How much will it cost? (Part one of a multi-part series)

July 18, 2018 · Posted in Business and industry, Campaign 2018, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off on How much will it cost? (Part one of a multi-part series) 

I know, I know, you want Tawes coverage. Look for it tomorrow or Friday.

Since Ben Jealous won the Democrat Party nomination for Maryland’s top job, the progressives who have already seen his campaign as a chance to put their dreams into action on the state level are beside themselves with giddiness about the prospect of a state that borders Washington, D.C. being set up as a contrast to the relative austerity of one President Donald J. Trump.

But skittish voters may have been turned off by a Department of Legislative Services report (as reported by the Baltimore Sun) that claimed Ben’s single-payer health scheme could cost the state as much as $24 billion a year – astounding when you consider Maryland’s annual state operating budget runs about $44 billion. It would become the single largest line-item on the budget overnight and (of course) necessitate significant tax increases.

The story, however, neatly coincides with the question I’m sure I’m not alone in asking: how much is the Jealous agenda going to cost?

Well, I can’t give you an exact answer. But what I can do is study his platform, point by point, and give as good of an estimate as possible. And when you say, “Michael, all politicians promise to spend taxpayer money when they pledge to ‘invest’ in whatever item they think will get them the most votes,” I would say yes, you are correct – but Ben Jealous pledges to do it in spades.

If you go to his issues page, you will find Jealous has laid out a wide-ranging agenda of several issues:

  • Education
  • Medicare-For-All
  • Criminal Justice
  • Ending The Student Debt Crisis
  • Police Reform
  • Great Cities: A Vision For Maryland’s Future
  • Opioid Crisis
  • Make It In Maryland: Building A More Inclusive, Thriving Economy
  • Civil Rights
  • Immigration
  • Environment
  • Seniors

On many of these, Ben goes beyond the standard one-paragraph blurb and lays out fairly detailed plans – although they are often lacking in financial estimates. So today I’m going to start laying out my thoughts on what this agenda may cost taxpayers, and I’m going to begin with Education and the related subject Ending the Student Debt Crisis.

As a baseline figure, bear in mind that the most recent budget adopted by the state (for FY2019, which began at the start of this month) has the state of Maryland spending $14.72 billion between education and higher education, for a total of 33% of the budget. K-12 gets $8.099 billion and $6.621 billion goes to higher education. (The total budget, by the way, is $44.416 billion, compared to $42.142 billion just two years ago.)

Here’s the first concrete proposal in the Jealous education plan, increasing teacher salaries:

In the Kirwan Commission’s preliminary report, there’s a recommendation to bring Maryland’s average teacher salary to the average of Massachusetts and New Jersey’s – two of the country’s top performing states – by the 2024-2025 school year. Ben Jealous is committed to raising teacher pay by 29% between now and the 2024-2025 school year – the exact same percent increase as was accomplished in the seven years following the Thornton Commission.

To determine the cost of this salary increase plan, we need to find the difference between the natural cost of increasing salaries under the current Thornton funding formula and a new salary plan.

In an attached chart, Jealous details the cost over the five year period from FY2020 – FY2024. Total cost to taxpayers: $1.8953 billion over five years, with FY2024 alone contributing a $658.5 million increase. This is above and beyond raises already baked into the budget totaling $2.1845 billion.

Jealous, however, says he has a way to pay for this – but it depends on Maryland voters.

Late in this year’s session, a Senate bill was passed that placed an amendment to the Maryland Constitution on this year’s ballot. The “Fix The Fund” Act mandates that gambling revenue become a supplement to educational spending rather than a component of it. The Fiscal Note for the bill notes that revenues for education are expected to increase by $1.2678 billion from FY2020 – FY 2023. Unfortunately, that money doesn’t replace what would have gone into the General Fund: as the Fiscal Note continues, “Designating the use of a portion of (Education Trust Fund) monies for supplemental funding requires general fund expenditures to increase by an equal amount.” However, this money is folded into the expenditure from above, yet Jealous admits to being short in year 5. His solution? Enacting a combined reporting tax on Maryland businesses.

On this particular point of combined reporting, Jealous references an unsuccessful bill from 2017 that would have enacted this, with the carrot to business of eliminating filing fees for a business or entity with 10 or fewer employees. That may not necessarily be in Ben’s plan, so I am going to make two assumptions here: one. that the revenue for a five year period of FY2020-24 is similar to that which would have occurred FY2018-22 as covered by that particular Fiscal Note and that the filing fee waiver would be eliminated. Given those two items (and the fact business taxes aren’t paid by businesses but by consumers) I will say this adds $150.8 million over five years – but that still leaves Jealous short, and WAY short if “Fix The Fund” doesn’t pass – however, you can bet your bottom dollar the teacher’s unions will be out in full force to pass that one come November. (The odds of the Fix The Fund Act passing are very good, though, as Maryland voters seldom turn down a referendum. But it won’t be a fix, just more tax on the poor.)

And the fun is just beginning…next up is this gem:

In the 2018 legislative session, two former educators in the General Assembly proposed legislation to guarantee all education support professionals a living wage: at least $31,500 a year in lower cost of living counties and at least $36,000 a year in higher cost of living counties. It would be phased in starting in FY2020 and fully funded from FY2024 onward.

Based on the Fiscal Note for this bill, over three years (FY2022-24) the total cost to taxpayers will be $527 million.

Another biggie comes up a page or so later:

As governor, Ben Jealous will provide the funding necessary for full-day, universal pre-kindergarten and he will pay for it through the tax revenue generated by legalizing and taxing marijuana for adult use.

In a report entitled A Comprehensive Analysis of Prekindergarten in Maryland, the authors noted that at the time (early 2016) the state spent $132.9 million to educate the 35.58% of 4-year-olds who are already enrolled. Doing the math for 100% of 4-year-olds means an annual expenditure for pre-K on a state level would be a total annual cost to taxpayers of $375.3 million, and over a five-year period the cost would edge close to $2 billion.

Yet again, it’s likely that revenues will not keep pace. Obviously laws vary from state to state, but a good fit for projecting Maryland’s success might be Colorado because of its similar population. In 2017 Colorado generated $223 million in revenue from the sale of marijuana, while Washington state (which is somewhat larger) added $314 million. It’s not likely that Maryland would be able to sustain its revenue stream to the extent needed, meaning money would need to come from the general fund.

Next up is an unknown amount of money to address this seeming disparity:

We need to reimagine what schools provide in our low-income neighborhoods by making the school building the central hub for community services – counseling, job training, meals, mentoring programs, and health clinics. As part of the new funding formula, the state should add a concentrated wealth factor that drives more funding to schools with 40% or more of their student population coming from low-income families.

To me, this is akin to the current Geographic Cost of Education Index that cost taxpayers $141.6 million this fiscal year (page 47 here). But that money is a starting point because, in order for schools to take on all these functions, there is an unknown capital improvement cost involved. I suspect when all is said and done this could easily exceed $2 billion in additional spending after five years.

Lastly on the K-12 education front, there is this idea:

Providing children with a critical mass of mental health services requires an investment in personnel like inschool social workers and psychologists, but it also requires fully incorporating these service providers into the broader academic ecosystem, and providing other key members of that ecosystem with the training they need to help our mental health service providers.

So let’s begin with this:

By providing the child with case-management, the social worker can ensure a student is connected with an in-school counselor (and) has up-to-date treatment from an inschool psychologist.

(…)

… it is important that enough counselors be hired to maintain a low student-to-counselor ratio…

(…)

Every school should have at least one on-site psychologist, who is focused fully on addressing the mental health needs of the student body.

