Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Push Back - What Happens When You Criticize Mom, Apple Pie, and Favorite Teachers

We all have warm glossy associations with certain emotional touchstones.  Most adults remember when our national self-image was pretty much summed up by thoughts of Mom and apple pie, along with some caring school teachers.  There are war stories about soldiers who credited focusing on these memories with sustaining them during prolonged adversity.  No one would have denigrated these symbols of American life.

Yet some high profile leaders, in their relentless pursuit of change, have forgotten how important these basic concepts can be to people.  And the unexpected criticism of mothers, apple pie, and teachers has led to a push back of growing dimensions.  Consider the following:

Criticizing Moms and Teachers
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan chose to belittle mothers for their lack of support for new standards saying, “It’s fascinating to me that some of the pushback is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Mothers did not take well to having their concerns about standardized tests being shrugged off with a glib assertion that they were overly protective and had exaggerated assumptions about their children’s intelligence.  In the commentary on Duncan’s statement, it was repeatedly pointed out that had he said this about any other racial group there would have been screaming outrage. 
In another similar instance of disparaging the source of criticism, NYS Education Commissioner John King, after a public forum that dissolved into yelling, cancelled upcoming public forums with the statement,  “In light of the clear intention of these special interest groups to continue to manipulate the forum, the PTA-sponsored events scheduled have been suspended.” Unfortunately the audience was made up of parents and teachers, albeit angry ones, but parents and teachers nevertheless.  Neither group took well to being accused of being a special interest group, with the implication that their specific concern was not worth hearing.  The outcry was heard around the state and the Commissioner soon scheduled another series of public meetings, but the damage to his image among the insulted groups had been done. 
One result of this damage was visible in April at the annual meeting of New York’s statewide teachers’ union, NYSUT.  NYSUT members voted “No Confidence” in the Commissioner. This unprecedented “No Confidence” vote was a statement of profound philosophical disagreement with the Commissioner on how education should be led.  After the teachers voted, a spokesman for the Commissioner dismissed NYSUT’s action as “politics.”  But what can be gained by choosing to ignore a deeply held concern of a group representing 600,000 people who are professionals in his field?  

Imposing new standards
Regardless of one’s view of the value of the Common Core Learning Standards, where their introduction has been characterized by top-down imposition on teachers and students with no opportunity for parents and education professionals to have a voice in the changes in their schools, there has been push back.  Many social media sites support the positions of unhappy parents and educators.

The growing opposition to the Common Core manifests itself in a variety of ways – locally by parents opting their children out of state tests, and statewide by involving political leaders in issues that were previously left to state boards of education. 

In response to public anger, Indiana has terminated its involvement with the Common Core Learning Standards and North Carolina is currently considering a similar action.  Here in New York, changes to the planned implementation for the use of data from state tests were included in the state budget document, and other proposed laws intervene with the roll-out of teacher evaluation and certification requirements. 

New York State’s new budget, in response to public outcry, terminated the State Education Department’s plan to put student data in a cloud-based data base called inBloom.  
The state’s Race to the Top grant application committed New York to creating a data base that would carry all information about student and teacher performance.  The stated goal was to collect data in a way that would improve instruction.  The goal was quite sweeping as Arne Duncan described it in a speech in June 2009, “Hopefully, someday, we can track children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career."

Parents recoiled at the idea of their children’s personal information –hundreds of data points including grades, discipline records, family issues, health, and economic data – being stored in a giant multi-state cloud-based data base.  Motivated by a lack of confidence in the absolute security of such a cloud, the push-back against it became an irresistible force and the state legislature passed legislation withdrawing from inBloom.  New York became the final state to separate from inBloom and the data base is closing down.

Apple Pie
And as for the apple pie, because of strict new federal nutrition standards, pie has become something you won’t find in school lunches because it is does not fit into the constraints of the nutritional allowances.  The considerable outcry about limits on portions and menu items has resulted in Congress and the Department of Agriculture backtracking on their overly strict guidance.  There are also current bills before Congress modifying the federal role in limiting food choices and returning those decisions to local districts.

Caution to the leader who thinks he can ignore the voice of the people.  Leadership is about leading, about motivating people to embrace ideas and actions, and it requires trust.  Being appointed or elected to an office may give a person a title but it does not make them a true leader.  This is something people in leadership positions might want to ponder.




Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Power of Public Outrage

The power of public outrage should not be underestimated.  Although school leaders struggled to be heard in their pleas to the State Education Department about how the Common Core Learning Standards should be introduced in New York’s schools, it wasn’t until the broader public added their voices, and their outrage, that the SED and the Legislature and Governor really began to pay attention. 

Over the years there have been many instances when our requests to legislators for laws that would be helpful to schools were brushed off with the explanation that the public wasn’t calling out for that particular change.  Legislators who cited the lack of a public outcry as a reason not to act do not necessarily seem pleased now that they have a public clamoring for changes with the Common Core. 

