Questions for the New CEA President – 6

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Bob Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Bob Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education and Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield. I have asked them twelve questions about issues regarding education that face us as a state. I have previously posted five sets of the candidates’ answers. Here are their answers to the last set of questions.

My hope is that my interviews with these candidates makes for informed voting in May because Connecticut is in real need of dynamic leadership in education.

Bob Smoler

 12. What is your accomplishment in the past three years as Fairfield Education Association president of which you are most proud and why?

I’m most proud of transforming the Fairfield Education Association (FEA) from an apathetic organization with no voice and little presence in its members lives into a vibrant, well organized, association that brings value to its members and has a strong voice in our school district and in the Fairfield community

When I became president of the Fairfield Education Association (FEA) in 2014/15 we had many open building rep positions, those individuals representing their buildings often didn’t show up for meetings, and the FEA primarily engaged in two activities: negotiating a contract every three years and representing teachers when they got into trouble. In January of 2015, I walked all building reps and executive board members through a strategic planning process to plot a new direction for our association (see attached document). That planning meeting set the stage for a string of accomplishments that established the FEA as a force to be reckoned with in both our school district and our community.

Our newfound strength was developed through 3 main activities:

1. We demonstrated we could get individuals elected to office. Working with parents, the FEA has been instrumental in electing 5 members of the Board of Education and flipping the Board of Selectmen and RTM from Tea Party dominated political bodies to education friendly entities.

2. We have been on the forefront of solving problems for the town and the district:

a. When the town was struggling with rising healthcare costs, I designed a PPO plan that saved the district/town $1 million. A year later, the FEA open up our contract and convinced every bargaining unit in the Fairfield Public Schools to switch to the Connecticut Partnership 2.0 plan. In total we’ve helped the district and town save or avoid $5.2 million in expenses over the last 3 years while improving member benefits and reducing member costs.

b. The district was struggling with what they believed to be a teacher absenteeism problem. We did all the analysis to demonstrate that there wasn’t a teacher absentee problem, but rather activities of the district were creating issues for the buildings and the teachers.

i.  We showed the district was paying their substitutes less than other districts and  our practices in dealing with substitutes were different than other districts.

ii.We demonstrated that the elimination of February break was creating student and teacher burnout.

iii.We demonstrated that initiative overload was forcing teachers to take time off to meet the excessive demands being put on them.

The district has since addressed these problems by increasing sub pay, turning the President’s Day weekend into a 4 day weekend and cutting back on the number of initiatives considerably.

c. When the town announced that they wanted to focus on increasing their grand list as a way to keep taxes down, we analyzed all 169 towns in CT and demonstrated that the quality of the town’s public school system is the number 1 driver of housing values across the state. As a result, the town is recommitting to investments in teacher pay and per pupil spending after seven years of slashing these investments.

3. We are constantly looking to bring value to our members’ lives personally and professionally.  Examples include:

a. We’ve brought the CEA in to do seminars on Teachers and the Law, Retirement, and Special Education and the Law. I’ve also brought in a private financial planner to talk to members about life insurance, disability, saving for college, buying a house, long term care, etc. Some of these seminars were attended by 400 of our 1,000 members.

b.The district’s approach to servicing special education students was/is extremely problematic. We brought together all 120 teachers servicing special education students, identified all the problems and prepared specific solutions. We also did extensive research on reasonable workload and caseload caps for social workers, special education teachers, psychologists and speech language pathologists. We presented all our findings to the district and they are now acting on them.

c. There were several instances where administrators were not being supportive of teachers. We worked with the district to improve those situations in a manner fair to everyone. Each of those situations has been resolved.

d. When the district decided to out-source aspects of the social worker position by bringing in outside counselors, we convinced the district to terminate the out-source relationship and build the program internally with FEA members.

By demonstrating our competence as a political force, problem solver and a positive presence in our members lives, the FEA has become a vibrant organization with which members are proud to affiliate and who parents, the district and the town looks to as a partner in advancing our collective goals.

Any other thoughts as we conclude this interview?

Public schools and the teaching profession in Connecticut are very fragile right now. Powerful forces are pushing to privatize education and part of their process is to damage the unions by eliminating collective bargaining and interest arbitration. We cannot let that happen. That’s why I am laser focused on making sure education friendly people get elected to town and state offices. I’m also very focused on supporting local associations in bringing value to our collective membership. The CEA will never have as close a relationship with its individual members as the local associations will. The CEA can play a critical role, though, in providing locals with the information, tools, infrastructure and support to maximize the value they deliver to our members. If we can accomplish the two pivotal goals: elect the right people to office and support the locals in bringing value to members, then instituting equitable and learning-centered funding, getting teachers back in control of our profession, and maintaining a strong and vibrant CEA will become much more achievable.

