Monday, February 20, 2017

Least and Lightest in Wisconsin Classrooms

Last week we learned in an biannual budget address that Governor Scott Walker proposes saving money by creating a life-time teaching license rather than continue the five-year license that is currently in effect.

You’d expect most teachers to stand and huzzah the Governor this one time, wouldn’t you? Most of us dramatically roll our eyes and sigh heavily at the beginning of the school year when we see the suggested/required Professional Development courses needed to build up CEUs to renew the five-year license every, well, five years. A life-long pass from taking those courses should give us more time to prep and teach, which is what we say we want to do anyway. Right?

But I’m not sure that this is such a good idea.

Governor Walker’s proposal cuts 10 full-time equivalent positions from the Department of Public Instruction that manages licensure, according to a story from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Now, I’m sure that the fact that this one lone state department is run by a Democrat, Tony Evers, has nothing to do with the downsizing proposal. After all, we are talking about teaching our kids and adult students, not making political points. Right? And, one might point out that Wisconsin did function well with lifetime licenses until 1983, when the incoming Democratic administration of Governor Anthony Earl thought it was a good idea to for teachers to record and be rewarded for their professional growth. Gov. Walker argues that his proposal saves money by paring an evil bureaucracy as well as making it easier to attract teachers.

This is where I have a problem. Do we really want to make easier to attract and keep teachers? Rather than staff the Best and Brightest, would we rather fill our empty teacher lounges with the Least and Lightest? I'm not sure. Is any warm body at the front of the classroom better than no body at all? Some cynics would say this is what we deserve. They would say the shortage of teachers in Wisconsin is the direct and logical result of the denigration and devaluing of the profession by an anti-union Republican administration, but I’d rather not comment on that.

Rather than taking away or dumbing down the five-year license, I would like to see teaching requirements increased, rather than decreased. I think it should be harder to get and maintain a teaching license in Wisconsin, not easier. Our students deserve this. Certification activities should be expanded to include not only academic course work, but also professional development activities that include, but are not limited to, curriculum development, conference presentations, leadership positions among colleagues, professional papers issued to peer-reviewed journals, structured networking opportunities, and community activities. And, I sure hope, somewhere, somehow teachers would be given structured time to sit down on a regular basis with cross-departmental colleagues to talk about the art and craft of teaching.

If the Governor really wants to make nice with teachers in the state, he could direct some dollars or political capital toward enhanced certification that demands and supports mastery of the teaching craft in all our classrooms, not just mouth a mamby-pamby philosophy of just getting by.

If the problem is within the five-year certification itself, like it’s outdated, or courses are not longer offered, or its reporting mechanism is tied to an archaic computer system, then, Mr. Governor, work with Mr. Evers to fix the problem. That's what you are paid to do. Don’t throw up your hands in defeat, peck away at union personnel in the department and hope problems in our state’s classroom miraculously solve themselves. The problem with relying on miracles to accomplish the job, as I tell students, is that they are so damned unreliable.

Monday, February 13, 2017

No Big $$$ Surprises in Retirement

“The Biggest Surprises in Retirement” read an all-caps headline in today’s Wall Street Journal’s“Wealth Management” section. Photos of happily retired people chasing their dreams filled the page above the fold along with comments about life changes, self-worth, and the financial freedom to do what you want to do.

I am one year, one month, twenty-two days, and five and a quarter hours since the school turned off my email, mid-sentence, and my retirement began. Note to self: don’t work on an email system as your password is deleted. It raises hell with the home computer operating system. So, what have I been surprised by during the past 12-months? Well, not a lot to be honest. Part of the reason is that we carefully planned and saved for this part of our life. Things have gone well for us, life has been kind, and we remain prudent, a life-long habit.

Financial planning is key, of course. When you no longer have money coming in from a paying job, the money you have saved at the moment your job screen goes black, has to last this year, next and, with God’s good grace, for the next forty-plus years. Those interviewed for today’s WSJ article agree,

“Financial surprises, not surprisingly, popped up in many of the responses (to the retirement question) we received. Frequently, a sigh of relief was audible. Nest eggs are working as planned. A number of readers noted that a healthy amount of self-discipline before retiring has a bigger impact afterward than most people realize.”

