Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How do you Solve a Problem Like the Bentley?

I think (and this is really just an educated guess) there are big goings on being planned for Bentley Elementary School. Maybe even really big goings on. The conversation that took place regarding Bentley was really weird, and shrouded in behind the scenes stuff that we aren't privy to. The Committee of the Whole meeting that was scheduled for last night was canceled, and two additional meetings were set, Thursday at 6:30 and Monday at 6. I'd like to take credit for the cancellation last night, but I'm betting that Mr. Schultz inability to attend is the real reason. It was mentioned that the meeting Thursday would likely be almost entirely executive session (so feel free to stay home), but no reason was given. That alone is odd. Usually it's executive session "to discuss contract negotiations," or "to discuss a grievance."  The discussion that was on the agenda for last night's regular school committee meeting was basically punted until after the COW meetings.

I pointed out when we were designated a Level 4 district that the turnaround model that we chose (Transition) was the path of least resistance, and created the smallest amount of short term pain. It also required the smallest amount of change. I asked one school committee member when MCAS results came out this year with no real Bentley improvement, even after the large amount of effort (and money) spent when it was time to ask if we picked the right model. The response was something along the lines of "we're getting there."

The other three options were Turnaround, where all staff and administration are let go, the principal is replaced, and no more than half the teachers can be rehired. That would definitely require some executive sessions, followed by some collective bargaining. There is a Restart model, where the school is closed and reopened with a new operator, and massive staffing changes. Again, there'd be plenty to talk about in executive session. The most drastic model is Closure. Literally you padlock the school and reassign all the students. I'm not sure, but I don't think we have the capacity across the district to make that happen.

It's possible that because we already have our School Improvement Grant that we can make changes on the fly without without declaring a new model. The model has to be declared to get federal school improvement and race to the top funds. Even if we don't officially change turnaround models, I'm pretty sure we're about to see big changes proposed, and you'll see a schism between newer and older committee members. The new members will embrace more aggressive action, while the committee members with more seniority will not want to admit that a school that they oversaw for so many years reached a point of being beyond saving. If you watched last night you saw the beginnings of that already, with Walsh and Bryant pumping up Bentley, and pumping the brakes on these meetings. I agreed with Walsh's call for sunshine on these discussions, but executive session exists for a reason, too.

I don't have great personal vision into Bentley, so I'm pretty much stuck with the stats. The stats show little, if any, improvement. We're halfway through the time set by the state to get out of level 4, and that school is currently closer to going to level 5 than it is to level 3. It may well be that the time for bolder action is now. (Personally, I like the sound of the Salem Academy Charter Elementary School at Bentley.)

An agenda for the Thursday meeting should legally be posted today. Expect it to be pretty generic.



Monday, March 3, 2014

Do Actions Speak Louder?

From the "actions speak louder" department. Some of you won't like this, and that's OK, but come on a little logic journey with me.

We were named a level 4 school district largely due to chronic under-performance at the Bentley Elementary School. In fact, since Bentley was named a level 4 school, the school has seen the decline continue. In 2012 the school was in the 4th percentile statewide. In 2013 the school fell to the 3rd percentile, even with a massive amount of turnaround effort and resources pointed at it. Literally 97 of 100 schools perform better. We're 2.5 years in to this, and the spiral appears to continue.

My point is this. There is still plenty of work needed in our schools, and at Bentley in particular. The problem isn't solved. Why then, is our "focus on education" mayor skipping the Salem School Committee of the Whole meeting at 5:30 tonight, where the only agenda item is Bentley Turnaround Progress, to hold a ceremonial bill signing at the same time?

And yes, I support the non-discrimination ordinance completely. It echoes state law, while adding and expanding some protections, especially for a group of the most marginalized people you'll find, who aren't currently afforded accommodations by the state law. The No Place for Hate Committee, which worked hard on this ordinance, has a regularly scheduled meeting tomorrow night. I'd think the bill signing could have been done just before, in conjunction with, or just after that meeting. Let's celebrate the crap out of the ordinance, and the No Place for Hate Committee, but let's not do so at the expense of what Mayor Driscoll has referred to as "perhaps the most critical issue facing Salem today." She said herself that we need all hands on deck.

Coming three days after a column in the newspaper from the mayor that discusses our continued commitment to school improvement, and cites the Bentley Turnaround review, and 8 weeks after an inaugural address that included the following:

"We are gathered here, at the Collins Middle School, for the first inauguration in our City’s history to take place in this building – we are gathered here, in this place, for a reason: To signify to all, with unmistakable clarity that our primary focus in the years to come will be fixed with unwavering commitment upon Salem’s public schools. And this charge is not simply for our School Committee and School leaders. We must all together devote ourselves to this end. This is a community mission."

