Join the GOOGLE +Rubber Room Community

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Young v Old Teachers In New York City

Aside from the fact that in my mind making a policy that "old" teachers must be replaced by "young" teachers is discriminatory and unconstitutional, the discussion must focus on the subjective evaluation of individual abilty to teach rather than a general characteristic. Are all older teachers - say over 50 - no longer valuable to the teaching profession? How many of you readers instantly thought of an "older" teacher you have/had in school, whose teaching fired you up to learn more outside of the classroom in the subject he/she taught, and guided you to excel in his/her class? Are you now telling yourself, "yes, I loved this teacher, but maybe he/she was an exception"?

Age has nothing to do with good or bad teaching ability.

The argument for or against "older" teachers remaining in the classroom should stop right here. I have sent all four of my children to public schools in New York City, and my youngest graduates from high school this year, so I have more than 20 years of watching my kids' teachers in their classrooms. However, I and my twin sister went to a small private school on the Upper East side, Nightingale Bamford. My middle school English teacher, Ms. Vicory, seemed to be over 100 years old to my young mind, but her interpretation of great writers such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Austin, enthralled me and convinced me that reading the classics was something I wanted to do. I decided to be like Ms. Vicory when I got to be an "adult", let's just say I'm now over 21 years of age. Then, when I went on to college at Northwestern University, I was fortunate enough to get into the class of Dr. Bergen Evans,a teacher who, I am convinced, changed the way all writers look at the English language and use of words. I couldnt wait to attend his classes, even though he was so popular that I was one of more than 300 in the auditorium he called his classroom. The class size didnt matter, and neither did his age, which was over 50 when I was a student of his.

My children have had excellent teachers and teachers that taught them nothing at all. From my experience of going to each school my kids attended, and sitting through classes on parent visiting days for more than 20 years, I can say that the age of the teachers I observed had nothing to do with my opinion about their teaching ability.

Thus, my conclusion is, Mr. Klein's push to remove "older" teachers from their teaching duties is simply an attack on their salaries, not their abilities. In some cases this attack on a person's ability to teacher may be valid, but I refuse to give Mr. Klein the right to define who a "good" teacher really is.

On the other hand, how old is Joel Klein? Where is the return on the $250,000 of public money spent solely on his salary, plus all the 'perks' that he gets as the lawyer for the NYC Board of Education? Why was he chosen to be the person who decides who are our children's teachers?

These are the more relevant questions to the current budgetary concerns that plague New York City.

Younger teachers in New York like Marisa Raff, 28, are at risk in a last-in-first-out layoff system.

April 12, 2010
Bill Would Allow Layoffs of Teachers With Seniority

When the Bloomberg administration raised the prospect of teacher layoffs this year, administration officials complained that they would be forced to get rid of the youngest newest teachers, and called on legislators to rewrite the seniority rules.

That wish may be one step closer. Two Democratic state lawmakers have sponsored a bill that would give principals in New York City the power to choose who should lose their jobs if the city needs to lay off teachers because of budget cuts.

The bill is certain to raise the ire of teachers’ unions, which remain a powerful force in Albany. It could provoke also a new round of battles between the United Federation of Teachers and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who have had an icy relationship for months and are fighting over a new teachers’ contract.

Mr. Bloomberg has said that as many 8,500 teachers would face layoffs, as the city’s Education Department faces a budget cut of $600 million to $1.2 billion. Under the current law, teachers who have been in the system for the shortest amount of time would be the first to lose their jobs — a policy commonly known as last in, first out.

Last month, the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, released numbers showing that the layoffs would be concentrated in the one of the wealthiest and one of the poorest districts in the city: in a worst-case situation, District 7 in the South Bronx would lose 21 percent of its teachers and District 2 on the Upper East Side would lose 19 percent, according to the city analysis. Some of those teachers would be replaced by more-senior teachers from elsewhere in the system.

