Sunday, January 26, 2014

Dodgeball, Anyone ?

Our radio discussions frequently return to a critical problem with education: parents need to care, parents need to participate.

But what happens when they do? 
Some years ago, concerned parents resuscitated the parents' group at Desert Hills Elementary School. They organized and ran several large-scale fund-raising events. They were deeply involved in what went on at the school. 
The group reportedly did a lot of good. Members raised funds and helped teachers, students, and staff. “It was becoming a family,” said Gena Castillo, who headed up the group.

Then Desert Hills got a new principal, Liz Gonzales, whose people skills allegedly weren't strong. One teacher recently told me that but for the parents' group, she'd have transferred.
Turnover rose dramatically: formerly, one or two of 74 teachers/staff left each year. One teacher was told when she arrived, “You're awfully lucky. People never leave Desert Hills.” Now turnover is more like 18 of 74 – with a few departees reportedly stating they'd have stayed but for Ms. Gonzales.

The school's warmth and unity have reportedly disappeared. 
Ms. Gonzales's management style is an issue. During the spring and summer, parents tried repeatedly to get a meaningful response from the school administration. They met with two people from H.R., then Steve Sanchez, and ultimately Superintendent Stan Rounds. They say they got no satisfaction at any level. Almost everyone promised to get back to them. No one really did.

Then on August 5, Ms. Gonzales sent out an email announcing that the Parents' Group was being disbanded, but would be “folded in” to a new School Advisory Committee (“SAC”). She created the SAC without following District rules and regulations. (She reportedly said the School Board or Superintendent Stan Rounds had authorized an exception.)

Regulations state that within the LCPS District, to start an SAC the principal should solicit candidates, announce an election, and hold the election by the end of the academic year. Ms. Gonzales should have started by Spring 2013, to create a democratically-elected SAC for the 2013-2014 academic year. Instead, she created her own.

The SAC is meant to provide outside advice to the principal. By appointing her own rather than having parents vote, Ms. Gonzales undermined the chance for such independent advice. 
SAC's are meant to encourage parental involvement in policy matters. The existing group was highly involved, and knowledgeable. The principal placed none of its members on her new hand-picked SAC. 
Ms. Gonzalez also allegedly retaliated or tried to retaliate against parents and faculty who spoke up about her. At one point she reportedly demanded a list, with contact information, of all parents who'd attended a certain meeting of just parents. She told teachers not to talk with parents about internal matters at the school. She told a teacher who'd openly criticized her that the teacher would get a “marginally effective” rating under Professionalism on her evaluation, but backed down when the teacher pointed out how that would look. She allegedly offered to raise another teacher's evaluation if the teacher would contradict others' accounts of the problems at the school.

Morale at the school is said to be lower than ever. Superintendent Stan Rounds spoke to the teachers at a special meeting in mid-December, and said his assistant Liz Marrufa would be there to help fix the problems; but one teacher said Ms. Marrufa has been to the school only once since that meeting.

I've never been inside the school. I have no idea who's right. 
But whoever's right (or if each side's testimony contains some truth), a serious issue is the apparent failure of the school administration to address these problems candidly and productively. “We just want to be heard,” one parent told me.

Beneath the surface lie other issues, some very serious, that I'm not yet in a position to discuss in a meaningful way. (I invite teachers or parents with useful information to contact me.) 
And I'm hoping to discuss with Mr. Rounds some of what he said to the Desert Hills teachers on December 12th, and what follow-through has occurred.

Two things happened as I was writing this column: a parent spoke about this issue to Tuesday's regular school board meeting; and Ms. Gonzales provided a great example of just what parents had complained of in the way of non-responsiveness.

I called. She called back. She very politely said nothing substantive. She asked that I call back at a certain time the next morning. I did. Didn't get her. I called twice more. No call back. That evening I got a call from Eric Montgomery, a parent new to Desert Hills. He's on the new SAC. He knew nothing about the issues I'd been interested in, but said that the SAC was accomplishing good things and always seeks additional parental involvement.

However, he hadn't even heard of the December 12th meeting or the serious problems discussed there by Rounds, which suggested the school hadn't disclosed to the SAC things the old parents' group had known.

