District 205: Who wants to be a millionaire?

Guest Column

By David Stocker

School boards (BOEs) sit on one of the last piles of public money in the U.S. economy. The agenda of school reform represents a major redirection of public sector policy decided upon and implemented by private interests. This is no different from how Wall Street decided on its bailouts, or how the military industrial complex runs its pentagon.
How bad will this get in Rockford?
Six hundred teachers fired, half a dozen campuses closed, soon to be sold to willing bidders and school reform profiteers?

Two dozen principals are fired. Within days, the same jobs appear in state openings.1
Board members Jeanne Westholder and Lisa Jackson heap shame on the public for showing up and raising concerns. Our superintendent chooses this moment to be off on another cruise.

New budget line items (ENI) appear that exceed the entire cost of the threatened Early Childhood. One 205 administration insider privately calls it a “sleight of hand.” Another terms recent dismissals, “pure evil,” retribution for those who suggested alternatives or who were perceived as opposing sweeping reforms.

What would we be willing to do for $100 million? Would people be willing to endure some hardship and get to the pot of gold?2 How far would Rockford’s policy makers and board handlers go? Would we be willing to scrap the sticky democracy of BOEs altogether?

If purse strings could be loosened, would access to this kind of money interest local venture capitalists and developers?3 Would the board be willing to cut costs, to fire expensive older teachers and principals?4 Would our superintendent be willing to sour the community against anyone who spoke out? Would she be willing to risk provoking racial disharmony?

If you were an unqualified wildcat CFO who had built a reputation for fantasizing numbers, would you be willing to work hard to create the appearance of a $50 million gap, even in the face of contrary evidence?5

If parents could be made angry and confused…
If teachers could be made to seem greedy…
If students could be made to seem disadvantaged…failing kids in failing schools…
Would this help us to look more deserving of $100 million and more?
The havoc in RPS 205 fits this strategy.

The carrot

Two years ago, the board’s handlers understood that a $50 million deficit and a reformed district would earn a higher rank among applicants for President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT).

RTTT favors high-stakes school reform for high-yield outcomes.
This same demonstrated need qualifies communities for Ford Foundation monies, grants from the Broad Foundation (TASAP), the Kellogg Foundation (that funded the propaganda film Waiting for Superman), the Walton Foundation, and numerous other reform advocates.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with nearly $50 billion in resources, has already spent $4 billion advancing its education reform agenda.6
Districts (termed Local Education Authorities, LEAs) must vie for point scoring over a range of evaluative categories. For RTTT, about 25 percent of the points for the $100 million involves laying the basis for school reform.

Reform-minded funders look for districts that have prepared a legislative agenda to weaken collective bargaining, eliminated mediation for pension disputes, and opened up to mayoral takeover of a board.

Applicants must describe how local corporations will participate. For RTTT, in Illinois, 15 percent of the grade is awarded based on the charter readiness of the community. Another 25 percent of the points go for retraining, repurposing, replacing and reorganizing teachers and principals.

Twenty-five percent is awarded for the LEA’s adherence to testing and data-driven standards. The last 10 percent is about dramatic turnaround school efforts.7 BOE member Bob Evans was right when he said, “legislation in Illinois is stacked to favor charters.”

The great alignment

In a planning process that began shortly before Sheffield’s arrival, local proponents of charters have formed several initiatives, including a charter advocacy group, Rockford Charter School Initiative (RCSI), a blog  called Next Rockford (hosted by the Register Star) and a coalition of partners called Alignment Rockford (AR) sharing common leadership values, but who studiously avoid the charter debate.

The AR group sought to provide resources to schools and saw charter advocacy as a hot button. As part of building trust between the new superintendent and stakeholder members, AR adopted the Visualize 2015 Strategic Plan as a guide. As explained to me by Director Laurie Preece,

Alignment Rockford is a group of people who “agreed to leave their guns outside.” Whose guns, I wonder? Who got to decide that some people’s opinions were the guns? Those with concerns about Visualize 2015, or with differing opinions to those of Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield were seen as impediments to the process of shifting power and transforming public policy, and so were left out.

A skeptical REA has not been a participant to this point. The chairmen of Alignment’s four committees are all District 205 administrators. Meanwhile, charter advocacy updates appear at the Rockford Charter School Initiative (RCSI) website8.

AR members represent multiple connections among influential local institutions and strongly pro-charter individuals. Superintendent Sheffield and Mayor Larry Morrissey are on the governing board. District 205 CFO Cedric Lewis is on the operating board.

