Mario Burgos

Clear thinking and straight talk from the top of a mountain.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What Constitutes a War?

It's kind of interesting to watch the unfolding union created drama in Albuquerque as Mayor Berry makes the difficult decision to cut spending:

Union representatives, ticked off by Albuquerque Mayor R.J. Berry's plan to cut city workers salaries, have come out swinging, calling the fight against the budget plan, war.

“Are we not at war?” Andrew Padilla asked.

So, help me understand this Mr. Padilla...

Mayor Berry proposes to keep union workers employed, but with a modest 3% pay cut, and you issue a battle cry.  However, nearly one out of ten people in Albuquerque are unemployed and a great many more are underemployed, and neither you nor your union leader brethren screamed and hollered when the legislature proposed one broad based tax increase on top of another.

How's that work?

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Problem With Teacher Unions in a Nutshell

Times are tough, and when that's the case certain obvious flaws become amplified.  Take for example the challenges currently faced by the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) as a result of the budget crunch.  APS is looking at where to make cuts, and Superintendent Winston Brooks presented one suggestion that seems pretty reasonable on paper.  Cut the double dippers (i.e. those who are already drawing a pension).

But, it seems that the union has a problem with this approach:

Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein said she understands why the district is targeting rehires, but that there are problems with the plan. 

She said double dippers "have the same rights as all beginning employees," and that the district should conduct layoffs by seniority, regardless of whether employees are also drawing a pension. 

Seniority.  That's what it all boils down to for the union.  Value to the kids - irrelevant. Teacher performance - irrelevant.  Even that battle cry of the left for the greater good is irrelevant when compared to the union's commitment to protecting the status quo (AKA seniority).


Any wonder that this system continues its downward spiral?

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's All About the Benefits

Reading article after article about the budget crises facing state, county and municipal governments, and one culprit becomes clear - budget busting benefits.  When people in government find themselves furloughed or worse, they ought to take a moment to consider they may be the victims of their own success. Think I'm exaggerating? I'm not. Consider the courts:
Now, Metro Court employees are looking at furloughs for the first time, while 2nd Judicial District Court employees are likely to go from the equivalent of about half a week a year to a total of about eight days unless more money is found somewhere.
"Ninety-five percent of our budget is people — salary and benefits," state District Court executive officer Juanita Duran said. "There's only one answer: furloughs."

 Of course, the benefits problem is not just limited to the courts. Schools have the same problem:

One reason for the Albuquerque school district's budget crisis: Officials miscalculated the amount of money needed for employee salaries and benefits during the past two years.
        

Superintendent Winston Brooks announced last week that the district must cut $43 million from next year's budget, likely requiring hundreds of layoffs.
        

About $24 million of the required cuts is due to a reduction in state funding.
        

The remaining, however, is to make up for nearly $20 million in underestimated employee salary and benefit costs over the past two years.
Every time their unions sat down to the bargaining table, they pushed for increasingly more attractive benefit packages.  And, when the financial screws are turned, they do everything in their power to protect those unsustainable benefits:
The teachers’ union and other advocates are exhorting state lawmakers to repeal state income tax cuts passed earlier this decade — and to pass other tax-side measures – rather than rely on cuts and the increased contributions law to address New Mexico’s budgetary shortfall. Recent projections show the state with a $441 million shortfall for the year that ends July 1, 2010.
Of course, this problem is not limited to state provided benefit entitlements.  We've known for years, and are now reminded with increasingly frequency, that nearly every entitlement program introduced at the federal level is unsustainable:
The trust funds for both Medicare and Social Security will run out of money earlier than expected because of the recession, the trustees reported today. The Medicare Trust Fund will run out of money by 2017 two years earlier than forecast last year. The Social Security Trust Fund's life has been shortened by four years and is expected to run out by 2037.
Yet, despite this knowledge, our elected officials keep introducing more budget breaking "benefits" to the mix. It makes absolutely no sense at all.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So Here's a Thought

The union appears to be a little riled with Governor Richardson over the nonnegotiable forced furlough of state employee's as one tactic to plug the state budget gap:

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18 says Richardson's administration violated the law by refusing to bargain with the union over five unpaid furlough days Richardson ordered for 17,000 state workers in December, January, March, April and May.

