Thursday, September 22, 2016

"Never trust a superintendent. They'll lie to your face"

In case you missed it, this is definitely the week's best heroic lunch lady story.
PITTSBURGH — A cafeteria employee says she has quit her job over something being called “lunch shaming,” where some students are being denied hot lunches over a new policy.

Stacy Koltiska, a former employee at Canon McMillan School District, told CBS Pittsburgh the school is essentially shaming students in an effort to get parents to pay for overdrawn lunch accounts.

She was so upset by the new policy, she quit just a few weeks into the new school year.

Koltiska spent two years working in the cafeteria at Wylandville Elementary, but last Thursday, she resigned after she had to take away hot meals from two children.

“His eyes welled up with tears. I’ll never forget his name, the look on his face,” she said.

The new policy at Canon McMillan, which was passed over the summer for grades K-6, says the hot meal item will be replaced by a sandwich if $25 or more is owed to the district for lunches.

Superintendent Matthew Daniels says this is about collecting money owed, noting that parents are notified weekly of lunch balances.

He says, “There has never been the intent with the adoption of this policy to shame or embarrass a child.”

This is, if not a lie, then at least a nasty piece of equivocation on Daniels' part. While it is true that the final objective was to collect on more accounts receivable, the plan was to do so by using the pain and humiliation of small children to pressure their parents to pay up. What's more, we only know about this because the lunch ladies of the school district have more integrity and basic decency than the administrators.

I apologize to longtime readers who have heard the story before, but when I first decided to go into teaching, I sought out the advice of the father of a friend who was a highly respected veteran superintendent in Arkansas. He was friendly and glad to help, but he insisted that the only piece of advice that was really important was the warning I used as the title for this post.

As always I want to be clear on this next point. In my experience, a strong, perhaps even overwhelming majority of education administrators are dedicated professionals who are genuinely motivated by a desire to help kids. Unfortunately, it has also always been a position plagued with serious perverse incentives and the education reform movement has only served to make these much, much worse. The movement tends to favor proposals that give administrators more authority while it also (thanks to its management consultant roots) places great faith in the ability of big compensation packages to attract the best people. It is an easily gameable system and if you're good at working that system, it can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars and candy-sweet sinecures down the line.

I don't want to oversell the connection here. This sort of thing has been happening since long before the education reform movement took hold. What the movement has done, completely unintentionally, is to increase the rewards for being a mealy-mouth weasel who puts his or her own interests ahead of those of the children.

Even by the sleazy standards of the debt collection industry, humiliating or even traumatizing small children because their parents can't pay your bill is beyond the pale. The fact that this even needs to be pointed out his unspeakably depressing.


  1. "What the movement has done, completely unintentionally, is to increase the rewards for being a mealy-mouth weasel who puts his or her own interests ahead of those of the children."

    Yes, but how is this unique to education? Isn't this what we have done to pretty much everything over the last several decades?


    1. Yes and no. It's true that these changes mirror the larger changes in society, but that was more or less the point. Movement reformers promised that introducing business ideas and market forces would basically fix all of our problems. Much, if not most, of the initial framework came out of McKinsey & Company. The education reform movement explicitly advocated making education culture look more like corporate culture. They thus deserve some of the blame when superintendents start talking like Enron executives.