Advisers represent: the City of Rockford, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rockford Register Star, Next Rockford, the Rockford Charter Schools Initiative, Anderson Industries, Rockford College Department of Economics and others.9 To her credit, Preece has spent no little amount of time trying to sort out my thinking.

Unfortunately, the effect of AR has been to lend the business community’s endorsement to Sheffield’s efforts to document failing schools, implement closings, rezone, manufacture a huge deficit, and break the teachers’ union…all this with charters just over the horizon.

It seems to me like the nudist camp where everybody agrees not to comment about other people’s equipment, but it’s still there.

Alignment is careful to say they do not bring a charter agenda into their public meetings, but it is evident that in the form of Alignment Rockford, a shadow government of our school system has been created by school reformers and charter advocates that bypasses the board of education’s legitimate responsibility of planning, oversight, management and informing the taxpaying public.

Alignment Rockford has unprecedented access and intends to wield unprecedented influence in a process of school reform. Replacement of school board member Jeanne Westholder with Tim Rollins is a shift in deportment, but not necessarily in ideology.

At the Heartland forum, Rollins (who has finally come out in favor of charters) was unwilling to even comment about the idea of a negotiated teachers’ contract, saying incorrectly that negotiations are under way. They are not.10

This master plan was not placed before our whole community. It was not voted on as a policy or in any kind of referendum. It was planned and implemented by a small group of people who avoided opposition.

It is being launched using our school district and has access to our school district funds. Teachers, nor principals, nor parents were aware of it. Now, our kids’ education is held hostage.

Enter the unions? A war of words and confusion. There is confusion regarding use of the word “compromise.”

1. A broken nuclear reactor may have a compromised barrier: e.g.; Our district’s system of financial checks and balances has been vastly compromised. It is dangerously broken.

2. An agreement whereby each side in a dispute yields something is also a “compromise”: e.g.; Over years, the teachers’ union has granted numerous compromises to an uncompromising district.

Teachers must accept less and do more.
Charter reform, based on cheaper, non-unionized workers, is a challenge to unions because the model either eliminates union teachers or co-mingles union and non-union employees. Unions sharing workplace with non-unions is a long balancing act that has yielded local apprenticeships, internships and successful programs like YouthBuild and ShareFest11. I can personally remember when I needed a union waiver to put a screw in a wall at Fairview to hang artwork.

I’d say union leaders offering compromises to non-union or anti-union pressure is more the rule than the exception these days. Union labor as a percentage of the workforce dropped to 12 percent this year, from 36 percent in the late 1940s when America began three decades of unparalleled prosperity at all income levels.

As contrasted with the booming 1990s through the crash of 2008, that placed the middle class in debt servitude and created more billionaires in the U.S. than in any other land at any other time in human history.12

Here we are in Rockford. It is March. Our school system is being wrecked by an anti-union agenda, and because the BOE is such a front, we barely know why. Would some local union chiefs be willing to compromise the teachers’ contract?

Teachers have come a long way from the days of “…haven’t they got husbands…” to being one of the last remaining national unions of any clout.

The REA local of the IEA, of the NEA, is one of the strongest locals left standing. Yet, in a historically pro-labor state, the IEA could not get a bill out of committee in the Illinois House (H.B. 0942) that would prevent bullying and intimidation of employees by districts!13. Don’t think for a minute that Broad, Gates and Walton are not watching how it goes down in Rockford.

The REA/IEA have made firm statements (Molly Phalen at BOE) and have played strategic cards in a timely manner, like the offer of $50,000 to pay for a proper audit of 205’s books.14, 14A

The argument about all of us having to tighten our belts is specious when applied to teachers, who have always compromised. Starting 10 years ago, while other labor sectors took pay raises, teachers accepted smaller increases to keep good health insurance.

Now, they are painted as greedy for their reluctance to toss their health insurance. Rockford has an unexplainable streak of subservient behavior when it comes time to speak truth to power.

Good health insurance makes sense for people who spend long days around 20 to 30 sick kids all winter, people whose health and well-being is linked directly to the health and well-being of the community.

Likewise, we should not punish teachers who have earned master’s degrees to be better qualified to teach and meet the complex needs of students today.15 After 25 years, a teacher earns about $65,000, below most other industrialized nations, many of whom have nationalized health care.

As far as union solidarity between trades and teachers, I have high standards. In this horrendous economy, more building tradesmen sit idle than at any other time since the first Depression. It’s more likely that the REA mom/teacher is supporting her unemployed NIBCA husband.

