charter schools nearly two years before they open - some schools in the past had only a few months - state officials hope schools will have more time to research facility choices. A list is being developed to help schools easily survey their options of experts, developers and others. A checklist has been assembled for schools to follow before contracts are signed. Facility contracts will have to be turned in to the state charter school board for review.
And some of the newest generation of schools are being founded by parents who learned from past mistakes.
As Pitcher with HighMark has traveled the country, he has noticed Utah is far ahead when it comes to charter school facilities.
Though many states have charter schools in old buildings, here the new standard is that when a school is born, a building is, too. Utah is a pioneer.
"The charter community in Utah owes a lot to some of these developers," he said.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Speaking of Merit Pay, How About a “Teacher Test” Delivered Under False Pretenses by Voucher Supporters?

The next few posts will be fairly critical of some legislators and their philosophies of education. My last post talked about the Merit Pay Task Force and my hopes and fears for what it will accomplish. Merit pay proposals may indeed bring some sort of positive effect, but there are LOTS and LOTS of real questions about how to evaluate, who to evaluate, who evaluates, standards, remediation, paying a certain percentage of teachers or paying for meeting certain requirements, etc. Merit pay proposals are seen by many as a veiled attack on the value of teachers in general, and specifically as retribution for their opposition to last year’s voucher bill. Rep. Last says the task force was created to bring together legislators and educators to try and reach "consensus" on the standards, alleviating some of those concerns about top-down regulations.

So why is Senator Mark Madsen running SB0091, a bill that institutes merit pay under the guise of a teacher qualification, instead of contributing his input to the task force as they consider all the alternatives and ramifications of merit pay? I’m afraid the answer is that it’s about retribution and corporatization of education, as well as another attempt to weaken the bargaining role of the UEA in teacher compensation.

The bill proposes paying for teachers to obtain a special certification and then paying them more salary afterwards. At first glance, while still puzzled as to why the proposal wouldn’t be wrapped into the Merit Pay Task Force, I thought the bill was just recognizing the merit of a widely respected teacher training program, know as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). This organization was founded by education professionals in 1987 and is known for its broad, rigorous requirements for showing classroom mastery. Teachers have to demonstrate mastery of the subject matter and an understanding of classroom and community principles through extensive evaluation and a portfolio of their work. Here are the standards for a Junior High English Teacher.

But the bill is about another organization, The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. The similar sounding name is just a coincidence of course. Founded in 2001 as a “bargain” teacher headhunter, the organization tries to address the national teacher shortage by recruiting applicants, “certifying” them as teachers through the rigorous, yet quick and easy, $850 online text and test offered (see Utah’s special page and how easy it is! “Become a teacher and have a classroom of your own in less than a year!”), and then aggressively shopping them as “better” than normal teacher applicants to school districts desperate to fill positions. Because of course, one online course is all you need to be a teacher. Now, ABCTE is trying to offset this inherent cheapening of what the teaching profession requires by offering a “Distinguished Teacher” certification, which is the subject of SB0091.

This distinguished award is less than a year old and “is being piloted right now in several school districts in order to ensure the requirements will be measured in a valid and reliable way.” That certainly inspires confidence that our tax money will be well spent. Currently, they are so anxious to establish their award as legit that they will actually pay you to go through the process. (I would assume that Sen. Madsen knows this and just proposes paying for it because he knows the company will charge hundreds of dollars once they’re off the pilot program...) The process consists of 1. Passing an online test on the subject matter. 2. An evaluation by the principal. 3. An evaluation by someone else using a rubric that is similar to what Utah already uses, but must specifically come from another for-profit education corporation. 4. The test scores of your students.

In other words, almost a carbon copy of some of the merit pay proposals, but under a different name to fly under the radar and avoid any input from concerned educators. I see this as ideology over integrity. The program is voluntary, but Senator Madsen is hiding its true intent. But how did Senator Madsen even hear about this company and formulate the bill? The national, corporate “school reform” web strikes again! I need to find the campaign donor records of Senator Madsen and check them out. I wonder how much he received from large educational testing companies or pro-voucher organizations. The big corporate money and pro-voucher connections are everywhere.

