L.A. charter school group gets hall pass after cheating scandal

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A group of charter schools in Los Angeles is about to have its license renewed, despite findings by the Los Angeles Board of Education that it promoted cheating on the standardized state exam by which schools’ performance is measured.

A positive staff recommendation was issued for the Crescendo charter schools, a group of six schools south of downtown L.A., which was found to have shown students the questions and answers of the actual state test prior to taking it. The school’s founder and chief executive, John Allen, is said to have authorized and orchestrated the scandal.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the school’s gains on test results were 10 times what other schools would be considered strong results.

Allen ordered principals at the schools to break the seals on the tests and allow students to practice with the actual test questions. Principals at all six schools complied with the order, although during the subsequent investigation, some of the principals claimed they asked Allen if it was OK to do so.

Several teachers contacted the district school board to report the breach, while also expressing concern of retaliation from Crescendo executives.

When confronted by the district about his actions, Allen denied any wrongdoing, and when later questioned by the school’s board of directors, he initially denied it as well.

“I understand the pressure regarding test results,” said Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at UCLA. “But to advise your entire enterprise to cheat, that would be a serious, serious ethical breach.”

Allen received a six-month unpaid suspension and was demoted to director of facilities for the schools. The principals were each suspended for 10 days.

The L.A. Unified School District threatened to revoke the schools’ charters immediately, but backed down when the group’s board promised to undertake a series of measures including staff reorganization and ethics training, and additional review of board governance, conflicts of interest and the public records and open meetings act.

Los Angeles Times

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Controversial L.A. Better Business Bureau chief rescinds resignation

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The head of the Better Business Bureau’s Southern California Chapter, William Mitchell, is attempting to revoke the resignation he tendered in December, while under scrutiny of the national organization for alleged misconduct within the agency. At the time, he said he was resigning for health reasons.

Can we really trust someone who resigns, then quickly un-resigns, for vague reasons?

Now he vows to fight charges that he was responsible for the scandal that exposed how businesses were being given higher ratings if they became dues-paying members of the organization. Mitchell had been credited in the past for devising the letter-grade rating system, which has since been dropped by the organization.

In November, an ABC News investigative team signed up phony businesses for membership in the Southern California BBB, and immediately received A grades. The investigation also looked at businesses that were not members and had very few unresolved complaints, and found that they were given much lower ratings.

Mitchell was also heavily criticized for the salary paid to him annually by the non-profit. According to its 2008 tax filing, Mitchell was paid $409,490 that year. His salary was far more than any local heads of the BBB, and greater than the organization’s national president.

“When I tendered my resignation last month, mainly due to my health, I hoped it would clear the path to better relations between the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the Los Angeles BBB,” Mitchell wrote in his e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times. “However, the Council used my resignation as an opportunity to try to put their own people in place of our Board of Directors and to insert their designee as CEO. If this were to happen, Council would effectively control the LABBB and our considerable assets.”

Mitchell says that the National Council of the Better Business Bureaus wants to take over control of the local agency by inserting their own people as board members.

“Rest assured that we will pull out all stops to defend ourselves against Council’s unlawful overtures,” he said in the memo.

In an interview with the Times on Tuesday, Mitchell said that if he were to leave, there would be no one left to defend the local bureau from the national organization. He did not say what that might entail, or why the local office might have to defend itself.

Mitchell also addressed the salary issue, and said his reported salary had been inflated by vacation pay and bonuses, and that his actual base salary was only $340,000.

Los Angeles Times

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Better Business Bureau leader resigns amid pay-for-play scandal

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William G. Mitchell, the controversial head and 26-year employee of the Southern California chapter of the Better Business bureau has resigned. The company’s director of operations, Bob Richardson, said Mitchell has resigned for health reasons. Three months ago, Mitchell underwent open heart surgery.

The entire national organization of the non-profit business rating has been under attack recently for the use of a rating methodology which gives dues-paying members better ratings than others. The system was created under the leadership of Mitchell within the Southern California operation.

Mitchell helped devised the letter-grade system that has been in use for the last five years. Previously, the organization used a “satisfactory/unsatisfactory” BBB rating.

