Tuesday, June 23, 2015

NC Legislators Shafting Education

Pretty soon, if you want a decent education for your child in the state of North Carolina, you might have to come to grips with the concept of homeschooling.

Not that our teachers are incapable. Our Daughter just graduated high school and received, for the most part, an excellent education that has prepared her well for college. Our sons will be in high school soon enough and then heading off to college themselves, also with heads full of knowledge thanks to their many dedicated teachers (and despite the few who shouldn't be teaching). They are nearly beyond the point at which the vivisection of public education by the North Carolina Legislature can impact them directly. Until, of course, they have their own children.

The disdain for public education by the Republican leadership of North Carolina -- Republicans control both the House and Senate with commanding majorities, in addition to the Governorship --  is palpable. From salaries, to support, to supplies, to benefits, to basic respect, the state of North Carolina is failing our children by failing our schools.

Competitive teacher salaries? Who needs them? In fact, North Carolina celebrates bloated middle management over the value of line-level teachers and school staff.

For instance, the NC Department of Public Instruction hires people in at salaries with a basement of $57,000 to serve as Education Testing/Accountability Consultants. Qualified applicants could draw a starting salary north of $90,000. According to ncpublicschools.org, the basement salary for a Bachelor-degree certified teacher is $33,000. A similarly certified teacher with 25 or more years of experience qualifies for a maximum starting salary of only $50,000. That's a $22,000-$40,000 gap between the teachers charged with directly educating our children and the number crunchers dreaming up tests to measure the effectiveness of our teachers.

And it isn't as though North Carolina employs merely a handful of Education Consultants. A quick search using a handy tool provided by the News & Observer shows almost a full eight screens -- 197 individual positions -- of employees with the title Education Consultant Levels I, II or III. Perhaps, in a state made up of 100 counties, 197 consultants on various topics of public education isn't too extreme, but it makes me wonder why we then employ 76 Education Program Directors who are supposed to serve as the lead authorities for their designated topics. Why do we have more than double the number of consultants than actual directors, all of them drawing salaries beyond the reach of even the most seasoned teacher?

So, what is a state government to do when all this money gets tossed at education yet our overall testing scores consistently put North Carolina close to last place in the Union? Punish the schools, of course. The bloated middle management at the Department of Public Instruction, all too frequently mirrored at the local district levels, couldn't possibly be to blame. Could it? We need all those people milling about, pushing their own agendas, developing new ways to learn math, developing new tests to justify their high salaries. What would we do without them?

Oh, that's right.

We might be able to fund higher salaries for teachers. We might be able to hire additional teacher assistant positions. We might be able to buy proper textbooks. We might be able to fund modern computer labs. We might be able to get students out of trailers and into proper buildings. We might be able to fund personalized reading programs that target the needs of students rather than implementing a bastardized form of the Lexile program which, by its own descriptive content at its website, is meant to be a tool for teachers, not a systematic approach to governing all reading programs. We might be able eliminate the need for teachers and local administrators to help justify the pet programs of their higher ups and, instead, offer meaningful feedback on the effectiveness of tools offered to them without fear of political retribution.

There's a whole lot we might be able to accomplish if our Legislators stopped playing politics with our tax dollars and focused on funding the learning process.

2015 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Civics Lesson for a Local Official

One of our local Board of Education (BOE) members – who embroiled herself last week in the hotly contested and, ultimately reversed, firing of our school district’s superintendent – is seemingly in need of a civics lesson.

Let’s begin with the fancy footwork that started the whole hullabaloo. Five members of the BOE voted to enforce the Unilateral Termination clause of the superintendent’s contract. The clause itself, also known as a Termination for Convenience clause, allows for the termination of a contract without reason, even if the contractor is performing his or her duties splendidly. There is no need for a causal infraction, default, or violation to justify the termination. The employer, in this case the majority of the BOE, needed only to vote in favor of termination. In that sense, the “Gang of Five” likely held to the letter of the law, making moot the argument over whether they had the right to fire the superintendent.

