Thursday, June 29, 2006

Wooing Weast away

As usual, the law doesn't apply to the preening Superintendent Jerry Weast. Consider his multimillion-dollar contract to run Montgomery County schools.

His four-year contract is due to expire in March 2007. Some on the school board want to renew it now, before the Weasties lose control when a new board is elected later this year. Two Weasties are quitting and others are running for other office.

Although "Maryland law prohibits school boards from officially entering into contracts until Feb. 1 of the year in which a contract expires," the Washington Post reports, "there is precedent for early board action when it comes to Weast."

"In July 2001, the school board announced its intention to renew Weast's contract even though it did not expire until 2003 (there was a school board election in 2002). Board members said the action was necessary to prevent other school systems from wooing Weast away."

Let them woo. Montgomery County is wealthy enough to hire any superintendent it wants. It's time for Weast to go.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Friendly reminder. . .

Today's lesson

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Weast wants sneak renewal of his $350,000 contract - before he gets the boot

Faced with the prospect of a freshly elected school board that might give him the boot, Superintendent Jerry Weast is pressing his cronies who stack the current board to expedite renewal of his personal employment contract.

His current contract - worth nearly $350,000 in salary and tax-sheltered retirement benefits - expires next year.

Weast is unlikely to get such a generous compensation in any other public sector job.

School board President Charles Haughey let it slip last month that Weast was negotiating a new contract. Weast thought he would retain the support of the majority of the board after the November 2006 elections until Haughey and another member, Gabe Romero, unexpectedly announced they were quitting. has learned that Weast is pressing for the school board to endorse him, and a premature renewal of his contract, at the board's meeting on Monday, June 26.

Such an action would violate the board's own precedent. Members such as Marilyn Praisner said in the past that it is wrong for a lame-duck board to make a decision that should be taken by a newly elected board.

The action would also reaffirm Inspector General Thomas Dagley's findings that Weast and the board push pet projects through the system without proper public review and due process.

Duncan's out - now it's time for Weast and Silverman to go

The first of the three main conspirators behind the Seven Locks/Kendale scam has gone down in flames.

Scandal-tainted for the first time in his political career, County Executive Doug Duncan suddenly quit his campaign to become governor of Maryland.

For weeks he has been dogged by a sleazy-looking public-school-land-for-campaign-dollars scheme with corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and under continued assault for his 2003 request to MCPS Superintendent Jerry Weast to hand over public school land for commercial development. He read a resignation statement, citing health problems, but would not answer reporters' questions.

Public calls are increasing for Weast (left, in photo) to be fired in connection with the Seven Locks/Kendale matter, and Weast is said to be scrambling to get the lame-duck Board of Education to renew his $350,000 annual contract a year before it expires.

The third leg of the shady triad, County Council member Steve Silverman (right), might be affected by the Duncan-Abramoff collapse. Silverman intends to succeed Duncan as Montgomery County Executive.

(Note: This blogger has obscured the faces of the other individuals in the photo so as not to implicate them in the controversy.)

Silverman dares to show his face again

After hiding from the Seven Locks community since the release of the Inspector General report that documented official wrongdoing on the Seven Locks/Kendale issue, County Councilman Steve Silverman shows his face in the community again.

Silverman was one of the Kendale cabal that wanted to turn Seven Locks Elementary School into a private development project, and he denounced his critics as racists and bigots.

Now he's pretending the incident never occurred. He actually showed up at the June 14 "town hall" meeting at Herbert Hoover Middle School, not far from Seven Locks.

Commenting on the meeting, Silverman says in the Almanac, "It was pretty calm by most of our town meeting standards. I think frankly people were happy there was a resolution [to the Seven Locks situation]."

As if he had nothing to do with creating the mess and lying about it in the first place.

With SLES resolved, council meetings become normal again

The apparent resolution of the Seven Locks Elementary School issue has brought normalcy to County Council meetings, the Almanac reports.

"After the long and caustic debate over the fate" of SLES, a June 14 "town hall" meeting of councilmembers with the public "was tame and relatively unremarkable," writes reporter Mary Vause.