Jeff Leake

12. What is your accomplishment in the past three years as CEA vice president of which you are most proud and why?

I believe that important accomplishments over the past three years have been my leadership on economic and social justice issues. I have been working with others in our Association in confronting racism and poverty. I have also been a leader in involving our Association with others groups in taking action on climate change.

Specifically, I have taken a proactive stand on the issue of institutional racism. We know that institutional racism impedes student outcomes in academics, social development and family engagement.

I have encouraged our members’ attendance at SERC’s Dismantling Systemic Racism Conferences on Race, Education and Success. The conferences have been important events as we seek to ensure access to an equitable education for all of our student. I am presently involved with a working group to pursue further action on this issue.

I chaired a member-driven Task Force on Poverty, which did extensive research on this issue and expanded our work to include research on the effects of trauma on our students. The task force was prematurely merged with a standing commission, but I hope to resurrect it as president. I am presently corresponding with the leaders of other state affiliates who have done more extensive work on the issues of poverty and trauma.

As a result of my leadership in organizing our members in the People’s Climate March in NYC and other climate activities, and my CEA RA-adopted resolution, CEA has become a CT Roundtable on Climate and Jobs Roundtable Affiliate. The Roundtable advocates for public policies that address urgent concerns about climate change while creating good-paying jobs here in CT.

I believe these are important to our union because we improve both our professional status and the quality of education when we unite and advocate collectively on educational, economic and social justice issues.

Any other thoughts as we conclude this interview? 
I look forward to leading the Connecticut Education Association during the next three years, using the training, skills and relationships I have developed as CEA Treasurer and Vice President. Our challenges are many, but we are prepared to meet them. I am optimistic about our Association’s ability to continue to serve as the strong statewide voice for education and educators in CT. The teaching profession is a cornerstone of society and I am certain that our members will be unrelenting champions for our students, activists for social and economic justice, and courageous advocates for our communities.

Questions For The New CEA President – 5

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Bob Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Bob Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education and Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield. I have asked them twelve questions about issues regarding education that face us as a state. I have previously posted four sets of the candidates’ answers. Here are their answers to the fifth set of questions, which all deal with issues of funding:

Jeff Leake

10. What are your thoughts about education funding in Connecticut, including Governor Malloy’s current budget proposal to provide tax breaks through 529 plans (CHET) for funding private K-12 education? Using Education Savings Accounts to fund private school tuition and other private education costs is a terrible idea and will further deprive our real public schools with loss of funding

a. I addressed this question in a prior answer – the state is still not doing its part in adequately funding education in CT;

b. Allowing 529 plans to be used for funding any k-12 education is a terrible idea – these tax-sheltered accounts will only drain the necessary resources for schools and other public services;

c. In a report entitled Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card, the authors assign CT a C-grade, because CT is still not putting the resources necessary in the school systems with the highest levels of poverty.

11. Do you have thoughts about how Connecticut should address the pension-funding crisis?

a. We must ensure that our teacher pension funding is fixed for good. That will mean re-amortizing the debt accumulated over decades of under-funding;

b.After the re-amortization, our pension board must continue to monitor our investments and work to maximize returns;

c. The state must commit to an ironclad commitment to paying what is required into the teachers’ fund each and every year;

d. I am aware that the Treasurer has other thoughts on this situation.

Bob Smoler

10. What are your thoughts about education funding in Connecticut, including Governor Malloy’s current budget proposal to provide tax breaks through 529 plans (CHET) for funding private K-12 education?

 I am for anything that puts more funds into public education without inappropriate strings attached. The key here is that money contributed to education through 529 plans should be in addition to increased funding from the state, not instead of the State’s funding. As mentioned above, public education should not be viewed as a line item in the budget to be cut, but rather a cherished asset of the state to be continually cultivated and invested in

11. Do you have thoughts about how Connecticut should address the pension-funding crisis?

 I addressed this question in a prior answer.  The CEA already has plans to request that the State re-amortize their pension obligations and that will help.   My first and foremost focus is to make sure the state funds their obligations to the current defined benefit pension plan. We owe it to our current and soon-to-be retirees to make sure the promises they were made are kept.

In addition to the above, I am intrigued by looking at a combination of guaranteed issue whole-life insurance products, social security, and defined contribution plans to meet more of the financial needs of teachers while potentially taking some of the financial risk off of the state. Teacher needs have changed and the state’s situation has changed too. I am very committed to finding a win-win situation where teachers’ financial needs are met during their active years and after retiring while the state’s obligations are also made more manageable.

