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Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools (Part II)

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Part II: Community Investment: The second installment a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System

Although enrollment numbers had ominously fallen over the previous two decades, the introduction of statewide testing in Louisiana in 1999 brought the full extent of Jefferson’s problems into focus. And over the next several years, lagging test scores, falling graduation rates, and a sizable achievement gap between student subgroups became impossible to ignore. At the same time, with almost 37% of school-aged children in the parish attending private or parochial schools (the 2nd highest percentage of any county in the nation), it was clear that a large segment of the community had lost faith in the school system

By 2010, nearly 40% of school-aged children in Jefferson Parish were enrolled in private schools.

By 2010, nearly 40% of school-aged children in Jefferson Parish were enrolled in private schools.

Recognizing that strong public schools are vital to the long-term success of the parish (and no doubt influenced by the progress next door in Orleans), business and civic leaders began to mobilize support behind a slate of reform-oriented candidates for the 2010 Jefferson Parish School Board (JPSB) elections. As board member Michael Delesdernier later remarked, “The 2010 elections were significant in that the community, namely the business community, made it known that public education was important in Jefferson Parish and that the performance of the system up to 2010 was unsatisfactory.”

Indeed, when the ballots were counted, the message from voters was clear: five reform candidates were elected to the board, unseating four incumbents in the process. A month after the new board was sworn in, Superintendent Diane Roussel announced she would retire at the end June. With the start of another school year only weeks away, the board approached Dr. James Meza, recently retired as Dean of the College of Education at the University of New Orleans, to serve as Acting Superintendent while they sought Roussel’s replacement.

It was at this point that the board made a critical decision that reflected the sense of urgency within the community that JPPSS needed to change. Rather than wait until they had hired a permanent superintendent, a process that could take up to a year or more, the board directed Meza to prepare a district reform plan over the coming months. By the time Acting Superintendent Meza formally presented his initial proposal later that fall, board members were so impressed with his performance that they suspended their search and extended his contract (and later made it permanent).

In recent years, school boards have come under fire from influential voices in the education community who see them as obstacles reform. Furthermore, communities across the country have turned to mayoral control, appointed boards, or state takeovers in an effort to overhaul their school districts. On the other hand, the Jefferson Parish School Board has drawn accolades for taking on even those controversial proposals – such as school closures and layoffs – that would send most other politicians running for the hills.

At a time when school boards have come under fire, the Jefferson Parish School Board has emerged as a supporter of reform, rather than an obstacle to it.

At a time when school boards have come under fire, the Jefferson Parish School Board has emerged as a supporter of reform, rather than an obstacle to it.

It is this perserverence in moving forward with reforms, as opposed to retreating at the first sign of resistance, that distinguishes the current members of the board from their predecessors. While their efforts have enjoyed the ongoing support from community leaders – from the business community, in particular – it also reflects the trust they place in the leadership and decisions of their superintendent. By standing firm and allowing Superintendent Meza to lead, the Jefferson Parish School Board has been able to successfully steer the school system through a period of significant change.

On Tuesday, in Part III of this four-part series on the reforms in Jefferson Parish, we will look at the role played by JPPSS Superintendent James Meza.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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Louisiana

The Red River Ripoff Shreveport's AFT Affiliate Uses Bureaucratic Obstacles To Keep Dues Coming in

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Red River United (RRU), the American Federation of Teachers-affiliated union representing educators in Caddo, Bossier, and Red River Parishes, is using bureaucratic hurdles and subterfuge in an attempt to prevent members from leaving the organization.

A reader forwarded me a series of emails regarding three of the union’s current members who submitted a union drop request to Red River officials in October, indicating that they wished to end their affiliation with RRU and stop the monthly deduction of dues from their bank accounts.

The sign outside Red River United’s offices in Shreveport.

The receipt of those forms was acknowledged by the union. Nevertheless, when the three teachers checked with their banks at the end of the month, Red River United had once again deducted dues payments from their accounts. On November 1st, an email was sent to RRU officials notifying them of their mistake and requesting that the union refund those dues to the three individuals.

An emailed response from RRU’s in-house counsel, Elizabeth Gibson, flatly refused to refund those payments, explaining that the three teachers “executed a confidential agreement with Red River United (Membership Form), wherein the individuals authorized Red River United, or its designee, to draft their bank account each month for the amount indicated in the agreement for each billing period.”

She continued:

“Further, they acknowledged that they must give at least 30 days written notice to Red River United to cancel future automated debits. Red River United did not receive written notice at least 30 days in advance personally from the individuals indicating they had chosen to cancel their automated debits/membership. They must physically come to the offices of Red River United to cancel the bank draft due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein. These individuals have not done so. Accordingly, they are not entitled to a refund of the monies they authorized to be withdrawn from their bank accounts.”

Gibson added that the teachers needed to physically go to the union’s offices to provide a so-called “wet signature” in the presence of a Red River United employee in order to officially withdraw from the union and stop the monthly bank withdrawals.

