ACLU and Americans United File Lawsuit in Nevada District Court

to Block Voucher Program That Would Fund Religious Schools in NevadaACLU

LAS VEGAS – Three civil liberties organizations filed suit today in Nevada District Court to challenge a school voucher program signed into law last June by Gov. Brian Sandoval. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued on behalf of a group of parents, clergy, and other taxpayers who oppose the program’s effort to divert taxpayer money to private, religious schools.

“Parents have a right to send their children to religious schools, but they are not entitled to do so at taxpayers’ expense. The voucher program violates the Nevada Constitution’s robust protections against the use of public funds for religious education,” said Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada. “This program allows public money to be spent at intuitions which operate with sectarian missions and goals and impart sectarian curricula. This is exactly what the Nevada Constitution forbids.”

Under the program, parents of students enrolled in public school for at least 100 days may transfer their children to participating private schools, including religious schools, and are eligible to receive thousands of dollars in public education funds to pay for tuition, textbooks, and other associated costs.  The funds will be disbursed through so-called “Education Savings Accounts,” and there are no restrictions on how participating schools can use the money.

The lawsuit argues that the funding scheme violates Article XI Section 10 of the Nevada Constitution, which prohibits the use of public funds for any sectarian purpose. The lawsuit also claims that the program runs afoul of Article XI, Section 2, which requires the legislature to provide for a uniform system of common schools.

“The voucher program will use taxpayer dollars for religious education and indoctrination at a number of religious schools, many of which discriminate in admissions and employment,” said Heather L. Weaver, senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The program would be a huge loss for religious liberty if implemented.”

Gregory M. Lipper, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, added, “Nevada’s Constitution makes clear that the state may not fund religious instruction or religious discrimination. The voucher program flouts this constitutional prohibition. Nevada’s parents, students, and taxpayers deserve better.”

Among the plaintiffs represented by the ACLU of Nevada, ACLU, and Americans United is Ruby Duncan, a mother, grandmother, and longtime civil rights activist and the namesake for the Ruby Duncan Elementary School in Las Vegas. Rabbi Mel Hecht, Howard Watts III, Leora Olivas, and Adam Berger are also Plaintiffs in this suit. All object to the use of their taxes to fund private religious schools. The complaint asks the court to declare the voucher program unlawful and to enjoin the Nevada Treasurer and Department of Education from further implementation.

via ACLU

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Larry Hogan publicly questions Martin O’Malley over mansion furniture

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former Gov. Martin O’Malley appears to have engaged in questionable activities during his tenure,  

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan took to his large Facebook following today and Sunday to question why former Gov. Martin O’Malley purchased most of the governor’s mansion furniture after it had been declared “junk” by the Democrat’s outgoing administration — a transaction that the state ethics commission is examining.

A Baltimore Sun investigation revealed last week that the Democratic candidate for president had paid $9,638 for 54 mansion furnishings that originally cost taxpayers $62,000. The Department of General Services sold armoires, beds, chairs, desks, lamps, mirrors, ottomans, tables and other items to O’Malleyand his wife, Baltimore District Judge Catherine CurranO’Malley, at steep discounts after declaring every item to be “junk.”

The department sold the items to the O’Malleys, who together earned $270,000 in state salaries last year, without seeking bids or notifying the public that the items were available for sale.

An agency rule prohibits preferential sales of state-owned property to government officials.

“If they call that expensive, beautiful, barely used furniture ‘junk’, I’d hate to hear what they call the 20 year old stuff I brought with me from my house to replace it all,” the Republican governor wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. “And if it was so bad and ready to be ‘thrown out,’ why would you try so hard to take all with you to your new house.

Hogan was even more direct on Facebook Monday: “Just to set the record straight, none of the 54 pieces of furniture included in the investigation was ‘junk.'”

“None of it would have been ‘thrown out,’ or surplussed, or sold in any manner,” Hogan added. “Had it not all been removed a few days before we moved in, our intention would have been to leave all of it in place, just as it was, in the people’s house.”

The furniture was used in the residential sections of the mansion, not the public areas, which are dotted with antiques. When Hogan moved into the mansion in January from his Anne Arundel County home, the Republican found a starkly less furnished house than the one he had toured with O’Malleytwo weeks earlier. He ended up moving in nearly all of hisfurniturefrom his Edgewater house.

“The governor was certainly surprised to find Government House largely unfurnished,” said Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer.

The office of Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, who campaigned for O’Malley last week, referred questions about the matter to the department’s legal counsel, Assistant Attorney General Turhan E. Robinson. David Nitkin, a spokesman for Frosh, said the issue is a matter of “departmental policy” and that Robinson “should be able to answer.”

On Friday, Robinson asked the state ethics commission to determine whether the sale violated the prohibition and whether a provision in state regulations that allows the department to sell surplus property to charities and other government agencies without bids can apply to a private sale with a governmetn official.

Robinson wrote that the matter “requires ethics determination.”
“DGS is requesting a determination on the propriety of sales of excess/used furniture to an outgoing public elected official,” Robinson wrote on Friday to Michael Lord, executive director of the Maryland State Ethics Commission.

Lord declined to comment, saying his office is restricted from discussing any requests.

O’Malley declined to comment, but his representatives said that he followed proper procedures and that state officials had authorized thefurnitureto be thrown away.

The Department of General Services’ inventory control manual states that “the preferential sale or gratuitous disposition of property to a state official or employee is prohibited in accordance with Board of Public Works policy.” The prohibition against preferential sales—transactions made without publicly soliciting other bids—applies to all surplus state property, even items declared junk, a department spokeswoman said.

In addition to the department’s prohibition against private sales to government officials, the inventory control manual says that state ethics rules also govern all transactions. State ethics rules and the standards of conduct for executive branch employees forbid state officials from making transactions that involve information unavailable to the public.

O’Malley is not the first governor to get such treatment.

