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)