Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tonight's show will go on, but a question and an issue remain

Today's Naples Daily News editorial, "Sounding a good note on Collier student performances" (in print, "Chorus compromise beats battle in court") summarized the outcome of Tuesday's School Board meeting as it relates to tonight's Barron Collier High School (BCHS) choral concert at Moorings Presbyterian Church. Some excerpts:
There were welcomed conciliatory notes sounded ... to keep the Collier County school district out of a legal battle over using a church for student performances. The [School Board] addressed how to comply with its policies and stay within the parameters of a ruling in a court case in Utah....

The board majority [Curatolo, Sprague and Terry] made the right call in a 3-2 vote supporting the compromise presented by its attorney to enable a choral teacher or other music instructor to excuse a student from performing individual songs that he or she considers objectionable....

[Attorney] Fishbane's sensible solution diverges from the idea of allowing students to completely opt out of an entire performance. Instead, if a student or his/her parent objects to performing a religious song, the student is simply excused from the group for that song and rejoins it for pieces that are secular in nature. In that way, the student isn't singled out among peers for missing the entire performance. The location of the performance thereby also becomes secondary, because the student would be excused from the sacred song whether it is performed at a church, concert hall or in an auditorium.
So the short-run crisis has been averted. Attorney Fishbane and Superintendent Patton no doubt devoted many hours during the weeks since this firestorm erupted to find what the Naples Daily News called a "sensible solution" so tonight's BCHS concert can take place at Moorings Presbyterian Church as planned.

Presumably, this is what the choir members and their parents wanted.

I think we and they should applaud Mr. Fishbane and Dr. Patton for finding a responsible compromise. And we should applaud Ms. Curatolo, Ms. Sprague and Mr. Terry for supporting their recommendation.

However one question and one issue remain in my mind.

My question

According to BCHS Principal Caraker's October 29 letter to parents referred to in my previous post, concerns about BCHS Chorus performances being held at Moorings Presbyterian Church were raised by parents and the ACLU a year ago. In May, with the goal of supporting the choir program when the ACLU advised it was considering legal action, the District "did a careful review of both the propriety of the performance literature content as well as the venue issue." While allowing the May concert to go forward at the church, the District "concluded that a search for alternative venues providing a multi-site balance was appropriate moving forward."

The Barron Collier High School Combined Choir with Alumni
at the Moorings Presbyterian Church, Naples, FL

So why did BCHS find itself, in late October 2014, with an "unsanctioned event that did not comply with administrative procedures" that was scheduled "without [Principal Caraker's] knowledge?"

Did BCHS Choir Director Todd Peterson have the responsibility for finding alternative venues and ensuring that they were scheduled and approved according to the school's administrative procedures? And if so, why did he not do so, and how has or will this failure be dealt with?

My remaining issue

The crisis over the December BCHS Choral concert is behind us, but if the current performance schedule follows that of the past, the next concert will take place in March. This situation must not be allowed to happen again.

Mr. Fishbane made clear at Tuesday's School Board meeting that in his legal opinion, no current District policy or administrative procedure addresses the matter of cocurricular-activity venue or program content objectionable to a student or parent on the basis of their religious beliefs. He said the Board has the option to decide through ongoing discussion over the next few months if they want to address these issues through policy and suggested a possible way for them to do so.

This will be a difficult and contentious process, but surely ours is not the first School District to be faced with this issue. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. I suggest that Mr. Fishbane and staff identify best practices in this policy area for consideration by Dr. Patton and the Board as soon as possible. And I look forward to the resolution of this matter well before the next BCHS Choral concert, in a calm, inclusive, respectful manner that avoids litigation.

And again, Mr. Fishbane and Dr. Patton, thank you for your diligence and hard work to get this matter resolved so that tonight's show can go on. And thank you, Ms. Curatolo, Ms. Sprague and Mr. Terry, for your support.

___________________

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Support the School District's compromise

When I started writing this post, my working title was "A matter of acoustics, or separation of church and state?"

