No Administrator Left Behind in Palm Beach County Schools

Superintendent Donald Fennoy is paid $290,000 a year, plus $12,000 a year in deferred compensation, free use of a district vehicle, and a $12,000-a-year expense account. Not bad for a 41-year-old with no previous experience in the top job. His promotion came with a total pay increase of over $100,000.

The Palm Beach County School District plans to cut only teachers – and only teachers- if the school property tax increase is voted down. No administrators would lose their jobs and vendors who supply the district will continue reaping millions.

The district has been “informing” the public about the upcoming vote. Most recently this was manifested in an e-mail sent this afternoon. One of the most prominent claims in the e-mail is that the measure will “continue funding for 650 teachers in Art, Music, PE, Choice and Career [sic].” We calculate that if 650 teachers cost the district on average approximately $76,000 a year (including salary, benefits and expenses), that adds up to the full $50 million the district says it will have to cut from the budget.

The “650 teachers” number is used frequently in district communications.

It’s not the first time the 650 reference has been made. It is a central part of the message the district has been pushing on the ballot question. It appears in a pdf document that indicates it was created in late August, and on other similar documents on the district’s page about the referendum.

Again and again they mention the 650 teachers:

The use of this language strongly suggests that if the measure does not pass, 650 teachers in those areas will be laid off. We personally have heard school district employees say exactly that. Of course there’s no indication in any of the district’s “information” regarding the potential loss of any administrator jobs. This fits with longstanding local, state and federal education policies that we refer to as “No Administrator Left Behind.” Teachers get no raises. The air conditioning doesn’t work. But don’t worry folks – we’ve got plenty of well paid administrators. See for example Andrew Marra’s recent Palm Beach Post article: The number of PBC school execs making $140K has nearly tripled in 2 years.

We decided to ask the school board members from West Boca and district officials to explain where the 650 number comes from. So far we have not gotten a straightforward answer.

School board member Karen Brill responded quickly and more thoroughly than anyone else so far. We thank her for that. She opened with the following:

It’s interesting that you are asking this because in our Board discussion regarding the Referendum, I asked our CFO what the contingency plan is if the Referendum fails. I was told there is no contingency plan. That does concern me.

Brill also addressed our specific questions:

Q: If the property tax measure fails, will you vote to cut 650 art, music, pe, choice and career teacher positions?

A: No. Art, Music, PE, Choice and Career Programs are essential components of our District’s offerings. These are the programs that motivate our children, enhance their education and make for higher levels of learning.

Q: Have you considered alternatives such as reducing administrator pay and eliminating administrative positions?

A: Absolutely. It is will be essential that we will have to look at every possible alternative in order to maintain the funding for the teaching positions you outlined above.

Q: What will you do if the vote fails?

A: First, you should know that there will not be an impact in this school year. The first thing we would need to do is convene a Board Workshop to discuss staff’s and the Board’s recommendations of areas where consolidation and cost reductions can be made. Obviously we would have to begin addressing the situation immediately.

Brill closed with the following:

In addition to the above, my comment is that it is regrettable that those at the state level do not believe that funding public education is a priority. We are now 44th in the nation on the amount the state funds to educate our students. That’s deplorable! Recruitment and retention of teachers at the salaries Districts are forced to pay is extremely difficult. In addition, changes in our world have necessitated changes in the physical structure of our schools to enhance school safety. An area of particular need is the hiring of additional mental health professionals. Whatever the outcome of the Referendum vote, we all need to work together for the benefit our children. Although cliché, it truly does take a village.

School board member Frank Barbieri also responded quickly but briefly:

If the tax levy fails, I’ll ask (and I believe the other Board Members will ask) the Superintendent to provide the School Board with all available options so that we can make an informed decision as to how we should proceed.

We’re not terribly thrilled with that answer. The administrators are unlikely to include cutting their own pay and jobs as one of the options.

