Tuesday, February 15, 2011

To Rockford, Illinois: In solidarity!

This is a piece by David Stocker of Rockford, Illinois. He sent it to me to let me know what his city is experiencing, and I asked if I could post it here. Rockford residents are distraught and enraged at what is happening to their school district. Check out their Facebook page “Wanting a Resignation of LaVonne Sheffield” (“liked” by 2,993 people as of today). 

David is just one of several people from Rockford who have contacted me over the past several weeks after discovering my blog, The Broad Report. One person wrote this: “Lavonne Sheffield (2002 Broad graduate) is running Rockford Public Schools in Illinois into the ground.” Another wrote this: “Help!!In Rockford Illinois we are suffering the "Broad Effect" with Broad Graduate LaVonne Sheffield. Rockford already has the hihest [sic] Unemployment in the State and the Highest Poverty level for Children in our District - District 205. Our local newspaper Rockford Register Star has been her ally but thank goodness we have a small paper called Rock River Times that correctly reports the going ons of this destructor [sic] of Education. We are in dire need of help.”

Last week, the co-founders of Parents Across America had the opportunity to meet each other in person. In conversation, we learned that one major thing which most of us had in common (and which was sparking our activism) was our strong negative response to what Broad-trained superintendents and residents had done, and were doing, to each of our districts. 

Oakland was impacted from 2003 to 2009 during a state takeover. Some of that history is HERE and HERE. Oakland was ripe for the taking, as Joe Williams (of DFER) informs us in the report he wrote for the Center for Education Reform, "National Model or Temporary Opportunity: The Oakland Education Reform Story." As Williams writes, Oakland's first (of three successive) Broad-trained superintendents was a "strong leader who was [placed] in a position to push reforms past foot-dragging bureaucrats [= anyone who did not agree w/the Broad agenda] in a relatively 'politics free zone' [= authoritarian and undemocratic] created by state control of the district." 

So, to the communities of Rockford, Minneapolis, Seattle, Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc. etc. etc., please know YOU ARE NOT ALONE! You are experiencing an imposed, coordinated effort to break down your public school system so it can be "transformed" it to what a hiding-from-the-public, uber-controlling, billionaire septuagenarian, pseudo-philanthropist (Eli Broad of KB Homes and SunAmerica/AIG) wishes it to be. Everyone must read Joanne Barkan's piece, "Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools."

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The Dismantling of Public Education in Rockford, Illinois? A Meeting with the Pied Piper

A fable of old.

When I was a kid, I learned the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Germany.  It was a legend set in the time of the bubonic plague that ultimately claimed 30% of Europe’s population.  People came to know that the plague was spread by rats.  Hamelin’s helpless townspeople wanted to get rid of the rats. They had heard about a guy who dressed funny and had a reputation for fixing rat problems with the sound of his magic flute. Pied, means ‘wearing colorful clothes’, a common medieval depiction of the agent of death. Hamelin-town signed a contract agreeing to pay on completion of the stated task. The piper fixed the rat problem by playing the rats into the river where they drowned. The townspeople of Hamelin said to themselves, “Why should we pay him now the problem is fixed, we can have our cake and eat it too.”  The Piper pleaded with them to pay him. They laughed.  Then he threatened. “They would be sorry.” They were too busy celebrating their good fortune and cleverness. Eventually, the Piper played his other magic song, the one that lured the children, who followed him into the gaping mountain cavern, which closed behind them. The children were lost forever.  There are plenty of European legends from the Middle Ages about lost children. Parents created the myth to explain to the few surviving children why there were missing generations of older siblings. The story also contains the moral directive about paying your bills. Hence we have the term, “time to pay the piper”. Here we are.

Surprises at District Open Houses

On Saturday February 5, I went to both District 205 Open Houses with a lot of questions. Representatives of the administration couldn’t seem to come up with clear answers for example; explanations, justifications, consequences and/or alternate items that had been considered but not offered for cuts at this time. I must have heard a dozen times “ I’m sorry I can’t answer that for you, it’s not my realm of expertise, but I’ll ask someone… if you can just wait here.”  

