Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A letter to the editor about SDCOE's cozy relationships regarding spending

Tenacious Reporting
Letter to editor of Voice of San Diego
By Alice Marquis, La Jolla
Friday, April 24, 2009

Emily Alpert's story about a questionable practice at the County Office of Education: a woman recommends attorneys for labor cases and her husband gets the job.

These cozy relationships occur wherever there are bureaucracies handling money. There is only one barrier to such behavior -- media exposure.

I would bet that half the people in San Diego County aren't even aware that there is a County Office of Education. The activity at that office is rarely reported; it took a disgruntled employee who was unfairly fired to bring the information out into the daylight -- and a tenacious reporter at to follow up.

Why are the people of El Salvador smiling? Because life is so much better since the civil war ended

The hills in the above photo were the scene of bombs and massacres during the civil war in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992.

Now the cool pine forests of Perquin offer visitors peace and rest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Alice Marquis' letter to Voice of San Diego regarding San Diego County Office of Education cronyism

Tenacious Reporting
By Alice Marquis, La Jolla
Friday, April 24, 2009

Emily Alpert's story about a questionable practice at the County Office of Education: a woman recommends attorneys for labor cases and her husband gets the job.

These cozy relationships occur wherever there are bureaucracies handling money. There is only one barrier to such behavior -- media exposure.

I would bet that half the people in San Diego County aren't even aware that there is a County Office of Education. The activity at that office is rarely reported; it took a disgruntled employee who was unfairly fired to bring the information out into the daylight -- and a tenacious reporter at to follow up.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

How Randy Ward chooses San Diego County Office of Education attorneys

Voice of San Diego reporter Emily Alpert has been busy learning about SDCOE lawyers while I've been down here in El Salvador learning about Central America´s justice system.

Advice from Her Can Mean More Work for Her Husband
April 23, 2009

An employee at the San Diego County Office of Education advises her boss on whether to retain attorneys for personnel cases, a decision that routinely leads to her husband's law firm receiving business from the agency.

Michele Fort-Merrill, who oversees the agency's human resources department, is married to William Merrill, a partner in Best, Best & Krieger, a San Diego law firm that frequently represents the county office. She has a financial interest in the firm of more than $100,000 annually through his income, according to state forms that disclose her economic interests.

When an employee is disciplined or other problems erupt with employees in the office, Fort-Merrill weighs whether or not an outside attorney is needed to help navigate legal issues, or whether human resources staff can handle the problem, County Superintendent Randolph Ward said in a recent interview. If she believes that lawyers are needed, she makes a recommendation to Ward, who then makes the ultimate decision on whether to hire an attorney.

Neither Ward nor Fort-Merrill specifies which attorney to use, Ward said. But BB&K is routinely used for personnel cases unless its attorneys lack expertise in a specific topic, Ward said. The county office does not have a written policy outlining the process by which attorneys are hired.

"It's been decided by history that Best, Best & Krieger would be used for disciplinary matters," Ward said. He added, "What typically happens is we would ask BB&K whether they have the expertise on a certain issue, and if we didn't feel they did, we would go to a different counsel."

The phenomenon is one in a spate of complaints raised in a recent lawsuit by a former employee, Rodger Hartnett, who alleges he was fired for blowing the whistle on "a culture of corruption" that resulted in government business going to friends and spouses of San Diego County Office of Education employees.

Related Links

The Schoolhouse Lawyer Who Helped Hire His Overseer (March 2, 2009)

While Fort-Merrill does not directly assign legal work to any specific firm, her advice helps determine whether the office turns to outsiders or its own staff to handle difficult issues -- and going to outsiders frequently means going to her husband's firm.

University of San Diego public interest law professor Robert Fellmeth said that the practice would only be acceptable if Fort-Merrill had a much more limited role that involved no independent judgment in deciding when an attorney is needed, such as signing a form to formally request that the agency hire an attorney after an employee filed a lawsuit against them. He cautioned that his opinion relied on the facts supplied by a reporter.

