Not Cease from Exploration

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

5 Questions for Tom Borthwick

Preface
I've known Tom Borthwick for a few years now and I consider him to be both a friend and a decent human being.  Given  the decent human being status, I'm hard-pressed to understand why he insists on running for elective office.  Never the less he is, in fact, running for an open Scranton School District director position in the upcoming election.  In an effort to educate myself, amuse myself and maybe educate others, I've asked Tom to answer five questions related to the operation of the Scranton School District specifically and public education in general.  My questions, and Tom's answers, are noted below.

By the way, you can link to Tom's website at TomBorthwick.com.


Ground Rules
I wrote the questions and Tom answered them.  Pretty simple actually.  There has been no editing done on my part.

Other candidates wishing to answer these questions are free to do so and I will publish their responses exactly as provided to me, without any editing or editorial comments.  You can send your answers to me at genagrippa@gmail.com.

I do reserve the right to comment on the responses in a separate posting.


5 Questions
My questions are noted in dark red text; Tom's answers are noted in gray text.

Topic 1: Nepotism
Local school districts across Northeastern Pennsylvania have earned a
reputation for employing the relatives of district officials. This
reputation extends to the Scranton School District. This has created a
general sense of corruption and a belief that the district is not being
run for the benefit of students but instead for the benefit of the
politically connected.
Question:
Do you share in the belief that the Scranton School District has a
nepotism "problem"? If no, why? If yes, what will you do as a Director to
change this perception?

There certainly is a perception that nepotism is a problem in the
district.  The Board did, at one time, have an anti-nepotism policy and I
doubt it has been rescinded.  Obviously it has not done anything to
counter how the public views the Board.  As one of nine, I wouldn’t have
total control over hiring, but I can say that my family members are all
comfortable in their professions and I don’t plan on using the district to
enrich myself or my blood.  That’s not why I’m running.  The best way to
change the perception, I think, is to simply not hire family.  It won’t be
an overnight thing, but a “lead by example” situation that would have to
happen over time.


Topic 2: School Funding
In Pennsylvania, public school districts are primarily funded through a
combination of wage and property taxes. In areas with strong property tax
bases (such as suburban Philadelphia), districts seem to be well off
financially. In areas such as Scranton, the opposite is the case.
Question:
Do you favor a substantial change in how school districts are funded in
Pennsylvania? If so, what kind of change would you advocate?

Recently, bills have been proposed in the General Assembly that would
shift the funding burden from districts to the state.  I am 100% in favor
of this.  Sadly, the bills have gone nowhere.  Right now, there is a huge
disparity in funding between districts.  Wealthy suburban districts
obviously have more money to play with.  They also tend to perform better
on tests.  The opposite is true in urban districts.  If property taxes
were eliminated and sales taxes were upped 1% (along with the removal of
silly sales tax exemptions for things like candy), that would be better
for the state and for districts.  Property owners would see more money in
their pockets and schools would be funded equally. This would create
parity, leveling the playing field for kids across the state.


Topic 3: School Director Qualifications
Being the director in a public school district is equivalent to being a
director in a small-medium sized corporation. Directors in the public
sector almost always elected with specific areas of expertise in mind,
such as legal, human resources, or industry specific skills. In
Pennsylvania, school district Directors are not required to have any
qualifications for the position, other than simply winning a popularity
contest.
Question:
Do you favor a system of qualifications for school directors? Why or why not?

This is a tough one.  I believe that Directors should be qualified for the
position, but I also believe that the electorate should be the group that
decides what the word “qualifications” means.  What would I like to see in
a Director?  Obviously, I want to see wisdom, experience, and some level
of higher education.  Proven dedication to the community and volunteer
service is also important to me.  I understand that I’m kind of describing
myself here, but a lot of other candidates do and have fit this
description.  So while I would like to see qualified people in there, as
I’m sure many do, I wouldn’t rob the electorate the chance to define what
“qualified” means.



Topic 4: Labor Relations
Public school districts are one of the few areas of employment where
strikes still remain a facet of labor relations.
Question:
What can be done to eliminate labor strikes in Pennsylvania's public schools?

Currently, the system is silly.  Strikes have lost their teeth because
districts are mandated to reach a certain amount of instructional time
regardless of strikes.  The purpose of a strike, at its core, is to
demonstrate to employers the value of work done by employees.  So how do
we make that happen?  On the board level, there is nothing I can do.  I
can only hold an ideological position and not affect state legislation.
Frankly, I’m up in the air and open to listening to all sides here.  My
instinct is to say that we need to have fair and equitable contracts and
we need a means for district employees to get them.  Is last best offer
binding arbitration the way?  Maybe.  It would encourage both districts
and unions to offer reasonable, center-driven contractual proposals due to
the threat of an arbitrator rejecting an extreme proposal that both groups
tend to start with.  I also feel that strikes, and the threat of strikes,
cause major inconvenience and are a PR tactical tool that district unions
utilize to draw attention to their cause.  I’m loathe to rob unions of
their voice because I believe strongly that they deserve one.  Workers are
continually marginalized across all sectors of the economy and so I would
be willing to listen to their perspective (and really any perspective) on
how to avoid strikes while maintaining workers’ rights.



Topic 5: High School Sports
At at time of dramatically reduced state funding for education, the
Scranton School District is most likely moving forward with a significant
upgrade to the sports facilities at West Scranton High School.
Question:
Are public schools in general (and the Scranton School District in
particular) spending money on athletic programs and facilities that should
be spent on academic programs and facilities?

You know, I recently read that in Europe, sports programs are tied to a
community and region and supported as such.  Here, local sports programs
are supported by high schools.  I don’t have a problem with that because I
think it’s important to offer kids after-school programs.  I know that a
lot of kids, particularly in low-income districts, benefit from the
community and discipline provided by extra-curricular activities.
Now, the issue that you’re getting at is funding priority.  Should sports
take precedence over academics?  The answer is never.  I was once at a
meeting about teacher layoffs that also had a discussion about who would
be hired as a new coach.  The coach issue was first.  Once that was
settled, more than half of the parents and kids there left the meeting.
There is a problem of priorities when something like that occurs.  I’m not
devaluing sporting programs at all, but the focus needs to be academics –
that’s the purpose of a school and, in terms of what is more important to
fund, it’s a no-brainer for me: classrooms.




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