One person was both more frank and better informed. So I decided to follow this man all day and keep on asking my questions. His name is Shannon Bingham of Western Demographics Inc. a consulting firm based in Denver that, according to their website, specializes in both “developing and consolidation” (read; dismantling) school districts.  They have provided consulting services to more than 179 districts and communities including 5 years of work for Superintendent Sheffield while she was in Detroit. This would make Bingham and his company experts whose perspectives, however unpalatable, might be extraordinarily valuable to us. He does not need to protect an elected position or political patronage. His calendar is full of clients. He is not swayed by our passion or agenda. We (or say a Board) tell him what outcomes we (they) want, he studies the facts and figures and writes his recommendations on the wall. It is our choice to believe it or not.

Bingham described himself as a “hatchet man” whose job it is “to make sure when the district writes a check to a teacher, the teacher can go to the bank and cash it.” It is not central to his concern if the teacher can or cannot make a living on the amount of the check. But it becomes his concern when our seasoned teachers with many years of experience are more costly to the district than younger teachers, based on health care costs and on seniority pay.  Implying that we have a more open process than elsewhere, Bingham offered that in some of his districts, “these kinds of cuts, implemented by appointed or elected Boards are not aired at public hearings at all.”  I guess we are lucky.

Among other services, Western Demographics offers strategies to help districts: redraw boundary maps, close schools, reduce, consolidate and present these changes to the public. These days, we hear the word ”efficiencies” repeatedly, that is because efficiency seems to be the premise of Western Demographic’s contract with District 205.

Yet, Bingham was quick to point out that whether anyone agrees with his statistical analysis is no longer the issue. The expected economic recovery is not happening.  Changes are here and will continue whether anyone likes it or not.  Present deteriorating trends in our state will continue, and are likely to worsen for 5 or more years. Items on the school district cut list that are not accomplished this year, will be back again next year and the next as Illinois races to the bottom. As parents, can we agree with a set of proposals that will certainly destroy the character of our school district?

Bingham told me. “Rockford is about the most unfriendly community I have ever visited.”  He said,  “While all Illinois districts are affected by the bankruptcy of the state, an historic lack of planning by this district is at the heart of the severity of Rockford’s circumstances.”  With a smile, he declined to comment when I asked whether the administration itself had compounded the divisive and polarizing climate here. He told me his year in Rockford has been marked by peoples’ attempts to malign his reputation, and alienate his other clients who had been contacted through his website.

An elementary teacher commented that lacking substance and rationale and a valid oral presentation, the display board effort would “rank below a C for a sixth grade project.”

Let’s take attendance.

I applaud Board Member, Jeanne Westholder's attendance and I appreciate her willingness to field tough questions, although she could only echo the stark realities facing kids, parents and teachers.  Our superintendent, LaVonne Sheffield was not present. Readers can check the Register Star blog for the list of meetings she has lately missed. Sadly, none of our state representatives were present to explain the failures of the State of Illinois in fulfilling its obligation to fund education for our children. The State of Illinois owes us more than $15 million for last year alone. US Congressman Donald Manzullo’s office recently wrote to me on this issue saying the ball for our education problem is not in Don’s court. Rockford’s Mayor? Not present.. Read; Big Fat Dirty Lie. Were any of our City Council present? No. Administrators?... Present but they apparently misunderstood the assignment.  Media: Absent, but for one TV station.

These people were all truant on Saturday as the community faced the extent of the collapse of our public education system.  I saw lots of teachers, parents and grandparents.  You might ask; were the REA leaders present? They were not. However it is an Excused absence, they were working on an independent audit of the ‘bogus” 205 budget. But amazingly in their absence, we were told by a district representative that REA helped to compile the list of cuts as part of the Education Committee.

And you, dear citizens of Rockford, you can be excused if you were filling out your unemployment forms, helping a sick child, or cooking dinner at a food pantry, or working a second shift, or if you missed the invitation.  Don’t worry. I was able to go.  And I took notes because I know you would want to know what I learned.

Concessions, Cuts and Consequences 101

Here are the notes I took for you. Spending the day with Bingham, I tried to reconstruct his comments as best I could. I’ll tell you what we and our children stand poised to loose:

Parents pleaded with administrators to tell them why 7 top performing schools and various programs of proven merit are slated for closure.  I saw parents in tears. A retired policeman said, “This is outrageous.” Bingham asserted, “Merit was not part of the criteria for closures.”  He said, “We are tasked here with removing all the lights and decorations from the Christmas tree. The future of public education will be a bare tree affair. Expect math, reading, social studies, to state standards, a bit of the arts and that’s it. And if you are not willing to walk to the nearest school, you will not get an education.”

