February 2009

Sickness, round II

So, it’s just been two weeks since Gamma was down with the flu and pneumonia, but she’s been back in school and seeming to feel good.  Until yesterday.

Yesterday, she spiked an even worse fever than with the flu+mycoplasma combo, complaining of an extremely sore throat.  My first thought was possible strep, but she didn’t have the telltale blisters in her throat, so I left her in bed for a day to see if it would run its course.  This morning, the visibly-enlarged lymph nodes under her jawbone caused enough concern to rate another trip to the pediatrician.

There, we got the real answer (gotta love these fast, in-office tests): mononucleosis.  So, she’s in bed for at least a week; it could be much longer.  Alpha was down for a good five weeks with it her sophomore year in high school.

On Monday, I’ll begin accumulating all of her assignments for the week.  Gamma’s hardly ever been sick in the past; I guess it’s just her turn this year.

Salary Proposals

At tonight’s school board meeting, the Board received the salary proposals from teachers and principals.  It was unlike any other — the shortest, the hardest proposal ever pitched.

Our teachers and principals are expected to do more than ever before, to teach our children more at earlier ages, to fill in the gaps of parenting and medical care and social services.  They have risen to the challenge, and done so largely without complaint.  They did so this year, on the same salary as last year, as there was no raise in the budget. 

Yet each one, like the rest of us, have families to provide for, mortgages to pay,. cars to fuel, etc.

Braced for a request that I feared we would not be able to honor, I listened carefully.  What I heard was nothing short of a shock: given the dire economic times for state and local government, they asked that if we must choose between retaining personnel and giving raises, that we retain all staff with direct student impact, even if it means that there can be no cost of living increase.

It was the most selfless request imaginable.  I am humbled and embarrassed that we cannot provide for our teachers and staff what they need and deserve.

These are the folks who are teaching our children every day.  I am humbled.

Educating the Legislature

Today was the annual Tennessee School Boards Association’s "Day on the Hill," where school board members from across the state gather to receive updates on legislation filed that could impact our school systems, as well as to talk with our representatives to keep them informed about education issues.

This year, we all know that there won’t be any big gifts under the holiday tree. There won’t even be a holiday tree.  We’re not quite to the point of burning furniture to survive, but every school board, every superintendent knows it’s going to be a tough year.

What I asked of our legislators was, "do no harm."  Please don’t pass any bills requiring us to fit more into the already-overcrowded day (e.g., HB0836 or HB1441), go back to elected superintendents (at least when we HAD some elected superintendents prior to 1992, there were clear checks and balances in place limiting the superintendents’ powers — this bill has NONE!), or any that mandate start dates, earlier TCAP dates, or anything else that makes life more difficult — unless they figure out how to appropriate additional time.

* * * * *
Among the things I learned was that the "stimulus money" from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will not cover building or renovating schools,  because the $18B for that purpose in the original bill was cut from the final version.  There may be a little bit included for energy efficiency, but not much.  Not enough to rebuild the preschool.

Some money will come to the state for fiscal stabilization, but that was designated by the feds to go first to restoring dollars cut since 2006 — all in higher education.  Truthfully, we don’t know exactly what we’ll receive.  The Commissioner of Education is in DC tonight, meeting with the Secretary of Education and the VP, trying to ascertain exactly what’s in there for Tennessee schools.

* * * * *

There may be a need for additional communication with Nashville, but for now, there aren’t many hot-button issues brewing.

Stimulus and Schools

State Rep. Harry Brooks, Chairman of the House Education Committee, has opined via WSMV in Nashville that school systems should not use the federal stimulus funding for personnel.

That money can only be used for certain things, and lawmakers said since the money disappears in two years, it shouldn’t be used for personnel.
"If you were to use the money for a staff person, that staff person goes away in two years or you have to find the money to continue it," Brooks said.

 

That falls into the usual philosophy — with which I wholeheartedly agree — that it’s bad practice to use non-recurring funds for recurring expenses, as it just delays the problem — or creates a bigger problem in the future.   

But in this case, the stimulus is needed because tax revenues for the schools are down, due to the economic recession.  In Tennessee, schools are funded in large part by sales taxes, which are the first to fall in a recession.  What if the stimulus funds were used not to create new jobs (for which we would have to find a supporting funding source two years from now), but to avoid job losses among existing staff?

That, it seems, would fit with the intent of the stimulus — to keep people employed, so that they continue buying groceries, appliances, cars, and houses, which in turn strengthens the economy.