"It's a fairly simple complaint," said Albuquerque attorney Shane Youtz, who is representing AFSCME and its 6,000 members. "We asked politely to bargain and were told no."

State Personnel Director Sandi Perez said the state fulfilled its legal duties by discussing the furloughs with union leaders in November.

Well, here's a fairly simple idea for union leaders. Next time, the government starts promoting spending gobs and gobs of money (translation: hundreds of millions) on things like Spaceports and trains, you might want to voice your opposition. After all, it's things like the ongoing tens of million of dollars in losses incurred by the Rail Runner that are causing your union members to have to take unpaid furlough days:

The red ink lubricating the wheels of the Rail Runner is getting redder. Its operating deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, topped $19 million. It collected a mere $1.9 million in fares against $21 million in operating expenses. The losses are greater than we reported in August. Based on information provided us by the Middle Rio Grande Council of Governments, we reported then that the Rail Runner’s operating loss through May 31, 2009, exceeded $13.4 million. But data for the entire fiscal year, ending June 30, 2009, reveal a number almost 42% higher.

Now, I realize there are several members that might be taking that train up to Santa Fe, but I'll bet you there are even more that are not. Which mean, that the vast majority of members are going to see a cut in pay, so a handful can pay less than their full share to ride the train to Santa Fe.

It's just something for you to consider.


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Friday, November 13, 2009

Why Should it Be Hard to Fire?

A new report released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gives New Mexico a "C" as its overall education grade. Sounds good, right? I mean we usually get an "F' on these things. Actually, not really as good as it sounds.

Last year, "Leaders and Laggards" focused on student test scores rather than innovation, and New Mexico ranked 49th, better only than Mississippi and Washington, D.C.

See, this year focused on "education innovation" to determine overall ranking. When the only thing that matters (defined: student performance) is measured, we're still way down there at the very bottom of the ranking. The exact same place as the year before.


Considering the budget crisis we're facing, it is interesting to note that one of those measurements in which New Mexico got a worse in class score, a big red F, was in the return on investment category. I've been beating this drum for years. We spend, spend and then spend a lot more, and have absolutely nothing that matters (defined: increase in student performance) to show for it.

Now before some of you start claiming that New Mexico can't be compared to other states because of our poverty levels, keep in mind this failing score was after being graded on a curve:

Student achievement in New Mexico is very low relative to state education spending (after controlling for student poverty, the percentage of students with special needs, and cost of living). This dismal return on investment earns the state a failing grade.

So, how do we start making inroads? Well, back in August I put forward a plan for education reform that would be a huge step in the right direction. If you read it, you might want to compare number two of my recommendations to the position of the teachers' union president:

But it got an "F" and was ranked 44th for removal of ineffective teachers.

To determine that grade, the report cited a survey of principals, most of whom reported that personnel policies and unions are barriers to removing ineffectual teachers. Garcia said such policies are determined by districts, not the state.

"Districts have their local policies, whether they work with teachers or give them another chance," she said.

Ellen Bernstein, Albuquerque Teacher Federation president, said she doesn't think New Mexico deserved such low marks. She said principals have discretion to fire ineffective teachers as long as they show cause.

"Is it hard? Yeah. It should be hard to fire someone," she said. "But it's not impossible."

I'm sorry I don't understand this position. Why should it be hard to fire someone? Why should it be harder to fire a teacher than say an accountant or a doctor or a retail clerk? What am I missing?

This mentality is why unions in general are struggling to find relevance. People who can't do their jobs need to find other work. If unions decided to focus on improving the situation for the high achievers versus protecting the status quo for the underachievers, they would find they had more relevance.