Fortunately, I came across the Naples Daily News editorial "School administration on right course with BCHS choral compromise," and realized I was writing the wrong story. While I am a strong defender of the separation of church and state, the threatened lawsuit over this matter would be costly in terms of both time and money, and its outcome is by no means certain. So I support the current Barron Collier High School compromise, and I hope you will, too.

The underlying situation is that the High School Choir's Fall Concert was cancelled late last month with 24 hours notice. The parents of the choir members were informed of the cancellation in an October 29 letter from the school's principal, Tammy Caraker.

No wonder I started down the path I did. These are just some of the many Naples Daily News articles on the subject:
October 28 - ACLU threat led to canceled Barron Collier choral concert

October 30 - Barron choir students, alumni, parents join in unity outside school

November 11 - Barron Collier choir flap lands at the School Board's doorstep

November 20 - Majority of Barron choir students opt for an ‘F' instead of singing at Gulf Coast High
Principal Caraker's October 29 letter provided this background:
Since late 2013 especially, there have been concerns from parents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding whole choir performances, required as part of this co-curricular course (of which the four choir performances are part of the academic grade), being limited solely to the Moorings Presbyterian Church venue. Last May, we worked to support the choir program when the ACLU advised it was considering legal action to halt the May event from proceeding at the Moorings Presbyterian Church venue. As a part of our support, the District did a careful review of both the propriety of the performance literature content as well as the venue issue. Nevertheless, we concluded that a search for alternative venues providing a multi-site balance was appropriate moving forward.
According to a November 17 letter to the parents, a compromise is currently in place. Two of the school's four annual concerts will be held at a secular venue, and two will be held at a church venue. Principal Caraker wrote:
Our intent is to honor the multiple sensitivities and religious concerns of our participating students as well to maintain a pedagogically rich and diverse musical program and not risk losing the ability to use a church venue.
The Naples Daily News editorial pointed out that what's at stake is a lawsuit by the ACLU and subsequent involvement of the Liberty Counsel, "a national public interest law firm specializing in constitutional law, particularly free speech, religious freedom, and church-state matters" whose mission is "Restoring the Culture by Advancing Religious Freedom, the Sanctity of Human Life and the Family." See Libery Counsel's October 30 letter to Superintendent Patton offering "a pro bono defense of the Collier County Schools, should it do the right thing by the students and be challenged [by the ACLU] on this issue."

Four community members urged the Board to hold the concert at the church at last month's Board Organizational Meeting, when the matter wasn't even on the agenda. They, or others, are sure to be out in force at next Tuesday's meeting, when it is. See the Parents' Rock Facebook page here and Erika Donalds' page here.

Our School District's focus - both time and money - should be on education. Our children, our administrators, our School Board and our community don't need the distraction or expense of a major, high-profile lawsuit. Compromise is the right approach.

Please let our School Board and Superintendent know you agree by emailing all six of them as soon as possible:

  • Kathleen Curatolo - curatoka@collierschools.com
  • Erika Donalds - donale@collierschools.com
  • Kelly Lichter - lichteke@collierschools.com
  • Julie Sprague - spraguju2collierschools.com
  • Roy Terry - terryro@collierschools.com
  • Superintendent Kamela Patton - Patton@collierschools.com

And join me at the School Board meeting next Tuesday, December 9 at 5 PM (get directions). Let the Board hear your views in person, as I plan to do. This is a hot-button issue which is sure to draw a crowd.

___________________

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The first post-election School Board meeting (Part 1)

My gut-wrenching disappointment with most of the mid-term election results has subsided to a dull ache. I keep reminding myself, "Voters get the government they deserve." Maybe someday enough people will realize the importance of the mid-term and local elections to change the status quo. I sure hope so.

In any case, it's time to move on, and I'm turning the attention of Sparker's Soapbox to the Collier County School Board. What effect will new members Erika Donalds and Kelly Lichter have on District policy and Board operations? As I've shared in the past, there's reason to be concerned.

