Friday, November 30, 2012

Occupy On: Quixotic Success, Uncertain Future

Can the 2011 eruption become a full spectrum movement? Maybe. But it will have to expand beyond a "direct democracy" base. 

By Greg Guma
Author and sixties activist Todd Gitlin considers the Occupy movement that swept across the world in 2011 a “qualified but real success.”
      It was quixotic, he recently told a SRO crowd in the Sugar Maple Ballroom of the Davis Center at the University of Vermont. “And it worked.” But success also pointed to problems, he added, and “you could also say it failed.”
      Drawing from material he has assembled in a new book, Occupy Nation, Gitlin traced the uprising’s evolution thus far and assessed the prospects for what he labeled Occupy 2.0.
     He currently teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University, but his credentials as a radical thinker date back to the early 1960s. As president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a leading activist group, he helped to organize the first national demonstration against the War in Vietnam and the first sit-in against Apartheid in 1965 at the Chase Manhattan Bank.
     Since then he has written 15 books, with titles like The Whole World Is Watching and The Sixties. As an academic authority on contemporary social movements he balances tough criticism of the Right with equally serious questions about the tactics and tone of Left activism.
     During a one-hour lecture and follow up question period, Gitlin called what happened in September, 2011 an “eruption,” a “movement’s beginning,” and an attempt to reverse the long-term accumulation of power and wealth by the wealthiest 1 percent.
     “No one saw it coming,” he said. But there were rumblings in advance and structural pre-conditions. One was a “divergence of wealth” so great that the 400 richest Americans now have as much as 50 percent of the population.
     There were attempts to mobilize public discontent for years. However, “on September 17, the flame caught,” Gitlin said, referring to day an open call was issued to Occupy Wall Street, soon to be known as OWS or just Occupy. Anarchists and democratic activists with groups like Anonymous, A99 and US Day of Rage were among the first to join. According to David DeGraw, editor of the organizing site, the unifying principle was, “Anything you can do to rebel against the system of economic tyranny in a non-violent manner is welcome.”
     It was a radical upheaval that mirrored the outrage and defiance of the conservative, anti-government Tea Party movement that preceded it. “Occupy filled a moral and political space,” argued Gitlin. But it did not focus on government. Instead, its primary targets were “banksters” and corporate forces that had corrupted politics, crashed the economy, and increased the gap between rich and poor while enriching themselves.
     Gitlin noted that the emergence of the terms 99 percent and 1 percent as part of the popular lexicon assisted President Obama in labeling Mitt Romney as a plutocrat early in the presidential race. On the other hand, most Democrats handled the nascent movement “gingerly,” while core members expressed skepticism, if not hostility to the current electoral system.
     He defined Occupy as the first US social movement in modern history “to begin with the benefit of majority support for its main thrust.” Early unions did not experience “unadulterated” support, he noted. Neither the civil rights nor women’s movements were especially popular at the start, and the Vietnam War had 60 percent public support in the mid-1960s.
     At the core, however, the movement’s identity was closely tied to its famously “horizontal,” cooperative style, most visible at General Assemblies. It expressed an “intense existential affirmation of itself,” Gitlin said, a desire to evolve a new way of life that emerged primarily in the form of encampments across the country.
     Gitlin followed the movement closely and conducted numerous interviews for his book. He reports that many activists were inspired by uprisings from Egypt and Tunisia to Wisconsin.
     In Vermont, a series of rallies and marches began about two weeks after the initial call. On Oct. 15, rallies were staged in several communities, drawing support from labor and politicians. At the end of the month, adopting a central strategy, about 50 people began an encampment in Burlington’s City Hall Park.
     Over the next weeks, the movement’s broad scope and “leaderless” approach made it difficult to sustain momentum.  There were organizational problems and internal disagreements about process and tactics. However, Gitlin says that most encampments, fundamentally expressions of the constitutional right of assembly to redress grievances, were broken up – often violently – during a coordinated response by local officials across the country.
     “The right of assembly means more than speech,” Gitlin asserted. It is “the collective right to reason together.”
     On the other hand, many Occupy supporters displayed a tendency to be “phobic” about cooptation and thought unions and were political “Trojan horses.”
     In Vermont's largest city, the flashpoint came in November with the untimely suicide of Joshua Pfenning, a 35-year-old homeless man, in a tent at the Burlington encampment. In response, Mayor Bob Kiss shut it down.
     Occupy transformed the political culture by combining 18th century democratic principles with 21st century methods, Gitlin has concluded. As a result, the focus on debt and deficits that was dominating political debate gave way to a discussion of wealth inequality.
     But the core of the movement wanted more. “They wanted to produce a society of their own, and half believed they were producing it.”
     A year later, Gitlin estimates that Occupy still has a core membership in the tens of thousands, “largely young and dis-embedded.” He compared it to the wing of the civil rights movement that was prepared to engage in civil disobedience.
     He also pointed to promising spin offs like a Jubilee movement to cancel debt and an anti-foreclosure campaign, but he wasn’t certain whether Occupy itself will have staying power.
     For some form of Occupy 2.0 to emerge as a “full spectrum movement,” he advised that it will have to expand the appeal beyond “those who want direct democracy.” He called its focus on encampments “inspiring but self-limiting,” and argued that it “can’t be run horizontally.”
     One recommended strategy is to seek broad agreement on a popular “charter,” a list of basic, achievable goals. The formal presentation concluded with his own seven point agenda, including progressive taxation, separating commercial from investment banks, a living wage, and reduced military spending.
     A next phase for Occupy, whether it’s 2.0 or takes another name, certainly remains possible, Gitlin says. But up to this point the upheaval has been “more notional than actual.”
     The basic problem is that “there aren’t enough saints.” It’s a predicament, he adds, but there is little potential in trying to convince people committed to the prophetic vision of a radically democratic society to simply give it up.
     On the other hand, Gitlin muses, “it’s going to be a weird movement if it’s restricted to people who can show up for general assemblies.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Heavy Physics & The Ultimate Particle

We’re either gawking like tourists or compulsively peeling the onion. Gawking at celebrities and superfluous royalty, secretly enjoying the pointless gamesmanship that passes for politics in this post-modern house of mirrors, or else pulling back the layers of reality, peeling away anything that keeps us from some ultimate truth. Or both at the same time.

