Friday, October 26, 2012

Why I can't support Roger Parent's re-election

Don Wheeler
I have more than a little respect for Roger Parent.  Roger has attracted resources to the South Bend Community School Corporation via his connections.  It's not a known whether they would have been available otherwise.  I credit him for making things happen in any case.  I am also in complete agreement with his observations published in today's paper  and I'm glad he wrote about the situation.  I support action to review the conduct of Bill Snaidecki - who has caused enormous trouble, tumult, and expense. There are probably some other ways Roger has been helpful that I don't recall right off as well.

I have contact with some current and past Board members, some familiarity of recent history, and of course follow relevant events and issues in the press.   All these inform my perspective.  So here's what I don't like.

For starters, Roger raised and spent $37,000 for an unpaid position when he ran in the gang of 15 last time.  I'm pretty sure that was well in excess of what all of the rest of us spent, combined.  Not damning by any means but something of a red flag to me.

Prior to that election the Board (after some pretty tough sessions) narrowly decided to launch a nationwide search for a permanent Superintendent to replace the recently terminated Robert Zimmerman.  James Kapsa had been named interim in the meantime.

Despite the fact that the search could have been funded without touching the school corporation budget, candidate Parent insisted that Kapsa should be named the permanent Superintendent.  My position (especially considering Mr. Kapsa had no prior experience as Superintendent) was that he should be invited to apply.  But considering the pain and tumult which occurred over the dismissal of Dr. Zimmerman, the community needed a fresh start with someone experienced in the process of major overhaul of a school district.

Parent and Stephanie Spivey won the election and the (partially lame-duck) Board decided to consult the Trustees-elect on the matter.  Ms. Spivey had been clear and vocal during the campaign that what was needed was "a turnaround expert" in the position.  She confirmed to me that her view had not changed as we walked into the SBCSC building together.  We parted company, she to an Executive Session Board meeting and I to the gallery.

The report of the ESB meeting was a motion to permanently appoint Mr. Kapsa to the position - effectively reversing the earlier decision.  And imagine my surprise when Stephanie rose to speak in favor of the motion - though not all that convincingly.  In fact, of all speakers I was the only one to voice opposition - suggesting that the original course was the wiser one.  That prompted Trustee Ralph P. to comment that he admired my courage.  It wasn't much fun, that's for sure.

Naturally I felt a bit blind sided by Stephanie.  When I asked her about it later, she muttered something about being steamrollered.  I didn't press for details and she didn't offer.

So Parent pretty much made this all happen.  But the honeymoon didn't last with Kapsa - for whatever reason.  From what I heard and observed, Parent made things difficult for Kapsa, eventually causing him to "retire".  (I've heard it put more harshly).  Two years later we were back where we started from - looking for a Superintendent.

Parent's conduct at the early meetings could be characterized as self-important and petulant.  He even offered for President at the very first meeting he sat in.  He was narrowly defeated by sitting President Sheila Bergeron. 

That observation may strike you as petty, but it then set the scene for a continuation of all that the community loathed about their school board.  There was already one self important and petulant member (Snaidecki), and it seemed clear that there would be no end to the plague of factions.

Puzzlingly, about a year into his term, Parent penned something of a manifesto of what had and hadn't been accomplished.  This was published in the Tribune.  What was striking about it in my recollection was that there were 23 instances of the words "I" and "me" and zero (or at least nearly zero) or the words "we" and "us'.  It almost seemed a plea for re-election.  But he wasn't up for election.

Then there was the instance when he was so adamant about the New Tech High School program, that he threatened to start his own charter version if the program wasn't adopted by the SBCSC Board.  This was reported by the Tribune and occurred in open session of the Board.  The program clearly has merit, but that was a pretty crummy way to behave.  But he got his way.

Fast forward to present day.  Bill Snaidecki goes to the press, charging the Board has met illegally. I could fill many pages covering what is wrong with this action and catalogue other transgression on Snaidecki's part.  If I were a fellow Board member, I would not have taken this lightly.

But what does Roger (and Michelle Engel) do?  They also go to the press.  But they don't just say that Snaidecki is wrong - and that the Board will need to come to an understanding about this.  They say that Snaidecki must apologize and resign as Vice President.

No one who knows anything about the man would have believed that would happen.  And it didn't.  So back to the press goes Roger announcing what he surely intended from the beginning - a motion of censure.  And he's dragged the Superintendent into this mess as well.  He wasn't able to achieve enough support to cause this action to happen prior to election, so its scheduled shortly after. 

I couldn't believe it, so I wrote the Tribune expressing my frustration and exasperation. 

I have no doubt that Roger Parent deeply wants the children of our community to thrive.  None at all.  But individuals who are intensely self-absorbed and filled with certitude ride roughshod over others and often get in the way of their own stated goals. 

The community is fatigued by the drama and intrigue their school board has provided over the years.  There's a reason Dawn Jones has been unopposed the last two times she's stood for election.  The same reason Jay Capanigro is so highly respected.