Last Tuesday, Donalds and Lichter were sworn into office, along with Roy Terry, who was elected to a second term. (Board Members Kathleen Curatolo and Julie Sprague were most recently elected in 2012; their terms will end in 2016.)

Yesterday, and again today, I watched the video-on-demand replay of this new Board's organizational meeting. I didn't attend in person because I had assumed, based on the Agenda, that the meeting would be uneventful. Boy, was I wrong.

My head is still reeling, not so much from the results of the votes that were taken, but more from the tone of several of the interactions between Board members, members of the audience, Board attorney Jonathan Fishbane, and Superintendent Kamela Patton. Already, I fear a repeat of some of the Board governance issues that resulted in the District being placed on "warned" status by the accreditation agency. For more on this, click here.

The meeting began at 8 AM. I estimate that the auditorium was about one-third full, seemingly (based on their later behavior) with supporters of Donalds and Lichter.

After the swearing-in, the next item of business was "Election of Officers." Terry nominated Curatolo to be Chair. Lichter nominated Terry to be Chair. Terry declined the nomination, saying he appreciated the support. There was no discussion. The vote was taken.

All those in favor of Mrs. Curatolo for Chair, say aye. Those opposed, say nay. The vote was 4 to 1. Kelly Lichter cast her first vote as a School Board member against Curatolo.

The next item on the agenda was "Meetings and Times." To put what happened in context, it's important to know that over the summer, Donalds and Lichter, along with defeated candidates Jacob Winge, JB Holmes and Thomas Andler, signed something called "Contract with Collier County, Florida" drafted by local attorney and parent Doug Lewis. As reported by the Naples Daily News, Lewis "issued a challenge to all candidates to sign his contract, to indicate support of initiatives he deemed important. From emails obtained by the Daily News, it appears Lewis got involved and began reaching out to candidates after the approval of Superintendent Kamela Patton’s contract extension this summer."

The "contract" begins:
We, the undersigned candidates for [School Board], publicly declare that, with 3 seats being contested on August 26, 2014, a new School Board majority will have the authority and ability to pass major reforms described herein.... Further, we solemnly pledge that, during one or more of the first 3 regular Board meetings after our election..., we will bring up for vote, the following major reforms...
This least-troubling of the seven "reforms" listed in the "contract" fit right into the agenda:
Require Board meetings to commence on or after 5:30 PM in order to give all parents and working taxpayers the opportunity to attend and participate.
Community members Joseph Doyle and "contract" author Lewis, speaking during a public comments portion of the meeting, requested a 5 or 5:30 start time. Lichter made a motion that meetings start at 5 PM with the business meeting starting at 5:30 PM.

During the Board discussion that followed, Curatolo and Sprague offered some historical perspective, explaining why the current 4 PM start time had been chosen in the past, which I found helpful. These are some of the things they mentioned:

  • Board meetings have been held at different times over the years. The current 4 PM start time was a compromise that seems to meet most people's needs.
  • Some parents work second shifts, and a 5:30 start time would mean that they would have to miss the meetings.
  • Even with the 4 PM start time, the public recognitions portion of each meeting is the first thing on the agenda. The business part of the meetings starts later.
  • Going to a time-certain start to the business portion of the meeting might mean less time to recognize the children who are being honored and whose work is being showcased.

Lichter said, "I just keep hearing a lot of what’s happened in the past, and I think we have to focus right now on moving forward ..., and I think that’s why I’m sitting here today. So I ask that we listen to our constituents on these concerns and [look forward, not backwards.]

Curatolo replied, "With all due respect, Mrs. Lichter, that’s why we’re ALL sitting here today." Her comment was met by jeers from the audience.

