October 2008

The future of school

After a couple of intense days at the T+L Conference, one thing is clear: the future of school includes some online courses.  That’s not to take anything away from teachers, or their ability to help our children learn and grow… but the way that’s accomplished is going to change.

It has to.  Already, schedule compression (more and more requirements, no more hours in the day) has reached the point where some students are forced to give things up, in order to fulfill requirements.  Once example of that is that Gamma will have to take economics next year, and to do so during the school day, she’ll either have to give up Orchestra (which she’s been in since 4th grade), or German IV (necessary for her to be able to take the AP test, which she very much wants to do), or Calculus (not an option).

I don’t consider any of those to be an acceptable trade-off, so I’m exploring the possibility of enrolling her in an online course through Roane State, which she could hopefully do over the Summer.  

I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that there are quite a few students faced with giving up something they’ve invested years in.  The reality is, you can’t take four years of a foreign language AND be in the band, orchestra, art, career academies, or any number of valuable classes, and still meet all the graduation requirements. 

What if we could offer online courses, to be completed at home, for things like Economics, Government, Personal Finance (a new requirement beginning next year), Wellness A (essentially, what we used to call "Health") and such?  Those are pretty standard classes, which most students could learn independently with the right online curriculum.

Further, what if we could waive the PE requirements (currently one semester, going up to two semesters next year) for those students who are part of school athletic teams, who already put in at least the same number of hours?

Next year, two more courses will be required for graduation (Personal Finance and PE).  In my opinion, we need to do something this year to prevent the schedule compression from getting worse.

There are already a lot of online courses developed that adhere to our State standards.   Partnering with community colleges, such as Roane State, is another option. 

I’ve gathered a lot of information, which I’ll link to in another post (when I can have all my papers and wireless access in the same place).  But for now, what do you think? 

Seattle, Monday

Seattle really is a beautiful city… what little I’ve seen of it so far, anyway.

Getting here was a bit of an adventure, but it seems like anything involving airline travel is, these days.  My flight out of Knoxville was delayed (they didn’t put enough fuel in, on the first try), then we hit headwinds approaching Dallas.

When I got to the next gate, it was one minute until departure (I was supposed to have 45 minutes between flights), and they’d already given my seat to someone on standby.  So, I got bumped by 2.5 hours to the next flight out.

Not so bad, all things considered.  And, they even gave me a window seat, which I like.  Unfortunately, they put the two biggest fellows on the plane in my row, and I was in the last group to board, so I had my carry-on under my feet and was scrunched up against the window for the whole four-hour flight.

It could have been a lot worse, I know.  But I am tired — I’ve been up since 1 a.m. (Eastern time), and my last event this evening begins at 8:00 (Pacific time), so I’m going to be running about 24 hours straight before this day is done.

I can see the bay out my window, to the right of the shot posted.  I’d really love to go down to the wharf, and might just do that before the reception this evening.

Sleepless (before I even get to Seattle)

I woke myself with a yell this morning — heart racing, leaping from the bed, convinced that I was going to miss my plane (which boards at 5:25 a.m.), headed for Seattle for the week.

The clock said 1 a.m., but in the dream that woke me, my mother had just called — something about which dress I was going to allow Beta (now 18) wear for Halloween.  I asked her, in the dream, what time it was… and she said "about five."  This prompted the yell that woke me, and now I’m up for the day.

That dream probably came from spending most of yesterday trying to finish Gamma’s halloween costume.

It’s going to be a long day anyway, but even longer with the three-hour time difference.  That’s okay, though.  At least now I’ve had time to read the newspapers (as is my habit), write a little, and start the day the way I prefer.

I’ve packed everything in my carry-on, to minimize the chances of me arriving in Seattle while my luggage goes to Miami.  That happened when I went to a meeting in Sacramento some years ago, and I’ve never quite recovered from the trauma.  Unfortunately, this makes me a little anxious, wondering if my little bottle of toothpaste is going to make it through security… since I’ve only flown a few times since 9/11, it does seem like the processes change each time.

Anxiety about time and travel aside, I’m looking forward to the T+L Conference.   Technology is an important and growing part of education, but it’s critical to be informed. As most people realize, it’s easy to spend a ton of cash on technology, but there’s a huge difference between having all the latest gadgets and having the right tools for the job.