"I daresay if we'd held the meeting a month earlier, there would have been 600 people there instead of 60," said County Council spokesman Pat Lacefield. "Given that that was resolved, probably people who would have otherwise come to the meeting felt they'd been treated fine and decided to spend the night with their families."

Local pols still haven't earned community trust

"If the Seven Locks issue were still up in the air, we would have filled the room," at the June 14 "town meeting," says Save Seven Locks Coalition leader Sandy Vogelgesang.

But not everybody trusts the politicians to honor their pledges.

"We’re glad they at least decided to keep Seven Locks, but because we've been so burned by this whole experience, the community . . . won't believe this story has a happy ending until we see a new modernized school at Seven Locks," Vogelgesang tells the Almanac.

"So we have a motto of continuing vigilance
, and we'll be working hard this summer to let people know where the politicians stand."

Hint: County Executive candidate Steve Silverman was part of the Kendale scandal, called the Seven Locks community a bunch of racists and bigots, and opposed the Inspector General's authority to probe MCPS wrongdoing.

Silverman's rival, Ike Leggett, was never part of the scandal, never race-baits, and supports giving the Inspector General greater powers.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Duncan might not have returned Abramoff's money

County Executive Doug Duncan doesn't appear to have returned $20,000 funneled to his campaign by crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, in what appears to have been a payoff for handing over public school property to Abramoff's private school.

According to the Washington Post, Duncan "plans to return the money" but apparently has not done so.

County Councilman Steve Silverman, who intends to succeed Duncan, supported the Abramoff scam. Let's see if the scandal affects his candidacy.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Is MCPS profiling kids based on religion?

Is the Montgomery County Public School system illegally profiling children and families based on their religion?

Apparently so.

According to the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, MCPS officials appear to keep track of the test scores of Muslim children.

"Dr. Frieda Lacey, MCPS deputy superintendent, told nearly 100 community members that public schools are on a learning curve," according to the report. "Muslim children have contributed heavily to the success of the county’s high scholastic performance, she said, adding that 'Many of the Muslim community children are some of the highest achievers in Montgomery County. Your children are in AP courses and have high SAT scores.'"

We didn't know that MCPS has been compiling religious profiles of school kids.

Religious profiling is illegal.

The report continues: "School board president Dr. Charles Haughey assured Muslim parents: 'We are committed to servicing your children.'"

Let's see how those Muslim parents like the cucumber sex-ed curriculum MCPS has in store for their kids. It's a Haughey favorite, also pushed by his likely replacement, Sharon W. Cox.

MCPS officially shows bias against one religion and favoritism toward another

Given the strict MCPS ruling to ban Christian groups from distributing literature in public schools, it strikes one as strange to see MCPS showing favoritism toward other religions.

Most people might have missed it, but Montgomery County officially marked April as Arab-American Heritage Month. That's fine, because the commemoration is secular.

However, we have learned that MCPS and County Executive Doug Duncan pandered specifically to students of a certain religion (while showing distinct bias against Christians).

The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs tells us that Duncan's office "sent more than 2,000 invitations urging county libraries, schools, and other educational organizations to celebrate . . . Muslim-American contributions to Montgomery County. Activities included . . . childrens' books for displays at major libraries."

Nothing wrong with that - except for the institutional MCPS bias against Christians.

In February, according to the report, MCPS "officials met with the Maryland Muslim community at the Islamic Center in Gaithersburg, MD, to discuss building community partnerships."

That's fine, too; the more, the merrier. But what about building community partnerships with Christians, instead of censoring them and trampling their moral beliefs?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Duncan calls school critics 'anti-semitic'

County Executive Doug Duncan says opponents of his deal to hand over public school property to crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff's private school are a bunch of hate-filled anti-Semites.

The allegation fits a pattern of smearing critics of Duncan's controversial school land-use policies as being motivated by bigotry and hate.

County Council Steve Silverman and school board member Steve Abrams have denounced Seven Locks Elementary School backers as racists.

In the latest case, Duncan defends his 1999 deal to lease the Col. Joseph A. Belt Junior High School in Wheaton to a Jewish school, called a yeshiva, a month after Abramoff-related clients in Guam and Saipan poured $20,000 into Duncan's campaign. Duncan gave the private school an option to buy the MCPS property.

