Monday, February 15, 2016

My Response to the NJ Pension Study Commission

In a big PR move to sell the state on their recommendations, last week two members of the NJ Pension Study Commission, Tom Byrne and Tom Healey took to the media. Here is my response:

My response to the Pension Study Commission's Report can be summed up in one word: No.

No, you will not take one more dime from the hard working, middle class people who keep this state running 24/7/365 through rain, snow, sleet, hail, super storms, blizzards, floods, bone chilling cold, tornados and blazing heat while you and your families stay warm and cozy in your homes. 

No, you will not take one more dime from the hard working, middle class people who would willingly put themselves in harm's way to protect you and your family, because it's their job.

No, you will not take one more dime from the hard working, middle class people who would willingly run into a burning building to save your spouse, your child or your pet because it's their job.

No, you will not take one more dime from the hard working, middle class people who educate the majority of our state's children, sometimes in conditions so deplorable they rival third world countries. Who already spend far too much of their own money to purchase basic supplies for their classrooms and to feed and clothe their neediest students. Who, more often than not, work 10-, 12-, 14-hour days just to keep up with their workload, and then go to their second or third job to keep up with their bills. Who have endured years of verbal abuse from a governor who hates them and the public education system they have made into one of the very best in the nation. 

Not. One. More. Dime.

For decades middle class public and private sector workers have watched our take home pay decrease, and our work loads and out-of-pocket costs for benefits increase. All the while, the super wealthy, big corporations and Wall Street cronies have fattened their coffers and lived life on Easy Street. All of this has increased exponentially under Gov. Christie who never met a millionaire he didn't like—or a union that he did.

When do those making the most "share the sacrifice"? How much more do those at the very top expect those of us who are propping them up and supporting their lavish lifestyles to pay? When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Why aren't you doing anything about this:

... instead of recommending that people who make $40,000 a year pay more? Why aren't you recommending the state negotiate better, cheaper healthcare deals with the insurance and pharmaceutical companies? And why wouldn't these deals be made available to every, single person in this state? 

Gov. Christie has given away over $5 billion in corporate tax breaks and the state has nothing to show for it. Where is your recommendation to end this corporate welfare? 

Where is your recommendation to close the corporate tax loophole that costs the state approximately $200 million a year in lost revenue?

Where is your recommendation to greatly reduce the outlandish fees, expenses and performance bonuses paid to those companies and individuals who manage the pension fund?

Where is your recommendation to reinstate the millionaires tax?

Where is your recommendation to eliminate every non-government employee from the state pension fund

Already, taxpayers are giving $1.3 million a year to 62 retirees of three Trenton organizations: the League of Municipalities, the School Boards Association and the Association of Counties, records show. That’s in addition to the roughly $7.5 million in local and county taxes handed over for the groups’ annual membership dues that pay the six-figure salaries and cover operating costs. 
None of the three associations is part of state government. Privately run, they were granted pension rights by legislators decades before New Jersey entered a fiscal crisis that is leading to an estimated $8 billion structural deficit. 
As taxpayers squirm beneath the highest property taxes in the country, the retirement bill from these groups will only grow. Right now, 107 non-government employees have combined pensionable salaries of more than $7 million, according to Department of Treasury data analyzed by the Record. 
One of those employees is Bill Dressel, $191,000-a-year executive director [of the New Jersey League of Municipalities]. 
Celeste Carpiano, who makes $205,000 a year as head of the New Jersey Association of Counties, will also get a publicly funded pension. So will Marie Bilik, who gets $150,000 to oversee the New Jersey School Boards Association.

My pension is not an entitlement. It is deferred compensation. Any notion that my benefits are somehow better than those in the private sector is offset by what I have sacrificed in salary as a public employee. As you well know, the New Jersey pension fund "ranks 95th in pension generosity out of the top 100 plans nationally", and the average New Jersey public employee pension is only $26,000 a year. Hardly a "Cadillac benefit", as Gov. Christie loves to say. Compare that to the daily salaries those insurance company CEOs make, then tell me it's excessive. But, that's the deal the state made with me and the hundreds of thousands of other New Jersey public employees. And we are the only ones who've upheld our end of the bargain over the past few decades. 

We are getting screwed. And you are presenting us with a screwdriver.

How do you sleep at night knowing that your recommendations may push even more middle class people into foreclosure in the state with the highest foreclosure rate in the nation?  

There comes a time when the hard working public employees who keep New Jersey running have to say, "Enough is enough!"

I reject the notion that public employees, who have dutifully paid more than our fare share over the decades must now pay more for less and work longer to get it.

I reject the notion that the only solution is to place the burden of the fix on the shoulders of those who are following the law.

I reject the notion that our pensions will bankrupt the state when the state is giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations.

Here is my recommendation: Go back to the drawing board. Scrounge under every sofa cushion and check every coat pocket in Trenton. Hold a bake sale, a garage sale, do whatever it takes to find the money. Except do not expect the only people who have followed the law and consistently contributed to the pension system year in and year out while politicians from both sides of the aisle used it as their cash cow to contribute one more dime. 

Not. One. More. Dime.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Day NJ Parents Occupied the State DOE

The February 10th NJ State Board of Education meeting was a watershed moment in the NJ Opt-Out movement. Here's my report from the field.

Newton's third law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. 

So, when Commissioner Hespe, sitting smugly on his throne at the February 10th State Board of Ed meeting and borrowing a page from Arne Duncan’s book of anti-middle class rhetoric, proclaimed the NJ Opt Out movement last year was nothing more than a bunch of high school students* not wanting to take the test...