Dodgeball, anyone?
[This Sunday column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News on 26 January, 2014.]
[Writing this column, I'd have preferred to hear from Ms. Gonzales her views on these issues.  Even when I spoke with Mr. Montgomery, who seemed like a concerned, candid, and well-intentioned parent, I urged him to point out to Ms. Gonzales that I was interested in presenting a balanced column; but she never chose to present her side, or even call back to explain that for some reason she shouldn't or that I should talk to someone else or whatever.  Frankly, she started sounding a whole lot like the non-responsiveness that  others had described to me.]
[I do know that one issue that helped create or deepen the rift at Desert Hills was the handling of the suspension of a fourth-grade teacher accused of sexual misconduct.  He was reportedly very popular with his students.  While it's not clear that anyone questions his suspension, the students (who saw him there one day and gone the next, with no explanation whatsoever, not even that there were legal issues administrators weren't allowed to explain yet) were understandably unsettled.  (So were some teachers.)  According to one source, Principal Gonzales was surprised to hear that the teacher's disappearance troubled the students.  If true, that would seem a symptom of being insensitive or out of touch with her students.]
[In any case, there's reason to suspect that there are several interesting stories here that demand to be looked into.  I'm particularly interested in the specific causes (and results, if any) of the December 12th meeting Superintendent Rounds had with teachers at Desert Hills.]

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Politicians Can Trip When they Look Vindictively Backward

Why do some politicians, once crossed, maintain a personal vindictiveness that doesn't fade as they move up the political ladder?

I'm thinking of N.J. Governor Chris Christie, N.M. Governor Susana Martinez, and the Clintons. Hillary, at least.

Yes, Don Corleone (hero of Christie's favorite movie) felt the need to avenge even the smallest slight in a public way to set an example. Probably a reasonable idea in his business. But politicians who feel a comparable impulse should stifle it.

Christie's sad story is headline material. Needing to portray himself as especially bipartisan, or atnd capable of dialogue with the nasty old Democrats, he put out the word that Democratic mayors in New Jersey should endorse him. When the Mayor of Fort Lee declined to do so, Christie's minions got back at him in a stupid and probably illegal way. They closed the local entries to and exits from the George Washington Bridge, snarling traffic and interfering with emergency responders, schoolbuses, and just plain citizens. Brilliant.

Christie either knew exactly what was going on or had set a clear example of petty vengefulness. (When the King Henry II asks “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome Priest?” his courtiers don't need written instructions concerning Thomas Becket.) Additional mayors have since come forward with accounts of reprisals by Christie's people.

What Christie's aides did was potentially dangerous and just plain dumb.

Just when Christie had a decent shot at the Presidential nomination, he shoots himself in the foot trying to settle a score. Reminds me of a football player on the point of scoring a touchdown to take his team to the Super Bowl who turns around to kick a defender in the crotch instead – and gets tackled.

A more local example is our former District Attorney. She's now Governor Martinez. Rumors have her as a possible candidate for the Vice-Presidency. You'd think she'd be busy enough with state issues and possibly national ambitions that she'd ignore the impulse to interfere with matters down here in Las Cruces.

Yet she and her favorite aide can't forgive or forget perceived slights. For just one example, Mark D'Antonio's presence in her old office is like an itch she can't keep from scratching. Several people could tell interesting pieces of this story if they chose to. When I asked a non-partisan observer about it recently, thinking he might not have heard anything of it, he just shook his head and said, “It's just something personal.” We shook our heads. With all she has going on in her professional life, why would she bother? I can't say she's done anything illegal; but underhanded and unpleasant, yes.
But neither political party holds a patent on petty vengefulness.

If widespread reports are at all accurate, Hillary Clinton kept a personal hit-list in 2008, listing fellow Democrats whose sins included endorsing Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination.
Look out, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Patrick Leahy, and (above all) Claire McCaskill. Our own Bill Richardson was also on the list, and Clinton staffers reportedly watched with delight when Richardson started getting investigated.

What we're reading about the Clintonian “enemies list” is both tasteless and stupid. Sure, most campaigns keep a list of friends and enemies; and an early critical endorsement is a political gamble, with significant consequences if the underdog you endorse becomes President or the favorite at whom you thumbed your nose moves into the White House.

But few campaigns (Nixon's, perhaps) keep lists as detailed as Clinton's.

I don't see the list-keeping as helpful. Does it really help Clinton in 2016 to have magnified her differences with folks who endorsed Barack eight years ago as the superior of two good choices?
I'm not seeing the wisdom in it. I'm not seeing anything sensible about unnecessarily avenging perceived insults, turning potential friends into enemies, and enemies into raging lions.
I don't think Chris would have been nominated for President this year anyway. Look what the extremist-dominated primary process did to Romney, who hadn't hobnobbed with the Democratic Devil the way Christie did after Hurricane Sandy.

