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Guest Column: The dismantling of public education in Rockford

February 16, 2011

By David Stocker

I went to the recent District 205 open houses with a lot of questions. Representatives of the administration, however, weren’t able to give clear answers to questions about consequences or alternatives. I heard many times: “I’m sorry I can’t answer that for you. It’s not my realm of expertise, but I’ll ask someone.”

But Shannon Bingham of Western Demographics was both frank and knowledgeable. Bingham’s firm specializes in “developing and consolidation” (dismantling) of school districts. He worked with Rockford Public School District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield in Detroit for five years. Bingham is an expert whose perspectives are valuable. For I believe Sheffield tells him what outcome she wants, he studies the situation and writes his report.

Bingham describes himself as a “hatchet man.” It’s not his concern how many teachers have jobs or if a teacher can make a living. He is concerned with older teachers who cost a little more based on health care costs and on seniority pay.

Bingham’s strategies help districts: redraw boundary maps, close schools and spin the changes to the public. The word “efficiency” is a handy code word for closing schools. (www.westerndemographics.com)

In coarse words, Bingham pointed out that whether anyone agrees with his analysis is no longer the issue. He argues that the economy is deteriorating, and the proposed cuts will be made, and there will be further cuts for years. Can we agree with a set of proposals that will destroy our school district? No.

Bingham said, “lack of planning by this district is at the heart of the severity of Rockford’s circumstances.” He declined comment when asked whether the administration had compounded the divisive climate here.

Only two board members attended the open house meetings and merely echoed the stark realities facing us. Sheffield was not there, nor has she been at a long list of meetings recently. No mayor, no aldermen, no state representative. Our Congressman, not present. Why?

The State of Illinois is failing in its obligation to help fund education for our children. More than $15 million is due from last year alone. Manzullo’s office wrote me saying the ball for our education problem is not in his court. Not much of a leader there, eh?

These failing leaders were truant Saturday, Feb. 5, as the community faced the extent of the collapse of our public education system. I saw lots of teachers, parents and grandparents. Some wept as Bingham delivered his smug appraisal. I was shocked awake. What I have seen and heard since is a revelation.

Parents pleaded with administrators to tell them why seven top schools and proven programs are slated for closure. Bingham asserted: “Merit was not part of the criteria for closures. We are tasked here with removing all the lights and decorations from the Christmas tree. The future of public education will be a bare-tree affair. You’ll get math, reading, social studies, to state standards, a bit of the arts and that’s it. And if you are not willing to walk to the nearest school, you will not get an education.”

A further list of threatened cuts includes the elimination of all district librarians, social workers, ACE, CAPA, language immersion, guidance counselors, assistant principals, Montessori, all-day preschool, an alternative campus for kids in crisis and more…a total of 130 additional jobs will be cut, declares Sheffield in a Jan. 28 e-mail threat delivered to teachers if teachers fail to yield contract concessions.

These are now the Christmas tree decorations Rockford cannot afford. Bingham also acknowledged that under this plan, two-thirds of our district’s kids can expect to be moved to new locations, even though studies show changing schools sets children’s success back.

I also learned that Bingham’s firm specializes in presenting charter school implementation plans to districts, which project a “market position of up to 30 percent within five to 10 years.” Is it by chance that within the first 18 months of her tenure, Sheffield approved opening three charter schools in Rockford…depopulating several of the seven schools now slated for closure? Have administration personnel told individuals on certain PTOs to hang tight, that their schools slated for closure will reopen in a year or two as charters?

Sheffield came to Rockford as a 2002 graduate of the Eli Broad Superintendent’s Academy (BSA) that opened in 2001. By design, BSA places its graduates in urban areas where opposition is not organized. Many communities in America have become alarmed about the Broad agenda and are throwing out both its privatizing educational philosophy and its graduates. Here is an important website to visit for more details: www.thebroadreport.blogspot.com.

Focus on personal sniping and teacher blaming has redirected our attention from more important issues. Did 205 board members understand the Broad Academy’s agenda and the kinds of things Sheffield/Broad might do? Have they fully educated themselves about what has happened in other districts under BSA graduates? Is our teachers’ union at risk? Should our education system become prey to vulture capital the way homeowners are being preyed upon?

Since the open houses and my brief comment at last Tuesday’s board meeting, I have been approached by dozens of people who are in fear of speaking out. It is clear to me that ongoing efforts to intimidate and thwart opposition, misrepresent and mask the agenda are part of a concerted power play. Is the profound silence of teachers and principals indicative of an effective gag order in place since the high school riots last year? Are employees working under fear of termination? Are PTOs being forbidden by Mark Bonne from meeting at school campuses?

Ask around, I did. The board is desperately trying to make irrevocable and devastating changes before the April election, when they fear their majority will dissolve in the popular uprising. Does the request for an independent audit appear different under this light? Does the board’s demand that it be completed by Feb. 22 seem ridiculous? Can we do better than Mr. Cedric Lewis’ incredible “best guesses”? Is there some reason we cannot wait for a proper panel to be assembled and to present their results publicly?

I fear that our district is moving too rapidly on a fearsome agenda that seems to be led by outside forces. And because we fear for our children, some are tempted to become combative and vulgar. Please, resist the efforts of those who would divide and polarize us by race, economics or geography in their effort to close and privatize our schools.

Keep this in mind, Bingham told me: “Public forums are useless. Hurt people get worked up and have their 2 minutes at the microphone, but nobody listens. The board reads magazines and waits for it to be over so they can go do what they were going to do anyway.” We must organize, stand shoulder to shoulder as a commuity, against this. The immediate action must be to stop next week’s vote and get a review of the bogus $50 million gap.

If the Sheffield/BSA agenda is successful, what will keep those who can from fleeing the district and the city, leaving behind little more than a ghost town? The board is not listening to principals, teachers and parents. The wheels on this board are out of alignment with the people! Where are our elected officials?

We should deal with the real reasons public education is dying. The problem is not overpaid teachers; it is state and federal governmental failures and the opportunistic Broad Academy’s billionaires’ club agenda of running public education for private gain. Should private investors make money from providing a cheap education for our children on an efficient business model?

I was appalled to learn that after I addressed the board, Bingham’s contract was extended with a rate increase. The Broad Agenda is a disaster going somewhere to happen. Our Dr. Sheffield is surrounded by a group of people who are either essentially gagged or who have bet on the downside of our children’s education. Can we stop this now?

Thanks to Bingham for his candor, but at $1,000 per day, you’re too expensive for Rockford, and so is the Sheffield/Broad agenda.

David Stocker is a songwriter and independent arts educator. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell University and master of fine arts degree from Yale University. This month, David received a Golden Apple grant for work at Page Park School. He has had children in District 205 schools for 17 years.

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