Friday, May 25, 2012

Carrying Water: D.A. Zappala Tired of Getting Dumped On

Convicted former senator Jane Orie might be made to pay $1.3 million to the Senate Republican Caucus for services rendered thanks to District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., who is only getting started on Joan Orie Melvin.

[Zappala] said there has "never been any relationship in any respect with the Ories until such time as a complaint was filed with the attorney general" by an intern in Jane Orie's district office who said she witnessed political work.

"Why are you carrying the water for people who are under indictment?" Mr. Zappala asked a reporter. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Clearly we are again approaching that Awkward Zone surrounding issues which once were artfully described as having to do with "an informal network of people whose businesses make millions providing services to government, while some simultaneously play roles in politics."

The Orie sisters are accused of, and it seems by now (one blogger's ill-informed opinion!) guilty of, bad things: electioneering crassly and brazenly with taxpayer staff and taxpayer resources. The sorts of things we call "corruption" and for which we are typically contented to see justice done and careers end.

So huzzah for justice in this instance!


However, the horror-show possibility is this: how is Sally Punchclock to be assured that what the Ories did, politicians don't in fact do on a regular basis? Wouldn't it be awful if the District Attorney and other applicable prosecutors had thick files (or at least solid leads) on everybody in public office from Jim Ferlo to Luke Ravenstahl to Mark Brentley, and are simply declining to investigate and prosecute as a matter of professional courtesy and deference to voters?

That is, until such time as those politicians make themselves inimical to the prosecutor's own interests?

For you see, the real story two years ago did not lie in the twelve names listed in this "network". It lay in the 13th name which did not appear. The one which, if it had been included, would have made for a 4th Zappala.

In this fantastic nightmare scenario, while some in the Network do business with government offices and others in the Network help government officials achieve and remain in power, this 13th member would occupy that singular office which would ordinarily be called upon to police hanky-panky between all the rest -- and judiciously look the other way. And occasionally as needed, protect the whole device from without or above, as when a rogue legislator tries to investigate or prosecute by unorthodox means.

This is what many mean by the wishy-washy phrase "the appearance of conflict of interest," and why some insist it is damaging to public confidence and to-be-avoided all in itself.

I remember speaking to a good friend regarding the tone of old blog posts I've done touching on aspects of the Zappala network. She said, "Yeah, but it's difficult with family," warning that one can't assume what's going on within other people's families, or how individual family members feel about other family members and their private business. In fact she implied it's usually pretty complicated.

I can now respect what I can't know and shouldn't assume. But the question of "Why are you carrying water for people under indictment?" answers itself: because we honestly don't know, but we have brains for conjuring and have watched enough HBO drama to know what life can be like on the level of dragons.


The hypothesis isn't defamatory if any reasonable person might assume it all by themselves simply by strolling past.

Was the District Attorney simply following up on a random tip arriving from the state AG's office -- and then happened to hit the Triple Jackpot? Or did he one day proclaim, "I have had it up to here with these @#$% Ories in this @#$% state!", and then rifle through the dusty old Trouble Bin until he could find a likely entryway through which to hurl all the resources of his office (and others' offices) for several years?

We could ordinarily explore and vet these issues and how much we really care about them through the prism of elections. Yet although he is standing for reelection this year, Zappala's challenger, from either political party, is just like the 13th name on that chart. There isn't one where you might expect it to be.

So we're all just going to live with these awkward moments, half-formed allegations, and imperfect confidences in government for the rest of our lives. Unless Rich Lord gets indicted for something. Then I suppose we'll all know for sure.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Wednesday: A Fool's Errand


Eleven people were arrested Downtown this morning after blocking traffic at Fifth Avenue and Wood Street while protesting proposed cuts to public education funding near Gov. Tom Corbett's Pittsburgh office... Most of the protesters were members of SEIU Local 32BJ. (P-G, Jon Schmitz; see also Trib)

Traffic congestion and street theater in Pittsburgh! That will teach those conservative Republicans. Actually wait -- they have a plan prepared for us.

The mayor said Tuesday he has had "good discussions" with a number of retailers and brokers at the International Council of Shopping Centers convention in Las Vegas this week as part of the city's bid to improve Downtown retail... Joanna Doven, the mayor's spokeswoman, said the URA is paying for the trip. She did not have an exact cost Tuesday. (P-G, Mark Belko)

See? Just so you're aware that SEIU aren't the only 'burghers fighting for justice.

A year after PNC Financial Service Group announced plans to build a $400 million skyscraper Downtown, another office tower could be in the works less than a block away.

Oxford Development Co. is considering the construction of an office high-rise in the block of Smithfield Street between Forbes and Fifth avenues if it can find a tenant to partner in the venture. (P-G, Mark Belko)

What does Pittsburgh think about that?