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. also purchasedfurniturewhen he left office—but much less. The Republican paid the state $992 for 21 furnishings that had cost the state $9,904. Unlike O’Malley, Ehrlich purchased mostly low-cost linens, mattresses, pillows, lamps and bunk beds used by his two sons. Those items were also purchased at prices set by a depreciation formula. The ethics commission was asked to also examine that sale as well.

via Baltimore sun

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Why Vouchers Won’t Fix Vegas Schools

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LAS VEGAS — FOR the past year, I’ve lived next door to a public elementary school. With my windows open in the morning, I can hear children’s laughter on the playground, and at 9 a.m., the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom. My afternoon commute takes me past the entrance, where I see a diverse group of parents collecting their children, from white moms in yoga pants to Muslim women in hijab guiding their kids carefully through the crosswalk.

Only a quarter-mile away, on the other side of my apartment complex, is a private school. These students wear identical uniforms, but still manage to showcase the diversity of the city.

For now, it’s heartening to see at least some amount of ethnic and economic variety within our local schools. But now that the state has approved a radical new voucher system, that’s about to change.

In the clichéd, across-the-railroad-tracks scuffle between private and public schools that you find in many places, the teams are often clearly divided: poor urban kids versus wealthy suburban ones. But in Vegas, where poverty is high but not concentrated in a single area, it’s difficult to identify exactly where the tracks lie.

National trends show that wealthier families are moving back to the cities, bringing popular amenities and higher costs of living with them, while low-income families are pushed into the once shiny, now-aging suburbs. Because there is no clearly defined inner city in Vegas, just a suburban sprawl that makes up the nation’s fifth-largest school district, there is a surprising level of racial and economic diversity, at least in the elementary grades.

But the schools are far from great. In a 2015 report from the Anne E. Casey Foundation, Nevada ranked 50th in education. Underfunded, chronically overcrowded and, like many states, desperate for teachers, it has long been infamous for its problems. Despite 100-degree temperatures throughout August and September, many Vegas public schools do not have working air-conditioning.

To meet high demand for better quality education, Las Vegas has provided families with a variety of alternatives to the traditional public school — charter, magnet, technical — but privately funded institutions have proved to be the best-performing, receiving national attention for innovative programs in academics, technology and sports.

How to get the public system in Nevada properly functioning has produced a frenzied debate for years, but legislation passed this summer significantly, and finally, increased the education budget by some $400 million. There is a catch, though. Part of that budget will go toward one of the most expensive voucher systems ever attempted in the country. Parents who choose private, online or home education over the public system will soon be eligible for vouchers worth about $5,000.

Unlike similar programs that offered this type of funding only to low-income families, this money will be available to higher-income families as well (though low-income students and those with disabilities will receive a bit more). Supporters argue that the program will give all parents the opportunity to choose the schools they believe will best serve their children. Politically, it also appeases taxpayers who do not benefit from the reforms because their children do not use the public system.

Private school tuition in Nevada can be as high as $12,000, and the biggest problem with the vouchers is that the poorest families will be unable to make up the difference. So, in the coming year, as middle-class families who may otherwise have used the public school system forgo it for the private, the vouchers will undermine whatever economic and racial diversity Las Vegas has achieved.

In Nevada, about one in four children live in poverty, not because their schools have failed them, but because their parents juggle multiple jobs on a stagnant minimum wage, have little job security and are denied paid time off.

The Anne E. Casey Foundation argues that improving the well-being of children in poverty requires a two-generation approach, meaning you can’t improve the situation for children without addressing the economic realities of their parents. Its 2015 report states that, “Boosting low family income, especially early in a child’s life, can have lasting positive effects on cognitive development, health, and academic achievement.”

These economic challenges present direct conflicts with the type of parental involvement and support that are necessary for quality education. Erratic and unpredictable work hours make it difficult to organize transportation to and from school and after-school child care. Long workdays limit parents’ ability to ensure that children’s academic responsibilities outside of school are being met. Low wages without benefits make it impossible to afford enriching activities outside the classroom or quality health care that plays a crucial role in academic success.

Nevada parents do need choices, but far more than these vouchers can provide.

Brittany Bronson is an English instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a restaurant server and a contributing opinion writer.

via New York Times

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LA teachers planning campaign to oppose charter expansion

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UTLA President Alex Caputo Pearl

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said the teachers union is planning an aggressive campaign to oppose Eli Broadand other wealthy foundation leaders who have announced plans for a major expansion of charter schools in LA Unified.

In a wide-ranging interview that focused on the state of charters in the district, Caputo-Pearl was highly critical of the effort, asserting that charters are undermining the ability of traditional district schools to maintain a quality education for all students.

“We’re going to make every effort that we can to organize against the expansion of what are essentially unregulated non-union schools that don’t play by the rules as everybody else,” Caputo-Pearl told LA School Report. “So we’re going to take that on in the public, take that on in the media, engage the school board on it. We’re going to try to engage Eli Broad. We’re going to try to engage John Deasy because we understand he’s the architect of it. It will be a major effort. It is a major concern.”

The charter expansion plans involve three major foundations that have been active for years in education reform across the country: the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the W.M. Keck Foundation. They said they intend to create enough charter schools in eight years to serve as many as half of LA Unified students.

The California Charter School Association has consistently denied that there are separate rules for charters, pointing to the fact that charters have to demonstrate academic achievement and financial stability to remain operating. Many charters do employ non-union teachers, but UTLA in recent years has succeeded in unionizing a number of them.

Caputo-Pearl’s targeting of Deasy evolves from Deasy’s association with Broad before and after he served as LA Unified’s superintendent. Before he was hired in 2011, Deasy attended the Broad Academy, which prepares senior executives for roles in urban education. He resigned as superintendent last year after problems with the iPad program, leading to a federal investigation of the bid process. Currently, he is a consultant for The Broad Center, a separate non-proft organization that helps train future education leaders.

Deasy was replaced as superintendent by Ramon Cortines, who says he intends to step down in December.

“It turns out (Deasy) is involved here with Eli Broad and and this effort, but what really offends us about Eli Broad is that he has been two-faced on issues of public education,” Caputo-Pearl said. “He publicly supported Proposition 30, which was arguably the most important thing in public education in decades in terms of restoring the system. Yet privately was funneling his cash in efforts to defeat it.”

