Robin S. Rowe, the BHEA Interview

Robin S. Rowe

Beverly Hills Education Association interviews Beverly Hills Unified School District candidate Robin S. Rowe

BEVERLY HILLS, CA (robinsrowe.com) 2020/09/10 – Robin S. Rowe’s interview with the Beverly Hills Education Association (BHEA) PAC. Discussing the present political administration, COVID, teachers, funding and the future of education.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and why you’re running for school board?

First, let me thank you for having me here.

Before we get into discussing me, could we just take maybe one or two minutes so I understand your organization better? This is the first time that I’ve met a number of you. I would like to understand the position of your organization, or you can just say personally, I don’t care. I just want to understand the room.

The present administration is calling for a reduction in K-12 funding, to eliminate tenure, is in favor of for-profit schools and wants to have state schools teach the Bible. How do we feel about that?

So Robin, those are all great questions. And if maybe if we have time at the end of our interview, we could we can help you understand. Just briefly our organization is Beverly Hills Education Association, we represent certificated and classified Non management employees in the school district so this is teachers, librarians, counselors, psychologists, program specialists, office technical and business service employees and instructional assistants who help in both Special Ed and General Education classrooms.

So largely that those we represent those employees interests and workplace conditions which, you know, deal with everything in our contract from wages, hours and working conditions. We also are involved in many community aspects, including going through, you know, having candidates go through an endorsement process such as this, that we can determine who we believe are the candidates that we that we think we would best serve the education community. And so we have these interviews as as a way to communicate both to our members and to the public at large, about political activity going on in this in this city.

Is that helpful?

It’s helpful for me to understand what your organization does. It doesn’t answer the question that I asked. I’m just trying to understand or if you’re supportive or unsupportive of the goals of the present administration.

Why don’t we do this? So we’re gonna go through our questions and perhaps with the questions that we ask, you’ll be able to get a fuller understanding of kind of what our organization represents beyond what I’ve told you already, which is just we represent the interests of our members as as employees, non management employees of the school district. And so why don’t we start the interview?

Ok, let’s push ahead.

I was speaking with our Beverly Hills mayor back in 2016. I said, I’d like to do something for the Beverly Hills community, what can I do? He suggested joining the Beverly Hills Technology Committee. I’m a technologist by trade, work with innovation in Fortune 500 and defense.

After four years on the Technology Committee, people at City Hall said, “Robin, there’s an election, you’re very enthusiastic, you’re passionate, you show up, you should run for City Council.” So, I ran in the March election. It’s almost unprecedented for someone in his first-time election to win. I didn’t win, but in the course of that election I was at a debate at the Beverly Hills High School.

I had a question for the School Board, who were there hosting the debate, about the Beverly Hills school budget. I had read that a great deal of money, $16 million or more, was being spent not on education, but wasted on things that aren’t education.

I was very dissatisfied with the answer that I got to that question. That’s why I’m here. And, I can thank our former mayor for urging me to run.

BHUSD, students are given the option to study independently using a prescribed curriculum and assessment program, credit earned and these independent courses is equivalent to credit earned in the traditional educational classroom model. What role do you envision the independent study program should play in the overall educational experience?

Okay, so the question is how is education evolving? It’s the key question, in my opinion. I think it’s evolving in a dramatic way.

The education system in this country traditionally was based on the 4-Rs of teaching, Reading, ’Riting, ’Rithmetic, and Religion. And in time it became just the 3-Rs. That approach to education, which is basically an assembly line approach, is to turn out students that have been uniformly tested and are interchangeable cogs in an assembly line sort of way. What we no longer need…to create a workforce for General Motors. Jobs that don’t exist anymore.

We’re in an AI society now. Artificial Intelligence can do the 3-Rs better than and faster and cheaper than humans in many cases. 

We need to teach AI in our schools. Because in the future, it’s going to be a collaboration. Students are going to have AI helping them write their papers, helping them do research. It’s going to be a human-machine interface. That capacity is going to make our students much more independent than they’ve ever been before. AI can answer simple multiple choice questions. Multiple choice is going to go away.

Do you believe that teachers should have the autonomy to use traditional and virtual teaching methods that they feel will best meet the needs of their students?

