An Open Letter to Josh Shapiro Asking Him to Reject School Vouchers 


 

Dear Josh Shapiro, 


 
Are you for public education or not?

I only ask because as the Democratic candidate for Governor in Pennsylvania, you come off as the savior of schools and children on the campaign trail.

You say you want to increase state funding to public schools. Wonderful!

You say you want to reduce standardized testing. Excellent!

You want to guarantee every student has access to technical and vocational courses and make sure every school building has at least one dedicated mental health counselor on staff. Outstanding!

But in interviews and on your campaign Website, you say you’re in favor of school vouchers!

Wha-Wha-What!?

Did Charles Koch just hack your election headquarters? Is Betsy DeVos impersonating you in the media?

Because supporting school vouchers does not fit in at all with someone who claims to champion public education.

Public education means public schools. It means tax dollars being used to fund public schools and those schools being run by elected school boards.

It does not mean tax dollars going to private and parochial schools. It does not mean our money going to institutions where we get no say in how it’s spent. It does not mean circumventing duly elected school boards. It does not mean the public paying for religious indoctrination or the kind of right wing biased education routinely provided at private schools.

But that’s what school vouchers do.

They steal taxpayer dollars from authentic public schools and allow them to be wasted on private and parochial schools. They destroy any accountability for how our collective money is spent and do serious harm to thousands of the most struggling authentic public school students while lining the pockets of private companies and religious institutions.

And the separation of church and state – forget about it!

This doesn’t sound like the candidate teachers like me have been backing since before this election cycle began. Frankly, it’s almost what your gubernatorial opponent, MAGA Republican Doug Mastriano, champions.

Mastriano – a Trump insurrectionist – says he wants to use state education funding to give EVERY student a school voucher they can use at almost any school in the Commonwealth – public, private or parochial.

You seem to want vouchers ONLY for students at the most underfunded and struggling schools.

Well that’s some distinction!

Instead of providing more support to the most inequitably funded schools, you want to slash their funding even more in the name of some old time Republican plan to let a few escape a bad situation while the rest all drown!?

That is repulsive!

On your your campaign Website it says


 Josh favors adding choices for parents and educational opportunity for students and funding lifeline scholarships like those approved in other states and introduced in Pennsylvania. 


 
In an interview in the Patriot News you say


 “And I’m for making sure we add scholarships like lifeline scholarships to make sure that that’s additive to their education. That it gives them other opportunities…to be able to help them achieve success”  

These so-called Lifeline Scholarships are a Republican lead measure to give direct-to-student tax-funded scholarships that parents and guardians in the state’s most neglected public schools could use for a variety of options including going toward tuition at a different school.

The GOP sponsored bill passed the state House of Representatives in April on a 104-98 vote and cleared the state Senate Education Committee in June. However, because of an amendment to protect low performing charter schools from losing their funding, it would still need final passage votes in both chambers before getting to current Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk where he would almost certainly veto it.

It would affect about 191,000 students in 382 schools, across 76 of the state’s 500 school districts. However, Two-thirds of the cost of the program (63.1%) is born by four districts – Philadelphia (43.9%), Reading (8.9%), Allentown (5.8%) and Pittsburgh (4.5%).

This would create another taxpayer funded system of education. Affected districts would lose so much funding it would ultimately force them to reduce programs, services, and staffing and/or raise property taxes to compensate.

Moreover, these would be the most neglected districts, and thus the least able to support the cost.

It’s a terrible idea, and I can’t understand why you would buck the overwhelming majority of your party and would-be constituents to support it.

Is it because you send your own kids to a faith-based private school, and that you are the product of just such an education, yourself?

This is how you lose votes, Sir.

Your opponent is perhaps the most odious person to ever run for Governor in the state. He looks to usher in an era of theocratic fascism, curtail human rights and take the Commonwealth back to the Middle Ages.

But that doesn’t mean you should run closer to his positions in the vain hope of stealing some of his base.

The MAGA Republicans will never vote for you. Dressing yourself up in their clothing will not help you do anything but disgust your own supporters until some can’t bring themselves to vote at all.

As election day nears, the polls get closer and closer between Mastriano and you.

Pennsylvanians can’t afford losing their only chance at self rule because of demoralization and despair at a candidate too weak to support the platform he began this campaign on – championing public education.

I urge you to reconsider this flirtation with Republican values and school vouchers.

I hope you are better than this.

We deserve a governor who is better than this.

Please have the courage to stand by authentic public schools.

Yours,

Steven Singer


Tell Josh Shapiro what you think. Email him here: contact@joshshapiro.org


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The Guardian vs. the Goon: PA’s Most Important Governor’s Race

The choice for Pennsylvania Governor could not be more clear in November.

On the one hand, we have Josh Shapiro – an Attorney General who fought for Commonwealth citizens’ rights for six years.

On the other, we have Doug Mastriano, a former US Army Colonel and 3-year state representative who supported a literal coup against the United States government.