At the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, where men in white coats send atoms crashing into one another at enormous speeds, they are definitely looking for something ultimate: The thing that makes everything else possible.

They call it the Higgs boson particle, sometimes known as the God Particle.

This week scientists conducting two experiments at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva suggested that they may have found the elusive particle, the one that gives everything mass. The question is whether we are one step closer to answering the big question --- what are we made of? -- or just being teased by another false alarm.

One of the main scientific goals of the huge multi-billion dollar atom smasher is to prove the existence of the Higgs boson, a theoretical particle believed to give everything in the universe mass. It's a key part of the Standard Model used in physics to describe how particles and atoms are made up.

Rumors that scientists working on the Collider found evidence of the Higgs boson began to circulate last April after a supposed internal memo was posted on the Internet. Most physicists urged caution. Many candidates that looked good in collision experiments have been dismissed on further examination.

So, Why call it the God Particle? That began with the title of a popular science book by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman, who was a Fermilab director. His first instinct was to call his book The Goddamn Particle, he said, because nobody could find the thing. His editor suggested that The God Particle would sell more copies. True story.

Is it Godlike? Perhaps, if God is somewhat hypothetical. Its main job is to give mass to all the other particles, so you could say it has a centralizing influence. It also relates to a pretty heavy question: What gives matter its mass? In other words, what are we made of?

In the scientific community the particle is named for the Scottish physicist Peter Higgs. It’s the so-called missing piece in the Standard Model, so scientists obviously want to find it, or something as close as possible. At CERN in Geneva, billions have been spent to prove that it’s there. Many people have seen the photos of a huge circular tunnel, or have read Angels and Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code in which a fanatic steals a vial of what could be anti-matter capable of destroying the Vatican.

Tens of thousands of particle physicists are at work around the world. Before the rest of us were online, the wizards at CERN helped the Pentagon invent the World Wide Web, initially as a way for them to keep in touch. Decades ago, technical and scientific projects began to get huge, involving thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians around the world, what physicist Freeman Dyson dubbed "Napoleonic Physics." 

Over time, however, one side effect has been premature leaks and false alarms about scientific breakthroughs, and much hyperbole. The latest announcement is basically a heads up that the CERN-iacs in Geneva are still smashing atoms, faster and smaller than ever, and will keep at it until they know exactly what we’re made of – or create a black hole that swallows the planet.

This essay was originally developed for Maverick Media’s Rebel News Round Up,* broadcast live on April 28, 2011 at 11:15 a.m. on WOMM (105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator) in Burlington. Also discussed on the air that week:

ROYAL SNOOZE   Why (some) people care about William and Kate

BIRTHER MADNESS  Now that Obama’s birth certificate is out, where does the sideshow go from here? Hint: destablizing a regime is a full-time job.

THE NEXT WAR   Another cyber attack has hit Iran’s nuclear industry. Is someone conducting cyber war? Who let the dogs out, and how does information war change things?

CITY HALL STAND UP?   Comedian and lawmaker Jason Lorber may run for mayor of Burlington in Vermont. It could be a good fit. You definitely need a sense of humor to manage that circus. A look ahead that the 2012 landscape in the People’s Republic.

*Edited transcripts don’t include extemporaneous comments and last minute changes or additions.

Check out The Vermont Way: Restless Spirits and Popular Movements

Friday, June 22, 2012

A nuke, a jet and schools: Getting past outrage

Councilors Vince Dober and Sharon Bushor confer
during debate over basing F-35 jets at the airport.
Local and state resistance to federal authority comes in many forms, and not all of them appeal to conservative instincts. In Vermont this has been evident for decades at least, and is definitely at work in the struggle to close the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
     Add to that the pending decision on whether to base 18 to 24 F-35 fighter jets at the Burlington International Airport despite popular opposition and, in several cases, local votes either in opposition, or at least requesting more information before any decision is made. The truth is, hearings may bring out the opposition, but state and national leaders made up their minds long ago. And their argument is that the economic benefits outweigh any costs, including the sacrificing of more than a thousand homes.
     But in the end it's not even up to them. The Air Force will make the call. So, will they get to simply roll over discontent? After all, it's a cheap place to put these flying Edsels. Plus, they get to assert military prerogative, even if it makes big parts of the Burlington metropolitan area essentially a national sacrifice area -- a place made uninhabitable in the name of national security.

