Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Search for Process

With so many deceptive appearances along the way, the latest news about Boston’s search for a new superintendent of schools might be hard to hard to accept at face value. Last year, there was the appearance that the search committee’s finalists included Rochester superintendent Dr. Manuel Rivera. Then there was the denial. Later came his selection by the search committee, only to be clouded over by one more contradiction about his having been a finalist, not to mention the lingering uncertainty over the signing of a contract. Even when Dr. Rivera banished that uncertainty, there were new uncertainties—about why he decided to take another job, and whether the reason had anything to do with Boston’s search committee, especially its co-chair at the time, Dr. Elizabeth Reilinger. For a while, even Mayor Thomas Menino couldn’t get a straight answer because Rivera didn’t return his phone call.

One lesson drawn from the episode with Rivera is that a layer of confidentiality hides pitfalls. That’s why advocates and City Councilors have been making a new push for an open search process. They did that again last night, at a hearing by the Council’s Committee on Education. But just as important is what the advocates did not do: openly attack the Mayor and leaders of the search committee. Before last night's hearing, members of Community Partners had a chance to talk about the search process concerns with the mayor. After all, one other lesson that could be drawn about Rivera episode is that even the public announcement of his selection was no guarantee that he’d take the job.

In a prepared statement from the School Dept., leaders of the search committee said the process “would remain confidential throughout in order to recruit a top-notch leader.” The reason: “Increasingly across the country, school districts are moving towards confidentiality in the search process as a means of attracting highly qualified candidates who are unable to participate in an open process that creates vulnerability in their current positions.” The only wiggle room was left in the prepared statement by the co-chair of the committee, Cleve Killingsworth: “The committee will look for meaningful ways to involve the community in this important process without compromising the confidentiality of the candidates.”

At the hearing, advocates acting in concert as “Community Partners for a New Superintendent” expressed their ideas about what meaningful should mean. Most agreed the search process should go public once the committee comes up with finalists, despite concerns over the risk to a candidate’s current job. The assistant director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network, Myriam Ortíz, said, “We also believe the person has to be committed enough to take that risk of an open process.”

One change in the process is the addition of new members to the search committee: the executive director of the Grove Hall youth violence prevention program, Project RIGHT, Jorge Martínez, and the director of UMass. Boston’s Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development, Mirén Uriarte. The new co-chair of the committee is the pastor of Charles Street AME Church and School Committee member, Rev. Gregory Groover. And it was the make-up of the search committee that won praise in the prepared statement from the coordinator of the Latino Education Action Network at Mass. Advodactes for Children, Samuel Hurtado: “We at Community Partners for a New Superintendent appreciate that the Mayor and the School committee have appointed strong committee representatives whom we trust, who will stand up for our interests, and who we can hold accountable.”

That wasn’t good enough for the chair of the City Council Committee on Education, Chuck Turner. “A good (search) committee,” he said, “is no replacement for a good public process.”

Councilor Sam Yoon said getting the best possible superintendent was “absolutely compatible” with an open search process. And Councilor Michael Flaherty said candidates for superintendent “should expect at some point their name will be public and there will be public vetting.”

One of the few hesitations was from Council President Maureen Feeney, who observed that candidates from smaller school systems “may be very reluctant to place their careers on the line to say they are looking elsewhere.”

And that possibility might also trouble supporters of open process for candidates who become finalists. Even Hurtado mentioned the “need for confidentiality to attract candidates,” at least before getting to a final round. After almost six months of a school year without a new long-term superintendent lined up, and with other top-level positions in the School Dept. on hold, there's growing pressure to attract quality candidates who might be hard to find. For now, that means pressure to offer confidentiality. If the search yields more than one promising candidate, there could be more pressure to run the risk of open competition among finalists. If the process were to change accordingly, it would be just one more proof that picking a superintendent is less about sticking to formula than adaptation.

But, as last night’s hearing got under way, Councilors found themselves on the other side of public process, learning about the reconstituted search committee from an article on boston.com.
If that wasn’t enough, the School Committee members they wanted to ask about the search didn’t show up. Turner said even the mayor’s education advisor failed to give him a heads-up about the latest on the search process. He called it a show of disrespect by the mayor.