“Experience matters, but it cannot be the sole or even principal factor considered in layoff decisions,” Mr. Klein said in a statement. “We must be able to take into account each individual’s track record of success.”

Jonathan Bing, a Democratic assemblyman from the Upper East Side, said lobbyists from the city had approached him about sponsoring the bill soon after the city released those numbers.

“There needs to be some better way to go about doing this than to simply get rid of every teacher we have hired in the last few years,” Mr. Bing said. “This has to be, on some level, about merit.”

Mr. Bing said he had “great respect for teachers,” noted that the union had donated to several of his political campaigns and acknowledged that the bill would almost certainly anger it.

“We are in an educational and economic crisis like no other,” he added.

Under the bill, each school would form a committee of parents, teachers and administrators to determine who should be laid off.

Seniority protection is dear to labor unions, who say that without it, employers would use layoffs to eliminate workers who make the most money.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said that in other cities that had eliminated seniority, like Washington, the rate of teacher turnover had increased, making the system less stable.

“I would like to see something more fruitful to figure out how to avoid the catastrophic cuts,” Mr. Mulgrew said Monday.

The city appealed to State Senator Rubén Díaz of the Bronx to sponsor the bill in the Senate, although just last year Mr. Díaz said that Mr. Klein should be fired.

“I used to be angry at the way they were treating parents,” Mr. Díaz said. “Now this would allow parents to have a role. If a school needs to get rid of teachers, they should be able to decide their own special needs.”

April 24, 2010
Teacher Layoffs in New York City

To the Editor:

Re “Bill Would Allow Layoffs of Teachers With Seniority” (news article, April 13):

Despite all the publicity about New York City’s desire to fire or lay off senior teachers, scant mention has been made of money, a major factor in principals’ reluctance to rehire displaced teachers.

For decades, schools were financed with “units,” each being worth the salary of an average-service teacher. No matter whom the school hired, the cost was the same.

In a perhaps misguided effort to equalize financing to schools, this administration forces schools to bear the true costs of each teacher. Simply put, a principal can hire two beginning teachers — perhaps more — as cheaply as he can hire one senior teacher. My conversations with countless principals reflect this reality.

Though the chancellor has periodically offered temporary incentives — paying the differential for a limited period of time — the principal knows that the true cost will ultimately appear, forcing him to lay off a younger teacher to pay the senior teacher.

Any solution to the surplus of senior teachers without positions must reflect this reality if it is to be fair to those teachers whose only crime has been to give the city years of service.

Stephen Phillips
Brooklyn, April 13, 2010

The writer, program head, adolescence education at Brooklyn College School of Education, retired in 1997 as superintendent of alternative high schools and programs with the New York City Board of Education.

The Charter v Public School Debate is All About Money, Transparency, and Accountability

April 23, 2010
For School Company, Issues of Money and Control

When the energy executive Dennis Bakke retired with a fortune from the AES Corporation, the company he co-founded, he and his wife, Eileen, decided to direct their attention and money to education.

Mrs. Bakke, a former teacher, said she had been interested in education since the summer she was a 12-year-old and, together with a friend, opened the Humpty Dumpty Day School, charging $2 a week in “tuition” to parents of the children attending. Mr. Bakke was eager to experiment with applying business strategies and discipline to public schools.

The Bakkes became part of the nation’s new crop of education entrepreneurs, founding a commercial charter school company called Imagine Schools. Beginning with one failed charter school company they acquired in 2004, they have built an organization that has contracts with 71 schools in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Imagine is now the largest commercial manager of charter schools in the country.

But as Imagine continues to expand, it is coming under growing scrutiny from school boards and state regulators questioning how public money is spent and whether the company exerts too much control over the schools.

The concerns are being raised as charters, designed by education reformers to create alternatives to hidebound and failing public schools, are becoming an indelible part of the nation’s education landscape. Such schools are among the biggest beneficiaries of the billions of dollars the Obama administration plans to spend to improve public education.