Proposition 30 was a state measure approved by voters in 2012 that raised taxes to support public education.

The Board Foundation did not immediately respond to a message, seeking comment.

Caputo-Pearl and other teacher union leaders, local and national, have fought against the rise of charter schools, asserting that they undermine public education by draining financial support from public education systems and creating an educational caste system that favors some demographic groups over others.

For Caputo-Pearl and UTLA, Deasy personified the challenge for his open support for alternatives to traditional schools.

“We are concerned about these flavor-of-the-day interventions in the school system by billionaires who think that they know things, but really don’t,” Caputo-Pearl said. “The last major intervention that Eli Broad did at LAUSD was making John Deasy superintendent. That didn’t work out too well. We’re under an FBI investigation because of John Deasy. We finally, finally have begun to make improvements to the MiSiS system that spent tens of millions of dollars and had kids out of class for weeks. We of course had the iPad fiasco. We had the beat down of moral of (Deasy’s) autocratic style across the district. Our members are telling us we don’t need another intervention from Eli Broad in LAUSD.”

So strong is UTLA’s animus toward Deasy that Caputo-Pearl said he has urged the school board in its search for Cortines’s replacement to find someone “not out of the Broad Academy.”

“John Deasy was out of the Broad Academy. A lot of the people that he brought in were out of the Broad Academy,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Broad has 120 different people across California that have come out of the Academy who are in high management positions, clearly that’s part of the game that’s being played here.”

While the foundations are formulating their charter expansion plans and UTLA is devising its counter-measures, Caputo-Pearl said he would try to establish a productive working relationship with charter school advocates, such as newly-elected board member Ref Rodriguez, a former charter school executive. He and Rodriguez have met several times.

“One of main issues I raised with him is was that we feel a big part of our strategic plan is around public school accountability and sustainability,” Caputo-Pearl said. “I told him that we want to engage him this issue that all publicly-funded schools need to have common standards we need to adhere to, in terms of equity and access to all students, opportunities for parents to be genuinely involved, adherence to conflict of interest standards, financial transparency, basic common sense apple pie stuff.”

via LA School Report

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10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure

Test scores tell one story, and residents tell another. A three-month investigation by In These Times reveals the cracks in the education reform narrative.New_Orleans_flood_1

Ninth grade was nothing like what Darrius Jones expected. Jones, 14, imagined that with high school would come more independence. Instead, he felt like he was being treated like a kid. “You had to sit a certain way,” he recalls. “You couldn’t lean, or have your chair back.” Jones says he stepped out of line once—an actual line on the floor of the hallway, which students were supposed to follow—and was sent to detention.

It was the beginning of the 2012 school year, and Jones was in the first class of students at Carver Collegiate Academy, a brand-new charter school in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. Like a public school, it is funded by taxpayers and open to anyone. But as a charter, it is managed independently by a board of directors that can do its own hiring and firing, write its own policies and teach according to its own philosophy. In the case of Carver Collegiate, that philosophy is one of “no excuses”—strict rules and swift discipline.

Carver is part of New Orleans’ Recovery School District (RSD), the first all-charter school district in the nation. In the chaos after Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana opted to completely overhaul the city’s failing public schools by putting them on the open market. Ten years later, cities and states around the country have embarked on their own charter-school experiments and are watching New Orleans closely, laser-focused on outcomes.

Test scores have improved, according to two major reports that examine academic achievement over the past nine years. On Katrina’s 10th anniversary, RSD is being held up as a national model. The graduation rate has risen from 56 percent to 73 percent. Last year, 63 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored basic or above on state standardized tests, up from 33 percent.

But by other measures, the RSD suffers. In These Times received an advance copy of research conducted for the Network for Public Education (NPE) by University of Arizona researchers Francesca López and Amy Olson. The study compared charters in Louisiana, the majority of which are in New Orleans, to Louisiana public schools, controlling for factors like race, ethnicity, poverty and whether students qualified for special education. On eighth-grade reading and math tests, charter-school students performed worse than their public-school counterparts by enormous margins—2 to 3 standard deviations.

The researchers found that the gap between charter and public school performance in Louisiana was the largest of any state in the country. And Louisiana’s overall scores were the fourth-lowest in the nation.

“You can say until you’re blue in the face that this should be a national model, but this is one of the worst-performing districts in one of the worst-performing states,” says NPE board member Julian Vasquez Heilig, an education professor at California State Sacramento.

However, test scores, high or low, are only a piece of the story. In a three-month investigation, In These Times interviewed teachers, parents and students to find out how they feel about the charterization of public education in New Orleans.

Community members mourned the closures of public schools that had served as neighborhood hubs. Students at no-excuses charters described feeling like they were in prison, or bootcamp. Teachers felt demoralized, like they didn’t have a voice in the classroom. Parents complained about a lack of black teachers. In interview after interview, people said the same thing: The system doesn’t put children’s needs first.

A swift takeover

Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans public schools were struggling. The graduation rate was 18 points below the national average. Sixty-eight percent of seventh and eighth graders were testing below basic proficiency in English, 70 percent in math.

After the hurricane hit in August 2005, the Orleans Parish School Board (OPSB) laid off some 3,000 staff and 4,000 teachers. More than half its physical infrastructure was damaged beyond repair, and its tax base was displaced.

The state of Louisiana then collaborated with corporate education reformers in the most expansive overhaul ever seen in the history of public education.

In November, the state legislature raised the bar for public schools to avoid takeover. With parts of the city still underwater, 107 of New Orleans’ 128 public schools were suddenly in the hands of the all-charter Recovery School District (RSD)—a two-year-old district that previously contained only five schools.

“Basically, we became the dog that caught the bus,” said Leslie Jacobs, a former member of the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the woman widely known as the brains behind RSD, in an interview with the Washington Monthly. “We had nothing: no schools, no buildings, no cafeteria workers, no buses.”