Duncan says in the June 9 Washington Post that he did the deal to fight the neighborhood blight of a vacant school and to fight "the objections of anti-Semitic neighbors."

"The deal's leading opponents say they were motivated by a desire to keep the school in public hands, not by anti-Semitism, and angrily dismissed Duncan's charge this week," the Post reports. "Some of the opponents - as well as a lawyer who represented them, Norman Knopf - are Jewish."

Duncan explains his 'extra incentive'

Duncan said he supported leasing and selling the shuttered public school to Abramoff's private school in order to get people "using those schools to get rid of the neighborhood blight," the Washington Post reports.

Community members opposed the plan, Duncan says, "Because it was Yeshiva. It was Yeshiva, okay?"

The perceived anti-Semitism - not the Abramoff money from Guam and Saipan - was "an extra incentive to me" to push for the handover of the public school to the lobbyist's private school, Duncan explains, adding, "I wasn't going to tolerate that kind of behavior in Montgomery County."

In all his years as County Executive, "I've only walked out of one meeting, and it was a meeting with the Belt neighbors, because their comments were so outrageous. I said, 'I'm not going to listen to this any more.'"

Jewish neighbors of school say Duncan is full of it

"There was nothing anti-Semitic" about community opposition to Doug Duncan's plan to privatize public school property to lobbyist Jack Abramoff's private school.

That's what Jeremy Harris, a former school neighbor who had met with Duncan prior to the 1999 decision, tells the Washington Post. "We obviously wanted the school to be re-opened," but as a public school, he said.

"Harris, who is Jewish, said Duncan appeared uncomfortable at the meeting. 'He did not want to do the meeting. He made a cursory showing and talked with us for a few minutes and said, "Okay, I'm done,"'" the Post reports.

"Two other meeting participants, [Thomas] Robinson ad MarEl Adler, share Harris's recollection that Duncan was abrupt. 'He walked out in a huff because he didn't like what the citizens were saying,' Adler said."

Jewish lawyer slammed Duncan's 'defamatory smear tactics'

A lawyer for an opponent of the Duncan-Abramoff scheme to hand over the Belt public high school to a private school ripped county leaders for falsely alleging that his client was an anti-Semite.

Norman Knopf (pictured), who is Jewish, "wrote in a 1999 letter to the [county] council that 'this resort to defamatory smear tactics is a clear indication the proponents of the [deal] realize the weakness of their position on the merits.'"

The critic, Frank Vrataric, died in 2002. His attorney, David W. Brown, tells the Washington Post that he "never experienced any anti-Semitism in dealing with Frank."

"Brown and his partner Knopf also represented Vrataric in challenging an earlier plan to turn Belt into a private rental facility for senior citizens," the Post reports.

County Council member Steve Silverman indirectly attacked all critics of the public-school-for-Abramoff plan with his now-familiar allegations of bigotry. "I don't want to suggest the entire community opposition was driven by anti-Semitism," Silverman tells the Post, adding that he was "shocked and appalled" by the 1999 letter.

Subin and Duncan can't keep anti-semite allegations straight

County Executive Doug Duncan says a single person holding a sign is what motivated him to hand over a public school to a private group connected with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, just a month after Abramoff's sweatshop clients in Saipan made the largest legal donations possible to Duncan's campaign.

Problem is, County Council Education Committee Chairman Michael Subin - himself a big proponent of getting rid of public school land - contradicts Duncan in trying to corroborate him.

The alleged incident of an individual holding a "We don't want your kind here" sign concerned the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, according to Subin - not the Col. Joseph A. Belt Junior High School in Wheaton, as Duncan claimed.

So reports the June 9 Washington Post.

'Garbage': How community leader terms Duncan's and Silverman's smears

A community leader who opposed county plans to turn over public school property to crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff says Duncan's and Silverman's allegations of bigotry are "garbage."

"That is so much garbage," says Thomas Robinson, a Wheaton community activist who fought to keep the Col. Joseph A. Belt Junior High School as a public school when the county tried to use it for non-public school purposes.