Just because you have the right to do something, however, does not mean it is the right thing to do. For example, I am fully within my rights to work in my yard without wearing a shirt. I choose not to because it might be an affront to my neighbors and emotionally scar their young children.

In this case, business leaders, teachers, parents and local elected officials admired and applauded the superintendent for the changes he was attempting to make. He was more visible than any superintendent preceding him and was working within the community to develop educational partnerships and bolster teacher morale. It seems to me when you have a leader whose only apparent popularity issue is with the bloated middle management between him and his line-level employees, it might be an indication he’s doing something right.

I do not know the reason why the Gang of Five wanted to get rid of the superintendent, and I don’t care, either. I’m also not particularly sold on the idea of a recall election. I have to put more thought to that one. Laura Lang, the lone holdout on the BOE who voted to fire the superintendent has been, for now, rendered harmless in her minority standing. A coup to oust her from the board might make her a sympathetic figure. Allowing her to limp ineffectually along to her regularly scheduled re-election could prove the wiser tactic.

That Laura Lang believes her actions justified, I do not doubt. It might even be that she truly believes what she did was in the best interests of Moore County students. Only she can know for certain. In the aftermath of the resignation of the other four BOE members and the rehiring of the superintendent, Ms. Lang made only one comment that struck me as requiring a response:

“Cruel and absolutely harsh things that have been said about all of us has just been so unlike the citizens of Moore County. It’s shameful.”

I’m sure some people went too far when calling or emailing the BOE members to vent their outrage. Anyone guilty of a criminal act should be held accountable for their words and actions.

Many people, however, merely suggested the five BOE members might have colluded to oust the superintendent in order to free the position for a political ally. Others might have used such words as misguided, arrogant, rude, disconnected, and stubborn when talking about Ms. Lang specifically. I might even have suggested the possibility the Gang of Five was helping to foster a bullying, abusive work environment for our teachers. But, none of that is cruel or harsh. In her attempt to portray herself and her fellow BOE members as victims, she is labeling the entirety of the uprising against her shameful and, therefore, attempting to negate our right to vocally and vehemently condemn her actions. Not only do we have the right to stand up for what we believe, we have an obligation to do it. For the most part, the commentary and conjecture has been timid in comparison to the kinds of tactics available to our forefathers.

It was only a generation or two ago that hanging someone in effigy was acceptable in the United States. Instead of posting our comments on Facebook or filing calmly into a crowded high school auditorium, we might have formed an angry mob to parade around the school with a flaming representation of you dangling from a long stick, all the while chanting wildly inappropriate lynching songs. If we tried that these days, we’d be charged with attempted arson, reckless endangerment, communicating threats, and possession of a weapon with intent to do harm before we lit the first match.

And how about our Founding Fathers? If you think people have been uncivil this past week, consider Thomas Jefferson and John Adams when they set the stage for character assassination during the Presidential election of 1800. Jefferson’s campaign labeled Adams a war-mongering, tyrannical hypocrite. Adams’ campaign labeled Jefferson an atheistic, cowardly weakling. Adam’s people said Jefferson was the son of a Native American squaw mother and a multi-racial father. Jefferson’s people called Adams a hermaphrodite. A hermaphrodite! I’d much rather be called arrogant or misguided than a hermaphrodite.

The schools of Moore County have flirted with greatness over the years, often falling short for one reason or another (can you say inadequate local tax funding? Under-funded capital projects? Inconsistent policies and programs? Poor community relations? Putting sports before academics? Bueller?). This time around the thing standing in the way was our own elected leaders.

Take heart, Ms. Lang. You aren’t the first public official to be vilified, and you won’t be the last. If you truly believe you’ve done the right thing, rather than hiding behind words such as “if you knew what I knew” when people condemn your decisions, grow a thicker skin and borrow from that master of public insults, Benjamin Franklin: “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain… and most fools do.”

