All special interests are not created equal

Sorry, Steve. Read my headline. Read it again. And again.

Sink in yet?

Let me explain. My friend Steve Newton has taken to his blog Delaware Libertarian in this weekend before the Red Clay School Board election to — ostensibly — call out hypocrisy. I’ll put it out there again even though most of you already know this: I’ve been heavily involved with Kenny Rivera’s campaign for almost two months. So let’s just put that out there. I will also add that this post is in no way meant to reflect the Rivera campaign and has not been cleared or endorsed by anyone involved. These are my words.

In his first school-board-related post today, Steve decides to take on the special-interest money ON OUR SIDE because we’ve decided to question the funds from a “shadowy organization” that has spent thousands of dollars on mailers for our opponent, Joanne Johansen. He goes after DSEA and the Working Families of Delaware PAC and attempts a false equivalency to make those organizations look like they’re doing nothing better or worse than the Voices 4 Delaware Education Action Fund.

Well, Steve, you’re wrong. And attempting to make yourself immune by calling out our line of defense before we get a chance to use it makes no difference:

Undoubtedly, somebody will post a comment here saying to the effect, “At least DSEA was transparent enough for you to find out about all this.  Voices is hiding behind campaign loopholes.  So our candidate is more moral and better.”

Exactly, Steve. That is the line I will use. But I won’t muck up your blog by putting it there and confirming your prediction. I’ll put it right here. THE DONATIONS MADE TO WORKING FAMILIES AND DSEA ARE ALL PUBLICLY AVAILABLE ON THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF ELECTIONS WEBSITE. THIS IS TRANSPARENCY. VOICES’ FINANCIALS…ARE NOT!

Steve, none of us has ever complained that Voices 4 Delaware should exist. Never. We’ve never said that organizations WITH special interests should ever be barred from engaging in the political process. Never. We’ve never said an organization like Voices shouldn’t be able to back candidates of its choosing. NEVER.

What we’ve said is that organizations involved in the political process should be good enough to disclose the individuals who donate to their cause. This allows those interested in knowing who’s funding the operation their chances to see just what’s going on. This is not Voices 4 Delaware Education Action Fund. No one knows who’s given them thousands of dollars to bankroll extremely nasty campaign mailers in Christina School District. What do they have to hide? If you’re gonna go nasty like that, you’d better damn well expect people to ask who the hell you are and what your motivations are.

Now on to our race, the Red Clay School Board race. Here goes: Joanne Johansen was the first candidate to file in the Red Clay School Board race. I heard about Joanne from several friends and had heard even that several of the Red Clay School Board members thought very highly of her and that she’d serve effectively on the school board. “Great!” I thought. That’s what we need. Someone with deep community roots who knows exactly what’s going on. Eric Randolph is not running for re-election, so a great person in his place is what we need.

I’d heard some word, though, that another candidate might be interested in running. This was confirmed about a week later when a government teacher from Brandywine High School announced he’d be running as well. Wow. A teacher. Considering Eric Randolph is the only current educator on the Board, this is an interesting development. I mean, it would seem natural to have a teacher on the school board, no?

So we had two candidates. I had heard from neither of the candidates, but would certainly participate in what is becoming an annual ritual: the Red Clay Education Association’s school board candidate interviews. I’d participated in the previous two years’ interviews and have found the process to be very engaging.

For those who don’t know, Red Clay sends out a list of questions to all candidates before the interview. We feel this is the best practice so no candidates arrive with a sense of “Gotcha!” in the interview. We ask all candidates the SAME pre-set list of questions, with some additional topics of conversation potentially covered. All, questions/topics, though, are listed.