We also e-mailed Superintendent Fennoy and COO Wanda Paul, with similar questions to the ones Brill answered. We did not get a direct response from Fennoy or Paul, but rather got an anonymous response from the district media staff:

Our questions:

Superintendent Fennoy and COO Paul,

Does the school district have a plan to cut 650 teachers from art, music, pe, careers, and choice programs if the ballot question fails?

Where did the 650 number come from?

Has the district considered other alternatives such as lowering administrator pay or cutting administrator positions? Any other alternatives?

And the anonymous response:

The District has a current .25 mil approved by voters that funds the salaries of 650 arts, career, pe, and health teachers. It is due for renewal this November – the District is asking for a full 1 mill this November.

Should the referendum not pass in November, the District will have to cut $50 million, the amount currently funded by voters, from its budget. This is an extensive amount of money that would have to include deep cuts at the district and school level. Since 70% of the District’s budget is in manpower, there would undoubtedly be cuts of positions at all levels, from support positions, to teachers, to administrators.

This will have a negative impact on our ability to serve students and compensate our employees. Hundreds of jobs will be eliminated and remaining employees may be subject to unpaid furloughs as we work to balance the budget. There will be no prospect of employee raises for teachers or any other employee group in the foreseeable future if the District is forced to make these draconian budget cuts.

It is telling that the response does not in any way explain the 650 number they keep repeating. And it does not limit the potential cuts to the specific ones mentioned in the political messaging we’re all paying for.

“There would undoubtedly be cuts of positions at all levels, from support positions, to teachers, to administrators.”

That is very different. But we think we’ve figured it out. The district’s answer references a $50 million cut. As described above cutting 650 teachers would add up to $50 million. So the district’s numbers indicate they plan to cut only teachers. However, if the response we received today is accurate, the repeated message about funding for 650 teachers is a lie. The district has a history of lying to the public in order to win a tax increase, and the board follows by giving pay raises to the liars despite ongoing failures to fix simple things like air conditioning.

It is also interesting to note the political decision made by the district staff and school board. Facing the expiration of the .25 mill tax, they decided to reach for a full 1 mill, a 400% tax increase. An alternative strategy might have been one measure to renew the existing .25 mill tax along with a second measure to add on another .75 mill tax.

The increase will cost the typical West Boca homeowner roughly $400 per year. The actual increase will depend on the home’s appraised value.

Residents should be reassured by the other e-mail we received from the district today. The important work of our administrators will go forward no matter what:

Perhaps some of our readers thought the purpose of our schools was to educate children. Nope. It’s to help vendors build multi-million dollar companies and keep administrators employed and well paid.

Big Crowd at Olympic Heights for School District Forum

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An estimated 400 people showed up to the school district’s event at Olympic Heights High School on Lyons Road north of Glades. The meeting was for discussing the school board’s Resolution on Accountability. Slides from the presentation are at the bottom of this article.
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The resolution has mysteriously disappeared from the school district website, and of course they ran out of English language copies of it. Plenty of Spanish language ones were available. However we were able to find a copy of it online at Diane Ravitch’s blog.
The resolution is lengthy but basically it seeks to limit the impact of testing on education. We give credit to the school district staff for keeping their presentation reasonably brief, and then allowing the audience members to speak.
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Many of the audience commenters were teachers, though there were also students and parents. The group below spoke toward the end of the event.
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An Olympic Heights junior, below, spoke early on.
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And this 5th grader spoke well about the pressure of testing and the uncomfortable experience it has been for her.
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There were other kids in the audience:
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One of the teachers who spoke identified himself as the chair of West Boca High’s Language Arts Department, Noel Levin.
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Generally the speakers read from prepared statements and were well received by the audience. The main complaints seemed to be about testing, curricula, and teacher pay. The “Common Core” buzzword came up repeatedly.
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It seemed that a couple of things were missing. First, while the complaints were coherent, there did not seem to be a clear solution. Second, the resolution and much of the comments addressed federal and state issues beyond the power of the school board, but there was virtually no presence from state and federal officials.
There was one exception to that, as State Rep. Irving Slosberg took the microphone and gave a rousing speech encouraging people to vote out Rick Scott and the Republicans in Tallahassee and “change the management” in state government.