By the end of today, I’ll be better informed.  And I won’t be sleepless in Seattle.

The road less traveled

Last weekend, taking advantage of a few days of Fall Break, we took off for a mental health holiday.  Winding through Oliver Springs, then Wartburg, up past Huntsville and taking a left at Oneida, we explored a tiny portion of the national treasure that is Big South Fork.

Gamma’s taking a lifeguarding class, so she had to stay behind (thanks Girlfriend, for giving her a safe place to sleep and making sure she was well fed).  HWTFM, Delta, and I camped.

On Saturday night after setting up camp and fixing a quick supper, we headed up to Stearns, KY to ride the Big South Fork Scenic Railway — or more specifically, the Haunted Hollow Express.  It was a little scary, but very, very entertaining!  We’ll definitely go back for a longer, daytime ride to Devil’s Jump someday.

Yes, it was 33 degrees Sunday morning.  But, the fire was warm and we fixed a good breakfast… bacon sizzling over an open fire cures a world of ills.  By noon or so, we took off on an ambitious mountain bike adventure — about fourteen miles, but it was fourteen miles of steep terrain.  We forded a couple of streams, and one small river.

On Monday, we hiked.  Dog enjoyed the hike, but even more so, the swim that he took at our turnaround point.  He didn’t bark at the many horses, nor at other hikers.  He stayed close to us, but enjoying every scent, every sound in the forest.  We saw giant leaves that I can’t identify, but some other hikers told us they were known as "hillbilly toilet paper."

Three days (well, two full days and two half days) of no phone, no internet, no television, no radio, no news, no politics.  Double doses of fresh air, sunshine, and quiet.  We went to bed tired every night, and slept soundly.

Today, we returned home to attend to real life — things like HWTFM’s Charter Commission campaign, finishing Gamma’s halloween costume, Delta’s geometry homework, school board stuff… the eveyday stresses that make sleeping in the woods away from everything and everyone else so attractive to begin with.

We’re fortuate to live so close to such paradise.  Every day, we hear endless griping about what’s wrong with our [country/city/state/school/fill-in-the-blank], yet we’re only a short drive away from getting away from it all.  If everyone took such a break once in a while — it’s a national park, so it’s an absolutely affordable getaway — we’d all be in a better mood, easier to get along with.

I certainly am.

Liveblogging: Charter Commission Forum

First, the rules: no questions will be allowed that are directed to a particular candidate.  Questions are screened to eliminate redundancy.  Opening remarks are limited to two minutes, and answers to questions are limited to a minute and a half.  No video recording is allowed; the media is allowed to tape the forum, but are not allowed to permit the recording to be altered in any way, nor used for any candidate advertising.

Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, and Dave McCoy had their opening comments read by representatives, as they were unable to be here.

Each candidate makes an opening comment.  Of the first six, Chuck Agle is the first to stay within his time limit, but finding time to remind the audience of our history with district elections — that candidates were elected with fewer than 100 votes, and that in 1971, more than half of the council races (seven of twelve) were uncontested.

Ella Dubose compares the city to a computer, with the City Charter as the operating system.  We’re charged now with determining whether an "upgrade" is needed, especially since all software doesn’t work with all systems.

Scott Linn, a history teacher at Jefferson Middle School, says it’s essential to be open minded and reasonable when considering changes to the City Charter.  District representation didn’t work — Oak Ridge can’t afford to experiment with failed policies.  We need to work together.

Mike Mahathy points out that challenges are opportunities, but the future of Oak Ridge rests in the results of this Charter Commission.

Mary Helen rose recalls that she was the recording secretary for the last Charter Commission, and served on the Charter Review Committee last year.  "When I’m unhappy with Council, it’s usually because I don’t like one of their decisions, but I doubt that I would be any happier if they were elected by district, or if there were nine instead of seven."

*  *  *

Questions from the local media are next on the agenda.  Stan Mitchell, publisher of the Oak Ridge Observer, asks first:

Because the current City Council is elected at large, it has been said that this leads to some areas being unfairly represented.

