Friday, July 31, 2009

Read Between the Lines

The Preliminary Delaware Government Performance Review is out. As a former state (not DE) policy guy I am dubious of these types of reports. Policy people who by discipline know how to look at long-term effects are often pushed aside by ideologues in these type of initiatives.

State employees including school employees should be concerned about the recommendations in the areas of health care and pension.

This direct quote from the report reflects an attitude we have seen from the SEBC: "Currently, state employees pay between 3.1% and 10.5% of the State's total premium costs depending on the plan and coverage level. National averages are closer to 15% for employee only coverage. The Delaware State Employees Benefits Committee (SEBC) has already approved the first phase of a plan to bring state employee contributions for health care costs closer to national averages."

First, our benefits are not out of line for other public employee groups. Public entities have long offered good benefits in lieu of salaries. In other words the skill level and education required for many public jobs were not competitive in salary with the private sector, so benefits were used as an enticement for public service.

Additionally, until recently, public employers wanted to be standard bearers for good employment practices. Apparently, there are some decision makers these days who want to join the race down. This last point is significant. In Delaware the state is the largest employer. All working people in Delaware should be concerned with what happens to state workers. The state will be a trend setter.

Finally, of note in this section is a reference to the SEBC initiating phase one of a plan to bring health benefits closer to the private sector national average. So, is that what the recent premium hike was, not a response to claims verses premium, but a plan to reduce benefits?

The report also goes after Double State Share health benefit: "The General Assembly will be asked to eliminate the Double State Share program to require employees and pensioners who are married and work for the State to pay the same employee contributions as other state employees."

If all of this is not enough to make your blood boil, you should also know that the pension section is not much better. "The state should consider creating a new tier of pension benefits for employees hired after a certain date."

Highlights (or low lights) of the new tier: Remove the early retirement provision; change the multiplier from 1.85% to 1.67%; eliminate $7,000 burial benefit; increase member contributions to 3% of salary; if less than 20 years service, the employee pays 100% of coverage.

In conclusion, if you are a DSEA member, support your union, pay your dues, contribute to PAC, care about one another, and hang on it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Rage, Rage, Against the Darkness

When I was a policy guy in state government I was amazed and frustrated at how often law was made on ideology and anecdotal evidence. I fear that what is labeled as "education reform" will be lacking in research and heavy on opinion. For example, some policy makers are now discussing teacher tenure and they do not even know what it means.

The general public (including some of the "education reformers") believes tenure means that once at teacher reaches a certain year they are given unlimited job security and cannot be laid off or terminated.

Of course this is a huge problem. That's why we can't get rid of "bad" teachers. Well that, and the teachers' union.

Here is how tenure works in reality. In Delaware, a teacher must have three years teaching experience in the state. Two of the three years must be with your current employer. So for example, a teacher could have 20 years experience with a school district, but if the teacher quits and goes to another Delaware district, he/she would have to put in two years at the new district before tenured again.

Once one is tenured, one can still be "reduced in force" (i.e. laid off), and one can certainly be terminated. Tenure simply means that if the district moves to terminate a teacher's employment the teacher is given a hearing before the school board or a designated hearing officer. At that hearing the teacher has a right to representation. The district also has representation (a lawyer)and is supposed to show just cause for the termination.

In other words, tenure is due process for termination. It is the most basic of employment rights. Truly it is something that all workers should have and it is a sorry statement of American attitude that we think this is something extraordinary.

For almost 30 years private sector employees have seen their unions broken, their wages reduced, and their health care eliminated. We should take note of this and vow that we will not go gently into that good night.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Health Care Calls

Today, the National Education Association, including all her state affiliates are being asked to contact the US House of Representatives about the need to pass health care reform. The NEA belongs to a giant health care advocacy coalition called Health Care for America Now (HCAN). It is under the aegis of HCAN that the calls are being made. I have pasted the information below. Please call Congressman Castle and ask him to vote for health care for all:

Help us get 50,000 contacts to Congress today!