I don't think Susana will get the nod as VP: her ethnicity and gender are politically convenient, but choosing an obscure governor from a small state might be unappealing to a party still dreaming that McCain could have won in 2008 without the soccer mom.

Hillary, of course, has the 2016 nomination wrapped up, just as she had the 2008 nomination wrapped up in 2006.

Me, with a few exceptions, I can't be bothered remembering things people do to hurt me. Carrying those memories pollutes my mind and heart, not theirs.

But Jacqueline Bisset said it best. Asked at the Golden Globes how she managed to look so great at 69, she said, “If you want to look good, forgive everyone. That's the best beauty aid I know.”

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A New Political Fashion Here: Musical Chairs

Local Democrats may look closely at some “Democratic” judicial candidates this year.

In December I was told that four past and/or present judicial candidates appointed by Republican Governor Susana Martinez had just become Democrats or were about to switch.

The four are Beverly Singleman; Richard Wellborn, Jacinto Palomino, and Nelson Goodin. Martinez has appointed each to a judicial position here, and has appointed Goodin twice. All but Singleman worked with Martinez in the District Attorney's Office; and three lost judicial elections in 2010 or 2012.

Magistrate Judge Singleman, once a Democrat, then briefly an Independent, is now a Democrat. In April 2012, Martinez appointed Singleman, an Independent. In November 2012, Singleman won an election to retain her seat. (She ran unopposed: two Democrats were disqualified because of the new requirement that a magistrate judge be a lawyer.) She says her switch back to the Democratic Party is unrelated to what others were doing. “I missed some aspects of the Democratic Party, particularly the women’s group,” she said, adding that an Independent must gather many more signatures in a short time to get on the ballot. That's problematic for someone who’s in court all day.

Martinez appointed former Assistant District Attorneys Palomino and Goodin as District Court Judges, and voters rejected both in November 2012. She then appointed Goodin to Magistrate Court in 2013.

Palomino's switch made some sense. I talked with him during the 2012 race. He seemed moderate. I thought he might be fair and impartial. Some lawyers who’d observed him in court confirmed that.

He says he changed parties months ago, fairly soon after going to work for District Attorney Mark D'Antonio last January. D'Antonio, who he said “welcomed me with open arms,” didn't ask him to change parties. Rather, former friends in the Republican Party, angered by his taking a job with D'Antonio, made him feel distinctly unwelcome. Since he could be comfortable as a Democrat, he changed parties.

Palomino declined to discuss just what Republicans said or did after D'Antonio hired him. Goodin remains a Republican and says he has no plan to switch. He denies that he seriously considered switching. Wellborn says that when he told Goodin he was going to meet with County Democratic Chairperson Christy French, Goodin said “You can tell her I'm thinking about it as well.” Goodin declined to confirm that he'd discussed the matter with Wellborn.

Wellborn's case is the most interesting.

Wellborn, an ADA under Martinez, ran and lost as a Republican for a district court judgeship in 2010. Hoping for an appointment to District Court, he failed to get past the Judicial Nominating Committee. The Martinez administration appointed him General Counsel to the Department of Transportation. Then Martinez appointed him Magistrate Judge in October, 2013. By early December he'd become a Democrat.

Wellborn insists his change of parties reflects his beliefs. He says his beliefs have always been more in line with Democrats than with Republicans. He says he became a Republican when he went to work with Martinez in the District Attorney's Office.

When I spoke to him in December, he said all the right things in a pretty convincing manner. He mentioned (not in any way as platform planks) that he'd never voted for a Republican for President, had always supported same-sex marriage and economic equality, and was pro-choice. He also denied discussing the switch with Martinez, and said he hadn't actually spoken to her for years.

Others say Wellborn has always appeared very conservative. They doubt he'd have switched parties without approval from Martinez, who's hired or appointed him to several public positions. They believe he changed parties solely to enhance his chances to win.

Before Wellborn switched, District Court Clerk Norman Osborne was known to be planning to run for the magistrate judgeship. Osborne anticipated that his Republican opponent in the General Election would be Wellborn.

Then Wellborn came to see him at the Clerk's Office and, as an incumbent who was now also a Democratic, suggested Osborne withdraw. Osborne said the incident “took me by surprise” but was “very cordial.”

In December, Wellborn's account of the conversation omitted that he'd suggested Osborne withdraw.

