Monday, June 16, 2008

School Boards Gone Wild

This is the story of a small town nestled among the palm trees of South Florida, lined with multi-million dollar homes and exotic cars. A view from afar might suggest such wealth would value education and strive to provide exceptional opportunities for both their students and their teachers. They began with the best intentions. They operated relatively successfully for years and even managed to retain one Superintendent for over 12 years.

He was not without controversy and often found it difficult to garner support. There was the nepotism with husband/wife teams along with close relatives making staff meetings more like family reunions. Locals were shut out of the hiring process. There was the top heavy management with “non-instructional” personnel nearly outnumbering teachers. There was lost opportunities as the district failed to apply for millions in State funds earmarked for site-based management and magnet schools. There were the lost grant funds for nurses and the deliberate blocking of cultural diversity training for teachers when flyers announcing the in-service training were intercepted. Then there was the criticism during a hiring freeze that saw the school system spending $30,000 on recruitment for non-existent jobs. Then there were the personal stories like the story of the academically gifted young girl who published a popular newsletter questioning the administration. She was suspended and eventually dropped out of school altogether as a result of the incident and subsequent retaliation.

There was the story that began a decade earlier by a school board member who acted as a trustee for a large piece of land in the Northern part of the County. Although he wasn’t paid to act as the trustee, he still was entitled to collect real estate commissions upon the sale. He thought he had it sold, but the buyer defaulted and he never collected his commission. Suddenly, the school board felt the burning need to have property in this area. The property had been appraised a couple of times. The deal was made and the school board paid the highest appraised price. The school board member finally received his sizeable commission. The community cried conflict of interest, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Faced with decreased funding from the State, the school board turned to the teachers and the public for advice. They gave it in a resounding plea for a reduction in administration. The school board requested specifics. The public named names. The multitude of “Assistants to the Superintendent” had to go and were shifted to new positions at lower pay. Nobody told payroll and it was nearly a year before any savings were realized. There was the racial slur that spurned the updating of anti-discrimination policies. Sexual orientation and pregnancy were left out of the policy despite overwhelming testimony from parents and teachers to include protection for those groups. Ultimately, there was the perception of an excessive retirement package when the long time Superintendent finally bid his farewell.

What followed was a rapid succession of Superintendents. One came highly regarded as a professional educator. He was shorted lived and coined the locally infamous phrase to describe the situation proclaiming the town was full of C.A.V.E. people, Citizens Against Virtually Everything. The search was on for a new Superintendent. Many highly qualified educators applied for a chance to live in the beautiful town with exceptionally landscaped medians and pristine beach front mansions.

One in particular was touted as being the next savior. Two board members lobbied heavily for his hiring. For the purposes of this article, we’ll call those board members Dick and Jane. Despite Dick and Jane’s pleas the school board passed over their candidate. For the purposes of this article we will call this Superintendent candidate Spot. Spot never taught in a public school classroom and didn’t have a doctorate degree. In fact, his experience was very limited and mostly military based. The highly qualified candidate the school board nearly decided on must have seen the writing on the wall and backed out. In her place, a local up through the ranks Superintendent was given the position. Dick and Jane never got over the snub.

Despite warnings from State officials, education advocates, and numerous graduate student research papers the school board continued to waive impact fees and refused discussion of what would eventually be a big problem when the double digit growth of the area subsided. They mortgaged the future of the school district and built enormous new schools filled with technology and IP phones. They gave themselves hefty raises and retirement benefits.

They even found money to build a state of the art headquarters complete with high-tech board chambers to hold their meetings. The screams from the public to stop the extravagant expenditure were deafening, especially with the school board. They simply refused to address the publics concern. Soon the building was gleaming with marble and dubbed Taj Mahal, a monument to the egos that resided there.

All proceeded until Dick got himself into some trouble. Turns out he loved the children, especially the young boys. Armed with testimony from 30 former male students as well as notes and email the FBI had some questions. Parent and teacher complaints were well documented through the years. Dick often pulled young boys out of class without warning or explanations incensing teachers. Complaints about school board members’ access to the classrooms, students and teachers was the fodder of much public discourse. Rumors of intimidation of teachers by school board members were rampant. If the school board members had no direct knowledge, they should have at least had a suspicion. The Statue of Limitations prevented criminal charges in many instances, but some of those former students sought justice in monetary terms. They proceeded to sue Dick and other members of the School Board including Jane, claiming they did have knowledge of the abuse.