“What that says in terms of how he sees us as a Council,” said Turner, “is really amazing.”

Or is it? Right after Rivera backed out, this was the same council whose members publicly called for Reilinger to resign from her other position as chair of the Boston School Committee. It's hard to say how much--or how little--those councilors contributed to Reilinger's decision to step down from being co-chair of the search committee. To judge from last night, they had trouble appearing influential, passing out copies of the story from boston.com, then struggling to shut off an alarm bell so they could start hearing testimony.

Link: hearing testimony from Black Educators' Alliance of Mass.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

City Workers and City Limits

The question of a residency requirement for city workers is heating up once again. A preliminary contract agreement with a city union representing 1,500 workers—the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Council 93—would allow a cut-off of the requirement after 10 years on the job. The provision is part of a trade-off that brings some gains to management, but also strong disagreement among elected officials and Boston residents.

There have been two periods when the push for a residency requirement was the strongest, in the mid-1970’s and 1993. During both of these times, there were slumps in the Boston housing market, and the exodus of residents from the city (signaled by "for sale" signs) was attracting more notice. Among those supporting a reinvigorated requirement in 1993 were two officials who started out as district City Councilors: Maureen Feeney and Thomas Menino. Fourteen years later, as a fourth-term mayor, Menino has decided to give way on residency, at least for some concessions to management—in this case a higher contribution by employees for health insurance and closer monitoring of their city vehicles.

Supporters of the residency requirement still give it credit for keeping city employees in the neighborhoods who might otherwise have moved out. They say this also means having more city workers with a stake in the neighborhoods and a better understanding of their concerns. Though many city workers are still exempt from the requirement, supporters say their number has been dwindling. The requirement has also been defended as a job opportunity for Boston residents and, in all likelihood, one reason for the growing racial diversity of the city’s workforce. But even a 10-year requirement would still mean new job openings having to be filled by Boston residents.

Perhaps the single most dramatic change in the residency debate since 1993 concerns Boston’s housing market. Instead of using the Boston Public Schools as a reason to move out of the city, some union leaders have lately been talking more about the city’s housing costs. Despite the downturn in housing markets throughout much of the country over the last two years, there has still been little talk about flight from the city alone (as opposed to flight from the cost of living in Massachusetts), and the fall-off in housing prices still lags behind the slowdown in sales. Said the president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel R. Tyler, "We're coming to a point where the mayor has finally realized that the cost of living in Boston is such a big issue with the unions that it would bring about a change in the cost of health care for the city."

A rollback on the residency requirement for one union doesn’t change a whole city’s population very much by itself, but there’s reason to see the agreement with AFSCME as a precedent. Tyler expects more unions will push for similar changes to the residency requirement, maybe even with shorter time limits. But, even with more retreats on residency, he questions whether there will be any significant change in the commitment of city workers or in Boston's population, especially given their limited numbers. "It's not as if city employees make that much of a difference as far as stability or a strong middle class," he said. Easier to prove by numbers is the effect of residency on electoral politics: more workers living in Boston means more clout for unions and for their political allies.

In a statement released February 21, Mayor Menino said: “Boston still maintains the strongest residency requirement in the state. Our neighborhoods and schools are far better now than they were back in ’93, when I became mayor, and I believe that after living and working in our city for 10 years, most people wouldn’t want to leave.”

On the mayor’s side of the argument, one could note the appeal of certain district and charter schools and, arguably, a growing acceptance of racial diversity. But it’s also possible to view a retreat on the residency requirement as a threat for neighborhoods beset with other challenges. Among those neighborhoods are parts of Dorchester represented by City Council President Maureen Feeney, where a fairly large Catholic population has been adjusting to the consolidation of parishes and the likely consolidation of parish schools.