(…)

As governor, Ben Jealous will work with key stakeholders like the MSEA to increase staffing levels for service providers like social workers and school psychologists…

Yes, because we know the MSEA teacher’s union is oh-so-careful with taxpayer dollars.

The information is a little out-of-date, so I’m extrapolating the 1.449 schools that Maryland was claimed to have a half-decade ago to 1,500 for ease of math. So let’s make some more assumptions: three new social workers, one new psychologist, and three counselors (to maintain the low ratio) are added per school – that is a total of 10,500 staff statewide. And they’re not going to come cheap: on average a school psychologist makes almost $60,000 per year, a school counselor checks in at almost $49,000 a year, and school social workers earn just over $48,000 a year. Therefore, the additional per-school staffing expenditure (just for salary, mind you, and not including benefits) would be $351,000 a year. Multiply that by 1,500 public schools in the state and the total annual cost to taxpayers is $216.2 million.

Once you’ve paid for K-12, you still have the aspect of “free” college.

As governor, Jealous will make community college free for every Marylander… The guarantee of free tuition will be extended to every Maryland high school graduate. This program will be paid for by increasing the state income tax for the top 1% of earners ($500,000+ annually) by 1%, and savings from significantly reducing Maryland’s levels of incarceration.

Now this is a little bit confusing because I thought we already had that, based on a bill passed last year. And the question is whether Ben means every dollar of the average $4,324 (see here) for tuition and fees or whether it’s an expansion of the “last-dollar” program where prospective students have to exhaust other avenues of aid first (although, in all honesty, the taxpayer pays most of it anyway.) Now multiply that by a projected 46,592 full-time students and just a high-end estimate of Ben’s scheme comes out to be $201.5 million every year. And since it’s “free” we should probably assume a total annual cost to taxpayers of $300 million because more will take advantage and (naturally) colleges will increase their tuition and fees to get in on this largess.

Yet as they say on the home shopping networks…but wait, there’s more.

As governor, Jealous will create a MD Careers program that partners with industry experts to determine growing job sectors, and incentivize education and training in these sectors by covering any education costs associated with entering the fields. Special priority will be given to service professionals like first responders, organized labor sectors like educators, and healthcare workers who can help drive down the cost of quality treatment for our population in the years ahead. The guarantee of free tuition will be extended to every Maryland high school graduate who commits to staying in Maryland for five years after they receive their degree.

This program will be paid for with a percentage of the savings generated by significant reductions to Maryland’s incarceration levels. This funding stream will stretch even further when one considers that training for in-demand sectors like construction rely on apprenticeships and technical training that are less cost intensive than traditional 4-year degrees.

As governor, Jealous will extend this guarantee to students pursuing graduate degrees at Maryland’s public institutions. This will be paid for by increasing Maryland’s cigarette tax, which is currently less than the cigarette tax charged by regional competitors such as D.C., Pennsylvania, and New York.

I love how he pointed out “organized labor sectors.” Like we need more of that.

So we come to the “savings” part. Jealous proposes to save our dollars by emptying out the jails.

Ben Jealous will reduce Maryland’s prison population by 30%. He will do so by ending returns to prison for technical violations, downgrading drug possession, expanding opportunities to earn parole, and investing in reentry programs. Doing so will create savings of up to $660 million.

Obviously the amount spent on free tuition is going to depend on the shape of the program, but more predictable is the increase in the cigarette tax. Maryland currently has a $2 per pack cigarette tax, which indeed is less than D.C. ($2.50), Pennsylvania ($2.60) and New York (tops in the nation at $4.35.) It’s even a dime less than Delaware’s and New Jersey comes in at $2.70 as well. (And then you have Virginia, second lowest in the country at 30 cents a pack.) Nor should we forget about the millionaire’s tax I cited above.

So let’s speculate that the cigarette tax of $2 a pack increases to $3, which would peg us just above the surrounding jurisdictions aside from Virginia and West Virginia. For FY2017 (the latest figures available) the cigarette tax raised $348.8 million. So a 50% increase in the tax brings a 50% increase in revenue, right?

Well, not quite. For taxes, there is almost always a lag between the rate of increase and the revenue increase. I’m thinking the difference in this case will be about 30%, although your mileage may vary. Total cost to taxpayers (particularly the poor and working class): $244.2 million a year.

On the other side of the scale is the tax on the “top 1%.” It’s harder to judge the impact based on a lack of parameters, but the “millionaire’s tax” of a decade ago reportedly brought in $120 million. I think with inflation, and the fact income taxes bring in $9 billion a year, that a 2% increase in revenue is a realistic estimate because there aren’t that many who would qualify. Total cost to taxpayers: roughly $180 million a year.

After that, there is another highly variable promise:

The guarantee of debt-free tuition will be extended to every Maryland high school graduate.

Jealous will offer this debt free path to graduation in the form of a state-financed work study program that pays students the cost of their tuition each year, including for public graduate schools. A significant part of this restructuring will also come from driving down the overhead costs associated with higher education: expensive book purchases, inflated rents, and non-essentials like luxurious gyms.

The obvious question is how many students would be eligible and how much of the tuition they will pay. Pennsylvania has a similar program where students are allowed to make $10,000 a year toward their college funding. If this is the case, for every 100 students that are accepted there’s a million dollars that has to come from somewhere, oftentimes from the college itself.

Jealous also desires the state get into the student loan refinancing business:

10 states currently offer refinancing programs for student loans. It is long past time that Maryland embrace its role as a national leader, and join these states in easing the often onerous financial burden that student loans pose for Marylanders.

Assuming the state can find the cash reserves, this is actually very inexpensive in comparison. A state study found other states run these programs for less than one million dollars a year, Total cost to taxpayers over five years: $5 million.

Lastly, Jealous wants to correct the supposed shortchanging of HBCUs in the state:

As governor, Jealous will reallocate future state-based funding streams for higher education to provide restorative funding that equals the historic underfunding of HBCUs in Maryland. Moreover, ongoing funding will be fixed to prevent this disparity in the years ahead. Jealous will also end the practice of allowing other public institutions to offer duplicative programs to those traditionally offered by HBCUs.

(…)

Under Jealous’ leadership, the state will begin to fund immediate infrastructure improvements at HBCUs using a percentage of the over $1 billion in general obligation bonds that it issues each year. Beyond improving the physical infrastructure of HBCU facilities, it will allow HBCUs to reallocate existing infrastructure spending to other programmatic investments.

It’s been claimed (by a minority member of the Maryland Senate) that HBCUs have been shortchanged by $2 billion over the years. I don’t think Jealous would try to eradicate that in four years, but over eight it would be a doable thing, simply increasing the $1 billion the state annually puts on its capital funding credit card by 25%. Over four years, this would be $1 billion in additional debt which needs to be paid eventually.

So, to total all this up: just for education at all levels, Ben is looking to ladle on at least $6.743 billion to the budget. In order to fill this gap, we will have to endure the adoption of an ill-considered amendment to the Maryland Constitution, the legalization and taxation of marijuana, increases in business taxes, cigarette taxes and income taxes for certain brackets, the emptying of our jails (with no telling how that will affect the crime rate), and squeezing people out of a legitimate business, refinancing student loans.

And that, my friends, is just for starters.

Now allow me to say that Ben seems like a nice, personable guy. I spoke to him a little bit at Tawes about a concern I had unrelated to this series, and he seemed receptive to help out. But in order to be informed, it should be known that his “free stuff” is going to come at a cost people may not be willing to pay.