More importantly, as it relates to school, they would find they were actually being advocates for children as opposed to depriving an entire generation a quality education.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Another Year of Dismal Education Results

The test scores are in and once again the vast majority of New Mexico schools are failing to make the grade. In fact, in what is quickly becoming an annual tradition more schools failed this year than last year:
Schools repeatedly failing to meet adequate yearly progress could face sanctions, including restructuring. Results released Monday are preliminary and school districts have several weeks to appeal their designations.
The results show that for the 2008-09 school year:
  • 69.3 percent of New Mexico's schools were labeled as failing to meet AYP, up from 67.7 percent the previous year.
  • 124 out of 147 middle schools failed to make AYP, meaning a failure rate of 84.4 percent.
  • Of the state's 157 high schools, 129, or 82.2 percent, failed to make AYP.
  • The results are based on standardized tests taken by about 162,000 students in third through eighth grades and in 11th grade.
  • Schools are judged in 37 categories, including whether English language learners, students with disabilities and different ethnic groups are meeting standards. If a school misses even one of the 37 standards, it is labeled as failing to meet AYP.
Now in all fairness, when it comes to numbers, there are many different ways to look at them (e.g. investment houses which report record earnings in a declining economy after taking taxpayer dollars to avoid failure and the "paying it back", but I digress.). Another part of this annual tradition involves educator Scot Key's post after post after post after post analysis of the numbers. Expect more posts Scot - someone for whom I sincerely have the utmost respect even if he is to the left of the left - on the topic.

However, I'm a simpler kind of guy, and I prefer executive level summaries. I also prefer to take numbers and reports at face value intertiwned with a little old-fashioned common sense. The way I see it no matter how the folks in charge try to spin it, our education system in New Mexico is failing our students at an alarming rate:
Roughly half the students who should have graduated with the class of 2008 failed to do so, prompting a call to action by the state's education secretary.

"It is alarming," Education Secretary Veronica Garcia said during a news conference Monday at which the state unveiled its four-year graduation rate, along with results of the latest round of tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

New Mexico's cohort graduation rate for the class of 2008 is 54 percent compared to the national average of 70 percent, according to the Public Education Department.

The cohort rate tracked individual students from the ninth grade through the summer after their senior year in 2008 to show how many graduated.

For Albuquerque Public Schools, the state's largest school district, the 2008 graduation rate was 46.2 percent, according to the state report.
Of course, we can all take comfort in the fact that the recipient of this year's America's Greatest Education Governor Award has a plan:
Gov. Bill Richardson, who has made education reform a priority during his 6 1/2 years in office, plans to unveil another batch of reforms as early as this week.

"We will push very hard so that the main legislative agenda item in January and in my remainder of the term will be education, to finish what I believe is a good start and good progress," Richardson told the Journal last week. "We recognize that we still have a ways to go."
Hmm, let's see if we can follow the logic here. The Governor has made education reform a priority for 6 1/2 years, and each year we fail to make any progress. Heck, we actually lose ground year after year. I don't know about you, but as the parent of school age children, I don't think I have the stomach for any more of Governor Richardson's style reforms.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Tom Udall Folds Under Union Pressure

Take a moment and imagine what it would be like to live in an America where your right to vote by secret ballot was taken away. It's hard to imagine, right? It just wouldn't be America. Yet, that is precisely what Big Labor wants to do - eliminate the secret ballot. And, Congressman Tom Udall is more than eager to do their bidding:
So important is eliminating the secret ballot to Big Labor that a few weeks ago Democrat Senate candidates, Reps. Tom Allen (ME), Tom Udall (NM), and Mark Udall (CO), along with Kay Hagan (NC), Bruce Lunsford (KY), Jeanne Shaheen (NH), and Jeff Merkley (OR) all scurried to Chicago for a meeting when Union bosses beckoned. The three current Congressmen already voted to eliminate the secret ballot and likely, along with the other Democrat candidates in Chicago, pledged to eliminate secret ballot elections in the future as well.
Think about that when you step into the voting booth this fall. If Tom Udall is willing to support the elimination of secret ballot protection for workers, can eliminating the secret ballot voting protection for you and me be far behind?

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