The President of ABCTE, David Saba, is a businessman who spent much of his career working for Kaplan, another expensive testing and tutoring company. He takes quite a few potshots at the union in his blog and makes it very clear that he supports No Child Left Behind, especially the provisions about shutting down schools. Wouldn’t that worry Utah Senators who constantly worry about federal encroachment, especially one who actually sponsored a bill rejecting NCLB money? (Senator Margaret Dayton heads the Senate Education Committee and already passed the bill out of committee with a favorable recommendation.) Apparently not if big money and vouchers are involved.

The Board of Directors of ABCTE contains some impressive looking names and titles, but also some revealing ones. One director is the president of the Texas Institute for Education Reform. “Education Reform” is the rightwing codeword for pro-voucher, pro-merit pay, pro-privatization. Another director was actually hired away from the Alliance for School Choice and holds a simultaneous position doing research at the Goldwater Institute, another rightwing, explicitly pro-voucher advocacy group. Another lady works for ETS, the “non-profit organization” (I know it’s Wikipedia, but the NY Times article and blog quoted are solid.) that has “non-profit” monopolies on the SAT, TOEFL, GRE, and others including the CRAPI…I mean PRAXIS. The PRAXIS is ETS’s response to the “highly qualified teacher” requirement of NCLB. This test is the easiest way for a state to claim their teachers are “highly qualified” while spending no money and exerting no effort. Instead, teachers pay close to $300 to take two multiple-choice tests that “prove” they know both their subject matter and how to teach: a. Work with your student to find solutions to the problem. b. Belittle your student each time he misbehaves. c. Blame the government. d. All of the above. ETS makes a killing, the state checks off a box on their NCLB form, and the prospective teacher jumps through the hoop, rolls over, sits up, and begs for mercy. The American Board “Distinguished Teacher” test is almost identical: 4 hours of torturous bologna consisting of 5% multiple-choice questions about Instructional Knowledge and Professional Skills.

It would appear that Senator Madsen and the other members of the Senate Education Committee had to answer for themselves two basic questions about this legislation. Should we in good faith commit resources, information, and proposals to the Merit Pay Task Force…or try to pass an arbitrary, one-sided proposal via a deceptive out-of-state mechanism? And second, should we define merit as a rigorous examination of all aspects of teaching by a well-known and respected teacher organization…or as passing a multiple-choice test and receiving a “pilot certification” from a front organization for “education reform” groups? Apparently, the answers come pretty easily if money and vouchers are involved. I wonder what the simple, multiple-choice test to become a legislator looks like?

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Merit Pay Task Force—Torn Between Hope and…Realism…Cynicism…Despair?

My hopeful side likes that pro-voucher Rep. Last is looking to consult with teachers and school boards before “radically changing the way Utah teachers are paid.” From KCPW:

UEA Supports Merit-Pay Task Force
Feb 08, 2008 by Elizabeth Ziegler

(KCPW News) A merit-pay task force has won the approval of the state's largest teacher's union. A long-time foe of such initiatives, the Utah Education Association is pleased that two teachers will be on the task force.

"I think professional judgment about what is important to student achievement and good instruction is a big piece of the pie," says UEA Executive Director Susan Kuziak.

She says she's also hopeful the task force will investigate an incentive system that is not tied to students' test scores. In addition to teachers, the task force includes Legislators, State Board of Education members, and local school board members. Representative Bradley Last, of St. George, says he's proposing the task force in order to reach a consensus about merit-pay before radically changing the way Utah teachers are paid.

"If we try to implement without the support of the State Board, the State Office, the School Districts, it's not going to work," Last says.

So far he's gotten an overwhelmingly positive response. The UEA, the State Board of Education, and the Association of School Boards and Superintendents support the task force. So does the Senate Education Committee, which passed Last's proposal unanimously to the Senate Floor on Thursday. Click here for a link to the text of the bill and podcasts of the floor debates.

In the text of the bill, I like lines 62, 62a, and 63 with the amendment about a “goal-driven compensation system” and performance incentives to improve performance and student achievement. Though I believe some legislators want to hold this over teachers’ heads for their voucher opposition, the text of the bill is focused on correct principles. Lines 71-72 also recognize that the teachers of subjects besides math, English, and science aren’t less important. Hopefully, that also implicitly acknowledges that a test pass rate is not a completely accurate evaluation of teacher quality.