Abbatiello: Both forms of government are representative; it’s just a different technique.  Districts create yet another sub group.  It can work reasonably well, until you never have enough candidates to compete.  Our primary issues are citywide, and we need to find the technique that allows us to focus on these citywide issues.

Burns: Two recent decisions were on the mall, and on Crestpoint.  Council’s votes on those matters indicate that Council is not hearing, or not listening, to the people.

Agle: During Abbatiello’s term, our tax rate remained relatively stable.  If we changed to districts representation, there would be no hope of restraint in spending.

Dittner: The Woodland hotel issue illustrates that the current Council is not working, that Council is not listening to neighborhoods.

DuBose: I believe that our Council represents all of the city, and that they’re working on neighborhood revitalization.

John Huotari asks, why districts?

Fain: A broad opportunity for people to be listened to, strengthening the health of our democracy, would be supported by district representation.

Flowers:  There are pros and cons for district representation.  You can get into some one-upsmanship, with Council members refusing to vote for a project because another district council member voted against a different project in their own district.  "If you don’t like the way the coach is calling the game, you don’t change the rules."

Humphries:

Linn: what concerms me about district representation is that it takes away from the individual’s voting power.  Now, we vote for 100% of council members; under the CDAR proposal, one would only be able to vote for up to four of nine.  The Founding Fathers did provide for a blended government (districts for the lower house, at-large for the senate), but they also made the constitution very difficult to amend.  It is a concern how easily our charter can be amended.

Stan Mitchell asks if we need to raise the threshold for referendums.

Mahathy: I believe that the standard for a referendum should be raised.

Jones: Of course we need to have referendums.  We wouldn’t have this call for change if they felt like they were being heard.

Rose: I’m inclined to think that it should be a little more difficult to call for a referendum, especially for a Charter Commission.

Schramm: Referendums are absolutely necessary.  This is not the end of the process, it is the beginning.  If we elect a Charter Commission

Jjohn Huotari asks, what other issues do you think the Charter Commission ought to consider.

Abbatiello: the democratic process is designed to garner input in a respectful manner.  He outlines the sections of the charter, but does not answer the question.

Burns: only interested in the district question.

Agle: Need to point out the unintended consequences.  Recent court rulings indicate that we may end up with a ruling that we must also have a district or hybrid school board.  The charter is an opportunity to put into place some planning mechanisms.  We have no real plan for growth going forward, so every time there’s an opportunity — it’s a surprise!  We need to take the surprise out of the process.

Dittner: I got into this only to discuss districts and the number of council members.

DuBose: I think the things that should be considered is driven by the citizens.

Stan Mitchell asks, who do you think runs this city, and do you think a strong mayor form of government should be considered?

Fain: On the map of the city, there is a strong pattern of where Council members, as well as people who sit on city boards, live.  There are neighborhoods that are seriously out of balance int he amount of power.  (She didn’t answer the question).

Flowers: With the City Manager form of government, you have a strong separation of powers.  In a town this size, you’ve got to have someone whose administrative role is to attend to the day-to-day form of government.  I’m a strong proponent of the City Manager form of government.

Humphries: It should be the City Manager who runs the city, but Council meets only once per months.  Now, they have a meeting before the meeting, which is better, because the other way looked too much like rubber-stamping the City Manager’s proposals.  I have no personal feelings on the strong mayor form.

Linn: a balance of legislative policy with city council and with the city manager dealing with the business seems to work well.  I would be open-minded to look into something like that, but the current practice seems to work well.

Iskander: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But I think it is broken.

Mahathy: If you’re not happy with the results, vote for a new Council.  If elected, I will move to adjourn on the first meeting.

Jones: 26 cities in Tennessee have a mixed form of government.  She recalls that in Knoxville, a Council member named O’Connor favored at-large, and a council member named Cas Walker favored a mix of at large and districts.

Rose:  We keep hearing that we’re not represented, but I believe that our 7-member Council represents us well.  When we are unhappy, it’s not because the Council member doesn’t live in our district, it’s because we’re unhappy with some decision that was made.

Schramm: the previous charter commission didn’t even consider districts.  Running at-large takes a lot of time, and more importantly, a lot of money.  People who run are those with the deepest pockets.