I'm not sure why we couldn't have found a different time to sign an ordinance. So I go back to my first sentence above, and say I hope this isn't a case of actions speak louder.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The 2013 City Election

I'm warning you up front. The filter is off. (Yes, there is usually a filter, believe it or not.) I've gotten to know a lot of the people I'm about to write about, and several of them aren't going to like what I have to say. #SorryImNotSorry. A handful of them snarl when I walk into a room already. Oh well. That's never going to change. So let's look at the 2013 election. We'll go race by race, from easiest for me to decide who I'd vote for, to hardest.

For mayor, the obvious choice is Kim. Sorry, Cedric Ashley, Jr. We hardly knew ye. When I say hardly, I mean not at all. There has been no campaign. Nothing. Ken Sawicki would have put up more of a fight. Salem is a 9 figure enterprise. (And yep, that budget number is growing too fast under the current administration.) I'm told that Ashley was working as a gas station attendant, but that he appears to have lost that job. No person in their right mind wants to turn over a nine figure enterprise to him. Don't want to vote for Kim? Blank your ballot. I truly get that. Voting for Ashley shows a lack of common sense. Other than relatives, friends, and a few really messed up individuals, nobody voting for Cedric actually wants him to win. I'll check off Kim's name on the ballot, and continue to give her a hard time when appropriate. (Can't we find a way to fire her from the school committee and have a chair that has the time to focus on it?) After I wrote this paragraph originally, some of the Salem News comment section nattering nabobs of negative have suggested writing in former city assessor Frank Kulik for mayor. I like it. Go for it. I'd enjoy seeing a Kulik administration. From the sound of it, magic would happen. Raises for unions would magically turn into annual decreases. The budged would be slashed by millions. Genies would be put back in bottles. Taxpayers would get rebates. In the immortal words of Bart Scott:





City Councilors from Wards 3, 5, and 7. They are all unopposed on the ballot. In Ward 7, Joe O'Keefe appears to be in that seat until he dies or decides to quit. Nobody runs against him. The only problem with that is that he seems a little more confused about what is going on every year. It's time for him to ask someone else to take the president's gavel when a stand-in is necessary. I'll lump ward 3 and 5 together. Tom Furey can't seem to keep straight which is which. He constantly confuses their names. That's pretty funny, because I'm pretty sure they share a mutual disdain for each other. They balance each other well. Turiel will generally look for reasons to support administration proposals. Siegel will go out of his way to find rationalizations not to. I like the balance.

On to Ward 2 city council. It's sad that this is a bigger no-brainer for me than school committee, but it is. The easy choice here is Heather Famico. When you've been a councilor for ten years, like Mike Sosnowski, and still can't see the difference between a legitimate concern and a black helicopter nutjob conspiracy theory, like Mike Sosnowski, it's time for all of us to move on.  Mike seems to be buying whole hog the ridiculous UN Agenda 21 ICLEI conspiracy claims of the "local" John Birch Society regional field director. What's strange about that, besides the outlandish claims (energy efficiency is bad, mm'kay? There is no climate change!) themselves, is that the "local" person he's buying the snake oil from is actually from West Roxbury. That would usually be enough to disqualify him with Mike, who as we all know, lives and bleeds Salem. (I have no idea what that even means. It's right up there with the meaningless "he votes his conscience" that everyone says about everyone they agree with. Who doesn't vote his conscience? I guess lives and bleeds Salem basically means you're meaningless if you weren't born here.) So this outsider, who works for the same people who believed that Dwight Eisenhower was a commie, and fluoridated water was a communist plot, brings crazy conspiracy theories to Mike, and he eats them up and holds public meetings about the impending dangers of "smart growth" where theoretical UN paratroopers will drop insanely dense tenaments on land they don't own. (Some of his buds, including an attorney on River St., are spreading ridiculous claims that this is his opponent's goal.) Check out Rachel Maddow responding to the JBS complaining about her pointing out some of their insanity.





