Friday, May 4, 2012

Grand Theft Chainsaw's Fallout Uncertain

How do you answer the door for Andy Sheehan? How? Even escorting a Girl Scout with cookies, I'd pull the blinds.

Here we go, in order: KDKA Wed. / Trib Wed. / P-G Thu. / KDKA Thu. / Trib Thu. / P-G Fri. / P-G Sat.

What a can of worms:

NEIGHBORHOOD NEEDS FUNDS: Many years ago under different leadership, the City approved a bond issuance to amass money that is treated a little more like "walking around money" or "fun money" by individual members of Council. That was one way to keep everybody peaceful and busy within City Hall, though I guess it stopped working. Many Council districts retain funding, hundreds of thousands, that is still carrying over. Expenditures from these accounts do come to the table for public votes at public meetings and are subject to multiple layers of oversight, often by Department heads and the Controller -- but in practice each Council member is given deference over their District's stash. There is perhaps less truly skeptical, critical oversight employed.

Now there will almost certainly be more scrutiny and controls placed over Neighborhood Needs money, though other officeholders like Controller Lamb and Mayor Ravenstahl will argue, "This is not best practices to begin with, give the money back!" The Council however with some justification will point out that their constituents still deserve any unspent money the way they voted to use it and go into debt for the sake getting back in the 90's -- especially constituents who have enjoyed thriftier political leaders who have disbursed less of it over the years -- and besides, a little petty cash does make for getting 'er done.

COUNCIL OPERATIONS: Staff members, especially chiefs of staff which is what we are talking about here, are generally and implicitly empowered to do routine things on behalf of their Council bosses. Business would otherwise move very slowly, Council members would need to attend work all the time, Blackberries would never stop ringing and honking etc. If the institutionally sanctioned trust between boss and staffer dissipates, that will cause some stress.

WHO ELSE: It seems pretty straight forward. The initial segment reminded me of that old tv show, To Catch A Predator. "Why don't you have a seat over there". But there is always a chance an alleged felonious perpetrator had alleged accomplices. For example, assuming our friend in question did not invent a purchase order number out of thin air, he probably really extracted one from the Department of Public Works. Do we chalk that up to legitimate staff empowerment and abused staff trust? One hopes. Is somebody at DPW being loose about approving purchase orders for certain people or in certain circumstances? One hopes not. Is there somebody at DPW being loose for such a host of individuals, that every reprobate scoundrel even from the highest offices will circle the wagons to protect this valuable corrupt benefactor -- whereas who really cares about our friend in question who got sloppy and landed on camera? One really hopes not.

MISCELLANEOUS: There are some inconsistencies among the various accounts; the usual.

THE SOURCE: Upstanding whistle blower? Vengeful political ninja? Does it even matter?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teacher Management Revolution Appears DOA

Boom. The hit laid out against this School District initiative reminds me of that which was witnessed a few years ago against City-County consolidation / rapture -- only much faster and more bone-jarring.

The foundation community unveils something for public schools:

But now, a one-size-fits-all law that enshrines seniority as the defining basis for teacher layoffs is jeopardizing this critical progress [of developing teacher evaluations for improving outcomes]. (P-G, Oliphant, Vagt, Behr)

And the teacher's union sacks it:

The claim that seniority keeps bad teachers in the classroom and harms children is absolutely false. The two objectives of this movement are to weaken unions and to pay teachers less. (Hileman, PFT, P-G)

Read both of those, because there's a lot more to both arguments than just that.

What awful timing. Just as organized labor is rallying around itself and forging a consciousness.

And ay caramba, what problems!

Everybody who remembers school should remember at least a small handful of teachers who seemed to have checked out -- who lost the fire if indeed they ever had it. And can probably remember occasions on which a generation gap between teacher and student (spanning several generations at once) seemed to have gotten in the way of effective teaching engagement.

If one needs a primary care physician but cannot shop around forever for doctors, one does not want the doctor walking in to qualify due to seniority alone. You want the doctor who is most brilliant and/or who maintains their position by achieving consistent results and/or whose experience has in fact made them excellent and able to thrive under many challenges.

Then again, seniority provides undeniable protections against arbitrary and capricious administration-level decision making -- and is empowering for teachers in the classroom.

And these aren't even the core problems!

The problems are here and here and here, among other places. And the Pittsburgh Promise is a great opportunity for students savvy enough to seize advantage of it, but it's not destined to generate a rush of taxpaying parents and guardians to send their children to kindergarten through 8th grade here in the School District. And after K-8, the family probably feels comfortable as suburbanites and pursuing other scholarships. If we want our students to be better, we need to make our schools better -- and picking and choosing our teachers with fine-toothed combs is certainly one, but only only one possible avenue.

What to do?

We need to check out the Gates genius plan, which apparently they've already sunk all this money into (money which had once felt like the "silver lining" around School District contraction and austerity).

We need to check out the "professional growth system" the teachers' union says it's already starting to utilize.

We need to see if there's any room to salvage and combine the working emerging from both investments.

We need to figure out whether en mass public schooling is sustainable in these economies and, if not, figure out whether and how we must best reconnoiter the arrangements we have relating to charter schools, vouchers and increasing privatization.

But I do have one idea. As a political progressive, I am enthusiastic about transparency, believing it to improve end results. How about going ahead and evaluating our teachers -- with any model, or with several -- and instead of utilizing the results to plan layoffs and to make other staffing decisions, simply posting them? Post them online, post them in the classroom directly behind the teacher so students can see them, send them home with every report card. Don't stop at the final scores or letter grades, but give us all the interesting details. It might motivate teacher excellence by softer and more social means!

MORE: Pure Reform, Pure Reform. There is also a teachers union election coming up which is being watched closely by a few.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Harrisburg tries, "NOOO!" to its Creditors

On a day Harrisburg City Council for a time considered confirming the appointment of aka "hiring" a new "Chief Operating Officer" aka Ceasar, Councilor Brad Koplinski made a statement.


Two years ago, City Council passed Resolution 25 of 2010. It stated that if we had to sell assets to solve our fiscal crisis, that there needed to be certain checks on the process to insure that it was transparent. Checks such as a forensic audit of the Harrisburg Authority and a claw back of money from those that made $49 million from the bad deals that were made that got us into this mess, just to mention a couple.

It was a good resolution. One that was honest and some would say one that saw into the future. It must have scared some folks, because they started to make moves that would short circuit this process and make sure that the assets were disposed of in a non-transparent and hasty way.

Last Summer, we had the battle of Act 47, in which the state tried to shove down our throats a bad plan that did not add up and would have left our city with millions of dollars in stranded debt. The majority of this body said no. Four of us said, that we would not allow Wall Street to take advantage of Main Street.

Our strong stance made those working against our city fight even harder. Senator Piccola and the lobbyists for the County and our Creditors talked to their pals in the Governor’s office and the legislature and effectively prohibited us from filed for bankruptcy and then took over the financial dealings of our city. Establishing an office of the receiver that would not only have the ability to sell all of our assets – not just the incinerator and the garages. The ability to sell everything to make sure that Wall Street gets paid in full – instead of negotiating with them and coming to a global solution with shared pain. (Brad Toplinkski, h/t Today's the Day Harrsiburg)

Why is State Senator Jeffery Piccola herein named as somebody who joined in this alleged political "short-circuiting" maneuver to ensure that payments from City taxpayers to bondholders and their bankers be made in full and on time? Why was it successful? How did his and their lobbying relate if in any way to that city's now-resigned appointed Receiver's performances? Did the ability and willingness to credibly threaten bankruptcy make things better or worse for the people of Harrisburg? For the economy?