Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Planners Like Their Plans

A recent Journal Times article, Sunday perhaps, noted the impressive list of major development projects pending in the area. Here is what a few of our leaders had to say on the subject:

Mayor Becker said "I am so glad that Mount Pleasant and Caledonia took the time to do master plans" and "The most important thing the area can do ... is to execute development plans well."

Mount Pleasant Village Administrator Michael Andreasen said "It is going to take flexibility and vision from all local leaders of the local communities, and courage from the development community to move forward on some of the bold plans we have in place right now."

RCEDC President Gordy Kacala said "With water and sewer extended... that enables our area to grow significantly for the first time and that is in a planned way. It will be very similar to Kenosha County, but more planned."

The common theme here is that government planning of the economy (or at least residential and business development) is unquestionably good. The more planning the better.

I beg to differ. Government planning undermines individual planning. When government dictates what uses are permissible for your property, they reduce the value of your property. Suppose the government decides that a new home must exceed 3000 square feet and must sit on a five acre lot. A developer might like to build densely packed apartments or condos to satisfy the needs of his individual customers. The governments requirements prevent this. Thus the government plans exclude some development projects that would satisfy the land seller, the developer, and individual home buyers. Since the land owner will have fewer potential buyers, the property is worth less than it would be without the government planners. The developer, deprived of the full array of development options, may well have a decreased opportunity to profit from his development. And home buyers, also limitted in their options by planners, will be fewer in number and less happy having been deprived of the most optimal housing options. All of these government plans have the effect of lowering property values.

Of course, there are many ways that the government can lower the value of our property. High taxes, poor services at needlessly high prices (RUSD comes to mind) , excessive regulations, inneffective law enforcement and senseless incentives that attract unproductive people who overutilize government social services, all combine to lower our property values.

Racine has historically suffered from depressed property values, because of the poor planning of our government officials. So while I am thrilled that developers are sniffing around Racine, I suspect that it is not because of our planners, but in spite of them.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Disrupting Education

I had an interesting and wide ranging conversation with an RUSD teacher at a Memorial Day gathering yesterday. Among her main concerns is the inability to discipline children. She blames this on the mandates that require public schools to educate all children. Children know that that there are no real immediate consequences for their bad behavior, so they misbehave. And suspensions are discouraged as it looks bad for the district. The teachers husband also chimed in, noting that minority students are even more protected from disciplinary measures. He relayed a story where a hall monitor allowed a minority student to walk into school despite some blatantly obvious violations of the dress code. The hall monitor indicated that he was unable to speak to, or stop this particular student, because of a threatened law suit by the students parents.

What is a conscientious teacher to do? Imagine yourself in a situation like this. A child decides to disrupt your class, as he does on a daily basis. Previous attempts to discipline this child were not supported by the principal, as high suspension rates would reflect negatively on his/her administration. Efforts to engage the childs parents were unsuccessful, and the bad behavior continued. Taking a hard line approach with this student and others will set you up for constant confrontations with students. You see other teachers taking a different approach. They are appeasing the disruptive students, because they have learned that it is easier than confronting the offensive behavior. They begin to act with less authority towards their students. They become known as a "cool" teacher. And finally, the conscientious teacher slowly conforms to the lowered standard. The disruptive element now rules the school.

Maybe it is time to look at education as an opportunity, rather than a right.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Stealth Referendum Will Pass

While there is ample evidence to suggest that Racine Unified is failing to educate children, it would be a mistake to conclude that they will also fail in their primary mission of accessing cash from taxpayers. Racine Unified always gets the cash, as evidenced by the dramatic increases in spending in recent years.

This years strategy for referendum passage is substantially different from last years strategy. Last year the powers that be unleashed an army of whining students, pleading with taxpayers to save their sports. My guess is that the appalling manipulation of children did not sit well with many voters, so we will have a more discreet approach this year.

The date of the referendum will help its passage. Because the Unified referendum is the only issue on the ballot, this will depress the number of voters. Fewer voters will provide an advantage to the organized efforts of Racine Unified and their allies, the Racine Journal Times, The Johnson Companies and the organizations that they influence or control such as RAMAC. Opponents of the referendum lack resources, and, quite frankly, a sensible alternative to the spending agenda offered by Racine Unified.

This is my first foray into the prognostication business. I hope I am mistaken. We will find out soon.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Missing Pieces

The Journal Times article of May 23rd, entitled Practicing peace, described the efforts to teach conflict resolution to a Fine Arts Stephen Bull Elementary School fourth-grade class. Children learned "to act as mediators-defusing conflicts and avoiding "fouls," language that only escalates tensions. It also advises students on how to better communicate with classmates to avoid conflict in the first place." The students also learned about peacemakers like Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and "local peacemaker Vel Phillps, who became the first women and African-American elected to the Milwaukee City Council. She fought for a fair housing ordinance in the city."

