Saturday, August 31, 2013

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) -  Legal justice is always vulnerable to being bent by crooked interests especially if the legal system appoints ill-trained,amateurish and amoral judges in court   cases.  Instead of pursuing and putting real criminals behind bars, the Russian legal system all too often thrusts honest people into prison! 

As an old Russian saying goes, 'To do good is to be punished' and perhaps this is why a Russian art teacher and director of the House of Culture, Ilya Farber is currently serving 7
years hard labour in a penal colony for a crime he certainly did not commit.

Farber is hardly an exceptional case.  There are thousands of innocent businessmen, teachers and human rights activists in prison awaiting a government amnesty which might never ever reach them. For as the present case of Navalny demonstrates, justice can assume a highly capricious and whimsical if not wild character.   Like the mood of the worst drunk men, it can swing from unprincipled pragmatism to petty bullying.  The accused doesn't know when the door of the prison cell might swing open because officials have had no time to sober up.

So caprice can cancel out and annul justice on a spurious whim.

By all legal standards and norms, the trial of the rural teacher and artist Ilya Farber represents a travesty of justice as well as an insult to human intelligence.

The events took place in the Moshenka Ostashkoskoy area of the Tversky region of Russia. The artist and teacher Ilya Fabrer, together with his family of three children, moved from Moscow to work as a teacher in a rural school not far from Moscow. Farber appears to be a highly talented and educated teacher capable of teaching a wide number of subjects encompassing art, literature and music! He helped organise celebrations in the local House of Culture in 2011.

The local administration were so impressed by his efforts they asked him to become the director of the house of culture. It must have seemed a great challenge at the time. Here was a unique opportunity to fully apply his talents to serve the community! But what was the realization of a dream almost abruptly turned into a dreadful nightmare which makes a Kafka story look like a serene picnic in the park.

Farber found that the House of culture was afflicted by dreadful financial problems. The House of culture had previously made a highly imprudent contract with an unreliable building construction company called 'Gorstro one'.  Farber discovered that the contract for renovating the house of culture was long overdue.  As with many construction projects, it never seemed to be completed by the promised deadline.  And the completion of the contract was way well overdue.

This was not all! The estimated costs of the renovation had been exaggerated by three times and the quality of the work was substandard.To put it succinctly, the building contractor Yuri Gorokhov was a complete conman. His company was in financial trouble. According to Farber, he would execute part of the work himself and employed people by taking their money, brought building materials and took out loans in order to lend money to himself. He allegedly pocketed 2.5 million roubles from the budget for renovation. 

Gorokhov promised to cover the costs but did not provide a list of the expenses he owed. There was just no accountability! In September 2011, Farber came to the office of Gorokhov to ask for an explanation about a huge debt which Gorokhov had amounted. When he dropped in, he was immediately arrested by a member of the Federal Security Burea. Unknown to poor Farber, Gorkhov had written a declaration accusing him of extortion and bribery. The allegations against Farber are that he obtained 300,000 roubles from the director of a commercial firm for calling a building contractor to continue working for the building belonging to the House of culture and after a month asked for the overdue 132,000 roubles for signing an act of completed work. Because of this activity, Farber was reputed to be the main cause of the damage incurred to the budget which stood at the loss of 941,000 roubles.

Yet there was not a shred of real evidence supporting this claim.The accusation was simply a document written by someone then signed by officials!
Farber did not hear of any legal proceedings against him. The procurator and judge, without any warning or genuine evidence, condemned Farber as 'a prior criminal.'  There was no careful or conscientious investigation of what had happened. It was all unprofessional! Instead of posing the logical question, 'What actually happened?' the officials simply endorsed and affirmed an unreliable accusation.

Every time Farber attempted to prove his innocence, none of the judges listened. Instead, they simply answered, 'We are not interested in listening to his case. He is already guilty' or 'Let us do this quicker, the testimony is boring,' or 'How can it be that you are innocent. It can't be!'

Straightforward evidence that Farber gave bribes has never been offered by the procurator or the court. Not a shred of convincing evidence has been offered to justify Farber's conviction. If anyone had heard the dialogue of the court proceeding it would read like a surrealistic Lewis Carol story.  Only we are not in wonderland, but Russia. It would be amusing, if it were not so tragic.

Farber was found 'guilty' and sentenced to 7 years in a harsh penal colony and fined 3.17 million roubles despite the absence of financial damages. No thought was given to the health of Farber or how anyone could support his three young children. This conviction not only sentences Farber, but his whole family.

Any normal court system would have thrown out the case against Farber. The police, judges and procurators violated all the legal norms and rules of justice. That is there must be sufficient evidence by the procurator to begin a legal case, the accused must be given notice and his defence must be taken into consideration by the judge. A professional judge does not dismiss evidence on the grounds he finds 'it boring'. A court case is not organised for the amusement of judges, and hard as it might seem to believe, a court is not a circus.

Many of the Russian judges and procurators have turned out to be backward, ill educated and even illiterate. The documents written against the accused are often full of gross spelling errors and bad grammar. Those are the kind of people employed to judge highly refined and educated people who are innocent! 

Justice is apparently upside-down and lop-sided. It represents a kind of 'Leshii justice'. A Leshii was a Russian forest sprite who did everything in an inverse way and wore his clothes inside out and put his shoes on the wrong feet. He always offered to lead wanderers the right way, when he lead them the wrong way. 

It is high time this Leshii and listless law was challenged, and people like Ilya Farber immediately released. Russian and American teachers should shame the Russian authorities into releasing him. The Russian government could take the opportunity to release him under the promised new Government Amnesty. Trade Unions should actively campaign for his release by drawing up a petition for teachers and others to sign. The sooner he is freed, the better!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice


HOUSTON — Tyler Dowdy just started his third year of teaching at YES Prep West, a charter school here. He figures now is a good time to explore his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.

