Sunday, April 30, 2017

Has the Fairfax County School Board Just Declared War on all School & County Employees?

On March 2, I went with three friends to a meeting of the McLean Citizens Association.  We drove through the magnificent neighborhoods among McMansions, Real Mansions, and Really Real Mansions, admiring the Gated Houses and Gated Developments.  It was fabulous, beautiful, like visiting another world.

I don’t see these kind of neighborhoods that often because I live on the other side of the county, among 60's split levels and 50's three and four bedroom bricks on a slab or over a basement. Older homes are nestled here and there among the classic early suburban landscape. My neighborhood is filled with teachers, plumbers, bakers, firefighters, policemen, small business owners, carpenters, and mechanics–and I love it.  But gotta admit, McLean is spectacular.

The reason for our visit was to observe the McLean Citizens Association’s meeting on our teachers’ pension plan.  The Association had recently come out swinging in the Washington Post and local papers at ERFC, the Fairfax teachers’ supplemental retirement plan, and we wanted to get a feel for what it was about.

The recommendations they had for the people who teach in the McLean and Fairfax County public schools was that their pension plan be privatized and reduced to mostly what the teachers themselves could contribute from their $47K starting salary, or $58K average salaries.

After all, the people whose homes I was driving by insisted, we don’t have those generous retirement plans like ERFC, which  pays retirees an average of $1,429 a month.  That $1.4K is from deferred compensation and the employees’ own contributions, and out of that $1.4K the cost of teachers’ personally paid health insurance is deducted, making take home considerably less.

The average household income in McLean according to the census bureau is well over $164K per household, and over $194K for families.  Single guys in McLean make an average of $132K.

Of course, I’m glad for them that they do, well done, and would never go to the newspapers to recommend their hard earned money be taken away, but comparing teachers’ delayed compensation to their own portfolios, golden parachutes, and stock options might be a better comparison than-- you’ve got a pension plan, and I don’t.

On Monday April 24 and on Thursday night April 27, I went to two more meetings. These were of the Fairfax County School Board.

These meetings were for the final deliberations and vote on an FCPS budget proposal that would cut ERFC-- not about privatizing the plan immediately; that would be too expensive, but about reducing benefits for teachers with under 5 years or new hires–the first step.

The first meeting on Monday was 7 hours long because when all the community attendees arrived at the time scheduled, the Board left the public observers sitting for the first 1 ½ hours, waiting while the Board excused themselves to go into closed session.  They would go into closed session for another hour later in the day before finishing the meeting.  My friends and I sat and waited through both delays while the board attended to other more important matters.

To fully understand, it’s important to know that ERFC has been a well managed pension system, not in danger of failing, conforming to best practices consistently, and performing well compared to national plans.

On Monday, my friends and I watched as the Board questioned the ERFC managers and coordinators vigorously and with less than professional respect at times. It became progressively more clear, based on their questioning that the Board was all over the map in their relative understandings of large scale investment and pension funds, with most  having little experience, expertise, or self-education in the area. It also became clear that the proposal to reduce ERFC, which had been published as part of the 2018 budget back in September, was a fixed goal, not a possible consideration as most budget items are.

The second meeting on Thursday night April 27 was the business meeting, where it would all be decided. That one lasted until after 11 and also included a hiatus for a closed meeting while the Board recused itself.

The Board was arrayed as always across the front of the stage and the house was pretty full, but not SRO.  Teachers have a hard time doing weekday evening meetings.  They have necessary second jobs, papers to grade, family requirements, and often small children, but many, who could not be there, had called, e-mailed or sent their concern.

The reasons the Board had been giving since September for the ERFC changes was to give teachers raises, help balance the budget, and establish the long-term health of the fund.

Had we been suspicious, we might have suspected this was not entirely genuous because the projected savings was $4.7 million for this year, and the Board had $22 million in general carryover they could have used, an additional $8 million dedicated to the Boards’ own “special projects” carryover, and they were spending $2.4 million on a computer program to add additional  testing and data collection for all elementary schools.

But these were people we knew, from our districts, people who ran on caring about our public schools, about children, and their teachers.

Megan McLaughlin and Tom Wilson, in a last ditch effort to stop the changes, presented a motion to postpone the decision for no longer than a year, for more study.  Afterall, the proposed changes if directed to salaries for this year would give each employee $200 a piece for the year, not enough to cover much of anything.  The cuts would not seriously relieve budget woes in a $2.7 billion proposed budget– and the fund is not in trouble unless Fairfax pulls its contributions.  There is no hurry we can wait a year, they maintained.