With the power of public outcry in mind, school leaders are trying to draw attention to the Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), hoping to make it a pivotal issue this year.  As the budget discussion began, most of the public and even many legislators did not grasp the impact of the GEA’s automatic reduction to school aid after a district’s aid is calculated. 

The GEA was instituted during the recession to help the state with its revenue problems. Although initially a one-time adjustment to debit money off the bottom line after a district’s state aid was calculated, it was subsequently made a permanent part of the funding formula, a constant negative number in the calculation of aid.

The amount of money subtracted from school aid by the GEA is staggering - $8.5 BILLION statewide over the past four years, over $355 MILLION in MCSBA districts alone!  This loss is crippling schools’ ability to offer the programs students need, an impact on the development of the next generation that cannot be calculated.  But the dollar loss can be calculated and for the coming year, the Governor’s budget proposal includes another $1.3 BILLION GEA cut, including $65 MILLION locally. 

The public is beginning to understand the GEA.  Dissonance is growing louder as people question the conflicting messages from the Governor’s office that the state has a surplus and can rebate tax money to homeowners yet still uses the GEA to siphon money off the bottom line of school aid.  

With all the pressure on districts created by the cap on the levy, the governor’s push for a freeze on increases in local taxes, and the continuing depletion of reserve funds, the insidious impact of the GEA is becoming more obvious.  Many school leaders are showing their communities that despite all the other limits on revenue, if this money was not taken away, they could fund their programs without exceeding the tax cap for years to come. 

The public doesn’t rise up when they are content; they rise up when they are angry.  It is intoxicating to imagine the public demanding adequate funding for education, but they could, and they might, because to understand the GEA is to be appalled by it.

We need to take every opportunity to inform people about the GEA.





Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A Troubling Trend in Tax Policy

As school boards and the state both begin developing their annual budgets, the awareness of fiscal need is unrelenting.  Everyone will struggle to make the best use of limited tax revenues.

In this climate, there is an alarming new trend among developers of retail properties to request, and for Industrial Development Authority Boards to award, exceptionally long periods of time for Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) dispensations on property taxes.   Although the typical duration of a PILOT has been ten years, developers are now asking for PILOTS that will run for 20, 25, and even 35 years.  These requests to be relieved of normal property tax obligations for such lengthy periods represent a fundamental change in the expectations of developers for how they would run their businesses.

Admittedly starting a new business is risky.  25% of new businesses fail in their first year and only 47% of retail operations are still operating four years after they open.  So one can understand why developers would seek to leverage every possible financial advantage.

But discounting taxes for a quarter century is more than a tax break to help a business get started – it is a primary change in how businesses operate. 

Giving a 25-year tax break to build a store or restaurant makes questionable sense when so much can change in a quarter century, especially purchasing patterns.  Consider that 25 years ago a first class stamp cost 25 cents, a gallon of regular gas cost $1.12, the US population had 67 million fewer people, and the Dow Jones Average was in the 2,000’s (compared to the current 16,000).  25 years ago Kodak employed over 50,000 people locally.  
And Google, on-line shopping, social media, and all the other elements of an Internet driven world were not yet part of anyone’s plan, even among the small number of scientists who understood the newly invented information sharing system called the Wide Area Information Server.

Considering the potential for changes in demographics and economic structures, the arguments that motivate a decision in 2013 may cause an unreasonable public burden by 2038.  Whenever a PILOT is granted, taxes are shifted from a singular business to all the other taxpayers in the community.  And one has to wonder, if a business claims it cannot operate unless its property taxes are reduced for such a long period of time, perhaps it needs to rethink its business model.  

So far only a few MCSBA member districts in towns with large shopping malls have had to deal with a request for an extended PILOT, and their experiences have not been encouraging. Although school districts are informed about these requests and are allowed to provide information at public hearings about the impact, school districts do not have any official role in the final decisions of Industrial Development Authorities. 

The lack of a legal role for the schools in making decisions about extended PILOTS is a serious omission and should be changed if this trend continues.  School districts set tax rates with the concerns of the entire community in mind, and a community can hold a school board accountable for their decisions.   In contrast when IDA’s make their decisions, they are looking at a single request, and basing much of their decision on the claims of a self-interested business.  IDA boards do not have any direct accountability to the larger community.
Business interests can change over time but a community’s need for an equitable financial foundation does not.  Other factors, not extended PILOTS, are what will determine whether or not a given business survives over time.  In the meantime, the community’s residents and the businesses with long standing will bear the shift in the tax burden without any similar access to tax relief.  
School systems are seeing more and more limits put on their state and local revenues.  This emergence of requests for extended PILOTS becomes another constraint.  School finance is difficult enough but in this instance, long-term decisions that impact district finances are being made by a separate appointed board, not elected leaders whose primary responsibility is the well being of the school district.