September 8, 2006

The Public Forum . . . El Foro Público

Why The People’s Tribunal?

By Mike MacCarthy

Many thanks for the August 18, 2006 news story “Lack of Accountability Equals Lack of Education for Some”. In this piece, reporter Raymond L. Beltran mentioned an organization called The People’s Tribunal (TPT) that is currently prosecuting San Diego City Schools (SDCS) for failing in their duties and responsibilities. TPT has already indicted and served the city school board, its members, and current superintendent, Dr. Carl Cohn. The tribunal will take place at Gompers Middle School auditorium beginning Friday, September 8 (6-8 p.m.) and end Saturday, September 9, 2006 ( 8-2 p.m.); it is free and open to the public. Free refreshments will be served and there will be several opportunity drawings for student/parent school-related prizes. The Tribunal is designed to separate fact from fiction concerning the actual state of education in city schools, and to bring to light legal and funded remedies within SDCS that are currently available to parents, grandparents, foster parents, adoptive parents, and community activists.

Some people ask, “What possible good can The People’s Tribunal serve?” While reflecting on that question, mix in these facts: During the school year (2006-2007), SDCS will have approximately 132,000 students enrolled in all its schools, including charters. Of these students, roughly 75% (100,000) are children of color. The latest national surveys (including those by Oprah and Bill Gates) reveal that almost 50% of children of color will never graduate. Does this information really bother anyone in San Diego? It bothers The People’s Tribunal and they’re going to do something about it.

In San Diego’s political landscape, who speaks for the children? Certainly not the City Council, nor the County Board of Supervisors; with them it’s all about political power, “one-upmanship”, or resume building. And what about the unions—especially the city school employee unions? Sorry, folks, there’s no realistic hope those institutions will see fit to speak for the children in the foreseeable future; they haven’t done so for the past 8 years. For the present, the three main unions that have contracts with SDCS have too many internal problems—different power groups who hold wildly divergent philosophies of management and mission. The teachers’ union just fired their Executive Director of more than 20 years and sent their immediate past president packing with barely a “thank you”.

Teachers as individuals are a different story. For the most part, they really do care about the city’s children, but are powerless to make their voices heard—separate from their union. Even more frustrating for individual teachers is the fact that in recent years, the teachers’ union did little to help its own members when SDCS declared war on “older teachers”. Furthermore, the “Blueprint” was a disaster for students and families, and teachers asked (as individuals and collectively) to be heard on this subject, but SDCS ignored and dismissed their ideas as if they were misbehaving toddlers. During recent budgetary shortfalls, SDCS’s “voluntary retirement” program for teachers was another disaster for children. Yes, the district saved money, but it was a pyrrhic victory. Gone and irreplaceable are all those dedicated teachers who for decades put their own health at risk working 24/7 for children. The fact that most teachers’ hearts were/are in the right place doesn’t do the children any good if teachers’ voices are ignored—especially by the press. SDCS has gone to great lengths to convince the public that the only thing teachers care about is more money, less work, and more power. The unfortunate bottom line is that many teachers as individuals or as members of their union have not made all the children of San Diego their number one priority.

So, what about the Chamber of Commerce and its Education Roundtable; do they speak for the children of our city? Forget-about-it. The Chamber is the most self-interest driven of all the public institutions that should be looking out for the children of this city. Instead of investing significant grants or donations for the real needs of children (where the school board could keep an eye on the funds and report regularly how it was being spent)—especially children from poverty, disadvantaged, and/or broken homes—the Chamber and its members wave their self-righteous fingers at poverty communities for being lousy parents and citizens, while trying to tap into as much of the $2.2 billion* the district annually pays for salaries, goods, and services. The plain fact is that corporate America has maneuvered itself to where it virtually controls SDCS at the trustee level—to the great detriment of this city’s children. (*Source: SDCS web site)

So, the question naturally follows, “Why doesn’t the city school board speak for the children?” Two main reasons: (1) Being a city school board member is a full-time job, but only pays $18,000/year. Board members have no personal staff unless they pay for it out of their own pocket, yet they are expected to be fully knowledgeable on the entire board agenda (often numbering in 100s of items) every two weeks; the agenda is drafted by the superintendent and district staff most all of whom are paid over 6 figures; (2) Board members must run “city-wide”, which means they must convince large numbers of people to vote for them which requires raising huge sums of money for TV ads (in 2000, Fran Zimmerman had to raise close to $600,000 to offset the $1 million raised by the Chamber and the Lincoln Club to defeat her and her pro-children platform). Consequently, in the city of San Diego, most school board elections boil down to a contest between the unions and the Chamber. Since 1998, the Chamber has won most school board elections—even when candidates such as Katherine Nakamura and Louis Acle “give us their word” during the campaign that they’re going to be an “independent” voice. In other words, the city school board does not speak for the children of San Diego because too often (during the past 8 years especially) school board trustees have had a personal agenda with children at the bottom of the list. Item: Within the first year of school board elections in 2004, new members Acle and Jackson announced their intention to seek higher office.

So, the question, “What possible good can The People’s Tribunal serve?” has an answer. TPT can and will represent the children of San Diego City Schools—it’s their only mission. Why not drop by Gompers Middle School this coming weekend and see for yourself? One thing I can guarantee: You’ll hear the truth.

Mike MacCarthy is one of the prosecutors for The People’s Tribunal and President of Voters For Truth in Education (VOTE); he can be reached at mmwrites@san.rr.com.

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