Category Archives: Education

Claim Check: Foley on “Underperforming” Schools

by Categorized: Claim Check, Education, Politics Date:

claimcheck6

It’s been strangely quiet in the Claim Check cubicle lately, but not because candidates and PACs have suddenly abandoned political advertising.

Instead, Connecticut candidates took a break from specific boasts or specific accusations to focus on generic vote-for-me-I’m-a-nice-guy ads that defy fact-checking. So, for example, we saw congressional candidate Mark Greenberg’s clever analogyFoley_Education about barking dogs and we know that gubernatorial longshot Joe Visconti packs heat and rides horses. But neither of those spots had measurable claims that could be addressed in this space.

But at last, a recent Tom Foley TV spot, focusing on education, makes a single checkable assertion about the performance of Connecticut schools. The claim is based on an outdated report and the issue of school performance is more complicated than can be squeezed into a short ad. But overall, Foley’s assertion is justifiable. Continue reading

Is Jailed CCSU Poet a Good Professor? That’s None of Your Business.

by Categorized: Education, Law Enforcement, Transparency/FOI Date:

My colleague Kathy Megan reports this morning that the Board of Regents for the Connecticut State University system will reconsider Tuesday’s decision to grant full professorship to Ravi Shankar – a promotion that occurred while Shankar was behind bars at the Hartford Correctional Center.

In seeking to distance Shankar’s legal troubles from his classroom duties, regents spokesman Michael Kozlowski said he has heard that Shankar, the school’s poet in residence, “has tremendous student ratings, they like him very much, and that his academic record, at least as far as I know, is quite good.”

We’ll have to take his word for it.

As I’ve noted before, there is a strange lack of transparency surrounding the assessment of public university professors in Connecticut, with all records of their performance and evaluation off limits to the taxpayers who employ them. But that cloak confidentialstampof secrecy is yet more stark for faculty employed by the State University System, where the entire contents of personnel files are closed to any outside scrutiny.

Those aren’t my words; that’s the actual language of the faculty union contract, which was given the force of law years ago by the legislature. “The entire contents of personnel files,” the contract reads, “shall be considered private and may not be opened to any outside scrutiny except when ordered by a court of law.”

Those personnel files contain a faculty member’s application for employment, payroll records, disciplinary actions, job-related correspondence with university administrators and “all other relevant personnel actions.”

That unmatched secrecy would typically run afoul of the state’s Freedom of Information laws, which recognize that public accountability is part of the deal when the public pays your salary. But under Connecticut law, when the legislature approves a collective-bargaining agreement, the provisions of the contract supersede any conflicting state law.

So in 1997, the union asked for wholesale secrecy, negotiators for the state agreed, and legislators let it become law.

“One the biggest potential threats to public accountability is a state law (Gen. Statutes section 5-278) that is being used to allow public employee contracts ratified by the legislature to trump FOI statutes when it comes to releasing information in employee personnel files,” the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information wrote in their Agenda for Open Government last year. “The executive branch should refuse to negotiate, and the legislature should refuse to accept, such back-door assaults on accountability in the state’s union contracts.”

The current state-university contract expires next year and negotiations will begin anew. We’ll see if there are voices in state government willing to stand up for transparency. In the meantime, it’s anyone’s guess whether or not Professor Ravi Shankar’s academic record is in fact “quite good.”

A Sunshine Week Question: Why Are Evaluations of Public University Professors Kept Secret?

by Categorized: Education, Employment, Government, Law Enforcement, Media, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

I began teaching a journalism class at Central Connecticut State University this semester, with the taxpayers and students’ families picking up the tab for my modest salary. At some point, I imagine the school will evaluate my performance, and when that happens, it will be the official policy of the state legislature that it’s none of the taxpayers’ business whether I’m doing a great job or a crummy job.

If you teach in a public school in Connecticut, from Kindergarten to a Ph.D. program, state law deems that records of your “performance and evaluation” are off-limits to the public that pays your salary. I was given a stark reminder of that today, just as transparency advocates are wrapping up “Sunshine Week,” a national campaign highlighting the importance of open government.

Today happened to be the day I was provided with a large number of documents I had requested from the University of Connecticut, which included the draft of a review of Robert Miller, the former UConn music professor now under the microscope for allegations of sexual misconduct that spanned decades.