I have two words of advice here. First, start saving for retirement with the first paycheck of your first job. We still have records of our first year of work ($7500 salary – good wages those days) that records a new retirement account saved and put away. How much you put away is not nearly as important as making a habit of it every single paycheck and then letting your investments work for you. We have a cash base for our retirement, but have always put a portion of the pot into stocks: individual stocks at first (Microsoft was one of my early gambles) and later in mutual funds that followed the popular and diverse stock indexes. If you believe in the value and industry of the people in this country, stocks are a good bet.

Second word of advice: interview, select, and work with a local money manager you trust. Don’t get sucked into get-rich-quick money managers who conduct their business behind 1-800 golden curtains. And, please ignore the talking heads who shout each other down on the financial channels. Trust is key. I remember talking with one well-known retirement manager early on, who was recommended by family. He was visibly insulted when the two of us wanted to know how and where he made his investments. He thought his decisions were proprietary and that we were too young and na├»ve to understand his methods. It was a short meeting.

Once you select people you trust, question them and watch your investments. On an annual basis, have them run scenarios for all sorts of life circumstances and how decisions will affect your retirement. When you get close to retirement (I’m talking five to ten years here), good advisors can point out problems and deficiencies in your planning, like the revealing the mind-numbing cost of pre-Medicare health insurance. But that’s another post.

Once you are assured of and confident in a regular stream of income for however many retirement years you plan to torment your nieces and nephews, the rest comes much easier. Retirement isn’t for the faint of heart, but it is for those who plan their finances wisely, live within their means, and have the wherewithal to push off into new adventures.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Immigrant: Hope, Confidence, Industry

Conflict over US immigration policy isn’t new. It’s followed immigration waves of
Italians, of Polish, of Belgian Walloons, of Swedes and Norwegians, and of even my people, the Germans. A few chapters into an excellent biography (The Immortal Irishman), I was reminded that Irish wave was opposed as well. Sure, I knew why and how the Irish came to the United States in the mid 19th century, but until I read Timothy Egan’s clear vivid prose, I had forgotten the horror and desperation of that journey. Good writing puts life in perspective.

The Irish exodus began in 1845 after small Irish plots that usually shone “gorgeous lilac-and-gold heralding of a healthy potato crop,” turned “black-topped and broken… (There was) ruin and spoilage everywhere as if someone had come through and sprayed acid over the green of Ireland’s living pantry.” The potato, the humble, nutritious easy-to-grow plant was 90% of the rural Irish diet. A small patch would feed a family for 10-months and have a little left over for the pig.

The potato blight, carried over from the United States in the hulls of trading ships and incubated in foggy and rainy conditions in 1845 and 1846, utterly wiped out all edible plants and all hope. The English, who were protectors of the island, dismissed the early reports of the blight and famine as typical Irish Blarney and did nothing. Too soon it was too late for help. Egan wrote. “Europe had not seen a famine on this scale since the Dark Ages.” More than a million Irish died.

Thomas Meagher (the subject of the biography), a noble son of Irish elite in Waterford, came of age during the famine and spoke out against English rule and for Irish nationalism. He and fellow revolutionaries were captured and exiled to the prison island of Tasmania, the underside of Australia. With his family’s help, Meagher escaped to New York. Once there, the Irish, as did all people of the 1850s, asked themselves the Great Question: slave or free? Some Irish joined the rebel cause and some, like Meagher, fought for the union.

Meagher used his charisma and reputation as a Young Ireland leader to recruit Irish to the 69th New York State Militia and a unit called the Irish Zouaves. Fighting through the slaughter of Union defeats, the Irish earned respect from both Union units and the South. Even the great Robert E. Lee said he dreaded seeing “that damn Green Flag” of the Zouaves in battle. The Irish, like many immigrants, fled certain starvation for the hope of a new life, even when that new life brought its own prejudice and dangers. To immigrate to the US during the Civil War, meant death and burial for too many Irish recruited for the war.

Many years later, Egan noted that President John F. Kennedy, paid tribute to his own ancestor, Patrick Kennedy, who left Ireland in the worst year of the famine. “What was it,” Kennedy asked, "that got so many families through centuries of subjugation, through starvation, through mass eviction, through exile, through Know-Nothing persecutions, epics of tragedy broken only by temporary periods of joy?” What got the Irish immigrant through “was the remarkable combination of hope, confidence and imagination,” according to the President.