In any sane world, that would be all you’d need to know.

Shapiro, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, vs. Mastriano, a traitor who actively worked to overturn the votes of the very citizens who elected him to office.

This should not be an election – it should be a rout.

However, Commonwealth voters will need to come to the polls and make it clear that they reject Mastriano’s fascism and that they instead support their own right to determine who governs in Pennsylvania and beyond.

That sounds extreme. I wish it weren’t also true.

Following the last Presidential election when it became clear Donald Trump had lost the vote, Republican Mastriano helped organize large rallies pushing false claims of election fraud. He chartered buses to take protesters to the Capitol on January 6. He personally crossed police barricades at the Capitol during the riot, and attempted to submit “alternate” (i.e. fake) pro-Trump electors to the official count. And he even coordinated all this with Trump when he was invited to the White House to discuss the “stop the steal” strategy.

If Mastriano somehow wins the governors race, he will be in a position to basically call off Democratic rule in the state. As governor, he would choose the secretary of state — the official in charge of administering the 2024 presidential election. This would effectively allow him to pick the winner, himself.

This is not just conjecture. Mastriano has gone on record that as governor he would decertify voting machines in some precincts – making it hard to count votes there. He has even alluded to the independent state legislature doctrine, which holds that state legislatures can name whoever they want as the recipient of a state’s electoral votes, regardless of who voters select.

This is not conservatism. It is not protecting American values or law and order. It is the opposite.

By contrast, Shapiro, the Democrat in the race, is a model of exactly those qualities usually associated with sobriety and efficiency.

As Attorney General, he fought federal government overreach including Trump’s travel ban. He filed a lawsuit to stop religious organizations denying health coverage including contraceptives to employees. He joined a lawsuit against for profit colleges resulting in a $168 million settlement. He reached an agreement with federal officials to prevent the distribution of blueprints for 3D printed firearms. He launched an investigation of allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church including a Grand Jury report alleging the sexual abuse of more than a thousand children at the hands of more than 300 priests.

In short, he worked hard to protect the people of this Commonwealth.

And the difference is stark on so many other issues when compared head-to-head.

Shapiro supports increasing public school funding. Mastriano wants to cut it in half.

Shapiro wants to increase security and gun regulations to prevent school shootings. Mastriano wants to give teachers guns and let them do the shooting.

Shapiro has fought to protect women’s reproductive rights against the state. Mastriano supports the state telling people what to do with their own bodies.

And on top of all that – Mastriano has ties to White Supremacists!

Until recently, his campaign paid consulting fees to Gab, a white nationalist social media site owned by anti-Semite Andrew Torba. Gab was the site that helped inspire the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue mass murder in 2018. Torba and others on the site that Mastriano was explicitly looking to for support commonly champion Great Replacement theory and support Vladimir Putin.

No skeletons of this type have been found in Shapiro’s closet.

The worst anyone has found so far is a $100,000 donation from Students First PA, a charter school advocacy group, which he took money from when he was running for Attorney General in 2016. However, Shapiro made no effort to hide the donation and his voting record when he was a state representative was not pro-charter. In 2011, for example, he voted against a measure to provide tuition vouchers of charter schools, and he has been a vocal critic of the industry for years. Moreover, neither Students First PA nor any other pro-education privatization organization that I can find has made any significant donations to him this election cycle so far.

The way I see it, this is a simple – if terrifying – election.

Shapiro is not perfect, but if elected, he would function similarly to current Governor Tom Wolf. He would be a guardian against the overreach and bad decisions of the gerrymandered Republican legislature.

One can hope voters throughout the Commonwealth would take back their individual voting districts from the extremists, but given the still uncompetitive lines of these districts, this seems unlikely.

So we need a Wolf, we need a Shapiro, standing on the battlements stopping the goons like Mastriano from taking advantage of the majority of us.

Shapiro would certainly do that. He might even go farther and fight to find ways to get real change through the legislature. But even if he can’t do that, voting for him is essential.

Mastriano may simply be the worst candidate for governor in the Commonwealth’s history – and that’s saying something!

We need Shapiro. We need Austin Davis as Lt. Governor. And we need John Fetterman as Senator.

That would make a huge difference both nationally and throughout the state.

It would set us up with a firm foundation and at least keep people safe from the worst.

I know it is depressing to be put in this situation constantly. Every election cycle seems to be the most important because the country is falling apart. Maybe we can find a way to turn things back and reach some level of sanity. But we can’t do anything unless we elect Shapiro, Davis and Fetterman.

We need the guardians against the goons.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Why is a Gates-Funded, Anti-Union, Charter Advocacy Group Part of Pennsylvania’s New Plan to Stop the Teacher Exodus?

Teachers are fleeing the profession in droves.

So Pennsylvania has unveiled a new plan to stop the exodus with the help of an organization pushing the same policies that made teaching undesirable in the first place.