The first piece of advice

July 3, 2018 · Posted in All politics is local, Campaign 2018, Culture and Politics, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, National politics, Politics · Comments Off on The first piece of advice 

If you haven’t figured this out in the 12 years, 7 months, and a bit of change since I began this here website, I have an agenda I want to share with you, and sometimes that intrudes onto other parts of my life. I also have gained in my 53-plus years on this planet a little bit of institutional memory and sometimes that dictates my actions.

One case in point occurred a few weeks back and it was because I knew several things would be true and coincide with things I was already planning to do anyway.

  • First of all (and again, in case you didn’t notice over the last 13 seasons) I am a regular devotee of Delmarva Shorebirds games. One season (before I met my wife) I think I made it to about 60 home games out of 70 scheduled. Since I’ve been married I’ve toned it down somewhat, but I will be somewhere in the high 20s this year I believe. Anyway, my favorite days to attend are Sundays and Thursdays, so I got my half-season package in order for me to attend most of those games. Thus, I knew I would be there for the game on Sunday, June 10.
  • Secondly, I had found out a few weeks earlier that Larry Hogan would be in attendance for a game against the Hagerstown Suns, with the reason being that of inaugurating an annual competition between the two called the Governor’s Cup. It turns out we are the only two pro teams in a major sport that are Maryland-based and play each other annually in the regular season in the same league. The date: June 10.
  • Now this is something I didn’t plan for many years ago when I secured the seat, but it so happens that most of those who participate in on-field ceremonies walk up the aisle right by me. So I have had the pleasure of meeting many of those who sing the National Anthem, throw out the first pitch, and so on.
  • Knowing all that, I decided it was time to do a little promotion for a cause I held dear, and create a message at the same time. And thank goodness I lent my cell phone out because the “official” photo from the staff photographer was nowhere near this good.

The big guy on the left is big because he runs a state. The big guy on the right is at least losing a few pounds.

So what message do I want to impart to the reader? First of all, if you’re looking for a good Christian school in the Salisbury area you should consider Faith Baptist School, which is the educational ministry of my church.

But it also gives me an “in” to talk about an issue that I think needs to be brought into the gubernatorial race. Why do you think I picked that shirt?

Back in April, the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) endorsed the primary campaign of eventual Democrat nominee Ben Jealous. Echoing the teacher’s union, Jealous has this as a priority for his campaign:

Before Governor Hogan took office, Maryland’s public schools were ranked first in the country for five years running. Now, under his leadership, we’ve slipped to sixth. As governor, I will reverse this trend by making sure we raise teacher pay by 29%, fund full-day universal Pre-K by legalizing and taxing marijuana for adult use, and force Annapolis to finally keep its promise to use all of the casino and lottery revenue to increase education spending, not replace money they’ve shifted to other priorities.

In addition, Ben has this plan in mind: “Jealous proposes implementing recommendations from the Kirwan Commission and expanding vocational training in Maryland’s high schools so that every child graduates career and college ready.”

While I don’t mind some additional love to vocational education, here’s the rub: his agenda won’t significantly increase our ranking, which is based on a number of factors as defined by Education Week. That publication, in turn, has its own sponsors and trustees who cheerlead for public education. But Maryland being in sixth place is really as meaningless as Maryland in first place if Johnny can’t read and Suzie can’t do simple math or point out Maryland on a map.

So let’s first talk about the Kirwan Commission: if there ever was a group who was ready and willing to raid the pockets of taxpayers, this would be it. This one was doomed from the word go just based on who appointed people to it. (The sad thing was that not one Delegate or Senator objected to its creation.)

And it’s interesting to me that, when you look at the numbers, the Jealous plan can’t even support the teacher raises, let alone the rest of the wish list:

The first four years can be paid for with the phase-in of the Fix the Fund Act that ensures $125 million in FY2020, $250 million in FY2021, $375 million in FY2022, and $500 million in FY2023 will be added to school funding through casino gaming revenues. The fifth year can be covered by $500 million from the Fix the Fund Act and revenue generated by requiring combined reporting for Maryland taxable income. (Emphasis mine.)

Welcome to tax increase number 1, slamming multistate employers who do business in Maryland. (I’m not even counting the pot tax because that’s simply a new tax that’s going to hit the poor hardest – just like the casino tax will, come to think of it. How many rich people go to casinos?)

And the funny thing is: we spend more on education than ever before – just not as much as the teacher’s union wants. (Aside to teachers out there: do you really want sin taxes to fund your schools – more importantly, do you really want your dues supporting this agenda? Now you can take advantage of Janus rights and I encourage it.)

But I don’t want to get into the weeds of taxes because it goes without saying a Democrat will raise them: it’s what they do.

I believe there is a solution that obviates the need for tax increases and produces better results for all Maryland children and parents: school choice. (Or as I like to call it, money follows the child.) Democrats HATE this issue because it’s broadly supported by one of their key constituency groups (inner-city minority voters) yet feared and despised by one of their main financial contributors (unions in general, teachers’ unions in particular.) And who’s winning? Follow the money.

If Larry Hogan wants to drive a wedge into a core constituency of his opponent and peel off a few voters in Baltimore City, he could travel into some downtrodden neighborhood to find a rare success of a school, then make the following statement:

My opponent wants you to gamble more and smoke marijuana just to raise the money to plug into the schools you know aren’t doing the job. I believe we can do better by giving you the power to send your children to whichever school will take them – public, charter, private, it does not matter. If you wanted to send your child to this school (points back at said successful school) we could give you the opportunity. You can decide which option is best for your child.

So let’s talk about private school – in my case, Faith Baptist School.

Right off the top of my head I don’t have the number for tuition for next year but it’s certainly nowhere near the $12,249 a year the local, state, and federal government spends per pupil for our public schools. I’ll bet it’s not more than half of that, but let’s say the state adopts such a program.

First of all, this could allow FBS to increase tuition and better compensate their teachers and staff. Just picking a number, we’ll say tuition and fees come in at $8,000 a year, which would certainly be enough to provide raises and hire more teachers for the need – perhaps from the ranks of former public school teachers fed up with the eradication of God from the public school classroom. (FBS has one such refugee on staff.)

But Michael, you say, that wouldn’t be a benefit to us because you are encouraging these non-market forces to artificially raise the school’s tuition. Again, please read the Jealous plan and his goal to raise teacher (and staff) salaries significantly, and ask yourself: which teachers would you rather reward? And it’s not like I didn’t think about this aspect.

The kicker would be that, for parents who choose to send their child to a school that costs less than the state-allotted sum for the county (the $12,249 a year) the program would allow a portion of the savings to be passed on to the parents. Now I’m not saying they stroke a check directly to the parents, but instead a share of the savings (perhaps 20%) would be given to an account for the child created within the existing 529 program the state has to encourage college savings. They could maintain the same stipulations on use that already exist.

So here are the benefits:

  • Parents are free to send their child to any school which would accept them. This is key because it makes parents accountable for a child’s behavior – perhaps they will encourage good, respectful behavior from the children so as not to be expelled from a school that promotes good teaching.
  • Those parents would accrue money toward their child’s higher education – using my difference of $4,249 as an example, a 20% credit to their 529 plan would be almost $850, simply for shopping for a good deal and having a child accepted.
  • It would also create an incentive for public schools to both cut their costs (to help negate the advantage private schools have on cost) and improve themselves to be more attractive because, remember, having the child in the public school does not add to the college fund. But not all private schools have vocational programs, extracurricular activities, or athletics at a high level. For example, the large public schools locally are able to have robotics clubs that competes regionally and nationally whereas a small school like FBS just can’t.