BUT…we know that language does not always equal intent. “Vouchers are meant to help public schools. Honest!” My realistic/cynical side doubts these legislators value teacher input and agrees with this post about the task force from the Utah Amicus:

The 19-member task force consists of 12 legislators, a governor’s designee, 2 state school board members, 2 local school board members, and 2 teachers. In the Compensation section, it states that the legislators on the task force will be paid full salary for their time - as if they were in special session - to the tune of $100 each per meeting. And what do these same legislators deem as appropriate compensation for the teachers and the school board members? How about $0?


Since all that is needed to pass official action is a quorum, four of the legislators can go home after a long day receiving lobbyists’ gifts and the remaining legislators – personally appointed by Greg Curtis and John Valentine – can still vote on whatever they want, completely ignoring any input from the teachers, school board members, and governor’s designee. Think - 8 legislators + 7 figureheads = guaranteed majority.

Two questions immediately come to mind.

WHY pay the legislators and not the other members of the task force? Is their sacrifice any greater than those other participants? The relevant compensation text in the bill is in lines 51-58. The teachers get gas money apparently, but the legislators get that same reimbursement plus extra salary. I didn’t look up the code listed, but assume that’s where Craig got his $100 dollars per meeting figure. Just as interesting are lines 87-90 that gives the total money allotted for the task force. The Senate gets 15,225 for 5 Senators and the House gets 27,405 for 9 Representatives. Or in other words, each legislator will earn $3,045 over the next year for his/her time on the task force, plus reimbursements, while the teachers and school board members get to break even—not true if you count their time, which is just as important and limited as the legislators’—for the satisfaction of being the minority in a hostile task force.

And…Craig’s second point has gotten even worse. They’ve increased the task force to 21 members, fourteen from the legislature. That’s a 2-1 ratio of legislators to other participants.

WHY put fourteen legislators and only seven non-legislators in the group? The legislators talk about local autonomy, especially concerning themselves and Washington, but don’t practice that principle themselves. Do they feel they represent the people twice as well as the locally elected school boards or the teachers? Also, those legislators will be appointed by Speaker of the House Greg Curtis and Senate President John Valentine, both huge voucher proponents and frequent participants in the lobbying meetings held around the state featuring one-sided arguments for vouchers from legislators being paid for their time by Patrick Byrne. Pres. Valentine responded to my question at one of those meetings by telling me that using the misleading $7500 figure for per-pupil education spending was “intellectually honest.” I don’t trust his judgment to pick “neutral” legislators interested in the best alternatives.

And Craig’s worry about the 8-7 votes is completely justified by lines 49-50. Any majority can vote and “constitute the action of the task force.” So 11 of those legislators could meet by themselves and vote on binding task force recommendations. I don’t think they would do anything that blatant, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some divided votes featuring only legislators on the winning side. And maybe little things like meeting on school days, making it more difficult for the non-legislators to come? I hope I am being too cynical on that worry.

I guess we’ll see. I would like a publicized schedule of when they are going to meet and where. I would love it if they held these as open meetings with the webcam option, or at the very least, if they posted a transcript or minutes on the internet. I will be emailing my take on the proposals to whomever gets appointed to the task force.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Long election lines--I sort of feel bad for the Utah County Clerk, even if his name is "mud"

I spent a lot of time waiting today.

First, I stayed home from school to get finger surgery. Nothing major, but I still had to wear the stupid hospital gown and the whole bit. The surgeries before mine got delayed and I ended up lying in a hospital bed for two and a half hours watching CNN. Mixed blessing. I had to watch a ditzy "political correspondent" repeat what happened in the West Virginia Republican caucuses every 20 minutes, but I did get to learn more about the health plans, learn the specifics of some states' primaries, and see some interesting interviews with voters.

