When I looked him up online

A recent post by Eric Stoller about why “getting Twitter matters” to higher education’s student affairs folks was being shunted around Twitter yesterday morning.

The nub of Stoller’s argument is this:

Laptop computer screen bearing quote "Digital capabilities / literacies are important. They are connected to employability, revolution, activism, teaching, learning, communication, engagement, etc."

As it happens, I’ve been thinking about the importance of digital capabilities/literacies a bit lately.

My local school district recently hired a new superintendent, Timothy R. Ryan,  who got exactly two sentences on page three of the school district’s June newsletter.

When I read the news, I did what I always do when “introduced” to people I’m likely to meet in person: I looked Ryan up online.

A few weeks later, I was chatting with a stranger. Before long the conversation got around to the local school.

The woman told me about a big hassle she’d had with the administrator who didn’t want her kid to be an exchange student, and her futile attempts to get anyone to respond to her concerns.

She concluded by saying she hoped the new superintendent would turn things around.

“But I have my doubts,” she said, “because I looked him up online and—”

I completed the sentence for her: “And he doesn’t have a digital presence.”

Questions from the community for candidates

In 2011 when Bainbridge-Guilford was looking for a new school superintendent,  I served on the committee of community representatives who interviewed the three finalists.

In preparation for the interviews, I developed and posted a list of questions I thought were reasonable for non-school people to ask candidates. They fell into three broad categories:

  • Community relations
  • Technology and lifelong learning
  • Instructional leadership

I think the list is still useful; however,  I’ve come to think that the questions about technology, lifelong learning, and instructional leadership might better be asked by some school constituent group rather than community representatives.

I’ve come to think the community representatives should be people without personal ties to the school—not relatives of staff or parents of current students, for example—whose interest in the schools is related to the lack of suitable candidates for their job opening or to their tax bill.

Such folks are harder to reach than those with personal school connections, but they are a large group and, if they only knew it, have a vested interest in having a good school system. Involving them in the superintendent interviews would be good PR for the school district.

And what district doesn’t need some good PR?

 

Wheeler leaving Bainbridge-Guilford

Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District is once again looking for a new superintendent.

The notice that Donald Wheeler would not be returning appeared in the December issue of the district newsletter, the Blue and White.

The newsletter arrived in the midst of Christmas holiday preparations, and, since the information was on an inside page, many district residents are just learning the news in January.

As the news has gotten out, visits to my blog post about Donald Wheeler’s appointment in 2011 have spiked.

Before giving the school board formal notice of his intent not to return when his contract ended, Wheeler had put up a website and was actively seeking another position: He was a finalist in September for the superintendent’s post at Mount Markham.

It is clear from the B-G board minutes, however, that receiving Wheeler’s letter Oct. 20, 2015 was just a formality as far as its members were concerned.

Two weeks earlier, the board met in special executive session with the consultant helping them seek a new superintendent. The vacancy brochure for the superintendent’s position was discussed at length at that meeting.

By the time Wheeler submitted his letter of intent to the board, the application deadline for his B-G job was already set for Dec. 11, 2015.

Wheeler’s tenure has not been without its difficulties.

In the spring of 2014, a Binghamton television station reported that a majority of Bainbridge-Guilford teachers disapproved of Wheeler’s leadership.

The district teacher’s union president told the TV station that 89 percent of the district’s teachers responded to his survey regarding Wheeler’s leadership.

Of those, more than 84 percent said they did consider Wheeler a credible leader of the school community. Nearly 89 percent of respondents said they did not think Wheeler demonstrated ethical, trustworthy, and professional behavior.

The survey results were submitted to the B-G board of education.

Wheeler is currently a finalist for the top job at the Cohoes City Schools, and is one of three finalists for the superintendent’s job at Lewiston-Porter Central School District.

The search for a new superintendent is being facilitated by Alan Pole, formerly DCMO BOCES superintendent, currently a consultant with Castallo and Silky.

Disclosure: I participated as a community representative in interviews of candidates for the Bainbridge-Guilford superintendent’s job in 2011.

CTE students: Lazy, stupid, irresponsible?

The local school district mailed its annual back-to-school publication to residents last week.

I took particular note of the information about student attendance at BOCES, our regional vocational education provider.