Call 1-877-264-HCAN (4226)*
The health care reform bill being voted on in the House this week will save you an average of $2,800 per year.1 That bill says those who make more than a quarter of a million dollars a year should help pay for reform by rolling back Bush's tax cuts by just 1%.

Can you call your Representative today and tell them to stand up for health care?
Here is a sample of what you can say:
• Press 1 to be connected to your Representative.
• Please be polite. Ask to talk with someone who can speak to the Representative’s position on health care.
I’m calling from Health Care for America Now to make sure that Rep. Castle knows that we need real health care reform in 2009.
The House health care bill, H.R. 3200, will provide quality, affordable health care for all with good benefits and affordable costs.
Health care can’t wait, please vote for H.R. 3200, America's Affordable Health Choices Act, before you leave for vacation.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Furlough Musings

I must say a big thank you to my readers for their patience. I was out of the blogsphere for a few days on vacation in Vermont. If you have been to Vermont, you understand why it is the perfect vacation spot for someone in my line of work. Not only is the state very rural and quiet, but cell phone signals and internet connections are very spotty. One is more or less forced not to work.
The 2009-10 School Year, dare I say it, is right around the corner. Allow me a few words about the furlough situation.

First, for school employees the loss of pay for the furlough will not begin until the new contract year. We have had a few questions from teachers wondering if their July pay checks will reflect 2.5% less (state portion). The answer is no. That is pay you are receiving for work in the 2008-09 School Year. The first paycheck to reflect reduced pay for furlough will be the first pay period check in the new school year.

Second, districts have not all reacted the same to the issue of the local portion of pay. In approximate terms, teachers receive about 70% of their pay from the state and about 30% from local funds. For education support professionals, the ratio of local to state funds varies from profession to profession and district to district. Therefore, with the five furlough days forced by the state, do school employees still get paid the local portion? It depends on the district. Some districts were quick to react and say 'you are not working those days, we are not paying'. Other districts acknowledge the furlough days were forced, and that they will not add insult to injury, and thus will pay the local portion of pay on those days. Still again, some districts are "buying back" a day or two of furlough so that they can provide some professional development.

Third, districts should be in discussion with local unions to reach concurrence on a plan to implement the furlough days. Those plans are due to be submitted by districts no later than July 31, 2009 to the Secretary of Education, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Controller General. This should truly be a cooperative situation. No district administration should be submitting a plan without the involvement of the local unions.

Finally, let us put the furlough situation in perspective. If faced with the choice of a straight pay cut verses furlough, furlough is preferable. With a pay cut you work just as long and hard with nothing in return. A furlough gives you an exchange of time for the money. In a furlough situation the salary schedules return to the Fiscal Year 2009 pay level. This is not to say that we will not have another fight over salary next year, but at least the discussion does not begin 2.5% in the hole. Furloughs have been a pain to administrate. Pay cuts would have been a cinch to implement. We want it to be difficult to take something away from education employees.

In conclusion, furloughs are not a good deal, they are simply a better deal than pay reduction without time in exchange. At the end of the day, money is being taken from you at a time when everyone from the President to Johnny's dad is saying you have to do more.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Southern Election Rapidly Approaching

Hey, supporters of the Delaware State Education Association, please don't forget that there is a special election is Sussex County on Monday, August 3rd. This is in Senate District 19, the seat now open because of the tragic death of Senator Thurman Adams.

DSEA has recommended Polly Adams Mervine for election in Senate 19. Ms Mervine is a former 2nd Grade teacher from North Laurel Elementary. She left the profession to raise her son and to care for a critically ill family member. However, she still thinks like an educator and understands the challenges and hopes of DSEA members.

This election is so close, and there is so much to do. If you are able to volunteer please do so.

DSEA has a very able staff person acting as point person for our activities in this campaign. Her name is Wendy Kupcha.

To volunteer, contact Wendy at or call her at (302) 734-5834.

