Teachers protest outside Desert Sands negotiations

While negotiators met inside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday, a small group of teachers gathered outside to protest a stalemate between the union and the district.

More than 200 teachers and supporters, each holding protest signs, lined the road outside the district office, said Mona Davidson, president of the Desert Sands Teachers Association. The union encouraged teachers to show their support outside the office after the school day was over, Davidson explained.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Teachers protest outside the Desert Sands Unified headquarters on Monday. Photos provided by Desert Sands Teachers Association.

Here is what each protest sign said:

Respect teachers

Students first

Settle now!

Despite the signs, the district that the negotiation stalemate has nothing to do with a lack of respect.

During a previous interview, Sherry Johnstone, assistant superintendent for personnel, said the district is struggling through some of “the most difficult economic times any of us have ever seen.” Education funding has dropped year after year, she said.

“DSTA has called into question DSUSD’s ‘priorities,” Johnston wrote in an e-mail. “To be clear, students are first always, with their safety and education at the very top of the list.  DSUSD teachers are the best in the world!  We hold them in high regard.  We respect them, their professionalism and dedication to our children and families.”

The protest came on the same day that The Desert Sun published a front-page story about how the prolonged negotiations are impacting at least one local high school. In response to the stalemate, a majority of the teachers at Palm Desert High School have agreed to work to contract, which means to only perform the duties they are contractually obligated to do, and to boycott the school’s graduation. Teachers normally help supervise students during graduation.

The union negotiations have reached a stalemate due to a dispute over how much money the district will pay each teacher in response to the passage of Proposition 30, which California voters passed last year to stabilize education funding. Since the passage of the proposition, the district has offered to increase compensation by about $600 for each the 1,200 teachers in the union. The union wants that figure to increase to $1,000 per teacher.


New hire at CVUSD prompts nepotism allegation

The Coachella Valley Unified School District has hired the wife of the school board president as a speech pathologist, prompting accusations of nepotism from a small group.

Kay Kamper, the wife of board president Lowell Kamper, will start work as a speech and language pathologist working at the district office in August.

The board approved her hiring on Thursday night. There was no discussion, and the vote was five to one. Board member Juanita Duarte was the only dissenting vote. The board president abstained from the vote to hire his wife.

This decision drew criticism earlier in the meeting. Gloria Gomez Maldonado, and Indio resident with nieces and nephews in the school district, said the sitting board members were no better than their predecessors, who were plagued by scandal and nepotism allegations.

“So here is the million dollar question to all you very highly highly educated (officials,) what’s the difference between your nepotism and what you accused the other administration of?” Maldonado shouted at the board.

Board members did not respond to her criticism during the meeting.

The hiring of Kay Kamper is also listed among the concerns of a group of recall proponents, who served four board members – including Lowell Kamper – with a notice of intent to recall during the Wednesday board meeting.

Public records from Imperial County confirm that Lowell and Kay Kamper are husband and wife.

LA schools debate: a full belly or a full class period?

What’s more important – a full belly or a full class period?

That’s the debate in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where education leaders are considering cutting a classroom breakfast program – one year after the program began – due to opposition from the teachers union.

The program sets aside 10 minutes at the beginning of the day for kids to eat in their classrooms. As a result, the number of kids eating a free or reduced-price breakfast rose from 29 percent to 89 percent, increasing student focus while reducing tardiness, according to a recent story by Southern California Public Radio.

Read or listen to the SCPR story here.

Although the program appears to be successful, it has been opposed by the teachers union, which argues that it eats up too much class time. The program also raises sanitation issues, the union argues.

You can listen to a discussion about the debate, including speakers on both sides of the program, by visiting the SCPR website.

Coming Sunday: Suspension stats show racial disparity

A recent study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project has spotlighted a racial disparity in suspension statistics from around the country.

The report “Out of School and Off Track,” explains that hundreds of school districts and thousands of schools suspend black students more frequently than their white, Hispanic or Asian peers. The study also shows that disabled students are suspended more frequently.

“There is something terribly wrong when, despite very effective alternatives, so many middle and high schools quickly punish and exclude students of color, students with disabilities and English Learners,” said Daniel Losen, a former Boston-area teacher who authored the UCLA report. “We know these schools can change because in many large districts, we found many low-suspending schools where suspension is still a measure of last resort.”

So what does the suspension data say about local school districts? The answer may surprise you. Check out The Desert Sun or MyDesert.com on Sunday for a deep dive into the inequality of suspension statistics from the Coachella Valley.

Survey: Republicans could gain ground with Latino voters in California

A new political survey states that Republican political candidates could gain ground with California’s Latino voters, but only if they engage the community and earn their trust.

The poll results were released Wednesday by GROW Elect, a political organization, and Moore Information, a polling firm. Both groups are Republican. Together, they polled Latino voters in 10 California districts that are expected to be competitive in the 2014 mid-term elections.

More about the poll:

The groups surveyed voters in congressional districts 3, 7, 10, 16, 21, 24, 26, 31, 36, and 52, according to a news release.