So though I know Roger Parent has much to offer our community, I cannot support his re-election.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My letter to President Obama

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington DC 

October 15, 2012

Dear President Obama,
I am the parent of a public school fourth-grader in South Bend IN.  I write today to express my deep concern regarding federal education policy.
We have in our state a Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Bennett, who appears to be wholly dedicated to turning over our school system to for profit companies.  He can do this under the cover of your “Race To The Top” program.  From the Fort Wayne, IN  Journal Gazette:
Indiana enjoyed almost 24 years of steady, collaborative effort to improve public education under Republicans H. Dean Evans and Suellen Reed, but Bennett’s election four years ago marked an end to the partnership among policymakers, educators, parents and the business community. The noteworthy improvement Indiana schools have made in recent years, including higher graduation rates, is the result of the foundation Evans and Reed set.

Rather than follow their example, Bennett cleaned house, replacing experienced educators with a DOE staff whose frequent turnover has left school districts struggling to interpret rules and requirements. He took advantage of GOP majorities to push an expansive legislative agenda, including the nation’s most expansive voucher program. Before its effects are even known, he is looking to extend it, eliminating the restriction that vouchers go only to students who first attend public school. 

Studies demonstrate that charters generally don’t get better results than public schools unless they exclude low-performing children. Sometimes they can’t compete even with that advantage.  Our local charters lag slightly behind the School Corporation average in terms of test scores.  
Public schools educate all children. For-profit schools cherry-pick their student body and compensate teachers at below market levels – which enables them to steal precious tax dollars to pay off investors. Those resources belong in the classroom.  The for-profit virtual schools (which seem to be the next strategy of the Privateers) get uniformly bad reviews from everyone but Wall Street. 
Should for-profit charter schools enter the picture here, I have no doubt it will lead to a dual system for the haves and have-nots. That would be terribly ironic - since our school system operates under a consent decree whose origin is due to past segregation issues.
Please withdraw your support from the failed effort to evaluate teachers by the test scores of their students. The American Educational Research Association and the National Academy of Education issued a joint paper saying that such methods are inaccurate and unstable. Teachers get high ratings if they teach the easiest students, and low ratings if they teach the most challenging students.  Additionally, prepping students for tests cheats students of valuable instruction time.  The only people who come out ahead are the stockholders of test design and/or administration companies.
Please stop encouraging the closure of schools and firing of staffs because of low scores. Low scores are much more likely a reflection of high poverty, than an indicator of bad schools or bad teachers. Insist that schools enrolling large numbers of poor and minority students get the resources they need to succeed.
Please speak of the role of public education in a democracy, doors open to all. Please speak about the importance of early childhood education and small classes and libraries and the arts and a rich curriculum. Please remind the nation why schools need nurses and social workers and after-school activities.
Please recognize that schools work best through collaboration, not competition. Remind the nation why teaching to the test is wrong and why standardized testing should be used to help, not to give rewards and punishments.
Please, President Obama, recognize that your policies are demoralizing teachers. Many are leaving the profession. Young people are deciding not to become teachers. Your policies are ruining a noble profession.  My daughter has had five outstanding teachers in her short  school career.  Three of them have retired.
It’s time to re-think the federal approach.  Up to now, you have basically taken George W, Bush’s policy and put your stamp of approval on it.   I ask that you devote your skills and your attention to what is possibly the thing that matters most to the future of the United States – the education of our children.  I’m confident you can do better.
Thank you for reading this.
Don Wheeler

Friday, October 12, 2012

My letter to the South Bend Tribune

The South Bend Community School Corporation Board of Trustees had some accomplishments members reasonably could feel proud of.  They had secured some no cost and low cost consulting to help them formulate a strategic plan.  They appointed a Superintendent.  And they resolved an anticipated budget shortfall.  That’s pretty good work.

Then Trustee Bill Snaidecki went to the press, revealing events in a closed meeting – something he’s been accused of doing anonymously in the past.  I disagree with the South Bend Tribune’s decision to publish this information, since Snaidecki clearly violated at least the rules of the Board, if not worse.  But what followed was arguably worse.

The Board President and Secretary took their turns in the press to express outrage – insisting that Snaidecki resign the position of Vice President and apologize.  Seems to me, a meeting might have been a better forum in which to lodge the protest – particularly since at last count there are seven members of the Board, not three.  In any case, Snaidecki declined the request.

More recently, the Board President upped the ante, announcing that he and the Superintendent had initiated an investigation of Snaidecki’s past conduct, and had called for a special meeting to consider censure shortly after election day.

I hate to be a stickler for chain of command, but doesn’t the Superintendent report to Snaidecki as one of her seven bosses?  It seems inappropriate that she be involved in this way - particularly since she apparently will be a witness for the prosecution.

When asked if there was political motivation behind this announcement, the Board President insisted that announcing the action before the election and resolving the matter after the election was the most neutral way of handling things.  Not in my view.