The state’s Department of Education (PDE) announced its plan to stop the state’s teacher exodus today.

One of the four people introducing the plan at the Harrisburg press conference was Laura Boyce, Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus.

Why is this surprising?

Teach Plus is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works to select and train teachers to push its political agenda.

What is that agenda?

Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a strategy for school improvement.

Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation.

Teach Plus advocates against seniority and claims that unions stifle innovation.

Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and substantial donations from the Walton Family Foundation.

How can an organization dedicated to the same ideas that prompted the exodus turn around and stop the evacuation!?

That’s like hiring a pyromaniac as a fire fighter!

“Pennsylvania’s educator shortage is the biggest threat facing not only our educational system but our future prosperity as a commonwealth,” Boyce said at the press conference.

“If schools are engines of educational and economic opportunity, then educators are the conductors who keep the train moving forward. Teach Plus teachers have been sounding the alarm about this crisis and are eager to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes to better recruit and retain educators in Pennsylvania.”

However, she’s already getting things wrong.

The importance of education is NOT as the “engine of economic opportunity.” Its importance is to help students become their best selves. It is creating critical thinkers who can navigate our modern world, become well-informed participants in our democratic system and live good lives.

Given the track record of Teach Plus, any well-informed individual should be wary of the how “eager [the organization is] to partner with the Department to enact ambitious and transformational changes.”

But what’s actually in the plan?

A lot of vague generalizations.

The plan (titled The Foundation of Our Economy: Pennsylvania Educator Workforce Strategy, 2022-2025) sets forth five focus areas:

1) Meeting the educator staffing needs of rural, suburban, and urban areas;

2) Building a diverse workforce representative of the students we serve;

3) Operating a rigorous, streamlined, and customer service-oriented certification process;

4) Ensuring high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators; and

5) Ensuring educator access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities.

As you can see, it is full of corporate education reform buzzwords like ‘rigorous” and “high quality” that neoliberals have used as code for their policies for decades.

There are 50 steps outlined in the report. While many seem important and well-intentioned, they lack any kind of urgency, and though organized under these five areas, still seem kind of scattershot.

For example, the number one most important thing any state has to do to retain current teachers and to attract new teachers is to increase wages.

Teachers make 14 percent less than those from professions that require similar levels of education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

More than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

Yet increasing teacher salary is only briefly mentioned in step 13 of the first focus group as follows:

“13. Based on the resources that PDE develops on competitive compensation and incentives, advocate for and secure funding from the General Assembly that enables hiring entities to compete more effectively in the regional labor market.”

Talk about anemic language!

Imagine being on a sinking ship and someone only mentioning plugging the leak in such terms – if we can, based on our resources, yada, yada, yada.

Another point that jumped out to me was recruitment of new teachers.

Under focus two, the plan calls for:

“6. Partner with nonprofit organizations working to develop recruitment, training, and mentoring programs for middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds to identify and recruit future educators.”

Getting more people to become teachers sounds great, but why are we partnering with “nonprofit organizations” and which ones in particular do you have in mind?

There are plenty of neoliberal organizations of a similar type to Teach Plus that call themselves “nonprofit” – for example Teach for America.

Are we advocating for teacher temps with a few weeks crash course in education? It sure sounds like it to me.

Moreover, there’s the issue of charter schools. These are schools funded by tax dollars but often run by corporations or other organizations. Many of these consider themselves nonprofit.

So doesn’t this new plan help push more educators into the charter school network? Isn’t it open to funding more charter schools and calling it teacher retention?

Considering that charter schools are not subject to the same regulations as authentic public schools and allow all kinds of fiscal and student abuses, I’m not sure how encouraging such practices will help anyone but the profiteers behind these schools.

Then there’s the emphasis on building a diverse workforce.

In itself, that’s an excellent and necessary goal. However, if you aren’t going to make the profession more attractive, you aren’t going to increase diversity. Right now one of the major reasons our schools are full of mostly white, middle class teachers is because white, middle class people are the only ones who can afford to take the job.

Teaching often requires economic white privilege and often a second member of the household to earn the lion’s share of the income. Without addressing the pure dollars and cents of this issue – something Teach Plus is overjoyed to do when talking about the importance of education – all this talk of diversity is mere tokenism. It’s hiding behind a veneer of “wokeness” with no real intention of doing anything to help people of color as teachers or students.

Finally, let’s talk about the kinds of teacher preparation, professional development and leadership opportunities in this plan.

They are described as:

“high-quality preparation experiences for aspiring educators” and

“access to high-quality and relevant professional growth and leadership development opportunities”

But “high quality” by whose definition?

That’s the point here. Classroom teachers would consider classroom management, effective discipline and time for effective planning to be “high quality.” Educators would value more autonomy and less paperwork. But I’m willing to bet that isn’t what the authors of this plan think it means.

This is what Teach Plus does. It advocates for neoliberal disruptions in school management.