The evaluation runs 28 pages – 19 of which have been blacked out completely, and the rest of which have no more than a sentence or two visible. There is a list of “Dr. Miller’s Strengths” and another of “Dr. Miller’s Weaknesses” – but they have been almost entirely blacked out. There is a section marked “Comments from the Faculty” – immediately followed by a page and a half of black boxes. Under “PERSONALITY ISSUES,” the report notes that neither the review committee members nor those interviewed are trained psychologists, but the rest of section, taking up nearly two pages, is completely redacted.

This isn’t the university getting overly exuberant with a magic marker; it’s just following the law.

As I’ve written before, a move to keep teacher evaluations secret began 30 years, resulting in the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Legislators were persuaded that parents would use evaluations to shop for the best teachers and pressure schools to place their children accordingly – though every parent I’ve ever talked to already knows who the great teachers are in their schools.

And even while the bill was pitched as a way to prevent teacher-shopping, the final language covered all professional staff in a public K-12 school except the superintendent. Assistant superintendents, principals, librarians – all covered by the law putting their performance evaluations off limits.

Before long, that sort of secrecy started looking good to those in higher education. And in 1989, a similar statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

And that’s why the document below is mostly black boxes.

Transparency advocates would like to change that. I’ll start with my eval. If and when CCSU gauges my performance, I’ll be happy to send a copy to anyone interested in reading it.

Miller Evaluation (Text)

Affidavits Tell Sad Tale of Collapse of Hurley Scholarship Foundation

by Categorized: Education, Government, Legal Affairs, Non-profits, Uncategorized Date:

The inevitable dissolution of the battered Doc Hurley Scholarship Foundation came a step closer Thursday with Judge Carl Schuman’s order barring the foundation from engaging in any official acts while he considers the fate of the once-revered scholarship fund.

On April 7, barring objection – and no objection has been registered so far – Schuman may formally eliminate the organization Walter “Doc” Hurley dreamed up four decades ago to help needy high school students reach their college dreams. The foundation – which held more than $1 million in assets seven years ago – is now penniless, and Hurley’s daughter, Muriel, is facing a civil suit brought by the attorney general accusing her of looting the charity.

The collapse of the Hurley foundation is on stark display in a series of affidavits filed by nine Hurley scholarship winners who didn’t receive the money they were promised. As part of the Courant’s investigation of the foundation, we tracked down more than a dozen winners who were shortchanged, and lawyers for the state then soon followed up.

Utsarga Bhattarai was awarded a $2,000 scholarship when he graduated from West Hartford’s Hall High School in 2008. But he said the money never came. “On multiple occasions, up and through my junior year of college, I contacted the Foundation through multiple telephone calls and e-mails, but never was contacted by the Foundation,” he wrote.

That sentiment is repeated over and over. “I sent multiple e-mails and made multiple telephone calls to the Foundation and left messages, but never received e-mails back or any return telephone calls,” wrote Alyssa Cusano, who received $500 of the $2,000 she was promised.

Brittany Cavaliere left phone and e-mail messages after her aid stopped. So did Jermaine Thomas and Amanda Trothier. And several other students. But they said they either received no response, or were assured that the scholarship money was on its way. But it never arrived.

The affidavits are included in the dissolution lawsuit merely to bolster the state’s case that the Hurley Foundation was no longer operating as a charitable organization and should be shut down. There is no means through that process to make the students whole.

State officials aren’t foreclosing the possibility of recovering assets that could be distributed to past scholarship winners. But the foundation’s bank accounts are empty, and finding any seizable assets is proving to be a difficult feat.

The students’ affidavits are below:

HurleyExhibits (Text)

In Connecticut Schools, Strange Law Fosters Strange Secrecy

by Categorized: Education, Employment, First Amendment, Government, Non-profits, Politics, Transparency/FOI, Uncategorized Date:

The folks who run the state university and college system have decided to reward top performers by taking more than half a million dollars in taxpayer funds and distributing it as merit raises to some or all of 279 eligible managers and administrators.

And as my colleague Kathy Megan reported, education officials are declining, for now at least, to tell the public which of the public’s employees have been awarded additional chunks of the public’s money. In fact, they say, it would violate state law to do so.

That assertion has not been tested by the Freedom of Information Commission or the courts. topsecretBut it is the latest strange outcome of a strange series of laws that have kept taxpayers in the dark about teacher evaluations for nearly 30 years.

