Ivy League professors tell students, “Think for yourself”

In a publicly released letter, a group of professors from Yale, Princeton and Harvard stress the need for students to think for yourself.

Here’s one highlight from the letter about a major issue on our college campuses today:

“…’the tyranny of public opinion’ does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them.”

To counter the problem, the professors advise:

“…taking the trouble to learn and honestly consider the strongest arguments to be advanced on both or all sides of questions—including arguments for positions that others revile and want to stigmatize and against positions others seek to immunize from critical scrutiny.”

So, do yourself a real favor: think for yourself by reading this amazingly candid – in fact downright courageous – letter. I hope this letter gets read into our legislature’s record at some point and becomes a discussion item in our public schools, as well. Thoughtful, informed and respectful debate is what builds America. Bigotry (see definition in the professors’ letter), either from the left or right, does not.

Bluegrass Beacon: Pull the plug on Kentucky Wired

BluegrassBeaconLogoThe odds are good that Sen. Chris McDaniel will win the bet he made during a recent legislative hearing regarding the future of Kentucky Wired, former Gov. Steve Beshear’s statewide broadband boondoggle.

Pointing to the project’s significant delays, cost overruns, erroneous presumptions and lack of revenue streams to make bond payments coming due, McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said he’s “betting it’s going to be substantially cheaper” to unplug it.

The Beshear administration in 2013 ham-fisted legislators into approving the issuance of $30 million in bonding for Kentucky Wired to match the nearly $24 million in federal dollars wrested by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers from the Appalachian Region Commission with an additional $280 million worth of bonding provided by private-sector partners for which state taxpayers also will be on the hook.

State lawmakers approved Kentucky Wired only after being convinced the 3,400-mile statewide network would be built for less than $340 million, up and running by January 2017 at the latest and – most important – connecting customers and collecting revenues needed to make its bond payments.

However, only 129 miles of fiber strand has been laid to date and yet the Kentucky Communications Network Authority (KCNA) reported to a budget review subcommittee that $175 million has already been spent with only $237 million remaining in the budget.

It could be 2020 before Kentucky Wired is online and able to even come close to making its bond payments.

Legislators across the commonwealth are displeased; some say KCNA competes with local providers.

Rep. Michael Meredith, R-Oakland, told fellow members of the Budget Review Subcommittee on General Government, Finance, Personnel and Public Retirement that local leaders in his district charge it’s “stealing customers.”

Then, there are the mounting, yet unknown, costs.

KCNA Executive Director Phillip Brown told the committee that 152 “supervening events” have led to delays in launch dates driven up costs by “tens of millions.”

Brown admits the original $324 million price tag already has ballooned to at least $413 million.

Committee member Rep. Phil Moffett, R-Louisville, who works in the broadband industry, refuted Brown’s attempt to blame delays on the time taken to reach pole-attachment agreements private providers like AT&T and Windstream.

Moffett instead called out the agency’s incompetence, saying “anybody that’s been in this business any amount of time would have known that these delays were foreseeable.”

He blasted the whole project as being built on a house of cards, saying legislators were misled by a tainted procurement process at the end of Beshear’s administration that duped lawmakers into believing that $11 million in federal money currently going to AT&T as part of a previously bid contract could be jerked away and redirected toward a government entity.

AT&T rightly threatened legal action, after which you heard nothing from Beshear’s bureaucrats about the program.

With contracts already signed, they simply left the mess for the next administration to clean up.

Moffett calls it “fraudulent” and “shameful” that buyers purchased bonds based on assurances of a non-existent $11 million revenue stream – a whopping 39 percent of the bond payments.

“We’ve been sold a bad bill of goods,” Suzanne Miles, R-Owensboro, concluded.

McDaniel spoke openly at the hearing of “not just civil, but possible criminal prosecution affiliated with the sale of these bonds.”

Without being up and running, few customers, declining revenues and mounting costs, how does the KCNA propose making the $30 million payments due on the project, which would mount to a $90 million past-due bill if three more years are needed to get the project fully off the ground?

