Tag Archives: Tony Bennett

But He Had Friends in High Places

A recent AP investigation appears to conflict with the “nothing here, move along” attitude taken by Tony Bennett, his patron Mitch Daniels, and Tim Swarens of the Indianapolis Star, who recently penned a puff piece about the former Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The AP analyzed a report compiled by Indiana’s inspector general, showing many more instances of campaigning with  public resources than previously reported:

From Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2012, the investigation found more than 100 violations of wire fraud laws. They included 56 violations by 14 Bennett employees and 21 days in which Bennett misused his state-issued SUV. Former chief of staff Heather Neal had the most violations, 17.

In a section labeled “Scheme to Defraud,” the inspector general laid out its case, saying Bennett “while serving as the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction of the State of Indiana, devised a scheme or artifice to defraud the State of Indiana of money and property by using State of Indiana paid employees and property, for his own personal gain, as well as for his own political benefit to be re-elected to the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.”

The violations fell into five categories: political campaign fundraising, responding to political opponent’s assertions, calendar political activity meetings, political campaign call appointments and general political campaign activity.

Through reviews of emails and calendar entries and more than 50 interviews with top Republicans and former staffers, investigator Charles Coffin determined Bennett falsified mileage logs to cover fundraising trips and use of two separate state workers as campaign drivers. The report also details 20 days on which Bennett used the SUV to go to local Republican fundraisers coded as “business” in his handwritten vehicle logs, as well as instances where trips to events billed as education-related also had calendar notes about political donors being present.

Bennett also used tax dollars to send a staffer to attend the 2012 Republican Party convention on his behalf.

Whatever your opinion of Bennett’s education policy preferences–which, as he proudly noted in the Swarens article, were identical to those of Mitch Daniels–they are no excuse for wire fraud, or the falsification of financial documents. (Need I point out that you don’t falsify records if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong?)

Interestingly, despite ample evidence of criminal behavior, Bennett has never been charged.

In addition to confirming what many of us already suspected about Bennett, this report adds a bit more substance to the emerging outlines of Mitch Daniels’ fiscal and administrative legacy: Underfunded and struggling municipal governments thanks to the ill-advised constitutionalizing of tax caps. A State Board of Accounts that lacks the resources to do adequate audits of local government units, Department of Child Services caseworkers with unmanageable caseloads, and elimination of subsidies to families adopting special-needs children, thanks to indiscriminate understaffing and cost-cutting. (It took a lawsuit to restore the subsidies.)  A Toll Road once owned by Hoosier taxpayers is currently an asset in a private-sector operator’s bankruptcy, thanks to too-clever-by-half financing schemes. A string of revelations about illegal and unethical behavior by cronies of our ex-Governor, including but certainly not limited to Tony Bennett.

And of course, there’s the little matter of his appointment of Purdue Trustees who–entirely coincidentally!–turned around and hired him at a handsome salary.

Welcome to Indiana, where you can get away with pretty much anything–with a little help from the right friends.

Agents of Change

One of my Facebook friends had a perceptive post the other day about the Tony Bennett  debacle: she noted that, whatever the merits or deficiencies of his “reforms,” he’d broken every rule she’d ever learned about fostering organizational change.

Coincidentally, last night I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in several months. She is retired now, but taught high school for over 40 years and worked with several education reform groups as well. She had a number of Tony Bennett stories–none flattering– but the one that struck me was this: she’d been at a teachers conference when Bennett was introduced to the assembly by a just-re-elected Mitch Daniels. Taking the stage, Bennett wasted no time on frivolous introductions–instead, he immediately launched  into a recitation of all the things the people in that room were doing wrong, and all the changes they were going to have to make.

Shades of Steve Goldsmith!

Changing the way any organization works requires changing its culture, revising behaviors that have become habitual and comfortable. Most people fear change–they find it disorienting, and they understandably resent the implication that the reason changes are needed is because their performance has been inadequate. Good managers understand both the dimensions of the task and the need to connect with and reassure people who are being asked to do things differently.

If change is to occur, and persist (which is the meaningful measure), there absolutely has to be buy-in from the troops–from the people who need to make the changes happen. No lasting change has ever been made by an arrogant superior intent upon imposing his “expertise” on the rank and file.

Strange as it may seem, “Help me figure out how we can achieve our common goal” goes a lot farther than “Listen to me, you idiot, and I’ll explain what you’ve been doing wrong.”

Drip, drip……

The Daniels Administration may now be in the rear-view mirror, but sometimes, a rear-view image allows us to see things we missed when the view was head-on.

Yesterday, more embarrassing emails emerged--this time, from the Superintendent of Public Education’s office. It seems that Mr. Bennett was perfectly willing to play games with his beloved “A-F” grading system for schools when a GOP donor’s charter school failed to make the grade. The emails disclose that the system was manipulated so that Christel Academy–a charter established by major donor Christel DeHaan–would not get the “C” grade it deserved, but would instead be awarded an A.

