Monthly Archives: May 2013

Teacher Competency Tests

This story grabbed my attention a few months ago.

A Georgia grand jury indicted 35 educators for a massive cheating scheme in Atlanta public schools which allegedly involved a former superintendent, Beverly Hall, and as many as 178 teachers.   CNN.com reported on March 29:  “Among those also indicted were four of Hall’s executive administrators, six principals, two assistant principals, six testing coordinators, 14 teachers, a school improvement specialist and a school secretary. ”   Standardized test answers were changed to improve overall scores.

Stories like this make me despair of our country’s moral fiber, but a more positive response is anger.  Every student and parent in the Atlanta school system should be fighting mad because they have been cheated by their teachers and school administrators who were more interested in their own objectives than that of their charges.

A scandal so large leads you to wonder where else this could be happening.  Sure enough, “Teaching How to Cheat,” in Thefreelibrary.com says,  “A September 19, 2011, ProPublica story titled  ‘ “America’s Most Outrageous Teacher Cheating Scandals” ‘ describes serious student testing irregularities at both the grade and high school level occurring in eight states and the District of Columbia.”

Some might remember a 2001 scandal that involved 52 teachers from five states who each paid $1,000 for a ringer to write their teacher’s competency exam.  I think these scandals are related even though they are a dozen years apart.  The less competent a teacher, the more he or she might feel tempted to fudge a student’s results.

In our district, I do not have the slightest reason to think anything but the best of our teachers and their ethics, but it did start me thinking about what’s involved in teacher certification in New Hampshire and the nature of those competency exams.  New Hampshire accepts teacher certification from many other states, something that’s called certification reciprocity.  Since photo ID is now required to write the competency exams, this isn’t as alarming as it once would have been. What did unsettle me was learning that New Hampshire allows teachers to qualify for certification if they fail one of the three competency exams in reading, writing and math so long as their composite score is equal to a passing score on all three.  In other words, a teacher could be a dunce in math but a star in writing and still become a certified teacher.  (Candidates must also pass a subject specific competency test for their subject area.)

Here’s a survey of teacher competency test requirements among 11 states as of 2010. http://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0420.htm

Meanwhile, there has been some heartening news in our district.

  • NECAP scores have rallied, a cause for guarded optimism.
  • Dr. Metzler has announced that SAU personnel will no longer be getting an across-the-board raise every year and instead raises will be based on job performance.
  • The SAU board has announced the ‘nomination’ of Dr. Roxanne Wilson for Assistant Superintendent.  She is currently the Director of Pupil Personnel Services.

May the sacrifice of many soldiers past and present be in our thoughts this Memorial Day weekend. We know all too well there is no cheating death.

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Planning Board and Conflict of Interest

It’s been a week where even sensible Americans are suspecting their government is being run by criminal thugs.  The IRS admits to having targeted groups for their political beliefs, we learn the Associated Press’ White House lines were tapped for two months by the Department of Justice, and that the government deliberately lied to Americans about the Benghazi debacle.  It is hard to turn our attention to local issues, but in a way local issues are reassuring. We can at least control our own house – or so we would like to think.  A suggestion of conflict of interest has been raised in the Planning Board by the chairman of that body.  Is it truly a conflict and if so, is anyone prepared to do anything about it?

Mr. Matthew Brown is a voting member of the Sandown Planning Board. He owns a house and an extra lot in Phillips Pond Estates, both formerly owned by developer Robert Villella (or his interests).  At the special Planning Board meeting last night, Chairman Traeger reported that Matt Brown has a mortgage for $50,000 held by Robert Villella, information that is public record.

Does a private financial arrangement between a member of the planning board and a prominent developer, who not infrequently appears as an applicant before the board, constitute a conflict of interest?  I certainly think so, but Mr. Brown has another opinion and refuses to recuse himself from voting on future business associated with Mr. Villella.  I’ll get to Mr. Brown’s  reasoning shortly. First some background about what prompted last night’s special meeting.

The last regular Planning Board meeting was on April 16th, and it was an explosive one. I recommend watching that meeting on VIMEO as it is at times actually exciting.  Last night, Chairman Traeger said that “unusual events” took place at the April 16th meeting, “…people pushing to get a plan accepted with outstanding issues.” (Mr. Traeger was absent for the April 16th meeting which was chaired by Mr. Matt RUSSELL.)  The board voted 3 to 2 in favor of approving a lot change requested by Mr. Villella in Hillside Estates.  This vote succeeded over the strong objection of Acting Chair Russell who reminded the board that there existed three outstanding issues to be resolved before final approval should be given.  Matt Brown, Ed Mencis and Ernest Brown (no relation) voted in favor.  Matt Russell and Steve Miesner voted against.