Brown and his fellow bureaucrats likely will come begging for more General Fund dollars.

Legislators, start practicing now: “Read my lips: No new money. Shut it down.”

Jim Waters is president and CEO of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Read previous columns at www.bipps.org. He can be reached at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com and @bipps on Twitter.

News release: Right-to-work not anti-union but pro opportunity, Warren County attorney tells SPN attendees in San Antonio

BIPPS LOGOFor Immediate Release: Friday, September 1, 2017

(SAN ANTONIO) — Warren County Attorney Amy Milliken told attendees at the 25th anniversary celebration of the State Policy Network (SPN) on Thursday that bringing right-to-work first to her local community in 2014 and then to the entire commonwealth in January wasn’t about being against unions but rather creating more opportunities, especially for young Kentuckians just entering the job market.

“In Warren County, we have Western Kentucky University – the fastest-growing university in Kentucky; we have the Gatton Academy – the number one high school in the country – and that’s all great. But graduates from these schools were leaving our county to go to Tennessee or to Indiana or to wherever they could get better job opportunities,” Milliken told the gathering at “Blue State Strategies for Local Right-to-Work,” a forum to assist supporters in non-right-to-work states find a path to the labor-freedom policy in local communities.

“This was about: What can we do to improve Warren County?” Milliken said.

SPN is a nationwide network of state-based free market think tanks committed to economic prosperity, individual liberty and limited government.

Milliken praised the contribution of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, which was started in 2003 and is a 14-year member of SPN, as being critical to the efforts to bring right-to-work to Kentucky.

“I can’t say enough about the Bluegrass Institute and the work of Jim Waters and his organization in this effort; without them, right-to-work wouldn’t have happened,” she said.

Waters, who also participated in Thursday’s panel discussion, said the growth in investment in the county and now at the state level since right-to-work laws were passed is not a coincidence.

“The biggest problem in Warren County and the surrounding region now isn’t about creating new jobs but rather filling openings as southcentral Kentucky has become the fastest growing area in the commonwealth,” he said.

According to JobsEQ, there were 50,270 job openings in six different sectors – construction, healthcare, hospitality, manufacturing, professional services, transportation distribution and logistics – within a 50-mile radius of the 10-county area that forms southcentral Kentucky.

Milliken and Waters were joined on the panel by Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Maine, and Mailee Smith, staff attorney for the Illinois Policy Institute, also an SPN organization. The event was moderated by SPN senior policy adviser Trevor Bragdon.

“This truly was a ground-up, grassroots effort that combined our policy work with the legal efforts of Amy and national organizations like Protect My Check with the political efforts of local leaders like Warren County Judge-Executive Mike Buchanon, to impact not just our county and region but the entire commonwealth,” Waters said. “We worked together to find a path toward local right-to-work protections in our state; I believe such a path can be found in most states.”

Kentucky has seen a record $7 billion in new investment and the announcement of more than 6,000 new jobs since the legislature passed a statewide right-to-work law during the first week of January.

Thirteen counties passed local right-to-work ordinances before the statewide law passed.

Simpson County, which neighbors Warren County to the south and borders right-to-work Tennessee, became the second county to pass local right-to-work in the final weeks of 2014.

“Local economic development officials in Simpson County tell me they had $250 million in new investment and 800 new jobs announced just in 2016,” Waters said. “One longtime development veteran told me: ‘you can’t get a hit if you don’t get to the plate and we weren’t even getting to the plate with many companies – much less getting any hits.’”

Right-to-work laws still allow unions to organize and recruit members, but they cannot use the threat of unemployment to coerce workers to pay dues –  even at companies with a union contract.

“My granddaddy was a strong Teamster and I, along with our (Fiscal) Court, support unions in our county,” Milliken said., “We, however, think that right-to-work makes unions better; it makes union leaders work for their members and it keeps their money in the local community.”

