Tuesday, April 6, 2010

OMG! What an election!!

Today was not a good day to be an incumbent in Kenosha County.

Five incumbent county supervisors got the boot from voters: Anita Faraone, Mark Modory, Roger Johnson, Jennifer Jackson and Jim Moore.  Erin Decker, a Republican activist, beat Johnson by just three votes.  Expect a recount there.

Kenosha County GOP Chair Kathy Carpenter, a fellow blogger, lost her nonpartisan bid to be reelected to the Kenosha Common Council.  Katherine Marks, who tried to retire from the council but announced as a write-in candidate when nobody filed for the seat, won re-election.

Incumbent Kenosha Unified School Board member David Fountain lost to David Gallo.  Rebecca Stevens won re-election over challenger Robert Nuzzo.  Fountain was on the board when it voted to invest taxpayer money in now nearly worthless investments.  He, like Stevens, voted to hire Michele Hancock as the new superintendent without fulling vetting Hancock's background.

Some good public servants were booted out today.  This may be a sign of what's to come this fall when state and national races are on the ballot.  Perhaps the so-called "silent majority" has just been awaken.

Didn't vote? Don't bitch!

It's election day.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Thanks, Village People -- and the inside scoop

A fellow blogger and Pleasant Prairie resident commented on the controversy surrounding the vetting of Kenosha's new school superintendent, Michele Hancock, by observing that he hopes for the sake of the children of the school district that the critiques of Hancock's administrative performance are wrong and that she turns out to be the best superintendent the district ever had.

Amen.  Not only do I wish her well, but, as stated previously, it's too bad that the vetting occurs after she was hired.  It's a shame that our school board didn't do its homework before making the contract offer.  This is exacerbated because board members had the opportunity to publicly and privately interview Hancock and some board members even went to Rochester to check her out.

What's obvious is that they didn't do a very good job of checking.  Nor did the Kenosha News or any other media outlet.  As reported here, Hancock was an oustanding teacher and elementary school principal whose performance appears to have gone south when she became a central office administrator.  That's a critical point which needed further investigation before she was hired.

Any sports fan knows that the best managers weren't always the best players and the best players aren't always the best managers.  This is true at least for no other reason that the two roles are different.  The job of a player is to get the job done.  The job of a manager is to get the job done through others and, concurrently, the duty of a manager is to provide the resources and support necessary for the players to get their jobs done.  This isn't rocket science.  It's Management 101.

Hancock was a great teacher and an award winning principal who literally invested her own sweat and paint into cleaning up a troubled Rochester, New York grade school.  Then she turned to staff and student performance and turned that around to the point where her school won a National School Change Award.  Here's a summary of why that happened:

The first thing that Michele Hancock did when she was appointed a new principal in June 1999 was to bring together her family to paint the uninviting elementary school she inherited. Michele's new message was that expectations had to be high for the students in this urban high poverty area and, with hard work, school improvement was possible. Over the next four years, the grade 4 English Language Arts (ELA) passing scores went from 13.3% to 63.2% while the math scores rose from 30.7% to 78.8%. Science scores jumped 39 points to 70% and 83% passed the new social studies exam. Now a poster hangs outside each teacher's room announcing the instructional specialty, such as cooperative learning, that teachers can model. Michele covers classes so teachers can observe other classes and discuss those instructional specialties and best practices with their colleagues.
This is great stuff and the kind of achievement we want to see not just in Kenosha but everywhere.  The story, however, soured when the Rochester District plucked Hancock out of her school and made her the district's diversity chief.  It was during her tenure in that job that she attracted criticism for encouraging the use of Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) in school to communicate with some black students.

Shortly thereafter, with no human resources experience (other than at the building principal level), Hancock was promoted to be the district's personnel director.  Her performance in that job was controversial as well.  You've read about the allegations that she called teachers at a Rochester schoool on the carpet after they voted "no confidence" in their principal (who was then reassigned).  Even her boss, who was part of that conversation, said that Hancock told the teachers that there was a "perception" of racism in their actions. 

And then Hancock helped stage a two-day resort retreat for Rochester district administrators to the tune of $18,000 when the district's finances were over $60 million in the hole.

Further, while Hancock did a great job with her school when she was a principal, did that success infect the Rochester district?  Apparently not.  The latest high school graduation rate there was reported at 46%, down from 52% the year before.  (Kenosha's is 84.1%.)

So we have two portraits of Michele Hancock: outstanding teacher and award winning principal vs. inexperienced controversial administrator of an academically and financially troubled district.