Today’s immigration debate misses the point of how we are made safe because it misses how we are made strong. The sovereignty of the United States has never been its army or navy, Homeland Security apparatus or the walls that we build along our borders. Our strength is the confluence of major streams of migration that we welcome each day to bring new life blood to the democratic traditions of our remarkable founding documents.

Sure there will be those who want to hurt us. We need to be prudent but life has risks in new countries as well as old. Our strength is as a Wall Street Journal columnist noted last week that we are not only the land of the free, but also the home of the brave. Thomas Meagher and our ancestors taught us that much.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Reason We Were Shopping Shopping

I pushed an artificial grocery cart: a gray plastic replicate that looked like it had been molded and assembled through an off-planet 3D printer. Real metal wire grocery carts, the kind I remember chasing across the Red Owl parking lot during my first time-card job as a bag boy, always had one wheel that had a distinctive limp: duh-dump, duh-dump, duh-dump.

This grocery cart was unnaturally silent, gliding, not rolling, along the aisles of the big beautiful new Festival Foods store with wide aisles, good lighting, clean cases and bright-eyed and helpful staff stocking, prepping and polishing. As we passed them, they looked at my wife and I with some curiosity since an hour into the grocery trip, our cart replicate was still empty. “Can we help you find something?” they asked. We smiled, “No, we are fine.”

We had a list, talked about items on the shelves, pulled some out to look at cost/ounce but did not put them in our cart. We were grocery store shopping shopping. The Wednesday afternoon tour seemed like a retired-couple joke with the punch line of finding Metamucil in aisle thirteen. The reason we were shopping shopping was our previous store of more than 20-years had been sold to a chain from the Valley. During the six month remodeling and transition, we stuck with the same old store, same old staff, but different generic labels in good humor. We are loyal but do have limits.

When we couldn’t find an item that was always next to the pimentos, top shelf aisle six, we rationalized, “They’ll have it next week.” But a number of favorite food items ran out and did not return. Each week more and more items could not be found. One time, it even took two long-time clerks to discover where the molasses had been tucked away. Finally, when the local bank’s ATM was pulled and replaced with a sad looking fee-based machine that you find in discount liquor stores, we decided it time to go elsewhere.

“Where is the shredded cheese?” my wife asked, looking at her grocery list template organized by the aisles of our old store. There were 12-ounce tubs of shredded Parmesan in the artesian cheese section in front of us, but not the wide selection of blue-labeled Kraft brands hanging vertically from hooks. In the old store, they were just past the dairy section. They would be here too, if we could find the dairy section.

Two hours later, our hover-cart was empty though our shopping list note was filled with scratch-outs, additions and corrections. I think some of the staff were assigned to follow us. Aisle numbers were penciled in on our grocery list template according to the layout of the new store. Once we were home, the notes would be cut and pasted into a new list according to our most common purchases and the movement through aisles of the new store. Did I mention we work well with lists?

Festival Foods has a well-polished produce and fruits section for those who like to eat fresh. Also notable are well-stocked and logically ordered ethnic food options, an artesian bakery, local wines and craft beers, a large deli and meat counter, and a very nice fresh seafood selection, which is not easy to maintain sitting between the two coasts. For busy families, they have cases upon cases of frozen pizza and for those who have the time, fresh pizza dough.

And they do have dairy, on the far, far wall.

Our only complaint, so far, is minor and peculiar to us. Coupon inserts are found in a rack as you enter the store, not in the local paper (millenials ask, “What's a local paper?”). You look at the insert to find items to buy, add them to your list, and then hand the insert to the cashier as you check out to get discounts. This is a very European method when families who have little storage space, shop for groceries every day and adjust their menus on the fly. One often sees loaves of French bread sticking out of recycled sacks on the Paris metro.

That’s not us as you might have guessed. We want good, reliable food selections, we like to prepare our meals together with fresh products, but we need to plan around a busy dual-schedule in advance. Far in advance of picking up coupons as we walk in. Grocery visits need to be fast, efficient and weekly. The hover cart is a bonus.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Inaugural Oath No. 58

I resolved to focus on the process and not be distracted by the politics of last Friday’s Presidential Inauguration. Like most people, I have been in school or working during last 15 Inaugurations of my lifetime, so have only seen its history in bits and pieces. Never the whole ceremony. I wanted to remember this one.