Because public money is used, most states grant charters to run such schools only to nonprofit groups with the expectation that they will exercise the same independent oversight that public school boards do. Some are run locally. Some bring in nonprofit management chains. And a number use commercial management companies like Imagine.

But regulators in some states have found that Imagine has elbowed the charter holders out of virtually all school decision making — hiring and firing principals and staff members, controlling and profiting from school real estate, and retaining fees under contracts that often guarantee Imagine’s management in perpetuity.

The arrangements, they say, allow Imagine to use public money with little oversight. “Under either charter law or traditional nonprofit law, there really is no way an entity should end up on both sides of business transactions,” said Marc Dean Millot, publisher of the report K-12 Leads and a former president of the National Charter Schools Alliance, a trade association, now defunct, for the charter school movement.

“Imagine works to dominate the board of the charter holder, and then it does a deal with the board it dominates — and that cannot be an arm’s length transaction,” he said.

Such concerns have thwarted efforts by Imagine to open a school in Florida, threaten to stall its push into Texas, and have ended its business with a school in Georgia and another in New York, as well as other states.

Imagine is not shy about the way it wields its power, which it calls essential to its governing philosophy. “Imagine Schools operates the entire school, and is not a consultant or management company,” its Web site says. “All principals, teachers, and staff are Imagine Schools people. The Imagine Schools culture is meant to permeate every aspect of the school’s life.”

Mrs. Bakke, who is paid $100,000 as vice president of education at Imagine, says it works in “close partnership” with the boards of the schools it manages. “The governing boards are definitely in charge, but they look to us, frankly, because as you know, nonprofit boards are well meaning but don’t always have the experience and expertise running the schools,” she said in an interview.

She said that she and her husband, who is paid $200,000 as the company’s chief executive, sank $155 million into Imagine and that they were able to run schools efficiently. “We offer a great deal for communities and for taxpayers,” Mrs. Bakke said, “because we’re providing education at less than what a traditional school is spending.”

She says the company should be judged by its educational results, not its business and financial arrangements.

As measured by testing mandated under the No Child Left Behind law, the academic achievements of schools managed by Imagine are mixed, like those of most charter schools. But Imagine says that many students in the schools it manages enter with academic abilities below their grade level and that a better measurement of its success is the rate at which they are catching up.

Its analysis of test data taken at the beginning and end of the 2008-9 school year shows that 89 percent of its schools had learning gains better than public schools serving similar populations of students.

“We have high expectations,” Mrs. Bakke said. “Academic performance matters.”

Nonprofit or Commercial?

Mrs. Bakke said her company “is operated as a not-for-profit.” But Imagine is not a nonprofit group, and it has so far failed to gain status as a charity from the I.R.S.

Imagine applied for federal tax exemption in 2005 and has repeatedly said approval is imminent. It typically takes four to six months for such approvals. “We’re not sure why it’s taking so long,” said Mrs. Bakke, who is 56. “We suspect it’s because we’re trailblazers in a sense, and they haven’t had an application quite like this.”

The I.R.S., as is its policy, declined to comment.

The lack of status as a federally approved nonprofit group is proving to be one of Imagine’s biggest challenges. So it often gets involved with schools at their inception, recruiting board members or hitching its wagon to nonprofit groups that can obtain a charter, as it did in Las Vegas, where it teamed with 100 Black Men of Las Vegas to open an elementary school, the 100 Academy of Excellence. The school opened in 2006, and the county school board soon began documenting problems. It found the school’s bookkeeping under Imagine to be lax, and it said that the school lacked enough licensed teachers.

The school has had three principals in four years, two of whom were pressured to resign after complaining that there was not enough money for essentials like textbooks and a school nurse. The state said that by paying Imagine for necessities like furniture and computers, the school had violated regulations requiring competitive bidding. It further violated state law by running a deficit, which left it in debt to Imagine.