Robinson and his neighbors had also opposed county plans to turn the school into a housing facility.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Subin admits rigging due process & public hearing requirements

County Council Education Committee Chairman Michael Subin, one of the staunchest promoters of the discredited Kendale project, has stated on the record that he rigged his committee hearing to shut out public opposition.

According to his law firm directory, Subin has chaired the education committee for nearly two decades.

This improper and possibly illegal maneuver came to light in a reading of the transcript of the May 11, 2006 County Council hearing on the Seven Locks/Kendale question - the same hearing in which Kendalista school board member Steve Abrams was nearly thrown out for disorderly conduct.

Subin's revelation appears to show an intentional circumvention of due process and public hearing requirements that took place in the school board and County Council Education Committee, combining their insistence on the unwanted Kendale school with plans for Bells Mill that had not been the subject of public notice and comment.

The following is from the transcript of the May 11, 2006 County Council meeting:

"Council Member Leventhal: Two questions. First of all, we had a Task Force of School System staff and County Council staff that met for several weeks and developed eight options. The School Board made two of those options available for public hearing. The County Council held a hearing on all eight of those options. I don't actually recall the construction of the Kendale School, the acceleration of Bells Mill and the 'little darling' at Potomac among those options. Was there a hearing on the, on the recommendation of the Education Committee that the public had a chance to weigh in on this scenario before it was recommended to us by the Education Committee?

"Council Member Subin: No, no. and no. We did have representatives from the various PTAs addressing these issues yesterday afternoon.

"Council Member Leventhal: Okay. So after about 60 to 80 days of work by the Task Force, the Task Force never actually looked at the option recommended yesterday by the Education Committee, and after three nights of public hearings in the County Council and I think one night of public hearings before the School Board, the public actually hasn’t had an opportunity to weigh in on the recommendations of the Education Committee. Am I missing anything?

"Council Member Subin: No, you’re. Well, there are some points, yes. There are pieces of the Board action that had they taken on . . . Tuesday would have, would have set off a number of process issues in which we could not have discussed them today. Had the Board recommended the acceleration of Bells Mill, then in fact they would have had to advertise the amendment. It would've been a couple of weeks. Hold a hearing. Send it over to the Executive. Send it over to us. We would have had to then advertise and we would have then had to hold a hearing, which effectively from a time perspective probably would have canceled out any, any time advantages to do that."

MCPS spends $2.5 million a year on lawyers

Montgomery County Public Schools spent $2.3 million on lawyers in fiscal year 2003, and is likely to have spent another $2.5 million on attorney in this current 2006 fiscal year, the Almanac reports. MCPS spends twice as much on lawyers as neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia, which is as affluent as Montgomery and has a larger school system.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abramoff connection dogs Duncan campaign

The Duncan-for-governor campaign is being dragged down by the public-school-land-for-campaign-dollars connection with convicted felon Jack Abramoff.

Duncan "has been touched by one of the biggest Washington scandals in years after acknowledging that he took $20,000 in campaign contributions in 1999 from companies linked to Abramoff," the Baltimore Sun reports.

"The story has caused a stir in Montgomery County, less because of the Abramoff connection than because it fits with the view of many Duncan critics who feel he is too friendly with developers who contribute to his campaign.

"Drew Powell, executive director of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, a group critical of developers' influence in government, said the association of Abramoff's name with the county executive might make the rest of the state realize that Duncan isn't the nice guy with the squeaky-clean reputation they have thought he was.

"'Mr. Duncan rules from his bully pulpit with an iron fist, unquestioned loyalty and special deals for contributors who give him a lot of money,' Powell said."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Inspector General plans new probe of school board

There's wrongdoing galore on the current Board of Education, and Inspector General Thomas J. Dagley plans another investigation.

Looks like rough sailing ahead for scandal-ridden Superintendent Jerry "Double Secret Probation" Weast (pictured), who is under fire for trying and failing to ram the Kendale school fiasco past the public and the County Council.

The Gazette reports that the IG, "whose report on the Seven Locks Elementary School construction project set off the Churchill cluster controversy, plans to conduct an audit of the board’s open meetings practices."