So far so good. Nothing at all wrong with teaching children conflict avoidance and conflict resolution skills. These skills should come in handy in resolving conflicts with people who are equally committed to resolving conflicts. But what happens when an aggressor has no interest in resolving conflicts?

Just yesterday my son told me that several older kids at his school stopped him as he attempted to ride his bike home from school. The conflict, in this case, was that a group of bullies wanted a bike that did not belong to them. As an aside, I don't suspect that they were actually going to take the bike, but they were deriving some pleasure from intimidating a younger child. Would conflict resolution techniques have worked here, as an older youth made a mild effort to seperate my son from his bike? Would sharing the bike be a fair resolution? The answers are no and no, in my view. My son had the correct instincts when he kicked the student who tried to stop him. Sometimes it is necessary to take a stand against evil.

I relay the story about my son because he understands intuitively a lesson that apparently will not be taught by the "Practicing Peace" instructors. And that lesson is that there are people in this world who are not interested in peace. They are interested in achieving certain objectives. Whether those objectives are stealing a bike or obliterating whole nations, the important lesson is that THERE IS EVIL in this world, and that there are occasions where fair minded conflict resolution is an inadequate response to evil. Evil, in all its forms, must be confronted by good people.

My concern is that, at this time in our history, as we are confronted by an ideology of hatred, we are ommitting from our curriculum any discussion of evil, and what to do about it. Instead, it appears that our students are being misled into believing that all conflict can be resolved peacefully. As we continue to face a dangerous enemy that wants us dead, it is dangerous to teach such nonsense to our children.

And by the way, I am proud of my son, who rightfully retains possession of his bike, and his dignity.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Liberal Intolerance

I like liberals. Really I do. I would say that the majority of my friends are left of center. Earlier today I was chatting with my alderman, Keith Fair, who is a Democrat. He introduced me to Cory Mason, a Democrat, who I believe is running for state representative. Cory was friendly. Keith also introduced me to a nicely dressed, proper lady, perhaps in her sixties. Upon meeting me, she became completely unglued. She muttered something about my horrible viewpoints and immediately left without wishing to participate in any discussion, civil or otherwise. My guess is that this terribly rude lady is convinced that she is a tolerant women. Tolerant of all things liberal, I suspect.

Friday, May 19, 2006

I Have A Cyber-Stalker

I have a cyber-stalker. He calls himself Boycott. Whenever I participate in online debate about Racine Unified, on the Journal Times weblogs, Boycott is there. Rather than discuss and debate the issues, Boycott has decided to try to intimidate me into silence by urging people to boycott my business. It has gotten to the point that other bloggers have surmised that Boycott must be a disgruntled former employee or a jilted ex-lover of mine.

I think I understand Boycott. He is a socialist. I believe in freedom. Naturally, we would clash. Throughout his many posts at the JT, Boycott has made it clear that he opposes all imports and exports, which would make him an isolationist. He believes passionately in government schools, like RUSD, and he will go to extremes to harm anyone who believes, as I do, in greater freedom for parents to control their childrens' education. I believe that taxpayer funded school vouchers would be the ticket to improving education for Racine's children.

Anyone who follows education issues understands quite well that school vouchers are what teachers unions fear above all else. They understand that vouchers would end their monopoly of education.

Boycott is the PC police, the goon. His job is to intimidate anyone who might endorse greater freedom in education. My readers can rest assured that Boycott will not intimidate me into silence.

But Boycott is not just sending threats to me. He is pre-emptively threatening anyone who might dare to challenge the status quo of RUSD. In this way, he has much in common with extremist Islam, who have successfully threatened our media into silence.

If we are silenced by the extremists of our world, we lose.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

City Leaders Confused

City leaders voted unanimously yesterday to confuse cause and effect. They did so by voting to place a 90 day moratorium on cash advance businesses. According to todays JT article, "city officials believe the location of payday loan stores in and around economically disadvantaged neighborhoods causes severe financial problems for the residents of those communities and, due to the frequency of cash transactions and the amount of money exchanged, are attractive to criminals who may commit robberies."

Payday loan establishments do not make people poor. They loan money to poor people when nobody else will. Distressed areas attract payday loan businesses. Payday loan businesses do not cause the distress.

And are criminals attracted to cash? You bet they are. Now if our alderman were to be consistent, they would propose a moratorium on the posession of money. Since cash attracts criminals, the elimination of cash would force our criminals to leave for better opportunities.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Jail Time for Dr. Hicks and school board?

No doubt any readers of my blog are aware that some of our state lawmakers have gotten in trouble because they have used taxpayer money for their campaign efforts. While I have not followed these stories with any zeal, I think I know the basics of the case against these lawmakers, which have included our very own Bonnie Ladwig. If an elected state representative is using their staff or other resources, paid for by taxpayers, to campaign for reelection, then the state representative is, in effect, using taxpayer money for personal political gain. This is stealing from the taxpayer. Presently, Brian Jensen faces jail time for this offense.

