Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Problems Leading Up to the EASD's Proposed 11.85% Tax Hike: Part III - Pat Fisher and the AFG

Pat Fisher, EASD School Board President, Sister-in-Law 
of Linda Fisher, Director of AFG in the EASD

Posted by: Noel Jones

If you thought that nepotism in our local political system ended with the husband/wife team of the Vulcanos on City Council and the School Board, or with the husband/wife team of the Pantos as Mayor and City Councilwoman (now newly appointed to the Zonging Board), don't blink, or you might miss Pat Fisher, School Board President and her Sister-in-Law, Linda Fisher, Director of our local department of AFG (Accreditation for Growth). 

I was unfamiliar with the AFG, so I did some web surfing and first found this helpful description on the Northampton Area School District we site:

"In a quest to improve school and student performance, the Northampton Area School District has undertaken a process to become accredited through the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools. The Middle States organization is an independent evaluator designed to assist schools in their journey for continuous improvement.  The process is called the Middle States Accreditation for Growth or AFG. AFG is a method used by many school districts to improve student and organizational performance through the protocol for accreditation.  Accreditation provides a systematic process that requires a district to question why it exists, to establish a vision of its future and to determine specific objectives, or steps, for reaching that vision.  The process helps schools establish priorities for improvement by using thorough data collection or a needs assessment."

Now, one might think, that sounds good, I've heard our schools are struggling, and accreditation sounds nice and official, so what could be wrong with spending taxpayer dollars on that each year?

Well, a few of things.
  1. First of all, an accreditation department needs a director, and that director then gets a nice salary, and the person that was appointed Director of AFG for our school district happens to be the sister-in-law of School Board President, Pat Fisher.

  2. In addition to Linda Fisher's annual salary of $83,200, stipends are paid out to teachers each year who take part in a process that in many schools across the nation is voluntary. The EASD spends $500,000-$600,000 on this program every year.
  3. The whole purpose of the program is to improve student performance in our schools. Easton Area High School is currently in its third year of Corrective Action II under No Child Left Behind. A category so low, so bad, that No Child Left Behind never even invented a category for it, so instead, we are in the lowest category for our third consecutive year, a category of such failure that the State has the right to take over the school at any moment it should decide to. On the PA Teachers web site, (just select Northampton County and enter her name) if I'm reading the columns right, it looks like Linda Fisher was appointed in 2008, which would mean that in two years, this program has done nothing to pull the high school up out of Corrective Action II. But in the article pasted at the end of this post, the reporter mentions that Linda Fisher became Director of AFG "after 30 years of teaching," which makes it seem that perhaps she has been the AFG director for longer, since her total years of service on the  PA Teachers web site is listed as 36 years.
  4. As mentioned in the Express Times article below, no other local school district has a coordinator specifically focused on accreditation.
For a more detailed description of what AFG and No Child Left Behind are supposed to accomplish, check these links to their official web sites:

Link to Middle States Accreditation for Growth (AFG) Official Site

No Child Left Behind--Official Site

To get a better grip on the big picture of AFG in the EASD, check out this article that I came across from the Express Times last year (keep in mind that certain board members mentioned are no longer on the board, and others are):