"If she is making decisions to invoke contracts with counsel and she knows that the firm generally hired includes her husband -- there is a problem," Fellmeth wrote in an e-mail. "She influences the volume of business going to law firms -- a substantial part of which inures to her husband's firm."

BB&K received nearly $688,000 in business from the office between July 2005 and July 2008 while Fort-Merrill oversaw human resources, according to documents Hartnett provided to Fort-Merrill's husband has decades of experience as an employment and labor law attorney, according to the BB&K website, which lists him as one of only two attorneys in the firm who specializes in school labor relations law.

Ward said that there is no conflict posed by Fort-Merrill making the recommendation because he makes the final decision on whether or not to hire attorneys. He called BB&K "a staple counsel" and said that William Merrill, commonly known as Woody, had been hired by the agency long before both Ward and Fort-Merrill were employed there. He declined to comment on whether Fort-Merrill had ever recused herself from recommending whether to hire attorneys, saying it was too related to the ongoing court case...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Federal studies show most programs yield few results

'No Effects' Studies Raising Eyebrows
By Debra Viadero
March 31, 2009

...The studies are part of a new generation of so-called "scientifically based" research that was set in motion by the institute­—the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Education—when it was created in 2002.

The body of research employs a study design called "randomized controlled trials," in which subjects are randomly assigned to either an experimental group or a business-as-usual group. Although rarely used in education before the wave of studies backed by the IES, such designs are widely considered to be the "gold standard" for determining whether an intervention works.

Of the eight such studies released by the federal institute this academic year, six have produced mixed results pointing to few, or no, significant positive effects on student achievement.

They include studies on: school-based mentoring programs in elementary school; commercial software programs for teaching mathematics; various certification routes for teachers; teacher-induction programs; interventions for boosting literacy instruction for disadvantaged preschoolers and their families; and professional-development initiatives in reading.

In addition, the research agency’s final evaluation of the federal Reading First program, which uses a research design that differs slightly from the randomized controlled approach, found that the $6 billion federal reading program improved young children’s decoding skills, but failed to make dramatic differences in reading comprehension.

On the other hand, an ongoing study of “double dose” reading classes for struggling 9th grade readers is showing positive results. And a head-to-head comparison of four different elementary math curricula identified two, philosophically different programs that gave 2nd graders an added boost in that subject over the standard curricula...

Friday, April 10, 2009

For our own benefit we must help kids stay in school; dropouts cost us $534 million each!

Researchers Put Price Tag of Dropouts at $534 Million
Voice of San Diego
April 9, 2009

Reports released today by the California Dropout Research Project estimate that the students who drop out of high school in a single year in San Diego will cost the area more than $534 million over their lifetimes. Dropouts in Chula Vista are estimated to cost nearly $137 million.

The estimates include losses in taxes from lower wages and criminal costs. The researchers also calculated that halving the dropout rate would avert 435 homicides and aggravated assaults in San Diego and 50 such crimes in Chula Vista.

The project, based at the University of California Santa Barbara, aims to draw together research on the dropout problem to educate the public. Its work has not always been lauded: Last year the group highlighted schools with high dropout rates, including a Vista charter school that specifically serves teens who have dropped out of other schools. Educators at that school and others named in the report complained last year that it depended on flawed state data and was presented with little context.

To see the reports and read more research from the California Dropout Research Project, click here.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Who's behind the power grab by YMCA?

Chula Vista Elementary School District and the City of Chula Vista appear to have a hidden agenda in turning over DASH and STRETCH to the YMCA.

Our Money's No Good

One of our own city council members told me and other parents that it's not about the money. Even if the city had a check for our district right now, they wouldn't take it to save DASH and STRETCH as is.

I can't give names or quote anyone because this chance conversation was off the record.