Attendees had donated more than $12,500 to the Hurricane Harvey relief effort as of Thursday evening.

For more information, please contact the Bluegrass Institute at 859.444.5630.

 

 

 

 

 

One year later: what the attorney general and I learned about the value of Kentucky’s sunshine laws

COG2At 9:01 p.m. on August 31, 2016, I sent an email to several friends and colleagues from my office in the basement of the Capitol. The subject line read, “Catch you on the flip side.” It contained the following message:

“As many of you know, this is my last day of service to the Commonwealth (and it’s been a late one). I wanted to let you know that if I can ever assist you with anything open records/meetings related (or otherwise, within reasonable limits), please feel free to call or email me.  This is not a decision I made by choice and I fully intend to remain involved in open records/meetings, in some capacity, going forward. I will try to make myself useful. It’s been a great pleasure knowing and working with all of you.”

I had served as an assistant attorney general in the opinions branch of the office’s division of civil and environmental law for the previous 25 years in what I once described as the “best job in state government,” authoring open records and meetings decisions, educating public officials and others about these laws, and assisting the public in using the laws “to make transparent the operations of the state’s agencies.”

Conditions in the office had deteriorated over time, and it was clear that my services were no longer valued or desired. I did not know, as I left the Capitol for the last time that evening, what awaited me or, more importantly, what awaited the area of law in which I had worked for many years.

In the next several days, I learned that there was an unspoken appreciation for the value of service to Kentucky’s sunshine laws. Across the state, the media and the public responded to these events. The Advocate Messenger wrote that news of my departure was “like reading that the Bengals had cut A.J. Green just before the season opener because the new quarterback doesn’t like his running style.” A friend later explained to me that being referred to as the “A.J. Green of government transparency” was a good thing.

And in what has to be described as the most unique, and certainly the best, retirement gift I could have imagined, the Lexington Herald-Leader ran an editorial cartoon depicting the circumstances of my departure.

Happily, my retirement has yielded many positive outcomes.

Having been named director of the Bluegrass Institute’s Center for Open Government, I continue to work on open records and meetings initiatives in a respectful environment — where politics plays no role —  with a staff whose commitment to open government is absolute. At last I am free to express my opinions, assist others, and advocate for meaningful and much needed change to our widely respected but outdated laws without fear of retaliation or reprimand.

Most importantly, the attorney general has awakened to the reality that the open records and meetings laws invest him with the public trust. His statutory functions must be, and now are, being discharged in an atmosphere as nearly free from political intrusion as is possible in an elective office.

In June, 2016, his office issued 16-OMD-124 — a 21 page decision that was overtly political and legally incorrect — holding that the Kentucky Retirement Systems violated the open meetings law when the governor dispatched the state police to its meeting. The attorney general gratuitously devoted several pages to criticism of the governor rather than the legal issue actually presented. One year later, the decisions issued by his open records and meetings staff reflect an objective and balanced analysis of the laws.

Contrary to critics’ beliefs, the decisions are no longer politically driven. I may not always agree with them, but they generally represent a reasoned interpretation of the facts and law. The only known exception is this attorney general’s failure, when the opportunity presented itself in 16-ORD-262, to overrule a notoriously bad open records decision issued by his predecessor on his last day in office holding that electronic communications concerning public business exchanged by public officials and employees on personal devices are not subject to the open records law. He has otherwise permitted his staff to properly discharge this statutory function.

Through no fault of the open records and meetings staff who wrote the decisions, statutory deadlines for issuance of open records and meetings decisions were ignored in the last several years of the previous attorney general’s administration. This bad habit – a violation of the statutes — carried over into the first year of the current attorney general’s administration. Since September, 2016, the deadlines have been closely observed.

These improvements are reflected in the weekly press release of open records and meetings decisions issued by the attorney general’s office. The release also suggests that the attorney general avoids assignment of politically sensitive appeals to non-merit staff. His merit staff still suffers under the weight of an enormous workload, but they are finally accorded the respect they were once denied.

