By Mary Alice Murphy
At the TEA Party Patriots Tuesday, July 29, 2014 meeting, the featured guests were Silver School Superintendent Lon Streib and Silver School Board President Trent Petty.
Vic Topmiller, TEA Party chairman, said the group tries to assist the community on issues.
Peter Burrows, TEA Party vice-chairman, moderated the question-and-answer session.
He also announced the next regular TEA Party meeting would take place Tuesday, Aug. 5, and would present a 1975 video of Milton Friedman, which Burrows described as "still very relevant."
Petty introduced himself and said he was elected to the school board in 2011 and has been president for the past year. He also served as Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce board president in 2012.
Burrows said he believes the community is very fortunate to have Petty as a member of the community. "I have said the same about others, such as James Marshall, Nick Sussillo and Cissy McAndrew."
Petty said on July 31 at 5:30 p.m., the school board would appoint someone to fill Debbie Eggleston's position through the end of the year.
Streib said he arrived at Silver Consolidated Schools in October 2012, shortly after the beginning of school, "so I've been on the ground about 1½ years schoolwise."
"I'm glad to be here," Streib said. "I'm glad you're interested in what's happening at the schools. I hope to answer your questions and get some feedback on the direction for the schools."
At the beginning, most questions were from written cards read by Burrows.
The first was a comment that someone had said he heard Sen. Howie Morales said that he thought the hardest, most high-pressure position was the president of a school board.
Petty concurred that it is a high-pressure job, "but I get to meet a lot of interesting people."
Another questioner commented that a vocational tech school seemed "like too intelligent an ideas. What is happening with it?"
Streib said Silver Schools is proceeding with Cobre Schools, which has laid the groundwork. "Silver Schools is also working with the university on a vocational and certification program. The students are from the 8th grade to high school, and they can sign up for a career path. It is ambitious and off the ground, although it hasn't yet gained much altitude. Our intent is to continue with the planning and introduction of more classes with the help of Jason Ping at the Opportunity High School and other counselors."
"We hope to be able to track students better in vocational and academic tracks," Streib continued. "We look for opportunities for students to work with local businesses. We will have a supervisor to make sure the students are where they are supposed to be and finishing their hours for certification or credit. We want the program so students can show they are valuable assets to the community."
He said about 50 students would start at the basic level, but because some are closer to graduation than others, the schools are focusing on the older ones first. "As we get better at the career paths, then we will go down to the 14- and 15-year-olds, so they have a longer time to practice and learn."
Burrows asked Petty about working with the university. "We are not directly working with Western yet, but we are working with Cobre. Western will have an entrepreneurial class this year. We are trying to prepare students for jobs, for example with Freeport-McMoRan right out of high school."
Petty said the school board is the overseer of the budget, which is about $28 million, approximately the same as the town of Silver City. Silver Schools has around 400 employees.
The next questioner asked what Streib's position was on the Common Core curriculum.
"The Public Education Department has chosen Common Core, although it allowed each district to determine methods of delivery," Streib said. "The school board and the superintendent had no choice."
"What is the purpose of the school board?" a questioner asked. "Must they follow district policy?"
Petty said the board works on developing district policy, but "some is mandated by the state." He gave the example of spanking, which the district policy had already banned, but then the state came and mandated that there be no spanking.
"What is the policy for recruiting?" an audience member posed in writing.
Streib said the Silver Schools use USREAP system, as well as statewide recruiting and recruiting companies nationwide, most of which are free, with some fee-based. "We also work with New Mexico State University, Western New Mexico University, and the University of New Mexico, and attend some of their job fairs. We also advertise in local papers in the surrounding areas. We should do a better job of letting people know how wonderful the quality of life is in Silver City—that in a small town one is able to know one's neighbors and be able to count on them."
He said there were two openings in Language Arts at the high school and a special education opening at Stout Elementary. "I don't like to have openings at this time of year, but I shouldn't feel bad. Albuquerque has several hundred openings. Some has to do with the salaries of teachers in New Mexico, and some involve the duties put on the plate of a teacher. The climate and our town help recruit."