Moving on from what appears to be Mike's poor judgment, he is also the vice president of a social club that has had its liquor license suspended for two days (1 in abeyance) and has been before the licensing board three times in the last few months, while claiming ignorance of the liquor laws in Salem. If the LB was the NCAA, the penalties imposed would have been for "a lack of institutional control." Councilor Sosnowski, vice president of the club, CHAIRS the city council committee on ordinances, licenses, and legal affairs. Ignorance of the law? Holy Jesus! Isn't that an indictment of his ability to lead? When approached by neighbors with complaints about the activities (noise, fights, after-hours, etc.) at the club, Captain Quality of Life's response to his constituents? "Sorry, we have to raise money for the club." To be fair, the club is in litigation with its former manager, and had problems with the IRS the last I knew. I'm sure they do need to raise funds.

So a social club violating their liquor and entertainment license in the middle of a residential neighborhood is OK. Loud music, fights, screaming, all necessary to save the club. On the other hand, an inanimate metal box that controls street lights, that's bad, mmm'kay? Sosnowski recently told the Salem News that getting a box that was part of the Bridge Street reconstruction moved (a foot or two) and reduced in size was one of his greatest accomplishments. Pay no attention to the fact that it wasn't even during the current two-year term. Let's look at the two boxes.

Big Metal Box, the first
BMB Jr. Note all the extra concrete cuts

Mike Sosnowski said he likes to concentrate on the little things. This definitely qualifies. Unfortunately, he's missing the big things. Check out the building that big, and then little MB sits in front of. Can you even see the box? It's the best looking thing about the building, which appears neglected, if not abandoned. I guess he's right when he says he's focused on the little things.

BMB dwarfs the building... or something


Unfortunately, Sosnowski didn't focus on them enough. The Bridge Street reconstruction had a massive impact on his ward. He had the plans ahead of time. Heck, I had the plans ahead of time. When he complained about BMB, it was made clear by the state that they weren't footing the bill for any changes to the approved plans. Yet the change was made. At what cost? I've never been able to get an answer to that. But hey, I've only lived in Salem for 8 years. Why should anyone care what have to say anyway. I'm sure Mike doesn't. I've only lived in three different states and experienced 5 different forms of local government. Clearly people who have lived elsewhere bring nothing to the table.

One final thought about Sosnowski, and I know this has been really, really harsh already. Mike has this tendency to say things like, "there's a lot of things going on behind the scenes, and I can't wait for the truth to come out." Dude, you have a microphone and a TV camera on you every other week. Use it. You don't, and you sound like a nutter. That said, thank you for your service to our country. 

But let's talk about Heather Famico. I met her for the first time a few months back. I have to say, I was very impressed. She carries herself with a confidence and thoughtfulness that you wouldn't expect of someone her age. She strikes me as the type of person who is a listener. She listens and really thinks before speaking. She's always struck me as extremely intelligent, as well. She has a masters degree, and is an ELL teacher in Malden (a city with similar demographics to us, and much better results. Yes, Drs. Crane and Walsh, that IS possible). Unlike her opponent, Heather doesn't have a foot constantly in danger of entering her mouth. She would like to improve pedestrian and bike access in Salem (bike access is near and dear to me). She's also open to opportunities for community gardens in the ward. When approached about community gardens, Sosnowski didn't want the element that would attract. No idea what that even means. Vegans? Vegetarians? People who want to grow their own food?

Heather has roots in that old Salem that Mike is so desperately trying to cling to. The difference is that she's much more cognizant of the fact that there's a lot more to Salem than people who wish for Almy's to come back, and she values other people's opinions as well. She's willing to work toward the future, while Mike tries to cling to the past. If I lived in Ward 2 I'd gladly vote for her.

On to the school committee. I've written a lot about our under-performing schools over the last few years. Go here to read the blog posts. The schools take up plenty of space on my Facebook feed here. Feel free to review them. I'm not rehashing all of it. The simple summary is this. Our schools are in dire need of fresh direction. They were neglected by an inattentive school committee, adminstration, superintendent and mayor for years. Read the DESE report on our schools. They go to great depths to describe the lack of oversight, administration, cohesive message, or leadership in the system. They do a thorough job of explaining that while maybe we don't have the best demographics, when they declare us a level 4 district, they do so because we're not doing as well as other with similar demographics. We have four school committee candidates (the challengers and Lavoie) who acknowledge these problems, and two incumbents (Walsh and Crane) who have spent months making excuses or stating that there isn't a problem, by saying things like "what we have is a demographics problem," (see earlier note about Malden) or "really, it's just a perception problem," or "if your child is doing OK you should vote for me," or "there's a lot of negative 'hysteria'." When they aren't telling us there is nothing wrong, they scapegoat the state. The DESE doesn't know what it's talking about. The MCAS is a terrible measurement tool. Simply put, it's everything but the school committee. It makes me wonder if the good Drs. believe themselves to be Jedis. They are hoping that we don't see the actual results of their tenure, but will buy platitudes. Walsh, who asked for school committee members to receive a 140% raise shortly before we were declared a level 4 district, asks the parents who attend meetings to ask themselves how their children are doing (though he's not always happy with the result of the question.) Meanwhile, his entire campaign is spent talking about everything he's done for the less fortunate students of Salem. (The ones who can attend campaign forums and the like in smaller numbers.) Here's the thing. Of course he wants you to look at your kid and decide everything is OK. The largest gaps between Salem students and like communities are in exactly the groups that Dr. Walsh has focused on for his entire career. If you study him based on the things he claims credit for, he has failed, as have his programs. Don't be weak minded and fall for Jedi mind tricks. On the other hand, these two definitely aren't the droids you're looking for.