Almost 20 minutes later, following another comment by Curatolo about the meeting start time, Lichter was recognized by the Chair to speak. Here's my transcript of what happened next:
Lichter: Before I have my discussion topic, Ms. Curatolo, I respectfully ask, now that you are Board chair, please stop with the condescending remarks and the disrespect that I often see you give public speakers at meetings. This is a new time. [Applause from audience]

Patton: Again, I ask you to hold your applause.

Lichter: We heard public speakers today, and they, and I’ve heard it multiple times at these meetings, and maybe for you coming to these meetings is just voting for things, but it’s about listening to the public, and this is what we’re hearing.... [Applause]

Fishbane: I think we .. Ma’am, I think there’s a civility issue...

Lichter: Mr. Fishbane. The civility issue, we’ve already seen. I’ve never seen you come down on Ms. Curatolo when there’s been a civility issue. [Long, loud applause]

Fishbane: I HAVE spoken to Ms. Curatolo….

Lichter: So we should just call the motion.

Fishbane: I agree.
It was disturbing to watch. I was distressed by the way Lichter spoke Curatolo. While watching the meeting, and going back over this exchange in particular, I did not experience her as condescending. Rather, I saw a sincere desire to help the new members understand the decisions made in the past. Lichter's "Please stop with the condescending remarks" was itself, in my view, condescending AND inappropriate. I was also surprised and disappointed by the hostile way several audience members behaved.

The discussion continued, with Terry commenting:
Whether we like it or not, even though we make decisions here [presumably a reference to Lichter's comment about "just voting for things"], the focus of this Board should be on the students of this District. This doesn’t mean we don’t listen to parents and other people and take that into consideration. But the reason [the meeting start time] was put at 4:00 was basically to involve the students in the meeting, and I can honestly say to everybody involved that when students do participate, … they take a good deal of pride …
To which Donalds responded:
I’m actually shocked at the pushback on this item, and the importance that students’ performing is playing in this decision. I absolutely value students performance and showcasing what they’re learning. However, parent involvement is the number one indicator of student achievement. That is what we should be concerned with…. I’m surprised, Mr. Terry, because I know that you did support having later meetings in the past.… I don’t understand the change of heart there, and I’m really disappointed with the focus on performances and students hanging around, when the business of the school district – in your own words, what the state charges us to do, is what we should be concerned with.
Ultimately, the motion to move Board meeting start times to 5 PM, with the business portion of the meeting starting at 5:30, was passed 3 to 2, with Donalds, Lichter and Terry voting for, and Curatolo and Sprague voting against.

The vote was met with loud applause and cheers from the audience.

With that vote, one of Lewis's "Contract with Collier County's" seven "major reforms" was achieved.

___________________

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Monday, November 3, 2014

If you haven't voted yet...

Election Day - November 4
Tuesday, November 4, is your last chance to participate in the 2014 mid-term elections.

You can no longer vote at any early voting site. You MUST vote Tuesday at your precinct. If you requested an absentee ballot and haven't mailed it yet, I suggest you vote in person Tuesday. Be sure to BRING THE MAIL BALLOT WITH YOU.

You can find your precinct location, check the status of your absentee ballot (if you submitted one), and much more, at the Collier Supervisor of Elections' website www.colliervotes.com.

Here is a summary, with links back to the underlying posts, of how I voted:

For Governor & Lieutenant Governor - Charlie Crist & Annette Taddeo

For Attorney General - George Sheldon

For Chief Financial Officer - William “Will” Rankin

For Commissioner of Agriculture - Thaddeus Thad Hamilton

For District Court of Appeal Merit Retention - Yes for Judges Allenbernd, Silberman and Sleet

For School Board District 3 - Kathy Ryan

For Soil & Water Conservation Group 4 - James M. Lang

For Soil & Water Conservation Group 5 - Clarence S. Tears, Jr.

For Amendment 1, Water and Land Conservation - Yes

For Amendment 2, Use of Marijuana for Certain Medical Conditions - No

For Amendment 3, Prospective Appointment of Certain Judicial Vacancies - No

In addition, I voted FOR the North Naples / Big Corkscrew Fire District Merger, and for Bob Naegle for North Naples Fire District Board.