And don’t think I forgot homeschoolers, who in theory cost the state nothing. They could be eligible for a small stipend from the state – perhaps $1,000 for an academic year and the 529 benefits the other parents get based on the larger savings – it would be over $2,000 a year added to that account.

And because these 529 funds are generally only allowed to be used at Maryland schools, it would create a boost to enrollment for those institutions as well as incentive to broaden their offerings.

The big loser in all this: a moribund public school system that’s been resistant to grassroots change and local control. They would remain as the backstop provider of education as they always have been. Yes, they will have the problem children but remember these children are problems because they weren’t brought up to behave properly and in a manner conducive for learning for those around them. Yet there could be a private school created to give these children the support they need, whether it’s just encouragement for slow learners or tough love for those who refuse to behave.

So this is some free advice I can give to a governor who has let me down in myriad ways since taking office: ignore the naysayers who tell you school choice is a bad thing. I’m not going to tell you the writer makes all invalid points, but I believe the bad seeds would be weeded out in short order because the public schools would be the first to tattle. After all, school choice is a winning issue because people get it.

Those who fret about school choice bringing on “the destruction of public schools” obviously sell themselves short. Sometimes we all need a kick in the behind to motivate us and two things are clear: the status quo isn’t working and simply throwing money at it isn’t changing that fact.

Given this will appear just before Independence Day, maybe it’s time to free those parents that care from the shackles of poor-performing public schools.

The right idea but with the wrong approach

September 4, 2016 · Posted in All politics is local, Business and industry, Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off on The right idea but with the wrong approach 

I find the controversy over Governor Hogan’s executive order mandating that Maryland public schools begin classes after Labor Day and wrap up by the following June 15 to be a good opportunity for commentary, so I decided to add my couple pennies.

First of all, this isn’t a new idea. In 2015 and 2016 legislation was introduced in the Maryland General Assembly to create a similar mandate. As proof of how Annapolis works, the 2015 versions only got House and Senate hearings but the 2016 versions picked up the remaining local House delegation as sponsors (only Delegates Mary Beth Carozza and Charles Otto were local co-sponsors in 2015) and got a Senate committee vote. (It failed on a 5-5 tie, with one of the Republicans on the committee being excused. The other two voted in favor.) There was a chance this legislation may have made it through in 2017, but apparently Hogan was unwilling to take the risk. He took the opportunity to make a news event at a perfect time – when most local districts were already a week or two into school, Larry announced this from the Ocean City boardwalk on a pleasant beach day – and showed he was willing to stand up for one of his principles, that being improving opportunities for small business. (At a minimum, with Hogan’s edict kids are off for 11 weeks for summer vacation.)

In reality, what Hogan has done is shift the calendar backward by about a week: for example, Wicomico County public school kids had their last day of school June 9 and returned August 29 and 30. But the thought process is that families are more likely to take a vacation in July and August than they are in June, so because Ocean City is a great tourist attraction the state should follow Worcester County’s lead and begin school after Labor Day. (They simply went an extra week into June, concluding on June 17 this year.)

Granted, our family has enjoyed a post-Labor Day start for a number of years since parochial schools have more calendar flexibility: our child began her summer vacation after classes ended June 3 and returns on Tuesday the 6th. Growing up, I seem to recall the city schools I attended began after Labor Day and went into June but the rural school I graduated from began classes in late August and was done by Memorial Day. (We had a longer Labor Day weekend, though, because our county fair runs that weekend and the Tuesday after Labor Day was Junior Fair Day. Thirty-odd years later, it still is.) The point is that each of these localities knows what works best, so I can understand the objection from those who advocate local control of school schedules. And talk about strange bedfellows: I’m sure many of those praising Hogan’s statewide mandate locally are also those who have fought for local control of our Board of Education – after at least ten years of trying, we finally have a chance for local control (as opposed to appointments by the Governor) over our Board of Education through a referendum this November. (I recommend a vote for the fully-elected Option 2 on Question A.)

So I agree with the objections on those grounds, even though I personally think a post-Labor Day start is a good idea based on the school calendar typically used. (If I truly had my way, though, we would adopt a 45-15 style plan so that summer break is somewhat shorter and kids spend less time relearning what they forgot over the break.) What I don’t see as productive are those who whine about how this would affect preparation for particular tests – that shouldn’t be the overall goal of education. Obviously they would be the first to blame the calendar (and by extension, Larry Hogan) if test scores went down. But Hogan’s not alienating a group that was squarely in his corner anyway, as the teachers’ unions almost reflexively endorse Democrats, including his 2014 opponent, and mislead Marylanders about education spending. It’s increased with each Hogan budget – just not enough to fund every desire the teachers have.

Come January, it will be interesting to see if the Democrats attempt to rescind this executive order through legislative means, daring Hogan to veto it so they can override the veto and hand him a political loss a year out from the election. While most Marylanders are fine with the change, the Democrats are beholden to the one political group that seems to object and those special interests tend to call the tune for the General Assembly majority.

Yet the idea that the state feels the need to dictate an opening and closing date to local school districts is just another way they are exerting control over the counties. We object when they tell us how to do our local planning, so perhaps as a makeup for this change our governor needs to rescind the PlanMaryland regime in Annapolis.

Common Core subject of TEA Party meeting

On Thursday night an interesting meeting is slated in Ocean Pines.

Jillian Patterson, VP of Policy for Education Freedom Committee will speak about fighting Common Core at the state and local levels and strategies for defeating it. Ms. Patterson will include some basic information about what Common Core is and why parents should be concerned with its current implementation, followed by Q&A.

County Commissioners and School Board members will be invited.

The Worcester County TEA Party is the sponsor of the event, which will be held at the Ocean Pines Community Center.

Most interesting to me is the last line, because some will judge the worthiness of the newly-elected (or re-elected) county commissioners and school board members on whether they show up and listen attentively to this speaker. Fortunately for Worcester County. any school board member who doesn’t wish to enlist in this (admittedly uphill) battle can be ousted in the next election. It’s something we here in Wicomico County cannot boast about yet, although I’m confident our new leadership team will begin the long-overdue process of addressing this inequity.

But Maryland is likely going to be one of the last states to reconsider the Common Core standards, which have gotten such a bad rap nationally that the state dubbed them the “College and Career-Ready” standards, eschewing the “Common Core” moniker. So it will be interesting to see what the report which is due from that bill will say, and whether any mention of the states which are dropping Common Core is made. This despite the fact that Governor-elect Larry Hogan has said we “need to hit the ‘pause’ button on Common Core and to give control back to teachers and parents.”

The chances are fairly good that a Common Core repeal could be introduced in the General Assembly this year, although likely not at the behest of Hogan. The question is how many Democrats will cross the MSEA teachers’ union and help pass the bill out of committee if it even gets a vote. That’s where we come in, with the “encouragement” to make sure such a bill escapes the committee chair’s drawer.

Troubling ethics charges in county race

This letter was sent to me by incoming Central Committee member Dr. Greg Belcher. His concern was an e-mail sent out by Tamara Lee-Brooks, the county’s Public Information Officer, to her county e-mail address list.

**********

Wicomico County residents should be informed about recent events involving the County Executive and his staff.

It has come to my attention that on October 17 the Wicomico County Public Information Officer sent an e-mail message to various persons announcing a joint press conference to be held by Anthony Brown, Rick Pollitt (Brown’s local campaign manager), and the mayor of Salisbury to criticize Brown’s opponent, Larry Hogan. In her e-mail Ms. Lee-Brooks stated that she “was asked to forward” the announcement but did not identify by whom. However, Mr. Pollitt is her superior, in essence if not directly.