The School Board decided it needed an attorney, but knew they couldn’t afford one. They decided the best way to handle the situation was to fire the only grant writer on staff and hire a full-time attorney. They didn’t hire just any attorney. They found one who understood controversy and whose association with the hate group League of the South had dominated local headlines in the district he previously worked for.

Dick shot himself in the head at a popular playground. In an ominous gesture, he blamed the local newspaper in the note he left behind. He was a lawyer, so his assets were well protected. Lawsuits are still pending, but criminal investigations have been dropped as a result of his suicide. If you would like to see his portrait, it still remains hanging prominently on the wall in the extravagant school board building. His legacy became the school board attorney he left behind.

Somewhere along their path the school board found additional income streams renting the school facilities to local churches on the weekends. Church goers can often be seen canvassing the neighborhoods with brochures and business cards touting their prime school locations. The Christian Coalition hands out bibles during lunch periods at high schools drawing the attention of the ACLU. Phyllis Schlafly provides free tickets to local students for her yearly Eagle Forum speech.

That brings us to the story of the mooning senior student whose choice of thong underwear proved his only salvation against an arrest record when he let it all hang out as MC for an evening theatre event. The audience found it funny; the school boards’ attorney did not. His infamous quote made eyebrows raise, “In south Georgia, they’d have taken him outside and hung him from the nearest tree.” He also indicated the student was lucky he wasn’t arrested and branded as a sex offender. What followed was months of courtroom drama as the parents tried to keep their honor student son out of severe alternative programs and in school.

Soon another controversy arose regarding honors credits and class rank. At one high school class rank determined your parking space in the student lot. A student transferred into the high school as a senior from out of zone and upset the pecking order in the parking lot. Soon a group of parents were questioning AP pairings and class rank. Years before, in an attempt to create a more conducive learning experience, the school board had approved such pairings. The idea was to give students a better chance at passing the stringent AP exam with a grade high enough to be awarded college credit. Acting on the rage and influence of a handful of parents and students at one school, the School Board commissioned a report by an independent law firm.

One of those parents was a business partner of Jane and a former candidate for school board herself. In her withdrawal speech she blamed the “edufads” that bullied teachers into “teaching diversity and multiculturalism.” She goes on to blame outcome based education and the Clinton administration for the moral degradation of public schools. “The concept of homosexuality must be tolerated yet God may not be recognized!” She professed.

It was a busy time for the school board as another report was already complete and the grades were in. The school system had passed, but the school board had failed. The other report was from the well respected Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation team. Proudly, all of the County’s public schools had achieved accreditation making them eligible for District Accreditation. This report had no problem with the teachers or the Superintendent. Their issue was with the School Board. In this report they commended the teachers and Superintendent for being able to accomplish so much considering the behavior of the School Board. The district was placed on warning status. The school board needed reform or the district would lose district accreditation and with it accreditation at all the individual schools.

The school board wasn’t very happy with their report card. Seeing the group of raving parents before them demanding action provided the perfect opportunity for Jane and her friends. The parents wanted an investigation and Jane knew just the person to call. They didn’t hire just any law firm. They hired Spot’s law firm. Spot had since run off to get his doctorate and landed a job as a Superintendent. His law firm had made their name litigating the longest running desegregation case in US history giving them something in common with the school board attorney. Despite the fact that without accreditation students would not qualify for State scholarships or admittance into State colleges and most universities - the school board tucked away the accreditation report. Jane and her friends ignored anyone who questioned it.

Meanwhile, the law firm interviewed a few people at the school and produced an inflammatory report claiming credits were given for water sports and washing towels. They attacked the awarding winning State virtual school whose jurisdiction comes under the State Department of Education. Their claims were based on 12-15 individual interviews. They weren’t sure exactly how many people they interviewed. They didn’t look at records County wide and their report had very little factual information. The water sports student had the credit transferred from another school district. The towel washer was actually a sports management class and required a number of written assignments to document it. It just so happens the student was a team manager as well so yes, he did wash towels, but not for credit.

