Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tenure for All

I have time for a rant before starting the final day of the Delaware 145th General Assembly. Having just heard another derisive comment about teacher tenure on national TV this morning, I feel it is time yet again for an explanation of teacher tenure. Let's call this one Teacher Tenure for Super Idiots.

All lawmakers, policy makers, and media pundits should have the integrity to do just a little research into what is teacher tenure. It is not the type of process and job security of major universities of old . By the way folks, this is rare even in academia today, as that sector has no more respect for employees than any other.

Teacher "tenure" (the term "tenure" is never actually used in DE Code) for K-12 teachers means nothing more than teachers get due process rights before termination. School districts must document poor performance and failure to show improvement after warning the teacher of the unacceptable performance. The teacher is entitled to a hearing before the terminating school board or a hearing officer appointed by them.

If we have a good teacher evaluation system this should not be a burden in any sense of the word to school districts. Under RTTT we are supposed to have superior teacher evaluation. Policy makers should also know that under the current system teachers with tenure are terminated every year. It is an absolute myth (lie) that it is impossible to terminate "bad" teachers under tenure.

My final point is one to rock the Chamber of Commerce. The idea of due process for termination is not some archaic privilege of education which should be eradicated; rather due process in termination is something which should be extended by law to ALL employees. It is good management practice and it is fair to workers. The concept of a disposable American workforce (employees at will) has done nothing for US quality of life. It is time we give "tenure" to everyone.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Bond Bill

Last night, actually very early this morning, Delaware gave birth to a bouncing baby bond bill at 1:45 a.m. After a full day of legislative action in both chambers, the dedicated bond committee met and worked through the night.

Much like their cousins the Joint Finance Committee, the Bond Committee should be commended on their dedication to restore/preserve essential public services.

Transportation infrastructure consumes most of the committee's time and resources. In addition to big road projects the committee put more money back into the Community Transportation Fund (CTF). The CTF is used to repair neighborhood roads and is directed by state legislators. This fund has steadily dropped in bad times from $300,000 per legislator to $250,000 per legislator to $125,000 per legislator, and finally last night was improved slightly to $175,000 per legislator. Representative Bill Oberle was a vocal champion to make this happen last night.

The CTF is a perfect example of how Delaware media (one paper in particular) consistently misunderstand the workings of government and then proclaim and spread their ignorance. The CTF has been described as a slush fund for legislators. In fact, the projects come right down to your street in pothole and repaving and must be approved by the Department of Transportation. Without the CTF one of two things happen, either your roads fall into severe disrepair or a local entity (county or city) raises your taxes and picks up the repairs. Some prominent decision makers describe state government as "too big"; maybe that's because local governments in Delaware are too small, or in some cases too cheap.

The Bond Committee also bought police car computers for local towns, and dealt with local flood damage; additional examples of communities not being able to provide for their own public service infrastructure.

A special mention should be made of Senator Nancy Cook's successful effort to restore some money to the farmland preservation program. The money, about $2 million will be matched by the federal government. This fund makes long-term leases of arable land and green space to save it from development. While this issue doesn't get much attention it is vitally important as farm land and other green spaces continue to be gobbled up around the nation in poorly regulated development.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's Always Something

It's always something, and yesterday it was an annoying something known as Senate Bill 293. Senate Bill 293 would require teachers to give parents 48 hours notice before any instruction involving "human sexuality issues, profanity, sexual acts, violence, drugs and/or alcohol."
The parents, once notified would be allowed to exempt their child from that instruction.

Here is the crazy scenario that plays out with such legislation: Three kids are exempted from an American Literature lesson on "To Kill A Mockingbird", six kids are exempted from health class, two from biology, one from history class, and two more from a class covering "Macbeth". This happens after someone has tracked the daily flow of permission slips and exemptions. Now, you have the exemptions for the week, and who watches these kids and where? Are we going to have extra staff in every school for this mandate?

The group behind this legislation is the Delaware Family Policy Council. Their website, they proudly called SB293 their first piece of legislation. In case you had any doubt on how the DFPC would use this legislation, consider that their website placed parents on "high alert" about a number of books. When you clicked on the book list, a list of 101 books appeared and included "To Kill A Mockingbird", "Catcher In the Rye", the entire "Goosebumps" series as well as all the "Harry Potter" books, "A Wrinkle In Time", "Of Mice and Men", "Captain Underpants", and most appropriately, "Fahrenheit 451", Ray Bradbury's classic story about a time in the future when books are banned and burned. My examples were a quick sampling that caught my eye, but suffice it to say that most of the books in school that challenged your perception of the world, gave you a glimpse into other cultures, or just gave you chuckle are probably on that list.

I will spare you anymore drama. The Delaware State Education Association, the Delaware Association of School Administrators, the American Civil Liberties Union, Delaware Planned Parenthood, and the Delaware Department of Education all testified against the bill in the Senate Education Committee yesterday.

Thankfully, it does not appear that the bill will make it out of committee. However, this group is not going away, and they will be back next year with similar legislation.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Rabbit Out of the Hat

Late Friday night (June 18th) the Joint Finance Committee completed budget mark up. The JFC did good work throughout the long day and night. The State of Delaware continues to stagger under the weight of the recession along with the rest of the country. Fortunately, revenue numbers for Personal Income Tax were a little better than expected this year, and Delaware's unique revenue source "Abandoned Property" (sometimes called 'escheat') was up a lot. Although, a rumored windfall for the June revenue forecast did not happen.

The Joint Finance Committee made good work of the money that was available. A few weeks ago they restored last year's salary cut and bailed out the deficit in the State Employee Health Plan. They funded step increases for eligible educators. Also the JFC funded the stipends for educators receiving NBC and Cluster, but continued the moratorium on new entries into those programs. Additionally, the JFC saved the School Resource Officer program that was on the chopping block. They also restored over-time pay to hours paid versus hours worked, an important issue for some shift workers in the state.

