Monday, May 1, 2017

My May school board votes: Miller, Akers, Davis, Flores

Hopefully by now, you are all recovered from the shock (or joy?) of learning that I'm not running for re-election.   Ultimately, serving on a school board is a huge and exhausting time commitment, especially for someone with a full-time day job, and after four years, I'm ready to step aside and let someone else take a turn.   (You may have also detected some subtle hints about frustration with meeting efficiency in my April Fools post...)

So, since I'm not in the race now, I thought I would share my thoughts on who your should vote for in the Hillsboro school board elections.   It's a bit chaotic this year, with more candidates than at any time in the past decade, so the choices may seem a bit overwhelming!

In my opinion, my two incumbent colleagues, Glenn Miller and Monte Akers, both solidly deserve re-election.  Each has put hundreds of hours into serving our community over the past four years.  

  • Glenn Miller has devoted massive amounts of extra time (beyond normal school board duties) to the Technology and Long Range Planning subcommittees.   As part of this work, he spearheaded a boundary exchange with Beaverton that, by aligning populations and districts better, will save the region the need to build a new school-- saving us about $20 million over the next decade!
  • Monte Akers has also been exceedingly generous with the time and energy he devotes to the district, and has been a consistent voice of common sense on the board.   He has agreed with me on many controversial issues in this blog, such as the time he and I were the only ones to try to prevent tax favoritism for one well-connected group. 
For the other two seats, everyone running is a newcomer to the board.   My picks for these two seats are April Davis and Alexander Flores.
  • April Davis is a dedicated local parent who has been following school board issues for a while, speaking during the citizens' comment period at a couple of meetings last year, when we discussed the birth control issue.   She is a sensible conservative who hopes to improve educational equity by providing appropriate choices for every student.
  • Alexander Flores has an impressive personal background, as well as being seen as a leader in the local Latino community.  Starting out as a high-school dropout and young father, he has worked his way up to success in both the family and business arenas,  through his strong belief in family values and hard work.
So, if you like what you've been reading in this blog, and want the people most likely to vote in similar directions for the next few years, remember to vote for Glenn Miller,  Monte Akers, April Davis, and Alexander Flores.



Thursday, March 30, 2017

School Board: The Movie

Recently, there has been some concern that we don’t have enough citizens willing to step forward and run for school board.   I think I know one of the root causes:  we simply haven’t made it appealing enough.   We need to effectively communicate the tension, the excitement, the highs, the lows, the heartbreak, and the edge-of-your-seat thrill ride that comprise the life of a typical school board member.   And who can do this better than our leading entertainers in Hollywood?    

Thus, I have begun work on a movie script, for a summer blockbuster that will completely turn around the current perception of school boards as boring and inefficient.   I’m hoping to convince Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Pratt, and Jennifer Lawrence to star, though I am open to alternate casting suggestions.   As a special treat to celebrate the upcoming first day of April, I am sharing with you, my readers, a sneak preview of the script for School Board: The Movie.


———-


SCENE:  A busy boardroom at the beginning of a meeting.   At the front, the camera is focusing on Superintendent Scooter Michaels chatting with board chair Cliff Wen, as the rest of the board take their seats one by one:  Millie Glin, Alan Issa, Kerry Montrose, Stretch Kimmel, Sol Jansen, and Selig Ericson.     Cliff bangs the gavel, and the meeting begins.

CliffThanks for coming, everyone.   I know your time is important, and we have critical business to conduct tonight.   Now we will begin this meeting with a special performance by the Valleysboro High Reggae Ensemble. 

Students begin shuffling into the room, squeezing themselves and their instruments into the space in front of the podium, over the course of 20 minutes.   They then proceed to play a moving 3-hour arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Jammin’”.   

As they conclude, everyone in the room enthusiastically applauds for another five minutes.  Eventually the applause subsides and the band begin packing up their instruments.

Millie:  I’m so glad we had the opportunity to hear this amazing music tonight at the meeting, instead of having to attend one of the twelve scheduled upcoming performances.   But before we move on, I’d really like to hear from the individual students about what the music means to them.
Cliff:  Excellent idea.  Can each of you in turn step up to the microphone, and tell us some more about your musical experience?

Students awkwardly get in line and begin speaking at the microphone.
Student #1:  Ummm…  The Reggae Ensemble is really fun.  It helps me learn musical skills and express my emotions.   And it increases my chances of staying in school.
Student #2: The Reggae Ensemble is really fun.  It helps me learn musical skills and express my emotions.   And it increases my chances of staying in school.
The students continue, each speaking in turn.
Student #77:  Hi There! The Reggae Ensemble is really fun!  It helps me learn musical skills and express my emotions!   And it increases my chances of staying in school!

The students spend a few more minutes packing up their instruments and finding their way outside.