Jane then had a divine idea. Why stop at a law firm? Why not spin the report? Why not get the Superintendent fired? Why not hire her first choice from years ago, Spot? After all, Dick thought he was a savior. One of Jane’s good friends could help her out at the newspaper. Suddenly the headlines all proclaimed students getting credit for washing towels. Jane didn’t stop there. With all this momentum it was the perfect time to orchestrate her plan and she had plenty of help and support.

After what would go down in local history as the longest School Board meeting on record with over 9 hours of heated discussions and two separate votes, the Superintendent was fired. The second vote came after a break where many thought the meeting was over and woke the next morning to find it lasted another two hours.

Quickly the discussion turned to who would serve in the prestigious position while a new Superintendent was “found.” Another former, twice failed school board candidates’ name came up. He was also friends with Jane’s friend. They often emailed each other and board members with personnel suggestions for the district. One of their suggestions for a principal position had recently traveled to Spots hometown to talk to him about a new job that might be opening up. But those plans backfired when State statue required the candidate to reside within the County. They tried for highly controversial administrator who was a “double dipper.” This is a former employee who retires and then is hired back because of the inability to fill the position. They are placed in what is referred to as a DROP program so they earn retirement pay and a pay check as well. But this person also did not reside in the County. Disappointed, Jane and her friends had to resort to the only choice left, the Assistant Superintendent. He was a long time respected educator in the County and a Harvard graduate.

The next day the newspapers in Spots’ current district were announcing he was planning on taking a job in beautiful Florida. A school board member from the struggling district responded to the article with, “wow, that School Board make us look good!” Despite outrage from the Chamber of Commerce, business leaders and the community, he was soon on board as the new Superintendent at a salary higher than the Governor of the State. No other candidates were considered. The months that followed brought accusations of disclosure laws broken, secret dealings, and political agendas. The former Superintendent sued for unlawful firing and settled with the school board out of court leaving the community in the dark about what really happened.

They didn’t just hire any Superintendent. They hired a Superintendent with virtually no experience and what little he did have was immersed in controversy. In just three short years as a Superintendent he had managed negative press in the New York Times as well as many other National publications from conservative to liberal. His competitive performance rating as a Superintendent provided by the State was “Below Average” to “Inferior.” He had only worked in two school districts and one was under Federal Corrective Action. His experience in the K12 arena included one year as a middle school guidance counselor and a couple of years as a curriculum specialist before catapulting to the status of Superintendent. He had friends too and they went with him from district to district gaining them the nickname in the press of, “the traveling Superintendent circus.”

The protests and controversy followed him to sunny Florida along with all his friends. There were student sit-ins and a teacher “work to rule” stance that continues to this day. The parents were in arms over schedule changes and veteran teachers nearing retirement were unceremoniously dismissed. Spot held the transcripts of graduating Seniors delaying college admissions and prompting lawsuits. Pay negotiations with the teachers’ union failed. Administrators received contract extensions and raises, while teachers fought for their step increase. While no money was available for teacher raises, there was more than enough for Spot to hire more friends from his former district because, as he claimed, his challenge was to “find the right cultural fit.” Meanwhile, the district was still in warning status in regards to accreditation.

The year brought numerous abuse charges and sex scandals, including a lawsuit by a fourteen year old girl who two school bus drivers molested and videotaped the encounters. The suit claims the School Board had knowledge of it and refused to act. It seems the school bus drivers were signing her out of class despite the objections of school employees. The school boards attorney called the teen “promiscuous” and a willing participant in having sex. The tapes also include the couple sexually abusing a three year old toddler.

School Board members themselves have not been exempt. One member has come under criticism for sexual harassment including kissing a news reporter on her bare shoulder following a meeting. He then asked her for a kiss on the lips. When she refused he requested she, “Kiss his ring” instead. Soon other employees of the district came forward claiming sexual harassment by the school board member.

