Sunday, October 16, 2016

Should Your District Get a School-Based Health Center?

Many districts around the state are considering adding School Based Health Centers (SBHCs), like the one we have in Hillsboro.   Offering a full slate of health services co-located with the schools can be a useful convenience for students and their families.   At first glance, there is no real downside to adding an SBHC, especially since they are primarily funded outside the school district budget.   However, based on what I have observed in Hillsboro, there are some serious concerns that a school board should consider before allowing an SBHC into their district.

  1. An SBHC unnecessarily entangles school and health care issues.   Education and health care are two major concerns for any community, but are handled by different elected bodies.  There is no reason why the school board should be heavily involved in health care issues, aside from the basic ones already handled by school nurses’ offices.   Such issues create a distraction and take away time and energy from a district’s primary mission.   Last year, we had several board meetings that overran their schedule by hours,  one going until midnight, discussing issues that really should not be in our domain.
  2. Children may be used as political pawns.   Our SBHC started a student health council, a leadership club for students interested in health issues.   This sounds like a nice extracurricular experience, and was beneficial to the participating students.   But one of their “leadership” activities turned out to be busing the students to Salem, to meet with legislators and tell them about the benefits of SBHCs.   As I see it, this is blatant political lobbying with public funds— and an unethical exploitation of our district’s children.
  3. Under Oregon laws, teens have “health care autonomy”, which includes getting all forms of birth control and transgender treatments, without parental permission or notification.   This means your 8th-grade daughter could be getting birth control on school grounds, during the school day, without you ever knowing about it.   Is this a good idea for the schools, or for the children?   (You can see my blog article on this topic at for a discussion of the many reasons why this scares me.)  You might be offered the compromise of an agreement not to provide these services, but…
  4. The SBHC staff will labor tirelessly to expand its scope and funding.   In Hillsboro we thought we headed off the above issue by getting an agreement not to supply birth control in the SBHC.  But last year we faced an intense lobbying campaign to change this agreement, and a media campaign to demonize school board members who failed to vote in favor of the change.   It’s only a matter of time before this happens again, and it will probably be a repeated occurrence until either the board caves or the SBHC is closed.


Based on the above issues, I personally would not recommend adding an SBHC to any district that doesn’t already have one.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A Defeat for Hillsboro's Children

I'm disappointed to announce that after over a year of planning and discussion, iLead Schools  has decided NOT to open a charter school in Hillsboro.   As you can see at their site, iLead is a teacher-led nonprofit organization which  has successfully been running multiple charter schools, mainly in California, since 2008, with impressive academic results.  There were over 100 local Hillsboro students whose parents had signed statements of interest in the potential new school.

The main reason why this initiative fell through was due to Oregon's pathetic charter school law.   While I guess we should be thankful that charter schools are allowed at all in our union-dominated state, we have one of the weakest laws in the country.   Key points that led to iLead's decision included:

  • The 80% passthrough of funding, where the hosting district takes away 20% of the per-student funding for overhead, with no accountability.  As iLead states, "Most of the 38 states that currently have charter schools allow a district to charge 0-5% for oversight fees, with most states at 3% or less. Only Colorado allows a district to charge 15% if the district has fewer than 500 students; the district must submit an itemized report of all expenses related to supporting the charter. Oregon law has no such restriction on the 20% hold back."
  • Student enrollment caps.   Districts in Oregon can put arbitrary maximums on the number of students in a charter school, making it very difficult to set the growth goals that most businesses require for self-sufficiency.
  • Excessive rental and facility costs, making it very difficult to find a viable location.   Due to Oregon's runaway growth in the area in recent years, charter schools that may have been feasible to start a decade ago are simply financially impossible now.
While individual boards can choose to offer more favorable terms on the first two bullet points (and I certainly would have pushed to do so!), the application process is cumbersome, and there would be no way to guarantee viable terms ahead of time in light of Oregon's laws.    And there is no way to address the real estate issue at the school board level.  Thus iLead did not believe pursuing the opportunity would make sense right now.

The key lesson here is that if we want more charter school opportunities for the children of Hillsboro, we need fundamental change in our state government.   iLead suggests writing to your legislator in support of better charter school laws, and that certainly can't hurt-- you can find a suggested template posted on their Facebook page.    But as I mentioned, change is very unlikely with our current  Oregon legislature and governor-- if you really want to see more charter school opportunities, plan to remove these officeholders in November, and vote for reform-minded candidates like Juanita Lint and Dan Mason.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Notes From A Departed Teacher

This summer, the board received a long letter from an HSD teacher who recently resigned.   It detailed a number of concerns with the current direction and management of the school district.  Three of the most important issues mentioned in the letter were:
  • Lack of respect for teachers’ time.    He pointed out that much of “prep time”, and even the teachers’ lunch breaks, are often taken up helping individual students.   Sure, technically a teacher is not obliged to give up these chunks of time— but many professional, caring teachers feel too guilty turning away a student with an excuse like “Sorry, this time period isn’t allocated for me to help you”.   This might have been tolerable except that he was also frustrated by constant mandatory time-wasting meetings from the administration: rather than learning the latest educational fads or acronyms, he would rather be given the time and space to do his primary job.
  • Discipline problems.   He mentions that he has seen cases where students physically threaten other students or teachers, and are given a slap on the wrist when referred for discipline.  And even worse, teachers may be professionally reprimanded or subtly punished for referring discipline cases, with the implication being that they should have handled them informally.   Some feel like the administration inherently sides with students rather than teachers in any semi-ambiguous discipline situation. This may be a result of administration concerns for keeping the suspension/expulsion statistics down.
  • Low “credit recovery” standards.   He believes the “Plato” credit recovery system is extremely lax, designed to allow students to graduate without even coming close to meeting real academic standards.    Rumors are that some students can replace a semester-long class with a week of easy credit-recovery work, and use this to graduate.   This is especially concerning due to the fact that one of Hillsboro’s key boasts in recent years has been our top-ranking graduation rate compared to academically similar schools.    Is this rate unfairly boosted by lax standards?

Now of course, this was just one teacher’s opinion— there may be many who disagree with the observations above, and it may be colored by specific incidents that were particular to his case.   However, what I’m most worried about is his statement that many teachers agree with him, but are afraid of the professional consequences for speaking up through the official channels.   Thus, I’m posting here so that any staff members or students who agree (or disagree) with these points, and feel that they cannot safely report their view through proper channels, can contact me directly.   I promise to keep your names and other details quiet.   