We held candidate interviews on a Thursday in mid-March. Both candidates showed up on time and ready to go. Joanne went first and answered our questions fine and confirmed to us that she’d make an excellent candidate on the Board. Kenny went after and it was just a little different. In every respect, he understood what a school board member is charged with doing (as Joanne did) AND THEN SOME. His responses were at times exhaustive. He had so much to say. So many ideas. The interview went well over the hour we’d allotted each candidate. The decision of the committee — which included some Red Clay Secretaries who sat in on the process, but were not given voting status because the secretaries were just about to unionize with DSEA — was unanimous. Considering the breadth and depth of Kenny’s responses to our questions, we felt he was the best choice to recommend to our Representative Council at the next meeting. Rep Council voted unanimously, as well, to endorse Kenny Rivera for Red Clay School Board.

And so our involvement in the campaign began.

Contrast this with the Voices 4 Delaware school board campaign, which has been phony and disgusting from just about day one thanks to the involvement of one Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, former WSFS CEO. Let’s back up. And PLEASE stick with me, because this is going to be long. Very long. Please first read my friend Frederika Jenner’s excellent blog post from January entitled “Goodnight, Moon,” in which she takes Mr. Schoenhals to task for some irresponsible rhetoric before the State Chamber of Commerce Dinner. She follows up with another post here. Here’s video of Skip’s comments at that dinner:

Skip cast his lot with this foolishness well before the campaign and he has continued ever since. In an email dated April 4, Skip sent out an urgent request to — presumably — his friends and supporters for money. Money he says would be spent on candidates “Voices 4 Delaware identified.”

Let me say something. There is most certainly another difference between Voices 4 Delaware and that evil, corrupt teachers’ union: We at least interviewed and deliberated before endorsing a candidate. This joke-of-an-organization Voices 4 Delaware did no such thing, though they probably wish they did. Or perhaps they thought Skipper was jumping the gun by making this announcement too soon.

Y’see, less that two weeks after Skip’s email asking for money to support the Voices-endorsed candidates, on April 13, several candidates received a survey from Voices 4 Delaware. Now, I don’t know about you, but don’t organizations tend to provide surveys and complete interviews BEFORE making endorsements? Voices had already identified “its” candidates, so why send a survey? Maybe they wanted to assume an appearance of fairness?

Upon reviewing the questions, Kenny said the same thing I did. “They want us to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these incredibly complex questions?” He balked at this. And we laughed a bit. He refused to answer the questions without being able to provide more detailed answers. This is how Kenny thinks. This is how he responds. His answers may not always be the easiest. They may not always be the quickest. But he refuses to play into tepid soundbites and the oversimplification of very big ideas just to placate some seemingly flies-by-night organization looking to influence education policy in the state of Delaware.

I could go on on this topic. I could go on about how questionable Voices’ connections to other “education reformers” in this state are. I could point you to the registration of Voices 4 Delaware’s website, which clearly shows a connection to the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. I could go on about how we still don’t know the interests and motivations of this group because their shady campaign finances don’t allow us to delve deeper. I could go on, but I won’t.

I will, instead, return to the major crux of my post title: All special interests are not created equal. It’s a pretty hot phrase to throw around, especially in an election year. Demonizing all those “special interests.” Those “special interests” that are taking candy from babies and pushing grandma over a cliff. Steve likes to play the moral equivalency game when it comes to special interests, saying, well, if DSEA can do it, so can Voices. And, like I said above, sure, Voices should be able to do what they’re doing, but with an appropriate amount of transparency.

But where Steve gets it wrong is equating our special interests with their special interests. All special interests are not created equal. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are ensuring equity for all of our students. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are seeing that all of our schools achieve an unparalleled level of excellence. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are seeing that we get the most committed educators and support professionals in our school every day of every year. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are making sure that the basic needs of all of my students are being met day in and day out. The special interests that stand out in my union are making sure my school board acts in a fiscally transparent and responsible manner and doesn’t revert back to the flagrant abuses of the 90s and early 00s when my union was completely absent from board-election activities. The special interests that stand out in my union involvement are one in which we attempt to engage all members to be active and aware of the issues that don’t simply surround their pay and benefits, as many in the media would like to project.