In the past, Teach Plus has insisted older more experienced educators be fired while shielding “promising young teachers” from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators – not just test scores – increases as teachers gain experience. However, new teachers are easier to brainwash into corporate education reform – to be driven by standardized test scores and data instead of the needs of the living, human beings in front of them in the classroom.

So this proposed teacher preparation and professional development is of what kind exactly? I’ll bet it’s mostly reeducation to accept corporate education reform. I’ll bet it’s focused on ways to increase student test scores which will then be used to evaluate teacher effectiveness – a program that has been roundly disproven for decades.

So where does that leave us?

A decades ago roughly 20,000 new teachers entered the workforce each year, while last year only 6,000 did so, according to PDE.

The minimum teacher salary in the Commonwealth stands at $18,500 — and has since 1989.

Meanwhile lawmakers – especially Republicans – push for bills to monitor teachers, restrict them from teaching an accurate history, and ban books from their libraries and curriculums.

Standardized tests are everywhere the main metric of success or failure, and school funding is determined by them. While authentic public schools serving the poor and middle class starve for funding, the legislature gives an increasing share of our tax dollars to charter and voucher schools without oversight on how that money is spent.

This new plan is not going to change any of that.

It is at best a Band-Aid – at worst a public relations stunt.

If we really wanted to stop the teacher exodus, we wouldn’t partner with one of the architects of the current crisis to do so.

We would roll up our sleeves and take the actions necessary for real change – and chief among these would be an increase in teacher salary, autonomy and prestige.


 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

For the second time in a year, McKeesport Area School Directors accepted the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman.

However, this time his resignation appears to be permanent.

At a special meeting in July of 2021, the board both accepted Holtzman’s resignation and then immediately gave him a new 5-year contract.

However, after months of controversy over the legality of the move, at last night’s special meeting, the board voted to let him go FOR REAL.

Holtzman has accepted a new position at Beaver Area School District, approximately 50 miles northwest of McKeesport.

His last day is June 30. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo will serve as Acting Superintendent immediately upon his departure.

The controversy stems from a move last year by the outgoing board to retain Hotlzman in McKeesport when he had been poised to accept a new superintendents position at Kiski Area School District. He resigned and was rehired at MASD in order to secure him a new contract with a competitive salary and years of service.

But this didn’t sit well with three board members (Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess) who walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order.

Then in January – a month after three new board members were sworn in following the election – the board voted 5-4 to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire were enforceable.

Lawyer William C. Andrews wrote a letter stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the Pennsylvania school code. The law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Holtzman’s own legal council, Mark E. Scott, wrote that the move was, in fact, legal and that it was common practice at other districts.

At a February board meeting where letters from both lawyers were read into the record, Holtzman offered to resign, then and there:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

At the time, it was unclear whether the board could move forward with Holtzman at the head of the district or not.

Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.

A mere three months later, he put in his current resignation.


Holtzman’s tenure at McKeesport was fraught with controversy from the beginning.

He was hired as high school principal without any principal experience while his own father, Mark Holzman, Sr., was on the school board.

Before this, he had been dean of discipline at McKeesport’s vocational department for two years before taking a similar role at West Mifflin Area High School. However, he was mostly known in MASD for his years on the high school football team when he had been a student there (he graduated in 1997) and then at Syracuse University.

His family also had a close relationship with one of the most controversial figures in the Mon-Valley, Pat Risha. The late Risha, who had been a superintendent, himself, at McKeesport, West Mifflin and South Allegheny districts, could have opened many doors, and was heralded as a “power broker” in his obituary.

Holtzman was originally hired as MASD superintendent at a special meeting on March 29, 2017, at a salary of $140,000, according to minutes from that meeting.

His time as superintendent was rocky, to say the least.

The Covid-19 pandemic offered hard challenges for every district, but Holtzman often made decisions that put students and staff at risk, keeping buildings open during times of high community spread and often with mask optional policies. The result was hundreds of people testing positive for the disease who might not have otherwise.

The district offered a cyber option for students whose parents wanted to keep them safely at home during the worst of the pandemic. Many districts were able to provide live teachers from the child’s grade level to instruct through on-line services like Zoom. However, MASD used the corporate Edmentum program to provide academics. The problem is it wasn’t created for that purpose. It was created for credit recovery, not robust academics. As a result, the district cyber program was developmentally inappropriate, and full of typos and inaccuracies.

It was no better for students who came to school in-person. Thousands of children were unable to get to school because bus routes were cancelled daily over the last year.

Holtzman blamed the problem on a contract with bus company, PA Coach Lines, which didn’t have enough drivers and would cancel the routes just hours before the buses were set to arrive.

The district had to go to court to break the contract and just entered into a new 6-year contract with Krise Transportation out of Penn Hills starting next year.

Holtzman’s controversies predate the pandemic.

In 2019, he refused to allow 11 high school students to create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content  but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students who had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district and Holtzman.

The students were allowed to create the club as long as no “non-school persons or entities” are named as advisors or participants of the club.