And for the first time, the attorney general has intervened in a circuit court appeal of an open records decision to defend ”the single most important tool [his staff has] in ferreting out the truth in an [open records] appeal”  presented to his office.We can only hope that the courts’ ultimate resolution of this legal issue reflects an appreciation for the importance of the public trust invested in the attorney general in adjudicating open records and meetings disputes.

It is safe to say that none of these improvements would have taken place if I had remained in the attorney general’s office. Despite the merit staff’s best efforts, there was insufficient impetus for change until shortly after August 31, 2016.

As for me, the offer of assistance with “anything open records/meetings related” that I made in that late night email to friends and colleagues stands. I can be reached at abensenhaver@freedomkentucky.com or 859.444.5630.

 

 

 

 

 

Boone County educators hit for violations of school council (SBDM) laws

But, the SBDM problems run much deeper

If you looked at our video coverage of the testimony about School Based Decision Making (SBDM) from Monday’s meeting of the Kentucky Legislature’s Interim Joint Education Committee, you are aware that educators in the Boone County Public School District, one of the state’s more highly regarded school systems, got their knuckles rapped for running afoul of the convoluted SBDM laws.

Today, the Kentucky Enquirer ran a story about this situation and as a public service, we are making the reports from the Kentucky Office of Education Accountability (OEA) available so you can see for yourself what happened.

Three separate reports were completed by the OEA. The first one covers issues with the superintendent in Boone County.

The second deals with problems at the Camp Ernst Middle School.

The third deals with similar issues at the Connor Middle School.

After reading through these reports and hearing the videoed comments from Monday from Superintendent Randy Poe and Boone County Board of Education Chair Ed Massey, we have a number of concerns.

First, there seems to be an awful lot of confusion about who at the local school level can sign contracts. That is a major problem under any condition, indicating a lot of education is lacking – for adults involved with education across the commonwealth. That serves no one well.

An additional issue is that it appears only the local school board has such contracting authority. But, with the school councils in charge of curriculum and finances, how can that possibly work out well? What if the school wants to order a curriculum product the board members don’t believe is a good choice? Are board members, elected by the taxpayers, required to sign contracts obligating that tax money when those board members honestly believe this isn’t the best action? That’s a crazy situation.

The OEA goes into considerable detail to establish that what the two schools actually adopted was in fact a curriculum, and that curriculum had to have SBDM approval, which was not obtained from either school’s council. An SBDM not approving a curriculum – that’s a problem.

The adopted curriculum also needed to be aligned to Kentucky’s Academic Standards. But, the OEA found numerous individuals in the Boone County schools that said the adopted curriculum from Summit Learning, created for California, not Kentucky, was not aligned. However, this wasn’t determined until six months after the schools started to use the curriculum. The SBDMs in the schools never did an alignment check before the curriculum was adopted. Not vetting a curriculum to Kentucky’s standards before adoption – that’s a problem.

Something not mentioned in the OEA reports but that bothers us greatly is that the staff in the schools and the SBDM members clearly knew what was going on. Why didn’t they know they had responsibilities in this area and why didn’t the SBDM exert its legal authority to do this properly? Doesn’t this highlight more training problems? And, if staff in this highly regarded system (Poe was the Kentucky Association of School Administrators’ Superintendent of the Year for 2013 and received the Dupree Outstanding Superintendent Award from the Kentucky School Boards Association in 2015) are making these sorts of mistakes, what might be going on elsewhere?

Just to add some fuel to that last comment, at virtually the same time that the OEA released their Boone County reports, another principal at the Smyrna Elementary School in Jefferson County was also getting her knuckles rapped for violation of SBDM rules, as well. In this case as well it looks like SBDM members failed in their responsibility to defend their authority.

If SBDM members won’t do their jobs properly, that is a BIG problem, because this leaves our kids out in the cold while apparently no one is really paying attention to and being held accountable for what is going on in the most critical area of their schools, namely the selection and teaching of the curriculum.