It appears that Weast and the school board rigged certain meetings in order to prevent the Seven Locks Elementary School PTA from disrupting secret plans to turn the school over to developers and build the triple-sized Kendale school that the PTA didn't want.

With the uncertainty over the makeup of next year's school board, the previous IG report on wrongdoing, and the repudiation of Weast's Kendale gambit, people inside MCPS are becoming bolder against the superintendent. Weast's contract is up for negotiation next year, and there are moves afoot to have it terminated.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Post columnist Marc Fisher rips Duncan for Abramoff school sleaze

It's the most sarcastic treatment of County Executive Doug Duncan ever to appear in the Washington Post: columnist Marc Fisher's gleeful skewering of the father of Kendale for his connection to the Abramoff school sleaze.

The Post reported last week that Duncan arranged for Abramoff's private school to take control of public school property after Abramoff and associates had arranged for sweatshop-related figures in Saipan to max out in contributions to Duncan's campaign.

Fisher called one of the Saipan donors on the phone: "How did you first fall for Duncan's infectious charisma? Was it the vision of the new town of Clarksburg, the exciting bustle of Rockville Pike?"

"I was at a party where everybody was donating, writing checks," the guy recounted, saying he had never heard of Duncan. "And I said, Okay, I can write one, too. I don't know why I did donate. I don't know if I was even on the island. I think my wife probably signed it."

In his June 1 online chat, Fisher implies that the Post might be investing some heavy investigation resources into the Abramoff issue, telling a reader that three Post reporters who broke the Abramoff scandal on a national level are still at it.

Wrong from the beginning: Abrams essay starts on false premise

The introductory sentence to school board member Stephen Abrams' Washington Post guest column contains a mis-statement of a fundamental fact in the Seven Locks/Kendale controversy.

The introduction to the essay states, "The debate over how to ease overcrowding at Seven Locks Elementary School in Bethesda has ignited strong opinions among residents and public officials."

The statement is wrong. The debate has never been about overcrowding at Seven Locks, because Seven Locks Elementary School is not overcrowded.

Debate has been about how to ease overcrowding at Potomac Elementary School and more recently, Bells Mill Elementary School.

Abrams defends figures that Ervin says aren't real

Continuing his assault on the Montgomery County Inspector General who documented part of the Kendale scandal, school board member Steve Abrams uses figures that another school board member says were pulled from thin air.

"The Inspector General's error was contradicted by the detailed estimates prepared by the joint working grop of school system and County Council staff," Abrams says in his June 1 essay in the Washington Post. "The group found that the most cost-effective replacement was the Kendale Road solution."

Abrams lectures the reader, "Good decision-making requires good facts. Public input should not be valued on who makes the most noise, but rather on who makes the more compelling case based on the facts."

But fellow board member Valerie Ervin strongly criticized the financial "facts" when they were presented.

"Some of these numbers are funny to me," Ervin told her colleagues in April, referring to the figures Abrams cites above, "because they're not competitively bid. They're just estimates."

Abrams, like Silverman, accuses critics of racism

Like County Council member Steve Silverman, Montgomery County Board of Education member Stephen N. Abrams can't discuss issues on their merits - so he stoops to accuse his critics of being a bunch of bigots.

Silverman and Abrams say - in print - that Seven Locks-area residents are racists because they don't want the county to tear down the thriving neighborhood public school and turn it into another county development project.

Silverman did it in a Washington Post interview last year.

Abrams did it in his June 1 Washington Post guest column.

Abrams accuses Seven Locks resident Jay M. Weinstein, who had written an earlier guest column in the Post, of conducting "the kind of advocacy that was used to further an outcome promoted by divergent elements to . . . keep out 'undesirable lower-income people' by blocking the possibility of having affordable housing built on the Seven Locks site. . . ."

Apart from being a direct contradiction with MCPS officials' explicit denials (they repeatedly denied to the Seven Locks PTA that the school board had a housing project in mind for the schoolyard) Abrams sets up a phony argument.

This blogger is one of those "undesirable" people - a not-especially-well-paid educator and father of a large Hispanic family that includes immigrants from Latin America - whom Abrams claims Weinstein and others want to keep out of their neighborhood.