Cliff:  Thank you, that was inspiring.   Now, our next agenda item is a proclamation, to be read into the record by Superintendent Michaels.  
Scooter:  Thanks, Cliff.   

Scooter unrolls a large scroll he is holding.

Scooter:  Whereas, the Valleysboro School District prides itself on being an inclusive community,
                 and Whereas, our 14 Russian-American students are a critical component of our rainbow of diversity,
                 and Whereas, this week marks the 120th anniversary of the death of Leo Tolstoy, one of the worlds greatest novelists,
    and Whereas Tolstoy’s greatest novel was War and Peace, which goes as follows:  “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes….”
                …
                Scooter proceeds to read the full text of War and Peace from the scroll.
                …
                “… to renounce a freedom that does not exist, and to recognize a dependence of which we are not conscious,”
                Therefore, the Valleysboro School District formally proclaims our observation of National Tolstoy Week.

Cliff:  Thank you, Scooter.   That proclamation was very meaningful, and will have long-lasting effects on our district.    Now we will move on to Data and Reports.   Assistant Superintendent Trevor, I believe you had the update on our school cafeterias?

Trevor steps forward from a side table.

Trevor:  Hi everyone.   In your board packet, you have the detailed written report I prepared on our cafeteria management plan, which I believe you have all had a week to review before this meeting.   I will now proceed to describe the exact same content verbally.   On slide 1 we see…  
Trevor opens his laptop, and begins walking through his painstakingly-prepared slide deck.
              … And to conclude, as you see on slide 182, we can now show that over the past year, our cafeterias became over 0.73% more cost-efficient.   Thank you.      

Cliff:  Thank you, that was very useful.  Now, we move on to our main item of business for the evening, approving the routine maintenance contract.   These are boilerplate contracts largely dictated by state law, which you have all already reviewed in your board packets, so I don’t expect much debate.  Any comments before we vote?

Sol:  I know we probably all agree that we should pass this contract.   But I think it’s important that before voting on it, we all recognize what routine maintenance means to us, and the impactful role it plays in each of our lives.   My first experience in this area was at the age of 3, when I tugged at my father's pant leg as he opened his toolbox and took out a #2 wrench…  or was it a #3 wrench?   Anyway…
Sol continues his monologue, illustrating the topic with many heartwarming anecdotes.
And that leads to just last week, when my great-grandmother used her final breath to sit up from her deathbed, grab my shoulders, and whisper her last two words on this earth:  “ROUTINE MAINTENANCE”.   Thank you.

Cliff:  Thanks Sol, I’m glad you shared that.   Now, all in favor of approving the contract, say “Aye”.

A chorus of Ayes is heard.

Cliff:  Excellent, the contract is approved.   Well, it’s taken 98 hours, but we have finally reached the end of our agenda.   Now, the customary final statements from each board member before we close the meeting.

Millie:  Thanks everyone, and good night.

Kerry:  Thanks everyone, and good night.

Alan:  Before we go, I’d really like to talk about the schools I visited over the past month.   I sat in on classes in each of our 83 Velleysboro elementary schools, and I would like to describe each of them for you now.   First, at the Aaron A. Anderson Academy, …
Alan continues, describing 83 classroom visits.
… 
     … And that was what we did during my final visit to Zachary Z. Zinoviev elementary.   Thanks everyone, and good night.

Cliff:  Let’s see, where were we…  Ah, I think Selig is now up for the next final statement.   Sellig?   

There is an awkward silence.

Cliff:  Selig?   Come on, you’re holding up the meeting.  


  The camera pans slowly to the seat at the end of the boardroom, where Selig’s decomposing remains gradually come into view.  Apparently he has died of boredom at some point during the past hundred hours.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

STEAMing our STEM into STEAKS

You have probably heard us talking about STEM programs, designed to improve student skills and interest in the focus areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, & Math.   These areas are important due to a nationwide crisis:  Americans just aren't studying or sticking with science and math topics, often preferring easier but lucrative areas like law and business.   This may seriously impact our national competitiveness in the long tern.     Success in STEM topics requires a level of persistency, focus, and discipline that is significantly tougher than most other subject areas, so students tend to be easily discouraged or scared away.   Thus STEM programs try to encourage students to get more excited about these areas starting at younger ages, increasing both their excitement and level of confidence, improving the chance that students will eventually get a STEM degree.    I think these programs are a great idea.   But recently, they have been modified slightly in many districts to add Arts, changing STEM to STEAM.   Is this a reasonable change?