The surgery went well and I feel surprisingly chipper. We later went as a family to vote and ended up waiting in line at our new voting location at Cherry Hills Elementary in Orem for an hour and a half. The kids somehow held up even though our 8-month-year-old went to bed an hour late. I personally saw at least 30 people walk out without voting, some immediately upon seeing the line and others after waiting for 30+ minutes. One couple I spoke with couldn't wait because the man's health wouldn't allow him to stand that long. There were parents with young children and a large number of elderly citizens, many leaning on walkers. A woman I knew said this was the 4th time she had come back hoping for a shorter line and that she was going to be late for her daughter's parent/teacher conference. We confirmed with the people around us that the wait had been at least an hour all day long. (I guess the fact we had time to make new friends from the community while spending quality line time together could be spun as a positive...) The 3 or 4 poll workers were near-heroic in trying to handle the huge crowds, but they needed help. You could see the booths sitting mostly empty--the bottleneck was at the sign-in table. Just as we reached the voting booths a few minutes before 7:00 pm (polls close at 8:00), the head poll worker lady asked if anyone else had been a poll worker before and would volunteer to help. She got a couple volunteers and that helped a little. (I was stuck with kids to look after, but I'm thinking of signing up as a poll worker in November. My grandmother has helped at her small town precinct in Ohio for like 40 years.) I was driving home from the grocery store at 9:00 pm and KSL radio interviewed Utah County Clerk, Bryan Thompson. He said that that people were still in line to vote and that some locations would have lines until 9:30 pm!

This article from KSL explains the increased difficulty for poll workers and further quotes Thompson about the long lines.

The big problem today has been in Utah County. The county consolidated polling locations. Usually there are more than 100, but today there were fewer than 60. So at places like Bonneville Elementary in Orem, the voting lines were longer, the binders with voters' names were larger, and there was confusion about which polling places to go to.

"Actually, this is the fourth place I've been. I'm glad to be voting. I'm finally in the right line. I'll be able to vote," Dan Hackaman said.

But why would Utah county want to consolidate voting locations on such a big voting day? "It was a total misjudgment, that I take responsibility for," Utah County Clerk Bryan Thompson said.

Utah County made the decision to consolidate last November based on dismal turnout in the 2000 primary. The turnout this time around is expected to be 35 to 40 percent.

I guess the 2000 primaries were much later in the season and Bush already had the nomination sewn up, leading to extremely low turnout. I could understand an honest mistake in underestimating the number of voters this time...except that Mr. Thompson knew the turnout was going to be that high and that there had been problems at some locations during the November referendum vote that also had large turnout. Before I left home this morning, I read this article. It is all about the historic nature of this primary, both nationally and locally. There have never been two such competitive contests at the same time with Utah in a position to vote right in the middle of it. Turnout has been up all over the country. And then this from Thompson:

Bryan Thompson, Utah County clerk/auditor, said he is expecting a higher voter turnout for the presidential primaries. The primaries in 2000 had only a 10 percent turnout, but Thompson said he is expecting at least twice that amount this time around.

"We're planning on about a 35 to 45 percent voter turnout, which would be close to what we had for the municipal election in November," he said.

Many voters participated in the November elections because of the statewide referendum vote on school vouchers, and Thompson said the presidential race has garnered extra interest as well. Thompson said there has been a lot of passion in Utah County for different candidates, and a good number of residents will likely take time to vote.

Then later in the article, it continues:

In Utah County, Thompson said the polling locations will be slightly different from those used in other elections. There are fewer issues to be decided this year, so the county has scaled the number of locations down to 59 from 107. It costs more than $1,000 to use a polling place, so the county has saved between $35,000 and $50,000 with the move.

"It could backfire, I'll be perfectly honest," he said. "If people are waiting in lines, my name will be mud."

Thompson said the county has hired extra employees to handle any overcrowding, so voters should not have any difficulty.

Although there are fewer locations than there were for municipal elections, Thompson said signs will be up at unused polling places instructing voters where the new location is.

Ummmm. Whoops? I thought it sounded weird as I read it. Why consolidate if you're expecting high turnout like in the November voting? Thompson admitted that the 2000 primary pattern was going to be different this time and that he expected up to 45% turnout. He took responsibility in the KSL quote, but that still doesn't explain why he was so unprepared for what he knew was coming. As I said earlier and unlike what Thompson claimed, there were not enough poll workers and the poor head lady had been there since 6:30 this morning. And, the guy behind me in line said that he had an hour-long wait back in November for the voucher vote. In my two years of living in Orem, I have never waited longer than a minute or so to vote at my normal voting location at Westmore Elementary. I don't know if the Cherry Hills neighborhood attracts a higher percentage of voters or if it's just hard to get volunteers there (the workers there tonight were awesome!), or some other explanation for the lines. But it is frustrating that the same problems had already been observed in November, and rather than correct them (i.e. recruit more workers, more training, assign fewer people to vote at that location, etc.), Thompson consolidated two or three times more people to vote there. Was the money saved worth the voters that gave up and went home? (The results wouldn't have changed, but the principle of participation remains.)