This is precisely the contrast that our school board (and the media, for that matter) should have picked up on and further vetted.  They didn't hire Hancock to be a building principal or curriculum coordinator.  They hired her to be the superintendent -- top dog over all the other administrators, educators and support staff.  The question we're all going to be waiting to have answered is which Michele Hancock did we get -- the outstanding teacher and award winning principal or inexperienced controversial administrator?

This is by no means an insignificant question in this school district where many superintendents have had a rocky road.  Local talent Joe Bisciglia took the job on a divided vote and it wasn't that long after that the board was looking to dump him.  Then came Michael Johnson, an "outsider" with new ideas every day but academic achievement and staff relations issues clouded his tenure and he took another job.  Then local boy R. Scott Pierce came back to Kenosha but it wasn't that long afterward that he, too, had strained relations and moved on.  Throughout much of this Joe Mangi held things together reasonably well and deserves credit for doing so.

Both Hancock's background and the district's made it compelling for the school board to have made the right choice the right way.  Even the Kenosha News complained of the lack of transparency in the process. 

At the end of the day, Village People pegs it when he says that he hopes that Hancock turns out to be the best superintendent the district ever had.  Amen to that.  It's unfortunate that the school board failed to clear the debris from the road before her arrival.

And now, for the rest of the story. 

I admit that I hadn't paid much attention to the school board's selection process but, after reading that Hancock got the nod, decided to see what I could learn about her.  A simple "Google search" led to the various news articles both about her successful career as a teacher and principal and the questions about her administrative performance.  That initial search took perhaps a minute and not more than two.  In other words, I pretty much stumbled onto this information.  That's exactly what the school board -- and the news media -- should have done.  After all, we bought the board members laptop computers.  How hard would it have been for them to use them?

Did Pam Stevens miss the point?

The Kenosha News -- which did a hasty and incomplete attempt to catch up with the blogosphere in its story today over the hiring of Michele Hancock as the new Kenosha school superintendent -- has an interesting take in the story from board president Pam Stevens:

Unified School Board President Pam Stevens said she’s disappointed some would denigrate Hancock before she even had a chance to start her job. Stevens said the candidate vetting process was consistent. Stevens said all the candidates were given the opportunity to explain their education philosophies during closed-session board interviews and at the community forum in February.
If this is an accurate portrayal of Stevens' position, she's obviously missed the point:  The criticism wasn't about Hancock as much as it was the school board's failure  -- and that of the headhunter firm it hired -- to perform due diligence in investigating Hancock's background. 

And, if the newspaper's story is correct, then Stevens is either ignorant or incompetent or both.  "Vetting" isn't just about a process being "consistent" or giving candidates an opportunity to explain their educational philosophies.

Consistency is a baseline principle but, if followed strictly, is myopic and can lead to an incomplete and inaccurate picture.  On the other hand, vetting is a process of examination and evaluation, generally referring to performing a background check on someone before offering him or her employment. 

Stevens may be partially correct in that in the hiring process it's not unusual to have a standardized series of questions to pose to each candidate and to that extent consistency has some purpose -- but that's just the beginning of vetting.

Stevens, who I philosophically agree with much of the time, nonethtless misses the point in this quote: “Just because an African-American female walks into a room, all of the sudden we’re going to change our list of questions and ask, ‘Since you’re an African-American female, are you going to teach ebonics?’”

Of course Stevens is correct when she predicates the question of "Are you going to teach ebonics" with "Since you are an African-American female" which is an apparent reference to Hancock's ancestry.  But the issue isn't Hancock's ancestry, it's the controversy over her purported acceptance of the use of Black English Vernacular in school, regardless of the extent she thinks it's appropriate.  More important is the issue that the school board didn't investigate it before hiring Hancock. 

In fact, the first story here about Hancock quoted extensively from the newsletter she wrote and included her philosophy on the use of BEV (ebonics):

The newsletter, Diversity Dialogue, suggests teachers use BEV to communicate with students. It says teachers can: 
• “Switch into BEV in specific situations or informal discussion.”
• "Translate common phrases in Standard English into BEV.”
• “Read and retell stories in both BEV and Standard English.”

“We need to embrace the diversity they bring into our schools,” said the district’s Chief of Diversity and Leadership, Michele Hancock.

Hancock and Tyra Webb-Johnson, Director of Coaching and Leadership, wrote the newsletter. They are both former elementary school principals.