     This video reveals the dynamic as it unfolded during a public hearing in South Burlington. The beginning is a bit painful to watch, as boosters play the patriotism card or simply pander. But after a while the opposition has its say. One month later -- and two days before the deadline for public comments on an environmental impact statement -- members of the Burlington and Winooski city council voted to ask for more information about the impacts of basing the planes in Vermont.
     In Burlington three resolutions were debated for almost two hours after more than 40 people expressed their opinions during yet another public forum. The resolution that ultimately passed (unanimously, after two others failed) incorporated arguments from both sides, listed a series of unanswered questions, and requested that the Air Force bring an actual F-35 to the airport “so that residents can experience the actual noise level.”
     As if that will ever happen. Anyway, here's a link to the VTDigger feature:
     But that isn't the last example of federal overreach -- and the state's so far moderate response. Not exactly resistance, but an attempt to find a middle way.
     Despite the state's generally strong education reputation -- mostly high scores on assessment tests, along with good faith efforts and a bit of innovation -- it finds itself at odds with the federal government over policy and practice, and specifically whether policy decisions and funding should be determined by testing. 
    It will not get a piece of the $5 billion in new federal “Race to the Top” funding being distributed to improve assessment, reward teacher excellence and help poorly performing schools. Last November it was also turned down for a $50 million early-childhood education grant, and has been unable to get a waiver from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.
    A new report card from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meanwhile gives the state a "reform grade" of D+ and an F for "Identifying Effective Teachers." Florida, which consistently ranks near the bottom in national assessments, received a B+ in the same report.
      In early June Sen. Bernie Sanders complained to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan about the exclusion of Vermont and other rural states from “Race to the Top” funding. Sanders and Duncan also discussed the rejection of Vermont’s NCLB waiver request. Sanders argued that requirements of the Bush-era initiative are “fundamentally incompatible with the state’s educational model,” and described opposition to the law as “near unanimous.”
     This is also a national security story. In doing research for my recent pieces on education, race and achievement gaps, I came upon “US Education Reform and National Security,” a new report from the Council on Foreign Relations. It was authored by a panel headed by former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Joel Klein, chancellor of New York’s public schools. Klein has opened a hundred charter schools, in many cases ignoring community opposition.
"Mama, I can't sleep.
The F-35s are too loud."
(Lisa Cowan graphic)
     “Educational failure puts the United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” the report boldly states -- without much real evidence to back up the claim. Acknowledging the impacts of concentrated poverty, racial segregation, and unequal school funding, it offers no recommendations to do anything about those problems. Instead, it argues that the most serious shortcoming is that public schools are not preparing enough future diplomats, soldiers, and defense industry engineers “to ensure US leadership in the 21st century.”
    Its reform recommendations include adoption of Common Core standards, already foisted on 45 states without ever being tested -- and to be used as a standard for future federal funding. They also want an expanded curriculum geared to national security that stresses science, technology and foreign languages; competition-based changes like charter schools and vouchers that let students and families choose which schools they attend; and a “national security readiness audit” that holds educators and policy makers responsible for meeting national expectations.
     In a dissenting opinion included at the end of the report, Stanford University professor Linda Darlington-Hammond challenged the assumption that competition and privatization are essential strategies. “It ignores the fact that the nations that have steeply improved achievement and equity and now rank at the top….have invested in strong public education systems that serve virtually all students,” she wrote. In education the highest performing countries are Finland, Singapore and South Korea, allies that pose no threat to US national security.
    In contrast, she adds, nations like Chile that have aggressively pursued privatization “have a huge and growing divide between rich and poor that has led to dangerous levels of social unrest.”
    Another dissenting member of the panel, Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt, pointed out that US schools still rank among the top 10 percent of the world’s 193 nations. “There are good reasons to improve K-12 education, but an imminent threat to our national security is not among them,” he concluded.
    Whether Vermont eventually moves toward a “national security readiness audit” may depend on whether that becomes part of an expanded Common Core curriculum, and whether it is linked to funding. But the state’s lack of charter schools is clearly a key reason for its low score from ALEC, while its opposition to annual testing was a factor in blocking the waiver from No Child Left Behind.
     Instead, the state considered legislation this year to provide “flexible pathways to graduation.” They include dual enrollment, virtual learning, and work-based learning. The legislation did not pass, mainly due to disagreement about the funding source, but there was general support for the concept. The strategies include personalized learning plans, proficiency-based advancement, career and college readiness, 21st century skill development, and improved learning outcomes. Another attempt to pass the proposal is expected during the next legislative session.  
    There's more to the story, discussed in a new VTDigger report:
     What I keep wondering is whether (and when) the cumulative effect of these tensions -- over whether the state can close a nuclear plant it doesn't want and that may even be damaging the health of its citizens, whether the Air Force can unilaterally make a basing decision that devalues thousands of homes or makes them completely uninhabitable, and whether federal bureaucrats can force local schools to adopt punitive and skewed school standards, just to name three -- will produce something more lasting than public outrage. 
    You know, like a realistic strategy to change the outcomes and truly challenge illegitimate federal power plays.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Talking about Racism: From School to City Hall

A superintendent’s contract is extended as local debate deepens: Burlington’s school board has given Superintendent Jeanne Collins two more years, but debate over racism has revealed divergent views about coded language, intimidating behavior, and the continuing need for change.                        Story and videos by Greg Guma

ELL students from Somalia
protest outside BHS.
BURLINGTON, VT – The five hours of discussion leading up to an eventual school board vote to extend the contract of Burlington’s superintendent for two years offers a poignant demonstration of how difficult it can be to openly discuss racial tensions.
     Much of the meeting was consumed with parliamentary matters – whether to hold an executive session, whether discussion either in public or private could include an already completed evaluation of Superintendent Jeanne Collins, repeated requests for legal opinions from school board counsel Joe McNeil, and confusion over whether a motion represented an agenda change or merely a deletion. There was also the impact of Collins’ decision, midway through the evening, to let her contract and evaluation be debated in an open session.
     By midnight very few remarks had been squeezed in about the specific complaints or the underlying problems that have fueled the dispute.
     Robert Appel, executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, pointed to this difficult dynamic in a letter following up with the school board after a particularly intense meeting in May. About one hundred parents, teachers and students had turned out to speak in favor and against the handling of diversity, equity, and harassment by school officials, particularly Superintendent Collins. Some were already urging the board not to renew her contract.
     Appel, who attended and spoke, wrote afterward that he was encouraged to see “white people with power honestly grappling with, and attempting to move the conversation about the school community climate forward.” Conflict and tensions in Burlington could be an opportunity if leaders can “rise to the challenge,” he argued. “This means leaders embracing rather than avoiding the necessary conversations.”
     The problem, however, is a “seemingly circular conversation.” As a result, wrote Appel, “little concrete progress has been accomplished despite this repeated rhetorical commitment to change the culture and close the various identified gaps between white middle-class students and others.”