"If you know teachers, ask them to apply," Streib said. "Nothing will replace a good teacher. I also like to recruit couples who will come and stay."
A questioner asked whether New Mexico schools were underfunded, overfunded or what.
Streib said New Mexico schools are "shoestring-funded. The formula needs to be reworked, with a little flexibility in how districts can spend the 'below the line' money. The PED secretary-designee tells us where the money can be spent. We would like the flexibility so we could combine parts of the budget and be more creative. It would help us fix our bottom line."
"What are your plans to fix turnover?" an audience member asked.
"Communications is key," Streib said. "We need not to let issues fester that should have been discussed openly. We plan to meet more often with staff. Once we know what the problem is, it is easier to attack it. The main objective is to increase communication with the teachers and administrators. Each board member is going to adopt a school and get to know them better. The board member is not going to micromanage, but will help principals get what they need to do their jobs."
A questioner said a New York Times article had said the math part of Common Core is failing because the teachers are not trained in it.
"Common Core didn't come with funding or a training manual," Streib said. "I feel like here in Silver City we have experts who can help. We have met at least three times. It had not been done before. The object is to get teachers together from different schools to talk about how they solve problems, so the staffs know each other better. The curriculum is better by communicating and setting up time to meet so teachers enjoy common time and allow them time to solve problems and implement the solutions."
An audience member asked about how Streib sees the difference in the states, with Wyoming being a right-to-work state, and New Mexico not.
"The biggest difference for me was the collective bargaining in each district," Streib said. "The document needs to be followed and implemented. The salary negotiations and the working conditions were the newest to me, and it took me a while to get a handle on them."
"What about merit pay—for instance, instead of a 3 percent raise overall, one teacher gets a 6 percent raise and another zero?" was a written question.
"I'm not a proponent of merit pay," Streib said. "I think it breeds division. I would prefer to have other ways to recognize jobs well done, and use people to raise the bar for everyone. Raising discontent does not raise the level."
"Will you meet with union representatives on their concerns?" a questioner asked.
"I think we need more specific times to meet," Streib said, "and not let things get swept under the rug."
Petty said he, school board member Tony Egan, Streib and Attorney Ramon Vigil would be setting up a meeting with several union representatives at a time agreeable to all.
An audience member asked Streib's thought on holding back third graders, who can't read.
"We still need to have good teachers, who can identify students having difficulty," Streib said. "And get them on task to develop different ways of providing the curriculum. We all learn in different ways. By the time the students are in third grade, they should be good readers and good thinkers. In my mind, I do not support holding back the students, but perhaps we need better teachers."
Another questioner asked if a longer school year would help.
"We just finished one K-3 summer class at Harrison Schmitt and another will finish this Friday at Sixth Street," Streib said. "Research shows that time on task and instruction received, if correct and appropriate, does make sense and does help student success. We have to look out for teacher burnout and student burnout. We don't want them bored and turned off."
"At the past couple of meetings, you were unresponsive on public input," an audience member commented. "Was the lawyer there to keep you from saying the wrong thing?"
"It is against state law to respond to public input, unless the item is on the agenda," Petty said. "Since Streib has been here, we have already had more than 20 hours of training. The lawyer was there to help us with what we can or cannot do."
"Why has the board stubbornly refused to hear grievances?" a questioner asked.
"There are two types of grievances," Petty said. "If someone brings a legal issue to the district and are actually suing the board, that we can handle. We are the only entity that can sue or be sued—we are the legal entity."
After the next question was answered, he was reminded he had said two types of grievances. Petty said the grievance of addressing a union contract or with a personnel issue is up to the superintendent. "New Mexico took the personnel issues away from the boards in 2003. The only personnel the board can take action on is the position of superintendent. If it's a personnel grievance you have to go to the superintendent. If it's a union contract, come to the board."
