Saturday, March 27, 2010

MA: Panel OKs school budget cuts, teachers protest

A crowd from a rally that drew hundreds of school employees tried rushing into Boston School Department headquarters last night, sparking a standoff with police, just hours before the School Committee slashed millions of dollars in spending for the next school year but without closing any schools.

More than a dozen police officers struggled for several minutes to pull the doors free of the crowd, in an effort to prevent anyone from entering the downtown Court Street building, where the School Committee chamber was nearing its capacity of 167 people. One man, as he tried to push his way through the doors, yelled, “We have a right.’’ A few moments later, an officer yelled to colleagues down the hallway, “We need help.’’ Eventually the officers slammed the doors shut and stood guard.

The confrontation came as the district faces its third consecutive year of severe budget cutting, while the state and the city struggle to rebound from the nation’s troubled economy.

Although the School Committee unanimously approved the $821.4 million budget, all seven members expressed regret about cutting school spending again. “We know these cuts are painful,’’ said the Rev. Gregory Groover, the board’s chairman.

Emotions are running even higher than in previous years because new efforts by the state and federal governments to overhaul public education have led the state to declare 12 Boston schools underperforming this month, causing Superintendent Carol R. Johnson to force teachers at half of those schools to reapply for their jobs.

The rally was organized by the teachers union and included community activists, parents, students, and members of other city unions such as bus drivers and custodians. “Our schools aren’t underperforming, they are underresourced,’’ Richard Stutman, the teachers union president, yelled to the crowd earlier.

Johnson said she tried to avoid cuts that would directly affect classroom learning. While the budget does not call for teacher layoffs, it will bar principals from replacing some teachers who retire or leave the district for other reasons.

One area taking a big hit is building maintenance. More than $5 million worth of repair projects, such as repainting dingy walls, will be put on hold. The budget also eliminates more than 80 custodial positions, about 20 percent of that workforce, nearly all through layoffs.

In a statement yesterday, Michael Lafferty of the custodian union linked maintenance in the schools to student health and safety. Several School Committee members expressed discomfort with losing so many custodians.

The financial outlook has improved slightly since Johnson unveiled her budget proposal early last month. She initially recommended, at the request of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, spending 1 percent less than this year’s total. Earlier this month, the mayor decided the city could afford to spend the same next year as it is spending this year.

That, however, still meant the district had to cut roughly $50 million because of increases in health care premiums and contractually negotiated pay raises.

After making a series of cuts, the district still confronted a $3.5 million spending gap this week, prompting the mayor to allow the district to increase next year’s budget by that amount.

The decision enabled Johnson to avoid the prospect of controversial school closings this fall. But she warned last night that a significant number of schools will have to close in the coming years. Enrollment has plummeted by thousands of students over the last decade, leaving roughly 4,500 empty seats scattered across the district’s 135 schools. “We have to address excess capacity if we are going to have any resources left,’’ Johnson said.

The budget now heads to the mayor, who will include it in his budget proposal to the City Council next month.

During public testimony before the vote, Manuel Rios Alers, a 17-year-old junior from the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury, spoke against cutting more than $500,000 from his school’s operating funds and also reducing custodial staff from the district. He said his school, where students must pass an academic exam for admittance, suffered leaks during last week’s torrential rain, causing mold. “If you keep cutting our schools, we will be in the gutter,’’ he said.

A classmate, Eftina Gjikuria, 17, held up an English book with most of its pages coming unglued from its binding and said, “I’m sad to say I’m in AP English, and this is what I get.’’

At the rally, police closed off traffic to a section of Court Street as the crowd grew and protesters banged drums, blared sirens, and honked horns. Some waved signs that said, “Budget cuts hurt kids’’ and “Underfunding equals underperforming.’’

Groover apologized to the attendees that many others could not join them inside, but emphasized that the School Committee had to abide by the law for seating capacity. Another member suggested the group take that energy to Beacon Hill to lobby for more money for the district.


Unteachable pupils sent back to terrified British school staff despite assaults and sex attacks

Unteachable children are described in a dossier as a teaching union accused governors of not protecting staff. It is a shocking document which lays bare the realities of teaching in increasingly unruly schools.

One teacher reports the case of a 14-year-old boy who attacked her and sexually assaulted a female classroom assistant.

Another boy, this time aged only five, threatened to stab a member of staff with a pair of scissors and threw chairs in his reception class.

Most disturbingly, the culprits have all been returned to the classroom against the wishes of teachers - often after initially being excluded or expelled.