Your question is, how much leeway should teachers have. I think we should take our cue from the Finnish teaching system, which is considered the best in the world in K-12. Their teachers have a great deal of autonomy. Teachers are much better able to assess the needs and requirements of students than a legislator at the state assembly, or someone sitting in the White House who doesn’t even know those students.

I think it’s very important that teachers have the autonomy that they need, in order to teach students to also be autonomous, that we’re no longer going to have this top-down management system where people are given orders and they execute them. We have machines for that. No, it’s going to be autonomy what makes the system work. It has to be autonomy at the teacher level and at the student level.

So Robin, next question is on the reopening of schools now in the middle of this pandemic. What is your vision for the eventual physical reopening of schools and the transition back to in person teaching and learning?

The question is health safety with COVID-19.

I’m a research scientist by trade. So, when scientists say something is unsafe, and politicians say no, it is safe, I tend to go with the scientists. We have a situation right now, where politicians are saying that they want to run a scientific experiment with our teachers and our children to see if this is safe or not.

You know, the thing about an experiment is it can turn out either way. It could be that what politicians envision as safety is safe. Or it could be that scientists are right, and it’s very unsafe. I would prefer to have scientists running an experiment, not politicians running an experiment, because scientists are trained to run experiments.

One thing about the future of education after COVID, it will change.

A lot of working people are saying they’re used to working from from home now. They like remote working. They’re never going back to the office ever. Prefer it this way. And I think we’re going to see that in the education system as well.

After whatever time goes by with doing remote learning the way we’re doing it now, there are going to be parents who say, remote learning worked just as well or better for our family than in-class education. Why go back to class? I don’t expect we will ever return to the system exactly as it was before.

Will some parents still want to have in-class education? Yes, a lot of parents will. And to do that safely, the number one thing we have to consider with COVID is ventilation.

In Beverly Hills schools we have ventilation problems, ventilation problems that have been chronic for years, maybe decades, that have not been solved. That becomes a health hazard due to COVID. We’ve got to correct these things. We can’t have teachers and children in non-ventilated rooms in the midst of an epidemic. That’s just silly. So we’ve got to fix our buildings. And we have to look to science to say what is safe for us to do, not use politicians as our primary yardstick for when it’s safe to go back.

I’m going to address Live@BHUSD. How would you improve upon the online distance learning schedules and experience at the elementary, middle and high school levels? Do you believe that the blocks of time allocated for instruction meet the learning needs of students?

Okay, so the question is very specific. I’m not sure that I have the best answer for this. I haven’t studied that particular program. I haven’t been a participant in those sessions, which I think is really required to have an intelligent answer to this. But I will try to answer in a more general way, because I certainly have an opinion on the topic.

We need to improve distance learning. I do distance learning facilitation with the Navy. I just trained a group of navel personnel this past week in the latest distance learning tools. There is a lot that is broken in the state of the art of distance learning. Because of COVID it’s become an emergency. We should have been prepared for this.

Distance learning has been on the radar for a decade. People knew this was coming. We’ve just kept pushing it off because other things seemed more important. Now it’s urgent. Now we’ve got to get it right. We’re going to have to put a lot more energy into it. We’re going to have to answer the very questions that you asked. And we’re gonna have to answer them much more smartly than we have in the past. We should look at the leaders in doing this. Look at what the best K-12 schools in the world are doing and emulate them.

I’m going to ask you a question about health and welfare benefits. Is it a concern that BHUSD is below average? What would you do to improve?

Well, the first thing I say is that for a comfortable living wage in Los Angeles, the number is $74,000 a year. Teachers on average in the district make just under $70,000. We’re $4,000 short of giving our teachers a comfortable living in L.A.

We have possibly the most expensive public school district in the world. There can’t be the argument that we don’t have money. Except, we don’t have money, because the School Board has wasted $16 million on things that don’t have to do with education. If that $16 million had gone to teachers, that would be a $4,000 a year raise for every teacher for the next eight years.

That is one of the things that I really want to address. I want our teachers to be well paid. We’re Beverly Hills. We should have well paid teachers. I want to make sure that, with all this money we have, that we’re spending it where we should be spending it. Not spending on things we shouldn’t, then saying teachers have to make up the difference. Not, they’ve got to work in classrooms that don’t have ventilation. Not, they’ve got to take lower pay. Not, they’ve got to work without health benefits, because we spent the money on other things that were unnecessary.

