Sunday, February 7, 2016

Local update: Board response to Mr. Rytman

Parent Richard Rytman wrote to the Board of Education with a number of questions on Feb. 2. At the request of President Mikulski, I replied for the Board on Feb. 3. Later on Feb. 3, he responded to me: “I heard that my letter to the board was posted somewhere or will be in the next paper, not sure if that is true but if so, it was not my intent when I sent it.” On Feb. 4, his letter was printed in The Independent. In order to respond as directly, transparently, and quickly as possible to all who read that letter and share his concerns, I am reprinting the original reply here (with some bold formatting and one word in [brackets] added for clarity). I do not think it appropriate to use Facebook, which limits access to members, as an outlet for such communications.

From: Martha Toth
To: rrytman
Cc: VB Board; Michael Van Tassel
Sent: Wed, Feb 3, 2016 12:27 pm
Subject: Re: Cancellation of Board Meeting/Climate Survey

Mr. Rytman:

As I am retired and President Mikulski is trying to perform his CEO job while dealing with pressing district business, he has asked me to reply on behalf of the board.

Thank you for your letter. One thing we absolutely agree with you on is that this board has done a poor job of communicating, leaving a vacuum to be filled by inaccurate speculation and worse. A serious mistake we made was assuming that the people behind the SavageStrong site, who seem to have a large following, were actually interested in the answers we provided to their 26-page list of detailed questions. Since they have chosen not to share those answers (and in fact keep posting the already answered questions on their site), we will share them with those who write to us. I may not hit every point you have raised, but I will sincerely try to be responsive to your concerns (those raised by you both in this letter and previously).

• Our reluctance to name names or to get into the details of the investigation into the M-STEP irregularities stems from our desire to both protect the due process rights of teachers and shield the district from liability. We believe they also had a right to privacy (abrogated by self-appointed defenders) until the disciplinary process plays out.

• Staff were notified as close to the end of the school day as possible of their administrative leave with pay because they are contractually allowed to leave the premises the minute the children are dismissed. Do you think it would have been preferable to notify them by letter or email, instead of in person? Escorting them out is legally required once they are on leave. Substitute teachers were arranged for their classes beforehand, so there would be no break in continuity of instruction.

• We were unable to note that the problem with statistically impossible or highly improbable jumps in student scores was not a problem with the gifted classes at Savage, without thereby identifying the (now identified by members of the public) other teachers who were under suspicion of improper coaching.

• We still cannot get into the details of the investigative report with you or other members of the public without compromising the disciplinary hearings (or possible future court proceedings) for these teachers. It is also possible that additional interviews or other investigation may be called for, which is why we do not consider the investigation “closed.”

• We do not consider the competence or the professional ethics of our attorneys, who have specific responsibilities as “officers of the court,” to be at issue, and would caution others from doing so in public, as an attorney’s reputation is vital to his profession and will no doubt be defended vigorously.

• As with most sensitive legal documents, the investigative report was not “given” to board members, but rather was available for their inspection at the board office. Not every trustee has made such an inspection, so some are less familiar with the details than others, but in no way was this document kept from the board.

Moving on to Climate Survey….

• This is not the first time we have done such surveys. This is a function of central administration that is not micromanaged by the board and participation in this nationally used version was, indeed, planned as early as last spring. Typically, the board is briefed on the results of such surveys, but we do not involve ourselves in their planning. This is why board members may not have been aware of the plans at earlier meetings. Similarly, we do not micromanage student participation in various anonymous surveys, which are done using guidelines compliant with state and federal law, for such purposes as tracking student use of illegal drugs and other substance abuse or their risky sexual behavior. Such information is never traceable back to individuals and comes to the board only as a report afterwards.

• The board would normally have had a more extended and productive discussion of the survey results at a work-study, but such careful consideration was really not possible in the charged environment of our last meeting.

You wrote: If there is “a positive environment, then how do you explain the exodus of teachers, pending law suits and mounting number of lawyers being obtained?” We respectfully reject all of those premises.

Regarding teacher retention (much of which was already communicated to you previously):

• This is a national problem, after decades of teacher scapegoating and increasingly onerous micromanaging of the profession, coupled with reduced and/or flat compensation. There are 53% fewer people enrolling in teacher training programs (ASCD), an average of 18% of teachers leave the profession within their first five years (U.S. Dept. of Ed.), and 7.6% of teachers move annually between districts (U.S. Dept. of Ed.).