Naturally, I plan on following up on these issues with Superintendent Scott and the rest of the board this fall.   Again, please contact me if you have specific facts related to the issues above— if people don’t speak out on what concerns them, it will be hard to change anything.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Being Mean To Old People

I've received a few questions about another of my votes at the last board meeting, against a resolution to extend a tax break to a housing complex for low-income seniors in North Plains.    Now, of course I feel bad for low-income seniors who have trouble paying for housing.   But we need to ask ourselves the broader question:  is giving a targeted tax break to residents of this one particular housing complex the right thing to do, and is it an appropriate action by the Hillsboro School Board?   As I see it, this proposal was wrong for two reasons:


  1. Favoritism.   Why were we discussing a tax break for the benefits of one specific well-connected housing development?   It seems patently unfair to give this kind of targeted tax break to one small group.   There are poor and unemployed people all over our district.  If we believe low-income seniors need a break, there should be a district-wide change in tax law, not a negotiated exception for one politically skilled group.  (BTW, before you shout "Hey, Intel gets tax breaks, so you just like companies more than low-income seniors"-- I disagree with those too.   IMHO, no individual company should ever be granted a tax break that doesn't apply to all companies based on objective criteria.)
  2. Misappropriation.   The Hillsboro school board is not a general-purpose government agency, empowered to do whatever it feels is right for the common welfare.    It is a body elected for a very specific mission, to provide for the education of the district's 20,000+ children, using the money provided for this purpose by the state and local governments.   Those other government bodies have weighed the various demands on their funds, and given HSD an amount that they have determined is appropriate for education.   Are we really supposed to have the power to take money from this school budget and give it to various non-school-related charities?    I think not.   Again, if you believe low-income seniors need tax breaks to pay for housing, this should be discussed in the broader sense by the proper levels of local government.
I find it a bit ironic that some of the board members who are constantly complaining of a lack of money in the school budget actually voted in favor of this targeted tax break.   The only real arguments in favor were that it's not that much money, and that the people involved are poor.   But I don't think either of those arguments negates the fundamental issues above.

If you disagree with me, and think you have solid arguments to refute the issues of favoritism and misappropriation above, I'd love to hear from you.   In any case, you already got your way, since I was in the minority (only Monte and I voted No), and the tax break has been granted.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Education Service District

With the recent occurrence of Towel Day, I’ve been fondly remembering the hilarious sci-fi spoof “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” .    As you may recall, this absurd tale begins when alien wrecking ships arrive to destroy the Earth, which has been condemned to make space for an interstellar bypass.    When the humans complain, they are dismissed with “All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaints. “   When I first read this, I thought it was taking the flaws of human politics and bureaucracy to a ridiculous extreme.   But now that I’m seeing the equivalent happen in our school district, I’m finding it somewhat less humorous than I used to.

Recently a board seat on the Northwest Regional Education Service District (NWRESD) was up for reappointment.   This is one of the most important positions appointed by the Hillsboro School Board, as it helps oversee a body that provides education services to over 100K students across 4 counties, with a budget in excess of $100 million dollars.   You would think that when such a seat is available, we should announce it to the public and call for applicants, like we do for our (relatively powerless) HSD Curriculum and Budget committees.   However, an agenda item to confirm the only applicant just popped up on our May school board agenda, without any previous announcement from the district.     

When I asked how this opening was publicized, the answer was “We posted on our NWRESD website and emailed the superintendent”.   So, for any non-superintendent to find out about this opening, they would have had to be continually checking the NWRESD website.    Even though most board and commission openings are published in local newspapers, or at least announced in advance by the board which is appointing them, none of this happened in this case.   Note that in many other parts of the state, ESDs are elected like regular school boards, so many eligible citizens may not even realize they need to watch the ESD site rather than the general elections site to know about openings on this board.  By keeping the announcement so low-key, the ESD is essentially reserving the position for a well-connected insider.    


Thus, I proposed that we delay the appointment and issue a real call for applicants.    Unfortunately, the rest of our board disagreed with me, saying that the current action was a result of a “well-defined process,” so we could discuss future changes but had to appoint this year based on the existing process.   I hope we do follow through and make some real changes here, rather than continuing the functional equivalent of posting ESD board openings on Alpha Centauri.

Friday, May 27, 2016

War Of The Sexes?

I was disappointed to see the misleading and inflammatory articles in several local newspapers on our board's recent vote on birth control in the School Based Health Centers (SBHCs.).   I would like to clarify a few facts about the issue:

  1. The majority of speakers on both sides of the issue were female.   So claiming this as a male vs female issue, based on the coincidental demographics of the board members, is simply unjustified.
  2. The board entered the Tuesday meeting fully prepared to accept a compromise proposal that allows birth control prescriptions at SBHCs, with parent/guardian notification.     This compromise was accepted 6-1 at our previous meeting.
  3. It was the SBHC staff & board liberals who absolutely refused to accept any form of notification.   Stepping back from the previous compromise, they proposed replacing it with "best effort" language, which would be completely non-binding, as stated explicitly at our April work session.
  4. It is NOT a violation of Oregon law to require parent notification at an SBHC   We consulted with the district lawyer before proposing this, and Director Milller explained the legal reasoning in detail at the meeting.  Since they are on school grounds, the rules are somewhat different than independent medical clinics.
  5. The vote had nothing to do with religion.   I would challenge any reader to review the meeting recordings, available on the district website at http://hsd.k12.or.us, and still claim that this was somehow a religious debate.   If you're curious about the (non-religious) reasons why I think parent notification is very important, they are detailed in my blog at http://tinyurl.com/hsd-sbhc-2016 .
  6. The final vote to not add birth control services did not "take away" any rights, but merely preserved the current policy.  When the sbhc was created, there was a direct promise  made by the district that it would not distribute birth control.   Due to significant community concern, it would never have opened at all without this policy.      As I see it, there is a high bar for breaking or modifying such a promise to the community.


If you strongly disagree with our vote on this topic, feel free to stop by one of my monthly Constituent Coffees (first Saturday, 10-11am, Human Bean on 10th in Hillsboro) and I'll be happy to chat in more detail.   But please consider the above points before sending more expletive-laden insults and personal threats.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Springtime for Student Safety


Recently you may have heard about the proposal to offer contraceptive-related services at Hillsboro’s School Based Health Centers.  However, local parent Nancy Hursh has spotted a shortcoming of this proposal:  how do we know that students will actually engage in sexual activity safely after receiving these services?   Thus, we need to go one step further, and offer Safe Sex Rooms.   As Nancy writes:

Yes, rejoice! You heard right. The rooms will come complete with top quality mattresses, heart shaped pillows, soft lighting, music of your choice, and of course a wide variety of contraceptive devices.  Now, when you get the urge in Algebra class,  you may simply raise your hand, and we’ll give you a hall pass. Just grab a partner, or two or three, and go on down to the “Free Safe Sex Room”.

As we get deeper into the planning of this groundbreaking new service, we are identifying many potential improvements.   For example, merely providing the room is not enough:  how can we ensure the safety of the resulting activities?  Thus, each Safe Sex Room will be accompanied by a viewing window, where a certified staff member will observe all activities and provide live feedback through a two-way audio system.  

However, just having staff members observe is wasting an educational opportunity:  shouldn’t other students be able to benefit from this feedback as well?   For this reason, we will be providing a live video feed, where any student logged onto the HSD network can also observe and listen, helping them to avoid mistakes of their own in this perilous domain.   A preliminary survey showed a surprisingly large proportion of the student body eager to take advantage of this opportunity; clearly the message of promoting Safe Sex is having a positive effect throughout the district.  

Please join us in advancing this proposal, and making Hillsboro a nationwide leader in this critically important arena.











P.S. Please check the date before replying to this post.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Refreshing Approach To Technology

At last week’s board meeting, we heard an excellent presentation from our district’s Chief Information Officer, Don Wolff, on a new approach to the technology refresh problem.     Since this is a fundamental change in philosophy that could save the district millions of dollars, I thought some of you might be interested.