Thereafter, Wellborn reportedly returned with a carrot. Osborne says Wellborn noted the probability that the State would add another Magistrate Judgeship here, and suggested that if Osborne withdrew, “he would put in a good word for me with the Governor.” Osborne found this “a rather strange proposal, for several reasons” – among them that “he's a Democrat and last time I looked, she's a Republican.” Osborne “politely declined,” partly because he was “pretty far along” in gathering signatures and had supporters eager to help with the race.

This week Wellborn confirmed that he'd encouraged Osborne to withdraw, but denied that Osborne's account was accurate. “That's not what I said. I did say, and this is all speculation, that there may be a position opening up. I don't think Norm would disagree that I'm doing a good job. If his first priority is the best interest of the court, it would be a selfless act on his part to withdraw [and seek the next vacancy] and that if he did that, which would show he put the court's interest above his own, then I would likely make a recommendation of him [if/when a vacancy occurred].”

[This is the 12 January 2014 installment of my Sunday columns that appear in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  It's important to note that nothing in the column is, or should be taken as, an endorsement of any judicial candidate.]
[This was a tough one to edit down to something close to my allotted space in the newspaper.  Wanted to include all pertinent facts, positive and negative, but couldn't -- and wonder now if a lot of that was better left unsaid anyway. 
It's also an example of a column that changed greatly as I looked into the facts.  Initially it seemed a pattern.  And it seemed a distasteful one.   Three former Martinez ADA's, each appointed by her to a judgeship then defeated by the voters in favor of a Democrat, then appointed by her again.  Sounded like some English King appointing a series of Sheriffs of Nottingham, ignoring his subjects' preferences.  And there might be a little truth in that picture.  But Singleman was neither a Martinez ADA nor a Republican, and has never been rejected by the voters; Palomino is no longer a Republican, no longer a pal of Susana's, and not running for anything -- and is a fellow 49ers fan; Wellborn and Goodin are Martinez appointees running for re-election; but Goodin hasn't changed his registration and claims not to have given the idea serious consideration.  All say there was no conversation with Governor Martinez about changing parties to facilitate getting elected.]

[I do want to cover this year's judicial elections fully.   They get short shrift sometimes in news media, partly because judicial ethics don't let the candidates say much that would capture a head-line.  These elections are not about whether or not to wage war or legalize marijuana, they're about who'll run a court fairly, wisely, impartially, efficiently, humanely, courteously, and with some judgment and legal knowledge.  Each candidate says s/he'll do that very, very well, so we naturally agree with both of them.  If either has an opinion on an issue s/he might have to decide, s/he can't say anything about it. 
Too, judicial elections are tricky.  Sure, I'd rather see a judge who's political opinions make at least a little sense to me; but a judge with reasonable political opinions may conduct himself or herself as a complete autocrat in the courtroom, proud to be on the bench and wholly intolerant of legal arguments s/he doesn't approve of, while someone whose political opinions differ from mine can be a humane, careful, courteous, neutral arbiter in the courtroom.   A judge needs to check his or her political opinions at the door treat each case with the same impartiality a good reporter treats stories.  The capacity to do that should be independent of party affiliation.

Several factors complicate assessing judges.  Few see how good or bad a judge is.  First of all, although the law constrains the judge, s/he has rare power, exercised largely out of the public eye -- and a particular decision that incenses us when we read about it in the newspaper may be exactly right when you consider only the facts in evidence and apply the law too it as fairly as possible.  A decision may also be so filled with arcane points of law that most folks won't quite understand the judge's rationale, let alone be able to assess fairly whether or not it was required by rules or judicial precedent.  The judge acts mostly in private.  Few cases are highly newsworthy; when one is, budgets no longer permit a reported to sit through the entire trial; and the newspaper reader, a non-lawyer not present in the courtroom will not always understand why the judge acts as s/he does.   A mayor who was rude, intolerant, and autocratic would be so in public: either s/he'd show those qualities in the council meetings or city employees who experience or observed it would quietly inform a reporter they could trust.  Judges' work is viewed by a small crew of spectators, mostly those interested in the particular case for personal reasons; and lawyers who observe a particular judge won't speak publicly of that judge's conduct.   Speaking up about a bad judge could elicit retaliation against one's client in the next case, and praising one publicly sounds and feels like currying favor.

At the same time, these elections matter.  Once elected, District Court Judges (but not Magistrate Judges) don't have to run again in a regular election.  If we voters make a mistake, it's harder than usual to undo.

