Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Ring of Gyges

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power."

- Abraham Lincoln

“Character is doing the right thing when nobody is looking."

- J.C. Watts

“An invisible man is a man of power.”

- H.G. Wells

Back in January, I had the opportunity as the board clerk of the Adelanto School District, to make the district eligible for the Race to the Top fund by signing a memorandum of understanding agreement. Race to the Top is a federal competitive grant. I didn’t dare sign the agreement. Race to the Top and the agreement were never on any board agenda, discussed, nor given prior approval by the board. I believed, at the time, that the other trustees would have torn me apart for committing the district on my own without board approval. I was wrong. I have been criticized instead for not signing it.

Another opportunity came in May. This time the memorandum of understanding agreement was a binding no opt-out obligation to the requirements of Race to the Top. That means that once submitted – a district is required to follow the mandates of the agreement unless “kicked out” for noncompliance or allowed out with permission from the California Department of Education. The superintendent and the board president signed and submitted the agreement without it ever being on a board agenda, publicly discussed, nor approved by the board. The agreement was also not on the agenda for discussion nor announced as an action taken in the next board meeting.

Under normal circumstances this action would be a clear-cut classic example of violating California’s open public meeting law called the Brown Act. Interestingly, legal opinions opined that this is OK without explaining or citing a source that explains how the Race to the Top memorandum of understanding agreement is exempt from the Brown Act.

This is a dangerous precedent. School boards and other public agencies need to conduct the people’s business openly or risk the serious reality of future misconduct.

The founding fathers of our nation established freedom of speech and freedom of the press as a way to keep the government honest. Keeping the public informed on how elected officials conduct the people’s business is a safe guard against unethical behavior. I find it incredulous that other trustees are accusing me of misbehavior for exposing how the district became obligated to sweeping mandates without the public being informed.

Public governance is an honest government. This is illustrated in the legend of the ring of Gyges. In Plato’s Republic, Glaucon shares the story of how Gyges, a shepherd in the kingdom of Lydia comes across a mystical ring that has the power to turn him invisible. The shepherd uses this power to seduce the queen, kill the king, and take over the kingdom. Glaucon then hypothesizes that if there were two such rings, one given to a just person and the other to an unjust person – it would be the just person whose behavior would change and become corrupted. If no one can see what you are doing, how can they hold you accountable or stop you?

I submit that if we want to have ethical behavior from elected officials – we need public governance to be the prime directive in how they conduct the people’s business. No more polling board members on the phone. No more action taken without public discussion and board approval.

Please visit me at Facebook - Carlos Mendoza

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Avoiding the Public Scrutiny - Part 4

“A common colloquial expression in the English language, to buy a pig in a poke is to make a risky purchase without inspecting the item beforehand. The phrase can also be applied to accepting an idea or plan without a full understanding of its basis.”

- Wikipedia

This is the 4th and final blog on the “Avoiding the Public Scrutiny” series.

Yesterday I saw Spain beat Germany in futbol. It was my first World Cup game. Awesome! Then I gave the live stream of the California State Academic Content Standards Commission’s discussion on the Common Core Standards 20 minutes. They are going to make a recommendation on whether or not these standards should be adopted by the state. It wasn’t as action packed as the World Cup game.

A question came to mind. If California already submitted an application for Race to the Top with the commitment to implement the Common Core Standards – aren’t the good people on the commission wasting their time on what is a foregone conclusion?

The U.S Department of Education has $4.35 billion dollars in a competitive grant called Race to the Top. To receive it, states must apply for the grant and agree to the sweeping mandates it requires. Implementing the Common Core Standards was among them. In submitting its application, California committed to implementing the Common Core Standards the day before its final version was released. The standards commission is only now reviewing the Common Core Standards for adoption consideration. Does the expression buying a pig in a poke (bag) come to mind?

Of course, it was the U.S. Department of Education that set the deadline for the Race to the Top application. Does that mean that Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, didn’t read the Common Core Standards before making it a requirement for Race to the Top? There seems to be a lot of that going on in government these days.

Then, of course, there is the Adelanto Elementary School District. The Superintendent, Darin Brawley, and Board President, Lisa Marie Garcia, signed and submitted a binding no opted out Race to the Top memorandum of understanding agreement without prior board approval and public discussion.