“We found it significant that while the Republican Party is not viewed as a racist party by Latino voters, it is viewed as being out of touch with people of color and that Republicans are seen as not understanding the challenges faced by Latinos – particularly when it comes to Latinos’ economic well-being and standard of living,” said Bob Moore, president of Moore Information, in a news release. “In order to improve the GOP’s share of the Latino vote, Republicans will need to demonstrate and communicate that they are working on behalf of Latinos to positively impact their lives and help them meet their daily challenges. Economic and education issues are central to this, but Republicans also need to show how voters of color are affected personally by Republican efforts.”

Desert Sands Unified teacher negotiations invoke comparisons to VP Biden, Boston bombings

The controversy over teacher contract negotiations took an odd turn during a Desert Sands Unified school board meeting on Tuesday night – invoking comparisons to Vice President Joe Biden and the recent terror attacks in Boston.

The Desert Sands Unified School District is still negotiating with the district teachers union to finalize a contract for this school year, which is nearly over. As negotiations have dragged on, criticism of the district and board has been common at school board meetings.

During a board meeting on Tuesday, the criticism was more usual, personal and vitriolic.

One teacher, Gabrielle Jackson, opened her plea for settlement by referencing the recent terror attacks at the Boston Marathon. The bombings have killed three people and injured more than 100 others.

“Someday I dream I will wake up and hear that that people have stopped hurting each other on purpose. Furthermore, (it might be) that teachers will be recognized for having a special gift … Maybe we might be compensated for our efforts and talents as professionals. Please do not scoff at my idealism and say these things are not possible. All it would take to have peace is for each person to decide they would not hurt anyone anymore. And all it would take to settle our contract is for each of you to decide that my colleagues and I are valued and appreciated and settle with our negotiators.”

Several other critics targeted district Superintendent Gary Rutherford, who started the job in February.

David Parsons, a foreign language teacher from Shadow Hills High School in Indio, criticized Rutherford for not sharing in the sacrifice of teachers voluntarily giving back part of his salary, which is “tens of thousands of dollars above what Vice President Joe Biden earns.”

“Sir, you exhibit hubris,” Parson said, gesturing towards Rutherford, who furrowed his brow in surprise.

Desert Sands Unified School District Superintendent Gary Rutherford is photographed at the Desert Sands Unified School District Education Center in La Quinta on December 16, 2012. Photo by Gerry Maceda, Special to The Desert Sun

Rutherford earns a $242,000 salary, plus additional compensation that includes a $1,200 annual stipend for his doctorate degree, $3,000 a year for a tax-sheltered annuity and $9,000 to compensate him for using his vehicle.

The previous superintendent, Sharon McGehee, who spent five years with the district, would have received salary of $279,884 if she had worked the full year. The average salary for superintendents in districts with more than 20,000 students is about $223,000. Desert Sands has about 29,000 students.

Vice President Biden earns $230,700 per year, but he is also provided a mansion and other uncommon benefits by the federal government.

This is what the mansion looks like, by the way. Photo from WhiteHouseMuseum.org

Ironically, much like Rutherford, Biden has been criticized recently for not giving back part of his salary. Although sequestration has prompted President Obama and many White House cabinet members to forfeit about five percent of their salaries, Biden has made no such gesture, according to a recent report by CBS News. Biden is less wealthy than most of the other cabinet members, who were independently wealthy before they assumed their posts, according to the CBS News report.

For my island home, North Korea’s threats are very real

In last two weeks, I’ve found myself adding an surreal twist to my morning routine. As soon as I wake up each day I check to see if my friends are under attack.

It’s a morbid thought – once the punch line of a bad joke – but as threats from North Korea escalate more and more each day, it becomes harder to dismiss the lingering fear in the back of my mind and the pit of my stomach.

Before I moved to Palm Springs in March, I had spent the last five-and-a-half years living in Guam, a tiny speck of American soil floating in the Pacific Ocean region of Micronesia. The island hosts two military bases, and Guam residents live every day fully aware that the bases increase the potential for a missile strike.

But the threat has never felt more real than now.

USA TODAY: North Korea’s fresh round of rhetoric, “powerful striking means”

USA TODAY: “Kim’s bluster threatens to blunder Koreas into war”

Experts agree that most of the United States is safely outside of North Korean missile range, so to many mainlanders the escalating threats from Kim Jong-un are just fodder for Facebook memes.

But Guam is an American territory that very well may be within range of the rogue nation’s Taepodong 2 missile. The missile is unproven, but it could reach the island in theory.

(Check out this USA TODAY graphic or this CNN map on North Korea’s military range.)

Guam has already seen more than its share of war.

In the mid-1600s, the local people (Chamorros) were conquered by the Spanish. After the Spanish-American War, the island was forfeited to the United States. At the start of World War II, the Americans lost the island to the Japanese. Three years later, the Americans took it back. Many of the island’s elderly still carry the stories and the scars of the Japanese occupation.

During the Vietnam War, the air base on the island’s north was flooded with war planes, each loaded with deadly cargo. Some Guam residents still argue they were poisoned by shipments of Agent Orange.