Instructional assistants in our district, mostly work with special ed students. What priority would you place on providing competitive salaries for instructional assistants in order to hire and retain them to support student learning?

So the question is, what about taking care of instructional assistants as well as teachers and other staff.

It’s the same as my last answer. Everyone that works in the Beverly Hills education system should have a comfortable living. They should not be on food stamps. They should not be having to have a second job when they’re already working full time. We shouldn’t have any of that kind of sacrifice and distraction.

The job is hard enough. We have the money. It’s not as though we’re broke. In the LAUSD school system, they have about $8,100 per student. In the Beverly Hills school system we have over $20,000 per student. We are not short of money. We can pay people. That the School Board would just choose not to, I think it’s terrible. We should pay people.

Our organization represents teachers, counselors, psychologists, librarians, nurses office and technical employees and instructional assistants. What are your goals when it comes to all of these staff salaries in the future?

I want everyone working to be paid a comfortable wage. I don’t want anyone working on a death march. I think that’s a disservice to our students. Staff worried about whether they can make their rent or struggling to buy food, that’s not the best for having a great educational experience.

If we were tight of money, had to tighten our belts, if it was an emergency that we just have to make cuts, that would be one thing. That argument just isn’t here. The choice has been made by the School Board to deliberately underpay people. We should stop doing that.

My question is about class size. How do you view the impact of class size on education at the elementary level? What is your view on the board policy of paper three classes having increased from 22 to 20?

So the question is what about class size, especially at the elementary level. I know that parents love smaller classes, because they feel that that will give their child more special attention. And if their child needs special attention, I think that’s great. But there’s an overemphasis on size. It’s something that legislators also seem to really like to say, that they’re going to create smaller class sizes, on the theory that children will do better with this.

There’s no science that shows that children will do better with smaller class sizes. It really depends on the teacher and the child.

This comes back to autonomy for the teachers. If the teacher feels that 12 students is all that that class can handle, because these are special needs students or for whatever reason that makes sense, that should be the class size. If a teacher says, I want to have a huge class, to have 50 kids in my class because I want to teach kids social learning, I want to teach kids to work in large groups…That’s okay too, if we figure out how to handle it.

The emphasis on class size is not the answer. It’s not a one-size-fits-all number. It should be what the teacher says is the right number. And we decide together that it makes sense.

The next question is on the budget. What are your priorities for the school district budget? How would you allocate money differently?

Well, first off, I wouldn’t squander $16 million on losing unwinnable court cases. It was the budget that brought me here in the first place. I had not originally intended to run for school board, event though I’m a professor with an education background. What really got me was that all this taxpayer money is being wasted. And yet our teachers are still underpaid.

What’s the point of passing a third of a billion dollars bond referendum in 2016, which I voted for, and then the money is just wasted? To me, the main thing is to stop the bleeding, to stop leaking money on whatever the board feels like as their pet project. Instead direct it towards our core mandate, towards our mission.

I have a background in audits. I’ve designed financial systems for major corporations. I did an audit of a hospital where I found a million dollars in embezzlement. I’m can hardly wait to see what I find when I’m inside and can actually look at the budget instead of what people want me to see in the budget.

I’m going to ask you about negotiations and our relationship with labor. For years the district and BHEA engaged in a form of trust-based negotiations known as interest-based bargaining. Today the traditional model of give-and-take negotiating is being used instead. How is the district’s relationship as it relates to decision-making and negotiations?

So the question that I’m hearing is, should there be goodwill in labor negotiations? God, I hope so! Negotiations with bad will, I know people do that as a bargaining chip, being as obstructive and difficult as possible to where the other side wears out.

It’s not going to be hard to convince me that we should raise teacher pay when I’m saying our teachers are underpaid. If I’m asked to do something unreasonable, then I’m not going to be as flexible

I think there are a lot of things that we should be on the same side on, that there’s actually nothing to push back against. It becomes a question of, how do we do this?

Both sides, management and labor, should have the same goal of having teachers well paid, having schools that are well maintained, having children that are healthy. It shouldn’t be that some are for having teachers well paid and other people want them to be on relief, that some people want to have classrooms that aren’t falling apart, and other people want to have the building fall down. I mean, what is the negotiation here? We should all be in agreement on these simple things.