Teachers learned this week, there is a further list of threatened cuts that includes the elimination of all district librarians, social workers, ACE, CAPA, language immersion, guidance counselors, assistant principals, and more….a total of 130 additional jobs will be cut, declares the superintendent in a January 28 email, if the community and teachers balk at any of the first tier cuts AND if teachers fail to yield contract concessions. This powerful lever threatening our teachers was not illustrated on the nifty display boards. There was not a list of expected concessions.  The second list was also a surprise to Bingham who said that the “second tier of proposed cuts was not revealed to me until two days ago.”  Wow!  District apologists were quick to say these are all still options being explored. Bingham was not so circumspect.

So let’s get it straight.

Remake all boundaries. Close 7 campuses. Unscramble the costly egg of bussing.  AND Teachers must agree to steep concessions or else the Board will strip from our district everything that might have given our children a leg up in life. Huh?  I thought I was supposed to bring my critical thinking skills to the meeting and I could not figure out how any of this could possibly be the teachers’ fault.

Language Immersion, Montessori, Gifted, CAPA, ACE, librarians, social workers, all day preschool, alternative campus for kids in crisis…these are now the Christmas tree decorations we cannot afford. What will become of our children? When pressed, Bingham acknowledged that under this plan, 2/3 of our district’s kids can expect to be moved to new locations, though he also said studies show that changing schools sets childrens’ success back. 

Attachment and Awakening?

A few people have been startled out of their complacency. Well-intentioned parents and teachers think that Save Our School petitions and school spirit tee shirts will forestall the inevitable. But, as Bingham characterized it, “this is a pattern I see a lot, people are still attached to their specialty programs that have a very limited place in the new financial reality of public education.” PTAs that enter the competition this week to see which program will survive one more year are also missing the point.  In a second letter I will share some of the stories illustrating the harm of these cuts and concessions, maybe you, dear reader, can send your stories to this paper as well. We know the state was supposed to help us and they didn’t.  How will this effect you and people you know?

Where does this lead us?

Guess what else I learned, Bingham’s firm also specializes in presenting Charter School implementation plans to districts, expecting a “market position of up to 30% within 5-10 years”. Obama’s Education Secretary, Arne Duncan believes privatization of the public school system is the remedy. Within the first year and a half of her tenure, Superintendent Sheffield opened three charter schools in Rockford… depopulating any of the seven schools slated for closure? More later on the charter school movement in America.

Toto pulls the Curtain: The Eli Broad Agenda

Okay, I took notes for you, and I also did some research and there’s more to share!

Our superintendent came to us as a graduate of the Eli Broad Superintendent’s Academy, (BSA) started in 2001. BSA is very interested in placing its graduates in urban areas where opposition to its goals is not organized.  (Careful now, do not confuse B-O-A-R-D with Eli B-r-o-a-d, rhymes with “road”)  BSA was started by one of America’s newest billionaires, Eli Broad who received $18 billion for his overvalued real estate development company from AIG (remember them?). This took place just a few years before a bankrupt AIG went to the US government for an $80 billion bailout to cover its issue of illegal and shady policies to derivative traders.  Many communities in America have become alarmed about the Broad Agenda and have been trying to throw off both the graduates of the Broad Academy and the consequences they bring. Here’s the link  www.thebroadreport.com.  Interested readers should visit the website to see Superintendent Sheffield’s and other graduates’ progress on the Broad Agenda. Do it now. It’s four clicks of a keyboard to get there, if you have any kids in high school have them do a senior project on this. If you are a riffed educator looking for a topic for a bestselling book, or any M Ed candidates who have not yet selected a thesis topic….you go!

Media and Board Smoke and Mirrors

The media have focused on personal sniping and teacher-blaming. This has taken our eyes off the more important issues.  Did you know that Sheffield’s Director of Information is a former manager hired from the Register Star? Did our Board understand the kind of things she might do?  Have they fully educated themselves about what has happened in other districts under Broad graduates in positions of power? Is our teachers union at risk? Is our confidence in our own public education under attack? Did the Board fully understand in the Broad Academy’s agenda. Should our education system become prey for venture capital the way homeowners were? Let’s find out. As the open houses showed, there have been efforts to misrepresent, mask the agenda and thwart opposition.  Does the position of our teachers’ union appear any different under this light? More about the union in an upcoming letter.