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE: In May students, parents and teachers brought a strong message to the school board: they were tired of waiting for a serious work to address racism and unequal treatment. Dozens of people addressed the board for more than two hours, many calling for the resignation or replacement of Superintendent  Collins and other members of the administration. Local tension had increased since the release of a new diversity, equity and inclusion plan, its rebuttal by a math teacher, and a protest outside the high school.
At the June 13 school board meeting that continued a discussion of Collins’ overall performance and contract begun after public testimony the previous evening, one response was to adopt what board Chair Keith Pillsbury called a “more rigorous evaluation process” for the superintendent. Over the next few months, the commissioners agreed, a voluntary ad hoc committee will work with her to develop specific, measurable goals.
     But the meeting stumbled over whether discussion of Collins’ contract should occur in public or executive session.  Without any vote the contract would have automatically continued until June 30, 2014. Ultimately, the board voted 9-5 to reaffirm that agreement.
     One group of board members, including those who later voted to terminate the contract in one year, wanted a private discussion before taking a public vote. Most of those supporting the superintendent opposed the executive session. The result was a tie vote, spelling defeat of the move to exclude the public and press.
     Chairman Pillsbury supported the public route. “People want to know our thinking,” he said. But Board member Meredith King accused him of “managing the story” on behalf of Collins since criticism erupted over the district’s handle of a new Strategic Plan for diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We’ve being sitting here for two months while the issues swirled around us,” she charged, adding that Pillsbury had made it difficult to go into executive session for a frank discussion.
     King was one of several commissioners who felt that the school board has been “put in a corner” by the actions of its administration and the board leadership.  Commissioner Jill Evans called Pillsbury’s handling of the matter “problematic,” and wanted to add that to the executive session agenda.
     Haik Bedrosian and Catherine Chasan were equally adamant in support of Collins. Bedrosian led the successful charge to drop the executive session, attempted to adjourn the meeting before a vote on the contract could be taken, and described non-renewal as “firing” the superintendent. After attempts not to renew and to offer a compromise six-month extension failed, Chasan pushed for the affirmative vote to extend the contract until 2014, although that was not required.

Anti-racism training at City Hall?
Only a handful of observers remained in the cavernous auditorium at Burlington High School by the time the school commissioners voted. But the issues raised by the dispute over school leadership on racism and equity are about to spill over into city government.
     Vince Brennan, the Progressive city councilor who chaired the Diversity and Equity Strategic Plan task force and later became one of the first to call for Collins’ replacement, has joined with Independent Karen Paul and Rachel Siegel, also a Progressive, on a related resolution for the June 25 city council meeting.
     The resolution is still being drafted, and may include proposals concerning the city’s hiring and minority retention policies. In its current form, distributed by Brennan at a recent school board meeting, it already calls for anti-racist training of all city employees, the city council, and more than 100 commissioners. If approved, development of the program would begin this fall, with training that commences no later than next January.
     It also asks the city administration to develop an ad hoc committee by July 16, including experts in anti-racist training, local stakeholders, department representatives and council members, to plan and implement the proposed training program. The draft acknowledges that the cost of such a program is not insignificant, but argues that it “can be a strong beginning to addressing racism, both overt and subtle, in our community.”

A FORUM ON EQUITY: In early April racial disparities turned out to be the main event at the first working session of the City Council after a new mayor took charge. Students of color are 27 percent of the student body in Burlington’s public schools, according to a Task Force report, and more Black students drop out of school. They're less likely to take SAT tests and more likely to be suspended. The report was supposed to set the stage for a strategic plan to address diversity, equity and inclusion. On April 16 School Superintendent Collins and Board Chair Pillsbury outlined the efforts that led to its recommendations. But not everyone was satisfied. Some teachers said they had been excluded, and residents pointed to ongoing racial disparities.
Democrat David Hartnett, although an unlikely supporter for an anti-racism training resolution, recently made a related point in his regular column for the North Avenue News. Hartnett, who managed Republican Kurt Wright’s campaign for mayor last winter, disagrees with Brennan about how well Burlington’s schools are doing. “While imperfect, the schools are doing a very good job.” But he wrote that “all of Burlington needs to be part of the solution.”
     In the bigger picture, said Hartnett, “this is not just about the schools. As a whole community we need to do better.”
     Wright attended the Tuesday school board meeting and spoke up for Collins. “No one asked me to come,” he noted before arguing that “she is capable of doing what is right” and it would be a “huge mistake not to retain her.”