As we all know, the schools have been continually increasing their use of technology.     Aside from the obvious example of the Hillsboro Online Academy and direct online course delivery, computer usage is growing at nearly every level.     Students use computers in areas as varied as word processing, topical research, project collaboration, rapid calculation, or for access to new texts that emphasize online use.   For teachers, aside from these uses, technology can enable live interaction with a large class and improved communication with students, as well as being essential for mundane tasks like grading and paperwork.  We are rapidly moving towards an expectation that all students and teachers have constant access to a PC or tablet.

But with these advances comes the problem of technology refresh:  replacing outdated machines that can no longer run supported software or operating systems (OSs).   Don mentioned that 3500 of our PCs will soon be nearly unusable, as Microsoft pulls support for their version of Windows, and they are not powerful enough to install newer OSs.    Just replacing these would be a significant hit on our budget, aside from the growth we are expecting to need in the next few years.   This is a bad time for this, as we are facing another budget crunch due to the many recent failures of our state legislature:   overturned PERS reform combined with huge new unfunded mandates such as all-day kindergarten and increased PhysEd.    Is there something we can do about this?

Don recommended a new approach to device refresh:   what he calls the “sufficiency plan”.   This is based on recognition (based on recent surveys) that a large majority of the students already own a sufficiently powerful Internet device at home, and would be happy to use their own device in school as well.   These home devices are usually powerful enough to support nearly all the requirements for school use, since home users emphasize media consumption and communication.   (The main exception is for some very advanced science/math uses that may still require lab computers.)   Furthermore, people tend to refresh their own devices when needed.    Thus, instead of expecting to provide a device for every student, and worry about refreshing it every few years, the new plan would expect students to bring their own device, with one provided only in cases where the student does not already have one.

I’m happy to see that our staff is thinking hard about new approaches in this critical area.   There will be a number of challenges with this approach, such as the need to support heterogeneous computing environments, the question of how to handle students who fail to maintain their own devices, information security, etc.   On the other hand some of these issues may turn into positives:  for example, if we are supporting heterogeneous OSs anyway, perhaps we can run the free Linux + OpenOffice on some of the older machines that can no longer handle WIndows.   In any case, this idea looks like something that can enable significant long-term savings for HSD, by getting us off the traditional technology-refresh treadmill.   




Friday, February 5, 2016

Birth Control in the Schools?

Many parents have asked why there is so much controversy about potentially supplying birth control in the School Based Health Centers (SBHCs).     It looks to me like the main reason is the lack of parental notification:  if I understand correctly, under Oregon state law, anyone aged 15 or older can request these types of services from any medical facility, with a guarantee that their parents will not be notified.   Thus, a high school student will be able to obtain such services during the school day with complete secrecy from their family. To illustrate some of the biggest concerns, let’s envision a couple of scenarios.

  1. You get a call from the principal at Century High School, to inform you that your daughter was caught engaging in sexual activity with her boyfriend behind the bleachers during lunch.   Concerned, you head to the school to pick her up, planning to engage her in a long conversation about whether she is ready for sex.   When you start to talk, she interrupts you:  “It’s no big deal mom, I already talked to the school health center about this, and they have had me on birth control for six months.”
  2. A group of 19-year-old senior boys identify a shy, vulnerable-looking 15-year old girl who sits alone in a corner of the cafeteria every day at lunch.   They immediately begin sitting by her, paying her lots of attention, and pressuring her to engage in sexual activity.   When she tries to resist using her concerns about pregnancy, the boys say “Don’t worry, just go to the school health center during lunch, they can put you on birth control.”   The girl compiles, gets on birth control, and the boys proceed to take advantage.   Since this is entirely happening during school hours, the parents never have a clue about these events.

Both of these cases would represent failures at multiple levels, of course— but I think it’s clear that both would be exacerbated, and be more likely to escape parental detection, if birth control is easily accessible without parental notice at the SBHCs.  

I’ve heard a few responses to this concern, but do not find them fully convincing:
  • “The lack of parental notification is just state law, same as at other doctors’ offices.”   The key difference here is that we are talking about services offered on school grounds, during the school day.   Parents drop off their kids at school with an expectation that for the next 8 hours or so, the kids will be in a safe environment focused on providing educational services— not on birth control or on replacing the family in reproductive discussions.
  • “We will also provide counseling, and try to encourage kids to involve their parents, as well as detecting if they are subject to peer pressure.”    It’s great that this effort will be put in— but we all know that teenagers are very skilled at being deceptive and secretive when they are embarrassed about a topic, or suspect their parents would disapprove.  In addition, the students most vulnerable to peer pressure will also be vulnerable to pressure “not to snitch”, and thus will resist revealing the pressure to the counselors.
  • The school board shouldn’t interfere with a medical decision”.    This is a nice-sounding soundbite that completely misses the point.   Nobody on either side claims the school board is qualified to make medical decisions.   However, the question of whether a teen begins sexual activity involves moral and ethical questions that belong in the family rather than the school.
  • “Birth control pills have other health uses, such as regulating hormone problems.”   Nobody objects to this kind of medical usage; if we could legally allow our SBHCs to provide prescriptions for these cases but not for elective use, it would probably get wide support.
  • “Accessing health facilities outside the school is very inconvenient for the poor.”   I have some sympathy with this argument, but it’s really a community issue rather than a school issue:   what about dropouts, or young adults who are several years out of school?   The community should work on the general problem of health care access for the poor, but I don’t see any critical reason for commingling it with the schools, especially given the issues discussed above.


So, on balance, it looks to me like adding birth control services to the SBHCs would not be a very good idea at this time.    If you have strong opinions either way on this issue, be sure to show up at one of my constituent coffees (first Saturday of every month, 10-11 am, Human Bean at 10th & Oak), contact the superintendent and board, or come and speak up at the public comment period of the next school board meeting.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Children As Political Pawns

At our last board meeting, we received an update on the School Based Health Centers (SBHCs).  These contain a number of very dedicated, hardworking employees, who help students deal with health issues and provide important services to those who find it difficult to visit a regular doctor.

However, there were some elements of their presentation that worried me a bit.   Here is their description of the "Awareness Day" they had arranged:

Awareness Day is put on by the Oregon School Based Health Alliance, in coordination with Oregon Health Authority and facilitated by the Oregon State Youth Advisory Council. It is a day where all the student groups from across the state head  to the Capitol Building and help to build awareness regarding the importance of  School Based Health Centers.
This day involved:
• Contacting and setting up appointment times with multiple State Representatives and Senators
• Prepping SHAC group members to make speeches to legislators about the importance of SBHCs
• Students prepared elaborate gift baskets for legislators
• Coordination of all administrative needs for the day (permission slips for all school districts, bus schedule, chaperones from each school that were present on the day, all forms and registration....)

This seems like a clear case of a political lobbying activity:   the staff members openly admit that their goal is to influence state funding, they train and coach the students to speak to lawmakers, they actually help them prepare "gift baskets" (borderline bribes?), and do all the coordination to make the lobbying as easy as possible for the students.