What they did have was the backing of the national “education reform” movement, which pushes charters and high-stakes testing. With the public-school bureaucracy out of the way, powerhouses in the reform movement, such as the Walton and Gates foundations, came calling. In a 2006 interview with Education Next magazine, Mayor Ray Nagin put it this way: “They said, ‘Look, you set up the right environment, we will fund, totally fund, brand-new schools for the city of New Orleans.’ ”

And they did.

“In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid brought back online, the auctioning-off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision,” writes Naomi Klein in her landmark 2007 book The Shock Doctrine. She holds up the takeover as a prime example of “disaster capitalism”: “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”

Today, RSD oversees 70 percent of the public schools in New Orleans. OPSB still contains 16 schools, the majority of which are now charters.

Each of RSD’s charter schools is like a school district unto itself. Although RSD regulates some things—for instance, that schools have open enrollment—charters are otherwise autonomous. They have their own boards, which set rules like length of school day, dress code and hiring practices, and their own management. In Louisiana and many other states, the board must be nonprofit. But management can be either nonprofit or for-profit.

Other states have followed Louisiana’s lead. In 2012, after Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder put Detroit under emergency management, the manager closed 16 city schools and handed 15 to the Education Achievement Authority, which received millions from the likes of the Kellogg and Gates foundations. In 2013, Tennessee created the Achievement School District to take over the state’s worst-performing schools; the district now runs 27 Memphis schools, 20 of them charters.

Others are sure to follow, as long as the narrative of charter success holds. Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared, in 2010, that Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

An anchor lost

To the community groups that filed a federal civil rights complaint in May 2014, the post-Katrina school reforms were “devastating.”

“The vast majority of public schools closed by RSD in the past five years were in poor and working class, African-American neighborhoods,” the complaint says. “Many of the schools existed for over a hundred years before being closed and had been attended by multiple generations in one family. These schools employed teachers and administrators who have taught in our communities for decades—staff who hold community knowledge, understand the hardships that face our students, and pass down our shared values. … After everything that we lost in Katrina, it has been devastating to lose our schools as well.”

Karran Harper Royal, a co-author of the complaint, is a former OSPB parent who was active in education politics before the storm. She was pleased to be invited to join a citizens’ committee in 2006 to plan for the future of New Orleans schools. But Royal soon became disillusioned, convinced that the state didn’t really want citizen input—it already had a plan and was simply seeking approval.

On a muggy afternoon in June, Royal drives me past the Desire housing project, where her great-grandmother lived. As a girl, Royal spent a lot of time here. The project now sits deserted, a graveyard of small brick homes boarded up in tall grass.

Most of the project’s residents were poor and black, and most attended George Washington Carver High School in the Lower Ninth Ward. Although Royal went to a different school, many people she grew up with went there: friends, cousins, her husband.

Carver was one of the “academically unacceptable” public schools transferred to RSD after Katrina. Though its test scores were low, locals nonetheless took pride in it. An award-winning example of mid-century modern architecture, Carver had a soaring auditorium and large cafeteria built to create a sense of a village. Its daycare center and music program were renowned citywide. Carver had a strong alumni network and served as an anchor for the neighborhood, bringing people together for football games and marching band performances. Its computer lab was an important resource for locals.

“Was it the best school in the city? No,” says Royal. “But did it produce great people? Yes, it did. Were there some people at Carver who didn’t make it? That’s true, too. Carver was in the middle of a very poor community.”

After the storm, RSD demolished Carver and built a modular campus in its place—portable classrooms connected by wooden boardwalks. Some alumni and community members formed George Washington Carver Charter School Association in a bid to charter the school themselves, but their three applications to RSD were turned down.

Instead, in 2012, RSD turned the school over to Collegiate Academies, considered a leading light of the charter movement. Its flagship school, Sci Academy, had opened in New Orleans in 2008 and seen significant gains in math and English within two years. Sci Academy was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, which awarded founder and CEO Ben Marcovitz a $1 million check.

Collegiate Academies is one of several growing charter networks in New Orleans modeled on what’s often referred to as the no-excuses approach. Disproportionately used in poor and minority communities, the model is characterized by longer school days (and years), frequent testing, and strict routines and behavioral codes enforced by demerit systems. Students can earn detention—and, eventually, suspension—for relatively small infractions. In the 2012-13 school year, the three Collegiate Academies schools had the highest out-of-school suspension rates in New Orleans. Sci Academy suspended 58 percent of its students, and the two charters opened on the former Carver campus, Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate, suspended 61 and 69 percent of their students, respectively.

There isn’t yet a robust body of research on whether the no-excuses model encourages academic success. One widely cited analysis does show that children who were randomly selected to attend “no excuses” charter schools outperformed peers who weren’t.

But other research suggests that the approach produces good rule followers but poor critical thinkers. Princeton doctoral student Joanne Golann spent 18 months conducting fieldwork in a no-excuses charter school in a Northeastern city, interviewing close to one hundred students, teachers and administrators. She found that “students, in many cases, are taught to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions and defer to authority, rather than take initiative, assert themselves and interact with ease with their teachers.” She concluded that these “schools produce worker-learners to close the achievement gap.”

Rebellion in the ranks

When Rowena McCormick Robinson attended an orientation for prospective Sci Academy parents, it seemed promising. Officials assured her that the school offered advanced placement classes, extracurriculars and an atmosphere of strict discipline. The kind of place where her bright and quiet 14-year-old son, Russell, would thrive.

But within weeks of starting, the teenager, who normally woke up for school on his own, didn’t want to get out of bed. “I hate going there,” he told his mom. “It’s like prison.” When she heard about the rules the school was enforcing—rules about the way the kids had to sit, the way they raised their hand—she was furious.

These kids might be rowdy, she says, and many might come from dysfunctional homes, but they weren’t that bad. She thought it was wrong that so many were being punished as though they were delinquents.

Some of the students felt the same. Darrius Jones, who had been given detention for stepping out of line at Carver Collegiate, simply transferred schools. But in 2013, other kids at Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate started talking about a revolt. On Nov. 18, 2013, nearly 100 students walked out. They printed a list of 13 concerns, including, “We are learning material that we already learned in middle school” and “We want a discipline policy that doesn’t suspend kids for every little thing.”