It seems that lack of foresight, or maybe lack of money, caused the problems.

Monday, February 4, 2008

New district money for the stadium and do I actually agree with the Utah Taxpayer's Association?

The RSL stadium fiasco was another example of the state legislators and Governor Huntsman utterly ignoring the very clear desires of the majority of their constituents and a hypocritical removal of the local government's authority. Sandy City politicians were right there along with them, and at first wanted to take local tax money from Jordan School District as a multi-year subsidy for Dave Checketts. When public outcry prevented this, they still hit a bunch of local water districts for millions to develop prime commercial land in southern Salt Lake Valley.

The Trib's Out of Context blog had an interesting item last Friday that seems to have gone under the radar with all of the important happenings of the last few days.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Sandy could hit up new school district for stadium money

Salt Lake County might foil Sandy's plans to snare $10 million of property-tax rebates for Real Salt Lake, but there is a yet-to-be-created taxing entity that still could pitch in:

A new school district.

In 2006, RSL vowed not to ask the Jordan School District to give up its portion of new taxes hatched by the stadium's development, dropping the potential revenue from Sandy's Community Development Area from $15 million to $8 million. Now the county -- which already has forked over $35 million in hotel taxes for the stadium project -- could slash a possible $10 million bond to $4 million if it opts out.

But Sandy, along with other east-side cities, ditched the Jordan School District with a public vote last November. School board members for the unofficially named Canyons School District will be elected this summer.

"There is no longer a Jordan School District" in Sandy, Randy Sant, the city's economic-development director, said recently. "It's always possible for us to go back and ask the [new district board]" for its share of new stadium taxes.

Sandy plans to issue a bond -- in whatever amount can be garnered from the CDA -- on or before July 1. But "there's nothing in the law" that would prevent the city from amending its CDA later, Sant said.

-- Rosemary Winters

Can they really be serious? The new district faces huge start-up costs and the two halves are arguing over current money and assets:

So of course the new district will have a spare 6 million to pay investors who paid 70+ million dollars, but just can't afford this last little bit without a handout. Maybe Sandy Republicans could just pro-actively ditch Rep. Curtis or Rep. Hughes and get Randy Sant elected. He would come without some of the voucher baggage and looks sure to walk lockstep with any big business benefit proposals that come up.

As I'm shaking my head over that one, I'll continue shaking it over a post at the Utah Taxpayer's Association blog that made a lot of sense to me. The post condemned the RDA money being taken from Granite School District for the Cottonwood Mall renovation.

The use of RDA's on already attractive commercial property does seem cannibalistic and regressive in terms of total tax money brought in.

As for the effects on the district, I am confused. At first blush, it just seems totally outrageous to give millions in education money to a developer. But I tried to read a lot of the articles and comments about the project, and now I think I might understand how the project is a least semi-palatable. I can't attribute this properly and the numbers may be fuzzy because I'm getting these numbers from some comments...on some article I read...somewhere. Sorry. I'm really thinking about the concept more than the specific numbers anyway. One RDA advocate said that the mostly empty property brings in something like $75,000 a year now. The district wouldn't actually put any money into development, but when the property started generating millions of dollars of tax revenue, the district wouldn't collect 50+ million dollars of revenue over 20 years. The district would receive something like $900,000 a year, thus increasing their current income by quite a bit, and then all of the millions when the terms of the RDA expire in 20 years. (And the commenter beneath the UTA blog post claims school district revenues would go up 500% which seems higher than any estimates I've seen in articles.) Seen in this light (I would love to know how accurate this scenario is. Anyone have a link to the text of the agreement that the Granite Board approved?), the RDA seems to make financial sense for the district.

BUT...the UTA post makes a couple of excellent points.

First, if the money generated is actually just redistributed from sales that would otherwise have taken place in Salt Lake, Jordan, or Murray School District, then Granite is just paying a developer to take money from other school districts. The millions in new tax revenue have to actually be "new" rather than just "new to the Cottonwood Area" for the benefits to be real.