Building trades are making any concessions they can to big money, so they’ll be invited to the uptick in housing that may or may not come.

What can union leaders do but be agreeable to the scraps that fall off the table of industry? This is the same industry leadership that brought us NAFTA, sent America’s jobs to Mexico, Indonesia and China, crashed the banking industry, demanded the bailouts and are presently laughing all the way to their gated mansions in Montana and Barbados.

Local union members should challenge their leadership about who receives union donations in local elections. Question about leaders being invited to receptions and taken on expensive field trips and not bringing home real jobs. Building trades can pay clackers to stand outside a Taco Bell job site in a Carhardt jacket and hold a sign, but did any show up in solidarity with teachers to save 600 union jobs at 205?

I have yet to see one building trade union sign at the weekly BOE rallies of 400 and 500 people these many weeks in the cold and rain. In Madison, Wis., building trades showed up in force in support of public sector workers. I wonder why this is not happening here? Teachers are fighting the battle that gives union the name of union.

I was more comfortable when I thought this mess was about all of us tightening our belts. I thought that if some sectors had done it, the rest of us could as well. This is different.

These are powerful players who are determined to win. They wish to control the destiny of our schools.

There is planning to which you are not invited. They are seeking to make this irreversible.

This has consequences for us and for our children.

There is no need to exaggerate this crisis. It is so visible it would be ludicrous to call it a conspiracy.

There will be more rounds of RTTT and foundation awards. Focusing only on Dr. Sheffield’s calamities misses the point. She is but the highly-paid agent of a set of determined handlers who think they are doing something good…for all of us. If we’d only just shut up.

What would you do for $100 million?

David Stocker has been a union worker for more than 32 years.

(3) http://newsroom.dc.gov/show.aspx/agency/seo/section/2/release/20621, RTTT Vendor Fair
(4) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/social/Onertwo19/chris-christie-education_n_808758_73998438.html
(6) http://www.woopidoo.com/biography/bill-gates/foundation.htm
(7) http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/phase1-applications/score-sheets
(8) http://www.rockfordcharterschools.com
(9) http://www.alignmentrockford.com/About.html
(10) http://www.alignmentrockford.com/uploads/Op_Board_Minutes_021011.pdf
(11) http://www.wifr.com/news/headlines/27578294.html
(12) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_the_number_of_US_dollar_billionaires
(13) http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/billstatus.asp

(14) Rockford Register Star, March 26, 2011, “REA’s response to school board on Baker Tilly, Karen Bishke.”
(14A) www.rrstar.com/…/Teachers-union-to-respond-to-proposed-Rockford-school -cuts
(15) http://www.ieanea.org/media/2011/03/Broadway-column.pdf

From the March 30, April 5, 2011 issue

3 thoughts on “District 205: Who wants to be a millionaire?

  • Mar 30, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    A very well researched and well written article.

    With so much noise going on in the smaller arenas most everybody, myself included, tends to lose sight of the bigger pictures.

    Thank you.

  • Apr 3, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Wow, I guess I missed the conspiracy theory class when I was in public school. Tell me this, does this point of view include student achievement as the number one priority of publicly funded education? If not why not?

    Charter school nationwide do not all produce excellent results, nor do traditional public schools. But Charter schools perform no worse than average and have a five times better chance at producing excellence. And considering that they operate at 90% of the local public school funding levels how on earth is this a bad thing?

    I guess the only way it is bad is if the alternative is goring your sacred cow.

  • Apr 4, 2011 at 10:47 am

    David, thank you for responding. The discussions of working conditions for teachers is certainly one that can be had. But after watching what I have of our public school bureaucracy I have come to the simple conclusion that the system is not about the kids, it is about the adults.

    The world we live is changing radically under our feet. traditional solutions may not be part of any future scenarios. The world our kids are going to inherit looks remarkably different compared to when i graduated high school. Yet we keep arguing about an old systems that has a factory organization construct to train factory and office workers. Those jobs do not exist anymore. Every day you hear about how manufacturing, technology and health-care business cannot find people with even the basics of the new skills necessary. At the same time there are 1.3 billion Indians and 1.45 billion Chinese that are chopping at the bit to take jobs that SHOULD go to 310 million Americans. With the current world reality in mind, I have a very difficult time seeing how our traditional public school system ever changes to meet the demand.

    While Charters are not the panacea, they represent change and experimentation. Show me how the outdated, bureaucratic system can change (it hasn’t in 30-40 years of trying) and we will talk.

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