So appalled at the board’s vote, Mr . Russell said he would refuse to sign the plat.  This caused a vigorous objection from Matt Brown who argued that the chairman should do as the board directed.  In the end, Mr. Russell said he would sign the plat when Mr. Villella provided a written easement to the fire pond he had constructed in the development. That would satisfy one of the three outstanding issues. Mr. Villella subsequently provided the easement and the plat was signed outside of a public meeting, in violation of the board’s own by-laws.  The two remaining issues, an after-the-fact dredge and fill permit from the state, and another wetlands related permit have not been resolved, and it seems are the problem of the property owner on whose land the fire pond resides.

When confronted about the private mortgage, Mr. Matt Brown made a powerful case for himself.  He said he spoke to two lawyers at New Hampshire’s Local Government Center who both were of the opinion, he said, and I summarize and somewhat enlarge, that a mortgage with fixed terms does not put Mr. Brown in a conflict because the fixed nature of the agreement protects Mr. Brown from fear of retribution.  Mr. Brown said the lawyers compared it to having a mortgage with TD Bank and then hearing an application for a TD branch in town.  No conflict exists.

Mr. Traeger, too, consulted legal counsel before the meeting, the town’s own legal counsel.  Her written opinion was that anything that would disqualify a prospective juror should also disqualify a board member from voting on a case.   Relationships have to be those of ordinary citizens and no more, which is her legally supported standard for judging conflicts of interest.

Unfortunately a frank exchange was cut short by Mr. Hans Nicolaisen’s motion to stop discussion.  This motion was seconded by Mr. Ed Mencis and after some more discussion, but not nearly enough, the board voted in favor of stopping the discussion. So, there is a difference of opinion on the board as to what constitutes a conflict of interest and it looks like it will not be resolved.  In due course, the board also voted to make Mr. Matt Brown an officer of the board, namely, secretary.  It was another split vote.  Obviously the members who voted for Matt Brown as secretary aren’t troubled by his private mortgage.

I, on the other hand, am.  Even if we knew the terms of the mortgage/promissory note, which we don’t,  how can we be sure renewal, extension and tolerance of late payments, should there ever be any, couldn’t be affected by an unfavorable vote on the board?

Mr. Brown is to be commended for volunteering his time to the town but his intelligence and generosity of spirit would be better spent on other bodies that don’t require him to vote on matters touching on Mr. Villella. He may be discharging his duties with a fair,  objective mind, but we just can’t know.  He should either recuse himself from votes when Mr. Villella’s interests are at stake, or he should resign.  If you don’t think this issue is worth raising your voice about, don’t complain about Washington.  We get the government we deserve.

Sadly this meeting was not televised or taped.  Watch the previous meeting:

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Award Contracts, but Read Them First

I am happy to report, rather belatedly, that the Timberlane School Board voted to award a one-year contract for athletic trainer services to Access Sports Medicine.  This laudable decision was taken at the school board meeting on April 18th.  Access was the lower bidder and seems  to meet and often exceed our requirements.  I am encouraged by this decision because it strikes me as a good indication that the current administration is prepared to embrace necessary change and break with the old way of doing things. ( The previous athletic trainer services company had worked with the district for 28 years with no known last competitive bid.)  Dr. Metzler and district legal advisers were left to work out the details as the final contract was not yet in place, though the broad terms of the contract were presented during the bid process.

I mention the absence of a contract at the meeting for a reason.  Immediately before the athletic trainer services discussion, the board spent some time trying to understand why food services was in the red by $105,838 as of the end of March 2013.  The projected total loss for the school year is believed to be something close to $150,000.  Dr. Metzler stated frankly that the contract Timberlane signed with the food service contractor was not in the district’s interest.  Administrative fees and generous opt out clauses in the contract saddled the district with large fees.

You might naturally think this would have set the school board on alert for paying more attention to future contracts, but if you thought so, you haven’t watched enough school board meetings.  Although the board must vote to undertake a contract, if the athletic trainer service contract is characteristic, they feel no need to trouble themselves to actually read it.  Dr. Metzler promised that he would pay very close attention to all  contracts on his watch, which he must do to avoid falling into the contractual traps of his predecessor.

I’d like to hear similar conscientiousness from the board on this issue.  Who signed the previous food services contract and who reviewed it? Was the board made aware of the now problematic terms before the contract was signed?  Some curiosity about this is in order if we hope to prevent future surprises.  The school board should be using their own intelligence to assist Dr. Metzler in reviewing all contracts, but once again the board is putting on the Superintendent a good part of their own responsibilities.

TRSB April 18, 2013 meeting:    http://vimeo.com/64397824

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