Ben Marcovitz, CEO of Collegiate Academies, met with students and made a plan for reforms. Last year, Collegiate Academies launched a network-wide program focused on restorative discipline methods, instructing teachers to assume a student has just forgotten a rule and to take time to explain it. “We dropped our suspension rates from 56 to 12 percent in one year,” he says.

But the no-excuses approach shows no signs of going out of fashion. The rapidly growing charter network Knowledge is Power, for example, runs seven of RSD’s 80 charter schools under a no-excuses model, along with 176 more in “educationally underserved” communities across the country.

Younger, whiter and non-union

Another flashpoint in the Carver student protests was the racial makeup of the teaching staff. “There are no black teachers,” the complaint read. “The only black role models we have at the school are janitors, cafeteria workers, secretaries, security guards, and coaches.”

That bothered Rowena, too. The teachers at Sci, she says were “young and white” and didn’t understand anything about the culture. “There are a few who really care,” she says, “but they are thrown into this without knowing what they’re getting into.”

Collegiate made an effort to increase teacher diversity after the walkout, going from an 8 percent black teaching force to 30 percent.

Overall, however, New Orleans’ teaching landscape has shifted dramatically since Katrina. Before the storm, 73 percent of Orleans Parish’s classroom teachers were black. Nearly half of the teachers had been more than 15 years of experience. They were under a collective bargaining agreement with the United Teachers of New Orleans, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

After the OSPB layoffs, Teach for America (TFA), a nonprofit that trains college grads to teach in underprivileged communities, swept in to fill the gap, tripling the number of new recruits going to New Orleans.

The most recent teacher data available, from 2013, shows that the New Orleans teaching force is now 54 percent black, while the student body is 87 percent. The teachers are more likely than before the storm to come from an alternative certification program, such as TeachNOLA or TFA. RSD teachers average seven years of experience, OPSB charter teachers 12, and OPSB public school teachers 17. Only a few OPSB schools are unionized, and RSD is entirely non-union (although some organizing campaigns are underway).

Do these things matter? A 2005 study by Swarthmore researcher Thomas S. Dee found that teachers of a different race than a student were significantly more likely to evaluate that student as disruptive, inattentive and rarely completing homework.

Certainly, among New Orleans residents interviewed by In These Times, there was a sense that the loss of experienced black teachers has been detrimental to black students. Rowena’s mother, Roberta, taught art in a parochial school in Louisiana. “When I was a teacher, I was parenting,” she says. “What helped them so much was me being able to meet them where there were, with whatever they lacked, or needed extra. … These teachers, they’re not ready. For whatever reason, white folk fear black folks so much. They come in with the fear.”

A large body of research shows that teacher experience has a positive impact on student learning, especially after a teacher gets through the steep learning curve of the first three years.

Teacher retention has been a challenge for charter schools across the country. RSD charter schools in New Orleans have an average annual turnover of 27 percent. An analysis of National Center for Education Statistics by the University of Arizona’s López and Olson found that 46 percent of charter school teachers in Louisiana reported plans to leave, compared to 6 percent of public school teachers.

One of the main reasons that teachers leave a post, according to Richard Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies teacher turnover, is the issue of “voice.” Teachers want to feel like they have a say in the classroom.

This was what bothered Kelly Pickett, one of the young, white teachers who started teaching in New Orleans after the storm. She’d been a chef for 10 years before going back to school at 28 to get her bachelor’s in early childhood education. Her first teaching post was in a first-grade classroom at Arthur Ashe Elementary, an RSD charter with a no-excuses approach. She’d known it was a strict school, but hadn’t fully understood how strict. She describes the experience as “horrible.”

The philosophy is “all about control,” she says. Teachers were instructed to keep students in the “STARR” position: Sit straight, Track the speaker with your eyes, And be Responsive and Respectful. Teachers had to post students’ test scores on the classroom walls. Bar charts showed where each student stood in comparison to the rest of the class and how much they needed to improve to raise the average so the whole class could win candy or a pizza party. The scores also helped determine teachers’ pay.

Pickett had to enforce a complicated system of warning and shout-outs on a behavioral stoplight at the front of the classroom. A student starts at green; two warnings move her to yellow; two more, she’s at red and out of the classroom. Positive “shout-outs,” move students in the other direction. Shout-outs are for things like helping a classmate or paying attention, and warnings for things like sitting improperly (not in STARR position) or for interrupting during a lesson.

Pickett disagreed with the rules, but had no choice but to enforce them.

“The kids are smart. Really smart,” Pickett says. “Some of them find their rewards in this system, others see no point and act out deliberatively to get out. They know exactly how to derail the system. I literally have to scream at them, and I hate it.”

After one semester, Pickett quit.

Some are more welcome than others

In the high-stakes education system in New Orleans, a no-excuses approach applies not just to individual students, but to schools. Those that fail to boost test scores can and do lose their charters.

According to a recent survey of 30 principals from both RSD and OSPB schools, many feel pressure to compete for the right kind of students. The 2015 report, funded by the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, found that about a third used means to screen out undesirable students (“creaming,” as the authors described it), even though this is technically not allowed under RSD’s open-admissions policy. One school stopped advertising open spots and enrolled 100 fewer kids, forgoing funding, rather than attract “less-capable students.” In other words, the report stated, “Some schools in New Orleans preferred to remain under-enrolled than to attract students who might hurt their test scores. … They viewed these practices as just part of their effort to create a coherent school culture or as a necessity for survival in a market-based environment.”

Among these practices have been illegal attempts to exclude special education students. This spring, Lagniappe Academies, an elementary school in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, lost its charter license after the state board of education found that administrators had deliberately screened out special needs students by refusing them services and creating a Do Not Call list of families they didn’t want to return the following year. Last year, Louisiana settled a suit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of 10 special-needs students in New Orleans schools—seven of which were charters—alleging that they’d been denied services and unfairly disciplined.

No-excuses charter schools around the country have been accused of disciplining underperforming students in order to push them out. Most deny that claim, but what’s clear is that their strict demerit systems lead to high expulsion rates.