In fact, if this blogger worked only one job instead of two-and-a-half, he would be eligible for the subsidized housing project the school board and Doug Duncan had stealthily planned for Seven Locks. (And if he worked more and blogged less, he would have earned enough to buy a shiny new Cadillac just like Steve Abrams has.) Furthermore, we have always been welcome at the Weinstein home, and no one in our diverse and multicultural neighborhood has never made us feel "undesirable."

Only the lowest of politicians - usually with a hidden agenda - would groundlessly trash his critics as a bunch of racists. But Steve Silverman and Steve Abrams are accustomed to getting their way by bullying people. They've gotten away with it until now.

Another misrepresentation from Abrams

Here's another misrepresentation in Steve Abrams' June 1 Washington Post essay:

"The Seven Locks coalition lobbied the school board primarily for assurance that the school site would not be sold as surplus. But when that was achieved, the group changed its tune."

The fact is, the assurance was not achieved. As we noted last November, Superintendent Jerry Weast said merely that he would not "recommend" surplusing the school site. He didn't say he would keep school land for school kids.

Indeed, Weast defaulted to an official position that MCPS officials lied about from the very beginning. When PTA members voiced concern about surplusing in 2004, MCPS officials said there were no "plans" to do so - pretending to say that PTA members' fears were warrantless, while saying in reality that the plans were not official yet.

What assurance can people have when the school board and MCPS officials aren't straight with them? None.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Time to terminate Weast's contract

More and more Montgomery County residents are hopeful that the renegotiation of Superintendent Jerry Weast's contract will provide an opportunity to fire Weast as head of the public school system.

The Seven Locks/Kendale scandal has exposed what parents in Weast's former North Carolina and South Dakota school districts already knew: the superintendent is a preening, egomaniacal bully who can't be trusted.

Weast doesn't even bother to hide his sneering contempt for the Parent Teacher Associations (PTA). And he hasn't shown the decency to address the PTA of the Seven Locks Elementary School that he had sworn to shut down.

In fact, he skipped the special school board hearing on Seven Locks to attend an awards dinner where he would receive praise.

Plenty of teachers will be glad to see this superintendent get the boot, as well. Weast has created climate of fear that intimidates teachers and school administrators from criticizing his policies.

Montgomery County is one of the wealthiest and most educated counties in the United States. Our public school system was great before Weast arrived. We didn't need to overpay a manicured Napoleon from Greensboro and Sioux Falls to do a good job here. We just need a morally honest administrator who's a straight shooter and who inspires the public trust.

Jerry Weast doesn't fit that job description.

The time has come to renew public confidence by terminating Weast's contract and starting fresh.

County Council puts two in charge of MCPS budget

Reflecting a lack of confidence in the Board of Education's ability to manage the Montgomery public school system (MCPS), the County Council added two analysts to monitor the system's $1.85 billion budget.

The Seven Locks/Kendale scandal triggered the move, according to the Washington Post.

The current board majority insists that the county has no right to audit how MCPS spends the tax dollars that the council appropriates to spend on public education.

In approving a huge 7.4 percent increase in public school spending over last year, the County Council "also bolstered its oversight capacity by adding two analysts to exclusively focus on the Montgomery County Public Schools budget," according to a Council news release in the Post.

"The additional 'oversight' comes as some County Council members have begun to suggest there should be closer scrutiny of school system operations -- a sentiment likely fueled by the recent battle over Seven Locks Elementary School," reporters Lori Aratani and Ann Marimow write.

"But even as school board members and the County Council made up the day the deal was struck, the budget item sends a clear message: The desire for more oversight lives on."

Advocate of honest school management might leave Board of Education

One of the school board's only two members who have demanded that the school system be open to public oversight might quit and run for higher office.

Valerie Ervin, an aide to County Council President George Leventhal, is quitting her government post on June 9, apparently to run for an open County Council seat. If she runs, she will not be expected to remain on the school board.

Ervin and colleague Nancy Navarro are the only two school board members to support the county Inspector General's investigations of alleged corruption, abuse of power and other wrongdoing on the Board of Education and in the upper management of the public school system.