Twelve Good Men and Women

The following email was sent yesterday to the Superintendent and Board of Trustees of the West Contra Costa Unified School District with the attached demand letter. Ben, by the way, just happens to be the one that recently handed me the Anton Jungherr Award at the 2017 California League of Bond Oversight Committees.

From: Ben Steinberg
Sent: Monday, May 22, 2017 8:44 PM
To: Liz Block; Valerie Cuevas; Madeline Kronenberg; Tom Panas; Mister Phillips; Matthew Duffy
Subject: Demand Letter

Dear Trustees and Superintendent,

We, the undersigned 12 individuals, submit the attached demand letter to the WCCUSD Board of Education and Superintendent calling on you to enforce the district’s contract with construction manager SGI and to remedy SGI’s clear breach of contract in its $1.6 billion district school construction program.  Specifically, despite the “Right to Audit” clause in the contract, SGI willfully refused to turn over project documents necessary for the forensic auditors to complete their full scope of work on the forensic investigation.  As the letter describes, this is a significant breach and results in damages to the school district and resident taxpayers that must be remedied.

We will present hard copies of the signed letter to you at this Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.


Ben Steinberg

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Anton Jungherr Award

Today I received the very prestigious Anton Jungherr Award from the California League of Bond Oversight Committees (CaLBOC) 2017 annual conference.It was presented by my friend Ben Steinberg, who was an influential participant in making the WCCUSD forensic investigation happen. Anton had more than a little to do with making it happen also.

2017-04-25 Award - med

After receiving the award I said a few words, well more than a few, and ended by reading my post Dreaming.

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Why Kids Hate Reading

My wife and I were talking about the perfectionist teachers we know. Now the problem I have is not that they are perfectionist, and we aren’t. It’s that I don’t think of their OCD behaviors as somehow superior to my ADD* behaviors. That, and their lack of tolerance for my son’s ADD behaviors.

Which kind of tracks Louis Rossmann’s rant on hipsters. Since he lives in New York, I imagine he has met a few. But if you want to go straight to the part on kids reading, it’s about three minutes ten seconds in.

“Shakespeare did not intend for his work to be used to torture minors. If he knew, if Shakespeare knew when he was alive that more people, more people throughout history would hate him than the people who loved him, because his work was not used to be enjoyed, was not used on Broadway for shows, was not used for theatre, but rather was used to torture children, he would probably say, “Fuck it, I’m not writing any of this shit. Let me see what else I can do with my life.”

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What’s Wrong with Schools

Yesterday I put up a video of Charlie Martin talking about BOTALI’s, “big organizations that act like idiots”. That certainly describes schools in California.

West Contra Costa Unified School District has an annual budget of around $300 million. But all schools in California are effectively part of a single organization, loosely controlled in Sacramento. According to the California Dept. of Education, K-12 spending  is over $76 billion a year, including $30 billion from other sources. This puts it behind Microsoft, and just ahead of Google (Alphabet).

Your school Board may be locally elected, but the rules they run by aren’t. When you go in to talk to you’re kids teacher, in effect, you are talking to a chain of command starting with the teacher, and ending in Sacramento. No matter how much they may want to help your child, they first have to answer to the person above them. And they may not want to help. The first time I heard about a teacher having a “back 40” where she put the kids she wanted to ignore, I knew that my kid had been in her “back 40” when he was in her room. And talking to her at the time about what was going on didn’t change a thing.

And that’s a teacher, who presumably likes kids. My theory on administrators, including Superintendents of Public Instruction, is that they went into teaching full of idealism, and either got tired, decided they didn’t like teaching, or possibly even children. That, or they became Principles, failed at it, and were moved to the District Office.

So, the biggest problem with public education is the agency problem. When the entire chain of command, from your local teacher to the Superintendent of Public Instruction, is at best concerned about the quality of your child’s education to the extent it doesn’t negatively effect their job, money, and goals. and at worst cares only if it negatively effects their job, money, and goals, we’ve got a problem.

The last SSA* union meeting I went to, the main topic of discussion was how the charter schools were stealing our jobs. Not stealing (i.e. educating) our children, stealing our jobs. Think about that.

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– With apologies to Dr. King.

I dream of schools built for the needs of students, not as monuments to board members’ vanity. I dream of a District where all children deserve good schools, and actually get them. I dream of a District where public oversight is an advantage, where Citizen Bond Oversight Committees are part of the process, not treated as a nuisance. I dream of buildings that are built to last, easy to maintain, beautiful to look at, but don’t break the taxpayers.

I dream of school districts that practice transparency and believe in accountability, where errors are acknowledged, not covered up. I dream of auditors that do their job, not limiting their findings to suit their client. I dream of districts where legality is not justification for deception, and managers are held to higher standards, not lower. I dream of organizations where responsibility and obligation travel up, as well as down, and managers care as much about their people as they do their boss.

I dream of a day when someone will say “it’s for the children”, and I believe them.


There was something immensely empowering about realizing I was a bureaucrat, because I also realized my greatest power was to say no; not much power to say no, but a hell of a lot more than I had to say yes.

I work for a school district, perhaps the most benign bureaucracy imaginable, full of reasonably altruistic people, some of them even managers. And some of whom go to work knowing their hopes and dreams will be shattered1 . I’m not speaking personally, more through observation, but I know the feeling2.

The most powerful action a bureaucracy can take is to do . . . nothing. How do you fight nothing? And nothing doesn’t even require No.

It’s not that people in schools don’t care about children, most of them do. It’s that the people running them care about their jobs more.

That, and they don’t know what they’re doing.

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