We need to focus on the original goal:  addressing the national STEM crisis.   We simply do not have a similar crisis related to lack of arts graduates.   If anything, we have the opposite:  an over-abundance of spoiled middle class kids who think that maintaining a B average in the arts at a mid-ranking state college makes them the next Michelangelo.   There just aren't enough jobs for artists (or art teachers) to absorb all these graduates.   I'm not arguing that nobody should study art;  it's a nice enrichment or recreational activity, but we need to recognize that if you're not at the very top of the field, making a decent living in an art-related area is very unlikely.   In contrast, even the average STEM graduate is fully prepared for a solid and well-paying job.    And of course I don't object to integrating art into STEM lessons when appropriate- creating computer art programs, for example, is a great engineering exercise--  but the STEM topics need to remain the focus and the key motivation.   

I think STEAM arose because some politicians who were never good at STEM topics had fond memories of art classes in their youth.  But adding unrelated topics to the STEM acronym dilutes the focus, and risks directing scarce funds targeted for STEM into other topics.   If money targeted for the STEM crisis is going towards the arts instead, then we have missed the whole point of STEM.  If we really want to let every busybody insert their pet subject into our STEM programs, instead of incrementally adding letters to the name, I propose a new acronym: STEAKS:  Science, Technology, Engineering,  And the Ktichen Sink.   This way every politician can direct the funding to whatever subjects they find personally meaningful.    But then STEAKS will be yet another random bureaucratic money hole, and we'll have to come up with new strategies to address the STEM crisis.



Sunday, March 5, 2017

Make Hillsboro a Real Sanctuary

Recently I heard that the City of Hillsboro is thinking of declaring itself a “sanctuary city”, willing to defy unjust laws that are enforced by other levels of government.   This sounds like a great idea to me.  There are so many good people who have never hurt anyone, and never intended to break any law, yet must tremble in fear that at any moment, federal agents or other police officers will lock them up (or worse) for peacefully exercising their human rights.    We need to step in and protect these people from the violent actions of a runaway government, which destroys lives and breaks up families.   I am, of course, talking about legal gun owners.
As a key example, you may be familiar with the recent Mike Strickland case in Portland.   Mike was attacked by an angry mob at a protest, and pointed his gun (without touching the trigger) in order to get them to back off.    Mike had good reason to fear this mob— a similar protestor had beaten him so badly last year that he ended up in the hospital, and the attacker was never prosecuted, despite his identity being known and the attack being caught on tape.   Although none of his attackers was ever charged, the Portland authorities were offended by Mike’s possession of a gun:   he was quickly convicted of “menacing” each member of the mob, which may result in over 50 years in prison.  (You can read more details about this case at victoriataft.com) .

So, while our city council is in a mood to protect selected classes of people from the police, I believe they should include those like Mike Strickland.   Anybody who is being unjustly persecuted for possessing a gun for self-defense should know they have a safe haven, since there is one city that will defy all outside law enforcement agencies and stand up for what it thinks is right.   I urge Mayor Callaway and the Hillsboro City Council to support justice and the Constitution by declaring Hillsboro a Second Amendment Sanctuary City.  

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Questions for School Board Candidates

It’s school board election season again.   As usual, I find myself a bit frustrated as I read candidate websites and statements— 99.9% fluff, “I’m a nice guy who loves children”, etc, with barely a hint at any actual issues.   It’s even harder during this election season:  since I’m stepping down, I’m anticipating that several new candidates will be asking for my endorsement.  Thus, I’m supplying a set of questions which I believe should be asked of every board candidate.  
I know some candidates will try to resist making direct statements on any of these issues, trying to please everyone.   Or some will say “Many of these are political questions, and I’m above politics, I just do what’s best for the children.”   Saying “I don’t know” is OK— but in that case I expect some info on how you would go about deciding.  These questions are all based on real issues that have been faced by HSD or other school boards— and when your choice of candidate really matters is when these controversial issues come up, not when everyone agrees.  It doesn’t matter if someone claims to be non-political; when these issues come before the board, members must vote one way or the other.   
Thus, I will be asking that any newcomer seeking my endorsement answers each of the questions below.  And I believe you should too.   They don’t have to agree with me or you on every answer, but they do need to demonstrate a drive to seek reasoned, intelligent opinions on these issues, rather than simply evading them or voting with the crowd.    (Though of course you will be able to infer my opinions pretty easily by reviewing past entries in this blog.)   If any candidate refuses to answer these questions on the basis of being “above politics”, they are actually the worst kind of politician— an evasive weasel who can’t be honest about their beliefs.  Keep that in mind when deciding your vote!