When I brought this up at the meeting, the staff's defense was that this is about "teaching leadership", and since there is no specific bill on the table that they are advocating, it's not political lobbying, and thus not a policy violation.   Do you find this convincing?   I don't see any way we can consider this anything other than a use of school and SBHC resources to influence politics.    Here is the relevant portion of policy GBG, which I believe this "Awareness Day" violates:


All District employees are privileged within the limitations imposed by state and federal laws and regulations to choose any side of a particular issue and to support their viewpoints as they desire by vote, discussion, or persuading others. Such discussion and persuasion, however, will not be carried on during the performance of District duties, except in open discussion during classroom lessons that consider various candidates for a particular office or various sides of a particular political or civil issue.
On all political issues, employees must designate that the viewpoints they represent on the issues are personal and are not to be interpreted as the District’s official viewpoint.
No employee will use District facilities, equipment, or supplies in connection with his/her campaigning, nor will he/she use any time during the working day for campaign purposes. 

In addition, I find it kind of scary that "teaching leadership" is defined as political lobbying to increase funding for your special interest.  Shouldn't "leaders" be learning to carefully examine both sides of the issues?   Perhaps student health outcomes would be best served by redirecting some SBHC funding to athletic programs or to healthier cafeteria food-- but the Awareness Day groups are organized by SBHC staff to be dedicated to a single focus, lobbying on behalf of the SBHCs.

In a more global sense, this also seems to be yet another case of using your tax money to lobby for more of your tax money, which I have criticized before.     Again, this is a very bad slippery slope for us to be sliding down.   Any of the people involved can advocate for SBHC funding on their own time from somewhere off campus, but when you form a club on district grounds, using school and SBHC resources,  you are implicitly using public resources, aside from any direct money spent on this activity.

In any case, the rest of the board did not seem to have much appetite for pursuing this issue- so no further action is likely unless YOU (the public) demand it.   Thus, if you also believe this use of SBHC resources and of a staff-run student club crosses an ethical line,  please email the superintendent and board (superintendent@hsd.k12.or.us / schoolboard@hsd.k12.or.us), call the district at 503-844-1500, or come speak during the public comment period at an upcoming board meeting.




Thursday, January 14, 2016

Insulting The Poor

At the school board meeting Tuesday night, we passed an official statement of HSD's list of legislative priorities for this year, our set of requests to the state legislature.   I was happy to see that we were able to pass the amendment I proposed, adding our opposition to Oregon's proposed minimum wage increase.    I was a little disturbed, though, by one of the arguments put forth against this amendment:   that we have a lot of students living under the poverty line, and our statement against a minimum wage increase might be insensitive or insulting to that population.

Why do many of us oppose minimum wage increases?    Of course if you are living in a bubble and listening only to minimum wage proponents, the reasoning is simple:  those who support a minimum wage increase care about the poor, and those who don't care only about the rich.    But if you have been paying attention to the many arguments over the minimum wage that have been circulating the news media and the web over the past few years  (I won't even bother linking specific ones, there are so many!), you can see that there are many reasons why this increase might potentially hurt the very people it is designed to help:
  • Incurring real costs for public-service-providing bodies, such as school districts
  • Creating a disincentive for businesses to hire, increasing unemployment
  • Increasing the cost structure of struggling businesses, resulting in more business failures, concentrated among the very businesses that hire minimum-wage workers
  • Motivating more automation for low-skill jobs, leaving unskilled workers less employable
You may have decided that these reasons are overblown, or that you think the supposed positive effects of the minimum wage increase would counterbalance these.   But you can't dismiss these arguments out of hand:   these are serious arguments put forth by well-intended businessmen, politicians, and economists, pointing to many ways in which the minimum wage increase theoretically might not be good for the poor.

If you say that opposing the minimum wage increase is insulting or insensitive to the poor, you are effectively saying that those below the poverty line are not intelligent enough to understand the arguments above.    You are effectively implying that they can only understand the minimum-wage-advocate talking points about minimum wage increases helping the poor, and cannot seriously engage with the substantive arguments on both sides of this very important issue, or understand that many of us seriously believe the minimum wage increase would hurt, not help, them.

Isn't that the biggest insult of all? 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Chromebooks and Student Privacy

At recent board meetings and district presentations, you have probably noticed that we are continuing to increase the use of technology in our schools where applicable, such as in the latest revisions to the high school math curriculum.    Some parents have raised concerns about possible loss of privacy, or harvesting of student data by large companies:  this article from the Jewish World Review provides a good summary of these concerns.   I have asked Superintendent Scott and Chief Information Officer Don Wolff for their response to the article.   They seem to have a pretty good answer, indicating that Oregon provides protections above and beyond the basic contract with Google:

I think the article is accurate and on point on a lot of it’s arguments. What it doesn’t address is that Oregon has an agreement with Google not to collect, store, and save information around students when using the core components of the Google products. In addition, the state has passed Senate Bill 187 which requires vendors to adhere to certain privacy stipulations that does not allow them to track and use student data other than for the enhancement of educational features. Information can’t be sold or used for advertising or marketing. 

We do know that apps outside of the core applications provided, like Youtube and Maps, do allow them to collect information on how those applications are being used and to enhance the usefulness of them. But also, these applications will fall under SB187 when it takes affect July 2016. 

The information collected from Google outside of the core education applications is anonymized and used for the optimization of the tools. Not targeted at advertising to students. 


Thus, it looks to me like we have some relatively good protection for student privacy when using Chromebooks and related software.   As always, we need to keep vigilant, and keep in mind that when we allow a state agency to supervise our children for a large part of the day, there will always be inherent risks to privacy.   But based on the information above, I'm not too worried about the classroom use of Chromebooks significantly increasing that risk. 



Sunday, November 8, 2015

National Common Sense Week

For those of you wondering about my vote against our National Education Week proclamation at the last board meeting, I present this alternate proclamation.   So far I'm the only one to sign, but perhaps you can convince other elected officials to join me. 

Whereas: Public meetings which are accessible to all, achieve clear outcomes, and are conducted efficiently, are a cornerstone of our Republic, and

Whereas: It is the responsibility of elected officials to keep these meetings focused on topics which related to concrete actions by the board or its employees, and

Whereas: Actions that are purely symbolic, not affecting any policy or regulation, and not causing any actual activity, are a waste of public time and energy, and a cynical effort by politicians to say they "did something" while doing nothing, and

Whereas: "Proclamations" passed by elected bodies are in this purely symbolic category (with the exception of the one you are reading now), and

Whereas: Support of the causes described in proclamations, such as supporting Education, Teachers, Classified Employees, School Boards, etc., should be demonstrated by the continuous activities and policies of the board, rather than by empty rhetoric, and

Whereas: While the public resources wasted by any individual proclamation activity seem trivial, collectively they amount to thousands (or more) of employee hours and millions of dollars in expenses across the nation,

Now, therefore, be it resolved that this week, and all future weeks, shall be known as National Common Sense Week. All elected officials signing on to this proclamation pledge that this will be the last Proclamation of a Week that they ever vote on or spend time on in a public meeting.

Signed,

Erik Seligman

Sunday, September 27, 2015

State Laws Preventing Responsible School Spending

At our 9/22 Hillsboro school board meeting, CFO Adam Stewart presented a plan to contract substitute teachers through an outside agency, rather than having our district employ them directly. We approved the plan, which will lead to a modest but real savings of around $1.3 million over the next three years. (See details in the meeting packet at page 16.)  But I was surprised by one hoop that Adam had to jump through due to state law: in Oregon, government agencies, including school districts, are not allowed to replace employees with contractors if the savings is solely in terms of salaries and benefits.