In a statement from her office the same day, Feeney said: "This is a sad day for Boston. The residency requirement has brought great and tangible benefit to all of our neighborhoods. Weakening residency is a step in the wrong direction and I am outraged that the Mayor would promote a deal that would allow city employees to flee our neighborhoods. The people who serve our city should have a personal investment in our city's future.”

But Tyler argues the retreat on residency is a price that might have to be paid for attracting employees in at least some positions, especially given the dim prospects of an increase in state aid. "Residency," he said, "has been a factor in the city not having been able to recruit the people that they would like at all times."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Getting to Yes Without a Meeting

In a second court battle over the open meeting law, the winner was the Boston City Council. But the ruling issued Monday by Suffolk Superior Court Judge Thomas E. Connolly has made for some head-scratching.

As in a previous court battle, the Council was being sued by three citizen activists—Kathleen Devine, Shirley Kressel, and Kevin McCrea (who also ran for Council two years ago). This time the dispute was about how the Council approved a package of pay raises. What the Council passed as an ordinance on May 3 of 2006 was an amended version of recommendations by the Compensation Advisory Board.

When legislative bodies vote on raises, especially if this includes raises for themselves, there’s potential for squirming. Last year, that was even more the case, though not necessarily due to the size of the compensation. With little controversy, the Council had adopted a pay raise package four years earlier—based on recommendations from the same board and the same chairman, Lawrence S. DiCara. A former City Councilor, DiCara has done legal work for clients with projects needing city approval since at least the 1980’s. What made his legal work more difficult to ignore this time around was that the recommendations last year came out shortly after he represented a project that needed approval directly from the City Council.

If it had not been for that legal work, the Council’s Government Operations Committee probably would have held a public hearing on the compensation package on April 21. But the committee chair at the time, Maureen Feeney, said questions from a reporter about possible conflict of interest led her to call off the hearing on short notice. Once the she was assured there was no legal obstacle to moving ahead, Feeney said she set about rescheduling.

But the cancellation led to a deadline problem. Unless the Council acted sooner, the board’s recommendations would take effect automatically on May 8, and what ended up being scheduled wasn't a hearing. To have the Council act on an amended version of the recommendations, Feeney arranged to have them brought to the floor at the last regular Council meeting before the deadline, on May 3.

What’s beyond question is that the Council approved the pay raise ordinance in a public meeting with advance public notice. Judge Connolly wrote this would have been the remedy had there been any lack of openness beforehand. As he noted, you can see the action on the ordinance on the internet—all 6 minutes and 28 seconds of it. And, according to a statement from Feeney, the judge’s ruling validates the Council’s “good conduct” and “hard work.”

What’s still in question is whether the Council gave the public sufficient opportunity to speak. In parts of his ruling, the judge refers to the meeting as a “hearing,” and at one point he wrote the public was properly noticed and given opportunity to speak. Now, public hearings and meetings might be almost the same thing, but there is one important difference for the City Council: a hearing allows the general public to give testimony, while a meeting, like the one held May 3, allows only for debate by councilors themselves.

During that brief debate, Councilor Chuck Turner brought up some objections to the ordinance. One of them was about the lack of a public hearing, something that would normally have taken place before an ordinance comes up for a vote. “At least,” said Turner, “the public should have a right to comment and give their perspective.” No matter how many councilors might say that was their intention all along, the judge notes that on committee matters public hearings are not required.

But how can a committee reporting on an ordinance “favorably” take that collective action without a public session and still avoid violating the open meeting law? First, by avoiding the physical reality of a meeting—that is, percolating enough “concurrence” through staff members so the chair could act for the committee as a courtesy. And, second, by avoiding any communication about the merits of the ordinance. In her proposed rule changes, Feeney, as Council President, wants to make this a standard: that concurrence should mean agreeing only that an item should come up for vote, and not necessarily support for the item itself. This also means an item can emerge only when the door to open comment by the general public has already closed—or that an item can sink in committee without a trace (though not necessarily due to a lack of merit).

So was it acceptable for the process of concurrence on the pay raise ordinance to be off the radar screen partly because there would later be a public vote and debate by the councilors themselves? Or was it because there would also be an opportunity for the general public to speak? Because the ruling almost interchangeably uses the words hearing and meeting, there is some confusion on this point.