As I clicked through channels on Friday morning, I wasn’t interested combative intensity of the CNN panel and my TV kept shutting off when I tuned to FOX News– I don’t know what that was about. I found other networks commentators chawed over the November election results rather than reporting on this day. That was annoying. CBS seemed reliable and respectful (I still think of it as Uncle Walter’s place), so I stayed with Scott Pelley and Bob Schieffer through most of the day.

I tuned in just as the Presidential and Vice-Presidential couples were leaving the White House after a traditional tea to drive to the Capitol. As Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama drove off, the CBS team noted that this would be the last time the two of them would be alone together before the oath. What would they talk about? World hotspots, the strength of the dollar or that the second floor toilet in the residence needs to have its handle jiggled just right to get it to stop running?

Once at the Capitol stage, it was interesting to see the power pecking order within the federal leadership through the seating chart. Four of the five ex-presidents had good seats (George HW Bush and Barbara wanted to be there but were restricted by doctor’s orders). Members of the Supreme Court had a clear view as did majority and minority leaders of the House and Senate. A Green Bay Packer hat appeared some rows back and up -- Rep. James Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin I learned later. I didn’t see a Georgia representative, other than President and Mrs. Carter, and they were not wearing Atlanta Falcons head gear.

The Trump and Pence families took up many of the first couple of rows on the left hand side of the aisle. A young daughter of Mr. Pence and young son of Mr. Trump looked bored by it all. Lots of sighing going on there. I thought that Melania and Ivanka had a similar cut of coat, so I wondered out loud if it was the same design with just a different color. That would be practical, I thought. My wife practically fell out of her chair, laughing. I guess not.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri was an able master of ceremonies before a crowd that was respectable for a rainy forecast and divided country, but not near the fantastic numbers claimed later. I don't see why that matters. The Senator put the ceremonies in historical context for everyone. He said that the Inauguration should not be  “the celebration of (electoral) victory but (a celebration) of democracy instead.”

He then introduced Justice Clarence Thomas who administered the vice-presidential oath to Mr. Pence, and Chief Justice Roberts who administered the 35-word presidential oath to Mr. Trump. President Trump’s short Inaugural Address (16-minutes) followed. After a few more prayers, the ceremony was adjourned. People on the balcony filed into a congressional luncheon. Michelle and President Obama flew to Palm Springs and Dr. Jill and Vice President Biden took the Amtrak to Delaware. After the lunch the new president and his family were released for a parade down Pennsylvania Ave., Inaugural Balls, and checking on the second floor bathroom. 

And that was it.

An ending and a beginning, yet also a peaceful transition within a republic that reaches back to 57 other executive oaths that crowds of various sizes have witnessed. Some of those oaths marked major epic changes in our country, and some a policy of normalcy. After only the first few hours of this administration, it is hard to know what the next four years will bring. As armchair commentators, we can try to guess, but history always has the final say. And though history teases us, it does take its time with the reveal.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Slip Sliding on the Frozen Tundra

I do like wintertime. I do, I do, I do like wintertime.

This self-pep talk comes after a second day of chipping ice caused by sleet and rain on top of 3-4-inches of snow. Now, I'm not really complaining about the snow. It prettys up the winter landscape. I'd rather have a smooth white blanket in the yard than three months of mud and debris. And, even the big 12-18-inch storms are no more than a morning's work if you have the right tools. Experienced Wisconsinites do have the tools.

Heavy wide-blade steel shovels are used for scraping and pushing snow to the side of the driveway or walkway (only renters, new homeowners or NFL offensive linemen try to toss snow with these shovels). Square, flat-blade aluminum shovels (much lighter) are designed for that turn and toss motion. Non-scratch non-metallic plastic shovels are used for decks and other scratch-able surfaces.

My prize snow-possession, for the heaviest loads (usually after a caravan of snowplows dump two lanes of packed snow back into my driveway) is the Yooper Scooper. This is a wide two-foot scoop bolted to a three-foot u-shaped handle that moves even the heaviest snow up and out without lifting. “Without lifting” is always key in snow removal. I saw this tool demonstrated one winter ski-weekend by friends in Houghton, MI, who are snow shovel professionals compared with us amateurs. Green Bay averages 45-50 inches of snow a year compared that to the Upper Peninsula’s season average of almost 190-inches. The UP’s record from the 1978-1979 winter season is 390-inches, more than 32-feet. They really, really like winter up there.