Not everything Holtzman did in the district was contentious.

He had a talent for getting donations from large companies.

Last year, he was instrumental in getting Comcast to provided 2,500 free laptops for students, teachers and staff in the middle and high school. The gift also included one year of free high-speed internet access for eligible families – services that can be extended annually. 

The news was broadcast live on NBC’s “Today” show.

Around the same time, Holtzman helped broker a partnership with The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation and MASD for investment in students at Twin Rivers Elementary School. The agreement is supposed to involve co-designing a new school model and wrap-around services for the community.

Here’s hoping MASD has success with Dr. Wanzo or whoever eventually takes the Superintendent’s position on a permanent basis.


 

 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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McKeesport School Directors Investigating Validity of Superintendent’s Contract

A majority of McKeesport School Directors is questioning whether the previous board broke the law in giving the Superintendent a new contract.

In July of 2021, the previous board both accepted Dr. Mark Holtzman’s resignation as Superintendent and then immediately rehired him with a new 5-year contract.

Pennsylvania law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Moreover, three of five school directors who voted to extend Holtzman’s hire were lame ducks. They were stepping down from the board. Voting on this matter early robbed new board members of the chance.

So a month after new board members were sworn in, the board voted 5-4 in January to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire are enforceable.

His term at the district located just south of Pittsburgh had been set to expire in 2023 and will now continue until 2026.

In response to the board’s request, school directors received a letter in February from lawyer William C. Andrews stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the school code.

School director Mindy Lundberg read from Andrews letter at the board’s Wednesday meeting:

“…this resignation would arguably not be valid and the acceptance of it could be viewed as an attempt to confer a benefit upon an employee in contravention of the legislature’s intent. Here that benefit is a contract extension beyond the statutory limit.”

Dr. Holtzman responded with a letter from his own legal council, Mark E. Scott.

“We are confident that we will prevail in this issue if ever litigated,” Holtzman read from Scott’s letter. The practice of Superintendents resigning and being immediately rehired is common at other local districts, he said.

However, even if the district proved the new contract was void, Holtzman would return to the previous contract, and the district would be liable for all the Superintendent’s legal fees regardless of the outcome in court, Scott wrote.

For his part, Holtzman says he wants to remain as McKeesport’s Superintendent but is willing to negotiate a way out of his contract with the district if the board wishes to pursue that.

He said:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

However, board members were not about to let the matter drop at that.

Both Lundberg and fellow school director James Brown (both of whom were on the board when Holtzman resigned and was rehired) said that they had not been given a copy of his new contract or his letter of resignation before being asked to vote on the matter. That may explain why they did not vote in favor of it.

Lundberg had questions for Joseph Lopretto who had been board President at the 2021 meeting and voted in favor of the new contract.

“Mr. Lopretto, just for the record since you were president… was there a contract presented to the board in the back room to know what we were voting on?” Lundberg asked.

“A Contract was presented. Yes,” Lopretto said.

“No, it was not. It was an outdated contract,” Lundberg responded.

Brown became extremely agitated and stated three times, “There was not a contract presented that night!”

“Nor did we receive a resignation letter,” Lundberg added.

“We never received a resignation letter. I still have not seen a resignation letter,” Brown said.

It is unclear where the board will go from here.

Will school directors seek legal action?

Will they ask Holtzman to resign – for REAL this time?

Will they all be able to move forward together?

Holtzman said the reason the previous board had given him a new contract in the way they did was because he was interviewing at a neighboring district and was eventually offered a Superintendent’s position there.

To keep him at McKeesport, the board needed to offer him more job security and compensation. However, since he still had two years on his current contract, the school code forbade them from just extending it. He needed to resign and then be given a new 5-year contract. Once this was done, he turned down the job at the other district.

According to Holtzman, Scott postulates that the argument against the new contract relies on Holtzman’s resignation being a “sham.” In effect, he didn’t really resign so the new contract was actually a contract extension – which would be illegal this early.

“Obviously we believe that it is not a sham and Dr. Holtzman was fully prepared to move on to the new district,” Scott wrote.

“Clearly the district cannot claim that the resignation was a sham for the purposes of rescinding his current contract but it’s not a sham for the purposes of terminating his employment with the district effectively July 5, 2021.”

In other words, if Holtzman didn’t really resign, then he’s still under the terms of his previous contract.

Scott also took issue with the fact that protests are being made about what the previous board did for Holtzman but not about what that same board did to extend the contract of another district administrator – Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo. She, too, resigned her position and was immediately rehired with a new contract.

However, this was done at another meeting AFTER Dr. Holtzman got a new contract. Cynics might even say it was done for the express purpose of demonstrating that Dr. Holtzman’s resignation and rehire weren’t a solitary case.

At a meeting in September, 2021, Dr. Holtzman even insinuated that objections toward both his and Wanzo’s rehires were racist because Wanzo is African American.