Around this time next year, we will probably see three work sites Downtown with towering scaffolding and giant cranes busy, our still-new hockey arena with elements of the Hill District Master Plan in the works, Bakery Square 2.0 coming along in the East End, crime down seven years running, our eds and meds content as ever, state officials obediently whistling past our financial time bomb and the fountain shooting off at the Point. Cherubim and seraphim are in the early planning stages.

[smash cut]

Councilman Peduto To Be Named Common Cause PA's "Champion of Good Government 2012" (2PJ's Maria)

"This is the first time since 2009 that this statewide recognition has been awarded," according the press release. Checks are to be made payable to "William Peduto Champion of Good Government Committee".

We are delighted to have the opportunity to bestow this special award on an extraordinary public servant, whose tireless efforts to reform Pittsburgh city government have elevated the city's standards for open, honest and accountable government to previously unseen levels.

The package of government integrity laws enacted under Bill's leadership may be the most far-reaching the city has seen since the dawn of home rule 35 years ago.

This truly will be a special evening for an exceptional leader. (Press release)

Gotta get a look at that bill of particulars, assuming they wrote one. It appears there will be no turning back on this front now.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Merit-Based Teacher Retention Worth Exploring, Probably Not a Neoconservative Plot

The scene on Tueday was just exactly as described in the P-G and at EPR.

And like any other protest. Sure, this gang had the pavilion and the stage at Schenley Plaza, but they also had a bullhorn and a chanting, fired up, diverse crowd of about a hundred. Eleven speakers from various organizations and communities delivered remarks.

"We love great teaching, don't we?" asked Carey Harris, director of the nonprofit advocacy group A+ Schools. Warming up the crowd.

"Are these teachers worth fighting for?" she asked -- and then received.

The teachers being cheered on are those newer city school employees who have seemingly demonstrated great and/or broad merit, by some evaluative methodology. In the event of teacher layoffs -- of which there shall certainly be some, soon -- under the current contract between Pittsburgh Public Schools and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers 400, only the most senior of employees will have a chance to stay on.

Many "Keep Pittsburgh's Best Teachers" rally speakers agreed that seniority was a very, very important factor indeed in employment considerations.

Most argued to the effect that winning state budget cuts back from the sadly misguided Gov. Tom Corbett, his austerity-mad Republicans, and their packs of giant spiders is also of acute importance.

All assembled however were passionately adamant that in the present moment, seniority itself ought not stand alone. And begged the stakeholders to consider merit.


Esther Bush from the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh. Rev. Dr. William H. Curtis of Mt. Ararat. Lutual Love of the Anti-Bullying committee and Bully Police USA. Wanda Henderson, the AAASPS. Hey, is that Sala from CORO in the front row?

Wow, there are a lot of African Americans here! A little more than half, probably!

Meanwhile, over at the intense schools blog:

Is this a African-American movement issuing a decree to our schook [sic] system. How many African-American adults will be furloughed? (PURE Reform, Questioner)

Slow down, Jack. "Issuing a decree" is an awfully loaded term, good for using when one is suddenly and embarrassingly on the defensive about something. But it only stands to reason. This is Pittsburgh Public Schools. Who else in the flibbertigibbit would you expect to be passionately alarmed about our urban public schools system? Cultural minorities are not enrolling at Oakland Catholic or The Ellis School in any great numbers. They're in the majority in the public School District. It can be difficult for some White residents to apprehend this, as their public school youngsters are hardly fed in to some of the majority Black schools at all.

One can see how there is an anxiety about who the District can manage to "put in front of their children" at these schools, at any schools. Many desire informed decisions to be made to retain the best of the best teaching personnel on an ongoing basis, while continuing to weight seniority heavily.

The message was clear, because it was obvious.

"We have an evaluation system we can use. It was developed by administration and teachers. These tools are being used. [It is in the present] collective bargaining agreement."

A repeated coup de gras. A major component of the evaluation framework -- called "RISE" -- has for the last couple years thanks to the last round of union negotiations been used to determine merit pay. Why not some merit retentions?

The speakers were relentless.

"80% say RISE is fair."

"Extremely impressive, brave, collaborative efforts of the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Everyone wants to elevate what we're doing in Pittsburgh."

"We're just putting our heads in the sand."

"I believe this is a fight for a reason."

That last, from a child, ominously. Uh oh.


"Unions are very sensitive to public opinion," former City Council member et al Sala Udin explained to the Comet afterwords. "They want to be seen as an effective institution for public education."

But isn't this union-busting? A ill-faith distraction from Gov. Corbett's proposed cuts? A stalking horse for privatization -- vouchers and charters?

