Saturday, October 17, 2020

On the South Bend Community School Corporation Board of Trustees election of 2020


Once our daughter approached Kindergarten age I began to pay close attention to the South Bend Community School Corporation and its governance. Often what I saw was less than confidence inspiring.

I wrote elsewhere in great detail about our decision making process in picking an elementary school (we chose Hay) and an intermediate center (we chose LaSalle). Our daughter is now a senior in the Adams IB program and despite what I mentioned earlier we have been generally quite pleased with her experience in the SBCSC.

Nonetheless, there were times when school board meetings appeared more like performance art than business meetings.  There was ongoing turnover in the Superintendent’s office: Calvin, Raymond, Zimmerman, Kapsa, Spells, and now Dr. Todd Cummings. Conflict, contention – no continuity.

Those days seem to be at an end. When the current Board meets, what I see is a group of people with a shared vision and collegiality that I believe is new and exciting for our community. It’s early yet, but I see the trajectory as more promising than at any time in the last fifteen years, at least.

We have an election soon, and four of these members, two from districts and two at-large, stand for election or re-election. I endorse all of them: Anella, Ball, Weslie, and Monterrosa, but in particular I commend to your attention Rudy Monterrosa.

Rodolfo Monterrosa, Jr. was appointed by the Board to complete the term of Maritza Robles, who died suddenly and unexpectedly.  Like so many others in our community I was devasted by her death.  She was a simply amazing person.  I had volunteered in a small way in both her campaigns and considered her a dear friend. Clearly no one could replace her.  But someone had to succeed her.

There came a time when I was called to jury duty on a criminal battery charge. It took the entire day to seat a jury and I was the last one selected.  The defendant did not inspire great sympathy in terms of his demeanor, but of course that isn’t supposed to matter.  I think it did matter (unfortunately) and I think that had something do with it taking an entire day to seat a jury.

His public defender was Mr. Monterrosa, who impressed me in so many ways over the next few days. His respect for process and all the participants, to be sure. But I think the thing that most impressed me was the energy and focus he put into ensuring that his client (who clearly had few advantages) enjoyed all the protections afforded by our Constitution.  To me, Monterrosa displayed the imperative of equity: that each of us deserve an equal chance at justice. The defense was successful, by the way.

So, I was frankly delighted when the board chose Rudy to complete Maritza’s term.

Since then I have had the chance to learn more about him and observe him in action. As a board member, he has shown independence and a healthy skepticism.  For example, despite our Superintendent’s inexplicable endorsement of a charter school (Purdue Polytechnic)  competitor’s application to locate here, and his later advocacy to house them in Washington High School, Monterrosa stood alone in his adamant opposition that this be pursued by the corporation. As it turned out, the community agreed with his position and the matter was dropped.

Each year around Christmas, Rudy and his wife take a small group of volunteers to provide legal representation to immigrants in the Dilley, Texas area, whose only wish is to enjoy the opportunities most of us take for granted and who have odds seriously stacked against them.

Rudy was inspired to pursue the law when he met (as he puts it) “someone who looked like me”.  Unsurprisingly, he puts a lot of energy mentoring young Latina and Latino lawyers and those interested in pursuing legal careers.

In another ethnicity I think Rudy Monterrosa would be characterized as a mensch.  I hope you will join me in allowing him to continue to serve us on the South Bend School Corporation Board as he hopes to do.

Monday, May 18, 2020

South Bend Yes!

cover photo, Image may contain: outdoor, possible text that says 'The greatest threat to public education is to assume someone else will save it.'

Our legislature has been derelict in its duties, asleep at the wheel, or perhaps worse.

You will hear that it spends a huge proportion of state revenues on K-12 education funding. This used to be called public education funding, but it has morphed into funding for Charter Schools and private school vouchers as well. One might also argue the “huge proportion” merely reflects how little it invests in other needs; roads, bridges, public transportation, higher education, and the like. But to put it in perspective, Indiana currently ranks 36th in the nation in per pupil expenditure (PPE). In 2004-05 Indiana ranked 13th.  That’s how far we have fallen.

Historically, school funding has most often been derived from property taxes. This has led to many inequities. At first blush, having the state collect and disburse these monies would seem to address this problem. But the devil is always in the details.