Some question merit of costly program EASTON AREA DEPARTMENT coordinates accreditation for 10 school district buildings.
Value in AFG? Accreditation process involves community
By Colin McEvoy The Express-Times
June, 15, 2009
EASTON | As the Easton Area School Board works through a difficult budget year, members are debating the value of a department dedicated to school accreditation.
The district spends $500,000 to $600,000 on a department focused specifically on Accreditation for Growth, a voluntary process that results in accreditation focused on student performance at each of the district's school buildings.
Although they all agree the accreditation process should continue, board members have differed on whether a full-time administrator controlling an entire department is necessary.
Linda Fisher, the district's director of Accreditation for Growth, makes $83,200 annually, according to district officials. The district also budgets $59,000 in stipends for 19 teachers participating in AFG
No other local school district has a coordinator specifically focused on accreditation.
The school board will vote Thursday on a final budget. Although AFG has been a discussion point, there are no plans to vote on removing it from the budget.
At least one area educator questions the importance of even continuing the accreditation process.
John Reinhart, superintendent of the Bangor Area School District, said some in the educational community feel accreditation itself is less important than it used to be because of new state evaluation processes.
Rather than seeking accreditation every several years, districts are now changing and re-evaluating themselves on a constant basis due to state-standardized test scores, which some argue has antiquated accreditation altogether, Reinhart said.
Easton Area School Board member Randolph Mahl said the AFG process should not be abolished. But he believes it should become part of the job description of all administrators and teachers, rather than the duty of a separate department.
He compared it with businesses seeking a formal certification from the International Organization for Standardization. Most businesses don't have an ISO coordinator, Mahl said, but everybody takes on part of the task of making sure they reach the certification.
Board member Kerri Leonard-Ellison, however, said the AFG process gathers input from all stakeholders, including teachers and parents, resulting in long-term educational goals for the district.
"We have our goals set, and we have a lot of people that are working toward the same common goal," she said. "You want to abolish that, then what happens?"
Linda Fisher is the sister-in-law of board president Patricia Fisher. Although the board president supports the program, she said the relationship has nothing to do with it, and she abstains from any decision-making regarding AFG.
Linda Fisher, who worked as a teacher in the district for more than 30 years before being appointed director of AFG, said her experience "speaks for itself."
Although participation in AFG is voluntary, the state mandates a district have a strategic plan updated each year, and Linda Fisher said the district's plan is updated through AFG.
All 10 Easton Area School District buildings are accredited through AFG, rather than just one building, which Linda Fisher said would be difficult to maintain without a full-time coordinator.
"This is the voice of our community and our stakeholders within the district," Linda Fisher said. "It's something that offers every single person the chance to speak about the needs of our buildings."
The district was last accredited in 2004 and is up for accreditation again in 2012, Linda Fisher said.
Board member Pam Millen-Eustis said the AFG process should continue but that an AFG department is not necessary, especially because accreditation is not a yearly requirement.
But Patricia Fisher said many colleges and higher education institutions still place great importance on whether a school is accredited.
"It's a voice for the teachers, it's not the principals making all the decisions about what they need," she said. "Taking this away would take the teachers' voice away."
Reporter Colin McEvoy can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at cmcevoy@express-times.com.


Easton Heights Blogger said...

even another reason my kids aren't in the EASD.

noel jones said...

EHB~a question for you--are your kids on a "virtual schools" program that is subsidized through the EASD? This is something new I am just learning about.

noel jones said...

p.s. EHB~even if your kids are not in the school, these issues affect you greatly as a taxpayer!

Easton Heights Blogger said...

yes, it's a cyber school. As I understand it, it's funded through the state of PA, which of course gets funding from the individual districts.
it's called commonwealth connections academy. they provide computers and textbooks, and pay for our internet connection. they have real teachers who they interact with weekly, and submit tests and complete PA state standardized tests like any other student.
it's really a great program we're happy to be a part of.

Easton Heights Blogger said...

P.S. I am very aware of and concerned about these issues, they do affect everyone in the community. my first concern is my kids getting a good education and I don't feel that they would be getting it in the EASD.
these issues are long entrenched and not about to change anytime soon. change would require a massive coordination of the public to be aware of the problem, agree that a change needs to happen, then to implement it.
as many as there are who are upset at the status quo, there are many who are just fine the way it is. those people have influence and power, i.e., the Pantos and Fishers and anyone of Lebanese heritage (that is not an Ethnic slight; just an observation of where the power base in Easton lies).
politics is a power struggle at every level, from the school district to the white house. and if history is to teach us anything, the will of the people is hardly ever accomplished.

noel jones said...

EHB~ the "will of the people" that you mention IS the key. we the people have the power, any time we decide to all wake up exercise our will at the same time. that means making participation in local politics as a citizen a priority in each person's life, rather than something that we think other residents will take care of. we each have a responsibility to do all we can to promote the integrity of our political system.

Easton Heights Blogger said...

I'll stand by my comment. the will of the people will always be trumped by the will of the lobbyist.

noel jones said...

regardless what anyone thinks of our current President, defeatists did not get him elected. many thought it impossible, but it was the will of the people, and an average donation of $90/person that put him in office. many thought it was impossible, not even worth trying.

we average about 6-8% voter turnout at our local elections. but on election day for the presidential race, we had 64% turnout--higher than the national average. the will of the people was activated. now the question is, how to convince people that their local elections actually affect their lives more directly than the presidential election? with a 64% turnout at a local election--even half that--even a quarter of that--the people could take their local government back in one fell swoop. so the power is there, it's just not been activated on a local level yet.

i feel sure that some of this disparity has to do with television--the presidential elections have a tremendous television presence, and let's face it--Americans spend most of their free time watching television instead of going to city council and school board meetings and watching what elected officials do with their tax money. and the media covers politics on the national scene through news programs, talk shows and advertisements in a way that local politics just don't get covered.