Bennett is frantically trying to spin the emails, but–like those issued by Daniels in the Zinn controversy–they are hard to re-interpret.  Superintendent Bennett blew plenty of smoke during his tenure in office, but these messages are anything but ambiguous.

There are a number of observations one might make over these latest disclosures. At the very least, the emails indicate a willingness to overlook deficiencies of favored charter operators that the administration was unwilling to extend to public schools. They confirm a widespread belief that Bennett was a political operative charged with furthering Daniels’ ideological agenda, not an educator. (Sue Ellen Reed, Bennett’s Republican predecessor, was an educator, and Daniels forced her out of that office.)

It’s also hard to understand why either Daniels or Bennett felt they could express themselves so clearly when using official email. Did they not realize that these messages would be maintained and discoverable?

Of course, the sixty-four thousand dollar question, as we used to say, is: who is leaking these delectable morsels? How has the AP known to ask for them?

And what other disclosures await?



Solutions with Problems

It’s probably human nature to believe that solutions we propose to “fix” problems are simpler than they are. And in fact, the less we know about the complexities of our problems, the surer we are that “all we have to do is X.” (I’m sure my students get tired of hearing me say “it’s more complicated than that.”)

Education has always been an arena where simple answers flower. If we “just” imposed discipline…if we made parents sign a contract…if we administered more standardized tests…if we let parents choose their children’s schools…that would solve the problem.

The people advocating for the “school choice” solution, especially, have always seemed oblivious to the myriad of practical problems involved, from transportation, to what you do about children being raised by uncaring/absent parents, to how you insure that the parents who do care have the necessary information about their choices, etc.

I am emphatically not saying that the fact that suggested changes bring their own complexities is a reason not to try them. I am simply pointing out that change, even for the better, introduces its own challenges. Teacher accountability, for example, is important–but we need to be sure the system we use genuinely reflects the performance of the teacher–not the prejudices of a principal or the poverty of the students.

Similarly, charter schools offering public school choice can be important laboratories for new educational approaches, and they can offer parents a better “match” for their children’s specific needs. But the sponsors need to insure accountability there, too, and as we have seen in Indianapolis with the decision to close the Project School, objective evaluation often runs smack into parental emotion–and creates disruption for the children who must then be enrolled elsewhere.

A recent story from Cleveland points to a more serious problem.

Ohio has enthusiastically privatized schools, bringing in private-sector management companies to turn many of them around (“if we just ran schools in a business-like way, then we’d see improvement…”) A few days ago, the Superintendent of Ohio Schools resigned, under fire after the state’s inspector general found he’d been improperly lobbying for a private education company he planned to work for. He had also allowed the company to pay for his travel.

Does this mean that private companies should never be allowed to manage public schools? No. It does mean that a decision to hire such companies should be made very carefully; such a decision brings risks of its own and we aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with those risks. (Someone might mention that to Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett, but he doesn’t appear to listen to anyone.) There is no magic bullet, and solutions–even good solutions–usually bring their own problems.

If solving our social and political problems was as easy as some people seem to think, wouldn’t we be further along toward solving them?

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

This morning’s news included a report that the IPS school board had extended the contract of Superintendent Eugene White–by a 4-3 vote. Given the lockstep voting that has characterized the Board in prior years, the close vote was a notable signal that White should (but probably won’t) heed. In fact, his high-handed and arbitrary leadership style has landed IPS in hot water with our equally high-handed and people-skills-deficient State Superintendent, who evidently subscribes to the belief that privatization of school management is “the answer” to whatever ails education.

The current ego-driven arguments about who knows best how to educate all children is depressing in the extreme, so a morning discussion with Michael Durnil, Executive Director of the Simon Youth Foundation was a welcome respite.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know very much about SYF except that it existed, so I was impressed to learn that they operate 20+ alternative schools spread across several states, devoted to working with high school students at high risk of dropping out. Their success rate–in excess of 90% of their students graduate, and a significant number go on to college–is impressive.  What accounts for it? From what I was able to glean from our conversation, it is their focus on the individual needs of the students they admit. No rigid ideological framework that students must fit within, no “secret formula” that must be imposed. Just a recognition that students are people, and people are most likely to flower and achieve when they feel valued and listened to.

American political figures (and make no mistake, Superintendents these days are first and foremost political figures) are increasingly focused on the search for a magic bullet that will allow them to apply a favored approach to all students. It’s understandable, since recognizing and addressing the diversity of learning styles and personal attributes of every student requires much more work and is much more costly than “one size fits all.” But just because something is understandable doesn’t make it successful.

In the real world, one size doesn’t fit all.