Another view is that advance notice of a Council meeting would be enough to trigger some form of public comment, even if not necessarily audible in the Iannella Chamber. After all, legislators of all kinds have been strongly swayed by telephone calls, emails, or a chance encounter in the hallway. As tedious and unpersuasive as testimony in the chamber may be, it is different from other ways of sending a message. One difference is that it can be heard in real time by Council members and other members of the public—and later on archived video. Testimony in this setting also has a leveling effect that’s visible. The chamber, as it were, is a mouthpiece that conspicuously transforms the individual into the citizen. Whether that feels empowering or inhibiting, the setting might be thought of as a clearly marked zone of equality, something that influences legislative process even by its potential. Even if not always required by law, this is a dynamic that can also serve the Council members when they ask for accountability from other officials or private citizens. But, no matter how much councilors might want to apply that dynamic to thorny matters such as pay raises, the court decision lays down the road map for another way out.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Class Size Matters

To judge by the ads on cable television, the main dispute in contract talks between the Boston School Committee and the Boston Teachers Union is over class size. The School Committee does want to allow for an increase in class size in more classrooms. But the Boston Municipal Research Bureau says the contract provision has recently been revised so that the change would only be allowed in 150 classrooms—out of more than 13,000. The ads say the contract provision would “cram more students into every classroom”—a statement the Research Bureau calls “highly exaggerated.” The Bureau says the provision allows the School Dept. to be cost effective in a limited number of cases when the alternative would be to pay for adding another classroom.

The class size provision might also reflect the increasing pressure on enrollment by trimming the number of students in under-performing schools. There is agreement on both sides to increase pay for teachers in those schools, while requiring a longer day. More difficult to settle is how much more flexibility in those schools administrators will have to bring in teachers or nudge them out. Superintendent Michael Contompasis wants to have that increased flexibility in as many as 20 under-performing schools. Does the flexibility, as BTU President Richard Stutman says, mean more teachers who simply “go along” with administrators, or does it mean more teachers who perform better and make everyone look good?

How good the teachers look also depends on their performance evaluations. The School Committee wants to make changes in the evaluation mechanism. Can these changes affect performance in ways that narrow the achievement gaps? Along with providing accountability for test scores, could the mechanism address other concerns raised by parents and students: for example, making schools seem more welcoming to the community, or making what’s taught seem more relevant to the world of students, more engaging? On the other hand, teachers would probably have some reason to be concerned about the potential in evaluations for blame-shifting. As the formula for better performance requires more collaboration between teachers and people of other specialties, even from other agencies, accountability can become more tricky.

Also in dispute in the contract talks is how much teachers would contribute to their health insurance. The city wants to increase that contribution by its employees from 10% to 15%, noting that the cost of premiums for employees in the schools has more than doubled since 2001. Officials say, even with the higher contribution, teachers would still do better than many other employees in the public sector, not to mention the private sector. But going up another 5% is also the kind of concession that doesn’t come easily. For quite a while, the Research Bureau has been pushing for another way to rein in the cost of health coverage—through state legislation that would make it easier for local communities to change insurers—and possibly exert more leverage in the health care market.

A debate on the contract between BTU President Richard Stutman and Boston School Superintendent Michael Contompasis has been scheduled for Tuesday, February 13, 6 p.m., at the Grover Cleveland School, 11 Charles Street, Dorchester (across from Fields Corner Station).

***** ***** *****

At the School Committee meeting February 7, the superintendent presented budget recommendations, with an overall increase in the next fiscal year of 1.7%. Among the recommendations:

· $4.1 million for 23 more kindergarten classrooms, serving 500 4 year-olds
· $2 million for English Language Learners, covering staff, professional development, materials, and a summer enrichment program
· Creating more K-8 schools (money to continue conversion at 3 schools and begin at 4 others)
· Eight more family and community outreach coordinators (an increase to a total of 25 full-time positions)