Monday, February 20, 2012

Why do we allow Howard Stephenson to drive Utah's education agenda? 2012 Edition - "Intent Language" to circumvent public process

I asked the question a few months before the 2011 legislative session, and I ask it now again halfway through the 2012 session. Before I discuss Stephenson's claims about the Feb. 15 Public Education Appropriations Committee that spent 2 hours on a 10-minute agenda item titled "Other Business," I want to review his actions over only the last few years. He has been in office since 1992 -- imagine what else he has pulled in those 15 years before I was paying attention. (If we're getting rid of Hatch and Bennett, why not this deadwood in 2014??)

Much of what I wrote in 2010 still applies:
"Howard Stephenson thinks public education is socialism (Very end of post). He runs public education bills to benefit specific companies, hypocritically overriding local control and increasing the costs of public education when it's one of his pet projects. He constantly misrepresents his bills and abuses the legislative process in order to pass controversial provisions with little or no scrutiny: 2008 (plus an ongoing $190,000 annual expenditure of education funds just to spite an employee of the State Office of Education who ran against Greg Hughes at the county Republican convention. Seriously.), 2009, 2010. He is unabashedly conflicted as a paid corporate lobbyist--he is the only legislator whose entire livelihood depends on the issues he supports and how he votes on those issues. Combining his last two issues--he literally ran a bill in 2010 authorizing conflicts of interest for charter school board members as a sneaky provision in a larger charter school bill.

Senator Stephenson is on all public education interim and Senate committees in the state of Utah and is literally the sponsor of half of the education bills for 2011..."

It's hard to believe the stuff Stephenson gets away with. He brings that US Congress ethic to Utah. Stephenson constant refrain when others question his tactics is to claim they are just sore losers when policy they don't like passes. The links above detail a variety of legislative abuses designed to pass his agenda with little scrutiny, even as he hammers Public Ed. about "transparency."

2008 -- Lumping failed personal bills together with teacher raises and other bills about to pass in an unconstitutional "omnibus" bill modeled after the pork bills we all hate from the national congress, one of which added $190,000 in unnecessary administration costs to route around a specific employee who ran for office.

2008 and 2009 -- Presenting bills in committee as one thing, then making last minute switches harmful to public education and trying to pass them without debate. In addition, the link about specific companies details Stephenson going off about how the State Office of Education is hurting kids because they disagree with him, especially about which specific companies to give large contracts to. (Extra articles)

2009 and 2010 -- Sneaking "minor" provisions into larger funding bills and hoping no one notices. Stephenson was ultimately unsuccess in forcing districts to further help fund charter schools in the Public Education budget bill in 2009 and 2010, the same dishonest policy he only partially forced through his 2008 omnibus and the same one he is trying to sneak around legislative process with his meeting this year. He did however succeed in specifically authorizing charter school board members to have financial conflicts of interest as part of a larger charter school funding bill, as detailed above. Seriously.

2012 Let's now discuss the Public Education Appropriations Committee last Wednesday. Stephenson, who thinks Public Ed. is socialism and that the USOE and USBE "hurt kids," is of course the Chair of this crucial committee and controls the agenda. This meeting was scheduled from 5:00 to 7:00 as part of their required-by-the-Open-Meeting-Act public agenda. 99.9% of the public has no idea what this committee does, what it was doing that night, or what is the history of practice in this committee. I listened to about 45-50 min of this meeting in 3 different intervals, but I am a nerd. They were basically going through a list of requests, whether from legislators' bills or from the USOE, and prioritizing which of the long list of items should receive the limited amount of funding available. The first list of items is available publicly as a link on that agenda. There was apparently a new list available for those in attendance that differed slightly from the linked one. Tyler Slack posted pictures of the 3 pages on Twitter, @tslack, scroll back to Feb 15.

The last item on the agenda from 6:50 to 7:00 was Other Business. I came home from some other commitments after 8:00 and was shocked to find that the committee meeting was still going in the window I had open on my computer. New lists of "philosophical items" were apparently provided to the committee, but not the public attending. The committee then debated these items for almost 2 more hours. One of them was the very controversial proposal to divert local funds, specifically voted and approved for local districts, to charter schools statewide, which was rammed 25% through in the 2008 omnibus, but defeated in 2009 and 2010 when Stephenson tried to latch them onto the larger education budget bills. This plan was put in as "intent language" for how the money in the budget should be spent. I missed all this and returned to hear the committee discussing what they had done. I heard Aaron Osmond say he was "taken back" and uncomfortable that he hadn't known of these important discussion items before the meeting and thought it wrong that those affected entities (school board, etc.) could not offer input. A couple others said they hadn't known about the items either. Stephenson replied "Yea, we should have probably made the sheet available before the meeting." If the members of the committee didn't know, and I'm betting most didn't though they won't publicly speak against Stephenson, how could the public know? And how could that conceivably not be a violation of the Open Meetings Act?

I would love to know what other philosophical items were debated. The articles about the meeting all only mention the district funds proposal. I think the document should be posted online when the minutes of the meeting are posted online, which apparently will not be for another couple weeks. How about some member of the committee stepping up before then?

I listened to about 20 min of the State School Board meeting the next day during my lunch, and heard them discuss what had happened the night before. They were angry and of the opinion that the unannounced discussion of "major policy items" violated the Open Meetings Act. I specifically heard a man state for the record that he had never seen the Public Education Appropriations Committee debate major policy items at the end under "Other business." They asked State Superintendent, Larry Shumway, to write a letter to the legislature asking them to disregard the intent language as it was not advertised on the public agenda beforehand. Schenker's account from the Trib and the USBE's blog post quoting parts of the letter. I thought this was very well-stated.

Stephenson's replied in the Trib:
“I think Superintendent Shumway is playing to the crowd knowing that the Legislature, when somebody charges ethics, is always at a disadvantage in the court of public opinion and knowing that he is unfairly using this claim even though he knows very well this is the same process that has been used for decades and is currently being used by other committees this session.”

Then to KSL (buried in the middle of this longer article):
Subcommittee co-chairman Sen. Howard Stephenson called Shumway's letter a "cheap shot" at the legislative process. "He realizes that in the court of public opinion, issues tend to stick whether they have merit or not," the Draper Republican said.

Stephenson, R-Draper, said the subcommittee conducted business like it has every other year without complaint. Furthermore, he said it only makes recommendations to the Executive Appropriations Committee, which vets and screens budget priority lists.

"Nothing that was passed will be law," he said. "There must be one or two things they didn't like that elicited the complaining this year."

Senate President Waddoups echoed Stephenson in the Trib article above:
“We wrote that law,” Waddoups said, noting the committee’s actions were nothing more than recommendations. “It’s not like we don’t know it and have legal counsel to advise us on it.”

He called the school board’s request that the recommendations be set aside “totally out of line.”

“I think what they’re doing is making an argument that they are against what the committee did and because they disagree with it and the results of what came out of there, they’re looking to change it without getting the committee itself to do it,” Waddoups said.

So it's just sore losers whining about a "normal" process that the person in the state School Board meeting said he hadn't seen in years of attending and Senator Osmond had not been advised about. I know who I believe. Read the USBE link, and if you're feeling really brave, try and listen to the 3:37 audio recording of the meeting itself. With his track record and documented efforts to subvert the process on this exact issue of diverting local funds, why should we listen to Howard Stephenson?


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