Lost Trust and Heated Language 
What began last October with an ambitious plan for top-to-bottom educational change -- training for everyone, more people of color and “culturally competent” staff, better leadership and accountability, increased transparency, and a “multicultural mindset” – has turned into a sometimes painful but much broader community debate over the persistence of institutional racism, and even how the problems are discussed.
     At dueling press conferences last week in the run up to the school board’s decision, supporters and critics of the current leadership attempted to define the problem using often stark language.
     Episcopal Bishop Thomas Ely called racism “a deeply rooted disease of the soul,” and suggested that Collins may have experienced a “conversion” since admitting that she was slow to address the problems.
     Rabbi Joshua Chasan, a leading Collins supporter who organized the press event on the back steps of City Hall, took the opportunity to apologize for having previously used the term “bullying” to describe some criticism of the superintendent. However, he argued that he was just responding to the unfair charge that some school board members were racist. Chasen concluded that he should have said “intimidating.”
     Chasan was grateful to the high school students, he said, mainly to the new American students in ELL classes who protested about their treatment and image in April. But he viewed Collins’ “slowness to see the dimensions of the problem,” along with her “capacity to apologize,” in a hopeful context. In background information provided to the media, he went further, predicting “social breakdown” and “communal meltdown” if any move was made to replace her in response to criticisms.

PROTESTING RACISM: On April 19 English language (ELL) students were joined by local activists and parents for a morning protest a few feet from the front door of Burlington High School. The students felt unfairly judged by outdated tests and objected to statistics that they felt correlates poverty with poor academic performance. Despite progress or promises of change in the new strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion, they said racism remained a real and persistent problem.
Two days after religious leaders held a press conference in late May, an ad hoc group met at the Fletcher Library to repeat the call for non-renewal of the contract. Erik Wallenberg said that trust had been “eroded beyond repair as a result of her (Collins’) years of resistance, and demonization of those who raise concerns.” He and others claimed that the school administration was doing the intimidating.
     “She can’t overcome the betrayal,” Wallenberg claimed. “We need transformational leadership.”
     Suzy Comerford, a parent with two children attending local schools, accused the school district of spending money on public relations to frame the issue as “divisive and bullying.” She meanwhile faulted the media for focusing only on racial inequities. The issue is “more than about just race,” Comerford said, “it is about the needs of kids with disabilities, of children from low-income families, and about new American children’s education, whatever their skin color.”
     Education and equity consultant Denise Dunbar, a Hinesberg resident, went after the idea, expressed by some people who have spoken at public meetings, that they are “colorblind” or “don’t see race.” Dunbar called such language “a newer face of liberal denial” and, quoting Angela Davis, suggested that claims of color blindness are “camouflaged racism.”
     At the board’s Tuesday meeting several speakers made a point of saying that they are not colorblind.
     Some in authority are involved in a “cultural war” that upholds the status quo and uses coded language like “civil” and “bully” to define insiders and outsiders, Dunbar charged. She also faulted the religious leaders who met earlier for taking Collins’ side, and for “a demonization of advocates and stakeholders for equity and equality.”
     Such remarks can cut deep. There have also been accusations that both teacher and student voices have been “squelched and discredited.” During the debate some of those who spoke, and a few on the board, expressed concern about the larger effects of what some called “poisonous” or “dangerous” rhetoric. Hartnett has charged that the local debate “is on the verge of being destructive.”
     As the school board’s decision approached last night, however, the appeals became more nuanced. Brennan did not reiterate his call for Collins’ replacement. Instead, he called her recent missteps unfortunate while agreeing that some things have begun to change.
     Rev. Roy Hill, a Collins supporter who is president of the Vermont Ecumenical Council and Bible Society, also struck a tone of reconciliation, while warning against targeting scapegoats.  Others said it simply wasn’t the best time for someone new as superintendent.
     State Rep. Suzy Wizowati, a Diversity Now supporter, concluded that blaming one person for the community’s problems is a mistake, like “expecting one person to change the world.”

Accusations of Intimidation
 In response to mounting criticism Superintendent Collins has released an action plan, based on recommendations in the original Strategic Plan, and has pledged to “eliminate race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation as predictors of academic performance, discipline, and co-curricular participation.”
     The steps she has described include strengthening complaint procedures, upgrading professional development, reorganizing administrative staffing to improve the handling of equity issues, improving retention of a more diverse staff, and creating an Equity Climate Team to monitor and follow up on incidents.
     Her critics say that they have heard such promises before and do not believe, based on its past performance, that the current administration is up to the challenges.
     In print and public statements Collins has repeatedly admitted that she missed opportunities, acted too slowly, and has been bureaucratic rather than heart-centered in her response. Beyond taking the steps outlined recently and refocusing her efforts, possibly under increased school board scrutiny, she therefore plans to spend more time actually interacting with students and teachers in the schools.
     But as Appel’s May 10 letter to the board suggests, while frank discussions and rhetorical commitment are hopeful signs they have happened before and leave some issues unacknowledged.  He argued, for example, that existing resources are not being smartly deployed, specifically asking why Diversity Director Dan Balon “appears to be being kept on the sidelines.”
     Confirming suspicions that some school administrators do not adhere to the superintendent’s zero tolerance standard, Appel also reported from “multiple credible sources” that Vice Principal Nick Molander tried to intimidate speakers after the May public forum.  According to Appel’s sources, Molander sought out several people of color and “in a confrontational manner informed them, in so many words, that their perspectives were not valid.  The perception of those who received this message from Mr. Molander was that he was attempting to intimidate them.”
     Appel informed the board bluntly that an administrator who does that “should not be in a school setting, and should have his licensure investigated.” If Molander behaves like this with adults, he added, “just imagine how overbearing and abuse he may well be one-on-one with a student of color in an unsupervised context.”
     Denying itself the option of an executive session to discuss personnel, evaluation and contract matters the school board did not get near this level of scrutiny in dealing with Collins responsibilities and contract. There were only indirect references to the difficulties of supervisory oversight and how to define board and management responsibilities.
     School board members meanwhile emphasized that equity issues were not the only matters bring addressed, in general or in relation to Collins’ tenure. As Jill Evans, one of several commissioners on the losing side of Wednesday’s votes, put it in a local newspaper column, the school board “is not exclusively concerned with race in its decision.” But the district does need “a visionary leader who can be proactive and take risks.”