Second, the huge increase scenarios depend on the assumption that the land would just sit undeveloped like it is currently for 20 years. That doesn't seem realistic to me, and the examples cited in the UTA post seem to reasonably refute that assumption. The money quote:

The proposed Cottonwood Mall RDA will not create one job, not one residence. Not one. Every square foot of retail and residential space General Growth Properties (GGP) plans on putting in this space will be built somewhere by someone without a subsidy. That’s because residential and retail development follows population and disposable income. Houses and retail developments will naturally go where people are and have money to spend. Subsidizing a developer to build residential or retail space in this place simply rearranges where this retail and residential space goes. In essence, GGP wants to take nearly $100 million—most of it from the Granite School District. In exchange, they’re not giving a single thing—because this retail and residential space will be done whether a subsidy is provided or not.

Holladay says the revenue stream they are projecting amounts to “found” money. That is simply not true. Holladay City and GGP didn’t discover hundreds of thousands of dollars just waiting for a right-thinking “investor” to pick up. They want to steal this retail and residential development from another city, perhaps Taylorsville, South Salt Lake, West Valley City or Magna, and put it on their land.

So the new RDA seems wrong in that it is specifically designed to siphon money from other districts, and that the current revenues will inevitably increase along with development without forfeiting more than 50 million dollars to a developer, albeit at a slower rate.

Help me out here. What am I missing?

(This post does not imply an endorsement of UTA's other screwy numbers about schools.=) )

Why Good Teachers Can Disagree About the Direct $2500 Pay Raise

Teachers are for the most part hardworking, caring people who want to serve their students while still providing for their families. However, they are nowhere near the monolithic, reflexive voting block the UEA haters decry. They unite against obvious attacks on public education like vouchers, but otherwise represent diverse philosophies and stages in life. This is no different than any profession. For example, podiatrists, plastic surgeons, and general practice physicians face similar challenges with schooling, high insurance rates, and balancing costs, but don’t all agree on every law, regulation, and medical practice. They have different opinions and interests depending on their area of specialization, place they live, family background, time in the profession, religion, and individual personalities. And that is a good thing. Different points-of-view are important to healthy democracy and debate. In Alpine District, the teachers reflect the population and are generally conservative Republicans, but each teacher’s individual circumstances and stage of life differ.

In the papers and at the legislator Q&A session I attended at Cherry Hills Elementary in Orem, the legislators have been trying to use those differences as wedges to fracture the occasional unity of teachers against their pet proposals like vouchers or merit pay. Last year, the legislature allocated a $2500 dollar raise and a one-time $1000 bonus for all teachers. That money really helped my family and I appreciated it. They put the money directly into salary, bypassing the normal process of increasing the amount of the WPU which is allocated per-student to the districts which then negotiate salary and benefits with the local unions. The UEA opposed this top-down measure.

The traditional route would end up in a percentage increase across the board for all salaries. A 7% WPU increase would likely end up as a 5% or 6% increase in salaries, not counting benefits. So a salary of $30,000 with a 5% raise would increase $2100, while a salary of $55,000 would increase $3850. Instead, the $2500 increase this year represented an 8% increase in my base salary and only a 4% increase for my colleague who has been teaching for 25 years.

At the Cherry Hills meeting, the legislators explained their support of the direct raises with claims that the money they allocated to salary “wasn’t getting to the end of the row” and that the districts couldn’t account for the money they gave them. These claims were misleading at best—see my previous post about admin. costs and audit results. They also explained to us how the UEA officials were opposed to the direct raises because they were all senior teachers and wanted the money for themselves. (There was no mention of senior leadership pressure on new legislators causing them to break explicit campaign promises or face all of their bills getting tabled. i.e. Rep. Sandstrom) The constant UEA bashing I detailed in my notes on the meeting shows the true game of the legislators. They are angry that the UEA organization provided the framework for the referendum signature gathering and raised funds to oppose the voucher bill. If teachers can be pitted against each other or the union, it dilutes the power of their opposition on important education bills. They’re getting something right for the wrong reasons.

We had some interesting discussions about the issue at lunch when we heard a similar proposal was in the works for this year, and I have spent quite a bit of time discussing the ramifications of the new raises with my aforementioned colleague. Seeing some of the issues from his point-of-view has helped me understand the complexity of all these issues and how compensation is inextricably tied to the healthcare system.

