Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Boxcar filled on Feb. 23rd, Senator Mark Madsen channels Patrick Byrne, sponsors 65% rule

To quote Joe Pyrah, "Boxcars are bills that are empty even though the lawmaker knows damn well what's going into it." His list missed SB 241, with the innocuous title, Instructional Expenses Requirements.

The text magically appeared yesterday, and to those who follow Mark Madsen's education voting and bill sponsoring record, it is no surprise that the bill contains a made-up standard from a corporate flunky. And in this case, it is a pet idea of our beloved sort-of-related-to-Utah flunky, Patrick Byrne. (Though apparently the idea was actually sold to Byrne by some guy named Tim Mooney.)

The 65% (non-)solution proposes that 65% of school expenditures be spent on "classroom expenses" to alleviate supposed administrative inefficiencies. The rub is what expenses are included in classroom money and which are excluded. Sports and coaches' salaries are arbitrarily OK under the 65% rules, but libraries, counselors, and ohter important people at the school are seen as "non-classroom costs." See NY Times and eSchool News.

We already know that Mark Madsen readily quotes false numbers from out-of-state business organizations when it suits him, and Utah districts' administrative costs are in the top 1% nationally. This 65% solution-looking-for-a-problem is just an ultra-conservative sneaky way of handcuffing school districts' ability to provide transportation, counseling, and other services through mandates to meet an admittedly arbitrary number that does not magically fix anything. Mooney and Byrne just made up definitions of what constitutes a classroom cost and picked a number just above the average in order to punish school districts.

Let's not let Patrick Byrne drive our educational policy anymore. Reject Senator Madsen's SB 241.

LAST MINUTE call to contact your State Senator about HB 122, which abuses limitations on open record requests

(I posted much of this in a comment on Utah Moms Care a couple of days ago.)
Another bill that I find extremely worrying is HB 122, restricting the ability of citizens and media to access government documents through the GRAMA (Government Records Access and Management Act) law. Appeals are made harder and any document that could "potentially" be needed in litigation, which seems like basically anything to me, could be legally withheld from the public. Attorney General Shurtleff claims that investigations are being compromised, but I cannot find anywhere that they have provided an example of that. This Weber County Forum post talks about an article in the Ogden Standard Examiner which gives a good concrete example of a well-publicized police shooting case last year in which the truth would likely not be known if HB 122 had been in place.

This issue has also been discussed by the Tribune’s unknown gem of a blog called The Vault, which sometimes varies in posting frequency, but is at least more consistent than I am. The Vault deals completely with open government, largely through newspaper reporters’ attempts to obtain documents, but also highlighting laws or events that show the constant struggle to keep government open and accountable. HB 122 does not address any proven deficiency of the current process. The proponents of the bill have given inconsistent reasons for supporting the changes, and it appears to add hurdles strictly in order to stop the public from “second guessing” through a limited appeals process the government’s decision to keep documents secret. BYU journalism professor, Joel Cambell, detailed many of these things in an email which the vault partially posted. He also makes the point that those testifying in committee could not name one specific case where the current GRAMA law’s criteria have been harmful to a criminal case or civil lawsuit. And as I said, making any document off limits that could “potentially” be involved in litigation basically opens the door for the government to hide anything it wants.

The proponents have also mentioned the occasional burden on government employees to copy and share records, but inconveniencing someone is not more important than transparent government in my opinion.

These 7 senators are the members of the Senate Government Operations and Political Subdivisions Committee, which meets TODAY at 8:00 am:

Sen. Peter C. Knudson, Chair
Sen. Gregory S. Bell
Sen. Jon J. Greiner
Sen. Scott K. Jenkins
Sen. Daniel R. Liljenquist
Sen. Scott D. McCoy
Sen. Luz Robles

I know it is the last minute, but please email them this morning (Here’s contact information for every State Senator) and let them know your opposition to rolling back the protections to the public extended by GRAMA. The debate on HB 122 is scheduled last (so presumably closer to 10:00 am) and you can still make a difference in an important bill that will slide under the radar unless many of us make it an issue with our legislators. I read that one legislator emailed a constituent back about a bill as he was actually participating in the committee discussion of the bill.


HB 150, restoring State School Board elections to a democratic process and eliminating the state nominating committee

After the farce of a process for choosing candidates for our State School Board elections last fall, HB 150 was proposed to change the process to a non-partisan primary and election just like most city councils, eliminating the nomination committee entirely. It was passed by the House yesterday with some split voting among Republicans. My county voted poorly. I think Steven Sandstrom, Francis Gibson, and Kenneth Sumsion were the only Utah County representatives to vote for the bill. Representatives Dougall, Frank, Fowlke, Daw, Lockhart, Steven Clark, Herrod, Grover, and Painter voted against the proposal, with Rep. Morley missing the vote.