Mr. Dowdy is 24 years old, which might make his restlessness seem premature. But then, his principal is 28. Across YES Prep’s 13 schools, teachers have an average of two and a half years of experience.

As tens of millions of pupils across the country begin their school year, charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable. Teachers in the nation’s traditional public schools have an average of close to 14 years ofexperience, and public school leaders and policy makers have long made it a priority to reduce teacher turnover.

But with teachers confronting the overhaul of evaluations and tenure as well as looming changes in pension benefits, the small but rapidly growing charter school movement — with schools that are publicly financed but privately operated — is pushing to redefine the arc of a teaching career.

“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’ ” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep. “There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.”

The notion of a foreshortened teaching career was largely introduced by Teach for America, which places high-achieving college graduates into low-income schools for two years. Today, Teach for America places about a third of its recruits in charter schools.

“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers,” said Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America. “The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Studies have shown that on average, teacher turnover diminishes student achievement. Advocates who argue that teaching should become more like medicine or law say that while programs like Teach for America fill a need in the short term, educational leaders should be focused on improving training and working environments so that teachers will invest in long careers.

“To become a master plumber you have to work for five years,” said Ronald Thorpe, president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a nonprofit group that certifies accomplished teachers. “Shouldn’t we have some kind of analog to that with the people we are entrusting our children to?”

Teachers’ unions and others in the traditional education establishment argue that charter schools are driving teachers away with longer hours and school years, as well as higher workplace demands. (At YES Prep, for example, all teachers are assigned a cellphone to answer any student call for homework assistance.)

These critics also say that schools and students need stability and that a system of serial short timers is not replicable across thousands of school districts nationwide.

“When you stay in a school or community, you build relationships,” said Andrea Giunta, a senior policy analyst for teacher recruitment, retention and diversity at the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union.

Baby boomers who went into teaching tended to stay in the profession for decades. But as they have retired, the teaching corps has shifted toward the less experienced. According to an analysis of federal data by Richard M. Ingersoll, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, the proportion of teachers with five or fewer years of experience rose to 28 percent in 2007-8 from 17 percent in 1987-8.

The restless generation of millennials is likely to accelerate the trend. Some charter school leaders say that some experienced teachers grow tired and less effective, and that educators need to embrace the change.

“My take is yes, we do need and want some number of teachers to be ‘lifers,’ for lack of a better word,” said Doug McCurry, a co-chief executive of Achievement First, a nonprofit charter operator with 25 schools in Connecticut, Brooklyn and Providence, R.I., where teachers spend an average of 2.3 years in the classroom. But, he said, he would be happy if “the majority of the teachers that walked in the door gave us five or seven really good teaching years and then went on to do something else.”

Other charter networks have similar career arcs for teachers. At Success Academy Charter Schools, a chain run by Eva S. Moskowitz, a former New York City councilwoman, the average is about four years in the classroom. KIPP, one of the country’s best known and largest charter operators, with 141 schools in 20 states, also keeps teachers in classrooms for an average of about four years.

Charter leaders say they are able to sustain rapid turnover in teaching staff because they prepare young recruits and coach them as they progress. At YES Prep, new teachers go through two and a half weeks of training over the summer, learning common disciplinary methods and working with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.

Novice teachers receive constant feedback from principals and other campus administrators. On a recent morning, Melanie Singleton, a 27-year-old principal at YES Prep Hoffman, which opened in Houston this month with five of its nine teachers in their first year on the job, circulated through classrooms.

Observing two first-year math teachers, she noticed that both were reviewing place values with sixth graders. “We might not be pushing them as rigorously as we can at this point,” she said. And when one teacher exhorted her students to give themselves a celebratory chant, Ms. Singleton corrected the teacher’s instructions. “I have to interrupt,” Ms. Singleton said. “It’s two claps and then a sizzle.”

Every other week, new teachers meet with instructional coaches for 45-minute sessions. On an afternoon last week, Christopher Reid (experience: four years teaching middle school math) sat down with Alondra Aponte, a first-year art teacher. He praised her for giving students helpful tips for drawing self-portraits and for creating a positive classroom climate.

But he said Ms. Aponte’s students should settle into their desks more quickly, and asked her to role-play the beginning of class four times. Mr. Reid offered comments (“You say ‘all right’ a lot,” “walk around the room narrating those who are doing a good job”) and helped Ms. Aponte install a time-keeping app on her laptop so she could give students precise deadlines.

Given the increase in applicants who do not plan to spend their lives teaching, even some traditional school districts are beginning to reward teachers for shorter career trajectories. In Washington, for example, Kaya Henderson, the public schools chancellor, said high-performing teachers could be paid $80,000 by their third year of teaching. (Starting salaries in the district are $42,000.)

Charter school leaders say similar pay structures could actually persuade their best teachers to stay longer, given that some teachers leave after just a few years because the pay is so low.
YES Prep’s performance pay system, introduced last year, is part of what persuaded Craig Brandenburg, a rare long timer with 13 years of experience, to stay on as a math teacher.

“I wanted to feel like I was moving up,” said Mr. Brandenburg, a practically ancient 36.

Mr. Dowdy, the 24-year-old teacher who is already thinking beyond the classroom, wants something more, however. “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

Monday, August 26, 2013

Principal Merit Pay!