 

Tomorrow, I will post the candidates’ answers to my last question: What have been your accomplishments over the past three years in your role as either CEA vice-president or president of a local chapter of CEA of which you are most proud?

 I also will post the brief concluding remarks of both candidates.

Tune in tomorrow for the GRANDE FINALE of interview questions! 

 

Questions For The New CEA President- 4

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Bob Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Bob Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield.  I have asked them twelve questions about issues regarding education that face us as a state. I have previously posted three sets of the candidates’ answers. Here are their answers to the fourth set of questions which all deal with the teaching profession:

Bob Smoler

7. How will you address the declining number of young people pursuing a career in education?

Many years ago, there was a severe nursing shortage and the industry developed a number of creative incentives for people to enter the field. I mentioned some of what I’d like to see happen in question 1, but we must recognize that teacher burnout, violence against teachers and the increasing risk to a teacher’s reputation as a result of a possible DCF referral or social media attack by a student or parent also plays a role in whether someone will enter and stay in the teaching profession.   The profession has also been under attack by sections of society that are anti-union, pro charter school and /or just looking to reduce the cost of public schools.

To counteract the above, the state needs to enact protections for teachers so becoming a teacher doesn’t involve putting your physical and emotional well being in jeopardy. Secondly, teachers need to take charge of our profession by making our voice heard in public forums and in the election process. Everyone wants to join a winning team and if teachers are viewed as respected and part of the solution, people will want to join the profession.

We also must recognize that many teachers are women, often with young families. Job sharing arrangements, paid time off to care for a sick child or parent, ability to continue your insurance at the standard teacher cost share rate after FMLA time has expired are all steps that could be taken to make the profession more family friendly.

8. Do you have any recommendations for the current way teachers are evaluated in Connecticut?

Teachers are in the business of helping student grow academically, emotionally, and ethically. We are striving to develop individuals that are capable of maximizing their own personal potential and contributing to society to the best of their ability. Teachers should be judged based on student growth over a period of time, not based on a given test. As mentioned before, student advancement in the key 21st century skills is part of the equation. As important, students need to learn how to advocate for themselves, how to handle the ups and downs of life, how to appreciate people from all backgrounds and thought processes. Personal development needs to be as celebrated as academic development. As a mentor, teachers play a critical role in all of these areas and teachers should be evaluated on how much they advance their students in each arena. I am on my district’s TeVal committee and am pushing to truly revolutionize the evaluation process.

9. What are your thoughts on teacher education programs in Connecticut, including the Relay Graduate School of Education?

Either teaching is going to remain a profession or it is not. Reducing standards for teaching certification, as the Relay Graduate School of Education does, is just going to allow less-qualified teachers into the classroom and degrade the type of education students will receive. From my perspective, teaching certification standards must remain high, and the state needs to create encouragements for individuals to get into the profession and meet those high standards.

 

Jeff Leake

7. How will you address the declining number of young people pursing a career in education?

  1. We need to craft a new vision of a teaching profession that is led by teachers and ensures teacher and teaching effectiveness;
  2. We need to imagine a profession built on the concept of collaborative autonomy, where teachers both teach and lead;
  3. We must identify, encourage and support minority candidates (high school and college) in order to change the racial makeup of our teaching force in CT;
  4. We must counter the negative narrative and demand the respect that our professionals deserve.

 8. Do you have any recommendations for the current way teachers are evaluated in Connecticut?

  1. With the help of strong union/teacher membership on the professional development and teacher evaluation committee, districts have developed evaluation systems that are comprehensive and that contribute to enhanced teacher practice and student learning and growth;
  2. In districts that have developed evaluation plans with limited union and teacher input, teachers describe limited confidence in the ability of the evaluation system to help them achieve continuous growth.

9. What are your thoughts on teacher education programs in Connecticut, including the Relay Graduate School of Education?

  1. Relay Graduate School of Education is not a true teacher education program but rather a factory for the charter school chains;
  2. Individuals interested in teaching as a career should enroll in institutions accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

Answers From The New CEA President-2

We are in immediate need for dynamic leadership in public education in Connecticut. Public education is under attack. Visionary leaders who recognize that vibrant public schools are an absolute necessity for the functioning of a democracy are essential.

Those currently in power in our state are about to change. We will have a new governor, a new commissioner of education, and a new president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. As the candidates present themselves, I will ask them the same twelve questions. I will then report their answers as a way to raise consciousness about the issues facing us as a state as well as to provide readers with detailed information for making their own choices.