• This is a statewide problem: Legislative changes to teacher evaluation (now to be largely based on student test scores); to employee rights (re layoff, placement, recall, discipline, and discharge — all now prohibited subjects of collective bargaining); to tenure rights (change from “just cause” to “arbitrary and capricious” standard); to health insurance (20% mandatory copay and 3% of salary toward retiree health care); to retirement (reduction of contribution percentage [multiplier] from 1.5% to 1.25%); to establish a so-called Right to Work (meaning that fewer members carry the load of union dues); and to school funding (resulting in reduced total compensation nearly everywhere) have all contributed to a hostile climate and prompted many to leave or to retire earlier than they had planned.

• This is a VBPS problem, mostly due to state-induced financial constraints, but also due to our efforts to achieve high levels of learning for all (including our at-risk population):

⁃ Grade reconfiguration and the closure of a third of our elementary buildings led to layoffs, as we downsized operations to suit our lower student population.
⁃ Some teachers also chose to leave then rather than change buildings or grade levels.
⁃ Starting pay for most teachers is about $34,000, and we can no longer afford regular step increases.
⁃ Reduced funding also forced strict compliance with federal special education rules, leading to increased class sizes.
⁃ As student population continues to decline (largely due to children not being born five or more years ago), so will our staffing levels.
⁃ Staff assignments were changed in summer 2014 to better meet the needs of at-risk children at Rawsonville School; some staff chose to leave rather than be transferred.
⁃ We do expect continuous change and adjustment to new curricula and teaching practices in order to raise student achievement.

• These realities our district faces may certainly lead to teachers looking for work elsewhere, or in another profession entirely, which is a situation we find frustrating, since we want the very best teachers here in our schools and educating our kids. Unfortunately, given our situation as a district and working with the resources we are given, that trend is likely to continue here, as it will in districts across the state, until changes are made at the state and federal level.

Moving to the ongoing issue of “exit interviews”:

We do not see the value in doing the kind of exit interviews apparently desired by some of the public, as the professional literature (Educ. Leadership & Org. Behavior; Socy. for Human Resource Mgt.) recommends against it. In the field of education, staff depend upon good references and are rarely completely open about why they leave. Instead, we do have our own ways of soliciting feedback and have taken steps already to deal with problems uncovered by this feedback. We also offer many opportunities for feedback before a staff member might choose to leave, including weekly staff meetings and the well-established central office lunch tour (where administrators regularly eat with teachers to offer informal opportunities for communication).

• Our exit information process:

⁃ Building Principal speaks with staff members upon their notice of resignation. Discussion is held regarding reasons why and if there was anything the District could have done differently. This information is relayed to Human Resources.
⁃ Human Resource Director speaks with every Administrator to determine reason for leaving the District.
⁃ Human Resources Director discusses with Superintendent the resignation/reason for leaving. Discussion also includes ways to proactively work on issues raised.
⁃ Human Resources/Superintendent’s office send letter to staff accepting resignation and conveying our good wishes.
⁃ Resignation is placed on Board Consent Agenda along with the reason for leaving the District cited by the employee.

• A New Hire Orientation was instituted to better inculcate new employees into our culture; our mentor-teacher program for new hires was improved; and teachers were given specific, research-based training in classroom management.

• A New Hiring Process was developed after we had an unusual number of new teachers who did not meet our expectations for renewal of their contracts. Better screening, a trained interview team, demonstration of model lessons, and in-service for principals on hiring were all instituted and have resulted in stronger new hires.

Finally, we are not supposed to discuss employee departures in any way, or to speculate on the reasons for them beyond that given by the employee and noted in the Consent Agenda — despite one trustee’s persistence in doing so, against board bylaws and procedures that she made the motion to approve some years ago. Under the Open Meetings Act, an employee has the right to be present if there will be discussion related to them at a Board meeting. The employee must be informed of this in advance and be given the opportunity to request that the discussion take place in closed session. The Act strictly prohibits this discussion without employee’s consent and/or knowledge. We break the law if we discuss an employee without this notice and consent.

Returning to your premises above, we do not have any unusual number of lawsuits in progress against the district, and we have not been “obtaining mounting numbers of attorneys.”

I hope this has addressed most, if not all, of your concerns. I am sorry that a board meeting with a large crowd is not a good venue for going into such detail when such issues are not on the agenda. Nearly everything I have written above has been part of an agenda item at a work-study within the past year.

-Martha Toth

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