Huh?  This seemed strange to me. If we are overpaying an employee to provide a service that is offered in a more cost-effective way by the open market, shouldn't that be a great reason to make a change?  Don't we owe it to the children to avoid wasting money, so more can go where it is most sorely needed?  Our schools are an education program for children, not a jobs program for our employees.  But the state legislature seems to have a different idea: take a look at http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/279B.033 .  The language is somewhat obfuscated, but section 2a on that page really does require that for a service to be contracted, the savings cannot be solely in terms of wages and benefits.

Fortunately, Adam was able to identify some savings outside this category, based on freeing up staff time to be used on tasks other than supervising substitutes, so we will be able to contract out for the substitutes.   But I still find it very disturbing that we had to go through these convolutions.   How many government employees are we overpaying statewide to comply with this law?  How many millions of your tax dollars are going to waste ? Next time you hear anyone in state or local government talk about how we need to raise taxes to get more money for schools, think hard about laws like this.   Any Oregon politician who claims to need more money, but is not supporting reforms to ORS 279B.033, is intentionally encouraging the waste of state money, and prioritizing the needs of state employees over the public at large.
 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Opting Out of SBAC Tests


Recently there has been a major movement to opt out of Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) testing, the new standardized test being used by schools in many states including Oregon.   Oregon recently passed a state law to ensure that parents have the right to opt out.  I think the major motivation for this effort is opposition to Common Core (CC), the new set of standards being implemented across many subjects.  As you've probably learned from reading my earlier blog entries, I'm not a big fan of CC:  it's a top-down effort masquerading as a grassroots initiative, and there are real questions about political motivations for many aspects of the standards.   Changing to a "more rigorous" standard while changing the tests at the same time also seems to provide a huge opportunity for trickery:  if the new teaching is so much more rigorous, why not first demonstrate that fact for a few years by watching scores rise on the old tests?   There are also serious concerns about data tracking in SBAC, and we cannot be totally sure about its guarantees of privacy to counter this.   Yet, even with these factors in mind, it still seems to me that opting your child out of the SBAC tests is not the right approach.  This is because of the critical role standardized tests play in being able to truly understand whether your child is learning what they need to at school.

My views on this are colored by an experience I had while teaching at a summer program at Phillips Academy at Andover back in the 1990s.  (Yes, that's the elite high school attended by the Bushes at one time!)  There was one student, who we'll call Chris (not his real name), who attended a rough inner-city school during the year, and was there on a scholarship.   He had a very high GPA at his school, and had been led to believe that he was a top academic achiever.   Yet it became apparent after a few weeks that he had simply never encountered a math program that even slightly challenged him:  at his school, the teachers were probably astonished that anybody was paying the slightest bit of attention.   So to be a top achiever, all he had to do was regurgitate facts and procedures from the teachers, with almost no actual understanding.   Chris was lucky that this issue was identified at this summer program; it could have easily been left stagnating until he was in his senior year & applying to colleges.   At Andover, we were able to help him a bit, but how many others are there like him across the country, who think they are doing great academically, but don't find out the true inadequacy of their education until it's too late?

That's why standardized tests are critical.  I know they are painful, and I'm sure they can always be improved, especially the SBAC with its known flaws of the CC basis, computer dependence, and exceptionally long testing time.   But having a method to compare knowledge and progress with others across the nation, independent from the judgment calls of your local teacher, is an absolutely critical part of your child's education.  At the last board meeting, we looked at some sample SBAC questions, and it looks like they are making a solid attempt at designing an academically challenging test to measure student knowledge, and its grading will be handled independently of any local school or district.   You can also see detailed examples at sites like this.   It's not perfect, and there are some questions about how truly objective the grading can be when the answers are free-form rather than multiple choice-- but scoring is independent of the local district.   We need this method available to flag cases where we are failing to educate some portion of the children, or our district is falling behind other districts, and this is not being detected due to grading curves or relaxed standards used by local teachers. 
   
I'm totally on board with continuing to protest the rush to CC and SBAC to your state legislators, and working to expose any issues with these new tests.  District officials have ensured me that there is an appeals process which you can use to review the actual SBAC questions and your child's answer, in case they spot something that seems unfair or politically biased:  be sure to take advantage of this if needed.   In addition, we need to be careful that "teaching to the test" doesn't become so dominant that it damages education, though I have already written about that topic, so won't belabor it here.    I believe the most legitimate objection to SBAC is the question of privacy and data tracking-- but this is really a more general issue; if you trust the government with your child 8 hours per day, this concern will always be there with or without SBAC.   Be sure to stay on top of such issues, and contact your legislators regularly with your concerns.  Overall, due to the critical nature of standardized tests for detecting and correcting possible major flaws in our children's education, it seems to me that opting out of SBAC tests is not the right decision.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Should Public Schools Advertise?

Should public schools be spending our tax money on advertising and marketing? At the 8/17 board meeting, our Communications Director accounced the launch of a new phase of the "Proud to Be HSD" campaign, which is to include billboard and bus bench advertisements. Based on the discussion at the meeting, many seem to consider this a great idea and a standard, expected expenditure. I'm not so sure though.

The main rationale seems to be the oft-repeated statement that "We should run the public schools like I business". I've said this numerous times, so perhaps it's appropriate that my own words are being thrown back at me! But using this statement to justify public school marketing is a clever bit of sophistry, rather than a serious argument. The "like a business" statement is a shorthand for numerous positive attributes of private businesses that we would like to see in schools: accountability for results, constant drives to control spending, measuring and improving return on investment, etc. It does not mean that 100% of things a private business does must also be done by schools. Since public schools have a captive audience of automatic customers, who have to go through significant time and/or expense if they desire to choose alternative options or opt out, the schools simply do not have the same need to advertise as private businesses do. We do have a need for some communications budget, to inform students and parents of necessary school-related information, but I don't think HSD needs the same kind of marketing department as Intel or Nike.

The other rationale that seemed to have some sympathy was "Charter schools advertise, so it's only fair if our regular schools do it too." But charter schools are specifically designed so that they do NOT have the automatic customer base of standard public schools, and need to attract students to actively apply-- so in their case, advertising makes a lot more sense. In addition, charters are an experiment in (mostly) independent management: intentionally divorced from the direct control of school boards, they make their own decisions on local expenditures. Whether they spend their money wisely or foolishly is an internal matter: they are purely accountable for results. Charters are directly punished, and can even fail and shut down, if they fail to deliver solid performance and continually attract students.

Ultimately, as I mentioned in my post on the OSBA last year, my biggest concern here is the use of tax money to lobby for more tax money. It's no secret that a key goal of the "Proud to Be HSD" campaign is to lay the groundwork for future bonds and levies to pass. But the money that has currently been entrusted to HSD by the hard-working taxpayers of Hillsboro was specifically intended to advance our children's education, not to persuade the public to give more tax money. Once we allow our money to be diverted for this purpose, where does it stop? It's the natural inclination of government bureaucracies to launch this endless snowball, using existing funding to generate more funding, and we need to work hard to keep this tendency under control.


There is nothing stopping a local volunteer group, possibly with aid from the (independent) Hillsboro Schools Foundation or other charities, from putting on an advertising campaign in favor of public education. A pro-HSD campaign organized through this mechanism is likely to get wide approval and public support. However, if I see my tax money being spent on billboards and advertisements instead of reaching the classroom, it will make me less, not more, inclined to vote in favor of future bonds and levies-- regardless of the actual quality or content of the ads. And I believe a large proportion of our local population is likely to feel the same way.  