I will write further columns on the judicial races -- and invite all the judicial candidates to appear with Keith and me (and each other) on "Speak Up, Las Cruces!" -- which airs at 8-10 each weekday morning on KOBE-AM 1450.]

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why Do We Vote against our Interests?

I respect the Tea Party's energy and political interest.

Some may be racists and haters, as they are portrayed. More, I think, are decent people who are very angry for legitimate reasons, being middle-class working people or retirees caught in an economic squeeze. Unfortunately, the Koch brothers and others have done a masterful job of misleading them about the causes of our plight.

It is not primarily the Government.

It is the obscenely large corporations and banks that control more of our lives than the government does.

Tea Party folks have been persuaded that the solution to most of our problems is to make the government as small as possible, except for national defense.

Let's get real.

Do away with the FDA? Drug manufacturers would sell even more worthless and dangerous drugs than they do now. Food would contain even fewer nutrients and more impurities.

Do away with Antitrust lawyers and banking regulations? Corporations would form ever bigger entities that would control markets so completely they could double or triple their prices at will – and banks could pull even more of the shenanigans and dicey gambles that helped bring down the economy in 2007.

Do away with the EPA and businesses could even more freely ignore the environmental consequences of their actions as they pursued bigger profits. Rivers and streams we've rescued would become polluted again. Some fields would grow too poisonous for food crops, oil companies would be free to put oil wells dangerously close to your water wells, etc.

Do away with the IRS and income taxes? Not only would our roads and infrastructure fall into disrepair, but we couldn't fund even the most basic lawsuits to keep big business and criminals in line – not to mention the Army and Navy.

What about “entitlements”? Folks receiving social security and medicare contributed for decades to earn those, under a deal the government offered them. The government can't fairly break that deal now. Government pensioners, including military folks, have contractual rights.

Most others who receive government assistance are children, elderly folks, disabled folks, and the mothers of dependent children. There's some fraud, but it's minimal It's neither humane nor practical to cut off these programs without disaster.

Do unemployed and perhaps unemployable women who keep having babies they can't support contribute to our economic situation? Sure. But far less than a president who starts two wars while lowering taxes, and far less than banks playing roulette with investors' money, then looking to the public to bail them out because they're too big to fail.

Eliminating those programs would just take out our annoyance with improvidently pregnant women on their kids. Those kids would scramble to eat – and grow up even more disaffected and violent than some youths are today, while suffering after-effects from malnutrition.

Even if you don't consider the poor just as human and deserving as you are, you ought to recognize that they are the refuse of a modern, industrial, capitalist society. The businesses and factories can't use them; but they can't grow their own food or move West as folks once could. They're trapped.
But these folks are not the cause of our economic problems. Economic policies designed to protect the wealthy and increase economic inequality are partial causes.

Of course, part of the problem is the skill shown by those who divert our attention from the facts by dividing us.

This tactic isn't new. Wealthy southern whites pitted poor whites against blacks to continue profiting from a system that benefited only them, Poor whites spent energy on hating blacks that might better have been spent learning to see their society more clearly. (Hitler made scapegoats of the Jews, though in his demented mind it seems to have been more than a mere tactic.) Iranian and North Korean leaders response to the least hint of political unrest by loudly blaming everything on the evil USA. U.S. leaders used to use the Red Threat the same way.

Sadly, scapegoating remains an effective tactic. People live by stories – and the story that it's all their fault, whoever the “they” de jour is, is clear and simple. It also exculpates both the average citizen and the truly responsible parties.

Too, our masters shout about freedom – meaning their own freedom from regulation, not our freedoms. Requiring accurate labels on food doesn't violate our freedom, but enhances it.
For years some politicians have distracted folks from their own best interest by focusing voters' attention on emotional issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the like.

U.S. citizens who need health care vote against it. After banks and corporations screw up our economy so that we can't get jobs, our Congresspeople vote against extending unemployment payments. Although hungry kids can hardly pay attention in school, and will cost society more in the long run then helping feed them would, our Congresspeople blithely abandon them. Many believe Republican propaganda that the deficit is our biggest problem, and that austerity will defeat it, when austerity greatly increases inequality without solving anything.

                                                          - 30-
[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 5 January, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  This is a column sure to annoy most everyone: Tea Party members and sympathizers because it suggests they've been misled, and opponents because it credits the bulk of the Tea Party members with good will and sincerity.]