Attendance in BOCES’ Career and Technical Education programs, New Visions programs, Unique Placement programs and Career Academy are privileges that cost our school district substantial amount of funding. To attend these programs, students must annually complete an application and sign a contract for consideration to be approved for attendance. Students displaying poor attendance, poor behavior and/or poor academics thus violating their contract are subject to removal from these programs anytime.

I read that as:

  • Vocational kids are a drain on local resources.
  • Vocational kids are irresponsible.
  • Vocational kids are stupid.
  • Vocational kids should be punished for not being academically apt.
  • Parents shouldn’t expect their vocational program student to get any help from the home school.

If you were the parent of a kid who’d rather tinker with an engine than read Emily Dickinson, would you get the message that the local school didn’t want your kid?

Or am I over-reacting?

Google’s privacy policy and schools

Supreme Court building in Washington D.C.
Supreme Court, Washington D.C.

As you are probably aware, Google is changing its privacy policy March 1. If you or your school use any of Google’s 60 applications—from g-mail to YouTube—or visit sites that use Google service, the changes will affect you.

By agreeing to Google’s new privacy policy, you allow Google to combine all the data it has about you and mine that data. You also agree to let Google turn over that information to any government agency that asks for it.

Getting rid of all Google services by March 1—the date the company’s new privacy policy goes into effect—would be a nightmare. And the alternative to accepting Google’s privacy policy is to not use any of its services.

Europeans are not happy with Google’s proposed policy. They know what can happen when a government gains access to data about citizens held by private organizations. They saw it in the old Soviet Union, in Nazi Germany, and they see it today as government-sponsored terrorists assassinate relatives of their political opponents continents away.

Schools silent on privacy policy implications

Aside from newspapers and a handful in the Congress, Americans don’t seem a bit bothered by the new policy. Schools are notably silent on the topic, although the potential ramifications of this move for schools is enormous.

Schools are pushing for teachers to use Google documents, Google Voice, YouTube, Google Scholar. They show teachers how to use class Gmail accounts to get students access to websites and use blogger to set up their own accounts.

I  hadn’t paid much attention to the implications of the privacy policies I signed, either. It was not until I clicked a link on Twitter and got a message from Google thanking me for joining YouTube that I realized where the policy change could lead.

My local school district uses a Google site as its website. By setting up a Google site, the school board signed a contract with Google. That contract gave Google the right to:

access, preserve, and disclose your account information and any Content associated with that account if required to do so by law or in a good faith belief that such access preservation or disclosure is reasonably necessary to:
(a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request,
(b) enforce the Terms, including investigation of potential violations hereof,
(c) detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or technical issues (including, without limitation, the filtering of spam), or
(d) protect against imminent harm to the rights, property or safety of Google, its users or the public as required or permitted by law. [italics added]

Google doesn’t say it will turn over documents in response to a legally executed search warrant. All an agency has to do is ask.  And Google doesn’t have to notify you that you are the object of a search. In effect, by using a Google service you waive your Constitutional right to protection from unlawful search and seizure.

I don’t know whether anyone on my local school board read—really read—the contract the school signed. They should have, but I suspect no one did any more than I did when I signed up for a host of Google services.

The real question is, what do we do now?

Petition for a delay in policy implementation

I am not unaware of the irony of posting this tirade on blogger, a Google service. However, given how little notice Google gave of the policy change, I’d have to do nothing but replace Google services for the next 10 days in the hope of meeting the March 1 deadline. So I’ve done the one thing I could do immediately: I’ve signed a petition asking for a delay in  putting the policy into effect, giving more time for consideration of the ramifications of the policy.

More information 

CNN: Google knows too much about you

The Washington PostGoogle privacy policy: Who will be affected and how you can choose what information gets shared

The Daily Mail (UK) ‘Google will know more about you than your partner’: Uproar as search giant reveals privacy policy that will allow them to track you on all their products

Forbes: Google’s New Privacy Policy: When Consumers’ Worlds Collide, the Company Stands to Profit

New York Times: F.T.C. Tells Consumer Watchdog to Mind Its Own Business

Photo Credit: U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, DC uploaded by davidlat  http://www.sxc.hu/photo/657696

[Note: After this post was uploaded, I moved the blog to wordpress and closed all my Google accounts.]

Closed session requires specific reason

Under New York law, school boards are required to deliberate in public. The Legislature set out the rationale for this requirement in its introduction to the Open Meetings Law.