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Environmental Fanatics Robbing Oregon's Children (+ OSBA15 wrap-up)

I've just returned from the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA) 2015 Summer Conference .   There were several excellent talks there, as well as the typical sprinkling of leftward-tinged politics and advocacy of infinite education spending.   The best talk was the opening session by Margaret Bird, from an organization known as CLASS, Children's Land Alliance Supporting Schools.   We learned some surprising things about the concept of "School Trust Lands", of which I previously had a rather vague awareness.   These are lands set aside in every state, upon their founding, to provide a permanent source of funds for the public schools.   Oregon has some of the richest School Trust Lands in the nation-- but over the past two years, due to environmental complications, we have realized a negative financial return on them, spending money to manage them but not realizing any profit.  This is a unique situation in the 200+ year history of school trust lands across the U.S.   Some of the key points that came out in this discussion were:
  •  School Trust Lands are actually a core element of state government, and using them for school funding has legal priority over the state constitution.   This is because these lands were provided for this purpose in the statehood acts, passed by the U.S. Congress, that formed each state.  These lands are specifically designated to fund schools.   Sadly, many states totally lost these lands by the end of the 20th century due to corruption and nepotism.   Some of this happened in Oregon, but we are one of the better-off states in this regard, as we only lost 2/3 (!) of the trust lands.
  • The bulk of Oregon's School Trust Lands are in the Elliott State Forest,   which was valued at $10 billion ten years ago, due to the ability to sustainably harvest $20-40 million in lumber annually-- but this value has been nearly destroyed by environmentalism.   An endless barrage of lawsuits began by environmental groups opposed to lumber harvesting in general, followed by the discovery of several endangered species living there.  In other states, it's usually possible to do some level of land use despite the existence of endangered species.  However, the OSBA lawyer said that due to Oregon's stricter environmental interpretations, these basically freeze all productive uses of the forest.   We might be able to get this loosened if the federal government agrees to a conservation plan, but so far the feds have not been in a hurry to do this, as any approved plan would anger the environmental lobby.
  • As a result, the state is looking to sell the Elliot State Forest for a bargain-basement price, something in the $400-800 million range, just to get some economic value.  It's kind of sad that we have this formerly $10 billion asset there to fund the schools, but need to sell it to someone better able to handle the legal entanglements.   However, since currently all these complications result in an annual net loss, we don't have a lot of options.
 Not a very uplifting story-- keep this in mind next time you hear about our underfunded schools.   And before you support or send donations to any Oregon environmental group, think hard about the fact that you may be helping directly to drain hundreds of millions of dollars from Oregon's schools.  

Anyway, that was a great opening session for the OSBA conference.   Some highlights from the other talks:
  • Parliamentary Procedure at the Jurassic Parliament.   This was another excellent speaker, a session taught by "Roberts Rules Queen" Ann Macfarlane.   I had dreaded attending this session- how could a talk on parliamentary procedure not be incredibly boring?- but this was actually quite fun.   The session was modeled as a meeting of the "Jurassic Parliament", a school board for a dinosaur school, with various audience members making scripted motions to discuss issues such as the harassment of mammals, benefits of dinosaur yoga in PE class, and whether carnivorous students can eat their classmates.    I also learned some tidbits that might improve our HSD school board meetings:
    • In Robert's Rules, each member can make two speeches supporting or opposing any motion, you can't go in circles forever.  (Which HSD seems to do sometimes!)  This also rules out "back-and-forth" discussions in a meeting.
    • If a speech is not germane to the current motion, you can interrupt with a point of order.
    • Seconding a motion doesn't mean you favor it, just that you agree it's worth discussing.
  • Breaking the Unwritten Rules, and Filtering the Static:   Day 2 keynote & session by consultant Mike Weber.  Entertaining speaker with lots of fun little demos, such as telling audience to grasp hands and pin each other's thumbs, and watching them incorrectly infer that the full rules of thumb wrestling apply.    Not very information-dense or deep though:  key points are to recognize, rewrite, and reinforce (when needed) unwritten rules, and to recognize the filters that everyone puts up when communicating.
  • The TELL Oregon Survey, a presentation of the results of a statewide survey of educatorsThe results are generally available at this link.  Probably the most surprising findings were that most teachers disagreed that professional development is regularly followed up and measured; principals and teachers disagreed on whether paperwork was reasonable (85.1% vs 44.4%); and principals thought they were addressing teacher concerns way more than teachers did (97.8% vs 68.7%).
  • Education Reform and You.   Somewhat disappointing that this session was just advocating the "reform" currently being worked on by our state government, which seems mainly to relate to more local control over assessments.  There are some good ideas there, but when I hear "reform", I hope for something more radical or different.
  • Collective Bargaining.   Useful but rather dry session on the nuts and bolts of this process.   Key piece of advice-- NEVER be the first one to leave a negotiating session, even if it's 3am and you just want to go to sleep.   Apparently any time you leave, even if it's on friendly terms with an offer to schedule a continuation later, the union can try to use it as evidence of bad faith.  So if you're on the district negotiating team, bring some snacks, a blanket, and a pillow!
  • Educational Equity:  As expected, a session of nonstop left-wing politics.  Some of the biggest whoppers:  "Equity" is explicitly defined as equality of results across groups, not equality of opportunity; "Microagressions" are given a specifically one-way definition, only commitable against People of Color; and schools requiring a particular test score or other academic standard for admission are an example of an unfair "entrance barrier" against people of color.
  • Up in Smoke:  Marijuana in Schools and Other Current Issues.   Useful session on the current confusing legal state of several topics.
    • Under federal law, if a teacher tests positive for marijuana, they must be disciplined, even if it was for an off-campus medical use.   (I pointed out that federal law still makes marijuana illegal across the state anyway-- should our schools really be forced to opt out of our state's decision to nullify the feds in this area?   The OSBA employees insisted on the federal rules.)
    • Transgender issues:  there is currently a confusing and contradictory set of rulings here.  For example, some say we can accomodate transgender students in a separate restroom, while at least one court has ruled that such students need to be using the "regular" restrooms.   In athletics, OSAA rules allow a transgender boy to play on the girls' team, IF they have had a year of hormone treatments.  (Will that stand up in court?)
    • SBAC Testing Opt-outs:  If we fall below 95% participation, some federal funds may be endangered.
  • Random Conversations:   Of course an important part of the conference is meeting other school board members from around the state, and hearing about what's been going on in their districts.   Probably the most surprising discussion was with an Umatilla board member, who told me about their strategy after a bond failed by a small margin:  they provided a financial incentive for district employees to live in the district, helping to increase their pro-school-funding voter base.   Interesting idea, but seems to me that it might cross an ethical line somewhere.
Anyway,  I think that just about covers it.   Overall, an interesting and informative conference-- I will probably go again next year, especially if they continue to recruit speakers on the level of Margaret Bird and Ann Macfarlane.   As always, be sure to email me if you want to further discuss any of the issues mentioned here.