"I think that is a danger that has been represented largely by the unions," replied Udin. "They see every threat as a 'break the union' threat. There are many people here who support the union including myself."

At the rally, Bush was especially complimentary of teachers' unions and the PFT's "contributions to equality."

Nonetheless, she was ruthless on the need to "put kids first."

Harris offered more recently in an e-mail to the Comet:

The PFT holds all of the cards in this situation, so I think they are in a good position to scope out a solution that is fair to their members while also putting their best teachers in front of our students. We’ve just posted ... a few examples of potential solutions we hope they will consider:

According to another source, the union wasn't even coming to the table as of Wednesday. Of course that was before their internal elections. Congratulations to Nina Esposito-Visgitis et al.


My friends, in the immediate shadow of Pittsburgh Westinghouse, Pittsburgh Obama featuring half of the Schenley Spartans by way of Bakery Square 2.0, and University Prep 6-12 at Milliones, fighting merit retention dismissively and on modestly trumped-up ideological grounds is bad for labor, bad for Pittsburgh, and probably bad for the students. The PFT should at least want to experiment with retaining "great" teachers, even if it has not become a perfect science.

Those newbie teachers are in the union too. A little solidarity for attempted rock stardom is in order.

So how about only the top "ranked" 5% of teachers -- the truly and frighteningly exquisite -- get to remain on board despite furloughs and despite seniority, until further notice?

Something along those lines? Something.

We are collecting so much data -- subjective and otherwise. It cannot all be completely worthless.

Hopefully, the foundations, parents and community members (White, African-American and other) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will persuade public school teachers to seek out something they can work with, declare a victory, and then bring to the old negotiating table for ratification.

On the flip side of that coin, it would be exquisite for example if those community activists could in turn be persuaded that state vouchers and subsidized privatization erode support for public education -- and be persuaded to be outspoken in that regard in the general direction of Philadelphia. Though that's asking a lot of some of them.


In the meanwhile, what exact data do we have?

Oy vey. There's no denying it: it's a jumble.

There are three components to the current ideal conceptual framework: the Research-Based Inclusive System of Evaluation (RISE) Value-Added Measurements (or VAMs) and strategically designed student surveys.

RISE, which we are already using for merit pay, consists of rankings in 24 components (pdf) such as "demonstrated knowledge of content and pedagogy," "creating a learning environment of respect and rapport," "organizing physical space", "communicating with students, "engaging students in learning," "demonstrating flexibility and responsiveness," "implementing lessons equitably", "communicating with families", "showing professionalism."

It scores these in descending order as distinguished, proficient, basic or unsatisfactory.

There are guidelines for these in each component. The guidelines are pleasantly, clearly and surprisingly binary -- at least in concept.

But a cause for hesitation among teachers is the possible intrusion of subjectivity by the evaluators. Another is capriciousness. Finally there is plain old budget-driven over-zealousness to weed out anybody who has become expensive.

Another blog post has sprung up over there, based around:

Breaking the Silence is the first empirical report of the actual experiences of abused teachers; that is, what constitutes principal mistreatment and its impact on teachers and their work. (Chicago Union Teacher, May 2003 ) Blase and Blase sound the alarm on principals’ mistreatment of teachers, and begin the important work of finding constructive solutions. (PURE Reform, Anonymous Comenter)

There is an administrative practiced called, "focusing," which the District and its partners can employ on teachers who are deemed to need some extra attention. Or any attention, it would be expensive to focus on everybody at once. Nonetheless, the bullied teachers phenomenon is probably an issue worthy of due consideration.

I would be more worried about the fact of who is making those decisions, and how.

This gets us over to "the Teaching Institute" at Brasher and King, the Clinical Resident Instructors or CRI's and the almighty IQA-C (pdf, or document library).

And remember -- this is all just RISE. One component of the triad. There are also the Value Added Measures (spoiler: infinite loop) and the Tripod student survey. Though these are not presently baked into the collective bargain, may not actually be out of the oven quite yet, and we may be encountering a dearth of yeast.

How much is this all costing, anyway? Costing everyone?

Investigations continue.

Can aspects of the different evaluation methods still be combined roughly as originally envisaged? Would that even be cost-effective for the District and the philanthropic community anymore? Can something sufficiently vetted be implemented in time for the state budget cuts, even if all goes well with the union? What if in the age of merit retention, a sterling veteran teacher gets dealt a bad hand one year during a "crucial" year and misses the cutoff? Do we have enough semesters and years of RISE data to make high-value decisions?

What happens if we flatly refuse to explore merit? What happens next?

Finally, is there anything besides the Promise and teacher development we should be investing in? Healthy breakfasts? Humane starting times? Freeing up teachers to teach in other ways?