Posted: 23 Aug 2013 04:51 AM PDT
Despite having to spend their summer distributing pink slips and cutting back art and music programs, 134 CPS principals on Thursday received bonuses—ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 apiece—doled out  by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
CPS is able to give with one hand and take away with the other because merit pay is bankrolled by $5 million ponied up by four philanthropic families, $2 million of it from Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner.
More than 130 Chicago Public Schools principals were awarded cash bonuses Thursday ranging from $5,000 to $20,000, as they were recognized for excellence in leading their schools. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett congratulated the principals by offering bonuses totaling more than $1.1 million in bonuses to principals who helped boost academic achievement in their schools. Last year, in the inaugural Principal Quality Initiative, CPS awarded bonuses to 84 principals. (DNAInfo)
BOYCOTT AND RALLY: Activists from several Chicago community groups on Thursday called for a one-day boycott of Chicago Public Schools because of what they say are discriminatory practices against poor African-American and Latino students. The group is asking students to skip school Wednesday and parents and supporters to forgo a Chicago Board of Education meeting to attend a rally in front of the board's downtown office, followed by a march to City Hall. (Tribune)
FROM OWENS TO GOMPERS: Jesse Owens Community Academy on the South Side was one of the dozens of elementary schools Chicago Public Schools closed this year and soon it will have a new name. But the Olympian's daughters are fighting to keep their father's legacy alive. The West Pullman neighborhood school is now official called Gompers South. "Kids don't know who Gompers is, I don't know who Gompers is, or was," said Beverly Owens Prather. (ABC 7)
TEACHER OUTRAGE: Hundreds of teachers in Philadelphia voiced their outrage on Thursday at proposed pay and benefit cuts as public school officials demanded $133 million in concessions from employees because of a financial crisis. With the teachers' labor contract due to expire on Aug. 31 and school set to start about a week after that, the district and union leaders are still far apart on terms, according to George Jackson, spokesman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. (Reuters)
TESTING THE BABIES: Public charter schools in Washington, D.C., will soon be giving new standardized tests to very young children — aged 3, 4 and 5 — for the purposes of assessing their academic progress and ranking schools according to the results. (The Washington Post)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Kennedy Veteran Teacher Unfairly Who Fought for Students Fired 
By John Heffernan

 My name is John Heffernan and I was a EBD/LD special education teacher for CPS for the last 15 years. The last 11 years I worked at Kennedy High School as a self contained and collaborative English, History, Math and Biology teacher. Until last year I was always rated superior or excellent. Once I started speaking up about the poor treatment the students (mainly special ed. kids and minority pupils) and teachers ( I testified for a colleague who was wrongfully terminated at a board of education dismissal hearing) were receiving at Kennedy High School, this principal started targeting me with very negative ratings, misconducts, excessive duties and contempt.
Not only was I forced to work in the worse room -309A (the smallest  in the school  and without windows), hardest population of special ed kids, but my classes would always be excessively  overloaded (15 kids when there is only supposed to be 8) beyond the state and federal legal limits.  I repeatedly asked for help and support from administrators and all they would do is ignore these requests or somehow try to blame me for any incidents that may have happened as a result of way too many students being in such a small space. Finally, I asked the union for help without filing a grievance. I believe this was filed in March, 2011.

CTU came to Kennedy, met with the principal and performed an audit of some of the special ed classes and found them to be overloaded.  Principal Szkapiak said he would look into this issue and that he really did not have money in the budget to hire more special ed. teachers. In that meeting, he told Union officials that ..." no doubt Mr. Heffernan has the hardest job in the school".

The next year he hired over 10 new special education teachers because of the ISBE complaints I filed.  After this meeting, Principal Szkapiak started treating me even worse than before. So I started filing  special education compliance complaints with Illinois State Board of Education, grievances with the union and helping all the students who were getting bullied and kicked out of the school.

In order to remove Kennedy's probationary status and raise test scores, Principal Szkapiak bullied, pressured, harassed and forced many minority "marginal" special and regular education students out of the school. He would dupe non-English speaking parents into signing English written documents, file false police charges against troublesome pupils, convince parents that maybe Kennedy H.S. was not the right place for their kids, remove students for excessive tardies, refuse to enroll special education students, have security assault these kids and then have them wrongfully arrested. If the parents signed the students out of school he would drop the charges.  He would even have Chicago Police department handcuff certain students for no  particular reason. He was out of control, and I and others wanted to take action against this bully administrator. He never seemed to get into trouble for anything. He is adept at manipulating others and blaming the accuser.

Soon thereafter every time he observed me I was given an unsatisfactory rating. This includes when I was given 5 minutes warning that he was going to do a formal observation right before a scheduled field trip and when he observed me in an illegally overcrowded room. The other lessons he observed were replicas of previously taught superior rated classes that some of his preferred teachers performed, yet on each one I did, he downgraded my rating.  Points were taken off of my observation for; students not being engaged, for room 309A needing a paint job, students whispering during the lesson, the room being cluttered, for a special education aide starting an argument during one of the lessons, for missing lesson plans that were previously handed in and for no community involvement even though I was constantly communicating with parents, teachers and  the community.  I was also downgraded because he said my lessons did not have enough "rigor" in them.  This lesson in particular was very challenging to these special education students even though many of these students had reading levels of 1st through 3rd grade.

On top of all this he has no special education experience, it was his first year of evaluating teachers, special education teachers had no curriculum to follow and it was a pilot year for these evaluations. He did not follow proper procedures, he gave me an E1 instead of an E3. Per the CTU contract,  I was never given any remediation program. I am one of the most tenured teachers at the school and on July 16, 2013, he leaves me a voice mail saying my position is no longer available to me.  Now I am out of a job from a school where I worked my tail off under very trying circumstances with an often hostile student and administrative presence.