So, even though last week’s snow was the packy, snowman-making kind of snow, the total job (not counting back decks) took only 40-minutes for the two of us  I did use the power snow blower for initial cleaning, but would rather not. Blowing the snow means you’ll have to go over your work again with the shovel to get down to pavement. The depth and moisture content of the snow determines the use of the blower, But snow, as I said, is not a problem. Ice is.

By mid-morning, air temperatures hovered around the freezing mark and turned snow to sleet and then to a driving rain. Because the ground is still quite frozen (a prior week of sub-zero nights will do that) and existing snowbanks from 30-inches of previous snowfalls are two-feet high, the rain and melting snow had no place to go other than draining back onto the sidewalk and down the driveway. When temperatures fell mid-afternoon, we had a problem. 

I retrieved an ice-chipper, a long-handled tool with a three-inch sharpened wedge of steel on the working end, from the far corner of the potting shed and began to break up the ice that was forming under a cold wind. That and sprinkling snow-melt took another 90-minutes. Our house has less concrete than my previous other houses, but there is still a fair amount to shovel.

The next morning shoveled pavement was covered by ice anyway. School was cancelled because of ice (sidewalks were impassible). A week later, over three-quarters of the sidewalks in our neighborhood are still an impassible sheen of glare ice. I have the time (and the ice melt) to clear our share of sidewalk as do other retired and able neighbors. Working families don't have that time, so many sidewalks remain impassible with a 1/2 to 1-inch covering of ice.

Fortunately, the weather that caused the problems to begin with will have mercy on all of us by the end of the week. January thaw temperatures in the 30s and 40s will punch holes in the smooth surface of the ice and undermine it to crumbles of icy snow. We have the tools to handle it after that.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Putting Up vs Taking Down

In less time than the first NFL Wildcard game, my wife and I took down the 2016 Christmas ornaments, mini-lights, and dragged the tree to the front curb. We de-garlanded the front door, wrapped our Santa collectables in tissue, and resorted Christmas totes for storage.

After the totes were carried up to the attic, I considered the time it took to plan, purchase and put up holiday displays as compared to the time it took to take them down:  a couple of weeks up, I’d say, compared to a couple of hours down. Taking something down doesn’t take a lot of time or thought.

Putting up and taking down got me thinking about our national celebration later in the month, the Presidential Inauguration on January 20. Republicans have pledged to mark that day by beginning to repeal eight years of Barack Obama programs and initiatives. If you are a loyal member of the Grand Old Party, that doesn't take a lot of time or thought either.

For the rest of us, let me give a worrisome preview of this repeal and replace philosophy. GOP Speaker Paul Ryan is quoted last week during the first days of the new Congressional session that defunding Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood (a $400-million budget item) will be part of the initial Congressional Bucket-List Repeal Bill. Planned Parenthood has long been in the GOP bull’s-eye because it unapologetically advocates the pro-choice side of the abortion issue.

Now Medicaid cannot, according to law, directly fund Planned Parenthood abortions. It does, however, support family planning, contraceptives, cancer screening, and treatment of STDs for hundreds of thousands of low-income women. If Planned Parenthood Medicaid payments are stopped, 400,000 women across the nation will lose access to this health care according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, 

A spokesman for Rep. Ryan said not-to-worry though: the $400-million will be distributed to other providers so “that patients would have continue to have the opportunity to receive care.” Who these providers are, where these providers are and how low income women can access these providers are details that need to be worked out, it seems.

After a divisive national election, the GOP majority needs to realize that their job description has changed. It’s no longer their job to complain, criticize and condemn. That was their role during the Obama years and they did it very well. Now Mr. Ryan and Mr. Trump have a much harder job, that of crafting specific, measured, detailed legislation that upholds our Constitutional rights, and protects and serves everyone. This Planned Parenthood decision is just one of hundreds that will have to be considered in the next year which will have consequences for millions of Americans, not just the GOP primary base. When you assume the power, you also assume the responsibilities.

One would hope that after the GOP packs away its 2016 presidential campaign banners, bunting, and bluster until 2020, they would want to pause during the Inaugural Pomp and Circumstance before doing anything rash and consider the fact that it will be much harder to replace something than it will be to take it down. I recall a quote attributed to either Sam Rayburn or Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s critical of segregationists who wanted to tear down landmark Civil Right legislation: “It just takes a jackass to kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build it back up again.”

Which role does the GOP want to assume during the next four years?