Snaidecki stands accused, but unable to defend himself prior to the election.  There’s nothing neutral about that.  If neutrality were the goal, scheduling the meeting, but not publicly announcing it would have been the way to go.

Furthermore, the Board Secretary has announced that should Snaidecki be re-elected, she will pursue his removal from the Board entirely.  Let that sink in a minute.  Sounds to me the voters of that district are being warned not to make a mistake.

Were I a member of the SBCSC Board, I would feel marginalized by a minority of my colleagues playing out this drama in the media.  Were I a voter in Snaidecki’s district, I would also feel marginalized – since the implication that my vote might not count for anything is pretty clear.

As it is, I am neither.  What I am is a parent of a school age child, a constituent of the school corporation, and a citizen with a strong interest in the preservation and enhancement of public education.  And I don’t like any of this one bit.

To be clear:  I am not a fan of Snaidecki’s, and I could get very detailed about my reasons.  I would not be shocked if there were a strong case for his censure.  But there’s a right way and a wrong way to handle problems like this.   It’s hard to imagine a way more wrong than what’s gone on to date.

Don Wheeler
60648 Lilac Rd,
South Bend, IN  46614

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

South Bend School Board needs to get its house in order

Don Wheeler

I'm no fan of South Bend Community School Corporation Board Trustee, Bill "Common Sense" Sniadecki.

He routinely grandstands for the audience at Board Meetings.  He's been accused of attempted intimidation of female Trustees in closed meetings. He votes no on low bids if the contractor is not a local one - though state law requires our Board to accept the lowest bid.  And it is widely believed that it was he who leaked the details of the performance evaluation of  former Superintendent Robert Zimmerman which ultimately led to his dismissal.  Snaidecki opposed the termination bitterly.

More recently,  he revealed details of a closed meeting to the press (not anonymously), and the Board President Roger Parent, and Secretary Michelle Engel called him to task - insisting he apologize, and resign the office of Vice-President.  Mr. Snaidecki has refused.

From the South Bend Tribune:

Last month, Sniadecki publicly questioned the legality of an executive session of the board in which, he said, potential closure of schools was discussed, rather than just the decades-old consent decree, an order for desegregation of the schools.

In a South Bend Tribune article today , Parent, et al, upped the ante, calling for censure, and bringing new charges.

Parent said today that he and Schmidt then decided to conduct a "deep and broad" investigation into Sniadecki's conduct as a board member.

Among other examples of alleged misconduct they cite is a November incident in which Schmidt said Sniadecki dropped off an envelope for her -- when she was still the interim superintendent -- at the administration building marked "confidential."

Inside, she said, was a list of the 20 questions that would be asked of the candidates for permanent superintendent, a position for which she had applied.
Now why a subordinate (the Superintendent) would be involved in investigating one of her bosses is an intriguing question.  Particularly since she is a potential witness.

In between there was this story

Some exerpts:

South Bend’s school board president says the group’s executive sessions — closed-door meetings that are legally allowed under specific, limited circumstances — will now be recorded.

“Hopefully, this will encourage board member Bill Sniadecki to express his concerns about any issue being discussed during the executive session instead of improperly after the session is over,” Roger Parent wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that he sent to the news media, Superintendent Carole Schmidt and board members.

The e-mail, however, was not sent to Sniadecki.

Parent later said that was an oversight.
That's one possible description.


South Bend Community School Corp. spokeswoman Sue Coney said the corporation’s attorneys have advised that if the board wants to record executive sessions, it should first update its bylaws to reflect its intent.

oops, and:
 Jay Caponigro, another board member, said he thinks the decision about recording executive sessions should be decided via a consensus of the entire board.

“I think my main concern,” Caponigro said, “is Roger is making the decision on his own.”

Previously, Mr. Caponigro stated he had heard Mr. Snaidecki's complaint at the meeting, but thought it lacked merit.  Mr. Parent claimed not to have been aware of it.

I'm probably not the only one in town to think that perhaps this drama should not be played out in the press.  That maybe the complaint and cross complaint(s) should be dealt with in a meeting of the body.  In fact, it's hard to see what the desired outcome could be by using the local newspaper as an intermediary.

I would be less than astonished to discover that there is a good case for Mr. Snaidecki's removal - should it come to that.  But even if that is correct, there are many reasons to question what's gone on.

Generally speaking when one or two members of a group of seven go to the media about a topic not yet discussed by the group, I've got a problem with that.   And it was an eyebrow raiser when Mr Parent claimed that raising this issue in advance of the upcoming election wasn't politically motivated:

Bringing the issue out before the election and voting on it after, he said, seemed to be the most neutral position to take.
Well isn't that special?  Particularly in combination with Ms. Engel's intentions:

If Sniadecki is reelected in District 3, Engel said she will pursue the judicial process of having him removed as a board member.
So go ahead voters, elect him.  See what good that'll do you!

This would be funny if it weren't distracting them and us from the business of educating our children.

What do you think it symbolizes?