Looking ahead, based on our most recent MCAS results, Bentley is closer to being declared a level 5 school than it is to being moved to level 3. Lots of time, money, and effort has been pumped into Bentley, and there has been no discernible movement in results. Maybe a blip here and there, but overall nothing. We're literally a year from potential receivership. At the time that Bentley was declared a level 4 school, "we" decided to follow the accelerated turnaround model. That model was the path of least resistance, and least pain for staff and administration. If the state does intervene further, there will be a lot more pain. When do we decide that more drastic action is needed?

Dr. Walsh said a few months back, that if something isn't worth what you're paying for it, stop paying. On this, he and I agree. We need to stop paying school committee members who haven't delivered results. We need a fresh perspective. Rachel Hunt runs (currently) a successful charter school in Salem, where low income students are vastly outperforming their local peers. Walsh and Crane view charters as the enemy. Let's see what we can learn from them.

Pat Schultz is a business owner who is a former teacher both in and out of Salem. He is also a former Assistant Principal, and the director of school services for Mass Insight. He also chaired our district turnaround committee. He has also served on the board of the Salem Education Foundation.  In short, he's qualified, and won't have any problem calling BS on the diatribes of others.

Rick Johnson is a Salem parent who has experienced the Bentley School and Saltonstall School as a parent. He also has experience with special ed in Salem, and is knowledgeable about dealing with autism spectrum disorders. He works for the federal government as a technical writer/editor, and runs a road race that benefits autism.

Lisa Lavoie was appointed to the school committee to fill Kevin Carr's seat shortly after it was announced that Bentley was moved to level 4. She is in the unenviable position of being an "incumbent" at a time and place where that's not beneficial. My guess is that she's screwed, and she doesn't deserve it.

The school committee election really is as simple as this. Let me pull a Walsh on you. Ask yourself this. In your job, if the result of your work for an 8 year period was an utter lack of acceptable results, declining results, in fact, would you continue having a job? Remember, there are viable replacements waiting in the wings. Would your employer reward you for completely failing to meet your goals with a four year contract extension? If so, by all means, vote for the two committee members who sat on the board for 8 years while our district devolved into chaos, as documented by the DESE.

If you don't believe me, go check out the final school committee forum on the SATV website. You'll see specific examples of the excuse making I mentioned above, as well as Dr. Walsh spending basically the entire evening actually yelling at the audience. It was odd, to say the least. It seemed like he was floored that we had the temerity to question his omniscience.

I'll be voting for the three first time candidates. I'm sorry Lisa, I just think that's what most people are going to do, and it's vitally important that we relieve at least one of the other Drs. of their duty. It's not fair, and you don't deserve it. You're a victim of circumstance. I'd like to remove both, but it appears that Dr. Walsh has taught almost every Salem voter, or their kids, at some point. It's possible that all of his support came out in the primary, in which case he's in trouble. (See Steve Pinto in 2011.) If not, removing Dr. Crane makes it very difficult for Walsh to be in the majority on anything controversial. That may just be good enough. It's important to note that it is very important to use all three of your votes in this race. Do not leave a blank. I think that part of Walsh's primary win was that he asked supporters to vote only for him. This time, he's asking supporters to vote for he and Dr. Crane only. See SATV video above. Overcoming bullet voting requires multiple candidates to have high vote totals.