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Robert Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Robert Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, CT. I will post two of the questions and the candidates’ answers each day this week.

The first two questions and the candidates’ answers were posted yesterday. Here is the second set of questions and answers:

Robert Smoler

3. What do you propose that will ameliorate the achievement gap in Connecticut schools?

Answer: It starts with mandatory pre-school in all communities. All students need to enter kindergarten with the same kind of enrichment that families provide their children in the wealthy communities. It doesn’t end there, though. We need high expectations for all students and when those standards aren’t met, remediation needs to be provided to get the student back on track. It’s probable that many students will need a summer school experience to learn all that their peers learn in a standard school year. There is nothing wrong with that. Not all children learn at the same speed so they shouldn’t be expected to be on the same timetable.

Currently, many districts don’t provide the type of remedial programs needed to keep students on pace. This is an area where the CEA Academy can play a leading role through the establishment of best practices in the academic, emotional and civic growth of students.

4. What is your position regarding the Common Core State Standards, both their content and the pedagogy required of teachers?

I am not in favor of the common core. The common core encourages a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep. The 21st century demands students obtain and build on skills such as communication, problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, etc. Content should just be a vehicle in which students gain mastery in these skills.   The CEA should advocate for the elimination of the common core and a change in the concept of what a graduate should know and be able to do. I envision my idea of a CEA Academy as being central to the creation of these new standards.

 

Jeff Leake

3. What do you propose that will ameliorate the achievement gap in Connecticut schools?

a. The achievement gap in CT is really a family wealth and family education gap -and we cannot expect to close this gap when children who live with poverty and/ or trauma arrive at school years behind their suburban counterparts;

b. We will begin to ameliorate the achievement gap when we address the issue of poverty in our communities – meaning a livable minimum wage and health care, and establish community schools that can address the needs of all our students;

c. School inequity and the achievement gap starts with our elected officials and we must hold them accountable.

4. What is your position regarding the Common Core State Standards, both their content and the pedagogy required of teachers?

    1. CCSS were written without real input from classroom teachers;
    2. CCSS did not undergo real field testing or pilots;
    3. CCSS are especially inappropriate for our youngest (Pre-K-2) children;
    4. I am appalled to hear this phrase: Kindergarten is the new first grade;
    5. Two quotes from Diane Ravitch are appropriate here: “Teaching and learning are dynamic, dependent on the social conditions of families and children, as well as changing knowledge of teaching and learning…I oppose the mandated use of the Common Core standards. If teachers like them and want to use them, they should. I have no problem with that. It should be up to the teachers, not to a committee that was funded by Bill Gates, promoted by Arne Duncan, and marketed as a “state-led initiative,” which it was not.

Questions For The New CEA President

We are in immediate need for dynamic leadership in public education in Connecticut. Public education is under attack. Visionary leaders who recognize that vibrant public schools are an absolute necessity for the functioning of a democracy are essential.

Those currently in power in our state are about to change. We will have a new governor, a new commissioner of education, and a new president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. As the candidates present themselves, I will ask them the same twelve questions. I will then report their answers as a way to raise consciousness about the issues facing us as a state as well as to provide readers with detailed information for making their own choices.

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Robert Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Robert Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education  Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, CT. I will post two of the questions and the candidates’ answers each day this week.

Jeff Leake

  1. How will you be a visionary and a transformative leader?

I offer these quotes:
Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader…they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role-Always about the goal.
The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

 

       2. What do you think are the three most pressing problems about education facing us as a state? Please explain in detail how you would address those problems as the President of the Connecticut Education Association.

a. Resources necessary for addressing the real educational, emotional and social needs of all our students are not available in too many districts, so problem #1 is funding. We need to fix CT’s tax and funding system and provide the necessary resources for our students, with a special emphasis on our least resourced communities;

b. We need to ensure that we are preparing the next generation of teachers for the changing needs of our students and the communities in which they live, and further ensure that the profession is attractive to those wishing to become educators;

c. End the growing privatization of our public schools;

d. Expand opportunities to develop and empower teacher leaders.

 

Robert Smoler

       1. How will you be a visionary and a transformative leader?

Transformative leadership comes from a willingness to embrace change. Change starts from gaining an awareness of your environment and the needs of your constituents, the ability to plan strategically, the ability to communicate that plan effectively, and the ability to bring people together to turn the plan into a reality. Those are my skill sets. It’s what I do. I was successful doing that at Oxford Health Plans where we took a start-up company and built it into a market leader with 7,000 employees and 2 million customers. Along the way, we improved the lives of countless people. I was successful doing that with Westport Baseball and Softball where I created one of the best town youth baseball programs in the state. That program turned a bad Staples baseball team into a perennial powerhouse that has won 3 league and one state championship in 12 years.   We’ve also helped dozens of young men to get into great schools due to their baseball skills. I’m doing it right now in Fairfield where we’ve helped to elect an education friendly Board of Education, Board of Selectmen and RTM; built coalitions of administrators and parents all working toward a common goal of creating a great education experience for students: and got teachers a seat at the table when discussing important issues affecting teachers and students.  Fairfield teachers feel proud to be part of the association and half of our 1,000 teachers have done something to advance our mission.