SUPERINTENDENT UNDER FIRE: After months of criticism, Burlington School Superintendent Jeanne Collins responded to charges she had ignored racism with new plans to move forward. But questions at a June 1 press conference centered on what went wrong and whether the School Board would extend her contract. Collins talked about bringing more of her heart into addressing harassment and racism, and Board Chair Keith Pillsbury was pressed about whether she is the right person to lead in the future. Two weeks later Collins received a contract extension.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Assessing Burlington's Fresh Start

After two months Mayor Miro Weinberger flashed a big smile and said, “I’m still loving it, but it has been quite intense.” 
     Then he listed some of the city business that has dominated his days and nights – finding enough savings to avoid a tax increase (check), reviewing every department with the city council to prepare a new budget (underway), reviewing and offering a list of key staff appointments (a bit late), and what he now calls “the self-inflicted” July 1 deadline for reaching a decision on whether to pursue or abandon a redevelopment plan for the Moran generating station on the waterfront....

In this clip from the Maverick Media/VTDigger interview with Miro Weinberger, Burlington's new mayor reveals his least favorite word, his favorite sound, the other job he’d love to do, and what he’d like to hear God say. It comes from part four of a new video, "Assessing Burlington's Fresh Start." To watch the complete interview look below or visit Maverick's YouTube Channel: Opening Segment. For the accompanying two-part feature article go to VTDigger:
Part One: Promises vs. Realities
     Looking back at an early decision to request a higher salary for his City Attorney pick, Mayor Weinberger draws some lessons. The new mayor admits that he didn’t fully appreciate the City Council’s interest in the position – or the mixed message it sent to other employees and the public. Looking forward, he hints at a pending decision about the future of the Moran plant. Weinberger claims that progress is being made after what he calls the discord and low morale of the last administration, and mentions a kiosk parking meter system and parking garage automation as areas for potential savings. Faced with staff, budget and tax decisions in his first 90 days he explains the decision to delay a promised summit on the pension fund until fall. (9:28)

Part Two: Housing
     About 40 percent of downtown Burlington could have more development that is totally consistent with the character of Burlington, says Miro Weinberger. The new mayor speaks enthusiastically about Plan BTV as a process for reaching community consensus on what the city should look like in the future.  He argues that the “major driver” of housing costs is unpredictable zoning rules. Asked about new occupancy limits under discussion by the City Council he makes a case against a change that he predicts will reduce the number of people living in some neighborhoods. Weinberger also talks about encouraging plans by Champlain College to develop the old Ethan Allen and Eagles Clubs, with a goal of potentially housing 100 percent of its students. (7:40)

Part Three: Development
Mayor Weiberger discusses promising projects, unfinished waterfront business, and the real threat to keeping the city affordable. He begins with enthusiasm for a proposed remodeling of City Hall Park, and then talks about discussions with the Pecor family about development of a key property between the Echo Center and ferry dock. “We’re not going to start putting up buildings on Waterfront Park,” he promises. But he thinks that attitudes are changing and people today want more opportunities to enjoy themselves. On gentrification, he argues that the greater risk in a desirable place like Burlington is that not allowing enough growth will make existing housing stock more expensive. (6:23)

Part Four: Race, F-35s and Favorite Things
In the final minutes Mayor Miro Weinberger explains his support for basing F-35s at the airport, uncertainty about the future of the Air Guard, and his belief that noise impacts can be reduced.  Turning to local tensions growing from racism and harassment in the schools he holds back from endorsing a contract extension for Superintendent Collins. But he remains hopeful that her new plan will offer a way forward. Although saying that he is active behind the scene he declines to say much and describes himself as a relative newcomer to the issue. The interview concludes with spontaneous answers to the series of questions made famous on the TV show, “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” (9:56)

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Military Spending: Where are the Jobs?

In recent Vermont debate about the impacts of bedding F-35A fighter jets at the Burlington International Airport arguments in support often come down to balancing noise and other impacts against economic necessities and benefits. Whatever the outcome it has raised renewed questions about the economic impacts of military spending. A new study finds that money spent on clean energy, health care, and education would create many more jobs than if the same money is spent on defense.       By Greg Guma

Sen. Pat Leahy has fought to save
an alternate F-35 engine that would
mean jobs at a Rutland  GE plant.
Dire warnings that thousands of Vermont jobs are at risk due to looming defense cuts and related changes in Air Force priorities may turn out to be overstated, or at least premature.

In March, a report commissioned by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) predicted that Vermont would lose upwards of 2,100 jobs if automatic defense cuts were triggered by the failure of Congress to reach a budget deal. Vermont Air National Guard jobs were reportedly also on the line. Under the Pentagon’s initial budget the Air Guard could see a loss of 9,900 jobs nationally over the next five years, including 3,900 active duty personnel and 900 members of the Air Force reserve.

Two months later such outcomes look less likely. Research meanwhile indicates that funding for clean energy, health care, and education would create substantially more jobs.

The AIA study, conducted for the aerospace industry in 2011 by Dr. Stephen Fuller of George Mason University, projects that more than a million jobs could be lost nationwide if sequestration leads to a projected $600 billion cut in the defense budget. The Pentagon and other analysts forecast more conservatively that $1 trillion in cuts over a decade would add one percentage point to the unemployment rate.