It will be interesting to see what the board does to resolve the issue.

VIDEO OF THE MASD REGULAR MEETING:


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Silencing School Whistleblowers Through Social Media 

 
I used to write a thriving blog. 


 
A month and a half ago.  


 
But as soon as the New Year dawned, my readership dropped to the tiniest fraction of what it had been in 2021. 


 
I went from about 1,000 readers per article to a few hundred.

 
 
Overnight.  


 
How does that happen?  


 
I suppose it could be that people are sick of me.  


 
Maybe my writing just isn’t what it was and readers are tired of hearing about the same old topics over and over again.  


 
Education and civil rights. That stuff is just so 60 days ago! 


 
Yet look at the reality. School boards are banning Holocaust narratives like Art Spiegleman’s “Maus.” State governments are passing laws to restrict what teachers can say in the classroom or make their jobs more untenable so even more leave the profession.  


 
I just can’t believe that in light of such a flame dancing ever more quickly down an ever-shorter fuse that people aren’t interested in reading about how to stomp it out. 


 
From conservative scholars supporting standardized testing to local athletic leagues saying racism is a matter of both sides. From the effect on education of constantly depriving teachers of planning time to the continuing trauma of Coronavirus raging through our schools as decision makers refuse to take necessary precautions to protect students and staff.  


 
The readership is there.  


 
It’s the method of distribution that’s the problem.  


 
And that method is social media.  


 
It’s been this way since I began the blog back in July of 2014.  


 
I write an article then I post it to Facebook and Twitter.  


 
The later platform has never been a huge draw for me. But until recently Facebook was my bread and butter.  


 
My work was posted on message boards and in online forums and organizations’ pages focused on the issues I write about.  


 
After the first year, the result was hundreds of thousands of readers annually.  


 
But then as Facebook began trying to monetize the distribution of posts beyond a person’s local friend circle, those numbers started to drop.  


 
I went from 446,000 hits in 2015 to 222,000 last year.  


 
It’s demoralizing but not because of any need for fame. 
 


I don’t need to have thousands of people hang on my every word. This isn’t about ego.


It’s about change.  


 
I write this blog to get the word out about what’s really happening in our public schools. And to try to push back against the rising tide trying to destroy my profession.  


 
Mass media is not particularly kind to educators like me.  


 
Even when journalists are writing about schools and learning, they rarely ask classroom teachers their opinions. Instead, the media often turns to self-appointed experts, think tank flunkies, billionaire philanthropists or politicians.  


 
It’s like they can’t even conceive of the fact that someone with a masters degree or higher in education who devotes her whole life to the practice of the discipline has anything worthwhile to say.

 
 
So many of us have taken to the blogosphere to circumvent the regular media channels.  


 
We write out our frustrations. We tell our truths. We give a peek of what it’s like in our public schools, an educated opinion about the ills therein, and how to fix them.  


 
But as time has worn on, more and more of us are leaving the field. We’re abandoning the classroom and the Web.  


 
We’re giving up.  


 
And even those like me who are still desperately sounding the alarm every week are being silenced.  


 
Frankly, I don’t know what to do about it. 


 
I know Facebook is trying to pressure me into paying the company to more widely distribute my articles.

 
 
If I give them $50-$100 a week, they promise to deliver my work as widely as they used to do when I didn’t have to pay for the privilege.  


 
Actually, it wasn’t Facebook that delivered it. It was people on Facebook.  


 
People who really cared about what I had to say would see it and share it with others.  


 
But now there’s a strict algorithm that determines what you get to see on your page. And if it says you’re invisible, then POOF! You’re gone and the people who would most enjoy your writing and want to pass it on don’t get the chance.


 
It’s undemocratic in the extreme but totally legal because Facebook is a for-profit company, not a public service.  


 
It’s not about the free expression of ideas. It’s about making money.  


 
And so people like Joe Rogan make millions on their podcasts spreading science denial, vaccine disinformation and racist dog whistles.  


 
A guy like me just trying to make the world a better place?  


 
I get silenced.  


 
I guess when money is speech, poverty is the real cancel culture.  


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

WPIAL is Wrong! Racist Taunts at a Football Game are NOT a Matter of Both Sides

Don’t look for justice from the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL).

After a referee and a mostly white football team allegedly made racist taunts against a mostly black team, WPIAL decided BOTH teams will have to undergo mandatory sensitivity training.

Players from Steel Valley School District contend that during a November playoff game at their home field, rivals South Side Area School District called them the N-word and “monkeys” as well as purposefully incapacitated their star player.

WPIAL Executive Director Amy Scheuneman said her organization is refusing to take sides and students, coaches and administrators for both districts will have to undergo racial sensitivity training.

It is absurd. Imagine making a gunman and the person he shot go through firearms training.

Talk about false equivalency!

“We don’t want to walk away saying you’re right and you’re wrong, but we need to learn from this,” Scheuneman said. “We need to all work together to make that happen.”