People Get Ready…

Our district is moving rapidly on a specific agenda. To the list of those community leaders who were absent from the open houses, okay, these notes are for you too and now you can help us all do the right thing.

We feel that our district moving rapidly on a fearsome agenda that seems to be led by outside forces beyond our control. Because we fear for our children, some of us are tempted to become combative, ready to flash at the sidebar issues, to be anonymously vulgar on the Register Star blog, and to point fingers everywhere. We must resist this. Resist targeting the teachers. Resist saying “my school, my PTO, my kids teacher” and say “our schools, our PTOs, our teachers and our community”. People who have targeted the consultant, merely a tool of the administration, are focused in the wrong place.  Resist efforts to polarize, divide and conquer. Resist anyone who plays the race card. Rockford paid that piper years ago.

Sending out glossy promos earlier in the year, Sheffield talked about our kids finding their place in the global economy, complete with a quote from Sam Walton. I wonder what kind of jobs we might be able to offer now that Rockford manufacturing can get the parts made more cheaply by child labor in China. Are we content if our kids just show up and manage to make it through high school with a bare tree of an education? Resist the degradation of Rockford education.

With cuts like these, who needs Rockford?

Okay, I gave you the notes. There will be a pop quiz. Do your own research, study the facts, find each other and come to meetings prepared. I know you are busy people so don’t waste time.  Contact those absentee persons and call them to accountability.

People of Rockford, when you address the Board, you should know this too. As Bingham told me, “Forums are useless. Hurt people get worked up and have their two minutes at the microphone and nobody listens. The Board reads magazines and waits for it to be over so they can go do what they were going to do anyway.”

What will keep those who can from fleeing the district and the city, leaving behind the impoverished, the unemployed, the aged and the incarcerated? What kind of jobs will our kids be looking at? To make this degraded system work, we will have to accept an education system that will teach kids to show up and do as they are told. They will be rewarded with access to enough consumer debt to remain enslaved in the game but never given the keys to the franchise that holds them down. That’s a fairly significant decay in our aspirations for our kids. How is this working for you?

Could it be that the disease infecting the educational system actually benefits some parties?  Are real causes so discomforting that we focus what outrage we can muster on symptoms, We should deal with the real reasons public education is dying?  I can tell you what it is not; if we consider for a second the public education spending per child in other developed nations, we can see that the problem in the US is not wasteful spending nor is it overpaid teachers. Our minds and our priorities should be refocused. How can the Board and the Education Committee claim legitimacy without risking accountability?  

My opening analogy fails here because unlike Hamelin of old, we in Rockford, have witnessed many pipers over the years, and in actuality it is the Board and the parents who have been led off in distraction, leaving our children at risk to plagues of ignorance, wage slavery and debt peonage.

Thank you for your frankness Mr. Bingham. I do not doubt your expertise at $1000 per day (www.educationunited.net). While our problem is not your fault, someone forgot to tell you what it is we really want for our kids. So your suggestions look more like chopping down the tree of life.

After Saturday, I suggest we pay off the piper and rise up.

Upcoming letters about:
The Local Union gets Set up.
Chartering a Course of Destruction for US Education
Marginalizing Behaviorally Challenged Kids and Outsourcing the Discipline Code
Why Obama wants the Military Back in Schools

Send me your thoughts at originsofmusic@gmail.com

David Stocker is songwriter and an independent teacher who has won arts grants in excess of $150,000 for district 205 students, and has presented in twenty three of Rockford’s schools. In spite of the collapse of the state arts matching funding his Origins of Music curriculum is active locally at Montessori Private Academy, Page Park School, and Haskell Academy. He is an event coordinator and co producer of the programming for International Day of Peace. This month, David received a Golden Apple grant for work at Page Park School. He is married to a 205 teacher in a school that is slated for closure. He has had children in district 205 for 17 years and presently has a son in an award winning school slated for closure. He wishes he had been kept busy as an artist and not given the chance to open his mouth.

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