As Bari Ehrlichson gushed over the wonderfulness and fabulousness of the CCSS and PARCC, and practically compared Language Arts writing prompts currently used by elementary school teachers to coloring books...

As Hespe proclaimed, “This is what educators want! This is the promise and we’re delivering!”...

As board member Dorothy Strickland, stricken with a severe case of the vapors over the CCSS and PARCC, proclaimed, “I’m so thrilled!... Delighted!”...

... a storm was brewing. 

Parents were traveling from all over the state to Trenton for the afternoon session of testimony. 

I've attended and testified at many State Board of Ed meetings, but this one was different. The Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey released its final report last month, which, if approved by the board, will require high school students to be subjected to a tsunami of standardized testing that would make Superstorm Sandy look like a tide pool. The Study Commission recommends launching a full-scale media campaign paid for by "business community and philanthropic organizations" 'reformy' money to crush the Opt-Out movement and brainwash parents into believing the PARCC is wonderful. 

But we're not buying it. 

And we've had it with the disrespect Commissioner Hespe shows us, and the lack of action on the part of some State Board members who know better.

To be fair, State Board of Education members are appointed by the governor and are largely figureheads. As one board member told me, "They keep us in the dark and feed us shit." The majority of the current crop are there to do Gov. Christie's bidding. Some are there beyond their expiration date, and they don't want to rattle the cages too much lest they be shown the door. But, Christie's approval numbers are in the toilet and he'll be gone next year. These board members are all that's standing between us and even more 'reform' insanity. In talking with them one-on-one (even some appointed by Christie), they get it. It's time they step up to the plate and do their job.  

The Testimony

Testimony got underway after lunch. The bitterly cold wind whipping off the Delaware River reflected the mood of those who signed up to speak. 

About 50 of us were divided into four rooms. Most were parents, a few were teachers and members of other civil and/or activist groups. That may not seem like a lot, but what we lacked in numbers, we made up for in content and passion. 

It never ceases to amaze me how little the State Board members know about public education and the policies on which they vote. More often it's those who testify who provide them with accurate information. They seem woefully unaware that the state broke the law when it made PARCC a graduation requirement, and that the Education Law Center and the NJ ACLU have filed suit. One board member was shocked that third graders take the test online. He couldn't believe that 8-year-olds have to type essays on a computer when most still haven't mastered keyboarding skills. What rock is he hiding under?  

Most have absolutely no idea what goes on in a classroom, the challenges students face—especially those of color, limited English proficiency and with special needs—or the tidal waves of unfunded mandates and un-vetted, unproven 'reforms' that are bankrupting school districts and destroying public education.

But this was the icing on the cake:

Board Member Andrew Mulvihill listens to public testimony

This is board member, Andrew Mulvihill, on his phone during public testimony. He also spent part of the morning session in the lobby talking on it. In addition to being a Christie appointee to the State Board of Ed, here's a little more about him courtesy of Bloomberg Business:

Mr. Andrew J. Mulvihill serves as the Chief Executive Officer of Crystal Springs and Mountain Creek real estate division. Mr. Mulvihill worked in the development and building industry for the past 25 years. He is the Owner of Mountain Resort Properties. Mr. Mulvihill served as President of the NJ Golf Club Course Owners Association, Member of the Newark Academy Board of Governors. He Founded Highlands State Bank. He serves as a Director of Highlands State Bank Vernon (NJ) and Highlands BanCorp. Inc. He has been Director of New Jersey Department Of Education since 2011. Mr. Mulvihill holds B.A., Political Science from Stanford University.
In case you were wondering, Newark Academy is an exclusive, $36,000/year 6-12 private school with average class sizes of 13, in Christie's high school alma mater town of Livingston. According to the school's website 
NA's curriculum offers students uniquely designed academic courses and opportunities that prepare them for productive engagement in a deeply interconnected world. 
I'm sure Newark Academy is a terrific school, and students get a wonderful education. But why no mention of "college and career ready"? Oh... that's only for the rest of us.

Here's my testimony:

You can see more testimony on the Save Our Schools NJ Facebook page. 

When testimony in his room finished, some parents wanted to have an informal conversation. They dared call out from the audience, asking him to stay and talk. Wanting to know when the board would be voting on the proposed changes. I guess he didn't like this because he got up and gave a lukewarm, 'I'll think about it' kind of answer and walked out.

And that's when things got interesting.

Testimony in the adjacent room wrapped a few minutes before, and people were milling around talking. The rooms are divided by moving panels, so sound travels very easily. It was hard to hear the people still testifying in Mulvihill's room. An audience member apparently asked the security guard to tell the people in the other room to lower their voices. He didn't do such a great job, so I went in and asked them to lower their voices. He didn't like that too much and yelled at me. Well, if he had just done his job...

Then everyone in all the rooms spilled out into the lobby and we were greeted with this... 

And this...

We weren’t rude or unruly. We were just charged up because there were so many of us in one room at one time on the threshold of a vote that will change public education for the forseable future.

Make no mistake: PARCC is not just another test, and our children aren't spoiled suburban kids who treat opting out like a senior prank. There are thousands of students who willingly sit for the SATs not once, not twice, but several times because it has some meaning and worth. The PARCC has no worth at all.

* In our first official year of testing, over 100,000 NJ students opted out of the PARCC last year. This was the second highest number in the nation next to NY with 200,000. As a parent of a teenager who's pretty smart, organized and savvy, I still doubt that 15-18 year olds can organize that many students around the state to do the same thing on the same days at the same time when, on many days, they can't even find their way out of their own bedrooms.