Some organization have "paper endorsements", meaning that all a candidate gets for the endorsement is the paper saying so. DSEA is determined to have more than paper recommendations. DSEA recommendations come with resources behind them. Most importantly, we activate our membership to volunteer and vote. If you are a DSEA member reading this, please help us keep our fine reputation going. Volunteer.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


"Nominalization" is both a grammatical term and a communications term. In the most simple sense, it means taking a verb or adjective and converting it into a noun. For example, the verb "move" becomes "movement" and "careless" becomes "carelessness". In linguistics, nominalization is an altogether useful thing.

In communications the concept may become more troublesome. People who study Nuero-Linguistic Programming (NLP), which involves several disciplines including linguistics and psychology point out faults with nominalization. Some things should be considered ongoing processes without quantifiable ends. Once certain actions are nominalized the next natural reaction is to attempt to define and quantify the new noun. Then, a whole set of rules and dogma grow around the defining, measuring, and quantifying. For example, "loving" becomes "love" with more emphasis on the definition and the quantifying and the qualifying (How do I love thee...) than the practice.

So perhaps I have finally become impossibly and irretrievably lost in the weeds.

What happens when you nominalize "educating" into "education"?

As long as one is living, one is learning. Those who help learning along are in the process of educating and so are often called educators. Those who are being helped in the educating process are usually called students.

But what has been the impact on both educators and students once we embrace "education"? How do we define the "end product"? What does it mean to have received an "education"?

What do we want, and how do we know when we get it?

Monday, July 20, 2009

It Will Make Your Head Spin

Federal stimulus dollars, American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), are sure to produce opportunity and challenge for the education community. At the heart of the challenges is the fact that big business is a key player in virtually all so called reform movements, including the Coalition for Student Achievement which is the source for a key document being used in Delaware. I am referring to "Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success."

It is difficult to read this document without getting the idea that the writers believe the way to student achievement is to weaken teacher unions particularly in respect to the rights they bargain around job security, fair evaluations, seniority, and transfers. Moreover the authors, no doubt encouraged by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, are charter school proponents. They advocate, "Aggressively close poor-performing schools and replace them with new high-performing schools."

The new improved high-performing (sounds like the same marketing used for deodorant) schools can be "public/private partnerships". Of course these new super duper institutions must "...have control over their staffing, budgets, and time. This may require revising local union agreements." Let us not forget that the new better than Coca Cola schools will need autonomy and "This will require states to free these schools from the majority of state codes and restrictive provisions in union contracts."

The quotes in this post are directly from the document described above. This would be a much longer post if I included every direct and indirect swipe at collective bargaining.

Shall I return to the beginning when I referenced the negative impact of big business in education reform. Essentially, they believe that the problem is the workers (teachers) have too much control of their own workplace (school) and policy (education). Also, the private sector is always better than the public sector so move to a charter system that has the best of both worlds, private control with public money.

In other words, the actual educators should have their power reduced so that a powerful top-down model can be imposed. Community public schools that democratically elect boards and answer to taxpayers for funding will be replaced by charters that take public money but choose their own boards and answer not at all to the public.

So chew on all that while you contemplate making us globally competitive, enhancing student learning, solving the youth drug, violence, and sex problem, all while doing it for 2.5% less pay.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mervine Gets the Nod

Today a screening committee of representatives from DSEA locals within the 19th Senate District (Sussex County) screened candidates for recommendation. The committee's recommendation was then approved by the DSEA Board this evening.

The recommended candidate is Polly Adams Mervine. Ms Mervine is the daughter of the late Senator Thurman Adams. She is seeking to fill his vacant seat in the election scheduled for Monday, August 3rd.

Ms Mervine impressed the committee with her knowledge of education issues and her own experience as a former second grade teacher at North Laurel Elementary.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Southern Exposure

Tomorrow, representatives from a number of DSEA locals in Sussex County will be screening candidates for Delaware Senate District 19. The two top contenders are Republican Joe Booth and Democrat Polly Adams Mervine.

Booth is a state representative from Georgetown. In his DSEA screening he is likely to emphasize his work on the Joint Finance Committee where he fought against pay cuts to educators, and his governing experience on school board, city council, as mayor, and as state representative.