Numerous lawsuits engulfed the district including ongoing actions brought by ESE parents and students that drew the attention of the US Office of Civil Rights. There was the story of the young boy and his service dog denied access to a classroom. There were stories of improper storage of medicines and lack of nurse support. Bullying and intimidation of students and parents was commonplace. They counted on parents giving up knowing the limited time frame for securing education for their children. The district had over a dozen “at risk” programs, but no formal gifted education. Exceptional Student Education included gifted students as well. Despite recommendations from numerous audits, Spot decided he should just gut the whole program slashing the budget and firing half of the ESE specialist because the district could no longer afford them.

Looking for an easy way to cut more from the budget, Spots next plan of action included outsourcing the janitorial services. To start the ball rolling he went to his friends at his old district. After months of building tours and inside information he sprung his plan on the public - fire the 250 longtime employees and hire his friends company. They can save us money, they said so.

The plan didn’t set very well with the Teamsters who represented the janitorial staff. They immediately found several instances of sexual predators entering schools in cleaning crews from this company. The school board, Superintendent and the local newspaper all cried foul play. To bring up a few instances was not fair, the school system they explained, would ultimately be responsible for background checks and they were putting it out to bid. What they failed to inform the public was recent changes in laws that provided exemptions for non-instructional employees. Fingerprinting is required for school employees, but not necessarily contract workers. The lack of fingerprinting disguised the true identity of sexual predators in the cases the Teamsters found. What does a sexual predator need? Opportunity. It would seem they are finding plenty of opportunity in this district.

Not all was doom and gloom for the district. While State budget cuts were severe and many local programs were being cut, they did find money for new computers and technology, even though the teachers said what they have is fine. The School Board chambers are state of the art and flat screen TV’s are commonplace. They found the money neccessary to install bullet proofing in the School Board Chambers. There was even money for artificial turf for the high school football fields. The school boards explanation for the spending spree, “it comes from a different fund, the capital fund.” Only when a parent pushed the matter did they concede a voter referendum could move the pot of gold – that is, what was left.

UPDATED - The school board finally secured accreditation after being placed on a warning status for over a year. The janitorial contract bid was answered by 6 companies and was finally awarded to Spots friends' company. The referendum passed, but the money wasn't used to come into compliance with State and voter mandated class size limits - instead they agreed to pay an enormous fine. Teacher cleansing is standard operating procedure. The Assistant Superintendent (an 11 year employee of the district and highly educated at top institutions) accepted a position as a Superintendent elsewhere. He was highly successful at his new job leaving many in the community pondering what could have been. Meanwhile - Spots' contract was not renewed. He is currently suing the School District for additional pay and benefits.

It takes a village to demand accountability and reform. Unfortunately, this wealthy South Florida town has a prevalent “let them eat cake” mentality. Nearly half of the public school student body is on reduced or free lunch. Those who do speak out are quickly silenced. Many are just too tired to continue trying to reform a system that has been broken for nearly two decades. What does a grassroots effort need to flourish? A free press. Without a news outlet to turn to the variety of efforts taken on in small scale soon wilted. Without the activism of the community they are forced to repeat their mistakes. The public school system has been abandoned by the community it attempted to serve, but the private schools and home schooling programs are thriving.

Grassroots efforts in other communities have been successful in reigning in the absolute power school boards and Superintendents have instilled themselves with. Just recently Spots’ mentor, the Superintendent who elevated him from school counselor to curriculum specialist, was forced to resign after an audit found a “climate of fear” in his management of the district. There was also a school system in California who was successful in getting indictments against school board members who spent lavishly on school administration offices.

A School Superintendent is one of the highest paid migratory jobs in the US right now. Typically Superintendents last only three years on a job and pull in top salaries. Political agendas and egos are now the driving forces in education in America. Slowly State legislators are beginning to see the necessity in limiting the power of local school boards and requiring minimum education requirements including requirements for Superintendents. Florida just enacted legislation to limit the salary of school board members. Arkansas requires 9 hours of training for new school board members and Mississippi requires increased training for members in failing districts or with serious financial problems.

If you are reading this I encourage you to write to your legislators and ask them to support school board reform legislation to mandate training and set minimum requirements for both board members and Superintendents. It is time to demand the same accountability from our school administrators as we do from our teachers.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this great read!

Naples, Florida citizen said...

Thanks for posting this great read!

Chipper said...

Thank you for reading and responding!

Anonymous said...

This was great reading!

Anonymous said...

This is a great piece of work!