Irving Slosberg (far left); School Board candidate Tom Sutterfield 2nd from right
Irving Slosberg (far left); Board candidate Sutterfield 2nd from right

We spoke with Slosberg outside. We asked whether the problems people are complaining about (testing, curricula, common core, etc.) were brought about by both parties and he didn’t answer that directly. He focused on teacher pay, blaming Republicans for it being so low. We also asked about Charlie Crist’s role in the FCAT and Slosberg said that was in the past. He clearly did not like our questions and stuck to his partisan message. Regardless, we appreciate that he showed up and so did the audience.
A few other state and federal elected officials live close by but didn’t come. Early on we “tweeted” to Ted Deutch and Kevin Rader on Twitter but they did not respond.
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Slides from the presentation are below:
[gview file=”http://westbocanews.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/slides.pdf”]

Karen Brill – School Board Candidate

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Having interviewed the two challengers for school board earlier, I met Karen Brill the other day at Jidai Kaiten Sushi on Powerline. The funny thing about interviewing candidates is that they all tend to be likeable. Sometimes that makes it hard to pick who to vote for. In this case Brill made it easier.
Brill, Dave Mech, and John Hartman are running for District 3, which runs north from Clint Moore so most of West Boca can’t vote in the race.
She was elected to the school board in 2010 by defeating a long-time incumbent and a few others. She was endorsed in that race by the Palm Beach Post, and they endorsed her again today.
As their 2010 article mentions, Brill became motivated by challenges she faced from the school district in getting a proper and fair education for her autistic son. Because of that experience she describes herself as the go-to person on the board for parents with special needs kids.
Two things in particular impressed me about her. First, she’s very knowledgeable. Some people get elected to boards and just show up to collect the paycheck. Brill, by contrast, has spent the last four years learning a great deal about how things work in the school district. She doesn’t know everything, but she understands how the school district works far better than her opponents.
Second, she is a bundle of energy. The Post mentioned that as well. Our conversation ranged over many topics and anything that came up sparked a stream of ideas and answers from Brill.
She’s not perfect. I asked her some tough questions about “Common Core” and I didn’t love her answers. Her focus on special needs and her knowledge of the finer details of the issues seems to keep her from taking a “big picture” look at the district. For example, we talked about how the system should work better so that parents of kids with special needs wouldn’t need to go to a school board member for help. She got the point, but didn’t seem to know how to get there.
In a follow-up e-mail she said:

I believe we went off on a tangent on how to address the issue of parents of special needs students going to a school board member for assistance. There is an answer. The District needs to restore the Parent Services position (with federal funding from the IDEA) under the new ESE Director or they need to create an ombudsman position.”

And regarding seeing the big picture she said:

My special needs son is only 1/4 of my children. They range from gifted to advanced to average and then to challenged. One my primary concerns is the crush of standardized testing and what is doing to our students’ love for learning and teachers’ ability to teach.

I don’t find those responses persuasive, but I’m voting for her anyway. She has two opponents in the race. I interviewed Dave Mech in June. While I liked him, he just didn’t seem serious enough about the actually winning the election and serving on the school board. Brill, by contrast, is almost too serious about it.
More recently I interviewed John Hartman. There are some critical things I love about Hartman. He’s more of a big picture guy. He’s very concerned about Common Core and strongly opposed to it. If opposition to Common Core is your biggest issue with the schools, then Hartman is the one you should vote for and you should give him some money too. But it’s a little too much of a holy war. He reminds me of the Blues Brothers:

I don’t like Common Core, but it’s not enough. One school board member isn’t going to stop it, or whatever other name they place on it. Brill does see problems with Common Core, FCATs, etc. Her knowledge and energy will be more effective at managing how to deal with it. At the same time she’s ready to handle all the other issues our school board will confront. And she has the personality to get along with others and work through things.
Ideologically I line up more with Hartman. But you don’t win elections because of a higher power. You win them by planning ahead and figuring out how you’re going to reach the voters with your message. Those same methods help you get results when you do get elected. Brill is more ready to get things done. Like many first-time candidates Hartman did not understand how difficult it would be. And that makes you wonder how effective he would be if he won.
Practically speaking, Brill is going to win this election easily. I hope Hartman runs again, either for school board or another office. I’d love to help him in that next race.

West Boca Porn Star (and Math Tutor) Runs for School Board

dave-mechWell that was interesting. Yesterday I sat down with school board candidate David Mech at Jon Smith Subs in Mission Bay Plaza. Mr. Mech has a math tutoring business in West Boca. He became motivated to get his political message out when the school district took his sign down because of his past history as an actor in the adult entertainment industry. He’s suing the district over that. Various media have picked up on this story not because of Mech’s policy views but also because of his past.
We were more interested in policy issues and his candidacy so we focused on that in our conversation (for those with other interests the porn-related information is at the bottom of the article).
He’s very likeable and he makes some sense. Mech is well educated, smart, and his views on schools are thoughtful and interesting.
But it became apparent early in the conversation that Mech is not trying to win the school board race. He doesn’t know what his district lines are, how many voters are in his district, and has no plan to get his campaign message out to the voters in the district other than getting media attention due to his previous career. He wasn’t even sure how many seats there are on the board. There are all things a serious candidate should know.
We’ve figured out some of that. He’s running for District 3, which runs north from Clint Moore and west of Military Trail. There are seven seats, so that works out to less than 200,000 residents per district.
Instead Mech says he’s trying to get a message out about issues. Unfortunately his message might be too complicated for the level of attention he’s going to get. He mentioned five general topics: Technology, Innovation, Equality, Sex Education, and Secular Values.
I like some of his suggestions, such as a pilot program incorporating Khan Academy. However, much of what he talked about seemed out of touch with voters. His “equality” issue is not about disparate treatment of students based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, but rather about employment protection for teachers and other staff who have made “lawful lifestyle choices” such as working in porn or just having sexy pictures on the internet that might of been on websites like fullhdxxx. Is this something that motivates voters?
He complained that the incumbent in the race is wasting time pushing for a parent dress code for school events. While there are certainly bigger issues, her idea is probably more important to more voters than his “equality for sexy teachers” issue.
Even though he works with kids in our schools, he was not familiar with many of the concerns I’ve heard from other parents and experienced ourselves. He was only marginally aware of the magnet schools and choice programs, or disciplinary problems plaguing some of our schools. He was unaware of textbook quality concerns or homework loads.
Despite those criticisms, I like the guy, particularly his experience as a math tutor and his obvious mathematical competence. There’s a shortage of that in the education establishment. If I lived in the district I’d probably vote for him just because it would be nice to see if he could shake things up a bit. And the district pretty clearly screwed him when they took his sign down, a clear violation of his First Amendment rights and maybe the plot of his next adult film.
Speaking of which, for those more interested in his career in adult entertainment, Mech operated under the stage name Dave Pounder. He published a book last year under that pseudonym, Obscene Thoughts: Obscene Thoughts: A Pornographer’s Perspective on Sex, Love, and Dating. He’s also done a documentary, Risky Business: A Look Inside America’s Adult Film Industry, as Dave Mech:

Risky Business: A Look Inside America’s Adult Film Industry – Trailer from Shorts Sandals Entertainment on Vimeo.

As best we can tell Mech appeared in over 100 adult films and directed over 100 titles for outfits such as BangBros.com. Titles of his films include the 18 with Proof series, Teenage Delinquents (we might have to use that for one of our crime articles), and I Scored a Soccer Mom.
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