___________________
Please share this post with your friends. You and they can subscribe to Sparker’s Soapbox by email at www.sparkers-soapbox.blogspot.com, and "like" me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sparkers.soapbox. Thank you!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Guest Post: Study the Candidates

I completely agree with this letter to the editor of the Naples Daily News by School Board member Julie Sprague. It was published on October 23 and is reprinted here with her permission.

There is a very important election coming on Nov. 4 that will determine a new School Board member serving our district for the next four years.

When I joined the board in 2008, the school district had been placed on "warning" status by the school accrediting organization SACS CASI for two consecutive years and was in jeopardy of losing its accreditation because of board dysfunction.

Collectively over the past several years, the present five School Board members have worked diligently to restore our accreditation to full status, bring stability and respect back to the district and renew the faith from our constituents. Sadly, Barbara Berry and Pat Carroll, whose combined service to our district is over 20 years, will step down in November. Their leadership will be sorely missed.

We need strong, rational leadership to fill this void — someone who will continue to work together with present board members and the superintendent to address the educational challenges we face.

There are very distinct differences between the candidates running for the board. Study them carefully and choose a candidate who clearly supports our traditional public schools, understands your views and has the best interest of all of our Collier County students as their central focus.

Please exercise your right to vote. Approximately 80 percent of voters did not cast a ballot in the primary election for School Board in August. Allowing 20 percent of voters to select someone to fill a four-year term is not acceptable. Sitting idly by and hoping for the best is not an option. There are 45,000 kids depending on you.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Guest Post: School Board Election Significant for All

This post by John Lynch appeared in a Naples Daily News online blog called "Political Point of View by Collier Democrats" on October 22. It appears here at Mr. Lynch's request; he asks that readers share it with others. I urge you to do so. Vote for Kathy Ryan for School Board.

School Board Election Significant For All
by John Lynch

There are not many dramatic School Board Elections. In the case of the run-off election between Erika Donalds and Dr. Kathy Ryan, a serious consequence is in the making:

1. Mrs. Donalds is a staunch Tea Party organizer. A founder of the Tea Party in Collier County and an integral member of Collier Freedom Council 912. She was the campaign manager for her husband, Byron Donalds’ unsuccessful run for Congress under the Tea Party banner. It should be noted that Byron Donalds is a vice-president of Mason Classical Academy. Mrs. Donalds describes herself as an “advisor” to MCA, though a search of records shows that she has had other posts at the Academy. She is closely allied with Kelly Lichter, the founder of MCA, who has been elected to District 1.

2. Mrs. Lichter shares the same political beliefs as Mrs. Donalds and has been active in Tea Party politics along with her husband in the Collier Freedom Council 912.

3. The Tea Party represents a particular world view, one that denies the role of a federal government, does not accept the authority of the State and will engage in obstructive politics to foster its aims. This world view is isolationist and convinced of the belief that our public school system is a failure; that teachers are liberal plants whose task it is to warp the minds of children. An extreme characterization? Not if you have attended meetings at which speakers are shouted down in an organized way. All knowledge and wisdom, even about the technical aspects of education, are subordinate to the wishes of a vocal minority. The sham debates sponsored by another Tea Party group, the Southwest Florida Citizens Alliance, were built to showcase the campaigns of the two Tea Party candidates.

4. Mrs. Donalds is an accomplished financial professional. She rose to prominence over several issues by founding a parents’ group. The two issues she brought to the public were of some importance; not enough to qualify her for board membership. The first issue was lack of consultation over contracts for after-school programs. The second was the installation of a cell phone transmission tower on a school property. She used these concerns to begin to build her campaign. She has not campaigned about the many other cell towers on the property of many other schools. We have not heard much lately about her objections to the re-vamped after-school programs. These issues are ‘thin gruel’ justifying a rampage through our schools.

