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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Case not made for any "Turnaround Team"

by folkbum

Aaron Rodriguez, last seen dancing up to the line of libel (and furiously--some would say hilariously--dancing back [Can anyone else get his comment feature to work? I tried replying to that post to no avail.]), has another piece of puffery for his candidate in the DPI race. (We're Evers people at this blog.)

Rodriguez begins with an Lettermanesque top ten things the Milwaukee Public Schools should be doing differently:
1. Stop hiring employees.
2. Verify expense accounts for all capital expenditures.
3. Cut back on replacing equipment that functions.
4. Reduce inventory.
5. Defer discretionary projects that will not yield immediate returns.
6. Discharge unproductive employees.
7. Terminate management politics and roadblocks.
8. Develop a tough business plan with a clear mission.
9. Stay optimistic.
10. Listen often and communicate well.
Later in the post, there's a somewhat different "first ... second ... third ..." list in paragraphs. I'll deal with some of that in a moment.

But Rodriguez's main point seems to be that to do all of these things, MPS needs not to be run by an elected school board, but by a "Turnaround Team" of the style proposed by his favored DPI candidate. There are all kinds of problems with his list--stay optimistic? thanks, Dr. Peale!--but beyond that, what makes him think the current board, or the one we'll be half-electing in less than a month (we're Mathias people at this blog), can't do these? Or, for that matter, that the current board hasn't done these things?

For example, Rodriguez clearly has no idea about the performance-based budgeting being implemented starting this year (kind of along the lines of what was recommended by Anneliese Dickman here). He doesn't know that the district communicated and listened and developed a tough, clear plan just a couple of years ago (large .pdf). He doesn't seem to realize MPS has an audit division (and, helpfully, a special audit just for us from the state). And Rodriguez obviously hasn't been inside an MPS building to see the deferred capital projects dripping on the heads of unsuspecting staff (true story!).

In fact, when you start unpacking the paragraphs later in Rodriguez's post, his obliviousness to the reality in MPS is even clearer. Here's a taste:
First, we need to stop hiring more teachers. Due to decreased enrollment, MPS has one of the lowest teacher-student ratios among comparable school districts across the nation. [. . .]

Fourth, we need to defer on discretionary projects. One good example is building new schools. Enrollment is down, so new schools should be out of the question.

Fifth, discharge unproductive and incompetent teachers. Allowing them to teach does a disservice to our children.
So much to do here! Start with Rodriguez's "fifth," the "unproductive and incompetent teachers." One question I ask all the time but never get an answer to: How many are we talking about? Our graduation rate is about 60%--do we fire 40% of our high school teachers? Our 8th-grade math proficiency rate is 38%--do we fire 62% of our middle-school teachers? Can we get some clarity, please? Oh, and if we fire all these teachers, whom do we replace them with if we can't hire new ones? And if there's an exception made for replacements for those staff, how do we recruit great teachers if we're raising class sizes, using outdated equipment, and threatening to cut salary and benefits back to among the lowest in the region?

MPS's turnover rate among new teachers--about half don't make it five years in the district--also means a hiring freeze will skyrocket the student-teacher ratio from 14:1 now (does that seem low to you?) to unbearable levels in short order. Not to mention the constant demand for math, science, and special-education teachers, positions we fill with substitutes and interns now, hiring freeze or no.

In "fourth," I'd like to know exactly what schools Rodriguez thinks we're building. MPS hasn't opened a new school since--and correct me if I'm wrong--the new Tech in 2002, and that was largely financed by donors, not taxpayers. And we're now in the process of selling off properties left and right.

And again I repeat my question: What is a "Turnaround Team" going to do about this that the current board has not done or cannot do?

(Rodriguez's numbered paragraphs go on up to "eighth," with some of them not being MPS issues at all, but DPI ones. We can argue over who's more political--his "sixth" point--Evers, the life-long educator and consensus builder, or Rodriguez's candidate, who became a cause célèbre among talk-show hosts, conservative activists, and Republican legislators. I'd suggest his candidate does not look good there. And Evers's record of working with parents across the state to move the legislative agenda speaks for itself.)

In the end, Rodriguez, who titles his post "Why MPS Needs a Turnaround Team," cannot make a case for such a team. In fact, he levels a pretty ugly insult at the voters of Milwaukee, calling the current board a "special interest group," implying that a collection of public servants beholden to the voters and earning a pretty paltry salary are somehow pulling a fast one on us.

Look, I have my disagreements with the board. I have my disagreements with the district superintendent. (I even occasionally have disagreements with my union.) But to suggest that an appointed board or "Turnaround Team" will be able to change things that the current board can't or won't is ridiculous. In fact, one of the most absurd moments of this whole campaign was the initial press release (.pdf) announcing the idea, which proclaimed, "The Turnaround Team will be empowered to make dramatic changes at MPS," followed by a bullet-point list of ten things, nine of which the current elected board is already "empowered" to do. That's kind of like the opposite of dramatic.

In the end, the "Turnaround Team" plan also faces a major hurdle that Rodriguez doesn't even bother to mention: It's illegal. No amount of misinformed blather will change that fact.

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