The Southern California operation was caught in a sting by ABC News handing out top ratings for phony businesses that had signed up as dues-paying members.

Businesses have long complained about high-pressure tactics of BBB employees and that the sales tactics amount to a pay-for-play arrangement.

Last month, the charge was underscored when an ABC News investigative team signed up phony businesses for membership in the Southern California BBB, and immediately received A grades. The investigation also looked at businesses that were not members and had very few unresolved complaints, and found that they were given much lower ratings.

The national organization is currently conducting an audit of operations of the Southern California chapter, according to Alison Southwick, a spokeswoman for the National Council of Better Business Bureaus.  Last month the national operation said it would stop giving better ratings to companies on the basis of dues-paying status.

Mitchell was also heavily criticized for the salary paid to him annually by the non-profit. According to its 2008 tax filing, Mitchell was paid $409,490 that year. His salary was far more than any local heads of the BBB, and greater than the organization’s national president.

Ken Berger of the watchdog group Charity Navigator, which tracks non-profits, said it was important to “shine the light of transparency on questionable salaries.” Earlier he said that Mitchell’s salary was out of line with others within the BBB and at comparable organizations.

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L.A. slow to spend stimulus monies, boost economy

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The city of Los Angeles did a good job of getting federal stimulus monies to help boost the local economy, suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. While it was successful in getting $630 million from Washington for local infrastructure projects, nearly two years later, only 13.3 percent of it has been spent according to a report published Sunday in the Los Angeles Times.

The Times found that of the 108 projects for which funds had been obtained, only eight had been completed by mid-October. City officials say the problem has been the lack of qualified employees to manage all the new contracts.

To save money last year and help close a $427 million budget deficit, the city created an early retirement plan to trim its payrolls. Perhaps the deal was a bit too rich. Over 2,400 experienced employees signed up for the deal and were quickly gone. On top of the retiring employees, another 360 employees were laid off.

“We saw the retirement of some of the most competent people in the city’s workforce happen just overnight,” said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana. “So that’s been the challenge, not just with the stimulus but in everything we do.”

While officials blame a shortage of personnel, critics say that the real reason is the dysfunctional nature of the city hall employees that residents have been complaining about for years. Nothing ever seems to get done in a timely or efficient manner.

An audit by city controller Wendy Greuel cited a couple of examples of projects that should have been handled quickly, but dragged on for far longer than the complexity would suggest.

One, a so-called “shovel-ready” project to install 85 left-turn signals and 25 new traffic lights, was not sent out for bid until more than seven months after approval by state and federal agencies in mid-2009. A contract is just now being finalized and the work should be done before the end of next year.

Another simple project, to install new sewer grates that make roadways safe for bicycles, took eight months to finalize contracts.

Paving projects covering over 100 miles of roadways badly needing repair, have also been slow to materialize. City officials blamed conflicting information from state and federal officials whether city workers, or outside contractors, could handle the work. Eventually, it was agreed that city workers could handle the projects and now, the work is estimated to be completed by June 2012.

Voicing her dissatisfaction with the painfully slow pace of the stimulus projects, Gruel said “we should have looked at this as an opportunity to streamline the process. Seven months to get out a bid was just criminal to me when we had a 12.5 percent unemployment rate and we were beginning to lay off people.”

Other major cities mostly did better than L.A. in spending the stimulus monies. To date, New York has spent 25 percent, Chicago 47 percent and Minneapolis 23.4 percent. One city that’s a bit worse off is Philadelphia at 9.6 percent.

Los Angeles Times

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L.A. child welfare department wasted $514,000 on sloppy cell phone management

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Government waste seems to be a sore point these days with taxpayers, but apparently not so much with some public sector employees. In a report published by the Los Angeles Times, in 2009, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services spent about $2.2 million on about 5,000 cell phones, although county auditors say that $514,000 was for devices never used, personal overseas calls and other improper uses.

County auditor-controller Wendy Watanabe said that about one-quarter of the monies spent was wasted on “unnecessary or inappropriate” charges. Watanabe said that it was likely that the “department paid for inappropriate charges in the prior and current years as well.”

The L.A. county child welfare department has over 1,400 cell phones activated, being paid for by taxpayers, and collecting dust.