 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Critical Race Theory In the Schools: An Update

It's been a while since I discussed the schools' teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its core doctrine of While Privilege in this blog. But this topic has made the national news lately , due to Gresham school board member Dan Christenson uncovering use of this extreme radical theory in their district, so it's probably time for an update. I won't bother detailing my specific objections to CRT again, since in my previous blog entries I have thoroughly discussed its historical illiteracy, anti-white racism, attacks on American legitimacy, reliance on ad hominem arguments, and encouragement of anti-Semitism.   But our district has reviewed its Equity training materials in the past year, and we have made some progress on this topic.
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First, the good news: our district is planning its future trainings using a different seminar that is not based on CRT. As you may recall, the Hillsboro School District has, over the past five years, been training its teachers with the "Uniting to Understand Racism" (UUR) materials, based on the theory that racial equity will be improved by indoctrinating everyone in CRT. A district committee was formed this year to review the program, and the end result is that the next round of training will be based on a program called Stir Fry Seminars. This program is based on encouraging each individual to examine their own communication styles, and their website does not contain the words White Privilege. There are a few areas for caution though, as I do see some left-wing buzzwords such as "power" used repeatedly on their site. Naturally, it's always possible that CRT is there under the hood: if you've attended a Stir Fry Seminar and have any comments or concerns, please send me an email.

However, the past years of CRT instruction have leaked into Hillsboro classrooms, and this will require all our continuing vigilance to fix. It's probably not much of a surprise that, after many years of being led to believe that the White Privilege doctrine is the official view of the district, some teachers have incorporated it into their lesson plans for the children. We received a complaint at a board meeting a few months ago, and independently a local student showed up at one of my Constituent Coffees to complain about such a lesson in another class. Even worse, in one of these classes, when a student asked the teacher when they were going to discuss alternative views on race in America, he was told by his teacher that there is no other legitimate view! Such one-sided teaching is clearly a violation of our policy on controversial issues in the classroom.  (I do not object if CRT is discussed in a context of many views on race, including conservative ones, but that is not what was happening here.)  I believe Superintendent Scott has met with the principals involved and told them that these types of lessons are politically polarizing as well as being potential deviations from policy, and do not belong in our K12 classrooms. But I'm not sure if this is enough to undo our years of indoctrination-- we need to remain vigilant. If you find your child being taught Critical Race Theory and White Privilege in their class, please send me a copy of the materials so I can follow up. (I can relay them anonymously if your child is worried about facing accusations of racism or disciplinary action for reporting this.)

Also, if you're not in Hillsboro or Gresham, there is probably a 99% chance that Critical Race Theory and White Privilege are quietly being taught in YOUR district. The most challenging aspect of dealing with the district Equity committee has been their thorough training in CRT-- many staff members seem to find it difficult to even conceive that another view could exist. As I researched the literature, I found that at a national level, this radical doctrine has totally taken over schools of education, academic ethnic studies departments, and academic "diversity" specialists. Thus anyone wishing to be formally certified as any type of educator these days has no choice but to study, accept, and internalize this theory. So if you're in another district, be sure to ask to see their Diveristy or Equity training materials, and examine them for yourself. Chances are that you are in for an unpleasant surprise.   It's best to review the actual materials, but also be on the lookout for mention of, or materials provided by, large organizations known to promote CRT:  UUR, Resolutions Northwest, the Pacific Education Group (PEG), or the Coalition for Educational Equity (CFEE).

So, in short, we have made some improvement to the Equity training program in the Hillsboro School District, but need to remain vigilant. Be sure to pay attention to what your child is learning in school, and review any materials related to racism, diversity, or similar topics. And if in another district, watch this issue closely, and ask your local school or district office for the relevant materials in this area.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

School Budgeting For The Future

Recently our budget committee met to approve the Hillsboro School District budget proposal for the next school year. I provided the sole vote against the budget proposal, believing it irresponsible in light of our current financial situation. As it turns out, my concerns may be moot, since in the past week an amended forecast came out that will leave our schools with significantly more money than we thought. But I think there are some important principles here we still need to think about.

Some background: the original budget proposal calculated that we would have enough money to essentially provide the current service level, expand (as the state has mandated) kindergarten to all-day, and provide an additional $720K in targeted investments in areas such as athletics and activities.  But then the state Supreme Court threw in a monkey wrench, by ruling that recent PERS (Public Employee Retirement System) reforms were unconstitutional, creating a major new expense for the schools. Due to the oddities of Oregon's PERS accounting process, HSD would not be charged any money this year or next year, but two years from now would be facing a shortfall of around $3.5 million. The amount isn't exact-- there are a lot of other factors involved, including market performance and potential changes to the law-- but that was our CFO's best estimate.

It seemed to me that in light of this new informaton, we should be banking some money every year to prepare against this expected shortfall. Sure, it would be disappointing to have to cancel the majority of this $720K investment. But shouldn't we plan prudently for the long-term health of the district by preparing for the upcoming financial cliff, instead of just spending as originally planned in the hopes that luck or the state legislature will bail us out?

One argument in favor of the spending was that HSD needs it in order to be a top-tier district. Of course I'm not unsympathetic to this claim: surely with all other things being equal, spending more money wisely should allow improvements vs not spending the money. However, if you've been reading my blog, you know that I don't believe this dependence is absolute: many private and charter schools are successful with much smaller budgets than our traditional schools. I also believe we have put way too much effort into finding ways to spend money on new programs, rather than finding ways to improve our district's cost-effectiveness in educational delivery.  In any case, we need to face the fact that we may not have the money in the long term. Spending for today without regard for the future will just make it more painful a few years from now, when we have to face a massive cut to fill in the shortfall. I think many members of our community are growing cynical of the district for creating these kinds of situations on purpose-- that's one major reason the recent bond initiative failed. The best way for HSD to gain the public's confidence in its financial management is to refuse to particpate in the bureaucratic government tradition of continually increasing spending, to maximize the size of the "shortfall" caused by future expenses or general losses, and then demanding more money to compensate.

The other major argument  was that this year's money is there for this year's kids, and we are somehow cheating them if we don't spend it directly on them. If we had a pay-as-you-go system where every student was specifically paying their own tuition each year, this argument might hold water. But the entire public education system is based on redistribution: retirees, childless singles, local businesses, and others all pay tax money that is used to educate the majority of children, in theory serving the common good.  If we can redistribute across populations for the common good, why can't we distribute across time for the common good as well? If we can provide the best education to the most children in the long term by saving money this year, how can that be considered immoral? Aside from that basic observation, the truth is that we already are dealing with plenty of expenditures whose costs and benefits are unevenly distributed across time: long-term planning, investing in new equipment, building mainenance, and of course the notorious PERS, an insanely expensive burden foisted on us by our predecessors. So the argument that we are somehow morally bound to fully expend each year's budget, rather than prudently banking money when we see a huge expense looming, simply doesn't make sense.

So, in short, it seemed to me that our budget should include direct consideration of how we will cover for the looming PERS shortfall created by the Supreme Court decision, even though we technically are not forced to pay for it yet. As I mentioned above, it looks like we will have more money than expected, so perhaps this will become less of a concern. But be sure to watch how HSD is planning its spending, and pay close attention to how much (or how little) is being done to reduce long-term costs. When tax debates or ballot initiatives come up, do not reward the school district for overspending to maximize future "shortfalls": reward it for prudent actions taken to save money and reduce long-term expenses. Remember a fundamental rule of economics: we will almost always get more of the behaviors we reward.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Vote Clift, Rask, Honl for Hillsboro School Board

Hopefully, you are getting ready to fill out your ballots for school board.   If you are in our district, I strongly urge you to vote for Wayne Clift, Bart Rask, and Christian Honl.