          2. What do you think are the three most pressing problems about education facing us as a state? Please explain in detail how you would address those problems as the President of the Connecticut Education Association.

a. Problem 1: The decrease in State funding for local public schools, especially inner city schools, coupled with the siphoning off of public funds for the benefit of unaccountable for-profit charter schools.

Solution: The narrative that funding for public schools is somehow just a line item in the budget to be cut is extremely short sighted. Exceptional public schools are critical to the growth of CT as a state, essential to maintaining and growing each town’s grand list and essential to the future of our youth. Currently, Connecticut’s education system is in the top 10 in not only results, but also as a state that is favorable for teachers to work in (This is despite our major achievement gap). These facts represent an asset for the state to build on. I intend to convince all state officials and the public that investing in education is the primary way for the state to thrive fiscally, socially and from an opportunistic standpoint as we move deeper into the 21st century.

The public relations component of this is just half the battle, though. It is harder to convince people to change their minds than to reinforce current thoughts. That is why the CEA needs to make sure that we elect at the local and state level public officials that already understand and appreciate how critical our public education system is to the future of CT.b

b. Problem 2: Outside parties are defining our profession. They have established how teachers are to be evaluated (the CT teacher evaluation system), what we will teach (common core), who can teach (Relay and elimination of CEUs) and how we will measure success (standardized testing). I fundamentally disagree with each of these approaches as I believe they denigrate the teaching profession and represent a lack of understanding of what is involved in growing a child into an independent adult capable of contributing to society.

Solution: The CEA must establish the CEA Academy whose mission is to establish best practice in teaching and child development.   The work of the Academy must be research based, data driven and take into consideration the skills students will need to be successful in the 21st century.   We also need to create many types of alliances (PTA would be one example). One key alliance should be with education and leadership departments in our state’s public and private colleges/universities. Public schools and our pubic and private colleges and universities represent the continuum of education that is responsible of developing/educating the vast majority of US citizens. We need to be aligned in our approach to this development.

c. Problem 3: We are looking at a serious teacher shortage all across the country and CT is no different. CT will never be able to maintain a high- quality education system without establishing the teaching profession as a desirable field for talented individuals to enter. Attacks on public school teachers; declining wages, benefits and working conditions; declining job security, i.e. attacks on tenure; and a lack of resources and support are all turning talented people off from teaching.

Solution: First, collective bargaining and interest arbitration must be maintained. That is the only way that reasonable wages, benefits and working conditions can be maintained. We must elect state officials that are committed to this process.

Second, I would be in favor of requiring all school districts to participate in the CT Partnership 2.0 health insurance program.   Insurance has long been based on the law of large numbers. The more people covered under a single plan, the less costly the plan will be, because the risk will be spread over a larger number of individuals.   I would also encourage the state to make a retiree version of the CT Partnership 2.0 plan available as the primary program for retirees. This will provide continuity of coverage for individuals as they enter retirement. This retiree program could either be a Medicare Advantage program or a supplement to Medicare. Ideally our state or country would adopt a universal healthcare program, but until that happens, the above will have to do.

Third, CT should encourage high school students to study education in college through financial incentives.   Scholarships to CT State Schools should be available to those students, especially minority students, who are willing to commit to the education field for at least 4 years. Students who enter college on this basis should be able to graduate in 4 years with a masters in education and full certification so they can begin their teaching career right after graduation.

Lastly, the state retirement system needs to be maintained and updated. More and more teachers are retiring before age 65, often with less than 25 years of service. Many teachers in their early and mid-term ages are as concerned about having amounts of adequate life, disability and health insurance as they are with their retirement. They also have worries about putting their kids through college. Those closer to retirement are concerned about paying for very expensive health insurance after retirement if they are under age 65 as well as long-term care needs. I think the CEA needs to take a comprehensive look at the profile of a teacher at all phases of their career and perhaps suggest a program that not only includes post-retirement income replacement but also the financial needs of a teacher throughout their whole teaching career. Attracting and retaining teachers requires a comprehensive approach and it can’t all be about what you get when you retire.