It is my understanding that such a communication is a clear violation of the County’s ethics law by Ms. Lee-Brooks, and more significantly the supervisor who ordered it, reasonably assumed to be Mr. Pollitt or another member of his staff. Using public resources (and personnel) for partisan political purposes is strictly prohibited by the law.

Other conduct by Mr. Pollitt and/or members of his staff deserves the voters’ consideration, as well. It has been reported that County vehicles are being used for personal matters, including visiting a local bar and grill. And – in response to Freedom of Information requests – it has been disclosed that Mr. Pollitt has used his County credit card to buy personal groceries on more than one occasion and pay for meals at restaurants. Such conduct is unacceptable, even if Mr. Pollitt promptly reimbursed the County. This, too, is a likely violation of the County’s ethics law.

A complaint is being filed with the County’s Ethics Commission asking for appropriate sanction for matters discussed above. That body should investigate the charges and act appropriately in advance of November 4.

**********

This is the text of the e-mail sent by Lee-Brooks, who added she was “asked to forward for your attention.”

FOR ADVISORY PURPOSES
Friday, October 17, 2014
Contact:
Jerid Kurtz: 443-297-7702
JeridKurtz@AnthonyBrown.com

Press Office: 240-478-6488
Press@AnthonyBrown.com

FRIDAY: Anthony Brown, Rick Pollitt, Jim Ireton to Hold Press Conference on Harm Larry Hogan’s $450 Million Cut to School Construction Would Cause to the Eastern Shore

Hogan’s “Savings Plan” includes a $450 Million Cut to School Construction Funding that Would Threaten Projects – like Bennett Middle School- Throughout the Eastern Shore

Upper Marlboro, MD – On Friday at 11:00 a.m., Lt. Governor Anthony Brown, Wicomico County Executive Rick Pollitt, and Salisbury Mayor Jim Ireton will hold a press conference to discuss the harm that Republican Larry Hogan’s $450 million cut to school construction would have on the Eastern Shore.

These cuts are contained in Hogan’s so-called savings plan — a plan whose numbers the Baltimore Sun noted “don’t add up.”

Hogan’s proposed $450 million cut to school construction could put projects like the construction of Bennett Middle School out of reach for many communities along the Eastern Shore. For the next four years, counties across the Eastern Shore have requested millions in state funding for repairs and renovations in order to modernize their classrooms and deal with overcrowding. But school construction cuts could put all of these local projects at risk.

What:
Press Conference to discuss the harm Larry Hogan’s $450 million cut to school construction would cause to the Eastern Shore’s public schools.

When:
Friday, October 17th at 11:00 a.m.

Where:
Outside of Bennett Middle School
523 South Division Street, Fruitland, MD
Click here for a map.

It’s worth pointing out that the State Ethics Commission has already deemed this letter improper, but for some strange reason none of the local media is very interested in that fact.

In response, county Republican Party Chairman Dave Parker has today asked the county attorney to investigate:

I am deeply concerned that recent actions by elected and appointed Wicomico County officials were in direct violation of §37, the Wicomico County Ethics Law – and likely also the Maryland Ethics law.

The Brown/Ulman gubernatorial campaign recently scheduled a “press conference” in Salisbury claiming “to discuss” Hogan’s alleged plan to make a $450 million cut to school construction on the Eastern Shore. That alleged cut is clearly part of the political dialog which typically occurs during campaigns for office, and as such is clearly more a scare tactic than a reliable statement of fact. At best it is a partisan political disagreement.

However, as the attached email indicates, Tamara Lee-Brooks, the Wicomico Public Information Officer, honored a request (from an unnamed source) to forward the announcement of Brown’s press conference, and Matt Creamer, the Wicomico County Council Administrator, further forwarded this request (as a media advisory). Members of the media consequently reported this so-called press conference, apparently actually attended by Brown. Regardless of the number of individuals to whom this request was forwarded, the County time and other County resources consumed are what are what I believe were unethical.

As I understand the law, because these were obviously partisan political actions in support of the Brown/Ulman campaign, using County Offices, County email, and County employee time to forward Brown’s announcement were are all violations of ethics laws. Because County Executive Rick Pollitt is not only ultimately responsible for supervising Tamara Lee-Brooks but because he also serves as Brown’s local campaign manager, an investigation will likely identify others who used County resources to promote the Brown/Ulman campaign.

Accordingly, with this letter I am, in accordance with instructions I received from your office by telephone, herewith submitting to you a formal ethics complaint for you to deliver to the Wicomico County Ethics Commission for their action. Moreover, I’m requesting that the Commission first thoroughly investigate, then determine and publicly identify and announce both what ethical violations have taken place (and by whom) and what corrective measures will be taken to prevent similar violations in the future.

On the other hand, if overt partisan political activity using County time and resources is not a violation of law, then please so inform me, in writing, that this is the case, citing the appropriate legal authorities.

It’s highly unlikely at this late date that any resolution will occur before Tuesday, but this is just another example of shoddy ethics in Wicomico County government.

Yet these scare tactics from local and state Democrats – in lieu of a record of success from nominee and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown – are par for the course. Sensible voters know Bennett Middle School will be finished and other projects will probably get their funding. It’s worth pointing out as well that there may be some cost savings on individual projects which could make a big difference that Larry Hogan could – and should – get behind, such as eliminating the need to comply with LEED Silver standards and prevailing wage for school construction (as Ohio did some years ago.)

Of course, the real change which should be made in Maryland education creates a prospect that scares the living bejeezus out of Maryland Democrats and their wholly owned subsidiary, the Maryland State Education Association. That would be a program of money following the child regardless of schooling situation, forcing public schools to compete on a level playing field with charter, for-profit, and faith-based educational institutions as well as making homeschooling more affordable.

So it’s not a surprise that Democrats circle the wagons around school construction because it’s not the buildings that are being threatened, it’s the power structure.

District 38B House: Conway vs. Anderton

It’s hard to knock out someone who’s been in politics for over half of their life, but in District 38B Delegate Norm Conway, who at 72 years of age has held elective office since 1974, has a challenger in 41-year-old Delmar Mayor Carl Anderton, Jr. (Put another way, Anderton was but a mere toddler when Conway was first elected.) It’s also hard to knock out someone who has as much in the campaign bank as Norm does, but Carl is getting some help on that front as well. (link.)

There’s no question that Conway has many of the same financial traits as fellow Democrat Jim Mathias: a plethora of businesses and PACs support his effort to remain in the House of Delegates. But it’s interesting to note that, after putting in a spate of local contributions dated January 7 of this year to be placed in the 2013 report (from a January 5 fundraiser in Willards, which ironically is now outside his district) and comply with the law prohibiting fundraising during session, Conway’s local contributions have all but dried up since that January accounting. Conway has raised less than $5,000 in individual contributions since the January report, with significant money coming from Rickman Firstfield Associates ($1,000) and PGA One Charles Center, L.P. ($2,000.) Rickman Firstfield is connected to William Rickman, who owns Ocean Downs and has been implicated in skirting Maryland’s ban on casino owners donating to political candidates. PGA One Charles Center works back to asbestos lawyer Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

It’s worth asking why they care about a local Delegate race, particularly since 96.4% of Conway’s individual contributions since his January report have come from outside the 218xx zip code area.

In that light, Anderton’s is for all intents and purposes a local effort: no PAC money and only a small percentage out of the district. Granted, the largest single donation comes from the vast coffers of Congressman Andy Harris, who gave $4,000, but that pales in comparison to PAC money finding its way to Conway. Others who have helped out Anderton are fellow Delegate hopeful Christopher Adams in District 37B, Wicomico County Council candidate Marc Kilmer, and Anne Arundel County Councilman Jerry Walker. Politicians have also transferred money to Conway: Wicomico County Council candidate Ernest Davis, Delegate Patrick Hogan (a Republican), and Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz have chipped in.