Most of the federal stimulus funds are designated for economically-disadvantaged students, or those in special education.  Thus, it seems to me that the most appropriate use would be to use those funds to continue programs like extended contracts, where teachers are paid a small stipend to do extra things like before- or after-school tutoring (of particular benefit to special ed or economically disadvantaged students).

This year, the State has already advised that 100% of extended contracted funding will be cut.  If the stimulus funds would allow us to continue these programs through two years until the state and local economies begin to recover, would that not be an acceptable use?

Flu Season

The Tennessean reports today that the flu season "has been unusually light this year," with only "21 laboratory-confirmed cases" thus far.

My first question is, whose laboratory are they counting? 

I took Gamma to her pediatrician on Thursday, because she woke up quite sick with flu-like symptoms.  The scary one though, was her pitiful complaint of how much it hurt to cough.  Gamma doesn’t complain much, and really has to be made to stay home from school even when she really is too sick to go.

The doctor ran two tests: one for flu, and another for a bacterial infection that has been causing walking pneumonia in a lot of kids locally.  Both came back positive, but we got her on Tamiflu (to shorten the flu) and antibiotics (for the bacterial infection, whose name I can’t remember) in time to shut both down in a relatively short time.  Thankfully, she’s all better now and back to school today.

So, does the Tennessee Health Department only count cases that are analyzed in their own laboratory, or do they collect information from the many doctors around the state who do run lab tests to make a definite diagnosis? 

It seems really hard for me to believe that there were only 12 confirmed cases last year, and I’m afraid that such a benign-sounding number could lull some busy parents into letting their children "tough it out," sending sick kids on to school.  That’s not fair to the sick ones, nor to their teachers and classmates.

Flu season may be running late, but it’s here. 

Mountain Wisdom

This morning, Robin Smith — Chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party — kicked the Speaker of the House out of the GOP.  In doing so, she negated the party’s majority; worse, she sent a message that anyone not in lockstep with the hard right isn’t welcome anymore.

It wasn’t always that way.  It shouldn’t be that way now.

The Elizabethton Star said it quite plainly:

   The two-party system has served this country well. There is never going to be a time when everyone agrees on the same candidate. We all have different values, different views and different opinions on how government can best serve the people, and how people can best serve their government. To disagree is not wrong. Not every Republican agrees on every matter nor does every Democrat. Heaven help us if they do.

     Furthermore, we do not think that Republicans in Memphis and Chattanooga, where Ms. Smith is from, should be meddling in Carter County politics. We may live in the mountains, but we aren’t ignorant. We are learned enough in politics to vote. We don’t need the bright out-spoken lawyer from Memphis nor the "blonde" saleswoman from Chattanooga to tell us how to vote, nor do we need them to select our candidates. My gosh, our ancestors were the first to settle in Tennessee. They formed the first independent government west of the Alleghenies. Long before there was a Tennessee or a Chattanooga or a Memphis, our folks were living here in the Watauga Settlement. They were busy building a community and forming a government. I don’t know if they were Republicans or Democrats, but it really doesn’t matter. They were daring, brave and they sure didn’t let the British tell them what to do.

     Perhaps, Ms. Smith should know that when she kicks our representative out of the Republican Party, she has dealt a blow to every Williams voter in Carter County.

     And, what’s more, the members of the Republican Party will have shot themselves in the foot — they no longer will have the majority in the Tennessee House. It keeps getting worse for Rep. Jason Mumpower. First, he was shot out of the saddle as House Speaker. Now, if Williams is kicked out of the Republican Party, he will become chairman of the minority party rather than the majority.

Back in the 1990’s, it was productive and fun to be affiliated with the "big tent" party.  Today, I am ashamed of Ms. Smith and her short-sighted temper tantrum.  Congratulations on single-handedly losing the majority.

The cost of quality

Over the weekend, we had the wonderful experience of attending the All-State East Orchestra performance.  Directed by professor Ronald Vernon of the University of Mississippi, All-East is an opportunity for the best orchestra students all over East Tennessee (both public and private schools) to practice and play together for three intense days, culminating in a concert.

Entrance was by audition, with only a small fraction of those trying out being accepted.

Gamma told me, with great pride, that half of the violas were from Oak Ridge High School.  I ran the numbers, and she’s right: six of the dozen violas were ours.  Overall, more than a quarter of the All-East Orchestra were from Oak Ridge, with a sizable number of the others coming from exclusive private schools like Baylor and McCallie in Chattanooga, or magnet schools like Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences, or Center for the Creative Arts (also Chattanooga).

Oak Ridge’s orchestra program, unlike most others, takes all students — no audition, no private lessons required.  That we are able to succeed in such a competitive environment is amazing, but part of the secret to our success is that we, unlike most others, begin orchestra classes in fourth grade.