To a question about cuts in arts, music and performing arts, Streib said they were due to budget cuts. "Hopefully, we can generate some money. We had to cut music at Stout. There is a strong correlation between music and math learning and music and language learning. It pains me to cut, but we had to reduce the items at two schools."
A questioner asked about the grade ranking of schools. "Silver City does well, but is it like a dime among pennies in New Mexico?"
"We have excellent teachers," Streib said. "Our children sometimes come not prepared to learn, especially if they are hungry or did not have enough sleep. There's nothing wrong with the kids or the teachers. We have an excellent staff. I encourage you to visit the schools. Seeing the classes will warm your heart. We need to teach values and we do. I don't have any doubt, as our students graduate, they will succeed. There is so much material to sort through it may get them off track. Teachers are darn near teaching for nothing."
"Do you have any vacancies in teaching or in para-professional positions?" an audience member asked.
"We have two English positions at the high school," Streib said. "We don't have enough desirable applicants. I would like to see more and better quality applicants. I encourage college students to go into English. We also have one special education opening at Stout, and an instructional aide opening at José Barrios Elementary for intellectually challenged, emotionally disturbed students."
"Our understanding was that you were going to talk about the future of Silver Schools," an audience member commented.
Petty said both high schools received A ratings, with Stout receiving a B. "Mrs. Lougee at the high school is putting in pods, for instance, all the English teachers and classes are together, and the math classes are together. It's so teachers work on their strong suits. We are just starting to do this here. Mrs. Lougee wants to send teachers to national training. Our teachers need to be at the highest level of training, so they can learn new ways of doing things. We are spending half a million dollars on IT (information technology). Yes, we can teach reading, writing and arithmetic without computers. But moving forward with vo tech, IT was a huge concern. We are working with Cobre on entrepreneurial skills, because not everyone wants or needs a college education. There are a lot of career fields, and we need vo tech for that. We are starting small, and trying to do it area-wide, with Cobre. When we do vo tech, then there is also increased academics for those heading to college. They will have some different classes. Increasing academics and vo tech—they work together. Sending teachers to national training gives them new ideas."
An audience member said, in 2011, Arizona established education savings accounts for parents to send students to private or religious schools. "Would New Mexico consider that?"
"That's a decision for families' value systems, and it's not my business," Streib said. "If there is enough interest, then the senators and representatives need to pay attention. There is no doubt a financial drain for parents to send their children to post-secondary schools. Having the student come out with a huge debt is an awful way to start out a career."
"Do you feel there is too much big government sticking its big nose into the classrooms?" a questioner asked.
"Yes, absolutely," Petty said. "Every state is different and the school boards can't do very much. The federal government gives you 10 percent and you feel good, but then the government tells you how to do things. I think it should be local people deciding. They know what they want and need for the students, but we have little input on that level."
Kyle Johnson said: "With the degree of public input and not much involvement by the public, I see a manipulated and cynical way the board answers any questions. You use it to make your case and refuse to address complaints."
"Thank you for your input," Petty said. "I think you're full of crap."
Johnson said: "With a budget as large as Silver City's, you should be listening to public input."
Petty apologized for his language and then said: "We have people on both sides coming up to us and many are telling us what a great job we're doing."
"Don't interrupt me," Johnson said. "Dick Pool only had three minutes to speak. Why?"
A woman stood up and said: "I have sat here mute. I want to thank you guys. Our children had a hard time in school. Last year was so refreshing. I have seen significant positive change. As parents with children in school, we see the improvements. Thank you."
"Some have told me they were afraid to stand up and speak because some in the room are so angry," Petty said. And to Johnson, he said: "And you seem to bypass what by law we can say."
An audience member asked who sets the agenda and changes it at the last minute.
Wayne Sherwood, a teacher at the high school, said to Streib. "You said you wanted to keep people in the community. My wife was let go this year. She has 16 years experience and a master's degree. She got great evaluations, but she was let go, because I was told: 'We're going in a different direction.' I would like to know that direction."
"Was she fired or her contract not renewed?" Petty asked.