as a citizenry, we need to pressure our media outlets to promote citizen involvement in local politics more, by sponsoring candidate's forums that are televised.

secondly, our local Democratic and Republican committees (and our local Independents) need to re-energize and start scouting for strong candidates in the community well ahead of time (as in NOW) and running primaries again, instead of just getting picking someone or getting behind anyone who will step forward to run against the incumbents at the last minute.

committees too, need to focus on candidates forums, better media coverage and outreach to the public. outreach is important as one-on-one contact goes a long way to convince people that these meetings and elections are important to their lives.

beyond that, i'm still trying to figure it out--the power is there--we just need to shake off apathy and cynicism and activate that sleeping power instead of making defeatist statements as excuses not to get involved.

Lauren Warner said...

Noel, excellent point. Check out Fisher's salary. If I am not mistaken she recently accepted a pay increase. Had she declined it, some teachers possibly would have followed suit? I'll stop there...

Dennis R. Lieb said...

I don't want to sidetrack the conversation from AFG...I don't know enough about it, though I did read the article when it came out and reasonably believe the same ends could be achieved through an ISO-like program of cooperation rather than a dedicated coordinator and budget. But I do want to mention this No Child Left Behind issue.

I don't make a career of talking about public education but from every single person I've spoken to - including Tim Pickel, who recently retired from a long teaching career - it seems the program is an abject failure. I've never heard a good word about it from anyone involved in the education profession. I thought I heard something on the news yesterday that this administration is thinking of scrapping it but I may have heard wrong.

I still believe two things adamently: individual student success in any district will depend on parent and mentor involvement and overall achievement figures are skewed downward when lumping the financially poorest students in with the general student population's statistics. I just found out Sunday from a student intervention officer in Allentown that the class president of one of that district's high schools is homeless. They found out by chance recently because the student didn't want the information to be common knowledge to avoid embarrassement. Allentown's schools are obviously a mess. This shows what someone can do when they have encouragement, mentor support and clear personal goals.

Not really about the budget...just throwing that out there.


noel jones said...

Dennis~actually your comment IS about the budget, because AFG runs taxpayers $500k - $600k a year. If it's not working, the program should be scrapped and the tax money saved.

Lauren~Thanks for posting. As per the article that I pasted into my post (be sure to read the whole thing, as it's really interesting--you have to click the "Read More" link on the post to see the rest), Linda Fisher's salary is $83,200. I could not find Pat Fisher on the PA Teachers site (also linked in the 2nd page of the post), so I don't believe she gets paid to be the president, but if someone has factual confirmation otherwise, please post it here. Administrator's salaries are posted on the site as well, for instance, the Superintendent, Susan McGinley makes $150,000...

Nepotism isn't always directly about money (although it often is) but power and self-interest. City Council people only get paid $10K--hardly lucrative--and School Board members get nothing at all. Zoning Board members get small stipends. But the power that these positions afford in a small city in terms of hooking up friends and family with opportunities and seeing their own personal agendas put forward rather than goals that are for the good of the people is often too tempting to resist. It would be nice to be able to rely on the integrity of our elected officials, but in reality, it is our responsibility to keep them honest or vote them out.

Cathy Stoops said...

Linda Fisher says her experience speaks for itself - if she told the Express Times that 10 buildings were "accredited" then experience in accreditation is something she truly lacks. The Middle States Association accrediting commissions do not accredit buildings.

We should not confuse the value of school accreditation with this unique concoction the EASD has created called the AFG Office. Randolph Mahl is correct in saying that achieving and maintaining a school's accredited status is part of every school teacher's, administrator's and board member's job. Nobody should be paid money to participate in it and it shouldn't be segregated into a professional office. School accreditation was invented in the United States as a way to ensure quality in our schools and to avoid exactly what is happening right now which is having the government say what is and what isnt a quality school. It used to be that only the community could decide that. Schools in the US were created by communities not the government. Schools accredited each other through this volunteer peer driven process which, when it is not corrupted, guarantees freedom and diversity and democracy. I worked for US accrediting commissions in the US and also traveled to the Middle East (prior to 9/11) - where schools were begging for US type accreditation because their schools were regulated by their governments and kids were jumping out of windows because everything was decided by do or die testing.

If the Middle States Association is sanctioning the set up of this AFG Office and this complete estrangment of EASD board and the community of Easton then that is a black eye for them.

Anonymous said...