Just bear in mind that statement might also apply to you.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Epic Education Fail

Recent events involving our local Board of Education -- namely the firing of well-regarded Superintendent Dr. Bob Grimesey -- have stirred discontent with the potential to cause an uprising worthy of a Victor Hugo novel. 

Many parents are angry at his firing. Many community leaders are angry. Many teachers and administrators are angry (and scared). And many students are angry, while many more students probably do not fully understand the degree to which they should be angry. For many different reasons, I count myself among the angry population.

To be fair, I know very little about Dr. Bob Grimesey. His name began dropping last year after he was hired to serve as superintendent of Moore County Schools here in our heavenly slice of North Carolina. I’ve seen him, as one sees public officials, at a few school events here and there. Other than that, I’ve had no interaction with the man and, therefore, am in no position to make any arguments based on his character. I don’t know him well enough to personally vouch for him, so I won’t even go there.

My reasons for being angry at the five Board of Education members who fired the Superintendent are based on wasted resources (his contract buyout is north of $128,000), cowardice (last-minute, closed-door meetings held at times inconvenient to parents and school staff), alleged collusion (this coup has been in the planning process for weeks despite never being discussed in a proper board session), and hubris (the excessive self-confidence these board members exhibit in banding together to accomplish their pre-determined goal, regardless of the needs and wants of the children they serve and the taxpayers to whom they answer).

The harsh realities of the situation are that Dr. Grimesey is gone and likely will not be back. [NOTE: Since writing this post, and thanks to the intervention of NC State Representative Jamie Boles, we might just get our superintendent back.] It’s a nice dream to believe the decision can be reversed, but the chances of it happening are beyond slim, even if the election recall being discussed to remove certain Board of Education members succeeds. Time passes too slowly. People move on. Better things are down the road for Dr. Grimesey and I wish him well in his pursuit of them. He will thrive.

How do I know this? Because I’ve seen this kind of thing happen before.

Years ago, I worked for a company that encouraged and even congratulated back-stabbing manipulation. Fear and bullying were the order of the day. Decisions were made based on personal preference rather than sound business reasoning. Lies were told and systems meant to protect employees were abused. The short-term result of the company’s management style was good people who were treated like trash and corrupt leaders who protected, pampered and profited political allies. The long-term result was the near destruction of the company through years of turmoil until, finally, the cancers were cut out. Of those good people who were chewed up and spit out, the ones I see around town have achieved personal success and made good lives for themselves. The manipulators who made life hell for everyone have mostly fallen from power and are ostracized, in some cases even by their own family members.

The Board of Education’s vaguely justified and unpopular firing of the Superintendent has not damaged Dr. Bob Grimesey. If anything, he has been liberated to seek the employment of a school system that will embrace and appreciate him. He now has hundreds of glowing personal references available online for future employers to read and can go on his way with an extra $128,000-plus in his pocket. That’s not to say it won’t impact him emotionally. His tearful message to an audience of supporters this week clearly indicates a desire to remain in Moore County to serve the public.

The real, true and genuine effect of the Superintendent’s firing is the fact it has brought into the full light of day those five board members who hoped they could either bully Dr. Grimesey into quietly resigning on Monday, or fire him with little public attention in hastily scheduled back-to-back meetings. People who, seven days ago, weren’t paying the first lick of attention to Moore County Schools are now feverishly discussing recall elections, alleged collusion, nepotism, and potential violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law. Much like the leadership at that company I worked for years ago, the five members of the Board of Education and the administration they might wish to create now seem like so much detritus circling a bowl in desperate need of flushing.

Some people will overreact. Keep calm folks. 

Keep threatening language and hyperbole off the table. Accept the reality that you can’t hit the rewind button and undue what has been done. It’s time to move forward politically to remove the problem. Move forward intelligently to elect people who, to the best of your knowledge, will represent you to the best of their abilities. Move forward ethically to do whatever you are going to do in a way that will not disgrace you or your allies in this endeavor.

Most importantly, sleep well at night, secure in the knowledge you are trying to do the right thing. I’d like to think there are five people who can’t.