Being a teacher on the bottom half of the totem pole, I obviously really liked the direct raise on a purely personal level. It allowed us to put more money into my IRA and make some needed home improvements. The decision can also be justified for the profession in terms of attracting and retaining quality teachers. A teacher doesn’t go into the profession with the same mentality as someone going into business, but they do require some stability and the ability to provide for their family’s future. We’d be in deep trouble if teaching were only feasible for second earners in two-earner families as some have suggested. So I figure the $2500 increase is still an increase for the older teachers who are more financially stable, and that it will help the new teachers who need it most.

The “greedy” senior teachers have legitimate concerns about their pay when some circumstances are considered.

First, expenses of all sorts increase along with salary as your family grows and grows up. College alone has spawned an entire financial industry dedicated to paying for higher education and those expenses have increased at a rate triple or quadruple the rate of inflation. Teachers deserve the ability to plan for their children’s education. Undeniable point granted.

Second, people are living longer and retirement costs, especially healthcare, are increasing. My colleague gave me a copy of his first salary schedule in the Alpine district from 1983-84. A teacher with 30 years of experience and a Master’s degree made just under $25,000 a year. Since retirement money is based on years worked and previous salary, a teacher who retired after that year would receive a pension of about $15,000 a year. This obviously seemed at least reasonable at the time. If they had been prudent and had their house paid off, they could probably have gotten along just fine. But what if that person were still alive today, 25 years later? People commonly live into their 80’s and beyond now. Property taxes and normal living expenses don’t end. Living without insurance isn’t a reasonable option and an independent policy can be upwards of $10,000. What if they need to live in a nursing home? What if that stay is for a period of years? What if they require major surgery or medical devices such as wheel chairs? The healthcare crisis looms over anyone considering the years after retirement.

My colleague’s elderly mother receives care at a facility that costs $5000 a month. Her roommate and her husband are facing the necessity of using their house as collateral for Medicaid coverage so that the wife can continue receiving care at the nursing home. They’ll literally have nothing when they die. My colleague deals with his mother’s care weekly and often talks with that other couple, keeping his possible future financial needs fresh in his mind. What seems like a secure retirement now could look just as meager in 25 years as that $15,000 seems now. Teachers nearing retirement have a natural and understandable interest in maximizing their earnings now as every dollar translates into more security in retirement.

An argument can be made criticizing these teachers for overdependence on government retirement (though it would be awfully hypocritical coming from legislators…). I think this would be legitimate criticism of my generation, but you have to see where the teachers near retirement age are coming from. The stock market was widely viewed as speculative, risky, and beyond the abilities of individual investors as recently as the 1980’s. The retirement wisdom and mentality of the older generation counted on a stable pension to get through their retirement years as a matter of course. We can prepare the teachers my age to invest individually, but we can’t pull the rug out cold turkey from under thousands of teachers for following what was regarded as the prudent retirement path. Those teachers, along with everyone else of that age, just didn’t have the same resources we do now. Without the internet, investment information and competitive investment options weren’t easily accessible to a common worker. You couldn’t just pop into Vanguard online, check yields, see fund descriptions, and open up an IRA through an online funds transfer. The paradigm has changed now, but there’s still a steep learning curve to investment and savings as we can see in the financial news every day.

In addition, teachers retiring now and receiving pensions weren’t getting those higher salaries, and thus saving, for long. They made significantly less money as beginning teachers than I do. I was surprised to find out how many current teachers’ families qualified previously for free or reduced school lunches, sometimes for over a third of the teacher’s career. There wasn’t spare money to save and they missed out on a lot of years of compound interest.

Now, having said all that, I still think the current direct raises are a good thing. The new teacher shortage and huge initial investment needed to get a house are probably even more pressing than post-retirement benefits and the smaller raise still helps all teachers. Though, as my friend says, I’ll definitely have a different perspective in 20 years as I face my own medical problems and my family grows up needing more clothes, orthodontics, car insurance, etc. We can disagree without assigning selfish motives to each other.

The real solution lies in increased pay across the board to help secure both new and old teachers. Legislative motives don’t look good when they resort to untrue statements of cost and blame to justify the direct raises. The money IS flowing to teachers; it just hasn’t been that much historically. Trying to pit teachers against each other and delegitimize the unions as partners in education through bypassing traditional negotiations smacks of an ax to grind rather than true concern for teachers.