“We want (teachers) to have a better understanding of what BEV is so they can incorporate it into their teaching. That way, they're not alienating the students who are speaking the vernacular and degrading them,” Webb-Johnson said.

Ebonics was debated nationally in 1996 when the Oakland, California school district proposed using it in the curriculum.

Ebonics is defined as a speech pattern used by some African-Americans that does not follow standard grammar.

“No matter how you speak, you do need to learn the standard form so you can embrace the larger audience of people,” Hancock said. “But you can hold on to the richness of your family environment and not feel that is beneath any standard of living.”

Hancock says many people, including her own son, who graduated from college, know how to "code switch" between Standard English and Ebonics. She said students must learn to be proficient in Standard English.

“Many African-Americans are bi-dialectic in their speech patterns. I think it's critical teachers understand those speech patterns so they can effectively, visually show children how they are speaking, but not to denigrate it, but to celebrate it,” Hancock said.

Nowhere here was it said that Hancock advocated teaching Ebonics and, in fact, Hancock's own words clearly show that she believes students must learn to be proficient in Standard English.  Nonetheless she also supported the limited use of BEV in school and that, according to the Rochester television news report quoted here, brought critcism from many segments of that city's black community, including a school board member, former mayor and parents and students. 

As for Stevens' comments about consistency, that's a smokescreen.  Consistency is a minimum across-the-board baseline.  Had the school board or its consulting firm performed due diligence and uncovered this information, the board, if it had done its job, would have asked Hancock about it.  Stevens admitted that the board had closed door interviews of the candidates.  The questioning could -- and should -- have happened there.  Stevens and her fellow board members dropped the ball, plain and simple. 

The board's failure to do its job shortchanged constituents and Hancock.  As noted here, it would have been preferable for the new superintendent to come in on a wave of optimism, not under a cloud of controversy. 

Further, the "Ebonics" controversy is one that is likely to be inflammatory and incite prejudices in quarters other than here.  That's unfortunate because the issues surrounding Hancock's fitness for her new job go well beyond that.

For example, the recent controversy in Rochester where elementary school teachers at a school that voted "no confidence" in their principal (who was reassigned) felt intimidated by Hancock and her boss over the suggestion that the vote may be perceived as racially motivated also deserved vetting.  The Rochester Democrat-Chronicle reported that the Rochester Teachers Association said that Hancock and the Rochester superintendent berated staff and then launched a retaliatory investigation of three teachers at the school.  While denying the union's allegation of retaliation, Superindent Jean-Claude Brizard confirmed that Hanock "said there was a perception of racism in the school."

By itself this tiff may not be terribly significant and could be dismissed as union-management sniping.  But the Rochester superintendent, who is also black, confirmed that Hancock did raise the issue of race with the teachers.  Further, as noted here:

On May 21, 2008 WHAM's veteran education reporter, Rachel Barnhart, wrote that Hancock was named the new human resources chief (later morphed into "Human Capital Initiatives") for the Rochester district although Hancock "doesn't have a background in human resources."

Less than two years later Hancock -- who received $36,000 from the Rochester district toward her doctoral degree studies -- was applying for and ultimately accepted the Kenosha job although she has no experience as a superintendent or even an assistant superintendent. 
Had our school board had done its homework and asked the right questions, perhaps there wouldn't be as many now -- or at least there'd be better answers.

Hancock is being paid a starting salary of  $195,000 -- $45,000 more than the current superitendent, Joe Mangi, a veteran educator.  Yet she has never been a superintendent -- or an assistant superintendent -- of any district and has less than two years of experience in her current personnel position, one which she came into without human resources experience.  Add that to the Ebonics controversy and the flap with the teachers and you don't think that there are things that Hancock should have questioned about?  And let's not forget the $18,000 two-day resort retreat Hancock organized for administrators of a school district that's over $60 million in the red and has a graduation rate of 46%, down 52% from the previous year.

Today's newspaper story drivels on about how Stevens says the board wouldn't think of supporting an Ebonics curriculum and anyone who would suggest it is misinformed.  She's right.  Anyone who would suggest it is misinformed -- even her.  The issue isn't Ebonics -- it's the board's failure to properly check out its choice to be the new superintendent. 

The story goes on to say that Stevens takes "with a grain of salt" what Hancock's detractors say about her.  Then Stevens is quoted as saying, “I really thought some people in Kenosha were above that."