It is essential to the maintenance of a democratic society that the public business be performed in an open and public manner and that the citizens of this state be fully aware of and able to observe the performance of public officials (New York State Public Officers Law § 100).

However, since some information needs to remain confidential at least temporarily, state law provides eight categories of exemptions to the Open Meetings Law. If any of these eight fits the matter to be discussed, a public body may vote to exclude the public and hold the discussion behind closed doors:

a. Matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed;
b. Any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer;
c. Information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed;
d. Discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation;
e. Collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law;
f. The medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation;
g. The preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and
h. The proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of securities held by such public body, but only when publicity would substantially affect the value thereof.

Any time a board of education chooses to go into executive session for one of these reasons, however, the board is required to tell the public specifically what is being discussed out of earshot of the citizenry.

The courts have said repeatedly that simply quoting the relevant exemption is not enough. The board must identify “with particularity” the reason for keeping the public from hearing their deliberations.

Inadequate reasons for closed sessions

As cases alleging misuse of executive sessions have reached the courts, rulings have singled out language that cannot be used to justify meeting behind closed doors. Courts have said, for example:

  • An executive session held to discuss “proposed, pending or current litigation” must identify the specific litigation and not merely recite statutory language.
  • “Fear that litigation may result” does not justify an executive session.
  • Personnel lay-offs are primarily budgetary matters and cannot be discussed in closed session under exemption (f) for personnel matters.
  • An executive session cannot be used to discuss policies such as provision of post-retirement health insurance or the closing of a school.
  • When discussion within an executive session leads to consensus, that consensus constitutes final action which must be recorded and disclosed in the official minutes of the executive session.
  • “Personnel issues” is not a legitimate reason for a board to exclude the public from being present during the discussion.

One district’s bad example

The school district in which I live, Bainbridge-Guilford, is notable for its lack of transparency. Minutes of meetings specify topics discussed and votes taken in public session, without indicating anything of the substance of the discussion.

Moreover, the minutes refer to attachments that are not attached to the minutes. As a result, anyone not at the meeting would have no way of knowing what the elected board members are doing on their behalf. (One notable exception: the minutes are careful to say when there were refreshments at the meeting.)

As I discussed previously, the board’s posted policy calls for an executive session at every meeting. Out of curiosity, I checked the minutes of the last six Bainbridge-Guilford school board meetings to see what was discussed in those sessions. Compare the information from their minutes with the requirements of the state Open Meetings Law, I think you’ll agree that the board is not in compliance with state law.

The Feb. 2, 2012 school board meeting began at 6:32 pm. The board met in closed session from 6:33 to 7:23 pm to discuss “particular personnel issues, negotiations, and CSE recommendations.”

The Jan. 19, 2012 school board meeting began at 6:38 pm. The board met in closed session from 6:39 to 7:36 pm  to discuss “particular personnel issues and contract negotiations.”

The Jan. 4, 2012 school board meeting began at 6:32. The board met in closed session from 6:33 to 7:42 pm.to discuss “particular personnel issues.”

The Dec. 1, 2011 school board meeting began at 6:28 pm. The board met in closed session from 6:29 to 7:29 pm.to discuss “particular personnel issues.”

The Nov. 17, 2011 school board meeting began at 6:40 pm. The board met in closed session from 6:41 to 7:36 pm.to discuss “particular personnel issues.”

The Nov. 3, 2011 school board meeting began at 6:28 pm. The board met in closed session from 6:39 to 7:39 pm.to discuss “particular personnel issues.”

Why closed sessions are a big deal

The issues that the local board of education is (or should be) wrestling with will have a huge impact on the community. For one thing, the school is one of the major employers. For another, the quality of the school program has a huge impact on property values. Just those two factors mean that folks without school age children have a vested interest in what goes on in schools.

In the absence of journalists to interpret events, local people may not know why they should care about teacher evaluations or the district’s technology use policy. What they don’t know may not hurt them, but it could very well hurt the schools.

It’s entirely possible that what looks like underhanded machinations is merely a set of well-meaning people doing the same thing their predecessors have done for a couple decades. But believe this ex-reporter when I say that nothing creates distrust and suspicion like the impression of a cover-up.

If there was ever a time when the public school districts needed the support of their constituents, it’s today.

Closed door meetings about undisclosed topics don’t help one bit.