Then there is the issue of campaign funds. Mrs. Donalds has accumulated over $80,000 in campaign funds. At least in Collier County, this is new in a school district election. You can see the list of donors by going to the Supervisor of Elections website . Thousands have come from outside the County, notably from political action groups. For a non-partisan election, it would seem that this race has taken on the very same characteristics that we find in the blood sport of our political environment.

What is the interest and goals of these outside contributors? It is part of a nation-wide efforts to build the most radically conservative political machine from the ground up.

What does this portend for the future? All it will take in the next round of elections is to vote in one more school district board member of a similar stripe to Mrs. Donalds and Mrs. Lichter to have a board composed of a Tea Party majority. At the very least, with the election of Mrs. Donalds, we are in for controversy and delay. Further support of our public schools will be eroded by the approval of many more charter schools, the good and the bad. The Naples Daily News series of articles illuminates this.

Dr. Ryan is a consummate education professional. She has the wisdom and the intellect to guide us through to the next evolution of education. She has spent her life in service to the students of Collier County and has been particularly successful with both the advantaged and the disadvantaged. Is she the polished campaigner with an overwhelming fund-raising capacity? Probably not. Some will say this is a virtue. Our children do not need experimentation and radical change. They need steadiness, structure and dedication. Will Dr. Kathy Ryan be able to shepherd us through the tangle of educational theory, technological advance, and changing demographics? We have no doubts about this.


Friday, October 17, 2014

We need to do something about this

I care very much about public education. I am proud of the way our School Board returned civility and professionalism to Board meetings, after being on the brink of nearly losing the District’s accreditation because of the behavior of prior members of the Board.

For that reason, I was very disturbed to learn that Sports CLUB, parent/attorney Steve Bracci and Parents ROCK are appealing the decision a Florida judge reached a few months ago in favor of the School District after a year-long battle. The judge ruled that the District was completely within its rights when it approved the decisions of six elementary school principals to replace Sports CLUB with another after-school program provider.

Not only am I disturbed that our District and our School Board (which is also named in the appeal) are being put through this process, but I am concerned because one of the School Board candidates on the ballot now - Erika Donalds - is the founder of Parents ROCK.


For some history on this issue, click here.

In addition to founding Parents ROCK, Ms. Donalds was significantly involved in the formation of Mason Classical Academy, a Hillsdale College public charter school that opened in Collier County last month. Her husband Byron is Vice President of MCA’s Governing Board. According to her bio on the website of The Joe Whitehead Show, Ms. Donalds also serves on the governing board of the Collier Freedom Council, as the Treasurer for the Collier County Young Republicans, and as a Precinct Committeewoman on the Collier County Republican Executive Committee. She is also involved with the Naples Tea Party, the SWFL Citizens Alliance and the Republican Women’s Club of Naples.

Her bio also says, "As a grassroots activist, Erika has worked on a number of campaigns and was the Campaign Manager for her husband Byron Donalds’ campaign for US Congress in 2012."

Ms. Donalds has said if she is elected, she will not be involved in any volunteer organizations. However her leadership, vision and passion for Parents ROCK cannot be denied. She is the one who brought the group together. She is the one who directed its activities. She is also the one who is providing guidance about how parents can opt out of testing.

I certainly have no problem with grassroots activism; I’ve been a grassroots organizer myself. But I do have concerns with the possibility of the founder/leader/visionary of a group that is suing the School District and the School Board serving on the very Board she is suing.

The importance of the race for the District 3 School Board seat between Erika Donalds and Kathy Ryan cannot be overstated.

I strongly support Kathy Ryan and urge you to do all you can to help her get elected.

In particular, letters to the editor would be very effective. Email your letter (250 words max) to letters@naplesnews.com or submit it online at http://www.naplesnews.com/send-a-letter/.

If you share my concerns, please forward this email to other voters in your circles of influence. Let them know their vote is important - and why. Ask them to vote for Kathy Ryan for School Board District 3.

Thanks for your interest in our schools.