Time out for a reality check.  Get the message, Pam: It's not about "Hancock's detractors" but rather the failure of the board to do its job.  As noted here, Hancock was an outstanding teacher and elementary school principal but her performance came into question when she became a central office administrator.  The board's woefully inadequate vetting of Hancock not only was a disservice to the taxpayers but to Hancock who, if she truly is the best choice for the job, should be able to come on board with full support and confidence, not unanswered questions.  As written here:

That research should have prompted other questions, such as why would the Rochester district take a successful principal away from the job she did so well and move her into another in which her performance was controversial? Why with no personnel management experience (except as a building principal) was she shortly after arriving at the central office put in charge of human resources? Why, if the Rochester district is managed so well, does it have a high school graduation rate of 46%, down from 52% the year before?

Second, the failure to get these issues out in the open and, hopefully, resolved before hiring Hancock is no favor to her.

Incoming chief executives typically have a "honeymoon period" but Hancock's may be short-lived, if she gets one at all.

For example, her controversial advocacy of using Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) in her stint as diversity chief might have been explained better had it been placed on the table sooner rather than later. "Hindsight being 20-20" I suspect many of us have done things earlier in our careers that upon reflection we wish we might have done differently. If, for example, Hancock were to offer that explanation now, wouldn't folks be skeptical?

Our school district has its own set of issues. Relocating, becoming acclimated to this community and getting down to solving the district's problems are enough to keep anyone busy. If Hancock truly is the best choice for Kenosha's new school superintendent, she deserves to come into this community on a wave of optimism, not under a cloud of controversy.
Once again, this isn't about taking a slap at Hancock but rather about the school board's failing to properly exercise its responsibilities.  It's difficult to embrace Hancock as the best choice for the position when the issues come up after the board made its choice.  The board created this controversy -- not anyone else.  Even Hancock noted the legitimacy of a proper inquiry: "I think it’s great they’re questioning. And I can say I have answers because I know me. But I hope people give themselves a chance to know me and it not be generated by misunderstanding." 


You'd have to be naive or incredibly stupid (or both) not to recognize that achieving success rarely comes without some controversy.  That controversy can be misinformed, mean-spirited or just plain ignorant.  But it can also have varying shades of merit.  Regardless, it doesn't go away unless it's addressed fully and honestly and even then you won't be able to please everyone.

Finally, a few words about race.  Frankly, as an old civil rights advocate, I cringe at the thought because in today's world there should be no place for bigotry and racism.  Nonetheless I sadly realize that for some people it is an issue.  Not for me. 

I don't particularly care if Hancock is black, white, yellow, brown or some mixture of whatever.  I only care about if she's the best person for the job.  That said, I must confess that I nonetheless find value in diversity but, as diversity happens, that value should necessarily depreciate.  After all, shouldn't the ultimate goal of the NAACP (or, similarly, the American Cancer Society) be to put itself out of business?

Friday, April 2, 2010

Maybe a dart isn't enough

The Kenosha News each Sunday devotes its editorial to a series of "laurels and darts" (I like to call them bear hugs and moose droppings) and just last month printed this one:

DART — To the Kenosha Unified School Board, for delaying the announcement of its choice for superintendent. The board was very forthcoming in announcing the selection of three finalists and it narrowing of the field to two final candidates. Unfortunately, after meeting this week to select a candidate of choice, the board got very quiet. At a time in which government bodies from school boards to Congress are being criticized for a lack of transparency, our board decides not to makes its choice public to allow attorneys to begin initial contract discussions and ensure those talks will go well. There is keen interest in this community about who will become the leader of Kenosha Unified. Delaying an announcement to ensure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed was a poor decision by the board. Fortunately for the voters in the school district, the Kenosha News was able to confirm negotiations have begun with Michele Hancock of Rochester, NY.

So, folks, while the newspaper justifiably complained about the school board's secrecy in the superintendent selection process, what of its own lack of due diligence?  Over the past week or so readers here have learned of a series of potential "red flags" surrounding the school board's choice.  The newspaper is aware of them.  It has chosen to do nothing with this information.

Nothing as in not reporting a word.  Nothing as in not doing its own investigation.  Nothing as in not questioning the school board candidates for next week's election about their take on this situation.  Nothing as in not questioning the present seven school board members over their lack of due diligence.  Nothing as in not questioning why the headhunter firm, Ray and Associates, hired by the school board failed to find out this information which is in the public domain.  Nothing as in not questioning the board members who went to Rochester about why they didn't have this information -- or did they and chose not to share it?  Nothing as in not questioning Hancock so that she can tell her side of the story. 

Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Darts?  Nah.  Maybe the school board and the newspaper are candidates for Patriot missiles.