Some of the abuses included poor records of who actually had the phones. Welfare officials could not determine the identity of users of over 250 phones.

Excessive long distant charges were commonplace, including one employee with over $2,000 in personal long-distance charges.

Auditors discovered the department was paying for 532 computer broadband access cards, yet only 222 were in actual use. Over $90,000 was billed by service providers on the unused cards.

Over 1,400 phones were activated, but never given to employees, incurring fees of over $330,000 in service charges. Earlier this year, the Times reported the department refused to provide phones to child abuse investigators.

Welfare officials are now evaluating its policy of denying investigators the cellphones after learning that so many were sitting around unused.

The department has been under fire throughout the year, and its longtime department head, Trish Ploehn, was recently removed from her position.

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Greedy California assemblyman files claim against state to restore lawmaker salary cuts

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California Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) is unhappy with pay cuts handed down to state legislators last year and is doing something about it. He’s just filed a claim with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, saying that an 18% reduction on salary and benefits for lawmakers was illegal.

Cedillo is best known in Sacramento for trying to get nine bills passed since 1998 which would allow illegal aliens to obtain drivers licenses in California. Cedillo was recently elected to the state assembly, after terming out as a member of the state senate.

This California lawmaker wants to throw away salary cuts enacted by an independent citizens compensation committee, on the basis that only the state legislature can oversee their own salaries

The claim is an initial step in what could possibly become a lawsuit if the state refuses to reinstate the wage cuts, and remove limitations on future wage increases. Cedillo thinks that the independent Citizens Compensation Commission lacks authority to make compensation decisions that affect state lawmakers. An earlier legal attempt to roll back the pay cuts was knocked down by Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown.

Cedillo’s filing takes the position that the taxpayers are not able to set compensation for lawmakers, but that lawmakers themselves only have that authority, suggesting that the lawmakers are responsible to no one besides themselves. According to the claim, the commission “had no authority to reduce per diem, automobile and other allowances for members of the Legislature because that authority is vested either in the Legislature itself or in other agencies.”

To their credit, some lawmakers are willing to share the pain with other state employees who have seen their pay reduced, and others around the country that are out of work, or have taken pay cuts. Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Louis Obispo) said that “if we’re going to earn back the respect of the public, we need to respect the decision of the Citizens Compensation Commission whether we agree with it or not.”

If all lawmakers were reimbursed for the salary cuts since December 2009, the bill to taxpayers would be more than $2.5 million. Although the amount is small compared to the overall state budget, taxpayers are angry at Sacramento for perennial fiscal mismanagement that has resulted in massive annual budget deficits in the tens of billions of dollars. In each of the next several years, the state is projecting budget deficits in the neighborhood of $20 billion, by far, the largest in the nation.

Los Angeles Times

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Teachers union ruining school system: LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

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As a former organizer for the teachers union, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, one might think that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would pull his punches when addressing the problems of the nation’s second largest school district, and the largest in California.

Instead, at a Sacramento conference sponsored by the nonpartisan group, the Public Policy Institute of California, he placed blame squarely on the union saying that its leaders were “the most powerful defenders of the status quo.” The UTLA represents 45,000 teachers and other staff employees in Southern California.

While the Los Angeles Unified School District has struggled in recent years with rising operating deficits and falling student population, the biggest obstacle in improving the quality of education, according to Villaraigosa, has been the teachers union. In 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, the LAUSD high school graduation rate was 40.6%–the second worst rate in the country.

Villaraigosa said that the union consistently fought any proposal that would allow nonprofits and other organizations to start new schools in Los Angeles, even though they far outperform conventional public schools in the district. The UTLA has also blocked any proposed changes in the tenure system, making it nearly impossible to fire teachers who are performing poorly.

In a panel discussion after Villaraigosa’s speech, California Teachers Association President David Sanchez blamed the state, instead of accepting the challenge for reform. He said that teachers were having to deal with budget cuts and lack of resources adding “why would you go into the profession because there is a strong possibility you’re going to lose your job.’

Apparently Sanchez has never been in the real world, where there’s always the possibility of losing your job–especially if it’s done poorly.

Sacramento Bee

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