Thursday, July 3, 2014

Tenure and watchdogs

[We've already discussed Belleville, NJ as an example of corruption among the educational entrepreneurs, here's the aftermath]

One very important aspect of tenure that doesn't get much attention is the way tenured faculty can provide checks on and oversight of administrators. Longtime teachers tend to feel pride and a strong sense of stewardship toward their schools. If you combine that reasonable protections against reprisals, you get a strong opposition to administrative abuses.

With that in mind, take a look at this post from popular education blogger, Jersey Jazzman and ask yourself how this would have played out without tenure.
To put it charitably, Belleville's schools have been very poorly managed. The district's budget is so bad that the state appointed a fiscal monitor this year to try to restore some financial sanity. Teachers and parents both told me that the schools lack contemporary textbooks, modern computers, and even the infrastructure necessary to administer the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests mandated by the state for next year.

Perhaps the worst decision the district made over the last few years was to install a state-of-the-art surveillance system in all of its buildings; yes, a "surveillance" system, not a security system. Every classroom in every building is wired for both video and sound -- including the teachers lounges!

That's right, my fellow teachers: in Belleville, a camera and microphone monitor every word uttered in the teachers break room!

But that's not all: all Belleville faculty, high school students, and middle school students must have special ID cards with them at all times. These ID's include "RF-tags," which are radio frequency devices similar to what you'd find in an EZ-Pass. They were originally used to track cattle: now, they track the positions of all staff and all students at all times.

That's right, my fellow teachers and parents: in Belleville, the movements of students and faculty are tracked at all times! Big Brother better not find out if you snuck off to the bathroom before the bell...

I asked several parents at the rally whether they were ever asked for their permission to require their children to have an RF-tag on them at all times; every one told me they were never asked. The teachers, it goes without saying, find the entire system insulting and degrading, to both themselves and their students. According to a union survey, more than half of the members of the BEA feel intimidated in the workplace, and three-quarters felt their participation in union activities would result in negative consequences.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised when I tell them about the resume of Belleville's superintendent, Helene Feldman: she cut her teeth -- surprise! -- at the NYCDOE, under reformy Joel Klein and reformy Chris Cerf (and those are a couple of guys who really know how to get teachers and parents on their side...). NYC is, of course, the training ground for the increasingly unpopular Paymon Rouhanifard in Camden and the spectacularly unpopular Cami Anderson in Newark.

Only a superintendent who served under Klein and Cerf would ever think teachers would take kindly to having their classrooms and lunch breaks and bathroom trips monitored.

The real kicker here, however, was the price: $2 million dollars. Just tonight, the state-appointed accountant who looked at Belleville's budget told the crowd at the board meeting that the district was $3.6 million in the red for next year -- and that's after having used up all of its budget surplus. How in the world does the Belleville BOE justify spending all that money on this obnoxious surveillance system when they can't even afford textbooks and computers for the schools?

When the system was booted up this past fall, the teachers union decided they'd had enough. It was bad enough the board wasted this money on invasive technology that wouldn't do anything to stop a Sandy Hook-like attacker. It was bad enough that teachers were now being watched constantly, as if they worked in a Soviet reeducation camp. But all of this had been implemented without the benefit of any negotiation, a clear violation of the collective bargaining rights of the BEA.

Mike Mignone, as president of the union, started speaking out. A 13-year veteran math teacher with a spotless record, beloved by his students and fellow teachers, Mignone wasn't going to just sit by and watch his members continue to be harassed and intimidated. He demanded that the board and the superintendent explain themselves: where did they get the funds for the surveillance system? Why was the time between the advertisement of the bid and the final decision less than two weeks? Why did the entire bidding process stink of nepotism?
After it obtained the job, Clarity also hired relatives of two key people at the school district, the brother of school board attorney Alfonse DeMeo, who approved the contract and first introduced Clarity to board members; and the son of Board of Education Trustee Joe Longo, who spearheaded the security upgrade. Longo insists he never asked for special treatment for his son and Kreeger denies that politics were involved in either hire. Kreeger also says he eventually terminated Longo's son because of public criticism, even though he was a model employee.
Mignone was making things very uncomfortable for the board and the superintendent by speaking out. He was putting a lot of people in difficult positions by calling for transparency and demanding that taxpayers get clear answers about how their money was being spent.

Guess what happened next?

As Mignone's lawyer puts it: in October, he found out; in November, he spoke out; in December, tenure charges were filed against him. Mignone, who had always had excellent reviews, suddenly found out he would be up on charges that included (get ready for this one) answering students' questions about the surveillance system. According to Mignone, his students asked him questions about whether they were being monitored; he took a few minutes out of class and gave them some honest answers. That, in this board's and this superintendent's minds, counts as a fireable offense.

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