My word do you all have nothing good to say about anyone? Linda Fisher has been an excellent teacher ion our district. My cghildren were in her class and if anyone is going to help teachers improve she is certainly a great candidate. Hello, she was a teacher when Pat Fisher was a phys. ed. teacher and you talk like you know and you No Pat Fisher does not make a salary as President and she has been retired from teaching for well over a decade.

It amazes me that we don't respect but would rather put down good teaching professionals becasue they happen to be related to someone.

Did you know that Pat Vulcano was the state of Pa Teacher of the Year? Did you know that Sal Panto was rated one of the best teachers in the district? (I had Mr. Panto as I still call him and he played a major role in shaping me into the fine person I turned out to be......I was on the wrong path.) Did you know that the vast majority of teachers in the district are extemely professional and do work hard for their salary? Why not go and observe for several days? Get involved. What you will find -- the best teachers are the ones that live right here in our district -- because they care!
Let's stop sterotyping all teachers, all Italians, and for the betterment of this community let's try hard to hire from within the community.

Anonymous said...

Glad they all have jobs! But for me on limited income at the end of my working years I am unable to pay the final quarter of this years EASD taxes. I never had children in EASD but I pay for these socialist families to have sports and a good part of these socialist teachers set for the end of their life with their pensions. What do I get? I lose my house. Where do I go? Socialist Gracedale. Thanks alot. Sorry if I dont have anything good to say about selfish people in these hard times.

noel jones said...

Anon 9:00~This is the argument that often pops up in defense of nepotism and croneyism--that the person is good at their job, so that should justify a friend or family member that has been given a hiring advantage. Michele Vulcano might also be a fine teacher, but it does not make it ok that an emergency certificate was pulled for her over 17 other candidates. It is not ok--it is unethical.

No one here has said that Linda Fisher is not a good teacher, but rather, that the entire department that the board made her head of is not only failing, but an unnecessary waste of $500k-$600k in taxpayer dollars every year, and that it is a mysterious coincidence that out of ALL the good longtime teachers in the district, that she, as sister-in-law of the School Board president, was appointed.

Besides, teaching experience and administrative experience are not the same thing. The high school and middle school are both failing, on her watch, and the watch of the board members that appointed her, and at great taxpayer expense.

I repeat, from the article--we are the only local school district that spends tax money on an AFG department and administrator. That's $500K-$600K in taxpayer money that other districts are saving in this economic crisis. There would be a better argument for it if it were actually working, but we have been in Corrective Action II--the worst level, making us eligible to be taken over by the State--for three years in a row.

Can you really justify spending $500K-$600K of taxpayer money on something unnecessary, that isn't working, and for which a teacher who happened to be sister-in-law to the board president was appointed administrator at $83,200/year?

As for Mayor Panto, I have always given credit where credit is due, and criticism where criticism is due--he's done a good job on balancing the budget and the new street sweeping program so far. It was totally inappropriate for him to appoint his wife to City Council, and then to the Zoning Board. One does not justify the other.

From what I've learned from listening to the old-timers here, nepotism and croneyism have been slowly killing this town for decades, and it's up to us to call them on it, and LOOK FOR GOOD CANDIDATES to run in time for the next elections. Watching the news and voting are not enough to turn this ship around--we've got to begin looking now, so that voters will have a choice, so that the powers that be that have been reinforcing the status quo for their own benefit do not run unopposed like Pat Vulcano did in the last School Board election.

Cathy Stoops said...

As described by Anon 9 pm I trust that the teaching experience of Linda Fisher would be very helpful to those teaching now. I only meant to say that buildings are not "accredited" by MSA. It was an indirect quote from her by the Express Times that led me to say this and perhaps they did not accurately quote her. But also we should that know teachers professional development is just one part of many parts to the accreditation process. MSA also looks at Leadership and Governance. Interference in the day to day affairs of Leadership by Governance is a contra indicator. If the AFC office is doing its job looking after EASD accreditation we can expect that they are taking a hard look at what has gone on here and developing steps to correct it.

noel jones said...

Cathy~thanks so much for your posts--it's nice to have someone with professional experience in accreditation that isn't a part of the EASD to share knowledge on this topic.

that said, you're being very generous with Anon, but unfortunately, they haven't developed steps that are successfully correcting the problem. our middle schools and high school are in terrible condition academically (Corrective Actions 1 & 2) and our spending $500k-$600k a year in our tax money on this program (that no other district near us has) has not changed the situation.

i say we cut the program. that brings us $600k closer to the $15million in cuts that need to occur to eliminate the tax hike. we need to cut a lot of programs that aren't well attended or used...there will be more on this in my next installment of this series of posts...