Over the last couple of years Principal Szkapiak has dismissed other non-friendly teachers through devious  methods. This is why we are awaiting the results of an unfair labor practice filed against him by the CTU and a group of teachers at Kennedy.  Filing a grievance is a joke because ultimately it is a CPS employee that makes the final decision. Case in point, one of the grievances I filed was a blatant disregard of the CTU contractual rights (high school teachers should not have to teach 4 classes in a row.), and I lost that. 

My CTU rep Lois Jones says she feels strongly about these latest issues, but nothing ever happens in favor of the teacher. Supposedly these grievances are supposed to go into arbitration.

I think the principal is an ego-maniac, bully, control freak who gets insulted when anyone tries to tell him how to do his job, and then goes after such individual with a vengeance.

He did this because I filed a union advisory audit,  I testified against him at a former colleagues dismissal hearing, I filed special education compliance complaints against Kennedy High School, and I helped students who were being harassed by the administration and assaulted by Szkapiaks security guards.

I think the new contract  is a watered down version of the old one and has too many loopholes in it in favor of CPS.

CTU union rep Lois Jones says that this grievance is supposed to go into arbitration, but I have not heard anything yet.  I have videotaped copies of previously taught lessons that could work or I could teach a class in front of a neutral observer.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

By Curtis Black Newstips

Despite Mayor Emanuel’s rhetoric about a “21st century education” for every student, his school budget cuts have resulted in the layoff of librarians at 50 elementary schools; at nearly all of them, that means they won’t have functioning library.

Now CPS has gone a step further, demolishing the library built by parents at Whittier Elementary.

Despite the rhetoric about parent empowerment and community involvement — despite Barbara Byrd Bennett’s high-sounding promises about “restoring trust” — the demolition was ordered and carried out with no communication with the parents who had created and fought for the library and community center they called La Casita.


A little history:  after a 43-day occupation of the fieldhouse at Whittier in the fall of 2010, then-CPS chief Ron Huberman promised not to demolish the building and agreed to work with Whittier parents and elected officials to find funding to improve La Casita, to be operated by the parents committee as a community center.

In the summer of 2011, then-CPS chief Jean Claude Brizard tried to demolish La Casita, but when demolition crews showed unannounced, parents reoccupied the building.  In the aftermath, Brizard acknowledged the Huberman agreement and expressed his “eagerness to formalize a lease agreement and turn the fieldhouse over to the Whittier Parents Committee” in a letter to the parents.

CPS says an August 12 engineering inspection found the structure unsafe, requiring immediate demolition, with no time to consult with the parents group.  But the Sun Times reports that “an almost identical report” by the same engineering firm issued in May “call[s] into question the rational [CPS spokesperson Becky] Carroll gave for the hurried destruction this weekend.”

Carroll also said the Whittier Parents never signed a lease.  But Gema Gaete of the parents committee said they’d proposed changes to onerous provisions in the lease offered by CPS, and that letters from lawyers for the parents seeking to iron out issues were never answered.

In a final show of bad faith, CPS offered to meet with parents at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday.  By that time, demolition was underway.

On his Facebook page, Ald. Danny Solis said he would be meeting with CPS and Whittier parents on Saturdaymorning.  But at a back-to-school fair he sponsored Saturday morning — where Whittier supporters showed up to confront him — a staffer told the Sun Times Solis was “out of town, on vacation.”

CPS promises to build an artificial-turf field, raising the question of whether the deal pushed by Solis for a soccer field for Cristo Rey, a nearby Jesuit high school, is back on track.  According to DNAInfo, it the new facilities will be built with TIF funds.

Schools without libraries

During the 2010 occupation, Whittier emerged as a symbol of a widespread problem in CPS — schools without libraries.   Before La Casita, Whittier was one of over 160 CPS schools that don’t have a library.  A few are being installed in schools receiving students from closing schools, but at the same time, 43 elementary schools are losing their librarians, according to Raise Your Hand.

Another seven are losing some library staffing, according to the group.  In addition, 26 high schools are losing librarians.

So under Mayor Emanuel, CPS schools without functioning libraries are headed toward the 200 mark, possibly topping it.  And now Whittier is again without a library.

CPS seized about 2,000 books, many of them brand new, from the library in La Casita, said Lisa Angonese, a former Whittier parent who’s continued to run the library.  After the 2010 sit-in, books were donated from all over the world, she said.

Also seized were the library’s iPads, Kindles, and computers.  “These were resources that the community was using as of yesterday,” she said.

La Casita featured readings by neighborhood authors, documentary film screenings, and programs on topics like domestic violence, foreclosure prevention and immigration rights, along with ESL and GED classes, she said.  It also provided a safe haven for children during dangerous after-school hours.

These are services the community needs, and it was all provided at no cost to the public, she said.

Maybe CPS will go forward with its long-delayed promise to install a library in Whittier, but Angonese doesn’t know where.  The last proposal was to put up a divider in a small room now used as a resource room for special education students, she said.

The Whittier parents are now demanding that Emanuel and Solis restore the services and resources that have been snatched away.  They’re calling for a new fieldhouse to replace La Casita.

After an all-night vigil and a march to Solis’s school fair and back, the Whittier mothers and their supporters formed a circle in the middle of the street and held hands.  One leader thanked God for La Casita and for bringing the community together.  We have not been defeated, she promised.

Today, Whittier symbolizes something beyond the lack of libraries — hardworking parents doing everything they can to support their children’s education, and being undercut and disrespected by CPS.

Meanwhile, a new volunteer group is collecting books for CPS elementary schools that have no library, focusing on schools with high rates of poverty and homelessness.  So far Books First Chicago has set up libraries in Deneen, McCutcheon, and Parker Elementary.

