Bethel Park Superintendent Seems Confused About Responsibility

Lamenting the inability of the Bethel Park School District to get a contract with teachers for the last two and half years, the superintendent says she has been silent until now because she is in a " peculiar position of advising the Board and leading the staff."

Hold the phone. Does the Board not hire superintendents to manage the schools on behalf of the residents and taxpayers of the district? That being the case, the superintendent is honor bound to work for the board and taxpayers. Staff members do not pay her salary, they answer to her as the board’s appointed agent in charge.

Clearly, she has the obligation to advise the board on what it should do vis-à-vis the teachers’ contract but her obligation has to be first and foremost to the board. She can be an advocate for programs that improve education or management procedures that improve cost effectiveness. At the same time, she is not, and should never consider herself, to be a spokesperson for the union’s interests. The union has enough power on its side in the bargaining process including the right to strike and the state’s idiotic no layoffs for financial reasons provisions.

If the talks are at an impasse, and compensation costs cannot be lowered under the terms of the old contract, the superintendent should offer suggestions about programs to cut-one of two criteria the state permits for reducing staff. Alternatively, if teachers will not agree to slight increases in class size to save their jobs, then the onus must be on their union for staff that lose their jobs because of intransigence.

The Bethel Park board should question whether the superintendent understands her role.

Goodbye Superintendent, Better Luck at Your New Job

In a going away interview the Pittsburgh school superintendent regaled the interviewers with how hard he worked to make a difference. He declared success in improving teacher effectiveness and creating the Promise Scholarship Program. He was more modest in regretting that only modest improvement was achieved in the high schools.

Too bad he did not mention the Promise Program’s failure to keep or attract students as its advocates predicted excitedly it would. Enrollment continues to fall, especially in the high schools. Nor has the Program helped academic progress. Indeed, as we have suggested earlier, there is a very real possibility the Promise Program has reduced incentive of serious students to work hard.

After five years, per students costs have not been reduced despite school closings and fewer teachers employed. Meanwhile, non-teaching administrative jobs have jumped sharply. Moreover, the District has maintained its spending levels without raising tax rates because of a $40 million infusion of state money provided through the Federal stimulus program. The next budget cycle will look a lot different as the Federal money is no longer available. A tax increase is almost inevitable.

So here’s wishing the outgoing superintendent better luck at his new job. Resurrecting a bankrupt college might be a snap compared to making progress in an urban school district.

One wonders if in his heart of hearts he ever thought, "You know. There might be something to this school choice, voucher idea." That could keep a person awake nights for a long time.

Day of Bizarre Education Stories

Man bites dog. The headline every reporter is salivating to use. Well, there is now a perfect opportunity courtesy of the Bethel Park School District. Parents are protesting teachers who are on strike. Not just taxpayers, but parents whom teachers normally count on to defend union demands and urge the Board to cave.

This is big news. Too bad it has taken so long for this to happen. Perhaps the parents will begin to consider supporting state office candidates who will vote to eliminate the right of teachers to strike. Still, if more parents and other taxpayers will join in and set an example, there is a chance such protests will spread and begin to undermine the teacher union belief that there are no consequences to walking off the job.

Then there was the report of City Council honoring Superintendent Roosevelt as he prepares to depart to head up a completely failed educational institution as opposed to the Pittsburgh Schools that are barely holding on to any semblance of respectability that he has decided to abandon. What a joke. Spending per student has risen above $20,000 under Roosevelt, enrollment is still falling despite the Promise Program and 11th graders have shown no improvement in academic achievement. Other than that he has been just swell as superintendent.

Of course City Council’s governance of the City gives them no standing to honor actual examples of superior performance, or for that matter an example of adequate performance. How would they know the difference?

Goodbye, Mr. Roosevelt–With Apologies to Mr. Chips

The Pittsburgh school superintendent will be leaving at year’s end with almost four years remaining on his contract. He is headed for new challenges and opportunities as president of a defunct college.

Perhaps the challenges still unmet in Pittsburgh have proved too daunting. After years of effort and massive spending to improve the schools and student performance, high school academic achievement-as measured by SAT score and PSSA results-point to an unmistakable conclusion: there has been no progress in the education of 11th graders. And as anyone who has thought about it knows, we don’t spend over a quarter of a million dollars per student for 13 years so they can enter the world unprepared. It does not matter if they are good 5th grade students. The ultimate goal is not good 6th grade students. Important, but not the final objective.

Could it be that Mr. Roosevelt, upon realizing that the public school model in Pittsburgh would never accept the changes necessary to fix the high school problem, despaired of stopping the outflow of students and improving student test scores? Good time to jump at an opportunity such as going to resurrect a failed college. Let’s hope the college’s finances are able to cash his paychecks.

A Better Use for $200k

According to published reports several anonymous foundations have decided to offer $200k over the next five years to the Pittsburgh Public Schools in order to pay taxes on a life insurance benefit to the current Superintendent. According to the District’s Solicitor the Federal tax code "requires the recipient to pay taxes on employer-paid life insurance premiums in the short term, even if the recipient won’t receive the benefits for years to come".

Consider that this past October, when the District extended a new contract with the Superintendent, a news article pointed out that the agreement included "An increase-from about $12,500 to about $28,700- [in] the district’s annual contribution to a life insurance policy of his choosing. As before, the district also will provide him a separate $400,000 term life insurance policy…[and] a one-time payment of $16,150. The agreement doesn’t explain that payment, but [the Superintendent] said it, too, is for life insurance".

Rather than extend $200k for taxes on top of what appear to be quite generous benefits, a better use of the money-certainly one that would deliver long term benefits-would be for the foundations to offer scholarships of $10k for four years for five students to attend the private or parochial school of their family’s choosing.

This would be a very targeted program and would certainly be criticized as leaving much of the district’s enrollment out, but what would be more preferable: giving some students choice, or helping to pay the taxes on a life insurance policy for the District’s highest official?