"Her contract was not renewed," Sherwood said. "Never once did the administration say: 'This is what you're doing wrong. This is what you need to do.' Not once. When she went in to sign her letter of intent, she found out she was not being renewed."
Petty said when he worked at the Federal Aviation Administration, an employee, within the first three years of employment could be let go without a reason.
Sherwood said the district hasn't taken care to say what mold a person is going to fill.
"We're getting into personnel issues," Streib warned.
"I would like to know what you knew about Streib's history before," Johnson said. "Was the process by which he was hired highly compromised?"
Burrows noted that it has been an issue that has been floating around. "Trent has said in print that the board did due diligence. If you are going to make a charge make it specific."
"Others can find it quite evident on the Internet," Johnson said.
"Have you looked it up on the Internet?" Petty asked. "Or have you not done enough research? We did due diligence and what he was accused of, he was exonerated by state law in Wyoming."
A questioner asked if Petty and Streib would be willing to speak at Democratic Party or Republican Party meetings. Petty replied: "Sure."
Former Silver Schools Superintendent Dick Pool said he wanted to address the comments about the schools improving because the schools' grades were good. "Be careful looking at the grades. The number of students in proficiency is dropping." He said the various grades are down except for one. "Don't get hung up on the letter grades," Pool warned. "Look at the proficiencies. We added another math teacher and proficiencies went up, but they have dropped in eight out of 10 grades."
"What we looked at in growth, out of eight areas, we show increase in only one," Pool said. "This is public information. The grades are getting skewed. One high school got an A, with the junior high and elementary school getting Fs." He said school districts have fallen in the past two years. It's no fault of the teachers. They are the constant."
Bert Fleming said he had made an observation. "One time working with Pool, the people got angry, because not enough money was being spent on football. He settled it down. I have also noticed that most of us in the room do not have students in the schools. Maybe five of you are of child-bearing age. Why aren't the parents here?"
"Probably because I have had a lot of parents tell me they wouldn't talk in public," Petty said.
Answering a question about the future in the schools, Streib said the school has put in a strategic plan with input from the principals. One is to increase attendance rates. "Ours is 95 percent, which looks good, but funding is based on attendance. The goal is to have a plan that is individualized for each student, so the curriculum lets the individual student and the families identify what they want to follow." He admitted he could not remember the other two goals.
"Why would a qualified teacher be let go when there is a teacher shortage here in New Mexico and nationwide?" Sherwood asked.
"This is a personnel issue," Streib said. "I don't want to discuss it in public. We will publish our goals in the paper. We want to raise the students academically and make them work ready. We will not allow kids to skate by."
"What about the teachers who let go?" a woman asked.
"Each one will not be rehired," Streib said. "It was a principal who was going in a different direction."
"What direction?" the same woman asked.
"Direction doesn't mean curriculum, but perhaps in the delivery of instruction that shows a kid knows the subject in a different way than just from tests," Streib said.
"I presume any teacher can go in that direction," the same woman said.
"I don't know the teachers or why they were not rehired," Petty said. "In California, they struck down tenure. In New Mexico, a judge declared that if a teacher got into his or her third year, he or she could assume tenure. I think the judge wanted to help the teachers, but I think the judge hurt them. It takes several years to get up to speed."
Jason Wecks said he had heard it said that in some ways, letting them go was in their best interest.
"It's hard to prove oneself in two years," Petty said.
The same woman said: "But if she has been teaching for many years?"
"She did not have tenure," Petty said.
"But she got good evaluation," the woman said.
"One of the teachers let go at Stout, too, received good evaluations, and she was picked up immediately," Petty said.
"But now, she will start over again," Sherwood noted. "Western is having trouble recruiting students to go into teaching. It shows we're not giving enough training to the teachers. Streib could have said that the teacher will transfer to other positions."
Burrows asked if personnel evaluations and records are legally tied and sealed forever or could someone get the records with a Freedom of Information Act request.
Streib said he did not know.
Burrows said to Sherwood that his wife wrote "a good editorial. I hope she lands on her feet."
The session concluded after a little more than one-and-a-half hours.