At Parker, the group reports on its Facebook page, the principal had planned to start a library but funding was withdrawn by CPS.

Monday, August 19, 2013

By Stephen Wilson

(Moscow, Russia) -  When the most prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny arrived at one of the main railway stations in Moscow after being released from prison, his arrival was compared with Lenin's arrival at the Finland station!  The charismatic leader rose to the occasion by delivering a fiery speech thanking the opposition for organising mass demonstrations which he believes, led to his release.  When he declared 'We have the power', the crowd chanted back in chorus.

The anti-corruption lawyer is now currently immersed in a mass campaign to win voters for the position of Mayor. Since recently being sentenced to five years for alleged 'embezzling of 16 million rubles (on what most Russians regard as fabricated charges), his profile and popularity has surged up. Acute observers predict his share of the vote might even reach if not surpass the twenty percent mark. This would represent a great achievement. However, since the current mayor still enjoys considerable popularity, Navalny will have a steep challenge.

What is certain is that his release indicates an increasing shaky government that seems to be confused at how to react to the opposition. The Government may be in a kind of catch 22 situation. If they use repressive methods such as imprisoning leaders on false charges they boost the support of the opposition, if they they let them campaign, they also allow the opposition to gain support.

The increasingly erratic activity of the Duma, the dramatic increase in repressive legal courts to imprison not just political dissidents, but just about anyone who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the worsening economic climate, not to mention sufficient turn outs at demonstrations over the past couple of years, has led to some to conclude we are witnessing a revolutionary situation in Russia.  Are we facing a revolutionary situation?

Perhaps it is an overstatement to say we are in one, but it is not so far fetched to declare we could well be facing one within a few months. All it might take it as economic default in early autumn. Nevertheless, before we get carried away, we can't forget that Putin still retains a massive reservoir of support from many officials and people who have prospered from his rule. In addition, Putin is one of the few leaders who managed to establish a degree of stability where living standards dramatically rose until 2008. He is a strong and articulate leader, and Russians adore strong leaders, authoritarian or not.

According to a survey by Levada, in April 2013,  57% of Russians polled believed that Russian is now sliding into a revolutionary situation.

The release of Navalny is thought to have been due to the acting mayor Sergei Sobyanin who seeks to legitimise his coming election. Most pundits predict he is almost certain to win in Moscow. Despite the fact that Putin only won 46% of the vote of Muscovites, the opposition are unlikely to win since their votes will be split up and Navalny still lacks a high profile. The present mayor has actually achieved a lot in Moscow. He has developed gardens, parks, pedestrian zones, new parking spaces and attempted to improve a lot of services. At this moment of time there is an intense construction work around my area. Every road I turn up, a truck or bulldozer is flattening new tar! Construction is relentless, ceaseless and unavoidable. In fact, it gets on your nerves. What is odd is for a decent pavement to be broken up and replaced by bricks from a construction company. Is there any need for it? This only fuels already widespread beliefs that there there is corrupt collusion between building construction companies and officials.

The mayor's programme is a model of simplicity! He lays out seven priorities; a more mobile city, a comfortable city, a healthy city, an educated city, a kind city, an open city and a safe city. He declares his vision with the almost sentimental words:

'I see our city as a modern, dynamic world Metropolis and I will do all I can to preserve Moscow's traditions and unique old charm. I want Moscow to be not just a place of successful work, but a place to rest, walk and feel yourself at home.'

One significant point you notice on all the public billboards is a slogan shared by all the candidates. 'Stop illegal migration! 'There is not a single candidate who is giving a voice to the migrants! At this moment, they are being rounded up and placed in special deportation camps. Sympathy for migrants or the homeless is no-vote winner!

Certainly, compared to the Moscow of twenty years ago, the city is easier for tourists.There are far more directions in signs on the public transport in English! The city is much more tourist friendly than previously. But practically all the kiosks you once saw selling bread, beer or cigarettes have been closed down. You can buy a newspaper from a nearby kiosk, but forget about bread or milk. You need to drop into a busy supermarket. A lot of popular markets selling cheap products have been closed down. Now you have to purchase food at more expensive supermarkets!

The Challenge of Navalny
I decided to interview some of Navalny's supporters. I came across a young girl who handed me a leaflet and brochure explaining their policies. The girl must have been around 17 or 18 and had a beautiful face and long dark jet hair. She struck me as quite charismatic and capable of answering some questions. I asked 'Look, I know what Navalny is, but I don't know what he is for? Is he a socialist, anarchist or liberal?'

She answered, 'He is a democrat fighting against corruption and his policies are in this pamphlet.  Here you are, if you read them'.

'Is he not some nationalist?'

'I don't think he is. All he wants to do is make migration legal. This would be easier for the migrants.'

'What are his policies on education?'

'Take this brochure and read it. We have appointed a panel of experts to deal with those questions.'

The mayor says that teachers in kindergardens make an astounding 1500 dollars.'

'They make those figures up. In fact, the situation in state nurseries is sad, with poor and unqualified grandmothers trying to supplement their income by working there.
'But look at the Mayor's programme. They have not written a single word about tackling corruption.'

'What happens if Navalny is put back in prison again?'

'We will do our best to get him out!'

I stopped pestering the girl with my questions and examined the material promoting him. It was clear that the central question was how to get rid of corruption which he claimed was the main problem preventing the development of a more just and caring society. 