  1. How do you believe we should judge overall district performance?   What kind of actions should we take if particular schools are found to be low-performing?
  2. Should the property taxes be raised for the citizens of HSD in order to provide more money for schools?   If so, by how much?
  3. What should we do about the fact that the state is showing complete incompetence in the school funding area, continuing to increase unfunded mandates (full day kindergarten, expanded PhysEd, etc) while failing to reform a thoroughly bloated PERS?
  4. If we find during some year that the district is lucky enough to have more money than we projected, should we spend the remainder on new programs and improvements, or save some for leaner years?  
  5. Are there any general changes or improvements you would suggest to HSD’s  budgeting process?
  6. If a local housing complex that contains many low-income tenants petitioned the district for a specific hardship-based tax break for their residents, would you support or oppose it?  Why?
  7. Should our college and career pathways program encourage each student to “follow their passion”, or try to guide students into likely career paths using other criteria?   What criteria would you suggest?
  8. How do you feel about School Based Health Centers, and their overall role in the district?
  9. Should a 13-year old girl be able to get birth control prescribed at school, during the school day, with no form of parental notification?
  10. What accommodations do you believe the schools should make for the proliferation of new gender identities?
  11. When choosing members for appointed boards or subcommittees, what kind of process do you believe the board should follow?
  12. Do you think we should focus on providing advanced and honors classes for high achievers, or push more towards mixed-level classes that bring all students together? 
  13. If we are directing resources according to “need”, does this mean we should spend more on at-risk students than currently successful ones?  What kind of spending differences between students are acceptable?
  14. How do you feel about charter schools and other educational alternatives?   Should our district aim for more charter schools?
  15. Do you believe it’s fair that City View Charter receives several thousand fewer dollars per student than the rest of HSD spends, even after subtracting services (like busing and special ed) that City View is exempt from?   Why?
  16. Should HSD be able to use taxpayer money to launch a marketing campaign, in hope of getting more taxpayer money allocated?
  17. Should HSD staff be allowed to form student “leadership clubs”, whose activities include traveling to Salem and lobbying state officials to take positions favored by our district?
  18. If a district boundary change is identified that will save the region several million dollars in costs overall, but cause a few dozen students (and their tax money) to be moved from Hillsboro to Beaverton, would you support or oppose it?  Why?
  19. What should our schools be teaching our children about the merits of the American system of government, in comparison to the rest of the world?
  20. Should our schools be teaching that we live in a fundamentally racist society, permeated with White Privilege, which is inherently unfair to anyone who is not a white male?


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Graduation Rates and Credit Recovery


You probably read the recent newspaper articles reporting graduation rates in Oregon high schools, including in our district.   Hillsboro once again did very well, with small increases in grad rates in 3 of the 4 main high schools, leading to a 1.26% increase overall.   This is excellent news, and reflective of multiple HSD programs providing active outreach and assistance to struggling students who might otherwise be on track for failure.   However, we need to be a bit cautious here:  if you think about it, you can increase graduation rates by lowering standards as well as by educating students.   You may recall that last year a departing teacher made a number of critical comments about the district, which I summarized in my blog .   One of his major concerns was a lack of standards in the credit recovery system, based on an online tool called “Plato”.   In the last few months, I followed up and took a closer look at our credit recovery program.

To start with, if you just look at the Plato system in isolation, I can indeed see why there was a serious concern.   This system is much more bare-bones than the “real” online classes largely used by our Online Academy (which you may have seen me praise in the past ), sometimes amounting to little more than an extended outline plus a 20-question multiple-choice test for each major unit.   So I followed up by meeting with Assistant Superintendent Travis Reiman, along with teacher Jeff Gower, who runs the credit recovery at one of our schools.   I was very impressed after speaking with Jeff.   He explained that Plato is just one tool, and that the real goal of credit recovery is to work with the subject-area teachers and find appropriate ways for a student to demonstrate mastery after they have been failing under the standard instructional methods.   Some of these students just need some individualized attention and coaching, and are not truly incapable of absorbing the material— it is just hard for a subject-area teacher with hundreds of students to properly identify and address their unique issues.   He shared some success stories of students who were able to return to the regular classroom after catching up in the credit recovery program.   As to the question fo whether this involves lowering standards to rubber-stamp students through to graduation, Jeff pointed out that each year a number of students in his program fail to achieve mastery and are not granted credit.   After speaking to Jeff, I am much more confident that our credit recovery program has solid goals and processes, and is doing the right thing for our students.


Now, we need to remain vigilant for several reasons.   I only had a limited amount to time to look into the credit recovery program, so if you are a student or teacher who has been involved in this area, I would love to hear more about your experiences, positive or negative.   Also, of course, issues like credit recovery and graduation rates only show that our district is doing well at keeping the students near the bottom from dropping out, and do not really say anything about how well we educate the rest of our students.   To truly claim that HSD is a high-achieving district, we also need evidence that academic achievement is rising, both for average and top students.   (As I have mentioned before in my blog, this has been made harder by the redesign of curriculum and standardized tests in the past few years under Common Core.)   I would really like to see our district start to appear at the top of academic rankings, providing solid evidence that all our students are well-served, including the ones at the top, middle, and bottom.  But for now, I’m joining the rest of the HSD community in congratulating our staff for its exceptional achievement in once again increasing our graduation rates.

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?