Unfortunately, our fourth grade strings program is put at risk every few years, due to time and budget constraints.  The reality is, it’s not really budgetary, because the way it’s structured, the program only costs about $20k per year.  The real cost is in the time set aside, and apparently, some of the elementary principals would like to use the time for other purposes.

That’s a grave mistake, in my opinion.  There’s a great deal of research out there demonstrating the fact that early music instruction (actually reading and learning to play written notes) helps develop additional neural pathways that enhance other "academic" learning, such as mathematics, literary expression, spatial reasoning and critical thinking.

So, when the discussion next arises (I expect it this year) about whether to keep our fourth-grade strings program intact, remember this: we have a record of success in doing it this way, both musically and academically.

Backyard Treasure


Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains are so close, we don’t take advantage of it often enough.  This week, we were there twice — skiing on Wednesday, and for Gamma’s performance with the All-State East Orchestra today.

With some time to kill this morning, we took Delta to the Aquarium.  Seriously, if not for the enormous crowd of people that showed up about noon, we could have stayed there all day.  Instead, we took a picnic lunch up to the Chimneys, and enjoyed a simple lunch in 60-ish degree weather, with snow on the ground all around us.

The concert was wonderful, but I’ll have more on that tomorrow.

Snow Day II

I awoke at 3:30 a.m. yesterday, mulling over the several things on my schedule and everything that needed to be done in between.  But my inbox held a message from the Superintendent, indicating that schools would be closed.  By 5:30, the automated phone call confirmed it.

That cleared my schedule, as all of my meetings or commitments were either directly tied to the schools, or with organizations that automatically cancel if school is called off for weather.  In realizing that I no longer needed to pack Delta’s dinner for her school ski club trip, I lamented that the ski club would be missing what would undoubtedly be one of the prime skiing days in terms of snow quality in Gatlinburg.

Yeah, I know.  "Snow quality" and "Gatlinburg" are terms that don’t normally belong in the same sentence, but snow on the slopes midweek, when most of the yahoos in camouflage are otherwise occupied, sparks a longing to ski.

By the time that the rest of the family awakened, I’d already assembled my gear.  HWTFM took my car to work, leaving me with his snow-friendly 4WD… but by 8:30, temptation overtook him and he looked at the Ober Gatlinburg snow report online.  At that point, he called home and asked me to wait — he was joining us.

There were a number of others from Oak Ridge who had the same thought, it seems.  Delta found quite a few of her ski club friends on the mountain, and I found parents who, like me, didn’t want their kids to miss out.  Some of the parents weren’t even skiing, just waiting and watching out the window!

Education is very important in this family, so know that we used our time wisely.  Engaged in interactive learning, we studied Newton’s First Law of motion, and tested the effects of gravity and friction thereon.  There was also a bit of chemistry review in observing the efficacy of CaCl in the ihibition of freezing water on sidewalks, parking lots, and hairpin turns in the road; also, we noted the oxidation of steel in the edges of our skis, in need of a tuneup.  English was not left out, as Delta engaged in reading for an hour and a half in the car. 

We observed the effects of wind on trees at altitude, incorporating a little life science.  There was some practical application of geometry in gauging the exact angle of skis over a ripple in the terrain to yield a trajectory for maximum altitude, not to mention that we definitely met the Phys Ed requirements for the day.  The only thing that was shortchanged was probably social studies… though Delta could cite her observations that people wearing camouflage can’t ski, and are likely to present a dangerous obstacle at some point on the slope.

I’m sure she’ll be much more attentive in school today, having had a chance to put all her studies to use yesterday.  I know I’ll be more productive.

Kinder, gentler?

Does Tennessee need to come up with a kinder, gentler method of execution?  Some folks think so.

Ol’ Sparky was probably anything but kind or gentle, but he got the job done — quickly.  The current standard is a three drug cocktail (used by 37 states) of "an anesthetic, a muscle paralyzer, and a substance to stop the heart."

Either of which, of course, is more comfortable and humane than 30 more years in prison, I’d think.

None of the options are likely as bad as what was done to the victims of whatever crime was committed to land the prisoner on death row in the first place.

In being humane, how many of us have had a pet euthanized in the vet’s office?  I have.  I hated like hell to do it, but most caring people agree that lethal injection is sometimes the kindest, most compassionate option.

If justice is the goal, then perhaps they should just take Steve Henley home, shoot him, and burn down the house.  That is, after all, the punishment he dealt out to an elderly couple, all because he perceived they owed him something.

Now, we owe him something too.

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