Mervine will most probably stress the fact that she was a second grade teacher in the Laurel school district and that as the daughter of political icon Thurman Adams she has always been intimately involved in Sussex County politics.

This blog will let you know as soon as the screening committee completes their work and the recommendation is approved by the DSEA state board. If all goes according to plan the process will be completed by tomorrow night.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Too Many Words. Too Few Wordsworth.

The News Journal editorial in today's paper was agog with education reform puppy love. Of course, no NJ editorial would be complete without a swipe at teachers and their union:
Finally, Secretary Duncan wants states to show how they are improving teacher effectiveness.
That's a big question mark. Delaware teachers are not rated on whether students improve. That's a huge gap, one that the teachers union doesn't want to close. However, it should be closed. Teachers should be supplied with whatever tools, resources or leadership they need to be effective. But, ultimately, whether they are or not, the extent of their effectiveness should be measured.

We should carry out this idea of pay for performance to all levels of society. For example, newspapers are supposed to keep citizens informed about current events. Delaware residents should be given current event exams every 3 months. If a majority do not show standard knowledge of current events the News Journal editors should be docked 2.5% of their salary.

By the way NJ, that's the amount teachers are docked for the coming year. Yes, these same teachers that you want to expect more from, are being paid less. (Although, from your confusing editorials on the matter, you must not get it.)

Let's keep this pay for performance thing going. Doctors should not be paid unless patients make full recoveries. Lawyers should not be paid unless they get acquittals. The local gym should not be paid unless their members lose weight. Dry cleaners should not be paid unless customers (especially me) improve on the spill ratios to the front of their shirts. Bars should not be paid until patrons are satisfactorily intoxicated.

Let us make a whole world where someone else is responsible for our fulfillment and success.
Remember and take to heart William Wordsworth:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Education and Economics

The Vision 2015 folks are publicizing a letter to President Obama signed by several Democratic Senators stating a need for education reform and tying it to economic performance. A report by a consulting firm, McKinsey and Company, is referenced in claiming that if the so called education gap were closed our Gross Domestic Product could have been $2.3 trillion better last year.

This is just the kind of report that Vision 2015 loves because it is all about equating education with economics and global competitiveness.

Let us first challenge a basic assumption of some of the 2015 folks; that US corporations are not able to find enough appropriately educated workers. The exporting of jobs out of the US has had almost nothing to do with education. Corporations have been allowed to pursue cheap labor (including child labor and virtual slave labor)and loose to non-existent environmental laws to produce goods and then return those goods so produced for sale in the US. The outflow of jobs has been about costs, not smarts.

The trend of exporting jobs that began with manufacturing has now gone well into the professions as well. Computer programmers, chemists, architects, and engineers are just a few US professionals who have found themselves, not necessarily out-smarted, but under-bid by professionals in foreign lands.

The problem is not American education, but American economic policy and the lack of corporate accountability to workers and communities.

Also, we should challenge McKinsey, the Senators, or anyone else who claims that increasing GDP is what American prosperity is all about. Since the mid-1970s GDP has been steadily rising while real wages have been falling. GDP measures the cost of economic activity in such a narrow way as to be virtually meaningless in today's world.

As international development specialist and author David Korten says:
"...the GDP is a measure of the cost, not the benefit of economic activity. The GDP can be rising in the face of simultaneous epidemics of child obesity and starvation. It can be rising in the face of disintegrating families and a vanishing middle class, increasing prison populations, rising unemployment, the disruption of community, collapsing environmental systems, the hollowing out of domestic manufacturing capabilities, failing schools, growing trade deficits, and costly but senseless foreign wars."

Economic discussions are being foisted upon the education community, ranging from those who would blame the crippled economy on educators to those who demand more from educators while refusing to pay taxes to support their work. In the state of Delaware the discussions are in need of modernization. The lack of understanding of concepts such as progressive taxation, corporate accountability, and real verses phantom wealth is disturbing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Another Hit to Employees

In the final hours of Delaware's budget making process there were several unpleasant surprises as the failure to raise real revenue had to be made up in real cuts. Of course, state employees including educators remain a favorite target.