Even if they’re not expelled, students leave New Orleans’ RSD schools at unusually high rates. At 61 percent, the graduation rate is the second-lowest in Louisiana. What happens to the other 39 percent? Only about 3 percent are listed as dropouts; the rest are listed as having switched schools or left the state. But no one really knows for sure. There’s no centralized database to track individual kids from K-12. Youth advocates say this makes it easy for kids to fall through the cracks. Fifiteen percent of New Orleans youth ages 16 to 19 aren’t working or in school, 6 points above the national average.

Rebuilding community power

The 10th anniversary of Katrina has sparked renewed interest in the New Orleans model. A recent Chicago Tribune editorial yearned for a hurricane to strike Chicago so that it, too, could have a “reset” to do away with “restrictive mandates” from government and demands from teachers unions.

But the anniversary has also brought together the budding grassroots movement that’s fighting against the larger push for corporate education reform.

In early August, Kristen Buras, author of Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space: Where the Market Meets Grassroots Resistance, helped organize a two-day conference in New Orleans on community-centered education research. Social justice advocates, educators and union leaders from 10 cities around the country came together out of concern about a loss of community control over schools. Most, not coincidentally, are from urban school districts with high poverty rates and large populations of students of color.

Many who have seen charters replace traditional public schools report the same problems that New Orleans residents describe: closures of public schools that held neighborhoods together, younger and less experienced teachers, the loss of union jobs, experimental teaching practics that can be rigid or harsh, cherrypicking of students and rapid teacher burn-out.

In an email to In These Times, New York University education professor and NPE founder Diane Ravitch summarized the emerging, less-rosy narrative of the New Orleans model, “That model requires firing all the teachers, no matter their performance, allowing them to reapply for a job, and replacing many of them with inexperienced TFA recruits. That model requires wiping out public schools and replacing them with privately managed schools that set their own standards for admission, discipline, expulsion, and are financially opaque. These heavy-handed tactics require a suspension of democracy that would not be tolerated in a white suburb, but can be done to powerless urban districts where the children are black and Hispanic.”

The good news, says Buras, is that, “Community-based activists experiencing this model are starting to connect with one another. The narrative is starting to change.”

Sarah Cobarrubias, Ethan Corey and Karen Gwee contributed research and reporting to this article.

This investigation was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting

kimmettGettyImages-55765199.web_850_593On Sept. 24, 2005, in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, a school bus is submerged in post-Katrina flooding. Half of the city’s public school infrastructure was damaged beyond repair. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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Maryland State ethics board examining Martin O’Malley’s purchase of mansion furniture

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former Gov. Martin O’Malley appears to have engaged in questionable activities.

An assistant attorney general asked Friday for a state ethics commission ruling on whether former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s purchase of furniture from the governor’s mansion violated rules regarding state-owned property.

When O’Malley and his family moved out of the mansion in January, they left with most of its taxpayer-purchased furnishings — 54 items that he bought at steep discounts because every piece had been declared “junk” by his administration.

O’Malley and his wife, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley, paid $9,638 for armoires, beds, chairs, desks, lamps, mirrors, ottomans, tables and other items that originally cost taxpayers $62,000, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The Department of General Services sold the furniture to the O’Malleys, who together earned $270,000 in state salaries last year, without seeking bids or notifying the public that the items were available for sale.

An agency rule prohibits preferential sales of state-owned property to government officials. On Friday, the assistant attorney general at the department asked the state ethics commission to determine whether the sale violated the prohibition.

O’Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, declined to comment, but his representatives said that he followed proper procedures and that state officials had authorized the furniture to be thrown away.

The furniture was used in the residential sections of the mansion, not the public areas, which are dotted with antiques. When Gov. Larry Hogan moved into the mansion in January from his Anne Arundel County home, the Republican found a starkly less furnished house than the one he had toured with O’Malley two weeks earlier. He ended up moving in nearly all of his furniture from his Edgewater house.

“The governor was certainly surprised to find Government House largely unfurnished,” said Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer.

The Department of General Services’ inventory control manual states that “the preferential sale or gratuitous disposition of property to a state official or employee is prohibited in accordance with Board of Public Works policy.” The prohibition against preferential sales — transactions made without publicly soliciting other bids — applies to all surplus state property, even items declared junk, a department spokeswoman said.

State ethics rules and the standards of conduct for executive branch employees forbid state officials from making transactions that involve information unavailable to the public.

Therese Yewell, spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, said the agency prohibition appears to apply to the transaction because O’Malley was still governor when he bought the furniture. But she deferred to the department’s counsel, Assistant Attorney General Turhan E. Robinson, for a formal answer, and Robinson then sent the request to the ethics commission.

“DGS is requesting a determination on the propriety of sales of excess/used furniture to an outgoing public elected official,” Robinson wrote Friday. The request also asks for an examination of a similar, though smaller, sale to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. eight years ago.

Sheila C. McDonald, executive secretary for the Maryland Board of Public Works, said the prohibition on preferential sales corresponds with the procurement policies of the three-person spending board, which O’Malley chaired for eight years.

“It’s just common sense,” said McDonald, an attorney who has managed the board since 1999. “You have to make sure the public knows so that no state employee gets something that a member of the public doesn’t get.”

The policy governing the sale of excess state-owned property gives the general services department four options: transfer items to other state agencies, donate them to charities, sell them at auction or throw them out. When selling, the agency “shall seek to gain maximum value” for all property, according to state regulations.

“Excess property sales will be executed by competitive sealed bids or public auction,” state regulations say.

Property can be sold or given to other government entities or charities without seeking competitive bids. Robinson asked the ethics commission whether that exemption could also apply to preferential sales to government officials.

O’Malley’s former chief of staff, John Griffin, who spoke on behalf of the former governor, said he believes proper procedure was followed.

Griffin said O’Malley expressed an interest in buying the furniture only after general services officials declared the furniture to be junk.

The state’s inventory standards division “found that the furniture was beyond or close to the end of its useful life and authorized it to be thrown out — junked,” Griffin wrote in an email response to questions. “Enter [Martin O’Malley] who asked that the furniture not be junked but to have DGS put a value on it and the family would buy it.”