Today, the island has the highest military enlistment rates, and one of the highest military casualty rates, of anywhere in the United States. The ruins of warships, tanks and fighter planes still litter the island and the shallow waters that surround it. (I have personally stepped on two unexploded grenades, each buried the mud since WWII, while hiking through the island jungles.)

And now the island faces a threat that could dwarf all the violence that has happened before.

In recent weeks, the surreal threats reported through North Korea’s state media have grown eerily specific. North Korea has threatened to attack the island of Guam at least twice, and the U.S. military has responded by moving more missile defense systems to the island.

Now military officials are saying that a North Korean test launch (or even multiple launches) is “imminent.”   Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon that the unpredictable nation is approaching a “dangerous line” in a “combustible situation.” Click here for a CNN story on Hagel’s statements

On the front lines (literally) of this story is my old newspaper, the Pacific Daily News, the largest newspaper on Guam. The PDN has published daily stories on the escalating North Korea situation, and pushed the military for details on what is being done to protect the island.

Courtesy of the Pacific Daily News

Earlier this week, a PDN article was featured on the website of USA TODAY, which is the kind of achievement this small paper would celebrate if not for the impending threat of nuclear doom.

A large part of me wishes I was back in the island newsroom, peeling through confounding statements from the North Korean government, jargon-laced news releases from the U.S. military. The PDN can’t protect the island from whatever is coming, but good info can do a lot to help people in a desperate situation.

Honestly, I have spent the last five years more than 6,000 miles from home, but it never felt so far away until I came back.

Coming Sunday: Teachers absences high at desert schools

What do your kids do in class when the teacher is absent? “Nothing,” said one Palm Springs parent.

For the second Sunday in a row, the iSun team has turned its attention to education. Last week we took a deep dive into capital appreciation bonds, but this week it is a detailed analysis of teacher absences. Using first-ever data from the U.S. Department of Education, the investigative team have broken down absenteeism statistics – district-by-district, school-by-school.

What schools struggle the most with teacher absenteeism? How does the Coachella Valley stack up against the rest of California, or the rest of the nation?

If you want to know these answers and more, pick up a copy of The Desert Sun, or visit mydesert.com, on Sunday. And if you want to keep closer tabs on our education coverage, follow our new education reporter on twitter at @TDSbrettkelman.

From island paradise to desert oasis

This is Brett Kelman, the newest reporter at The Desert Sun. This is one of my first few contributions to The Sidebar, so I wanted to begin by telling you a little about myself.

I’m new to both the paper and the Coachella Valley. For the last five years I’ve been working as a reporter for the Pacific Daily News.

You probably have never heard of the PDN. That is because it is in Guam.

Honestly, you might not have heard of Guam either.


There it is!

Courtesy of Wikicommons

I’ll save you the trouble of Googling it. The island of Guam is a U.S. territory in the Marianas, on the other side of the international dateline. Basically, fly to Hawaii, then keep going in a straight line for another seven hours. It takes 90 minutes to drive around the whole island, but plenty of people I know will happily spend the rest of their lives there.

Yes, everyone in Guam speaks English. Yes, the island is very much part of the United States. No, the residents can’t vote for president.

What I learned from moving to California is that five years on a small, isolated island will re-shape your world view. I just didn’t notice it until I came back to the mainland.

For example, I quickly realized I only owned one pair of dress shoes, one pair of cruddy hiking shoes and one pair of flip-flops — with nothing in-between. On the island, that is one pair of shoes too many.

I also remembered that Best Buy is a store, not just a website. (That is a fun perk.)

I realized I hadn’t driven faster than 45 mph in five years. However, I didn’t realize this until AFTER I merged onto the interstate for the first time.

And, finally, I discovered that I had completely forgotten about sales tax. (Somewhere in Cathedral City there is a befuddled Chipotle cashier who thinks I am the most clueless customer ever.)

So just to recap, for the last five years I’ve been living here:

Photo courtesy of The Navy Times


Photo courtesy of The Navy Times

And now I’m living here:

Photo courtesy of PalmSpringsCA.gov.


Life is tough, right?

Now that I’m here, I’ll be covering education as part of iSun investigative team. I’ll be focusing on detailed, data-driven watchdog journalism.

If you want to contact me for a story — or would just like to chat about the island — please give me at ring a 760 778 4626, or shoot me a e-mail brett.kelman@thedesertsun.com.

P.S. If there are any Chamorros hiding out there in the desert, I need a good finadene recipe. My keleguen is dry.

Coming Sunday: A deep dive into California’s bond borrowing

Bond borrowing is a common tool for governments that want to build big and pay later, but what is the true cost for new buildings?

For its latest investigative project, the iSun team has partnered up with California Watch — a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism group (http://californiawatch.org/) — to explore capital appreciation bonds.

This controversial borrowing strategy will leave local taxpayers to repay hundreds of millions of dollars more than was borrowed over the next four decades.

If you want to read more, pick up a copy of The Desert Sun, or visit mydesert.com, on Sunday.