So, it is a good thing the Kentucky Legislature is starting to pay attention. The SBDM concept has been around for decades; thus, if so much confusion still exists about how to shoe horn things into this awkward and largely unaccountable system, changes are clearly needed – BADLY.

Legislative committee discusses Kentucky’s school councils – Boone Co. Board Chair Ed Massey

Since at least the mid-1990s, Kentucky’s public schools have used a unique method of school governance built around the concept of School Based Decision Making (SBDM). This concept provides an amazing amount of power to a council located at each school to direct many important matters such as selection of curriculum, finally determining how the allocated money will be spent, and selecting school staff.

Cheered by some, reviled by others, the school council concept now has more than a 20-year history in Kentucky, and problems are definitely showing.

For one thing, despite claims that this provides for local control at the school level, the truth is the law explicitly requires teachers to make up the majority of each school council’s membership. Parents are ALWAYS a minority. Since a simple majority rules in all school council votes, it is clear that Kentucky’s parents really don’t have “local control” with school councils. Moreover, local taxpayers and non-parent citizens have no representation at all even though they still pay the taxes that support the school. Even more surprising, locally elected school board members and the local school superintendent are remarkably restricted in their ability to control what happens in schools, raising serious questions about effective oversight.

There also remains considerable confusion about who is in charge of what, and who can do what in schools in Kentucky. Don’t believe us? Just listen to Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe describe his recent woes with the SBDM approach even though he was told he was doing everything right.

Then, listen to this video from Boone County Board of Education Chairman Ed Massey.

Comments from other speakers appearing with Sen. Schickel appear in other posts.

Legislative committee discusses Kentucky’s school councils – Bluegrass Institute President Jim Waters

Since at least the mid-1990s, Kentucky’s public schools have used a unique method of school governance built around the concept of School Based Decision Making (SBDM). This concept provides an amazing amount of power to a council located at each school to direct many important matters such as selection of curriculum, finally determining how the allocated money will be spent, and selecting school staff.

Cheered by some, reviled by others, the school council concept now has more than a 20-year history in Kentucky, and problems are definitely showing.

For one thing, despite claims that this provides for local control at the school level, the truth is the law explicitly requires teachers to make up the majority of each school council’s membership. Parents are ALWAYS a minority. Since a simple majority rules in all school council votes, it is clear that Kentucky’s parents really don’t have “local control” with school councils. Moreover, local taxpayers and non-parent citizens have no representation at all even though they still pay the taxes that support the school. Even more surprising, locally elected school board members and the local school superintendent are remarkably restricted in their ability to control what happens in schools, raising serious questions about effective oversight.

The Bluegrass Institute has been doing research about the performance of school councils and President Jim Waters was asked to testify at the meeting. You can hear his comments, which include initial observations from our research, in this video.

By the way, Jim also provided written testimony, which you can read by clicking here.

Comments from other speakers appearing with Sen. Schickel are available in other posts.

Legislative committee discusses Kentucky’s school councils – Superintendent Randy Poe

Since at least the mid-1990s, Kentucky’s public schools have used a unique method of school governance built around the concept of School Based Decision Making (SBDM). This concept provides an amazing amount of power to a council located at each school to direct many important matters such as selection of curriculum, finally determining how the allocated money will be spent, and selecting school staff.

Cheered by some, reviled by others, the school council concept now has more than a 20-year history in Kentucky, and problems are definitely showing.

For one thing, despite claims that this provides for local control at the school level, the truth is the law explicitly requires teachers to make up the majority of each school council’s membership. Parents are ALWAYS a minority. Since a simple majority rules in all school council votes, it is clear that Kentucky’s parents really don’t have “local control” with school councils. Moreover, local taxpayers and non-parent citizens have no representation at all even though they still pay the taxes that support the school. Even more surprising, locally elected school board members and the local school superintendent are remarkably restricted in their ability to control what happens in schools, raising serious questions about effective oversight.