But Yewell said it was O’Malley’s wife who got the process moving when the first lady asked to have the furniture declared surplus, a necessary step that must come before the items are declared junk and can be sold as excess property.

An assistant attorney general asked Friday for a state ethics commission ruling on whether former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s purchase of furniture from the governor’s mansion violated rules regarding state-owned property.

When O’Malley and his family moved out of the mansion in January, they left with most of its taxpayer-purchased furnishings — 54 items that he bought at steep discounts because every piece had been declared “junk” by his administration.

O’Malley and his wife, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O’Malley, paid $9,638 for armoires, beds, chairs, desks, lamps, mirrors, ottomans, tables and other items that originally cost taxpayers $62,000, according to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

The Department of General Services sold the furniture to the O’Malleys, who together earned $270,000 in state salaries last year, without seeking bids or notifying the public that the items were available for sale.

An agency rule prohibits preferential sales of state-owned property to government officials. On Friday, the assistant attorney general at the department asked the state ethics commission to determine whether the sale violated the prohibition.

O’Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, declined to comment, but his representatives said that he followed proper procedures and that state officials had authorized the furniture to be thrown away.

The furniture was used in the residential sections of the mansion, not the public areas, which are dotted with antiques. When Gov. Larry Hogan moved into the mansion in January from his Anne Arundel County home, the Republican found a starkly less furnished house than the one he had toured with O’Malley two weeks earlier. He ended up moving in nearly all of his furniture from his Edgewater house.

“The governor was certainly surprised to find Government House largely unfurnished,” said Hogan spokesman Douglass Mayer.

The Department of General Services’ inventory control manual states that “the preferential sale or gratuitous disposition of property to a state official or employee is prohibited in accordance with Board of Public Works policy.” The prohibition against preferential sales — transactions made without publicly soliciting other bids — applies to all surplus state property, even items declared junk, a department spokeswoman said.

State ethics rules and the standards of conduct for executive branch employees forbid state officials from making transactions that involve information unavailable to the public.

Therese Yewell, spokeswoman for the Department of General Services, said the agency prohibition appears to apply to the transaction because O’Malley was still governor when he bought the furniture. But she deferred to the department’s counsel, Assistant Attorney General Turhan E. Robinson, for a formal answer, and Robinson then sent the request to the ethics commission.

“DGS is requesting a determination on the propriety of sales of excess/used furniture to an outgoing public elected official,” Robinson wrote Friday. The request also asks for an examination of a similar, though smaller, sale to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. eight years ago.

Sheila C. McDonald, executive secretary for the Maryland Board of Public Works, said the prohibition on preferential sales corresponds with the procurement policies of the three-person spending board, which O’Malley chaired for eight years.

“It’s just common sense,” said McDonald, an attorney who has managed the board since 1999. “You have to make sure the public knows so that no state employee gets something that a member of the public doesn’t get.”

The policy governing the sale of excess state-owned property gives the general services department four options: transfer items to other state agencies, donate them to charities, sell them at auction or throw them out. When selling, the agency “shall seek to gain maximum value” for all property, according to state regulations.

“Excess property sales will be executed by competitive sealed bids or public auction,” state regulations say.

Property can be sold or given to other government entities or charities without seeking competitive bids. Robinson asked the ethics commission whether that exemption could also apply to preferential sales to government officials.

O’Malley’s former chief of staff, John Griffin, who spoke on behalf of the former governor, said he believes proper procedure was followed.

Griffin said O’Malley expressed an interest in buying the furniture only after general services officials declared the furniture to be junk.

The state’s inventory standards division “found that the furniture was beyond or close to the end of its useful life and authorized it to be thrown out — junked,” Griffin wrote in an email response to questions. “Enter [Martin O’Malley] who asked that the furniture not be junked but to have DGS put a value on it and the family would buy it.”

But Yewell said it was O’Malley’s wife who got the process moving when the first lady asked to have the furniture declared surplus, a necessary step that must come before the items are declared junk and can be sold as excess property.

Samuel L. Cook, the former director of the Annapolis Capital Complex, devised the depreciation formula that was used to determine the prices the O’Malleys paid for the furniture. Cook, who worked for state government for four decades, said the process of declaring property as excess and ordering its disposal typically takes several days or weeks.

For the O’Malleys it took one day. Records show that the process to declare the furniture as surplus, judge its condition and issue a separate disposal order took place on Jan. 15 — the day the O’Malleys moved out of the mansion.

All 54 items were formally declared “unserviceable,” according to the “excess property declaration” forms filed that day by the Department of General Services. Other options included “good, fair and poor.” The declaration resulted in excess-property disposal orders on the same day, stating that all the items could be disposed of “as junk.”

Each item featured some defect that rendered it unserviceable, according to the state records. Five mirrors were described as having “distorted, cracked edges,” four chairs had “material stained, wicker torn and frayed,” and two other chairs had “material stained & worn, scratches.”

Cook then put together an inventory labeled “Personal items and inventory the first family wants to purchase” that detailed the original cost of each item and the depreciated value O’Malley would pay.
The state’s inventory control manual does not provide a process for valuing property declared junk. Cook said that is why he consulted furniture experts and the Internet to devise his formula.

“Sam consulted with furniture experts and determined that 10 years was the outside useful life,” Griffin wrote in an email. The majority of the furniture — 65 percent — was eight years old.

According to Cook’s inventory, the O’Malleys paid $449 for a leather couch that the state bought in 2007 for $2,247; $739 for a Maitland Smith armoire that the state paid $3,695 for in 2007; and $764 for a second armoire that the state paid $3,822 for in 2007.

The first lady signed the $9,638 check from the O’Malleys’ joint bank account on Jan. 17, when her husband was still governor. He left office Jan. 20 2015.

It’s unlikely that every item O’Malley wanted to buy was “truly junk,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group. “I find it deeply disturbing.”

Cook defended the deal, saying it benefited Maryland taxpayers.