Moving right along now, let us consider the recent news concerning the RUSD teachers contract. It has been reported, and not denied by anyone, that Racine Education Association President Betsy Kippers may be released from her duties as an employee of RUSD for a full year while she tends to REA business. Taxpayers would pay for her salary, of roughly $57,000, as well as her benefits, which can easily exceed $20,000 per year. The REA will pay for a substitute teacher, who would only make roughly $26,000 per year with no benefits. Essentially, this would involve a transfer of cash, from taxpayers, to the REA, in the amount of roughly $50,000.

RUSD CEO Dr. Hicks was the primary negotiator for this contract. He has approved the transfer of taxpayer resources, in the form of cash, into the coffers of the REA, which uses money to further their own political agenda, much as the state representatives used taxpayer money to further their own personal gain.

I have two questions. Is there a substantial difference between state lawmakers helping themselves to taxpayer resources, and Dr. Hicks and the school board offering cash to the REA? And if there is not a substantial difference, should Dr. Hicks and the school board members see jail time?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Cathy Stepp Responds

On April 26th I sent an e-mail to Senator Stepp and State Representative Robert Turner regarding my concerns about the ratification process involving the RUSD teachers contract. Scroll down to read the e-mail. The following are portions of Senator Stepps' response.

"As you are certainly aware, the teachers of RUSD overwhelmingly voted to ratify the contracts negotiated by the school district. The School Board made the contracts, which include total compensation increases of 7%, official on Monday. I share your concerns about the secrecy that shrouded these contracts."

I have requested information from the nonpartisan Legislative Council regarding the legalities of not releasing the details of the contracts prior to their ratification. Legislative Council suggested that an interested party like you could make a written open records request of the district asking for the records of the negotiations. The district is required under Wisconsin statutes to respond in writing with their reasons for withholding documents."

Senator Stepp went on to indicate that her request for an audit of RUSD by the Legislative Audit Bureau has been denied. More information, she believes, "would help Racine taxpayers make informed decisions on the latest referendum scheduled for June."

I appreciate Senator Stepps' response. I also sense that she is more concerned about the secrecy than is Robert Turner, who described the process as "collective bargaining". Even so, it would seem that RUSD can legally prevent the public from knowing the details of a teachers contracts prior to ratification by the elected school board. They can do this by scheduling a vote shortly after ratification by the teachers, while dragging their feet on open records requests. In fairness to RUSD, I should note that they did NOT do this.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Robert Turner Responds

On April 26, I wrote to Robert Turner and Cathy Stepp, regarding the RUSD teachers contract. If you want to read my letter to them, scroll down. I have yet to receive a response from Senator Stepp. I did receive a response from Representative Turner. Here is his response, and my comments, which I will put in parenthesis.

Dear Mr. Navratil:
Thank you for your e-mail message expressing your concerns that the Racine Unified teachers' contract was ratified prior to the public having access to the information contained in the contract. ( My concern was that the contract "will be ratified by their union and our elected school board members prior to the public having access to the information. Perhaps I wasn't as clear as I could have been. There is a big difference between secret negotiations between administration and the unions, and votes taken by publicly elected officials without their constituents having access to the information to be voted on. At any rate, the information was released by RUSD prior to the vote.)

In your letter you state that collective bargaining "undermines the democratic process." ( No, I did not. I stated that elected officials voting on important matters that are withheld from their constituents undermines the democratic process. Now, if "collective bargaining" includes the legal right to withhold contract details from the public, after ratification by the teachers and before the vote of elected school board members, then yes, this would most certainly undermine the democratic process. That would be a law in need of change.) However, the collective bargaining laws set forth in the Wisconsin statutes do not prescribe a democratic process, but rather a bargaining process between two parties. ( The bargaining had been concluded by that point, so Robert Turner really did not answer my question.)

Turner went on to state that he was unaware of any formal public records request asking for the contract details. (This is a good point, but with very little time between teacher ratification and school board voting, a records request could allow RUSD to stall the release of the info, effectively allowing them to withhold the information anyway.)

Turner also included a copy of a 1994 opinion written by the -Attorney General Jim Doyle, concerning the question as to whether final ratification of a collective bargaining agreement should have been conducted in an open meeting.

I thank Robert Turner for his response, but I am still left wondering the same question. Is it legal for RUSD to withhold the teacher ratified contract from the public, prior to the vote of the school board? That RUSD released the information suggests one of two things. Withholding the information was illegal, or, withholding the information is legal, but so obviously slimy that the RUSD leaders concluded that withholding the information could jeopardize their more crucial concern, which we all know is passing another referendum.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Cost of Faulty Assumptions

Wheelchair bound Reverend Walter Hermanns wrote an article in the Journal Times entitled "Examine those things that keep us apart". In his article, Hermanns laments the stairs in businesses and homes which divides him from others.