There also remains considerable confusion about who is in charge of what, and who can do what in schools in Kentucky. Don’t believe us? Just listen to Boone County Superintendent Randy Poe describe his recent woes with the SBDM approach even though he was told he was doing everything right.

Comments from other speakers appearing with Sen. Schickel will appear in subsequent posts.

Legislative committee discusses Kentucky’s school councils – Senator John Schickel

Since at least the mid-1990s, Kentucky’s public schools have used a unique method of school governance built around the concept of School Based Decision Making (SBDM). This concept provides an amazing amount of power to a council located at each school to direct many important matters such as selection of curriculum, finally determining how the allocated money will be spent, and selecting school staff.

Cheered by some, reviled by others, the school council concept now has more than a 20-year history in Kentucky, and problems are definitely showing.

For one thing, despite claims that this provides for local control at the school level, the truth is the law explicitly requires teachers to make up the majority of each school council’s membership. Parents are ALWAYS a minority. Since a simple majority rules in all school council votes, it is clear that Kentucky’s parents really don’t have “local control” with school councils. Moreover, local taxpayers and non-parent citizens have no representation at all even though they still pay the taxes that support the school. Even more surprising, locally elected school board members and the local school superintendent are remarkably restricted in their ability to control what happens in schools, raising serious questions about effective oversight.

And, these issues among others are no longer a secret in Kentucky. In this video Kentucky Senator John Schickel briefly outlines some of his major reservations about this unique approach to school governance, setting the stage for further review and possible updating of this policy by the Kentucky Legislature.

Comments from other speakers appearing with Sen. Schickel will appear in subsequent posts.

News Release: Pension audit goes beyond the ‘politically palatable’

 

BIPPS LOGOFor Immediate Release: Tuesday, August 29, 2017

(FRANKFORT, Ky.) — The presentation of the final phase of an audit of Kentucky’s public pension plans at Monday’s meeting of the Public Pension Oversight Board confirms what the Bluegrass Institute has said all along: changes in the way benefits are awarded must occur immediately.

“For years and even decades, Frankfort has distracted citizens and taxpayers from the real problem of an imbalanced system with unsustainable, arbitrary benefits with charges of inadequate funding and insufficient returns on invested funds,” Bluegrass Institute president and CEO Jim Waters said today in a statement responding to the much-anticipated release of the final phase of PFM’s audit.

“Any responsible evaluation of funding and returns must acknowledge that funding has been far beyond expectations and investment returns have been healthy and exceeded assumed rates in many of the past 30 years, which is the only proper way to view these issues in a defined benefit pension system like Kentucky’s,” Waters said.

He commended Gov. Matt Bevin and legislative leaders for being willing to open the door to a serious discussion about retirement benefits, which often has been considered the third rail of politics.

“It appears that with today’s presentation, we at least are moving beyond a limited view of what’s simply politically palatable in discussions about the commonwealth’s pension crisis – arguably the nation’s most severe – toward meaningful changes that consider how the state can provide benefits to its workers without threatening Kentucky’s entire economy,” Waters said.

The Bluegrass Institute Pension Reform Team has been presenting “Sound Solutions for Kentucky’s Pension Crisis,” its description of – and solution to – this fiscal nightmare to groups and policymakers statewide.

While the Bluegrass Institute will review PFM’s recommendations in the days ahead, rest assured that big-government types will try and take advantage of this opportunity to target hard-working Kentuckians with tax increases while fighting any proposal for change.

“The status quo is simply unacceptable, unsustainable and unfair to future generations of Kentucky who will bear the brunt of debt and lack of opportunity if we fail to reform the structure of benefits and start to make real progress in reducing our unfunded liability,” Waters said.

The Bluegrass Institute stands ready to work with any and all policymakers who want to bring substantial and meaningful reform to Kentucky’s pension system.

For more information or comment, please contact Jim Waters at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com859.444.5630 ext. 102 (office) or 270.320.4376 (cell).