Closed school board sessions violate OML

America has always prided itself on being a nation under the rule of law. This Presidents’ Day weekend seems like a good time to see how well we’re doing at living up to our principles.

For a quick, convenient—and, I hope, totally unrepresentative sample—of how we’re doing at being law-abiding citizens, I took another look at the Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District website. Here is an “Important Notice” from the board of education.

Section of BG website showing regularly scheduled closed meeting

According to case law, that posted policy is contrary to both the letter and spirit of democratic government.

More than 30 years ago (July 21, 1981, to be exact), the courts in the case of Doolittle versus the Board of Education declared that a school board agenda which scheduled an executive session in advance of a meeting violates the Open Meetings Law.

Although that precedent has been available to school boards for over 30 years, the Bainbridge-Guilford Board of Education not only establishes an executive session in advance of the meeting, but reserves an hour for secret deliberations at every meeting of the board as a matter of board policy.

Expand learning at shrinking playground

Expand learning at shrinking playground

When money is tight, schools need not only to watch how they spend money but also to look for ways to make money while expanding learning opportunities, as I’m discussed before here and here. Ways to make those connections are all around if you are open to seeing them.

For example, my Bainbridge-Guilford Central School District newsletter arrived this week.  The newsletter contains a flier in it from the Greenlawn [Elementary School] Playground Committee, which says:

Our current playground has been shrinking due to the safety of its elements and due to the nature of its materials it has been recommended that we phase it out completely.

That made me laugh out loud.

I had a mental image of a playground constricting, squeezing large groups of children into a small space, ejecting kids on swings across town, popping a kid from the top of a slide into the air.

Then I thought, The Incredible Shrinking Playground would be a great kids’ picture book.

Suppose instead of just asking the community for money, the school turned this into a learning opportunity that raised money for the playground.

Have students:

  • Write that book.  (A picture book text is roughly 20 140-character Twitter posts.)
  • Illustrate that book.
  • Design and layout that book.
  • Design a cover for the book
  • Research how to secure an ISBN number for the book
  • Research the process of copyrighting the book.
  • Research what state and local business regulations they have to comply with to sell the book in New York State.
  • Research ways to publish that book.
  • Do a cost-benefit analysis for various publication methods.
  • Develop a marketing plan for the book.
  • Prepare ads for the book.
  • Make a book trailer for that book.

Could the book make a profit? That depends on the publishing costs. Full-color print books are tremendously expensive to produce, but a full-color flip book costs almost nothing.

Would it be worth doing? Definitely.

Those activities would require students to apply classroom knowledge to real world writing situations and offer hands-on learning of saleable skills. When I went to the BG art students’ portfolio show a week or so ago, there was not one example of digital art in the show.  That flabbergasted me. Right now in my publishing business I need a graphic designer to do digital ads and ebook covers, a mobile app designer, and a database developer; not one of those jobs requires more than a high school diploma and the market for those skills is huge and pays very well.

The traditional methods of balancing school budgets by belt-tightening are not going to work much longer. It’s time all schools, but especially rural schools, start looking for new revenue streams that enhance and support the schools’ educational mission.

Photo credit: roos5 uploaded by halvemaan

[Broken link to photo credit removed 2014-05-08]

Agenda docs added to NY Open Meetings Law

Effective today, documents scheduled to be discussed at public meetings in New York State must be made available to the public before the meeting. The Open Meetings Law applies to school boards as well as to state government departments, and county, city, town and village governments.

The New York’s Committee on Open Government explains the rationale for the new requirement, which appears as section 103(e) of  the Open Meetings Law, this way:

Members of the public have on many occasions complained that they cannot fully understand discussions among members of public bodies, even though the discussions occur in public.  For example, a board member might refer to the second paragraph of page 3 of a record without disclosing its content prior to the meeting.  Although the public has the right to be present, the ability to understand or contribute to the decision-making process may be minimal and frustrating.

When public body has a website, the documents are to be posted on its website prior to the meeting. The Committee on Open Government says posting online is intended both as a convenience to members of the public wishing to inform themselves about the topics to be discussed, and as a cost savings to government entities.

I’m watching to see whether my local school board complies with the law.  The Bainbridge-Guilford board of education has a meeting slated to begin in less than 8 hours. My reporting experience suggests that the agenda and all supporting documents would have been made available to the board several days ago.