Calls for unity are great but justice needs to come first. It’s nearly impossible for everyone to just get along when you don’t hold wrongdoers accountable for their actions – especially when the victims are mostly black and the perpetrators are mostly white.

Though Steel Valley went on to win the game, their star senior running back and linebacker Nijhay Burt suffered a season ending ankle injury which his family alleges was caused by South Side Players on purpose.

Burt’s mother Shunta Parms says, “…The two players that tackled him, they were pushing off his ankle. They were twisting it as they got up. After they got up they cheered in his face and said ‘Yeah! We got you now!’”

WPIAL board of directors and Diversity and Inclusion Council heard testimony for more than four hours on Wednesday.

The meeting was closed to the public at the request of the South Side District from Beaver County, and WPIAL officials have refused to give specific details of what was said behind closed doors.

However, Scheuneman was adamant that the board did not find any evidence the official used racial taunts.

“…The board did not find that to be accurate,” Scheuneman said.

I would love to know what evidence there was to so unequivocally clear the referee.

Especially since she noted the other allegations came down to a matter of he said-she said.

There were “conflicting reports” about what happened and “direct testimony against” the claims of Burt and the Steel Valley School District, Scheuneman said.

“Based on what we heard, I would say that, while there may be tendencies to lean one way or another, it was inconclusive, specifically, one way, as opposed to another.”

Ma’am, isn’t it your job to lean one way or another?

You need to be impartial at first but then you listen to the evidence and decide who was at fault.

Either South Side Beaver players used hate speech against Steel Valley players or not. Either they intentionally injured Steel Valley’s star player or not.

And if they did not, that means Steel Valley players made the whole thing up.

Do you really find that possibility credible?

“There was testimony on both sides, and there were missed opportunities by adults from both schools, so we do feel that it’s important for everybody to learn from the events that happened and take something positive from it,” Scheuneman said.

The most specific she’d get in terms of blame was to say that the South Side District did not properly handle a previous incident that could’ve prevented this one.

And Steel Valley’s coach did not report his player’s accusations to the head referee.

Therefore, they’re both to blame!?

What the heck are you smoking!?

Steel Valley Superintendent Ed Wehrer issued a statement that shed some light on the previous incident at South Side Beaver:

“The testimony by South Side Area confirmed that a month prior to the playoff game at issue a member of their team had behaved the same way in a game against Carlynton High School, as witnessed by the Athletic Director at Carlynton. Combined with our statements, that admission established a pattern of racist behavior by our opponent, which should have reinforced the trustworthiness of our complaint.”

The only specific mention of wrongdoing on Steel Valley’s part is neglecting to alert the head referee. But the district’s actions make perfect sense in context. Why would the district go to the referees after allegations that one of them was also guilty of making racial taunts!? Isn’t it logical that Steel Valley and Burt waited to file a report against the Beaver County District!?

South Side Beaver district is 96% white. There are so few black students, 2019 Census data puts the number at 0%.

Meanwhile, Steel Valley is 72% white and 23% black with a higher percentage of children of color on the football team than in the district as a whole.

Are you telling me it’s likely that a mostly black team who is already crushing their rivals (they won 20-12) would make up being the target of racism? Are you saying Burt would make up how his leg was manhandled by the opposing team?

And then we have the issue of socioeconomics.

South Side Beaver is a wealthier district than Steel Valley.

Median household income at the South Side district is $69,905. At Steel Valley it’s $42,661.

At the South Side, 7.7% of residents live below the poverty line. At Steel Valley it’s 17.4%.

These make a difference.

More privileged students are way more likely to think they deserve to win just because of who they are. Underprivileged kids have to work for everything they have.

And officials are way more likely to ignore poorer black kids in favor of richer white ones.

Scheuneman said, “Regardless if one side was more wrong than the other, it takes both parties to mend that bridge and get through anything. So we want those schools to work together in moving forward in cultural competency.”

This is a bad idea.

It won’t do anything to stem the increasing tide of racism from whiter, wealthier districts directed at poorer blacker ones.

The WPIAL in 2018 held a similar hearing that Connellsville’s boys soccer team had used racial slurs against the Penn Hills team. The organization required Connellsville to train its student-athletes in racial and cultural sensitivities. Then in 2019, WPIAL held another hearing for the same Connellsville boys soccer team and Allderdice. This time both teams admitted hurling racial and anti-gay slurs at each other. Both agreed to sensitivity training.

These sorts of trainings are not in themselves enough to stop hate speech.

It’s true that having South Side Beaver and Steel Valley go through racial sensitivity training won’t hurt anyone.

Steel Valley students won’t suffer being forced to undergo this measure.

But the fact that they HAVE TO do this will underscore the injustice of the systems they have to live under.

They were the victims, and they got the same punishment as the oppressor.

And at South Side Beaver we can HOPE the training will do some good.

But let’s be honest – this sort of thing is only effective when those attending the training are receptive to its message.

