Friday, June 17, 2011

Why are working retirees disappearing at Spring Valley High School?

Early this week, The State published an item about parents' disenchantment in the Spring Valley High School community.

It reported that Sally Tryon, a parent and president of the Spring Valley High School Student Improvement Council, "was one of the first parents to raise concerns about the departures of working retiree teachers at her children’s school."

When veteran teachers -- especially ones who have dedicated their entire active careers to teaching, then return at lower pay to give years of their retired time to teaching too -- are pushed around, it bears noticing by all of us.

The controversy seems to come from an "effectiveness and efficiency" study commissioned by Richland 2 Superintendent Katie Brochu and conducted by Evergreen Solutions of Tampa, Florida -- yet one more out-of-state business interest profiting from South Carolina's public education budget -- that recommends baldly to "phase out" the 145 working retirees who are giving extended service to students at Spring Valley High and elsewhere.

I have a feeling that "phase out" is a euphemism for "fire." And apparently, I'm not the only one sensitive to it. Because they're officially retired, working retirees are at-will employees anyway; they work for less pay than active teachers, they have no employment rights and they are only hired year-to-year.

But according to The State's report, working retirees aren't the only targets of the efficiency experts' study: "About 140 other positions also would be eliminated, including assistant principals and school administrator positions, if the school board agreed to the bulk of the 161 recommendations in the task force study. The Evergreen study estimated about $57 million in savings over five years if all were implemented."

Active parents are ready to speak up about the proposed changes to their children's schools.

“I’m getting more and more concerned because of the way it was done and the way it was presented,” said Sally Tryon, president of the Spring Valley High School Student Improvement Council.

Lynn Roth, another Spring Valley parent concerned about the study, said she is urging more parent representation on the task force. If that does not work, she and others plan to create their own shadow panel. “I think we will go through every one of those recommendations and make our own recommendations,” Roth said.

Roth, Tryon and other parents are particularly incensed that site-based management would be eliminated at schools, ending what has been a longstanding tradition of developing distinctive programs and climates at the district’s 36 schools and centers.

“These changes so far do not give us student improvement or school improvement,” Tryon said. “It has taken us in the opposite direction.”

She and members of her SIC were never consulted during the period in early 2011 when the Evergreen consultants made visits to the district’s schools and Tryon believes no other SICs had input into the study.

Who are the people making these recommendations? What do we know about them except that they come up here from Florida to help us South Carolinians figure out what we can't understand on our own?

Google shows that Evergreen Solutions is a sophisticated enterprise, with a lot of business and municipal clients. Clients all over the country have hired and paid them tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct focus groups, send out surveys, interview people and publish colorful reports, full of recommendations. A lot of those clients have been so impressed that they've posted the reports and recommendations online, where everyone can read them.

And because many of their clients are public agencies and municipalities, those reports and recommendations become public information anyway.

It only took a few minutes of Googling to learn that when a school district hires Evergreen Solutions to conduct its "effectiveness and efficiency study," people are likely to lose jobs. At least, that's one popular recommendation that surfaces time after time in the studies prepared for school districts since 2006.

In 2006, it was Evergreen's study for Monroe County, Florida, that recommended "Based upon staffing allocations and enrollment trends, MCSD should eliminate some assistant principal positions." And, "MCSD should eliminate some staff support positions to schools."

In 2007, Evergreen told the four local governments of Alleghany County, Virginia, to cut one assistant principal and 14 teacher assistants, to abolish annual contracts for classified employees, making them at-will employees without any job security, and to cut paid working hours for bus drivers.

In 2008, blogger Ernest Brown of Lithonia, Georgia, attended a meeting to hear Evergreen's recommendations to his leaders in DeKalb County. Brown writes that Evergreen's president, Linda Recio, delivered the recommendations in person, which included cutting salaries, eliminating up to 42 personnel positions in the district office, and "targeting" the 170 employees in the district who had at least 30 years' experience with an "early retirement incentive option."

When efficiency experts come offering an "option" to veteran educators extending their terms of service to their students, I get a little anxious.

The same year, Evergreen recommended lowering the boom in Needham, Massachusetts, on a number of support staff, declaring that "Needham had more full-time equivalent support staff members than any of the other communities at the elementary, middle school levels, and was only surpassed by Natick at the high school level," and apparently, that was unacceptable.

One area parent who blogs didn't share the efficiency experts' sentiments. Boston Kayak Guy wrote then, "Parents have come to rely on a certain level of 'customer service' and staff reorganization and elimination of positions will almost certainly impact parents' perception of "service'."