Final question, is there anything else you would like to share with that?

My education experience. I’ve taught as a computer science professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, that’s where you go after Annapolis if you’re a naval officer or military officer. I’ve also taught computer science at night school at the University of Washington. My job there was to retrain Boeing engineers primarily. I was a Navy research scientist, worked in VR war gaming. I already mentioned that I’m a distance learning facilitator, train naval officers learning distance learning.

On the civics side, I mentioned that I’ve been on the City of Beverly Hills Technology Committee for four years. I also founded the Free Laptops Initiative, a program where people donated their old laptops, we refurbish them, and I gave them to the homeless and also to the deaf, both in Los Angeles and in New York.

As a candidate, I’m unusual because I accept no donations. Don’t try to send me any money.

I also don’t go after endorsements. I am not after your endorsement today. The value of this meeting to me is the excellent questions that you’re asking, that you’re helping me think about the issues.

I’m very grateful to be here. But if you endorse me, I’m not going to give you any special favors in return. I’m going to do what I set out to do. I’m not going to change because somebody offered me money or gave me their endorsement.

The incumbent has said that enrollment being down is good, that driving students out of the school system is great because that gives us less work to do. I feel the opposite. My goal is to reverse that and have enrollment go up, which means that we’ll have more work for teachers to do.

One last thing. on Monday nights at 8pm, I host an Ask Your Question Zoom call session. Anyone can call in, just as we have done, and ask me any question that anyone wants to throw at me.

Thank you!

About BHEA

Before we got into the Q&A session above, at the beginning of our Zoom call, I asked straight out if BHEA supports or opposes the policy of the current administration. That is, the White House and its controversial director of the Department of Education.

I noted that the White House administration’s policy includes calling for a reduction in public K-12 funding in preference for private for-profit schools, the elimination of tenure, and urges that the state teach the Bible.

BHEA wouldn’t answer my yes-or-no policy question. Replied with many words to the effect that they represent the teachers union.

The reason I asked such a pointed question is BHEA endorsed the incumbent last time. A politician who sits on a School Board that has diverted $16 million in education funds into politicking and has said  he is fine with declining enrollment in public schools.

BHEA says that interviewing the candidates can show who will best serve the Beverly Hills education community. I agree with that. I am grateful to BHEA for the opportunity to speak with them.

Epilogue

After our discussion above, BHEA PAC has informed me they have chosen not to endorse Robin S. Rowe for BHUSD. In making their choice, BHEA has not picked the candidate who:

  • Says teachers deserve a $4,000 per year across-the-board local cost-of-living increase, to raise teacher pay to $74,000
  • Will reverse declining enrollment, that is, stop teacher layoffs,
  • Will grant teachers more autonomy for innovation in teaching techniques,
  • Will protect the health of teachers and students by fixing long broken and inadequate school building ventilation systems,
  • Will put teachers and students first, use health science, not politics, for defining strategy to re-open schools,
  • Will end ten of millions of dollars in school budget waste, to instead put funds toward teachers and educating students, not into politicking and the School Board’s pet projects unrelated to education.

Since I don’t seek endorsements, I cannot be disappointed by the decision of BHEA to not endorse me.

My objection to endorsements generally is that the politicians who seek endorsements show more loyalty to the insiders who helped them get elected than to the voters they are supposed to represent. Those with a financial interest in the outcome are telling people how they should vote. In public education, unions may endorse their cronies for school board, forming a clique to act more to their own benefit than for the teachers, parents and children who they represent.

I was impressed during our interview by how capable and intelligent the BHEA leaders seem. And yet, I hear of incidents over many years of the union acting at odds with the interests of the teachers they represent, even that teachers are fearful of speaking up.

If BHEA leadership has a history of working against, not for, public education and teachers, it’s tempting to offer the benefit of the doubt, or less generously to suppose it is incompetence that guides their actions in such cases. Let’s not assume it is a mistake or incompetence.

They seem capable and aware of what they are doing. If the actions of BHEA leaders don’t seem to support teachers, the most reasonable interpretation of their actions is it is deliberate.

Updated 2020/9/13.