Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Code of Conduct - Proposed Changes and Approved Changes

At the last meeting of the full board, we voted (5-1) to make specific amendments to the existing Code of Conduct rather than accept the changes proposed by administration. In the past week, the board has received a few e-mails arguing that we should have adopted the proposed changes. Unfortunately, the description of what happened and why has been incomplete at best, so I am posting my thoughts on making the motion to amend the existing code rather than adopt the administration's proposal. 

The full video of the discussion is on-line, starting c. minute 10:30 on the video clock. If you have seen selected cuts on other blog sites, I suggest that you watch the entire discussion and decide what did or did not happen for yourself:

I also encourage you to read the respective codes. The substantive difference between the proposed new version that was rejected and the modified existing code that was approved and will be in place in August, is the degree to which student and family rights are articulated. The existing code is much more explicit about the right to due process and the steps involved in a suspension or expulsion.

I am particularly concerned that the proposed new version glosses over constitutional protections. Some have argued that they need not be articulated because students are inherently protected by the constitution. Having read many expulsion transcripts over the past five years, I find that students from families with high levels of education and/or the resources to hire a lawyer are indeed protected by the constitution. Students, families, and advocates for students, who are not at those levels of privilege are far less likely to understand their rights and far less likely to be able to defend themselves against the charges. I believe that is a problem. Printing specific rights is not a guarantee of protection, but it is far better than vague language saying that students can talk to an unidentified someone if they think they are being treated unfairly.

The existing code was last revised in the past 3 years, with an eye toward creating consistency in treatment across schools and demographic groups. The board had identified significant disparities in outcomes without guidelines for discipline at the respective levels of offense. Again, the students perceived as "good" kids tended to get breaks and less severe discipline, especially when their parents and lawyers could muster letters of support from prominent members of the community. Students who did not appear, and who had no one appear on their behalf at the hearing, tended to get the harshest punishment. The demographics of those two different outcomes was a serious concern. The current system mitigated, but did not completely eliminate those disparities.

Two years ago, we were asked to give more flexibility to principals and the superintendent in recommending expulsions. Since then, we are again seeing some cases dismissed because the students "didn't understand the seriousness of their actions." Other students, at times with lesser offenses, are recommended for expulsion. Would anyone care to place a wager on the hue and socioeconomic status of each group?

As imperfect as it is, the current system has been a significant step forward in leveling the field when it comes to the most serious levels of discipline. There are elements of the proposed changes that would be a step backward. I wish that I could say that we have not seen shocking disparities in the flexibility that was created two years ago. That is not the case. For that reason, I made the compromise motion to make amendments to fix known problems in the code without adopting the entire package.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

About those property taxes and the MMSD budget gap...

I recently wrote this response to TJ Mertz's blog on the newly-discovered shortfall in state aid to the Madison Metro School District. It places the gap, and the WSJ article on the gap, in perspective. At least it provides my perspective on where we are and what is likely to happen next.

TJ, before you fall into trashing James please be aware that, as is the case with every board member, James learned of the gap from a reporter. Not from the district. He was asked to comment, as was I, and probably every other board member that the reporter could reach, to comment specifically on raising taxes.

With no information on the gap or administration's proposed response, I suspect that James responded the way most of us would. When we voted to set the preliminary budget, the board majority was very concerned about raising taxes above the amount approved in the 2008 referendum. We managed to put positions - notably for Occupational Therapy Assistants - back into the budget despite administration's efforts to use them to solve the budget gap that we knew about. We also managed, as you are well aware, to assure that 4K students in the Allied Drive area will have 4K in their neighborhood. We did both of these things without raising taxes; instead, we made choices about how we use existing resources. I can guarantee you that those solutions did not come from the pollster who offers tax raises without the larger context. But you know that, too.

James' answer reflects that approach, although it is not reflected in the answer that was printed. You can stop bashing him.

When we were setting the preliminary budget (which we received a mind boggling 10 days before we were asked to vote on it), many of us asked questions about the state budget and our level of confidence in the numbers that we were using. We were assured that these were highly vetted and developed numbers. Apparently not so much, but we were not alone in our surprise. It is surprising that the first knowledge that we (board members) had was when a reporter called.

Since then, we have had a good deal of purple prose about what happened. The only option offered was to raise taxes. I suspect that some of us will be looking at a number of alternatives based on staff responses to a survey asking what we could do without and what we absolutely need to succeed. There are some big neon arrows in the frontline responses. None of those are reflected in the budget that administration brought forward. (I note that some board members don't find the line item budget to be very helpful in shaping their opinions; I tend to find the line item budget to be very helpful in thinking through ways to solve real problems like OTA services and K4 that actually reaches our poorest students).

It is reasonable to expect that staff responses to the budget survey of last spring will be reflected in solutions that come from the board as we set the final budget and tax levy in October.

Between now and then, we will we working to get through the smoke and mirrors that were used in the preliminary budget and the dance of the seven veils that we will surely get in administration presentations on the budget. It may be that raising taxes is the truly the only option. But until there has been a full discussion based on verifiable information, I will not be committing to one course of action or another in fixing this hot mess.