I've known Wayne Clift, our current vice-chair, for over 15 years now, first as a colleague at Intel, then on the school board.  He has been a soft-spoken but consistent voice for common sense and careful consideration of all viewpoints, and deserves re-election.   His patience and excellent skills at listening and mediation have led to endorsements from members of both the liberal and conservative wings of the board.   However, if you look at the contested votes the board has had over the past two years on various issues,  you will find that Wayne and I are almost always on the same page.

Bart Rask is a newcomer with a truly impressive resume.   His successful orthopedic practice and background including a Harvard fellowship would alone put him among the leaders of our community. But on top of that he has served on the state level board of athletic trainers, appointed and reappointed by two previous governors.  Aside from his exceptional personal qualifications, his experience dealing with government regulations and tightening insurance budgets, while running his medical practice, are excellent preparation to manage the Hillsboro schools in these challenging times.   I believe he is by far the most deserving candidate for our open seat.

Christian Honl is an Intel manager with a strong track record overseeing large teams during periods of financial stress.    Christian has the insight to know what needs to be done, the vision to develop realistic goals, and the work ethic to make good and necessary changes happen without backing down under pressure.  This is the kind of experience we need more of on the school board, and is a key reason why we should elect him to replace our current chair.

As a parting note, I want to remind you that all the candidates and members of the board are generous, dedicated people who truly care about Hillsboro's kids.    But where your choice of members becomes critical is in the cases where there are disagreements, and conflicting visions of how to run our district.    So please do not vote based on personal connections or friendship, but on who you really want making these hard choices.   If you like the outlook on school issues that you have been reading in my blog, the candidates most likely to have similar views on many issues are the ones I recommend.

So please remember to turn in your ballot, and cast your votes for Wayne Clift, Bart Rask, and Christian Honl for the Hillsboro school board.  

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sex Ed: Opt Out or Opt In?

At last Tuesday's board meeting, Hillsboro resident Kathy Mikitka proposed a change in how we notify parents about the sex ed curriculum. Currently we have an opt-out policy: parents are informed about what the curriculum contains, and they have the option to contact the school if they want their child excused from that class. Kathy proposed changing it to an opt-in policy, where the default would be for children to be excused, and parents would have to officially approve their child's inclusion in the sex ed class. While this proposal would involve a bit more paperwork for the teachers, Kathy made some convincing arguments for why it would be an improvement:
  • Sex ed is fundamentally different from other curriculum areas. I think we can all agree that this topic touches on morality, religion, and personal privacy in a unique way. So the argument "if we do it for this, we need to do it for everything" doesn't carry much weight, as I see it.
  • Parents may miss or overlook the opt-out opportunity. Many parents are buried in various forms of paperwork and junk mail these days. And of course, there is a big peer pressure factor here: kids may fear the stigma of being opted out of sex ed, and thus intentionally hide information or fail to inform their parents. Since opt-out does not require any feedback from parents back to the school, the teacher will never know if they really received and were able to act upon the information.
  • Young children may be upset or disturbed by aspects of the sex ed curriculum. With various theorists promoting detailed information to be given at younger and younger ages, this seems like a legitimate concern. There also may be times when highly inappropriate information sneaks in unexpectedly: while the coastal conference that encouraged illegal activities was an extreme case, the same state bodies and officials that oversaw that conference have been in charge of developing K-12 curricula.

It looks to me like these are pretty good arguments, and I am inclined to believe we should seriously consider Kathy's proposal. What do you think? Please email me, or the whole board, if you have an opinion in this area. And of course, remember to carefully fill out your May school board election ballot, if you want board members who are likely to support such a proposal. (My next blog post will discuss who I endorse).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Real Equity Through School Choice

In our April work session, I proposed that we officially make our district an Open Enrollment District, allowing and encouraging any student in the district to choose any in-district school to attend if they are dissatisfied with their local school.   (This is separate from the inter-district Open Enrollment policy, controlled by the state, where students can freely transfer out of our district.)    Currently we do allow in-district transfers if people apply through a district-defined process, and a surprisingly large number of students do jump through these hoops.   However, I see this as a fundamental equity issue for several reasons, most notably that high-poverty minority students concentrated in our lowest performing schools do not seem to be taking advantage.   Is it really the case that they and their parents are happy with their schools, or are requirements such as the cumbersome transfer process , communication problems, or transportation issues forming a major obstacle?   Equity should not be just about staff trainings-- it should be about actually providing the same opportunities to all students in the district.

We need to keep in mind that every school will not be right for every student.   Some schools will have different programs, such as STEM, STEAM, or dual/non-dual language, that may work better for some kids than others.   In the discussion it was suggested that all schools should offer all options.   But do we really believe one-size-fits-all is the best way to deliver education?   Every school has a finite amount of resources, and cannot focus on everything-- why not let each concentrate on certain programs, enabling us to better reach students with different personalities, interests, and learning styles?   And even if we could get precise parity of options, there will always be issues of some students simply not meshing with particular teachers or teaching styles, or problems such as bullying issues motivating a student to seek another school.    Parents should always have the option to seek a different education for their child, and not have to convince a bureaucrat of the validity of their reason (as required by the current policy) in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

I was surprised at the vehemence of the objections to this proposal, which was informally (not an official vote, since just a work session) voted down 4-3.   I saw two main objections come up in the discussion:
  • Cost.   This is the one that did actually have some validity, since providing transportation to a potentially unknown additional number of students outside their neighborhood could be a cost issue, especially in these times of tight finances.   I don't see this as insurmountable though:  for example, perhaps we could charge transportation fees that are waiveable based on need, using the better-off students to subsidize the poorer ones.  And maybe we should compare this to the cost of the thousands of staff hours spent in (and paying an Equity Director to organize) politically correct employee trainings of marginal benefit, which I will not flog further (for now) in this blog.    Wouldn't providing alternative options to our poorest students do a lot more for Equity in the long run than staff trainings?
  • "People should be invested in their neighborhood schools".   This is a nice ideal, and there would be nothing stopping anyone from continuing to attend their local school.   I suspect that even under full Open Enrollment, the majority would make this choice.   But should we be forcing people who want to leave to remain in the local school, just to improve the neighborhood?   This makes me very uncomfortable-- in effect, we are saying that certain students (the ones who want to leave) should be conscripted by the government to remain in their local school in order to improve neighborhood investment.    How would you feel if your child were forced to remain in a school that wasn't working for them, just so their presence could "benefit the neighborhood"?
Anyway, ultimately the conclusion of the discussion was that parents who really want to transfer can avail themselves of the current process, and there was no need to change anything right now.   Superintendent Scott also stated that transfer procedures have been liberalized in recent years, and internal transfers are almost never denied in our district, except due to a school being at its capacity.     As a community, we need to make sure we are holding the district to this promise-- the written policy  still leaves the ultimate decision to the district staff.     I'll be interested to hear about your experiences, good and bad, with the transfer process-- please send me an email if you have dealt with this recently, and tell me how it went!