By late 2009, Evergreen had made inroads into the Carolinas. It delivered a study to the Burke County School Board and Board of Commissioners to consolidate "four elementary schools into two and two alternative high schools into one," and these decisions by the board led to more unpleasant ones, according to the superintendent's annual report of 2009-2010:

As the board attempted to ratify the budget by May 15 it was determined that the district had reached a point where job cuts were necessary. Every effort was made to reduce the list of those being laid off and ensure it was the absolute minimum. The administration started with a list of 126 employees that were to be laid off, they narrowed that down to 70 who received notices, and have since been able to rehire 48 (subject to continual change) employees at some level. From teachers going back to school or taking jobs elsewhere, only nine teachers were left.

The local newspaper covered the meeting where school board members agonized over Evergreen's recommendations and their outcomes:

The board clearly wants more data before eliminating people's jobs. Members voted 5-2 to rescind the board's previous decision to cut the number of instructional coaches from 15 to five (the board last week voted to postpone the decision until it had more facts).

The board also voted 5-2 to stop advertising 13 job openings, including seven for content coordinators in a new table of organization the board adopted based on recommendations from the consultant, Evergreen Solutions.

"We have to focus on keeping teachers, not adding Central Office administrators," insisted Susan Stroup.

However, Tim Buff said Stroup's motion seemed to him to be the kind of micromanagement "that SACS CASI ripped us for" — referring to the schools' accreditation council.

"The Evergreen (Solutions) report brought us a bunch of recommendations," Buff said. "There's a person, people, jobs and the education of our school children behind every one of those recommendations. I don't want to see one person lose a job. But we're facing some big decisions."

The same spring, Evergreen made its way to Rock Hill.

The Rock Hill School Board heard Monday night that current revenue projections for the 2010-11 school year, best case, will be around $1.5 million dollars short of the cuts already approved by the board. This could mean an additional reduction of 16 positions. Final numbers will not be known until the legislature finishes up - probably in June.

Dr. Linda Recio representing Evergreen Solutions made a report on their findings of the school district's Operations Department. She presented a number of recommendations which the administration will review and report back to the board in a couple of months. Some significant findings were:

District owns unnecessary equipment (should be rented instead)
District has too many custodians and not enough employees for grounds maintenance (both should be outsourced)
Energy costs are excessive (compared to other districts)
External communications need to be improved
Cleanliness of the schools and facilities management were some of the best seen

After an executive session for personnel discussions, the board voted 5-0-1 (Douglas abstaining and Silverman absent) to approve the administrations recommendations for Reduction in Force (RIF). The administration will now begin notifying employees who will not be returning next year because of revenue reductions.

A column in the Rock Hill Herald put it more bluntly:

Cut down on custodians, hire private grounds crews and get rid of your dump trucks, a cost-cutting expert told the Rock Hill school board Monday night.

Custodians emerged as a key focus on a list of suggestions to help school officials deal with a massive budget shortfall that could bring 100 job cuts, fewer programs and other changes.

Rock Hill could reduce its custodial staff by 43 full-time positions and still remain above the national average for custodians per square foot, said Linda Recio of Florida-based Evergreen Solutions. Currently, 95 custodians clean halls, classrooms and bathrooms, in addition to more hired through private contractors.

"Custodians is an area where you are significantly overstaffed," Recio said.

And in a final example from early this year, Evergreen's Recio herself returned to Massachusetts to tell the leaders of Hamilton-Wenham to cut teachers, to increase the teacher-to-student ratio, and to cut the remaining teachers' planning periods.

According to the Hamilton-Wenham Patch,

Recio also said the district could save $100,000 annually by reducing the amount of teacher planning time.

“It’s extensive, it’s probably double what it should be and it’s not coordinated,” Recio said about teacher planning time.

High School senior Brad Kippen, who is the student representative to the School Committee, said teachers often spend planning periods working with students.

No matter, Brad. It's inefficient. It costs money. Students can work with one another. Hallways can keep themselves clean and lawns can keep themselves mown. Teacher-to-student ratios can rise to unimaginable heights, if necessary. You see, it's all about the bottom line, and what doesn't make money, costs money. Teachers cost money; teacher assistants cost money. Custodians and secretaries and assistant principals all cost money.

And working retirees at Spring Valley High School, despite collecting lower pay than active, full-time teachers, cost money.

Efficiency experts cost money too, and they don't get paid to tell superintendents how to spend more money; they get paid to tell superintendents how to spend less money while getting the same results.

It doesn't surprise me that an efficiency expert has recommended cutting jobs to save money. This is South Carolina, where no administrator needs an efficiency expert to exercise that right. We're a right-to-work-for-less state, after all.

What surprises -- and impresses -- me is that a group of concerned parents is organizing themselves to fight it.

More power to them.

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