The rest of the Board denied the motion to postpone and at the end of the day, most voted to cut what would amount to 3% of ERFC benefits from all new hires who start on or after July 1, 2017. (Voting to cut new hires' pensions was Hynes, Schultz, Strauss, Evans, Moon, Kaufax, & McElveen,)

The new plan would also require our 2017-18 first year teachers and all after to work well over 30 years for a retirement.  A 22 year old would have to work 37 years and a 25 year old, 34 before being eligible for the reduced benefits.

The cherry on the cake was yet to come though. One final motion was presented after all was done-Elizabeth Schultz proposed another working group on both County and School pensions.  It was decided they did not need to include all employee compensation in her motion because they had already initiated a joint study group that would study how they could change compensation for All County and School employees, it would consist of Sharon Bulova and Sandy Evans, and their respective Budget chairs. *

The Working Group was approved with only Ryan McElveen voting no. Chair Sandy Evans and Schultz agreed from the stage that it should not be a large or far ranging working group made up of citizens and stakeholders, but should be 3 Board of Supervisors members and 3 Interested School Board members.

Next year, it would not be 3% of retirement for newbies, everything would be on the table–on both the County side and the School side.

As I walked out of the meeting after 11, I recognized  several of the McLean Citizens Association members sitting with their laptops up and running. They were smiling.

In my quiet house in my working class neighborhood, I didn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m.

*CORRECTION: After rewatching the recordings of the end of the April 27 meeting,  Apologies to Ms. Schultz for attributing the General Compensation study group to her motion in the original blog.  Her motion was to create a new group to study pensions.  However, there was substantial discussion that concluded they did not need to include other compensation in her motion, because the school board had already recently authorized a Joint Working Group to study General Compensation.  The outcome was the same. Everything is still on the table, it was just done with 2 working groups rather than one.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

the Ones we lose

Last week, right before Easter and in the middle of Passover, a vandal spray painted Nazi, anti-Jewish, and anti-LGBTQ messages on a Jewish Community Center and United Church of Christ in my neighborhood. The Community Center is a place I have bought gifts for family.  The church is a place I have both attended and led workshops, though it’s not my home congregation. The community rallied and removed the graffiti, but the attack has me in a deeply reflective place.

They quickly caught the alleged perpetrator: a 20 year old, who had attended a high school in my district. Had his eyes not looked dead in the photo he might have been handsome and capable looking.  Word among my former students on social media was that he is a member of local white supremacist groups; groups I did not know existed in my community. I had not been his teacher, but for a mile or two distance one direction or the other, I might have been.

I can still remember almost 20 years ago when a student was arrested, my first “loss.” A colleague, older and more experienced said, “You can’t save them all.”  It was one of the hardest things to hear.  It still causes me pain that we don’t find a way to save them all.

Each “loss”: each drug overdose, each suicide, each prison sentence is a blow to your own “why” for teaching and being.  Just as each success, each life affirmation is a cause for joy. For teachers our “why I teach” is often to help each child to find a path to life’s gifts, and when one loses their way, or does not learn the lessons that will help them navigate life,  it triggers deep introspection for those who taught that child.

What did I miss? What could I have done differently? Could I have done more? How did this happen?

Ironically, students we lose the most these days are on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  I have been to memorial services for recent former students whom I knew struggled with gender identity and sexuality, heard of students who had wound up in prison, and visited the hospital for bullied students who OD’d.  

Until now, I had never thought it through that white supremacist boys (or girls) are lost; just as in need of help as our LGBTQ, or our impoverished students. I don’t mean that we should back away from acceptance, defense, and caring for our LGBTQ students or stop helping those who live with fewer resources.  It is just a realization to me the common cause of their struggling is feeling left out, marginalized, disrespected, and unmoored from belonging.

The conversations overheard of young white-supremacist men saying, “We are taking back our country,” speaks to a feeling of being outcast, and rejected.

The young man who spray-painted the community center and church is lost in similar ways to the Trans kid who died at his own hand or the at-risk kid who overdosed from despair. One’s alienation expressed in self harming despair, the other’s in violent hatred for others.

Both beg the question: Why am I not accepted and included in the compassionate caring of family, friends, and community? Why am I seen as unworthy of love and acceptance?

Clearly, there is no pat answer for either’s lostness.  But there is a mandate for us as families, neighbors, teachers, schools, and communities.

We have to ask ourselves why,  and change the way we are treating our children and adolescents so that they don’t arrive on the doorstep to adulthood with anger and despair in their hearts.

We have to understand how we are systematically doing things in our culture and society that bring them to such a sense of despair, and we have to stop doing those things.  We must find the ways to include and connect with those who feel most bereft of care, and reach out to them, support them, and create systems that are inherently kinder, affirming, and more giving and forgiving.

We have to find a way to save our “lost” children before their anguish tears us all apart.