“It’s not historical furniture. he said. “It’s furniture used by the family over eight years. It gets pretty roughed up. … The state was fortunate to get some money for this junk that we were able to utilize to buy new furniture. In my mind, as a taxpayer, it’s a win-win for the state.”

Brian R. Greenstein, an accounting professor at the University of Delaware’s business school, said Maryland would have gotten the most money for the furniture if it had hired an appraiser.

“That’s standard business practice,” Greenstein said. “Appraisals are always the true measure.”

Auctioning the property would have also revealed the fair-market value, according to Greenstein and three furniture experts.

O’Malley is not the first governor to get such treatment.

Ehrlich also purchased furniture when he left office — but much less. The Republican paid the state $992 for 21 furnishings that had cost the state $9,904. Unlike O’Malley, Ehrlich purchased mostly low-cost linens, mattresses, pillows, lamps and bunk beds used by his two sons.

Those items were also purchased at prices set by a depreciation formula.

Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel, said when they moved into the mansion after Parris N. Glendening, the residence was nearly fully furnished. The couple brought some of their own furniture and acquired other items from state inventories, Kendel Ehrlich said.

“We brought our own bed,” she said. “I do remember the private residence was furnished.”

When Glendening moved out in 2002 his Government House Foundation donated hundreds of furnishings to the house, according to state records obtained by The Sun.

“I know I didn’t buy anything” when leaving office, Glendening said. “I didn’t even know you could do that.”

ddonovan@baltsun.com

Via Baltimore sun

income_inequality

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Teachers seek to take down cell tower at Deering High School

692227_45052-20150610_CellTower00A cell tower at Deering High School has caused health concerns among some teachers. An advocate for its removal says the school district needs to adopt a policy on towers.

Undeterred by recent tests showing that radio frequency emissions from a cell tower at Deering High School are well below federal standards, some teachers are trying to garner community support to remove the tower from the school’s roof.

In late May, Deering biology teacher Polly Wilson reported that goldfish she kept in Room 305, right below the tower, kept dying. She and other teachers concerned about the tower met with district officials, and then-Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk ordered the tests.

The reports from U.S. Cellular and C Square Systems of New Hampshire, which both tested the cell tower, found that the radio frequency levels were below federal standards, and in some cases were lower than earlier readings, according to Craig Worth, the school district’s deputy chief operations officer. The reports show that the readings in Wilson’s room ranged from .03 percent to 1.07 percent of the maximum permissible exposure under FCC standards.

“There’s absolutely no educational benefit having that tower on top of Deering. Let’s take it down. Let’s do the right thing,” said Gus Goodwin, Wilson’s husband and a technology teacher at King Middle School. Goodwin has been a leading advocate for removing the tower.

Goodwin said he has seen the reports, but still plans to meet with parent teacher organizations at Portland schools this fall to gather support to remove the tower, which has been in place since 2006.

In late May, 91 Deering High School staff members signed a “statement of concern” requesting that the cell tower be removed because it has no educational value, according to social studies teacher Kirsten Platt, who collected the signatures. The district gets about $36,000 a year from leasing the roof space to U.S. Cellular.

The findings from the recent reports do not change Platt’s position, she said Monday.

“There’s no study on long-term, low-exposure limits,” she said. “That’s my concern.”

The safety of radio frequency waves is a subject of long-standing dispute.

The Federal Communications Commission says radio frequency emissions from antennas used for cell towers result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits. The agency monitors RF radiation for possible impact on the environment, including human exposure, according to the FCC website.

However, critics of cell towers note that cellphone emissions are classified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans. In a 10-year review of research, the agency didn’t find a causal relationship between radio frequency energy and cancer, but couldn’t rule out the possibility.

Experts note that radio frequency waves barely penetrate water and don’t damage DNA like X-rays do, but instead generate heat, in the same way that microwaves operate. An excessively high concentration of radio waves from a cell tower could, hypothetically, cause a burn or excessive heat.

The FCC allows an ERP – effective radiated power – of up to 500 watts per channel. Most cell towers in urban and suburban areas operate at an ERP of 100 watts per channel or less, according to the FCC website. The FCC last updated its guidelines for evaluating human exposure to RF fields from fixed antennas used for cellphone service in 1996.

Sometime this fall, Goodwin hopes to present the signatures and their findings to the school board.

“I guess it comes down to what people want to do. It’s really about what does the community think is the best thing to do, given what we know,” Goodwin said. “I would think it would be some kind of organized effort to get people to have a voice and say Portland Public Schools should probably have some kind of policy on Wi-Fi and cell towers.”

Wilson knows her experiments aren’t proof that the cell tower is causing the fish to die, and the reports indicate there is not a safety issue, but she still wants the tower removed.

“There is a larger conversation going on,” Wilson said. “Tech is so much a part of our lives that people don’t want to acknowledge that their phone, what they do all day, could in some way be not so good for them.”

TEACHER LEAVING OVER TOWER

Wilson said the situation is behind her decision to leave Deering and teach special education students at Reiche Elementary School this fall.

“It wasn’t just the fish. For three years, none of the projects worked the way they did before (the tower was installed.) I couldn’t teach science that way,” she said.

U.S. Cellular added three more antennas to the Deering tower array in 2011, for a total of six. The company issued a report after those additions, in January 2012, that found RF readings were below FCC safety standards throughout the building and school grounds. However, it did note that the highest readings inside the building were in Room 305.

Worth, the district’s deputy chief operations officer, said he thought the issue would eventually be brought before the school board for discussion. Acting Superintendent Jeanne Crocker was not available for comment on Monday.

Goodwin and Wilson said district officials had been very responsive to their concerns.

Representatives from U.S. Cellular did not respond to requests for comment about the Deering cell tower on Monday, but in emails to the district company officials said they had 22 towers located on schools, churches and hospitals in Maine and New Hampshire. The representative also noted that if the Deering tower were removed or turned off, there would be “significant coverage loss especially indoor coverage at the Deering High School and surrounding areas,” and it would “also impact customer’s ability to make emergency/911 calls in the area.”

via Portland press herald

2263592418_b5a5dd0bf9_bDisguised cell tower |

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