Yes. We have special interests, everyone. Special interests that set us aside from other industries but that, perhaps, may be interests the public holds as well. We do very much have special interests. The difference, though, between our special interests and the special interests of Voices 4 Delaware Education and, to some extent, the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, is that our interests are pretty clearly defined. We are educators. We walk into those schools every damn day with the goal of doing something for those children. Be they upper, middle, or lower socioeconomic status, we walk into those schools with the HOPE that we’re affecting some positive change in their lives and imparting some knowledge that will make them kinder and more respectful human beings.

It is Voices’ special interests that are so undefined. Nebulous. Mysterious. If I were to go with what I know as well as the associations this organization holds to the business community, then I believe it’s probably fair to say their special interests aren’t nearly as altruistic or benevolent as ours. They want schools to be run like businesses. Where production is standardized, much like the tests our students take only about ten times per year. They want students put through a machine so they come out the perfect producers and consumers to work for them. Though it’s left unsaid because these “shadowy organizations” are so mysterious with their motives, I’d bet Mitt Romney’s $10,000 that there’s not much to argue against what I’ve just written.

And that’s where I will fight. I will fight to see to it that “production” in our schools is not “standardized.” I will fight to see to it that our students are treated as the amazingly fascinating and individualistic creatures that they are. They deserve and require teachers who will see those qualities in them on a daily basis and not treat them as cogs in some bizarrely fetishistic profit-driven machine.

There is a difference between DSEA — the teachers’ union — and Voices 4 Delaware Education, an organization whose membership remains unclear and whose funding is an absolute mystery. Yes, they both represent special interests. However, all special interests are not created equal.

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Awesome!

My two new business items passed!

1) My first business item was to request an internal DSEA review of the 2007 Class Size and Unit Allocation Task Force Report that seemingly has had no follow-up. This report made recommendations to collect data and look at ways to lowering elementary class sizes. I don’t see where any real follow-through was done on this report. The Representative Assembly today voted all yeas except for one abstaining vote on this item.

2) I proposed a new business item requesting an impact study, directed by the General Assembly, on the Neighborhood Schools Act. In particular, I’m asking the Assembly to review subsection 220 of the Act that guarantees “fair and equitable” planning for all schools in Northern New Castle County. Many community stakeholders believe there are inherent inequalities in certain schools that are in clear violation of the Neighborhood Schools Act. The General Assembly should initiate an impact study ASAP to see if some of our schools are being unncessarily harmed.  This new business item passed unanimously!

I am ecstatic right now. It was not a totally stress-free operation. I learned some great lessons in Robert’s Rules and making amendments and dealing with questions from the floor. Made some new friends in the process and I’m glad to have been part of it! Hopefully my new business items won’t be for naught. I will be following up.

This is me after today’s activities!!

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Us

We are here and wearing our red. Richardson Park representing!!! Say “Hi!” to my good friends (from right) Lisa, D-Webb, Steve, Gena, and me!

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Today

I’m looking forward to getting down to business today at the DSEA Representative Assembly. For those who aren’t aware of this annual event, it’s where DSEA member delegates from across the state come to Dover to discuss and vote on issues affecting the union in particular and greater education issues in general. This will be my third RA and I am learning more with each passing year.

This year I’ve done something different. I decided to take a leap and submit two new business items. I’m the only one who’s offered up new business items/resolutions this year and I’m looking forward to a good discussion today. Now, these resolutions and new business items are completely non-binding; there’s really no way to enforce them on a larger level because, well, DSEA is not a law-creatin’ or law-enforcin’ body! But, what can be done is DSEA can engage in larger debates that bring in more key stakeholders. And that’s just what I attempt to do today.