"The data speaks for itself, America's aerospace and defense industry is a sector that punches far above its weight," claims AIA President Marion Blakey.  "And it's not just the numbers, which are impressive by themselves— it's how this industry makes a difference in the lives of all Americans."

On the other hand, he predicts that cuts brought on by sequestration will “devastate our industry's contributions to America's bottom line.”

Similar arguments were made during the recent Air Force public hearing on stationing F-35As with the Air Guard at Burlington International Airport. Gov. Peter Shumlin is one of several Vermont officials who have endorsed bedding 18 to 25 of the pricey, long-awaited aircraft at the airport in Burlington based on jobs and economic factors. In a statement he argued that drawbacks such as increased noise “are outweighed by the extraordinary benefits that this opportunity presents our communities and our state.”

Business leaders contend that the presence of the Air Guard is a magnet attracting investments and jobs in aerospace. This is true, but only to a limited extent. The largest contractors, which take in at least 75 percent of Vermont’s total defense funding, have nothing directly to do with the presence of Air Guard. Other smaller firms across the state produce equipment and services for diverse military purposes, and sometimes for dual military-civilian uses.

A new economic study concludes that investing the same amount of money in clean energy, health care, or education would produce more jobs. Documenting the fluctuating, “boom and bust” nature of military spending, previous research indicates that spending reductions during the 1980s and early 1990s deepened the job losses in New England and slowed the pace of its employment gains in the subsequent economic recovery.

Comparing employment ripples

In 1986 General Electric was the largest defense contractor in Vermont, receiving $270 million (80 percent of all contracts that year) for high-tech gatling guns used on helicopters. The second largest contractor was Simmonds Precision, which won $19 million.

Other significant players included Joslyn Defense Systems in Shelburne, Damascus Corp. in Rutland, and the University of Vermont. Joslyn was the promising newcomer, growing rapidly to 160 employees by producing a braking system for the B-22 bomber and electrical interfaces between aircraft and weapons systems.

Nationwide, defense-related employment in the private sector accounted for 3.6 million jobs in 1987, or 3.5 percent of all private nonfarm employment. By 1992, however, more than 700,000 defense-related jobs had been eliminated. As a result GE cut more than 14 percent of its aerospace jobs, including more than 650 at its Burlington plant in under two years.

In a 1995 research paper, “The costs of defense-related layoffs in New England,” published by the New England Economic Review, Yolanda K. Kodrzycki concluded that the negative economic ripple was disproportionate in New England during the previous recession. Defense contracts fell at a greater rate than the national average, and a far greater percentage of jobs were cut at New England military bases.

Military contract cutbacks accounted directly for a 1.7 percent drop in New England employment in the years following 1989, almost a third of the total net drop. As a GE spokesperson acknowledged, even when contract money was doubling in good times the number of jobs did not significantly increase.

The 1995 study also examined the experiences of about 5,000 former defense workers after their layoffs. Changes in the region's mix of jobs and needed skills meant that former defense workers had special difficulty finding work, and especially in landing jobs at a similar income.  The problems were most serious for older workers and those without a college degree, the study concluded.

A more recent report, “The US Employment Effects of Military and Domestic Spending Priorities: 2011 Update,” concludes that every $1 billion devoted to clean energy, health care, and education “will create substantially more jobs within the US economy than would the same $1 billion spent on the military.”  The findings are the same across all pay ranges.

Since 2001 the level of military spending has increased an average of 5.3 percent a year, point out authors Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, economics faculty members at the University of Massachusetts. In 2010 the US defense budget was $689 billion, or about $2,200 for every US resident.

As a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) military spending rose from 3 to 4.7 percent during the last decade. More than 650 Vermont-based businesses handled $621.3 million in defense contracts last year, down from $827 million in 2010. Between 2000 and 2011, contractors brought in a total of more than $7.5 billion, according to data available at Two corporations, General Dynamics in Burlington and Simmonds Precision in Vergennes, received between 70 percent and 95 percent of the money.

The often-mentioned “ripple effect” of defense spending includes the jobs directly created by production, various goods and support services that are needed – everything from steel and electronics to trucking, and the “induced effects” when those who are involved in military production spend the money they have earned.

Based on such calculations, military spending creates about 11,200 jobs for each billion dollars spent, the study says. This is much fewer than the 16,800 that could be generated by investments in clean energy, or the 17,200 that would result from health care spending. “Spending on education is the largest source of job creation by a substantial amount, generating about 26,700 jobs overall through $1 billion on spending, which is 138 percent more,” the report states.

More jobs are also created when a higher proportion of the funding is spent within the country. In this regard, the report notes that US military personnel spend about 43 percent of their income on domestic goods and services while civilians, on average, spend 78 percent of their income at home.

Jobs associated with the military tend to pay well and provide more generous benefits. Average wages for military employment is $58,000 a year, compared with $50,000 for health care, energy and education jobs. The main factor driving the difference is the extensive health coverage for members of the military.

On the other hand, spending on education, health care and clean energy generate more jobs at a variety of pay levels. Comparing clean energy to military jobs, for example, the study concludes that almost 6,000 jobs paying between $32,000 and $64,000 would be created in clean energy. Military spending would generate 4,700 mid-range jobs, or 15 percent fewer.

This is the second of a series of articles about the effects of the defense industry in Vermont. Part One is available on "Vermont's Defense Industry Grows "Under the Radar."  