Although the funds were pooled, they were still based upon property tax revenue. That pool shrank when the so-called Circuit Breaker measure was adopted.  And to make sure that it would be extraordinarily difficult to make adjustments should problems arise (as they have) the measure was quickly enshrined into the state Constitution. Facing this steadily decreasing funding, Indiana school corporations find themselves back where they started.  Gaps must be filled by local property tax levies.

Why did this happen?

The Hoosier legislature is fixated on austerity.  It’s never the plan to explore increasing revenue to address urgent issues.  It’s always the plan to “teach them to make do with less”.  This policy has led to our decreased standard of living, higher infant mortality, decreased lifespans, etc. But there’s something else at work, too.

There are folks who want public education to fail - either because of ideology or profit incentives. Their goal is to choke down funding, de-professionalize teaching, and end the meager union protections left to teachers and staff.  They block public accountability to private and charter schools, allow exceptions for charters in the state grading system, allow charters to buy school corporation buildings for $1 – all strategies to weaken traditional public schools. Like all opportunistic feeders, they only succeed if someone else fails.

Charter schools typically contract for services.  Food service, maintenance, etc. are performed by for-profit companies (often owned by the same folks who run the school) which are often closely held chains.  The major expense for these companies is labor.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to what this means for employees.

A local example has recently emerged – a group I’ll refer to as South Bend No.  These happen to be some of the folks behind the only currently operating charter schools (Success and Career Academies) in South Bend. They claim that they want the public schools and their students to succeed, but if that were the case you might think they would leave it up to citizens to decide for themselves as to the merits of the referenda. Instead, they have real skin in the game to defeat it; including a full-time staffer, a hired media company, yard signs, and the like.

They claim great results in their schools, but they leave out some details.  Due to poor performance, Career Academy’s original sponsor Ball State dropped them.  They were able to attract a more compliant Trine University to take over.  By eventually splitting into three schools, they were not only afforded a reset of state accountability, they also are qualified to apply for three nearly $1M federal “charter expansion grants” (administered by the state). We don’t know much else about their finances because they are not subject to public review.  But the main point is that they play with different rules than your public schools.

I’m voting in favor of the referenda.  Our community cannot prosper without an effective public school system that can offer a variety of learning and growth opportunities for our young residents.  SBCSC has made some impressive strides given the conditions it operates under, but if we don’t stop the bleeding the patient will die. We clearly can’t count on the state to do what’s right.  It has to be us.

Don Wheeler hosts the Facebook page Michiana Advocates For Public Education and serves on the Finance Advisory Committee of the South Bend Empowerment Zone.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A fox in the hen house?

“It could bring more students back to Washington, give students more opportunity and we could end up with some financial benefit,” Cummings said. “Should the board choose not to do this, take $7,000 per student and that 125 will go to (Purdue Polytechnic). We will lose those students.”

These are the words of the South Bend Community School Corporation Superintendent Todd Cummings in support of an "Innovation School" collaboration with Purdue Polytechnic High School, recently approved for a charter in South Bend.

This is the same man that actively courted PPHS to come here, and offered the only public comment on record in support of charter authorization. Once that was accomplished, he pivoted to a "Now they're here - we better make the best of it" narrative.  This would be the best of it, according to him. 

(Or: Nice little school Corporation you have there.  It'd be a shame if something should happen to it.)

It would seem as though the guy we hired to bolster and protect public education in South Bend actively sought to infiltrate it.  As though privatizing was his agenda in the first place.

And think about who is behind this whole scheme of "a nationwide network of charter high schools providing a conduit of students to the Purdue Polytechnic University program" (per their charter application).  Mitch Daniels.  The guy who sold the Toll Road, leaving us with inadequate revenue to maintain our state roads and bridges.  The guy who assured us the Iraq war would be paid for via income tax cuts.

Neither of these gents inspire much trust at this point.

PPHS will struggle to attract students.  It offers an inferior program.  The have had trouble attracting students in Indianapolis - a city much larger than South Bend.  If we "hook up", we could be on the hook for the excessive cost per student that results from this.

Just say no.

What do you think it symbolizes?