In the Ward 4 city council race, I'll be voting for David Eppley. I know him personally, and I have a lot more in common with him than I do with Sean O'Brien. David hasn't lived here his entire life, he's a homeowner, is closer in age to me, is married, and generally seems pretty thoughtful on issues. I trust his judgement. I appreciate someone O'Brien's age expressing interest in local politics. O'Brien ran for school committee two years ago, when he was still a student at SSU. He lives with his parents and works full time. I've seen a few things from him that have reminded me of his age. Specifically, he hasn't mastered the art of controlling his emotions/expressions in a debate, as evidenced by the faces and gestures he occasionally made while Eppley was speaking during their candidate forum.  Additionally, a member of the neighborhood association that ran the debate confirmed to me that O'Brien was untruthful during the debate regarding statements he made about his communications with the group about his availability/willingness to debate. O'Brien and Famico are fairly close in age, but it doesn't feel like it.

I have mixed feelings about the Ward 1 city council election. I got off to a rocky start with Bob McCarthy. I even dubbed him councilor Willows at one point. The truth is, he's gotten much better at constituent service over the last few years, or has at least taken more credit for the work he was doing behind the scenes. While I still lived in Ward 1, there was a major construction project on my street that involved massive construction over a long period of time. It was a giant pain in the butt. Bob did a very good job of being as communicative and responsive as you could expect. He has also worked with John Keenan to try to get the state to allow for the soon to be out of commission transmission cables under Derby Street to be abandoned. That would avoid a massive disturbance for the neighborhood. On the other hand, a return to the council by Steve Pinto would be absolutely fascinating to watch. I'd be very interested to see how he'd be the same or different. I think we'd be pleasantly surprised. I encouraged Steve to run at-large. In the at-large field I would vote for him. If I were voting in Ward 1, I'd vote for Bob. Simply put, I don't see that Bob hasn't earned a return to the seat. For whatever reason, Steve is really polarizing. OK, I might have played a part in that. The truth is, I'm not sure why people see him as either Satan incarnate or a God who must be protected and worshiped at all costs. 300 votes didn't help that. I begged him to bow out that night, after about the first 40 votes. It was fast becoming a no-win for him. Steve is a fiercely loyal guy. Maybe that loyalty just gets returned to him.

I struggled with how to vote in the at-large field. Bill Legault gets my first vote. I doubt I even have to explain it. He's no bullcrap, and he'll always tell you what he thinks. What's not to like about that? My next vote goes to Elaine Milo. I met her shortly before she announced her candidacy. She's generally extremely sweet, but she'll surprise you with a zinger here and there. I think her work in the grants office at SSU may help the council on the finance side, too. My third vote goes to Norene Gachignard. At least in part, she gets my vote for her performance in the at-large candidates forum. She was probably the best public speaker, was comfortable, entertaining, and knowledgeable. I have a question or two with Norene, but we'll see. My final at-large vote will go to Jerry Ryan. I struggled with Ryan or Sargent. I feel like Jerry is a man without a country right now, and I kinda like that. I don't think team pom pom accepts him, and I don't think team Driscoll is Satan trusts him at all. I've heard a few councilors talk about how they make up their minds about something and stick with it. Nothing they can hear will change their mind. That doesn't strike me as a good thing. Jerry has shown that he's willing to change his mind. The fact that he said no to the senior center at first, but was willing to negotiate, ended up with us getting a better deal. That wasn't going to happen with Sargent. Tom Furey believes that it's the job of a councilor to do what the mayor wants. At that point, why have a council at all? That's not the critical thinking I'm looking for. Sawicki is Sawicki.

Ward 6 was my toughest call, by a lot. In his entire time on the city council, Paul Prevey has done very little that has seemed "off the reservation." One item I don't think I'll ever understand is his "interesting" holding up of the appointment of a purchasing agent a few years back. He was also one of the five, along with Pinto, Sosnowski, and Ryan, who voted against saving money by leasing the city hall annex. He voted for a revised lease of the same space this term, as did Sosnowski and Ryan. It was less favorable than the original proposal. Most who have served for any number of years will have one or two of these you can point to. The annex still makes me really mad. You have to be bad at math to pull that. Like Ryan, I think Paul strikes me as the type of person who gets an issue, studies it, and makes a decision. I know and like Beth Gerard. I consider her a friend. I think if I lived in Ward 6 I'd have to vote for her, but it's personal as much as anything. It would be great to have masters degree holding policy analyst on the council. At the same time, I wouldn't be voting against Prevey. The truth is that if not for the fact that I know Beth, I'd probably apply the same logic as I did to McCarthy. The city will be OK whichever way this race goes.

So that's who I'd vote for in each individual race. That said, I don't think I'd want the city council to come out exactly like that. The picks I have here are probably a little more easy on the administration than I'd prefer. If I knew how any specific race was actually going to end up, it may change the picks I'd make in other races. If Furey actually lost that would go a long way to helping some of that, though. If he wins I'd definitely change some of these.