The fact that South Side got away with this will poison everything being taught.

WPIAL is supposed to be about fair play.

They got it really wrong here.

If anyone needs this training, it’s them.


 

Steel Valley’s Statement:


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Students and Staff are Catching COVID at School. What Does That Mean? 

 
 
Everyday people catch Covid-19 at my school


 
Sometimes you can only tell by the vanishing students and teachers or the everyday need to sub for staff members mysteriously absent for days or weeks in a row.  


 
Sometimes a student will stop by the room to tell you she’s leaving and will be quarantined for the next five days.  


 
Sometimes a fellow teacher will cough and sneeze their way through hall duty and then disappear for the next week or so.  


 
But always, ALWAYS the emails and phone calls: 


 
“We have learned that two High School students, two High School staff members, three Middle School students, six Elementary students and one Elementary staff member have tested positive for COVID-19.  Close contacts have been identified and notified.  Thank you.” 


 
What does it all mean? 


 
One thing’s for sure – we aren’t taking this pandemic very seriously.  


 
Gone is any attempt to keep people from getting sick


 
No mask mandate. No vaccine mandate. No random testing to see if anyone even has the disease.

 
 
Now it’s a constant game of chicken between you and a global pandemic. 


 
Will you beat the odds today?  


 
Given enough time and high infection rates, you probably won’t. And no one seems too worried about that.  


 
We’re acting like this virus is just a cold. People get sick. They convalesce at home. They come back. No problem.  


 
But that is just ableism.  


 
The consequences of getting sick vary from person-to-person.  Some people have symptoms that last for months. Others have permanent damage to their hearts, lungs or other organs.  


 
And someone like me who is triple vaccinated but immunosuppressed because of existing medical conditions could have severe complications.  


 
That’s why I’m afraid. I don’t know if getting sick will mean the sniffles, a stay at the hospital or the morgue. 


 
And no one seems to care.  


 
In fact, nothing seems to make anyone do a thing about the dangerous conditions in which we’re working.  


 
Judging by the emails in the last week and a half, alone, there have been at least 60 people in my small western Pennsylvania district who tested positive for Covid. That’s 17 in the high school (10 students and 7 staff), 22 in the middle school (17 students and 5 staff), and 21 in the elementary schools (16 students and 5 staff). And this doesn’t include close contacts. 


 
However, with the new CDC guidelines that people who test positive only need to quarantine for 5 days, some of these people are probably back at school already. Though it is almost certain they will be replaced by more people testing positive today.  


 
I have a student who just came back a day ago who’s coughing and sneezing in the back of the room with no mask. And there’s not a thing I can do – except spray Lysol all over his seating area once he leaves.  


 
The imperative seems to be to keep the building open at all costs. It doesn’t matter who gets sick, how many get sick – as long as we have one or two adults we can shuffle from room-to-room, the lights will be on and school directors can hold their heads high that they weren’t defeated by Covid.  


 
The daycare center – I mean school – is open and parents can get to work.  


 
But this isn’t the number one concern of all parents. Many are keeping their kids at home because they don’t want them to get sick.  


 
We have a Catholic school right next door. It’s closed and classes have moved on-line.  


 
Don’t get me wrong. I hated teaching remotely on and off during the last few years. But safety is more important to me than being as effective as I can possibly be.  


 
When the Titanic is sinking, you get in the life boats and don’t worry that doing so might mean you won’t dock on time.  


 
Somewhere along the line in the past few years we’ve come to accept the unacceptable: 


 
We’re not in this together. 


 
I don’t have your back. You don’t have mine. 


 
When it comes to a disease like Covid – you’re on your own. 


 


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Don’t Blame Teachers for Covid Quarantines and Closures

 
This week the US reported more than a million Covid-19 cases in one day – a new global record! 


 
As this latest surge in the pandemic hits, schools all over the nation are closing up again and returning to on-line classes.  


 
People everywhere are wondering if teachers are to blame


 
Here are some things for school directors and administrators to consider:  


 
 
If you don’t require all students and staff to wear masks – don’t blame teachers. 

If you don’t regularly test students and staff for Covid – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require all students and staff to be vaccinated – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If your classrooms are not well ventilated – don’t blame teachers. 

If you force staff to come into the building for professional development and don’t allow them to attend remotely – don’t blame teachers.


 
If you don’t provide K95 masks to all students and staff – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you didn’t devise a schedule to keep students socially distanced – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t deep clean each classroom and other student spaces between classes – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If you don’t have lunches outdoors or in some other extremely well-ventilated space – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require a negative Covid test before sick students or staff can return to school – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If students and staff have steadily been getting sick for weeks and you’ve done nothing to prepare – Don’t Blame Teachers. 


 
 
In short, if you haven’t done everything you can do to prevent an outbreak sweeping through your school and your community – DON’T. BLAME. TEACHERS.  


 
BLAME YOURSELF. 


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!