Mrs. Bakke declined to comment on issues raised at specific schools. “In all cases we strive to operate with high ethical standards, set high standards for performance, hire the best possible people, and correct mistakes as quickly as possible,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

Some schools say they are happy with Imagine’s management. At Hope Community Charter School in the District of Columbia, which opened in 2005 and where Imagine helped identify board members, the board agreed to pay Imagine virtually all of the school’s revenue, to allow Imagine to set the school’s budget subject only to approval that “shall not be unreasonably withheld or delayed,” and to seek Imagine’s approval for how it spends charitable gifts.

James Kemp, the board chairman, said that District of Columbia charter school regulators had repeatedly expressed concerns about the arrangements. He also said that even the school’s own auditors chided the board for allowing Imagine to pay several large bills without its approval, as required under contract.

“The charter board has alerted us and me specifically that this is not the normal way charter schools run, having their management company as involved as Imagine is with our school,” Mr. Kemp said. “But that’s the way we’ve set this up, and we’re happy with it.”

Josephine Baker, executive director of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, which grants and oversees charters in Washington, said the board had concerns about who was running the show at Hope Community.

“It’s not just Imagine, though Imagine is the one that probably has given us the most concern,” she said. “We find it is very hard for schools that hire management companies to maintain their independence, and charter schools are supposed to be independent.”

Mrs. Baker said she did not think the contract between Imagine and Hope Community would be approved today, in part because the entire model of using management companies is flawed. “There are not a whole lot of charter schools that are just marvelous, and those that are do not have management companies,” she said.

In Texas, parents trying to open a charter school for elementary school students thought that Imagine was going too far.

“Imagine did a few things that indicated they thought the charter belonged to them, which was not our understanding at all,” said Karelei Munn, who is part of a group working to establish a charter school in Georgetown, Tex., near Austin. “We were looking to control our board, and they were looking to control our board.”

Ms. Munn and other members of the group holding the charter broke their ties with Imagine and are trying to form a school on their own.

Regulators in Texas have been slow to approve a second Imagine school, citing concerns that include an e-mail message from Mr. Bakke to the company’s senior staff members that was reported on by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch last fall. In the message, dated Sept. 4, 2008, Mr. Bakke cautioned his executives against giving boards of schools the “misconception” that they “are responsible for making big decisions about budget matters, school policies, hiring of the principal and dozens of other matters.”

Instead, he wrote, “It is our school, our money and our risk, not theirs.”

Mr. Bakke, who is 64, suggested requiring board members to sign undated letters of resignation or limiting board terms to a single year.

In a statement after the e-mail message was disclosed, Mr. Bakke apologized to board members “who felt offended or maligned,” saying he had “overstated my personal frustration in ensuring that the dedicated, caring people who hold the seats of charter governing boards at Imagine Schools understand and support our mission and operating philosophy.”

As Texas continues its consideration, the e-mail message helped upend Imagine’s plans to open a school in the Hillsborough County School District in Florida, which encompasses Tampa.

“That e-mail was very, very bad for them,” said Jenna Hodgens, the local supervisor of charter schools. “All the things we had been questioning, things about control of the school, he answered in his own words.”

The Hillsborough school board rejected the application in December. “Charter schools are not private schools, they are public schools and are governed as such,” said Susan Valdes, who heads the board. “Some, though, are starting to forget that — and they’re getting away with it. But not here.”

Fees, Rent and Bank Accounts

Some schools that have contracted with Imagine have feuded with the company over fees. Imagine typically charges 12 percent of a school’s revenue for basic services. It then may tack on fees, for example, for guaranteeing a school access to credit if needed or to cover the costs of flying Imagine personnel in to address problems.

The Kennesaw Charter School in Kennesaw, Ga., ended its contract with Imagine in February over such issues.

Under its original contract with Imagine, the Kennesaw school board forwarded all revenue it received from the state and district to a bank account in Florida controlled by Imagine to pay salaries and other expenses. Kennesaw’s board had full discretion over just $20,000, said Lori Hardegree, a board member.