'Changes in Russia,begin in Moscow ', and 'Honest power, a European level of life' were some of the main slogans. The programme of Navalny is concrete, real and prepared by the best experts'. It is against 'The party of crooks and thieves'(United Russia). He seeks to end monopolies, decentralise authority and make business more transparent and accountable.
To the claim that the present mayor has invested a lot of money in Moscow, Navalny retorts 'Why are there not any new  benches in the parks of my local district in Moscow? They could afford to do this! They have a huge budget! 'The local government budget comes to more than 1.6 trillion Rubles a year, comparable to the city of New York. This works out to 140,000 rubles for every Muscovite, including our children. This is enough money to live a decent life in Moscow; for the rich, for the poor, for the young and for the residents, not worse than in any other European city.' 

He claims that a lot of this money is wasted or stolen  through corruption.

Navalny's opponents claim that he lacks political experience and is just another agitator. At one extreme, Zhirinovsky described Navalny 'as part of an American fifth column'. Nevertheless, his anti-corruption platform and his call for fairer elections is finding an echo in Moscow. I met many voters who said they would vote for him because 'he is brave' and 'I feel sorry for him being put in prison. 'I 'm worried this government might treat him cruelly'. Even people who don't agree with some of his nationalist rhetoric are going to vote for him.

What is evident from the recent mass street demonstrations calling for Navalny's release, is that his support has not dwindled away. It remains strikingly significant! According to some statistics by Lenta.Ru, and Radio Ekho Moscow', the demonstration at Chistoprudni Bulvar came to 7000 on the 5th of December 2011. By the 10th of December, as many as 85,000 gathered at Bolotnaya square and over the winter from 2011 to 2012 it reached a height of approximately 120,000. Since then and up to the present the number of demonstrators had tended to hover between 20,000 and 25,000.

The estimates clearly indicate that the protest movement might have suffered set backs, but it is not going to mysteriously fade away. That is why we are not exaggerating the fact that Russia may in deed be at a crossroads and major turning point in her history. You can only turn back the clock so far. A return to the Soviet Union might turn out be be wishful thinking, or even a case of amnesia. Russians are increasingly comparing their lives to European standards, rather than the once stagnant and stale Soviet era.

And anything could happen in Russia!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Set the Record Straight on Teachers
Pension fund Problems  
By Kevin B. Huber

CTPF Executive Director 
Kevin B. Huber

The Chicago Teachers' Pension Fund found itself at the center of controversy in recent days as dramatic headlines blamed pension payments for the Chicago Public Schools' budget shortfall and the subsequent layoff of thousands of employees. Dramatic headlines may grab attention, but they obscure the truth. It's time to set the record straight and ask CPS to accept responsibility for past mistakes - so that they are not repeated.

CTPF is a $9.5 billion pension plan that serves 60,000 teachers, administrators, and retirees of the CPS, including charter schools. Our members do not contribute to or receive Social Security, so their pension is their primary retirement security. All teachers are required to live in the city. More than 85 percent of CTPF beneficiaries live in Illinois, and 50 percent of these beneficiaries continue to live in the City of Chicago. CTPF benefit payments generate more than $1.5 billion in economic impact for Illinois and help create more than 11,500 jobs.  

Our teachers have pensions for a reason - they provide stable retirements at less cost than other retirement programs. The pension equation is a simple one, which works when all sides are in balance. Teachers and employers contribute revenue, and our fund invests revenue and pays benefits. CTPF has invested prudently and has a 30-year rate of return of more than 8 percent. Our members have never missed a pension payment, investing 9 percent of their salary from each paycheck toward retirement.

CTPF currently owes members about $17 billion in future pension costs.  With $9.5 billion in the bank, it means we have about 54 cents for every dollar we owe. As recently as 2001, CTPF had more than $1 in assets for every $1 it owed.

So how did the equation fall out of balance?

Diverting Pension Funds
To understand this we need to examine the critical component of the pension equation - revenue. From the late 1920s until 1995, CTPF received a dedicated property tax revenue from the citizens of Chicago. CPS didn't have a pension payment. CTPF invested the tax revenue and created one of the strongest retirement funds in the state.

Facing a budget crisis in 1995, CPS convinced the Illinois legislature to divert the dedicated CTPF levy into the CPS operating budget. Removing that guaranteed revenue source, however, fundamentally changed the structure of our fund and knocked the pension equation out of balance.

What happened next is the little-known yet critical part of our story. Instead of making the "normal" cost of pension payments, CPS used the money that would have gone to pensions for other purposes.  For a period of 10 years, 1996-2005, CTPF received no employer contributions.

Professional actuaries have determined the amount that the employer should have contributed during those years totaled more than $2 billion.  

Even with the strong investment returns CTPF earns, a fund cannot survive without stable revenue. When our funded ratio fell below 90 percent in 2006, CPS was forced to make payments for the first time in a decade. Instead of taking responsibility and paying the bills, CPS returned to Springfield in 2010, asking to reduce payments through a euphemism called a pension "holiday." Legislation passed in 2010 allowed CPS to pay less than they owed, underfunding pensions by an additional $1.2 billion for three years from 2011-2013.

With the "holiday" ending in 2013, CPS returned to the Illinois legislature on May 31 to ask for an additional $350 million in relief. The measure failed, but no other solution was offered.

Call it a holiday or relief, but these euphemisms really meant that CTPF didn't receive enough money to keep the pension equation in balance.

Sadly, the State of Illinois also has failed CTPF.  When CTPF lost the tax levy in 1995, the state agreed in principle to support CTPF at a rate proportional to the downstate teachers - but that funding failed to materialize. Instead, state funding for CTPF has fallen dramatically.

In 1995, we received about 23 percent of the funding provided to the Teachers' Retirement System of the State of Illinois.  Today, we receive less than 1 percent - even though we have 18 percent of the state's teachers. Funding promised from the state should have amounted to about $2.7 billion since 1995. Chicago's taxpayers continue to fund downstate and suburban pensions, yet the state has failed to support Chicago's teachers.