[This paragraph was deleted because there is a board policy stating that if in the minority of any decision, they (board members) shall abide by and support the majority decision. It is my understanding, therefore, that no matter how dumb the official decision is - I'm not allowed to criticize it. The above statement is valid, however, because it is about the behavior of two individuals that committed the district to an action without a board decision.]

It just seems to me that a whole lot of people are accepting a plan without a full understanding of its basis.

Please visit me at Facebook – Carlos Mendoza

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

California is a Deadbeat Parent to School Kids

"An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest."

- Benjamin Franklin

Class sizes in California will inevitably go up. When that happens we can jump up and down and proclaim that we are #1. We will be the #1 worst state in the nation for teacher to student ratio.

California has cut $17 billion dollars from education. $550 million of it was from the state’s class size reduction program. I remember when this program was initiated. The idea behind the program approximately 13 years ago was to provide districts with a financial incentive to bring K-3 classrooms down to a maximum of 20 students per teacher. The incentive was needed to counter the cost savings of larger class sizes.

That financial incentive is now essentially gone. Districts are reeling from waves after waves of state cuts they must absorb and pass on to their employees at the expense of our children’s education. Class sizes are going to go up.

The Adelanto Elementary School District, along with other districts in the state, requested a waiver of the California Education Code 41376 relating to class size penalties for grades 4th through 8th. This legislation set the district wide class size average for those grades to be no more than 30 when calculating the district’s apportionment from the state. Except for districts with class size averages above 30 when this was set in 1964, districts are penalized for averaging more than 30 students in a class grades 4th through 8th. This waiver will relax that requirement. Class sizes are going to go up.

What can be done about it? A broad coalition, including the California School Boards Association, California PTA, and the Association of California School Administrators, is suing California (Robles-Wong v. California) to fulfill its obligation to support public education. The lawsuit is essentially treating the state as a deadbeat parent unwilling to pay for child support. One school district, Cupertino School District, recently passed a resolution in support of this lawsuit. Perhaps more can show support.

Robles-Wong v. California -

Cupertino School District Backing Lawsuit Against State -

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Avoiding the Public Scrutiny - Part 3

Click on the image for a closer look

The superintendent of the Adelanto Elementary School District, Mr. Darin Brawley and board president, Mrs. Lisa Marie Garcia, signed and submitted a binding no opt-out Race to the Top memorandum of understanding agreement without prior official board approval and without public discussion. This signed agreement, if the grant is received, commits the district to requirements never previously discussed nor approved by the board in an official public meeting. Nor was the action publicly announced in the next board meeting after signing the agreement. And prior to my actions – the public didn’t know anything about it.

Why is this a big deal? It is a big deal because transparency in governance as described in California’s Brown Act is meant to be the prime directive in how school boards should conduct business. The Brown Act is a law that essentially states that school boards and other public agencies in California need to conduct the people’s business openly. In the case of Race to the Top, legal opinions opined that board action was not required to sign the agreement, but the California School Boards Association advised local school districts to secure board approval in order to comply with state law. It just becomes worrisome and a conflict when new legislation, contracts, and board actions are crafted to bypass the public scrutiny.

Disregard for transparency in governance leads to justification for all kinds of attempts to bypass the public scrutiny. Look at the above image of board item 8.10 of the April 20th board meeting agenda. The title of the board item is PTA Membership Drive. It is well described. The idea was popular among the board members. Helping to expand the enrollment of PTA membership sounds like a good idea. The funding source, however, was not acceptable. Most of the board was uncomfortable with taking $2400 already allocated per school from a Reading and Math grant to buy incentives for a PTA membership drive. It sounded like a school would lose its $2400 if it did not reach its PTA membership drive goal. It was tabled with a 3-2 vote. The idea behind tabling the item was to find a different funding source.

Click on the image for a closer look

Now look at the above image of board item 8.01 of the June 1st board meeting agenda – it’s devoid of any information. It turns out, with questioning by the board, that this item was really board item 8.10 from the April 20th meeting revisited without any changes, except devoid of up front information. The funding source to buy the incentives for a PTA membership drive was unchanged – it was just not revealed except under questioning.

These types of practices are not good examples of transparency in governance. Avoiding the public scrutiny is not how we should do business.

Please Visit me at Facebook - Carlos Mendoza

California Government Code – Brown Act

The First Amendment Project – Brown Act

The Brown Act