Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Who's in charge at the Department of Education?

I suspect it's Jay Ragley. He certainly has the extensive background in public education and the commitment to advocacy for public schools and public educators, as detailed here.

Which is good, because our elected superintendent apparently doesn't enjoy his job.

South Carolina Superintendent of Education Mick Zais took twice as much personal time during 2011 as the average state employee is allowed, according to an exclusive look at the schools chief’s schedule.

Zais’ personal calendar, which was made available to Sen. Phil Leventis (D-Sumter) through an open records request in November and later obtained by Palmetto Public Record, shows that Zais took 234 hours of personal time (the equivalent of 29 full workdays) between Jan. 12 and Nov. 17, when the schedule was turned over to Leventis. That number doesn’t include medical leave, of which Zais took the equivalent of six workdays during the same period. The schedule also doesn’t include the final five weeks of 2011, when Zais may have taken even more personal time for the Christmas holidays.

In sharp contrast to Zais’ considerable number of absences, a state employee with 10 or fewer years of experience is allowed 15 days of personal leave per year — about half of what Zais took during the 44 weeks covered in his schedule.

Yeah, public employees who take that kind of time off represent what we call former public employees or, for short, the unemployed.

And in South Carolina, that makes a person eligible for about three hours' worth of unemployment benefits.

Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley said the state superintendent, as a constitutional officer, is held to a different standard than regular employees.

I sure am glad Ragley was there to answer the phone when the media called. He always knows what to say to soothe the 'lectorate.

“Because of their unique status in state government, constitutional officers are presumed to be on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and are not allotted sick days or annual leave time as standard state employees accrue,” he said.

See what I mean? Let all put down the milk of magnesia, folks; no crisis here. Ragley's on the job.

Unfortunately, there are still one or two fellas -- statesmen, really -- who've been serving in the state Senate since before Ragley was born, and they tend to have opinions.

“It seems to be a trend that senior Republicans want to set their employment schedule in such a way that if a regular employee did the same thing, they’d be fired,” Leventis told Palmetto Public Record on Wednesday.

This is a job for Mitt Romney, or Donald Trump. Does anyone have their numbers handy? Need to move quick. Ineffective employees on the payroll are a waste of public dollars. Hop to it.

The schools chief began his habit of taking large amounts of personal time just one week after he was sworn in, with a five-hour break in Beaufort on Jan. 20.,

Well-begun is half-done, I always say. My first principal told me, Start the year like you want to finish the year.

...and hardly went more than a week at a time without taking a few hours off. Very few of the dates are for justifiable reasons such as visiting a family member in the hospital, but the vast majority of Zais’ leave is simply marked “personal time” — with no explanation as to why the schools chief would need to be absent.

The schedule sometimes includes destinations such as Pawley’s Island and Hilton Head, areas known more for their excellence in golf than in education. In August, Zais took a week off to attend a stamp-collecting conference in Indiana.

Zais is a putting philatelist! I knew it. Have to keep our eye on him until Romney or Trump can get here for the firin'.

On Friday, September 30, he took three hours of personal time to clean his storage shed. While this normally would be somewhat excusable, the fact that Zais had time to attend the USC-Auburn game the next day means he certainly had time to clean his shed on his time.

Zais receives a taxpayer-funded salary of $92,007, according to a state database, which works out to an hourly rate of about $44. Excluding the 15 personal days which a normal state employee is allotted, that means Superintendent Zais took over $5,000 in taxpayer dollars for the extra time.

“This raises more questions than answers,” commented Leventis. “I think we need to see a detailed account of what exactly Mr. Zais is doing to fulfill his obligation as Superintendent of Education.”

Yeah! So would we all, Senator. Tens of thousands of children want to know what's he's done for them.

Zais did take the time to meet with numerous Tea Party and Republican groups in 2011, including anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, and even former presidential candidate Rick Perry on the day the Texas governor announced his candidacy in August.

Is that covered in the job description of the state superintendent?

Those meetings aren’t included in the personal time listed on the schedule, but it does show that Zais has plenty of time to conduct political business at the office — making one wonder how much time is left over to run the schools system.

Reasonable question.

“Clearly this is a politically motivated misinformation campaign from partisans, as Dr. Zais is the first Republican state superintendent after 12 years of Democrat [sic] state superintendents.” Ragley said Wednesday when reached for comment.

Oh, come on. You can do better than that. I don't have any suggestions to offer, but since you're the chief whatever-it's-called for the only state superintendent that 700,000 public schoolchildren in South Carolina have, surely you could have spent a few more minutes thinking up a better excuse than that. Rick Perry? Grover Norquist? The Tea Party?

How about throwing out for public consumption the vast number of hours that Zais has spent in public school classrooms during the past year?

Or the ton of time he's spent begging stingy lawmakers for sufficient funds to keep schools running at optimum speeds?

Or the days he's spent lobbying our Congressional delegation for more federal funds to keep hundreds of teachers on the job, so class sizes don't balloon and student achievement falls through the floor?

Oh, he didn't do any of those things?

Okay, then, I get why you went with the Pee Wee Herman defense: I know you are, but what am I?

Given the numerous questions raised by Zais’ schedule, it’s no wonder his office was so reluctant to release it back in November. When Leventis first asked for the information, Education Department spokesman Jay Ragley told him it would cost nearly half a million dollars to produce the documents, as The State’s Gina Smith reported in December — about 12 man-years of work, according to Leventis.

After being informed that such a quote was flatly absurd, Zais’ office agreed to provide the documents free of charge. “They’re trying to hide behind a sham designed to conceal, not reveal,” Leventis commented on Wednesday.

Still, the all-important question remains — with the superintendent out of office so frequently, who’s in charge at the Department of Education?

Is it Ragley?

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