But a consistent 25 to 35 percent of Conway’s take comes from Maryland PACs, with some of the largest contributors being the Baltimore Gas and Electric PAC ($1,000), Comcast PAC of Maryland ($1,000), Health Policy Leadership Alliance, the PAC of the Maryland Hospital Association ($1,000), Medical PAC Maryland ($1,000), SEIU Local 500 PAC ($1,000), Maryland Realtors PAC ($1,300), and the biggest by far: MSEA’s Fund for Children and Public Education PAC – the teacher’s union gave Norm a cool $5,150.

So it’s sort of telling in a way that Conway spent a tremendous amount of money on fundraising, spending over $17,000 to create just over $41,000 in individual contributions with events in Salisbury, Willards, and Annapolis. (For the Annapolis one he used our old “incumbency protection” friends at Rice Consulting, which received $4,361.93 for their trouble.) Meanwhile, the $15,880 on media was actually for billboard advertising with Clear Channel.

Conversely, Anderton seemed to have a lot more bang for his buck when it came to fundraising, spending $1,156.48 to generate $12,966.01 in individual contributions. EVO was his choice for venue, as he spent the entire sum there. All told, it’s worth pointing out that since the January report Anderton has outraised Conway $10,366.01 to $8,462.50 – granted, there were 90 days where Conway could not fundraise but practically all of the local money over the timeframe has gone to the challenger. (As full disclosure, I’ve chipped $10 into the Anderton effort although I didn’t attend a formal fundraiser.)

I was driving home yesterday along U.S. 50 when I noticed a Conway billboard – whether it’s the one he paid $15,880 for or one subsequent is not important. But on it Conway cited his “Eastern Shore Values” as a reason to be re-elected, so it’s funny that most of the money he’s used to pay for it comes from people who likely don’t share those values because they live in Annapolis or other parts of the state. Food for thought.

Next week I wrap up the series with a look at the District 37 House races. I’m just going to do one post and look at all five contenders.

Champions or chumps?

Apparently the Maryland State Education Association has some worries about the prospects of two of our local candidates. Almost six months out from the elections and look what I got in the mail yesterday:

Given that, out of over 150 MSEA-endorsed candidates across the state, the body only “recommended” five Republicans (including Christopher Adams locally) one can come to the conclusion the MSEA is pretty much a shill group for liberals. Although Chris is a fine candidate, the fact that the MSEA endorsed a Wicomico Republican could perhaps be traced to the ongoing fight about disassociation by the local bargaining unit. Nor was an MSEA mailing put out on his behalf, at least not that I’m aware of.

There are a couple things I can tell from this mailer: one is that it came from Board of Election records based on the fact it has my full name like my voter registration does. And it’s bipartisan, as a number of Republicans I know have reported receiving it; most likely it went to the truly consistent voters. Something tells me that various groups are going to try and convince voters that Mathias and Conway are practically the second and third comings of Ronald Reagan, but with a softer side – that’s why the MSEA is stressing how these two are backing education. That is, though, if you consider throwing money at the issue as backing education.

For example, let’s consider that first claim about “record investments in our schools.” In Conway’s case, let’s not forget that he was a prime mover back in 2012 behind legislation to circumvent Wicomico County’s revenue cap in order to increase the county’s share of education funding. (Conway was a co-sponsor of a similar House bill.) This had the potential of leaving the county $14 million short in their FY2013 budget, and directly led to an income tax increase reluctantly passed by our County Council. Norm voted for both versions of the bill in the House. (Mathias was absent when the Senate bill was voted on.) Those “record investments” had to come from somewhere and a large share came from the pockets of those in District 38 here in Wicomico County. Overturning the will of county voters? Way to be “standing up for Wicomico County,” Norm.

And then we have the aspect of pre-kindergarten. While the state’s goal seems to be cradle-to-grave control, the bill in question only expands pre-kindergarten to those who meet certain income guidelines, at an annual cost of no less than $4.3 million. Moreover, there is no guarantee that any local children would be impacted – but it provides 160 more potential MSEA union members because the bill mandates an average 1 teacher to 10 student ratio. Of course, both Conway and Mathias voted for the bill – what’s a little $4.3 million mandate in the grand scheme of things?

While it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to some extent, the question of the effectiveness of Head Start also leads to questioning whether a formalized school setting does much good for four-year-olds. I guess we’ll spend lots of taxpayer dollars to find out.

Scrutiny is also due regarding the “larger voice in how new curriculum is implemented,” a claim based on passage of HB1164. It doesn’t matter how loud we speak, because money is talking louder – and there’s going to be a lot of it needed to enact Common Core standards and testing. This is from the fiscal note for HB1164:

Finally, the full cost to administer PARCC is still unknown. In July 2013, PARCC announced that the summative math and reading tests would cost $29.50 per student. This is a little less than the $32 per student Maryland currently spends on assessments, but it does not reflect several other formative tests PARCC is developing that Maryland may select or the technology infrastructure required in every school to handle the capacity and network requirements to administer the computer-based assessments. Many schools do not have sufficient technology infrastructure to meet these requirements. MSDE is in the process of assessing the technology readiness of Maryland’s schools. The local school systems identified over $100 million in needed technology improvements to implement PARCC online. MSDE has contracted with Education Superhighway, a consulting firm, to evaluate the technology gap to implement PARCC online by the 2016-2017 school year. Several states, most recently Georgia and Oklahoma, have recently left the PARCC consortium over cost concerns. There are also long-term budget implications for maintenance and operational costs of assessment administration upon the termination of federal RTTT grant funds to the State and to PARCC. (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, we are once again buying a pig in a poke. Note also that the phrase “Common Core” was excised from the bill after first reading because its reputation precedes it now.

Basically what this bill did was allow Martin O’Malley (and his House and Senate minions) to designate a number of “yes men” who will invariably come to the conclusion that we need more money to throw at the problem. But in reading the bill I fail to see how we in Wicomico County will get a “larger voice,” even if one of those appointed happens to be, say, a Norm Conway or Jim Mathias. It won’t help.

The mailer urges us to call Senator Mathias and Delegate Conway to “thank them for their leadership on education issues and their work to keep our public schools #1 in the country.” It’s a way of skirting the election law since they’re not openly advocating a vote on their behalf – nothing new here, as conservatives use the same method.

But how about calling them and asking why they really aren’t supporting Maryland’s school-aged children? Why didn’t they advocate for parent empowerment bills which didn’t even sniff a real committee vote (it was withdrawn in 2012) in three consecutive sessions this term? Ask them if money shouldn’t be following the child regardless of where a parent decides to send them to school, or teach them at home? And while Senator Mathias has been of assistance in the matter, we all should ask Norm Conway why he won’t stand up for true accountability and support the right of Wicomico County voters to select their own Board of Education?

Ask yourself: are they protecting the schools as the mailer says, or protecting the children by allowing parents to do their job? There truly is a difference.

Afraid to face up

May 2, 2014 · Posted in Delmarva items · 3 Comments 

I have to admit something: I missed a series of events which probably belonged in the “should have known better” department.

On Sunday I posted an article about the upcoming Wicomico County Education Association balloting on the question of whether they would disassociate from the Maryland State Education Association, one which I actually wrote several days ahead of time in order to post closer to the actual balloting date. I have no idea how many Wicomico teachers actually read my site – although my updates are occasionally linked from various outlets – but I felt it was important to note that this separation has been completed before.