Of Friday, the JFC began the day by funding the state's share of full-day kindergarten for the Christina School District. Next, the JFC chose to restore almost all of the public school transportation funding. The Governor's budget had a recommended cut of $24 million to transportation, but the JFC brought back about $21 million of it. The restoration of this money should give some relief to local school district budgets and reduce the number of laid off educators around the state.

As the day turned into afternoon and then into evening, a great deal of difficult decision making was taking place around education and social service spending programs. The programs had to be placed as budget pass-through or Grant-in-Aid with much less money to be split among them. Late in the evening it was decided that most of the programs would receive another 10% cut to funding.

The JFC took a short break as we approached 11:00 PM on Friday night. When they reconvened, they were ready to address the issue of Short Term Disability. The DSEA and her coalition partners had lobbied the JFC hard all year on this issue. Short Term Disability insurance pays seriously ill employees 75% of salary during their time off. The STD has a waiting period before it begins paying. The original STD before last year's budget cuts had a 20 day elimination period. Employees have to use accumulated sick days until the STD picks up a portion of their pay. Last year this was changed to 60 days, making the program virtually useless especially to education employees who accumulate sick days slowly and who had to settle the elimination requirement within their contract year.

The Joint Finance Committee reduced the 60 day elimination period to 30 days as the final act of budget mark up. The JFC should be commended on their willingness to make this expenditure happen in spite of virtually no flexible money remaining in the budget. The JFC took the funding for in-school health clinics and placed them under the Tobacco Fund. This maneuver released $2.6 million that was used to fund the partial restoration of Short Term Disability.

This rabbit out of the hat trick will save many educator and state employee families from additional hardship during the wage earner's disability. Our thanks to the JFC magicians who thought this one up.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Return to Reason

Today the Markell Administration agreed to pull back from plans to file legislation changing the health care and pension for new employees. Instead, the Administration will meet with stakeholder groups (DSEA and other unions) and legislators between the end of session and next January to discuss solutions to rising health care costs. This is the reasoned approach for which we asked.

The Joint Finance Committee will meet on Wednesday for 2 to 3 hours to work on budget mark up. On Thursday, the final revenue forecast for the state will be revealed. On Friday, the Joint Finance Committee will have a very long work day, probably extending well into the evening completing the budget mark up based on the previous day's final financial data. By Monday, there will be a printed budget for legislators to review well in advance of the June 30th end of session.

The remaining items of interest in budget mark up for DSEA include the restoration of the Short Term Disability policy (to 20 days elimination period vs 60 days), a lifting of the moratorium on NBC and/or clusters, and reducing the cuts to local school districts which contribute to the RIF of educators around the state.

Stay Tuned.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Strong Statement Against Benefit Cost Shifting

The end of the Delaware legislative session is in sight. The Joint Finance Committee will meet several days next week in the hopes of completing budget mark up. On Thursday, June 17th there will be new economic numbers from the Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council to help them in final decisions about restoration of budget cuts.

Meanwhile the threat to health care and pension for state workers and educators continues. The coalition of public employee unions known as State Workers United for a Better Delaware issued a statement to every member of the legislature on Thursday (6/10) opposing the new tiers of benefits. The Delaware State Education Association, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, Delaware State Troopers Association, and the Correction Officers Association of Delaware are the largest member groups of the coalition.

In the interest of transparency we have printed the letter below (the graphics and spacing are different from the actual hard copy document):

June 10, 2010
TO: The Honorable <
>FROM: Lt. Tom Brackin (DSTA, 302-270-1765), chair
Karen Valentine (AFSCME Council 81, 302-354-3500), and Tim Barchak (DSEA 866-734-5834) co-chairs of the Coalition of State Workers United for a Better Delaware

On behalf of the members of our Coalition, we urge you to oppose the Markell plan for tiering of health and pension benefits, and instead, support real dialogue and problem solving. The Administration’s proposed plan does nothing to address health care inflation. The Administration plan is not about health care cost containment, it is about cost shifting to employees. It occurs to us that cost shifting is the place of last resort, not the starting point.

Additionally, we believe that there are three distinct issues that should be considered on their own merits: Rising health care costs, pension (which is both well funded and well managed currently), and OPEB (a liability with which every state in the nation must deal).

This Coalition began the discussion of health care cost containment when we hired Milliman Incorporated as health care and actuarial consultants to examine the State Employee Health Plan and make recommendations. We did this on our own volition without having the health care of our members threatened. We believe this work was incomplete because not all of the data or information our consultants needed was forthcoming.

On June 8th, 2010, in the context of the tiering proposal, we have again worked with our consultants and sent the administration a list of questions, considerations, and data requests. This should not be a burden on the State because we assume the Administration had the information we seek before making their proposal. A proposal of this magnitude should be well thought out with a great deal of research and modeling to support it.

The Coalition continues its willingness to discuss health care cost containment, and work towards solutions, in the Delaware way. Years ago when rising Workers Compensation rates created concerns, all the stakeholders worked together in a thoughtful and deliberate fashion. The result was legislation without opposition that reformed the system. This is the type of undertaking we recommend to deal with health care, pension and OPEB concerns.

The Coalition of State Workers United for a Better Delaware
AFSCME Council #81, AFL-CIO, DSTA, DSEA and DSEA-Retired, Teamsters Local 326, CWOA Local 13101, State Lodge of the FOP, FOP Lodge 3, FOP Lodge 10, FOP Lodge 11, UFCW Local 27, Delaware Attorney General Investigation Assoc., Laborers Local 1029 LiUNA!