"It's the steps that keep me out. But it is also the attitudes and assumptions that were in place at the time of the buildings construction, and are perhaps still present today. It would be great to think that this was a problem in the past, but I don't think so."

He goes on to write about other divisions, like those between "recent immigrants from Mexico and the English-speaking population, those between "African-Americans and Whites, or persons who are gay/lesbian and those who are straight".

He writes that "the true causes of our division come from fear and a failure to understand one another's stories."

But what effort did Hermanns put forth to understand the stories of the business owners whom he has smeared? None. Instead, he assumes that the steps which divide him are the result of "attitudes and assumptions" of yesterday and today. Maybe not Reverend Hermanns. There are numerous factors which go into business decisions. You neglected to mention the most critical one, and that is costs. It costs money, in some cases, a prohibitive amount of money, to make businesses wheelchair accessible. But what of other handicaps? Must we also provide braille menus? I know of one businessperson in the medical field who was required to have a system of flashing lights installed in the restrooms, in case a deaf person was in the bathroom at the time the fire alarm went off.

It is easy to impose these kinds of requirements on people when you blissfully ignore the costs and the consequences of those costs. We will never know how many businesses failed or never came to be because of the prohibitive costs imposed by people who did not have to pay those costs.

Reverend Hermanns is right about one thing. We should hear each others stories. And he should practice what he preaches.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Johnsons Baby

Let us not kid ourselves. The Johnsons are heavily involved with Racine Unified. From the experiment with Dr. Hicks, the insurance offerings, financial support for their board members, referendum support, and board management policies, Johnsons have been right there, though not always fully visible. Is it working?

It is always a delicate subject when you talk publicly about the Johnsons influence. So, for the record, I will share my view of the Johnsons and their companies. I have personally benefited from their generosity, and I still do. It is obvious that they have a great company that brings wealth to Racine. I presently enjoy a terrific relationship with the folks at Johnson Bank. Basically, I have no axe to grind with Johnsons or their businesses. In fact, I have great respect for their many contributions to Racine.

But, as I see it, I have no obligation to agree with the public policy preferences of the Johnsons or their company spokespeople. My obligation, with respect to education, is to advocate for policies which would benefit children. It is my view that many of the policies presently being pursued by Johnsons, and others, are harmful to our children and to our community.

Interestingly, the public pursuits of Johnsons, with respect to education, are incongruent with the way they run their private companies. If I am not mistaken, the Johnsons resisted the efforts to unionize their employees. This was obviously the right move, as evidenced by the growing list of failed unionized companies. Yet their present policies with respect to RUSD appear to be very accomodating of the demands of the REA.

Perhaps they are just trying to be practical. After all, the teachers unions are very powerful and they are a fact of life. They have tremendous power over our politicians. It could well be a losing battle to directly take on the union power.

There is another way. The Johnsons could advocate for school vouchers. This would involve a monumental battle with the REA, to be sure. But it is a battle that can and has been won, in Milwaukee at least. My hope is that the Johnsons will soon realize the futility of improving RUSD in any meaningful way.

I look forward to the day when I can work with the Johnsons for better education in Racine.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Journal Times Misleads Public Again

Brent Killackey's latest front page article is entitled "Unified teachers' tentative deal better than state average on compensation." A more accurate title would be "Unified teachers' compensation increase is highest in the the state."

Killackey reports compensation numbers provided by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. Total compensation increases ranged from 3.75% to 6.09%, according to Killackey. Yet he goes on to report that the RUSD contract calls for a compensation increase of 6.98% for 2005/2006. As 6.98 is higher than 6.09, one can safely conclude that RUSD teachers have secured the greatest compensation increase in Wisconsin.

Now it is possible that another school district has rewarded their teachers more handsomely, (because most contracts are at least two years) though it is impossible to tell from Killackey's article. Killackey cites compensation ranges of 3.75% to 6.09% (excluding Unified's 6.98% increase) for the first year, and 2.16% to 5.48% for the second year. If another school district offered the highest compensation increases of 6.09% for the first year and 5.48% for the second year, their total compensation increase would be slightly higher than Unified's. A call to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, to detirmine whether any school district has offered a more generous compensation package than RUSD, has not been returned as of this time.

Based on the information reported thus far, RUSD has secured the highest compensation increase in the state. Yet the Journal Times title reads that it is better than average. While it is true that the highest compensation increase is better than average, one wonders why the Journal Times does not more accurately inform their readers. Could it be that the Journal Times realizes that a full exposure of the truth will harm RUSD's efforts to convince the public that the referendum cash is "for the children"? Has the Journal Times detirmined that passing school referendum is more important than accurately informing their readers?