Friday, May 25, 2012

HIGH VOLUME: Race, Education and the F-35s

Scenes of informed dissent
     Turnout has been high and dialogue heated at public meetings held lately in Burlington and environs. On a recent Monday, for instance, dozens of people both in favor and opposed to a proposed health access buffer zone at Burlington reproductive health care centers brought their arguments and deeply held beliefs to the City Council. On the same night dozens more Vermonters showed up nearby in South Burlington just to watch the City Council, in a 4-1 vote, reject a plan to base F-35 fighter jets at the airport. I missed that, but I was was there a week earlier…

     Noises Up… It was the most dramatic local showdown thus far this season. More than 300 people gathered at the high school in South Burlington for an Air Force public hearing on the environmental impacts of the multi-purpose F-35A, the military’s most expensive pet project yet. It was civil -- but intense -- as Vermonters talked passionately about military pride, damaged neighborhoods endangered jobs and rising noise for over two hours. 
     The lighting was spooky. But the testimony – a dozen people appear in the scene above – was often compelling.

     More than 100 residents showed up at Burlington High School a few days before that to speak their minds about racial inequality and harassment in the schools. Some were calling for Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Collins to resign. 
     Tension had increased since the release of a diversity, equity and inclusion plan, its rebuttal by a math teacher, and protests outside the high school. This scene captures several statements, plus a confrontational moment involving one leading Somali student. Collins has issued a public apology but says she does not intend to step down.
     From my place it’s a short walk up the hill to UVM….

     Part of my job for VTDigger is to cover some of the region's large institutions. The University of Vermont certainly qualifies. More than 10,000 students and half a billion annually in expenses and revenues. 
     “You can see the analogy with the banking industry,” lamented John Bramley at one point during the recent Trustees meeting. What he meant was that large institutions have economic advantages, and also that a university education could again “become the preserve of the wealthy and the privileged. Temporarily promoted last year after the tumultuous departure of President Dan Fogel, he delivered the news forcefully in final remarks before the arrival of a new president, lawyer and former University of Minnesota Provost Tom Sullivan. 
     Bramley sounded like he was borrowing from the Occupy movement. In this scene Provost Jane Knodell also defends the university's strategic plan. It ends with a brief look at financial aid that might not put you to sleep. 
     For more details check my articles on UVM, race in Burlington and the F-35 debate at VTDigger. But now some drumming and few last words....

     Yes, there's a lot going on. But that's no excuse to neglect the Maverick Chronicles. Hope you enjoy these scenes. On the other hand, sometimes you have to just kick back, watch and listen. So, I’ll end this installment with a rhythmic take on opening day at the Farmers’ Market in City Hall Park. It was lovely and the dancers were terrific. If you’ve come this far and especially if you sampled the earlier scenes, don’t skip the climax. It's worth it. 
     Dissent without music, food and laughter would not be worth all the trouble. Just saying... 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Progressive Eclipse: The E-Book Has Landed

Three progressive mayors managed Burlington for 29 of the 31 years after Bernie Sanders’ first win. Although Democrats continued to dominate the City Council during most of that time, and a Republican candidate for mayor could still win, a multi-party political system had changed the shape and style of city government, and, beyond that, fundamentally altered Vermont’s political landscape. 
-- From the Introduction
      Burlington's historic 2012 mayoral race lasted six months. But in the end it took only half an hour after the polls closed to find out who won. For the first time in three decades Democrats took control of City Hall. Written in the heat of that campaign, Progressive Eclipse explores the recent struggles of the most successful progressive movement in the last half century.
    In 1989 Greg Guma's book, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, described the rise of Vermont's progressive movement. Much has changed since Sanders moved on to Congress, and economic and political pitfalls have created new challenges. Putting local politics in a larger context, this new e-book also explores the early impacts of the Occupy movement and the campaign to overcome the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. But the main focus is the hotly contested mayoral race between housing developer Miro Weinberger, Republican Kurt Wright and Independent Wanda Hines.
     Progressive Eclipse takes a sympathetic, yet critical look at why local progressives found themselves on the defensive despite an impressive record of success, examining developments like the controversial decision by Sanders and Mayor Bob Kiss to invite military contractor Lockheed Martin to Vermont, as well as financial problems that emerged after Burlington launched a municipally-owned cable TV and fiber optic system. It also examines the impressive record of three Progressive administrations, and chronicles the twists and turns of the race that resulted in Weinberger's decisive victory.
    As Greg Guma explains, an eclipse doesn't mean the end of anything. But this one does raise thorny questions about progressive politics in Vermont and across the country.
    The 189-page book is now available for $4.99. To download a free sample, click on the link below: 
Prologue: Real Change
Part One: Primary Dilemmas
A Legacy at Risk * When Lockheed Came to Town
Burlington Gets Occupied * Moving to Amend
The Fusion Path * The Public Power Story
Miro’s Fresh Start * What Democracy Can Look Like
Doubts about Fusion * Trust, Votes and Skate Park Funding
Fusion Down, But One Choice to Go
Project Smart Grid (or, How Vermont Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sandia)
Then & Now
Part Two: Progressive Paradoxes
Rhetoric & Reality * Identity Crisis
Beyond Bernie * Pragmatic Populism
Mixed Messages * Small Changes
Part Three: Regime Change
Prelude to Upheaval * Inconvenient Choices
The Man Who Would Be Mayor * Sparring on Development
Building the Ballot * Housing, Hines & the Fiscal Squeeze
Taxes, Cops & Kids * Strange Encounters on the Campaign Trail
Mr. Wright and the Women * Audit Games
Daring to be Different * The More-Than-40 Percent Question
Democrats Rising, Progressives in Eclipse