Nine 'unteachable' children are described in a dossier produced by the NASUWT union. Five were expelled by head teachers only to be reinstated by governing bodies. The union accuses governors of being more concerned with placating parents of troublemakers than protecting staff.

In the other four cases, head teachers themselves failed to take firm action, leaving classroom teachers in what they describe as an impossible position.

Chris Keates, NASUWT general secretary, said the dossier highlighted a 'deeply worrying' assault on teachers' authority. 'Governors seem to be taking the line of least resistance to placate the minority of parents rather than to protect the majority of pupils and their staff,' she said. 'If governors do not back head teachers' professional judgment in these matters then staff and school leaders cannot manage behaviour with confidence.

'Equally concerning is that, in the other cases, which were all serious incidents, the school took either no action or made the very weak response of temporary exclusion.'

One case of indiscipline even saw parents of fellow pupils removing their children out of fears they would be injured.

In all cases, the NASUWT union held a ballot for industrial action - refusing to teach the child involved - to force schools to protect staff from the troublemakers.

In most instances, the boycotting tactic resulted in the pupil being moved to a different school. In one, the youngster was moved to a specialist centre until they took their GCSEs.

The union said it dealt with an average of one case of a poor response to serious indiscipline a week but many were resolved without threats of industrial action.

Mrs Keates said the attacks, all in 2009, highlighted a growing trend for school decisions to go against teachers' interests.

Heads and governors are failing to use new legal powers to discipline children, she warned. Schools previously complained about independent appeals. 'Governing bodies have now overtaken independent appeals panels in the perversity of their judgments in relation to reinstating disruptive pupils,' Mrs Keates said.

'A very common feature reported to us by teachers is that when they raise behaviour problems in school they don't feel they are supported in maintaining discipline. 'They often cite that either they are held to blame for the poor behaviour by pupils or there is more concern for protecting the reputation of the school or placating parents.'


Australia: Getting black kids to go to school is the first challenge

But it is one that is not nearly being met. Excerpts below from comments by black activist Noel Pearson

SOMETIMES I just cannot understand how governments think when it comes to setting indigenous policies. Two of the five goals that all Australian governments are now striving to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage concern education.

It is probably useful to distil a complex policy agenda down to a handful of key goals, because some of these dashboard indicators can capture whether or not progress is being made across a broad policy range and gaps are closing.

But I have problems with the policy reasoning underpinning the two educational goals.

First the goal of doubling the year 12 completion rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is strange. Of course secondary school completion rates are important, but in a strategic sense there other more fundamental prerequisite policy goals which, if solved, will automatically result in higher year 12 completion rates.

The strategically important goal is closing the gap on literacy and numeracy achievement by indigenous students. You solve this problem, you solve the year 12 completion rate problem.

There is a strategically important prerequisite to closing the gap on literacy and numeracy, and that is school readiness and attendance. You can't close the gap on literacy and numeracy unless you first close the gap on school readiness and attendance.

So if I were the policy-maker, I would establish school readiness and attendance as the target goal. And I would set a very brief timeframe for achieving it. School attendance is not rocket science: surely governments and indigenous communities can close this gap in short order.

The good thing about school readiness and attendance is that it is a tangible, actionable goal. What is needed to be done is clear. The benefits and flow-on effects of achieving school readiness and attendance are plain and palpable. Governments, educators and communities can't hide behind the elusiveness of a goal such as year 12 completions, which really describes the desirable outcome rather than a strategic goal.

You can hold people accountable for performance on school readiness and attendance in ways that you cannot hold people to account for an outcome such as year 12 completion rates.

Bureaucrats, politicians and communities are therefore let off the performance hook. They can say they're working on lifting year 12 completions while doing nothing decisive on school attendance and readiness.

Which brings me to my problem with a second education-related goal set by the Council of Australian Governments. They have established the goal of halving the gap in indigenous reading, writing and numeracy within a decade.

In many ways this is an obscene goal. It accepts a level of educational under-achievement that is unnecessary and avoidable. It condemns indigenous children to educational failure when better outcomes are achievable.

Given the social injustice that flows from educational under-achievement - low employment rates, higher rates of poverty, higher rates of social problems, higher imprisonment rates, poorer health and, ultimately, lower life expectancy - you would think that Australian governments committed to closing the gap on indigenous disadvantage would not adopt any policies that were needlessly low in their expectations. And yet, this is what they have done.


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