The current members of the State Board unanimously supported the bill, even those members who were nominated through that process. Various Republicans tried to amend the bill to convert the State School Board elections into partisan elections with candidates run through party caucuses and conventions (Rep. Sumsion eventually voted for the unamended bill, but said partisan elections would provide information on candidates’ stands on sex education…) or argue that the current process was fair and effective. "Why fix things that aren't broken?" said Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley City. Thankfully, their attempts failed and the bill has moved on to the Senate.

Please contact your Senator and ask them to support this bill making the process of electing State School Board members more fair and open, rather than merely the gubernatorial appointments of committees and candidates posing as an “election.”

Especially contact the members of the Senate Education Committee (Click on this link and then the Committee Membership link on the left side), who will decide if the proposal will even get a floor debate and vote, and express your desire for fair elections. They meet tomorrow, Wed. Feb. 25, at 8:00 am. HB 150 is not currently on the agenda, but that may change. If not tomorrow, they will likely consider the bill next week. This common sense bill needs your support.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Did Carl Wimmer not report a Rick Koerber in kind contribution last November 1st?

If someone sends out a political advocacy email on October 31 from a private list (though I don’t believe Koerber’s claims of “hundreds” of subscribers in Wimmer’s district nor the overall size of his mailing list he’s claimed at other times) promising to buy lunch for any volunteer and their family who will walk the district handing out fliers on November 1, shouldn’t those meals be reported as at least an “in kind” contribution?

They weren't.

I linked to Representative Wimmer’s general election report submitted on Oct. 28, 2008 as well as the year-end report submitted on Jan. 12, 2009. The Koerber contribution should have been reported in the year-end report, but I included both to show that I didn’t just miss something by using the wrong report.

I guess if no one actually showed up that morning, then this would be a moot point, but I bet there were at least a few people there that got an unreported Iceberg lunch.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Teacher opinions on the budget cuts

I’m alive and intending to comment on many education related things in the legislature, but I’ve made that promise before. So I’ll shoot for being tentatively optimistic about the probability of posting regularly. My first post in a long while will just be lost in a Buttars blogstorm today anyway, but here’s my perception of teachers’ perceptions. I regularly interact with small numbers of teachers from other districts, as well as my own school and district.

First of all, teachers aren’t really discussing anything regularly. The budget comes up frequently in passing, but it seems like some storm you just sit back and comment on, rather than take an active part in. Sadly, I would still broadly estimate that most teachers don’t actually keep close tabs on what’s going on in the legislative session—I’d say 70-80% couldn’t name more than two broad education issues they saw on the news...and my estimate could likely be low. They hear about big issues that affect teachers through the grapevine, but day-to-day stuff and American Idol or Biggest Loser are discussed much more than the legislative session.

As I said, the fact that the budget is bad and that cuts are coming is frequently discussed, but much more on the local “How does this affect me?” level than the global “Philosophically, how should the legislature approach and prioritize cuts to programs?” level. We’ll be discussing plans for next year on a department, school, or district level, and it will come up that anything we plan might be cut.

Painting with some broad strokes, I’d say teachers are generally very grateful to be employed at a time like this. There’s not a lot of griping right now, but those near retirement are worried about their 401k’s, healthcare, whether they need to stay for more years, etc. The rest of us are worried about class size increases, probable cuts in money for supplies, and cuts in aides—especially special education aides—and other classified employees like trackers, math lab employees, etc. I haven’t heard much discussion of the possible furlough, but I think it would largely be perceived as fair in a bad situation.

Personally, I wish I’d posted this a few weeks ago, because I generally supported the legislature’s pessimistic assumptions of 15% cuts as realistic. I wasn’t surprised at all to see the figures come in even a little worse than that Tuesday. I support a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility by government. I was pleasantly surprised by the lesser cuts and backfilling for public education in the budget for this year. The cuts have been extremely reasonable and I am grateful.

I’m internally conflicted with ranking public ed. among other important priorities, especially higher education. Public K-12 and state higher education are different administratively by tradition and necessity, but it’s really all part of the same end societal goal—a stepping stone provided for all citizens to enable them to seize opportunities through education. I also am concerned about courts, prisons, and human services.

I’m fine with holding the money from both Rainy Day funds until the 2010 budget IF it is actually used. (I think legislators may have gotten unfairly beaten up over the Rainy Day money.) I’m fine with spreading the fund out over 2 to 3 years because as I said, I think the economic downturn really may last a few years, but using ¼ to 1/3 for next year’s budget would fulfill the exact purpose of the funds as I understand it—to preserve crucial programs during a time of budgetary stress. I don’t believe there will be a “rainier” few years in the near future than the next three years. I think the rah rah stuff coming from the economic chambers and realtors, and statements to the effect “It would all be OK if everyone just wasn’t so negative” is BS. I think we’ll just have to weather difficult times, but class sizes are getting worse.