One such cut was the change in the Short Term Disability program. The Short Term Disability program insures employees against catastrophic loss due to illness by paying 75% of their salary after the illness extends beyond an elimination period.

The elimination period is the time the employee must account for from their own resources before the disability insurance becomes effective.

The elimination period was moved from 20 days to 60 days in a part of the budget process called, "Grant-In-Aid".

Before this change, an employee had to wait 20 calendar days using sick leave or unpaid leave until covered by STD. Now, the employee must find a way to survive for 60 calendar days. That is a long time for working people. Teachers can only accumulate sick days at a maximum of 10 a year. Younger teachers will simply not have the accumulated time to weather a major illness or pregnancy.

Moreover, the 60 day elimination period is within a contract year; so our 10 month employees could have additional difficulties making it to 61 days if part of the time falls outside the contract period.

This change was a part of Governor Markell's budget proposal; however, the Joint Finance Committee had initially resisted making the cut. Unfortunately, the unsavory practice was included in the final legislation.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Thanks for Muddying the Water

The News Journal seems to be intent on stiring up anti-teacher and anti-state worker sentiment with the general public. In today's paper the Ron Williams column has probably totally confused the public as well as DSEA members.

Mr Williams refers to the "ever-perplexing question of 'do they get paid or not'". Mr. Williams is more perplexed than anyone actually having to deal with the situation.

Five furlough days are the equivalent of 2.5% of pay. Furlough days are days that you do not have to show up for work, but are unpaid. Instead of taking the pay for the five days when the days actually occur, the money for the days (2.5%) is deducted throughout the 26 pay periods of the year.

In the case of teachers, the five furlough days will be taken on days when professional development was scheduled, effectively leaving only one professional development day. On those five days, teachers will be home when normally they would have been at work in their districts receiving professional development training.

Next year, the pay schedules return to the 2009 level. In the case of a regular pay cut, the schedule would be permanently altered to reflect 2.5% less.

However, Mr. Williams wants to package this issue, teachers, school employees, and other state workers are being hurt. These employees will make 2.5% less in 2010. The only consolations are that they will receive time off for the money taken, and the pay schedule is restored in 2010 (so that at least discussions around employee pay does not start 2.5% in the hole).

Although every citizen in Delaware benefits from and partakes of state services, the people who deliver those services are being asked to take on more burden for balancing the budget than other citizens.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Voice in the Wilderness

Staff of the Delaware State Education Association will be meeting this week to discuss ways to help local unions with the implementation of the furloughs including compensation issues that could arise. Stay tuned for more and do not hesitate to check in with your able UniServ staff.

The response to date by membership regarding the exchange of furlough days for a straight pay cut has been overwhelmingly positive.

DSEA is beginning to prepare now for the 2010 legislative session. Unless we get a pleasant surprise with the national economy, we will be in for another fight next year for our pay and benefits.

The revenue ideas put forward by DSEA and our partners in State Workers United for a Better Delaware would have avoided another struggle in 2010. Our revenue ideas were substantive and sustainable. Unfortunately, for the most part, this budget was not put together from substantive or sustainable ideas.
We were like a voice crying in the wilderness.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Choice to Cut School Construction

In the coming days examination of the budget bill and bonding bill will reveal a more complete picture of the year to come. Also, it is difficult to reach people today in Dover to have questions answered; probably a combination of exhaustion and people leaving for the holiday.

One thing we do know is that with the failure of the beer and wine tax the Bond Committee was reconvened Tuesday night and approximately $4.8 million came out of school construction.

In the political spin that will follow this act one will surely hear, 'we had to make up the money in the budget once the alcohol tax failed to pass'. One thing should be clear. Going specifically after school construction was a choice among many. It was a choice that will ultimately impact kids, school employees, and construction workers desperately needing employment at this time.