Obviously other events have interceded in my life so last night I was curious to see how the vote went down, particularly since I was surprised to hear nothing about it. Where I should have known better is that the MSEA and its minions surely had no intention of letting the WCEA speak in any sort of secret ballot which may not have gone their way; in fact, the events of the last two weeks would seem surreal to the outside observer but predictable to one familiar with the political power game. It all played out in the 24 hours or so following the original writing of my Sunday post, for which I used the delayed publishing feature I employ for scheduling posts.

In covering the “palace coup” which occurred on April 15, I wondered if the members would even be allowed to vote. Turns out the answer was no. In fact, not only had the MSEA fans of the rump directorate scrubbed the vote, but they’ve cleansed the WCEA website of any of the information the local union put out to promote their pro-local side. Instead, there’s a message on the front page of the site:

On April 15 a majority of the members of the Wicomico County Education Association stood together and took necessary steps to prevent a small minority of members from dismantling the union with attempts to disaffiliate from our state and national Associations. The members have spoken and have declared that we are stronger together, and the support we have from the Maryland State Education and National Education Association adds to that strength. We have collected the necessary signatures to recall the officers of WCEA and have put an interim board of managers in place, effective immediately. This board will assume day to day operations of the Association and will move to conduct an election of a new slate of officers. These actions clearly reflect the wishes of the majority of our members who are anxious to move forward and who remain committed to giving Wicomico County’s public school students the excellent instruction and service they deserve.

So if it were truly a majority, why not have the vote and prove it? Ah, that’s the beauty of a “palace coup” – they leave nothing to chance. Far from dismantling the WCEA union – which was never at question – the vote would have only changed the bylaws so members need not be members of MSEA if they wished to simply be in the local union. But when $537,000 is at stake – or perhaps more, as the local union backers suggest based on recent state law – the truth can be a casualty.

Fortunately, the vote may go on soon, as a local court ordered yesterday that control be restored to the elected leadership.

On that note, it was amusing to see a Facebook comment stating “If you took half the effort to educate us on your side as you do bashing the other, maybe you’d get somewhere.” But if the website was scrubbed of that educational information it would sure make learning difficult, would it not? (This is a screen shot of how the WCEA website looked pre-coup, although it doesn’t link to the information which was placed on it during March.)

Perhaps this a good reminder of the points originally made. Somehow the rump directorate didn’t get hold of the WCEA Youtube page.

This struggle has achieved national notoriety for our small corner of the world, with the rump committee posting an update on Salisbury News. It appears the superintendent had recognized the coup; fortunately the legitimately elected board of directors had at least one information outlet available to them before the court ruling. WCEA President Kelly Stephenson wrote there:

Dear Respected WCEA Members:

There will be an all-member vote on the proposed WCEA Bylaws amendments, however, the vote will be postponed for a short duration, for the following reasons:

1. This vote will be overseen by Certified Public Accounting firm Pigg, Krahl and Stern, to ensure the validity and anonymity, so that no side has a role in the execution or calculation of the results of the vote. They will be providing additional information, including voting instructions, in coming days.

2. The duly elected WCEA leadership has been forced to file a lawsuit in the Wicomico County court system as a result of the unlawful and inappropriate actions of the “Interim Managers.” It is unfortunate that these measures must be taken, however, the duly elected WCEA leadership is confident that the results of the initial hearing will demonstrate the truth in this issue, verify who is rightfully in control and enable members to have a say in the future of this organization.

It is clear the seizure of the WCEA office and assets in the middle of the night through unauthorized measures was only an attempt to intimidate your elected leaders and to prevent your voting voice for the future of WCEA. The duly elected WCEA leadership continues to believe that all members have the right to express their opinion and will hold the all-member vote to enable you the opportunity to state your choice.

Please make your voice be heard: vote!

Kelly Stephenson, WCEA President

While the court has spoken, the battle is not likely to be over until voting commences. This exercise was obviously meant as a lesson to other counties which could consider the same action that dissent will not be tolerated.

The template

April 27, 2014 · Posted in Delmarva items, Education · 1 Comment 

There was something I didn’t know when the whole Wicomico County Education Association drive to decouple itself from the Maryland State Education Association came to light: it’s been done before, most recently in Michigan. Back in 2012, teachers in the Roscommon Area Public Schools decided – by a fairly wide margin – to drop their affiliation with the Michigan Education Association, and by this particular account the change has been welcomed. Like Wicomico County, the town of Roscommon is far away from the populated areas of Michigan and teachers there felt shortchanged by the state union based on a perceived lack of attention to their needs.

This video, created by Michigan’s Mackinac Center for Public Poilicy, speaks with the leader of the Roscommon effort.

Notice the focus in the Roscommon case was similar to the complaints here: dues which were too high and the desire for improved services. Their effort, however, has been a longstanding one as it took 21 years to convince teachers to make the switch – presumably as the old guard retired and newer teachers saw the situation, the votes for breaking away began to tally up.

Obviously the comparison isn’t perfect, since the Roscommon district is far smaller: perhaps the best local analogy to it would be the Mardela feeder system within the Wicomico County schools. It’s also different because Michigan is a recent convert back to a right-to-work state; unfortunately Maryland legislation to that effect never gets out of committee.

Still, Roscommon union leader Jim Perialas has made it clear he was no proponent of right-to-work, just an opponent of “big, bureaucratic unions.” Even so, the Michigan Education Association has taken the time to condemn Perialas for leading the effort away from the MEA. Local leaders should expect no less.

If the vote this week is one which supports the decoupling of the WCEA and MSEA, look for the cries of “fraud!” to erupt from both the state union and the rump directorate which tried to take control of the union a couple weeks ago. Conversely, a vote to maintain MSEA/NEA affiliation will likely result in another dues increase and Wicomico County being forgotten again until it’s time for the dues check to arrive.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have a child in Wicomico County public schools (but do pay taxes) so I really don’t have a dog in the fight. It won’t affect my life one way or the other, but hundreds among us will be affected by the outcome. So it’s your choice – choose wisely.

Did the state union strike back?

As a follow-up to a story I wrote about a few weeks back, the leadership of the Wicomico County Education Association is accusing opponents of an upcoming vote to disassociate the union from the Maryland State Education Association of entering the WCEA headquarters, changing the locks, and taking over operations. WCEA president Kelly Stephenson announced the following on their website and Facebook page:

On April 15, 2014, Gary Hammer et al., entered the WCEA offices, changed the locks and codes, removed or altered office equipment and purported to illegally fire the Association’s only employee. These actions were not taken in accordance with the governing documents of WCEA or in accordance with the law.

The democratically elected leadership of WCEA would like everyone to know that we are continuing to exercise the duties of the office. We will not be bullied and these actions will not affect the business affairs of the Association. Member services, including member representation and contract negotiations with the Wicomico County Board of Education, will continue unchanged. Further, this attempt to subvert the democratic process will not succeed: on April 28th and 29th, the Association’s vote on Bylaws changes will proceed, and members will be able to decide for themselves whether to become self-governing.

There’s little doubt that the vote will be acrimonious, with the local union putting out flyers and messages like the ones below.

One voice WCEA flyer.

WCEA focus.

Opponents of the change – or at least of the current leadership – began a petition drive to recall those leaders, with the office entry being the result of what they claim was a successful recall with over 700 members signing their petition and simultaneously selecting an interim slate of directors. I don’t doubt this rump directorate is comprised of those who favor remaining in the MSEA and decided this lockout was the way to go.

