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.


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