Think about it. The district's saying the programs will be the same, if not better and they're going to expand? How's that even possible with less money, new hire training (speaking of which, who's going to train them being that DASH and STRETCH staff haven't even been included?), and significantly less pay?

Okay parents, so if our district had nothing but the best intentions for our children, why didn't they give us the chance the Nature Center moms had? They raised $375,000 in three weeks! That was four months ago! Why didn't they approach the very people responsible for the overwhelming success of these two remarkable programs? Why did they approach an organization only known for it's on-site child care and off site programs?

DASH and STRETCH were created because there was a need. Our children's needs were not being met by any of the existing after school programs. Questions: How long has the YMCA's after school site been around? Exactly. In fact, if you look up the minutes from tonights meeting, you will see the underlined statement came from Pamela B. Smith herself.

We are we being told a story that doesn't add up. Yes, the fact that the city did not have the funds wasn't made "official" until just recently, but approaching the YMCA has been the districts only direction. Why did the 'Y' receive more notice than those directly affected by this? Why in the world did they post a message on their home page a day before this March 10th meeting stating that they're so grateful that the Y "saved" DASH and STRETCH if it wasn't even made official? Why did they send a pre-recorded message to parents in attempts to appease us a couple days before the March meeting? If their concern is to inform us, then what took them so long? And yet they say they didn't have to inform us that's why they didn't all those months ago. Then why suddenly decide to do it now?

DASH and STRETCH staff members are being told by some principals that they won't be 'here' next year. Teachers are congratulating DASH and STRETCH staff for having been saved. Fact is, that's not a fact.

Sounding fishy yet?

Teachers and school staff are congratulating DASH and STRETCH staff, only it's not for a job well done for these past ten years, it's for being saved. Only thing is, they haven't been. Most all DASH and STRETCH staff know what's really going on. Children are confused and crying while trusting parents are being fooled. Period.

To read the full version, go to:

Elisa Betancourt
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Write to:

An Overdue Thank You...

Thank you DASH and STRETCH staff for being mentors, teachers, and friends to our children in our absence. Thank you for teaching them how to read, feel confident in themselves, make new friends, and learn to play a schoolyard games. Thank you for showing them how to become a better version of themselves, to feel and be happier and healthier individuals. The knowledge and education you brought, the passion, committment, and dedication you have are valued and will forever be remembered by those whose opinion matters most... the children. I apologize for the way our district has treated you during their "seamless transition." You have been the leaders and the reason our children have surpassed all expectations. Our hats off to you. I wish we could have done more.

Elisa Betancourt

Freighter captain Richard Philips offers himself as hostage to save his crew; Do his parents and teachers deserve some of the credit?

I would like to know more about Richard Philips' past. How does a truly moral human come to be? Do schools play a role?

Philips attended the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. I'd say that institution deserves some of the credit for Philips' attitudes. And of course his parents deserve a good deal of credit (for both nature and nurture). But I'm wondering if Philips' early education also plays a role.

UPDATE: On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, the US Navy announced that Richard Philips' second escape attempt was successful. Navy Seals shot three pirates when Philips jumped overboard. The fourth pirate was negotiating on the Navy ship Bainbridge, and is now in custody. Clearly, Philips values his own life highly, and therefore deserves all the more credit for risking it to save his crew.

Somali pirates keep American hostage on lifeboat
Thu Apr 9, 2009
By Abdi Sheikh and JoAnne Allen

MOGADISHU/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Somali pirates... briefly hijacked the 17,000-tonne Maersk Alabama freighter on Wednesday, but the 20 American crew retook control after a confrontation far out at sea, where pirates have captured five other vessels in a week.

Four gang members were holding the captain, Richard Phillips, on the ship's lifeboat after he apparently volunteered to be a hostage for the sake of his crew.

"What I understand is he offered himself as the hostage to keep the rest of the crew safe," his sister-in-law Gina Coggio told the ABC network. "That is what he would do, that's just who he is, and his responsibility as the captain."...