It began, somewhat fittingly, in 1984, with the passage of a law titled “Nondisclosure of records of teacher performance and evaluation,” which made teacher evaluations in local public schools exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law was pitched, in the words of a later court case, as a way to “prevent parents from ‘teacher shopping’ in public schools by looking at evaluations and then demanding that their children be placed with one specific teacher.”

Remember before 1984, when hordes of parents would crowd into Main Offices across the state, poring over every 2nd Grade teachers’ evals before demanding that their child’s schedule be customized accordingly?

Me neither.

Parents, of course, have never needed to scour performance reviews to know who the great teachers are in their schools. But even if tamping down on teacher-shopping were the true intent of the law, let’s dig a little deeper into the statutory language. The law protects “records of teacher performance and evaluation.” But the legislature then added this bit of linguistic gymnastics: “For the purposes of this section, ‘teacher’ includes each certified professional employee below the rank of superintendent.”

This, presumably, was intended to stem the epidemic of parents engaging in principal-shopping and librarian-shopping and assistant-superintendent-shopping, as all of their performance evaluations were placed off-limits as well.

The bottom line of that strangely expansive language is that in a state with more than 51,000 certified public-school educators, the people of Connecticut are entitled to review the performance of exactly 166 of them.

The 1984 law covered only K-12 schools. But that didn’t last.

Five years later, professors in the state’s higher education system decided they’d like the same sort of confidentiality enjoyed by their elementary and high school colleagues. So a nearly identically worded statute was put on the books blocking public access to performance records for the faculty and professional staff at UConn, the state university system and the state’s technical colleges.

It is unlikely that law was passed to prevent students from “professor-shopping” and trying to secure a spot with the best teachers, since that is exactly what students do when registering for classes in college.

In the current controversy, the state will ultimately reveal which employees received merit raises and in what amounts; at worst, that information will be deducible once new paychecks – which are public records – start going out.

But if you were curious, for example, about what any particular employee did to earn, say, the maximum merit increase, then sorry – it’s the official policy of the state of Connecticut that taxpayers have no business asking.

310 Million Americans. Three Dozen Fun Facts.

by Categorized: Census, Data, Education, Employment, Politics Date:

Housing values are down. Household sizes are up. Marriages are down. Unemployment is up. Manufacturing is down. College degrees are up.

Annual estimates from the Census Bureau in hundreds of categories became publicly releasable early this morning, and my colleague Mara Lee has a story looking at how Connecticut is getting older – but not appreciably faster than the nation as a whole, suggesting concerns about an aging workforce may be unduly alarmist.

Beyond those big-picture tales hiding in the numbers, however, there are scores of interesting data points capturing the gradual shifts and natural waves of a fluid society. Below are three dozen selected Census figures for the United States and Connecticut, showing the 2012 figures just released and figures for the same categories in 2008, along with the percent change for both the national and state figures.

The numbers, drawn from the American Community Survey, an annual sampling of the nation’s 310 million residents, paint a numerical tapestry of the country through questions on labor, housing, income, ancestry, education and even what portion of the labor force walks to work. (2.8 percent nationwide; 3 percent in Connecticut).

To dig into countless gigabytes of other Census Bureau data, log on to American Factfinder, the bureau’s online search tool.

In New Britain Schools, Drugs Are Bad, but Swearing Might Be Even Worse

by Categorized: Data, Education Date:

If New Britain schools Superintendent Kelt Cooper goes forward with his pledge that students caught swearing at faculty members this year will be “out of school for five to 10 days,” it would make foul language just about the most severely punished offense a New Britain student can commit, at least based on the district’s past history of sanctions for misconduct.

The harsh penalty – announced at a rousing convocationsoap at which Cooper summarized his goal for improving student comportment with the memorable catchphrase “Don’t talk smack, don’t show crack” – would see potty-mouthed students facing tougher sanctions than are typically imposed for stealing or fighting, and would put them at least on par with students punished for drug- and weapons-related offenses.

Below is a chart showing the average length of sanctions imposed on New Britain students involved in 2,866 assorted incidents during 2010-2011 school year, according to state Department of Education data. Note that not all of the sanctions involved out-of-school suspensions, with students sent home in 44 percent of the cases.

As my colleague Don Stacom reports, Cooper is sending the message that school officials have had it with disrespectful behavior by students. To underscore that resolve, students booted for profanity will be sent home, Cooper said, with a bar of soap.