Gibson’s emailed response in which she refused to refund dues to the three teachers.

A ridiculous (and dishonest?) response

Gibson’s response is not only ridiculous, but possibly dishonest. It’s also clearly an attempt by Red River United to make it as difficult as possible for current members to dropout of the union.

To start, the union’s “confidential agreement” – i.e., RRU’s membership form – isn’t all that confidential (in fact, I’ve included a copy of it at the bottom of this post). Nowhere on the membership form does it say anything about the requirement to provide a “wet signature” in the presence of an RRU employee to leave the union and stop monthly payments.

The small print from Red River United’s membership form.

Moreover, Gibson’s contention that the three teachers needed to physically go to RRU’s offices to cancel the bank drafts “due to the confidential nature of the information contained therein” is laughable. Anyone who has ever had a subscription to a newspaper or magazine can tell you that you don’t need to go to their offices to cancel it. Plus, there’s nothing “confidential” about the process. All Red River United needs to do is notify their bank to stop the monthly automatic withdrawals for those three individuals. End of story.

So why is Red River United trying to make these three teachers jump through bureaucratic hoops when they clearly don’t want to be part of their organization anymore? I suspect the union is trying to force them to come to their offices so they can pressure them to remain members, which is the kind of behavior you might expect from a dodgy timeshare broker, not a teachers union.

Nevertheless, teachers unions in other states have increasingly employed similar tactics to stem the departure of their members. For example, after Michigan became a right-to-work state in 2012, the Michigan Education Association (MEA) changed their opt-out policy to mandate that teachers withdrawal in August and force them to send their resignation requests to an obscure P.O. box address hidden on their website. The union subsequently refused to honor opt-out requests that were sent directly to MEA headquarters or were received outside of the month of August.

The United States Supreme Court is set to decide Janus v. AFSCME this spring.

I expect that we’ll see even more of these sort of schemes in the coming months. In September, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Janus v. AFSCME, a case which argues that requiring public employees to pay agency fees to unions (including teachers unions) is unconstitutional. It is widely expected that the Court will end up striking down the laws in the 22 states that currently mandate agency fees, meaning that teachers unions across the country will soon be scrambling to come up with ways to keep their members from dropping out.

Because Louisiana has long been a right-to-work state, the Janus case should have little direct impact here. At the same time, that’s exactly why Red River United’s efforts to make it as difficult as possible for members to leave their organization needs to be called out. Louisiana’s public school teachers have the right to join a union or not. Therefore, they should be able to leave a union just as easily as they signed up. If Red River United wants to salvage some of its integrity, it should immediately accept the resignation of the three educators in question and refund their dues as soon as possible.


Read Red River United’s membership form:

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Louisiana

AFT On The Bayou Union Spends Less In Louisiana, But More On Charter Organizing in New Orleans

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) spent less overall in Louisiana in the past fiscal year than it did in F.Y. 2016, but the union boosted its funding for charter school organizing efforts in New Orleans by more than forty percent.

An analysis of expenditure data from AFT’s 2017 annual report to U.S. Department of Labor shows that the union spent $2,326,573 in Louisiana during the fiscal year that ended June 30th, a slight decrease from the from $2.49 million it spent in the state in 2016.

About a quarter of AFT’s spending went to political activities, which included nearly $125,000 in payments to the political action committee of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, as well as a $15,000 contribution to Defend Louisiana, a super PAC behind Foster Campbell’s unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate last fall. In addition, AFT spent nearly $370,000 to influence last year’s Orleans Parish School Board elections, as I exposed in a previous blog post in January.

A diagram showing the distribution of AFT’s F.Y. 2017 spending in Louisiana.

AFT also invested heavily in organizing activities across the Bayou State. It gave nearly $192,000 to Red River United to support recruitment in Bossier, Caddo, and Red River Parishes. AFT spent another $184,000 on organizing in Monroe and $147,000 in Jefferson Parish.

Furthermore, AFT’s most recent annual report suggests that the union is stepping up its efforts to organize charter schools in the Big Easy. In F.Y 2017, AFT national poured $412,926 into its New Orleans Charter Organizing Project, a significant increase from the $292,000 it allocated in 2016. In all, AFT spent more than $850,000 on its New Orleans-based activities in the past year.

Although their recruitment efforts in the city have had mixed success, AFT’s willingness to spend substantial sums of money in New Orleans makes clear they still pose a serious threat. Over the past four years, AFT has steered more than $1.6 million to organize New Orleans charter schools and roll back the city’s reforms.

We need to remain vigilant to ensure that never happens.


Explore the data:


Read AFT’s 2017 annual report:

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Peter C. Cook
Peter C. Cook @petercook
New Orleans, Louisiana peterccook.com
Education Reformer • New Orleanian • Progressive • Democrat • Proud TFA alum • Check out my new side project: @retortonline
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