So what can we do? Much of the focus on pension funds has been on so called benefit reform - meaning the call has been to reduce benefits for members. Yet excessive benefits did not bring us to this point - a lack of revenue did. The CTPF Board of Trustees has taken the position that revenue reform must occur before benefit reform.  

We have seen the damage that a lack of revenue has done to our fund, and we need to remedy the situation.

Revenue reform could follow many paths, including increasing taxes, restoring our dedicated tax levy, refinancing the pension debt, or eliminating funding schemes that have caused artificially lower historical payments. The employees, employer, retirees and state must work together to come up with a plan that will stabilize CTPF.
CTPF has done - and continues to do - its part to solve the pension problem. We have acted cautiously and invested prudently. We have built a diversified investment portfolio which has exceeded our expected rate of return, but we can't invest our way to financial security. We need revenue.

We know that excessive benefits didn't cause this problem, and cutting benefits alone won't solve it. We need to balance the pension equation and only responsible action from the employer can accomplish this. Teachers have looked at the past and learned difficult lessons. We hope CPS will do the same.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Andrade to Replace Mell in State House


Jaime Andrade Jr., who was once an aide for former Chicago alderman Dick Mell, will replace Deborah Mell in the Illinois House. Deborah was sworn in as a Chicago city councilman last month, taking the place of her father as steward of the city's 33rd ward.

Andrade, who worked as a top assistant for the elder Mell for more than 15 years and earns more than $89,000 in his job as the assistant sergeant of arms for the Chicago City Council, will now take over the 40th district legislative seat and will be up for re-election in 2014. Andrade reportedly plans to quit his job with the city council to focus on his work as a state legislator.

Dick Mell is challenging all of those who have a problem with the insider selections of his daughter and Andrade for the respective council and House seats to use their vote as a means to push back against the decisions.

"It will be up to the people to decide," Mell told the Chicago Tribune. "That's the ultimate goal for Deborah and (Andrade)."


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

CPS Budget Cuts: TIF Dollars Targeted as Albany Park Schools Lose $6M


By Patty Wetli on August 12, 2013

Ald. Deb Mell and Ald. Rey Colon signed a ceremonial check that would send TIF dollars back to schools.

ALBANY PARK — Albany Park schools collectively lost $6 million for the coming school year as Chicago Public Schools switched to a new formula for allocating budget dollars.

At the same time, in 2012 alone the neighborhood's five Tax Increment Financing districts diverted $4.6 million in residents' property taxes.

In a TIF district, tax revenue generated by increased property values goes into a special fund earmarked for infrastructure and capital improvements in the district instead of the Board of Education or Park District.

"This is your money. You want it? Can you do something with it? Talk to the mayor," said Tom Tresser, co-founder of the Civic Lab, as he conducted a "TIF Illumination" seminar for residents of Albany Park Thursdaynight.

More than 100 people packed the basement of Christ Lutheran Church, 3253 W. Wilson Ave., to hear Tresser's presentation. Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) and Ald. Rey Colon (35th) were among the attendees.

Both aldermen signed a ceremonial check that would return TIF dollars to their original taxing bodies, among them Chicago Public Schools.

Colon added that he did so reluctantly.

"I don't think the [TIF] surplus is a good fix," he said. "Our problem with our schools is bigger than the TIF solution."

Timothy Meegan, a teacher at Roosevelt High School and one of the event's organizers along with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, conceded the point to Colon.

"TIF is a one-time fix," Meegan said. "But we need it. How are schools going to function?"

Representatives from various neighborhood schools were on hand to detail what the budget cuts will mean for their students in the coming school year.

At Albany Park Multicultural Academy, down $350,000, after-school programs will be eliminated. Parents have credited these programs with helping to raise graduation rates.

Murphy Elementary, down $700,000, lost its band program and had to drop its reading intervention program and counseling for families in crisis.

A dual-language coordinator position, which bridged the gap between administrators and non-English speaking parents, also came under the ax at Murphy and Volta elementary schools.

"CPS asks parents to get involved and then cuts resources," said a Murphy parent.

The list of cuts kept coming: $1.6 million at Roosevelt; $750,000 at Bateman; $600,000 at Haugen; $450,000 at Cleveland; $400,000 at Belding; $300,000 at Hibbard; $250,000 at Volta; $300,000 at Edison Regional Gifted Center; $350,000 at Patrick Henry; and $115,000 at North River.

"Damage to any one of our schools is a damage to all of us," said  one Volta parent via a translator.
Attendees were encouraged to call the mayor's office and demand the return of TIF dollars to schools.
Noted Tresser, "This country got started when they were messing with our taxes."

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Russian Immigrant Woes

By Stephen Wilson

83 special deportation camps are planned as police are swooping down and arresting more and more.

               (Moscow, Russia) - Every day you witness the same scene! 

At between 9 to 10 in the morning you see long empty buses being driven to all the corners or ends of the streets and the OMAN (a special elite paramilitary police force) gather at the corner to stop any person with a distinctly non-Slavonic face.  They ask 'Can I see your passport 'and then parrying begins where the detained person attempts to persuade, make excuses or bribe themselves from being hauled on to those buses or escorted down to the local police station.

At around late morning you begin to notice that the OMAN police have saturated the locality. I have witnessed this scene so many times! I keep on thinking they are on the verge of stopping me when it turns out the police-officer is crossing my way to stop a Caucasian or African student. 