*  *  * (5-minute break) *  *  *

Candidates have answered audience questions, but there wasn’t really any new information brought forth.

 

The Charter Commission

Jerry Marrow writes, in a letter to the Oak Ridger today, that "there is danger on the horizon with the election of this Charter Commission."
 
That is true — though it may be the only thing he wrote that is true.  Let’s take the rest of the errors one by one:

Like most small towns, our city has been run for the benefit of a few. The rest of us pay the highest taxes in the state and get the least amount for it. We’re number one.

Um, no.  We all pay the same tax rate.  Even businesses that receive tax abatements, like Bristol Place apartments, are still paying the same tax rate as everyone else… the abatement just defers taxation on the full value of their improvements for a few years.  So, they’re still paying a lot more in property taxes than they did before the development.  And they’ll pay even more after the abatement period.

We’re all taxed equally; businesses pay taxes on 40% of their assessed value, and homeowners pay taxes on 25% of their assessed value.  It’s all the same tax rate.

Secondly, our tax rate is not the highest in the state — see for yourself.  With a combined City/County tax rate of $5.45 (that’s the Anderson Co. part; the Roane Co. part is lower), compare that to Memphis ($7.29), Germantown and Bartlett ($5.63), Knoxville ($5.50), and others.  Yes, our tax rate is higher than most.  However, we get more than most — would you compare our schools, our police department, our refuse removal, to any of those places?

We get a lot of bang for the buck in Oak Ridge.

The term for a council member would be two years.  These people are like gym socks, you can’t change them often enough.

I challenge you to ask anyone who has served in local elected office — current or former — if their first two years of service were the most effective.  I’m confident that every one would concede that there’s a learning curve, and that they became more effective once they came up to speed.  So rather than gym socks, let’s use a little different analogy: would you change dentists every two years, because it’s better to have one fresh out of dental school than one with more experience?

Maybe not.

We should have district representation with the council member living in that district. I do not trust and neither should you trust somebody to take care of your district that doesn’t live there. As I’ve documented before, my area and your area is being cheated out of city monies.

Oak Ridge is small enough that people living in the various geographic areas (voting precincts?) have much more in common than differences.  The population of ONE Nashville City Council district is more than half the size of all of Oak Ridge — and they have 40 people on City Council, not counting the Mayor!

The last part of his blurb is one that you should think about very carefully:  in the previous paragraph, he complains about the tax rate.  Next, he wants more spent on his district.  Is it not natural to conclude that, if Council members were elected by district, each would want more spent in his or her district than in others — regardless of need or overall benefit to the City as a whole?  Think earmarks and pork-barrel spending.

Lastly, the allegation of some areas being "cheated out of city monies" is very serious, but no specifics are offered.  It’s instructive to note that the district (precinct) that has received the most in city expenditures during the term of this Council — Highland View — does not have a Council member residing in that district.

*  *  *  *  *
I could go on, refuting his errors line-by-line until the end, but the picture should be clear enough by now.  Early voting begins a week from tomorrow; visit www.OakRidgeCharter.com and get information on the issue and candidates.

You can vote for seven… it might be wise to make your list.

Is TV ‘yesterday’?

We still have several TVs in the house, but they’re used less and less.

It’s not that there’s nothing on; Alpha tipped me off to a new series on Fox, Fringe, that’s positively addictive. But, it’s not always on when I’m home, awake, or available to watch.

Sometimes, I catch up on Hulu (which I find easier than tracking down which network something is on), but that requires an active internet connection.  And, it tends to make my laptop run hot.  Often, a better option is to watch stuff on my iPod, so I can watch it wherever I am.  Or, lying in bed awake, so I don’t disturb anyone else.

Just today, I downloaded last night’s presidential debate because, in all candor, I can’t stay awake for a two-hour debate that begins at 9 p.m.  I don’t even really need to watch it; I can grasp the content just by listening… while I drive, shop, cook, do laundry, etc.

Beginning in February, all broadcast TV will be digital.  How much longer before broadcast TV just slips into obsolescence?  Since I maintain internet access via DSL, how much longer will I need cable at all?

Even City Council meetings are posted on the web now.