The obvious question becomes whether this “palace coup,” if you will, is valid. This amended version of the WCEA bylaws (with the changes slated to be voted on later this month) suggests the answer is no. But as I see it this episode demonstrates the lengths the state union would go to in order to keep its county-level affiliate in the fold. And even if the membership is allowed to vote and decides to maintain its ties to the MSEA, how many people will lose trust in the union’s leadership as a result and drop out of the union?

In doing the research for this piece, I noticed the accusation about my “right wing blog” support. Naturally there is a political aspect, but I find it interesting that one of the small handful of Republicans the MSEA endorsed around the state was from here in Wicomico County: they backed Christopher Adams for one District 37B seat over a Democrat. But I don’t have a dog in this fight, aside from the notion that it’s an interesting story based on the aspect of localizing government, which is a conservative point of view and fits right in with a rather conservative county mindset. Our child doesn’t attend a public school.

Interesting times lie ahead for the public school teachers of Wicomico County. For the first time in a long time, it appears the state union is actually taking Wicomico County seriously.

Local teachers seek local control

March 26, 2014 · Posted in Delmarva items, Maryland Politics, Politics · 2 Comments 

It’s not just frustrated and disgruntled members of the public who are looking to bring their government to a local level closer to the people, rebelling against what they consider outsized influence from Washington and the various state capitals. In the case of the Wicomico County Education Association (WCEA) – a bargaining unit representing teachers and various other school employees in this semi-rural outpost of the Eastern Shore of Maryland – their aim is to break away from the much larger Maryland State Education Association (MSEA), making the case in an open letter from WCEA president Kelly Stephenson to the MSEA and community that:

In the years I have been representing WCEA, several things have become clear for all to see. First, many school employees believe MSEA has not represented them properly over the last decade and find it ironic that your people only show up when the $537,000 dues money is at risk. It is clear that you and your people on the “other side of the bridge” have a different agenda from those of us on this side of the bridge. Wicomico County, to most of us, is like a family – WCEA will work out our problems for the betterment of all – not just for the betterment of the Annapolis elite. In short, WCEA Board has heard repeatedly that your organization’s presence is not seen as a plus for our community.

And those fighting words serve to buttress one point: MSEA representation is expensive for the average teacher in Wicomico County. Depending on salary and position, annual dues can range from $197.28 to $598.50. Supporters claim the WCEA proposal would shave up to $260 off that cost.

But controversy has been brewing for several years, and heads were turned in 2012 when it was learned that an embezzlement case in adjacent Worcester County was handled internally by MSEA and the local association rather than alerting authorities at the time of discovery back in 2009 – the thefts occurred over a three-year period before that. Meanwhile, complaints began to pile up in Wicomico County about ineffective representation services, a lack of support in negotiations, concerns about the political direction and activities of the state union – which endorsed Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown a year ahead of this November’s election and commissioned polls to tout his lead – and constantly increasing dues, particularly when union leadership was making far more than the average Wicomico County teacher.

Exasperated, WCEA members started a petition drive to change the local unit’s bylaws and remove the provision requiring concurrent membership in the MSEA and National Education Association (NEA), citing the concern that membership rolls were dwindling because many potential members simply could not afford the dues. Local leadership has been careful to stress that WCEA members may still be members of MSEA/NEA if desired – although apparently the MSEA begs to differ:

It is difficult to understand why the MSEA leadership has suggested they would not welcome you in the future to be a member of MSEA if WCEA chooses to disaffiliate when the information on the MSEA website tells a different story. From the MSEA website under FAQs:

“Q: How do I join MSEA?

A: If you are employed in professional education work for any school district in the state of Maryland, are a student or retired educator, or work for an accredited institution of higher education, you are eligible to become a member of MSEA as well as your local association and NEA.”

The WCEA goes on to say that many of its benefits would continue even without MSEA membership – and in some cases, strictly local representation can provide members a better deal, particularly when it comes to legal representation and similar services. The WCEA also reminded its members that they are the legally recognized bargaining unit for the teachers and staff, soliciting a local attorney to verify that there is no legal connection between the WCEA and MSEA – only the membership requirement in the WCEA bylaws.

All this back-and-forth is leading up to a vote of the WCEA membership slated for April 28-29; a balloting which is expected to be close and rather divisive. Some opponents of the change are skeptical that a WCEA which “goes it alone” would be powerful enough to stand up to the local Board of Education, which by state law is appointed by a representative of Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley and thus holds a 4-3 Democratic majority. The current teachers’ contract, which was signed last year, runs through June 30, 2016; however, health insurance coverage and other fringe benefits can be revisited on an annual basis if both sides agree.

But even if the opponents of the bylaws change prevail, it’s obvious that there are serious misgivings between the Wicomico County rank-and-file and the state union, just as there’s a great deal of skepticism from the residents of the state’s Eastern Shore about the goings-on within state government in general. Chesapeake Bay is much more than a body of water dividing the state geographically; it also seems to separate the two sides in politics and their all-around attitude towards life. Politically, the Eastern Shore sends a significant share of the state’s minority Republicans to Annapolis and most of its counties are dominated by the GOP; moreover, the denizens of those areas east of the Chesapeake seem to take a perverse pride in being what one former governor called the state’s outhouse. (The actual term was more, shall we say, descriptive.)

So this election should be closely watched as a test case. If the local Wicomico County bargaining unit can convince their teachers that breaking away from the MSEA is to their benefit, it may encourage a number of the other counties in the state to consider a similar move, perhaps costing the MSEA several million dollars in dues they would otherwise collect. While $537,000 may not be a lot when it comes to a union’s budget –  the county’s dues only cover four “average” MSEA employees – it can still be spread around to a host of state and federal elected officials, and it’s that political purchasing power MSEA worries most about losing.

Curious: MSEA fails to endorse Question 7

October 30, 2012 · Posted in Business and industry, Campaign 2012, Delmarva items, Education, Maryland Politics, Politics · Comments Off on Curious: MSEA fails to endorse Question 7 

According to this story by Matt Connolly in the Washington Examiner, the Maryland State Education Association – the state’s largest teacher’s union – opted not to endorse Question 7. This has to be a severe blow to the hopes of supporters who are basing much of their argument on the assertion that a new casino and table games would benefit Maryland schools to the tune of millions of dollars a year.

But the MSEA could not get the slim majority required to endorse the bill, instead remaining officially neutral on Question 7. This failure reflects the skepticism of many rank-and-file members who have heard the argument before that lottery money would be a surefire ticket to increased school funding.

While various local units have endorsed the measure – many of them in areas benefiting from either an existing or proposed casino – the lack of support from the 70,000-strong teachers’ union continues a bad week which also saw the release of a poll showing Question 7 heading for defeat by a projected margin of 15 points.

That perception of politicians not being able to keep their promises is perhaps the strongest argument opponents have in their bid to defeat Question 7, but there’s also the controversy over the entire Special Session made necessary because the two sides failed in a last-minute push to resolve the gambling issue (or even pass a budget to their liking) in the regular session last April. That disastrous ending led to both the “doomsday” and gambling Special Sessions and may have sown the seeds of mistrust for anything sponsored by this edition of the Maryland General Assembly.

Unfortunately, while we can defeat Question 7, we are pretty much stuck with the cast of misfits and miscreants we call the Maryland General Assembly until 2014. Of course they will probably come back with a second attempt at building the National Harbor facility, legalizing table games, and allowing 24-hour operation on the next general election ballot in 2014, but perhaps the better thing to consider would be the repeal of Article XIX of the Maryland Constitution. But that won’t happen because common sense is as rare as the MSEA looking past a projected pot of state money.

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