The last time I was stopped was twice, not far from the city centre. Once I was stopped on New Year's day. A police car, noticing I was one of the few persons strolling around the empty streets asked for my passport. I politely gave it to him. He asked me 'Where are you from? ' I stated 'I'm from Great Britain'. The policeman at once handed my passport back, apologized and saluted me.  He said 'Happy New Year' and allowed me to go. I was stopped again a year later. This time the policeman apologized saying, 'I thought you were Russian and that is why I stopped you.' Again, the policeman saluted me as if I were an army officer. I was bemused. I answered 'Thank you for the compliment' and discreetly disappeared in a hurry.

However, for the poor illegal migrants who were stopped at either Prospect Mir or Izmailovsky market, there were no salutes or warm greetings. Instead, they were swooped from their overcrowded homes to be taken to an improvised camp. They are made to raise their arms and march in an orderly fashion as if they are prisoners of war. When they walk too slowly, a policeman will aggressively push them on even if he is being filmed in front of Russian television. They are taken to a camp surrounded by a six metre high fence where there are large tents to accommodate up to 2000 people.

One camp is located at 2 Irtishiski Avenue in the Golyanov district near Metro Izmailovsky. The location lies in an unattractive and out of the way city. All the detained are taken to this camp to await deportation. There are around 1200 detainees. The chief of the militia (police) promises more will arrive.

The chief of militia is at pains to point out that the prisoners are being treated with at least the minimum possibly decency. They even invited Journalists to come and see the conditions for themselves. The chief, Anton Tsvetkov, claims they are well fed and can take a shower. Not only this, the police have rescued them! 'The Russian Federation saved those people from slave labour! We ask them what conditions in this camp do they not like? They want rice,vegetables and meat'. He insists that conditions could be far worse! 'It is better than a pioneer camp! ' (Given the terrible conditions of some of those camps, this could well be true!) 'Remember, in Soviet Times, they said 'How many more do we need to shoot?' That is not how many people see this! One migrant stated 'This camp is beautifully named. We call it, 'The special reception. It is not prison, but it is not any better!'

A representative official from the Vietnamese Embassy argues that woman are too weak and vulnerable to stay in such a camp where the sanitation is so bad. Most of the detained are from Vietnam. There are also women and children in the camp who have lost contact with their husbands who are still on the streets. When the chief retorted to the Vietnamese official that 'You forget that those people violated the law,' he answers sharply back 'No,the most important point is that they are human-beings '.

The Russian Government is strongly intent with going ahead with building 83 special deportation camps throughout Russia. It is almost impossible to estimate, but some people calculate there are as many as ten million migrants in Russia. Of those, there are countless illegal migrants whose tourist or work visas have long expired. They either work long hours in the market trading, or do construction work. For example, one migrant had been sewing up footballs for as much as 600 dollars a month. Since they are illegal, they are not entitled to free medical or educational care and are often used and abused as cheap labour. They live in overcrowded, crammed and at times, appalling conditions. They are hard workers. Yet their chances of finding work in the markets is becoming more and more difficult. The local government has been closing more and more markets down. Whereas in 2011 there were around 79 markets in Moscow, now they are only 51 left. A further 7 are to be 'liquidated'!


Apart from a few human rights groups and concerned people, there are not many people or political parties defending the migrants. On the contrary, almost every day you read a Russian newspaper gloating at the misfortune of migrants and cheering the government's latest deportation policies. 'About time!' they say. A head line in the notoriously obnoxious Moscow Komsomolets declares, 'Illegal Migrants of the World get out'! Despite the fact those many of those migrants are not Caucasian, they seek to deride them.' They are very aggressive, don't know how to behave and never observe the norms of our culture. They swagger around the streets as if they own Moscow, says a middle-aged manager called Masha.'

When Daniel Ogan, a teacher from America, tried to reason with many Russians, he gave up saying 'Attempting to get them to look at another view is impossible. I gave up. It is in vain. The prejudices against migrants, especially Caucasians is deeply ingrained in their minds'. Nevertheless, the number of migrants in Moscow has risen dramatically and fill the posts in all the supermarkets. Rather than depriving Russians of jobs they want, they fill up the lowest  paid and most unwanted jobs. Few Russians want to work on a construction site.

Yet a mass deportation scheme makes no logical sense! Russia has a huge shortage of labour, not to mention a demographic catastrophe. There is also a shortage of male partners for middle-aged women who would like to marry but can't. In China, the Chinese have the opposite problem. There are not enough women to marry. The Vietnamese and Chinese are often hard working, honest and good natured. Why not allow them to come and work in Russian and settle down? They could marry Russian women. When I put this question to some Russian women, they wouldn't have it. Yes, if the Migrant was European, 'but we don't want more migrants from Asia!' They thought I was just joking when I suggested 'It is your duty to marry a Chinese migrant so that Russia can have more children'...Well, I was half -joking, but why not?

More migrants might even stimulate the Russian economy. Instead of penalizing a poor and desperate migrant slave, managers should be brought to heel or at least persuaded to grant migrants a decent living wage as well as limited working hours.

In practice, rapine officials and employers exploit illegal migrants as cheap labour. A courtyard migrant worker earns 18,000 rubles a month, when his official wage amounts to 43,000 rubles. The difference between actual and official payments is pocketed by corrupt officials.

Unfortunately, all the political parties are saying we will end illegal labour, but won't defend or stand up for migrants. They presume that it is Moscow which is doing migrants a favour, rather than vice-versa. A current slogan of some opposition leaders is 'Don't feed the Caucasus', when in reality it is migrants who are feeding Moscow!

As the Government begins to become more and more unpopular, it will attempt to distract attention from its own sheer incompetence by blaming migrants and Americans for the main economic problems. They will blame anybody but themselves.The crack down on illegal migrants is therefore set to continue.