The agenda for tonight’s meeting is not yet posted on the school’s website. The school says only that it will post the agenda prior to the meeting time of 6:30 PM on the meeting date,” which could mean 6:29 PM. That would meet the letter of the state’s Open Meetings Law, but hardly its spirit.  [The agenda that was eventually posted shows a last-modification time of 5:21:32 PM. The agenda includes one of the reports mentioned on the agenda.]

Although the legal responsibility for providing information rests with government bodies, de facto responsibility rests with the public. If people don’t stick up for their right to know, they won’t know much.

Resourcefulness in the Web 2.0 world

A group of teachers were discussing options available to students who didn’t have internet access at home.  One teacher said teachers should treat access issues as a means of promoting resourcefulness. Kids could just go to the public library or to someplace with wireless access.

I decided to test how well that theory would work in the rural school district in which I live.

Bainbridge-Guilford CSD is primarily in Chenango County, NY. BG takes in small bits of two other counties: Delaware County, across the Susquehanna River, and Otsego County a few miles to the northeast.

For the sake of making things easy to follow, let’s say BG 11th grade social studies student Terry Nonet is assigned a team project on Monday that’s due the following Monday. It requires students to divvy up online research and put their findings in a Google doc.

Terry is in luck. He has a week to work on his project. He’d have been in trouble if he had one or more online assignments to do overnight. With a week to arrange to get Internet access, he may be able to complete the assignment.

The Bainbridge Free Library has four public access computers, available for one hour on a first-come, first-served basis. The library is open several times when Terry could go there outside of school hours:

  • Monday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm
  • Tuesday: 1 pm-6 pm
  • Thursday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm

Terry ought to be able to get to the library even if it’s 20 miles from his home and his family has only one car which his mom needs to go to her minimum-wage job in Norwich. Terry might have to miss work or leave his younger siblings unsupervised after school in order to do his social studies project, but meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry has another possibility.

The Chenango County Public Transit system stop in Bainbridge is just three blocks from BG High School. For a buck, Terry could hop a bus after school (there’s one that leaves Bainbridge at 4:30 pm) and go to Sidney where the Sidney Memorial Public Library has six public access computers available one hour per day to anyone with a fine-free library card.

The Sidney library is open until 8:30 pm so even if Terry has to wait for a computer, he ought be able to get access for an hour. If he needs more time, he could hike out to Kmart and use the public access computers there. It’s about a two-mile walk from the library to Kmart, but Terry could have free use of the computers adjacent to the customer service desk for 15 minutes.

The only difficulty Terry might encounter if he goes to Sidney to use the Internet is getting home. The next bus back to Bainbridge won’t leave until 5:50 the following morning. Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry hasn’t exhausted all his possibilities yet. He could go to a public library on Saturday.

There is no public transportation on Saturday in Chenango County so he’d have to hitch a ride to Bainbridge or to one of the member libraries of the Four County Library System that are open on Saturdays and provide public access computers. He’d have to present a fine-free library card, wait his turn, and do all his work within an hour, and get back home again. With a little luck, he’ll be able to do that and go to his part-time job and take care of his younger siblings while his mother goes to her minimum-wage job in Norwich.

Of course, with all the waiting around for public access computers, Terry probably won’t have time to do his part of the project and interact with his team, too. Terry’s teacher will probably mark him down for that. And since he won’t have the opportunities for online interaction that his more affluent peers with their laptops and broadband have, he’ll be at a disadvantage if he goes to college.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

The really sensible thing for Terry to do is get himself a laptop computer with wireless access so he wouldn’t have to depend on public libraries for a computer. If he’s really careful with the money he has left after he buys groceries for the household and doesn’t take any time off from his part-time job to go to the library to do his homework, he ought to be able to save enough money eventually to buy a laptop so he can do his homework in a place that has free wireless access.

Apparently, the only unsecured wireless access point in Bainbridge is the public library. The service is available 24/7, but unfortunately there is no public place where Terry can use a laptop after school when the library is closed unless he goes to Bob’s Diner, which is probably not the best place to do a social studies assignment.

The other public libraries in the Four County Library System offer wireless. There are also two Delaware County businesses that offer free wireless access within eight miles of the center of Bainbridge. But even if Terry had his own laptop, there’s the problem of transportation to and from the wireless access site. Chenango County public transport stops running before 7 pm weekdays and there is no weekend service. Delaware County has no public transportation at all.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.