If the school had money left over at the end of the year, the surplus was paid as a fee to Imagine.

Minutes of board meetings and reporting by the local school district show that the board had trouble getting information from Imagine about how it was using the money. And the school owed Imagine $1.2 million, in part for what the company spent to cover damage from a hurricane but also partly for expenses the company described as “off the books” and never fully accounted for to the school board’s or the district’s satisfaction.

It took Kennesaw more than a year of negotiations to break up with Imagine, and it still owes the company roughly $480,000. But board members say they are finding that they are saving money by running the school themselves.

“For one thing, we’re saving $30,000 that went out each month to pay Imagine’s fees,” Ms. Hardegree said. “We’re finding we’re saving money on every contract that we’re negotiating on our own.”

In New York, the Bronx Academy of Promise Charter School agreed to pay Imagine 12 percent of its revenue as a fee, and an additional 2.5 percent was charged to ensure Imagine would extend a loan to the school should it need one. The doors had hardly opened when the school’s board and principal began having problems with Imagine.

“It was rather baffling, but as a management company, they weren’t providing any management services,” said one person who has worked with the school and spoke anonymously for fear of retaliation. “With the exception of payroll processing and some accounting support, it wasn’t really clear what they were doing for the school.”

At the end of its first school year last May, Bronx Academy broke its contract with Imagine. Mrs. Bakke said that Imagine provided a full battery of educational, financial and administrative services to the Kennesaw school and the Bronx Academy. “Both boards were fully aware of start-up and other costs incurred by Imagine, and the obligation to repay those costs in the event of a termination of contract,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

The Ties That Bind

One of the most difficult tasks for a charter school is getting a building. Only a few cities like New York or Washington help such schools with real estate. And charter schools cannot use tax-exempt bonds to raise money the way public school systems can.

Mrs. Bakke said that Imagine’s real estate activities ease that burden for charter schools and are one of the biggest assets it brings to the table. “Our organization brings new investment into public education and avoids the need for the local community to float school bonds,” she wrote in an e-mail message.

But some regulators and school officials say that Imagine uses debt and real estate to bind schools to it.

Imagine typically buys or leases buildings through a real estate arm, SchoolhouseFinance, and uses those properties to attract groups wanting to open charter schools that then pay to rent them.

Last year, Imagine sold 27 of its school buildings to Entertainment Properties Trust, a real estate investment trust that is the country’s largest owner of movie theaters, as part of a deal that won the company $206 million. The buildings that were sold were leased back by Imagine, which then subleased them to the schools that occupy them.

In February, the company sold seven more schools to Inland American Real Estate Trust for $61 million in a similar arrangement.

Mrs. Bakke said a portion of the proceeds from the sale of those buildings was used to pay off bank debt and construction costs, with the remainder going to buy or construct new buildings and into the operations of existing schools. But board members of eight schools said they were never consulted about the sales or the decision by Imagine to commit them to leases. In at least some cases, Imagine makes money on the subleases. Bronx Academy, for example, paid Imagine $10,000 a month more in rent than the company paid the owner of its building.

The rents the company charges schools it manages now are one of the things threatening to scuttle its agreements with the two schools it manages in Nevada, the 100 Academy of Excellence and Imagine School in the Valle.

Last year, almost 40 percent of the $3.6 million that Nevada paid 100 Academy was spent on rent. Less than half of its total revenue, about 41 percent, was used to cover salaries and benefits for teachers and administrators, who are employees of Imagine.

In contrast, a charter school in Las Vegas of about the same size that operates without a commercial management company, Innovations International Charter School of Nevada, spent 74 percent of its total revenue on salaries and benefits, according to figures provided by Gary A. Horton, an administrator at the Nevada Department of Education.

“After paying for real estate and management, 100 Academy has very little left over for education,” Mr. Horton said.