NewBritain_Discipline

The Kishimoto Meeting – Behind Closed Doors, but Why?

by Categorized: Education, Employment, Transparency/FOI Date:

Among the criticisms the Hartford Board of Education heaped on Superintendent Christina Kishimoto was a concern over her communication skills, knocking her for what they said was a failure to keep the board and parents in the loop as she made decisions. Board members said she needed to do better, and she promised she would.

But when Kishimoto and the board got together Tuesday night for a meeting that would decide the future of herHartford Superintendent of Schools Christina Kishimoto tenure – and the future direction of the state’s second-largest school district – both sides made a familiar retreat behind closed doors, leaving parents once again in the dark.

It’s all legal. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act permits – but does not require – agencies to hold executive sessions to discuss “the appointment, employment, performance, evaluation, health or dismissal of a public officer or employee.” Tuesday’s gathering, at which the board unanimously voted against extending Kishimoto’s contract, certainly met that criteria. But why choose to shut out parents and other members of the public?

Operating out of the public eye promotes a level of candor revered by those in government. But the officials who assembled Tuesday night should remember that their primary duty is to the people of Hartford, and they should resist any urge to have one level of honesty for the public and an enhanced level of honesty that comes out only in private.

Tuesday’s vote was not a surprise, and both Kishimoto and various board members have been transparent in expressing their views. This was not a shady back-room deal. But when the conflict between the board and Kishimoto reached a crescendo with a closed meeting that stretched longer than 90 minutes, those involved seemed to lose sight of an important adage: that in a democracy, the people’s business really is the people’s business.

To a Hartford resident, the schools superintendent may be the most important official in the city. The decision on whether she stays or goes is a big deal. So memo to all involved: Next time there’s a discussion as significant as Tuesday night’s, consider leaving the doors open and letting the real bosses see what’s being done on their behalf.

FOIA Shaming: Latest Strategy for Getting Recalcitrant Public Officials to Stop Breaking the Law

by Categorized: Education, First Amendment, Media, Politics, Transparency/FOI, UConn Date:

No court or federal agency has ever deemed parking tickets racked up by college students to be “educational records” protected by privacy laws.

But when student journalists at the University of Oklahoma sought parking-ticket data from their school – to determine whether student-athletes or other VIPs were getting their tickets fixed – the university refused their request, insisting the records were covered by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That stance is at odds with rulings issued by courts in two other states, as well as the practice at at least one other public university: UConn, which provided that very data to the Courant several years ago without a fight.

Open-records UniversityofMarylandexperts say the reporters at the Oklahoma Daily would likely win if they took their school to court. But that could cost tens of thousands of dollars. So what are student journalists to do? Enter FOIA Shaming, a new project from the Student Press Law Center designed to needle public officials who withhold public records on flimsy grounds.

There’s the University of Maryland, which refused for more than a year to produce records showing disciplinary actions taken against students found to have committed sexual assaults on campus.

And the University System of Georgia, which tried charging a student paper nearly $3,000 to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act request. After 140 days – and the intervention of a private lawyer – the school system cut the bill by 90 percent.

The launch of the blog site corresponds with Sunshine Week, held annually around the birth date of James Madison, an early champion of open government, who semi-famously declared: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Know some shame-worthy public-records behavior at your school? The Student Press Law Center is inviting submissions for the blog here.

Courant/Frontline Investigation: Who Was Adam Lanza?

by Categorized: Education, Health, Law Enforcement, Media Date:

We may spend years trying to understand the troubled mind of Adam Lanza. But just two months after his deadly attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary School, my colleagues Alaine Griffin and Josh Kovner have produced an unmatched examination of Lanza’s life and his relationship to his protective mother, Nancy Lanza, whom he also killed. That story appears online and in Sunday’s Courant.

Griffin and Kovner, joined by the PBS investigative news show Frontline, spent more than a month tracking down those who knew the Lanzas, along with documents that help illuminate Adam Lanza’s bizarre behavior and his mother’s efforts, for better or worse, to keep him stable.

The Courant’s in-depth coverage of the Sandy Hook attack continues Tuesday with a package of stories on the gun-control debate spawned by the Dec. 14 shootings. Tuesday night, Frontline will devote an hour to the Courant’s reporting.