With two minutes of thought I could tell the legislature and administration what they could have done when it became obvious they did not have the votes for the beer and wine bill. First, in the corporate fees bill the fee for an LLC could have been raised eight dollars a year from $200 to $208. The money could have come from the Rainy Day Fund which at the required 2% of revenue is now over-funded with the drop in revenue. The money could have come from the so called Strategic Fund. This fund has over $40 million for economic development projects and had $9 million added to it in this lean year. This fund is often used to entice corporations to come to Delaware. When it's a single mom trying to survive and she needs public assistance we derisively call it welfare. When it's a corporation we call it development.

We will need to rethink many things in Delaware about what is legitimate state investment, what is sustainable revenue, and what is real wealth. One thing is for sure these issues will be front and center for the 2011 Budget because the opportunity was missed in the 2010 Budget to reform Delaware's tax system and economic recovery seems distant.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Where is your lobbyist?

It is 4:30 AM on July 1st. Do you know where your lobbyist is? Well, in this wacky year in Delaware, he is just ending the 2009 Legislative Session. Enjoy the report below, I'm going home.
Threats to the economic security of our membership dominated the 2009 legislative session. A proposal by the Governor to cut salaries by 8% in February was promptly followed in March by a 50% increase in health care premiums by the State Employee Benefit Committee. Items also considered “on the table” for serious consideration were frozen step increases, frozen lane increases, moratorium on clusters and National Board Certification incentives, and elimination of pay for cluster and NBC for those already receiving the stipends.

At the end of the legislative session on June 30th, 2009 (actually July 1) we achieved the following:
• The 8% straight salary cut became a 2.5% salary reduction in the form of furlough days. In practice, a 2.5% pay reduction will be spread out in 26 pay periods and in exchange, employees will take five furlough days. In other words, instead of receiving less pay, but working the same amount of time, the school year has been cut 5 days to compensate for the loss of pay. For teachers, the 5 days will come from professional development days. Other school employees will be given their five days through a plan worked out between their local union and school district. In all cases, your able UniServ staff will be assisting with thinking through the logistics.
• The 2009 salary schedule returns at the end of the fiscal year. In other words we do not start “in the hole” when debating next year’s pay issues with the state.

• Step increases will be paid.

• Lane (education) changes on the salary schedule will be paid.

• Cluster and NBC pay for those already receiving it, will continue to be paid. However, the moratorium on new clusters and NBC will continue (new stipends not granted).

The struggle to maintain wages and benefits was aided by participation of DSEA in State Workers United for a Better Delaware, a coalition of 13 unions representing state workers.

Although economic issues dominated the attention of the legislature, a few education bills became law including three bills considered to be the Governor’s education package.
o First, a bill eliminating the DSTP and replacing it with a growth model test for the 2010-2011 School Year became law.
o Second, legislation was filed attempting to establish an alternative compensation plan for teachers that included a component of pay for student performance. Eventually, this bill was completely rewritten to become an Academic Achievement Program to give schools financial rewards from federal stimulus money for showing two years of improvement in closing the achievement gap and meeting AYP.
o The third bill in this package was filed as HB119. The original bill provided school districts with a great deal of flexibility in the use of their state funding as well as increased scrutiny of their financial matters. With the possibility of negatively impacting special needs, health programs, art, music, drama, and vocational technical instruction, the legislation picked up many critics. The bill was withdrawn, rewritten and reintroduced as HS (House Substitute)1 for HB119. The new bill limited flexibility to movement of money from Division II (energy) to Division 1 (salaries). The bill was later amended to remove a section that would have given DOE more direct control of a local district’s budget.

Representative Val Longhurst hit one out of the park late in the ninth inning. Around 2:30 AM on July 1, the Senate passed Ms Longhurst’s bill giving teachers of Colonial School District the right to return to their exact same position when returning from FMLA leave. Congratulations to Longhurst and Colonial.

Thanks to DSEA members for your relentless lobbying efforts that made a very bad situation, better.