When Stuff Doesn’t Work…

Electronic gadgets are one of the rare indulgences of our household, and we usually don’t have any problems with them.

Several years ago, we bought a digital video recorder.  It’s sort of like TiVo, except there’s no monthly subscription fee.  It records anything on TV to a hefty internal hard drive; programs can then be edited (i.e., commercials deleted) and burned to DVD.  It’s not the easiest thing to use, but we figured it out.

Now though, I’m having trouble burning a DVD from the HDD.  Surfing about the magnificent internet (the world at my fingertips is SO cool), I’ve found dozens of AV forums where people all over the world are having similar issues.  Unfortunately, none have a workable solution — there’s just  a lot of grousing about it.

I’ve upgraded the firmware, but that didn’t make a whit of difference.  I went to the company’s website and submitted a trouble ticket via e-mail, but haven’t heard anything from them.  Then, I scoured the website further, only to find that this company — LiteOn — has discontinued all of their A/V products.  So, I called the (not toll free) phone number listed, only to be given a toll-free number… except that the recording at the beginning says that support is $1.49 per minute, charged to a Visa card.

Forget that idea.

So… it looks like I may be purchasing a replacement DVD-RW drive and taking the thing apart for transplant surgery.  I’ve surfed around to see if there are better products available, but TiVo seems to have the market cornered, and I refuse to sign on to their subscription service.

The HDD still works fine, so recording stuff to watch later isn’t the problem.  But, if I could burn it to a DVD, I have some cool software that lets me import it into iTunes and watch it on my iPod.

Anyone out there have a better idea?

Sunday Browsing

Without question, Barack Obama has mastered new media better than any national candidate I’ve seen to date.  From an effective web presence to his own iPhone app., he’s clearly taking advantage of today’s communications technologies.

But, his online fundraising is raising some questions, as reported in the Toledo Blade:

Mr. Good Will – who lists his employer as "Loving" and his profession as "You" – has contributed 1,000 times to the Barack Obama campaign.

All the contributions have been in amounts of $25 or less. But they add up to $17,375 – far more than the legal limit of $4,600. That’s $2,300 each for the primary and general election campaigns.
Kenneth Timmerman, a reporter for NewsMax, a conservative Web site, discovered Mr. Good Will when he reviewed 1.4 million individual contributions in the latest Federal Elections Commission master file for the Obama campaign.
Mr. Good Will said he was from Austin, Texas. When I called directory assistance, they could find no listing for him.
Mr. Doodad Pro made 786 contributions for a total of $19,500. Like Mr. Good Will, Mr. Pro lists his employer as "Loving" and his profession as "You." Mr. Pro said he is from Nunda, N.Y. Directory assistance found no listing for him either.
Mr. Obama has raised a whopping $223 million in contributions of less than $200. Candidates are not required to disclose the names of those who contribute less than $200, and Mr. Obama has not. John McCain has made his complete donor database available online. …

We ought to be concerned about this.  Whether it’s simply a matter of circumventing the rules, or something more frightening like foreign investment in the US Presidential election, it’s clear that something is wrong with this picture.

*  *  *
During the whole bailout mess, we heard quite a bit from Congressman Bawney Fwank about why this is a good deal for America.  I still don’t think it is; at best, it’s good like amputating a gangrenous limb is good.  It’s going to be ugly and painful, even if necessary to save our economy (about which I’m not at all certain).

But everyone should also be aware of Bawney’s conflict of interest, and how he perhaps helped us into the mess to begin with.

*  *  *
RC brought up an interesting point the other day, before the House and Senate passed Bailout 2.0.  We’ve made loans to other countries for years, and nothing happens when they default.  So, what would happen if we defaulted on China?  Anything?

RC actually had her own bailout solution: ask the 500 wealthiest Americans (or 1,000) if they’d be willing to pitch in the capital for the bailout.  Give THEM the oversight control, and agree that any profits they earned would be 100% TAX EXEMPT.  I’d have a lot more confidence in Warren Buffet’s expertise to manage his way out of this mess than anyone on Capitol Hill.  And, since it would be their money, they could do whatever is necessary to turn things around.

I’m betting that the profit motive would work much better than a thousand miles of red tape.