The first new business item I’ve submitted is in relation to school capacity formulas. Under the School Construction Manual as outlined by the State Department of Education, all elementary schools are to have 24 students in each instructional classroom that is between 736 and 914 square feet. No matter the school, this same formula is used. My new business items seeks to get a new dialogue going between DSEA, state legislators, and other key education constituencies in that I believe students in low-income and high-needs schools REQUIRE smaller class sizes. However, nothing in the law differentiates between a school with 5% low income and a school with 95% low income. I think this needs to be addressed.  In short, I believe school capacities MUST be tied to a school’s percentage of low-income students. The higher that low-income rate goes up, the lower class sizes must come down. Let’s get talking about this!

My second new business items involved the Neighborhood Schools Act and what I feel are inherent inequities in its application when, in fact, the law states that equity is to be assured at all steps. Well, not all of our schools are participating in the same programs in which some of our other, less-high-needs schools are participating. Neighborhood Schools Act provides for the same availability of programming across the board no matter the school. I’m thinking specifically of Talented and Gifted programming, though there are others. The mere fact the some schools have and others don’t, I feel, is a violation of the law. In the very least, I’d like to see DSEA initiate an impact study of that decade-plus law. 

There’s lots to discuss in education today. I hope to get a few people talking today and for a good long while going forward. Let me know your thoughts! I hope my new business items pass!

Mr. Matthews Goes to Dover

This weekend is the Delaware State Education Association’s annual Representative Assembly. Known simply as RA in many circles, this is the time when delegates from around the state come together to vote on bylaws updates, resolutions, and new business items. This will be my third year in attendance and it’s always been a great time.

This year, though, I’m doing something different. I’ve submitted the only two new business items to be worked this year on the floor of the RA. These are two issues about which I have a great amount of passion: school capacities and the Neighborhood Schools Act. I will go to Dover with the expectation that I will likely have to defend these new business items with reasoned arguments and respectful debates. I hope the delegates representing the school districts across the state will find my intentions to be pure and vote to adopt these new business items on Saturday.

I may share more information later, but I’ve been up since 4:30 and am quite tired!

DoE considers the law, backs off of NCS expansion — for now

I am employed by the State of Delaware in the Red Clay Consolidated School District. I have no fear of repercussions because of my frequent speaking out regarding educational issues affecting Delaware today. People who know me realize I tend to get passionate about many topics, but always wish for my debate to be respectful and conducive to a positive environment. That being said, I will very pointedly point out errors, inconsistencies, illogicality, or outright lies when I see them committed by either a local school district or the bigger Department of Education as a whole.

And today’s news that the vote on Newark Charter School’s expansion into high school has been put on hold is good news. Up until yesterday, many thought the expansion was a sure thing. Even though the arguments questioning the expansion were quite voluminous, it seemed the State Board of Education would simply ignore those concerns and issue their expansion approval post haste. Well, not so fast. It seems the ACLU’s letter yesterday detailing the school’s non-compliance with federal law as it relates to the free- and reduced-lunch program may have caused some folks at DoE and on the State Board of Education a moment of pause.

What disturbs me most about all this, though, is the seemingly insane cult of personality around the school’s leader, Mr. Greg Meece. He seems to hold some bizarre sway over the parents of that school. Check out this Delaware Liberal post courtesy of Pandora.

Meece says he got the heads up from [DoE Sec. Lillian] Lowery early this morning and he then passed this info onto NCS parents.  Which means if you were a recipient of an email from Mr. Meece, then you knew the outcome of the public meeting before, ya know, the public.  I feel bad for those people who took time out of their day to attend a meeting whose outcome was already announced to a chosen few.  Hell, why even bother with public meetings!

Not to mention Meece has shared with parents complete fabrications about DSEA robocalls to its members asking them to stack last week’s public hearing on expansion. No such robocalls ever were sent out. Ever. Just more anti-union flame-stoking courtesy of Mr. Meece. Meece likes to share lots with his parents, it seems. A little too much. And a little too little of the truth.

It may have taken a decade, but I suppose later is better than never to finally begin the process of evening out just what is happening at Newark Charter School.