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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Carlsbad Fired its City Manager


HildabrandLast week Carlsbad City Manager Lisa Hildabrand unexpectedly announced her retirement, effective at year’s end. But inside information from reliable sources speaking off the record suggests the occasion won’t be marked by a gold watch and tearful goodbyes. In fact, if you listen closely, you may hear city worker bees humming a tune sung by Munchkins in the Land of Oz.

On Tuesday, October 16 Hildabrand met with city council members for her annual performance review. Following that meeting she began negotiating a separation agreement with City Attorney Ron Ball. It provides severance pay of $192,000, equaling 10 months of her current salary, to be paid in a lump sum no later than January 15, 2013.

Hildebrand will continue on leave, using up all her vacation time before officially retiring December 31.

The council has asked John Coates, current assistant city manager, to serve as city manager until an “extensive search” results in a permanent appointment. Coates will have equal consideration with outside applicants.

My sources say the city council had lost confidence in Hildabrand’s ability to take the city forward, pointing out “communication issues” with city employees and her leadership team of managers and directors of city departments.

Employees felt they couldn’t talk with her, nor could they talk to council members without being punished. The council felt they needed a city manager with more vision and leadership qualities.

I had my own communication issues with the “retiring” city manager. In a meeting with city employees a year and a half ago, she told the city’s lowest paid workers they should feel grateful for being able to live in such a beautiful city. That was the meeting she explained the one-year freeze in their wages, accompanied by a 7 percent cut in take-home pay because the city shifted its full share of pension fund contributions to employees.

Management employees didn't feel the pain. The city would continue its 7 percent pension fund contribution for them and might even give them a 2.5 percent pay increase. She told the group the city was also planning to consider outsourcing, furloughs, and moving employees around as additional cost-saving measures.

I reported on that meeting in my June 16, 2011 The Riehl World column for the North County Times (now dubbed Big Daddy Doug’s Daily Mail). Two independent sources present at the meeting had tipped me off. Hildabrand denied she’d made those remarks and demanded a retraction of my column by then NCT Editor Kent Davy (who was canned by Big Daddy Doug, but is now freelancing for him.)

The shadowy dismissal of Carlsbad’s CEO was characterized as a retirement announcement in a city press release, which was parroted in Big Daddy Doug’s Daily Mail. I have a feeling the old North County Times would have dug deep enough to reveal Hildabrand was summarily dismissed for poor performance by a gutsy city council.

But those were the good old days, when North County journalism was more about the search for truth than advancing the financial and political interests of a powerful man.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Incredible Shrinking Daily Newspaper

Yesterday afternoon I went to the North County Times online to ask for a vacation hold for a couple of days while we’re out of town. The website no longer recognized me as a subscriber, so I had to resubmit my street and email addresses.

This morning I got an email in reply, thanking me for “subscribing to U-T San Diego’s digital only edition. We know you have several options in how you receive your news and are glad you chose us.” It was signed “Papa Doug Manchester.”

That reply and the death of the only other choice of a daily newspaper in North County sealed my decision to extend that vacation hold request to forever.

The first three days of the North County Times under Manchester’s ownership reveals its new brand: just an added section to U-T San Diego, gratuitously carrying the familiar blue NCT masthead (adding “U-T” to it) dishonestly designed to reassure North Countians they haven’t lost their daily newspaper.

If it’s not dead, it’s been taken off life support. Don’t expect to see that blue masthead very much longer. The new North County Times has shrunk to sixteen pages, but only five to seven local stories (ads and public notices fill the rest). Those five to seven pages carry a laughably titled “Opinion” section, gossipy city crime reports, a half page of comics and a half page of sports.

Today’s Opinion section filled half a page. There’s no local editorial. In its place is an oversized Mallard Fillmore cartoon of a guy wearing a baseball cap wishing the president were unemployed like him.
There are three letters to the editor that made it to the Opinion section, two of which bash President Obama. Tuesday’s paper carried six letters, Monday’s ten.

Before the North County Times became a U-T San Diego insert, its editorial pages were alive with public discourse. Letters to the editor filled an entire page, a page and a half in election years. Liberals and conservatives, atheists and evangelicals waged lively daily debates. Doonesbury cartoons appeared next to Mallard Fillmore. Community columnists appeared daily on the Opinion Page, representing views ranging from conservative to progressive.

When asked in a KPBS interview after he bought the paper, Manchester said he couldn’t promise an independent editorial board for his version of the North County Times. That became clear this morning, when U-T San Diego’s Editorial appeared in the North County Times online edition, carrying the headline, “Debate: Romney shows he’s up to the job.”

The opinions of North County residents are apparently unwelcome in their new U-T San Diego insert.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed writing a bi-weekly column for the NCT for nine years. I’m certain my views did not always reflect the views of the paper’s editorial page editors. They’ve told me so. Other community columnists expressed views far apart from my own.

Those days are gone now. And it should come as no surprise. Manchester has not been hesitant to declare his goal as a newspaper owner is not to produce quality journalism as a service to the public. It’s to promote a conservative agenda and be a booster of business and pro sports in San Diego County.

One reason the budding media mogul may have taken a special interest in us northerners is that San Diego County is turning blue. But it gets redder as you head north. The County Registrar of Voters’ latest report shows there are now 3,881 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in San Diego County. In the City of San Diego alone 40 percent of voters are Democrats, compared to 28 percent Republicans.

But as you move north the cities turn red. In Carlsbad Republicans outnumber Demos by 43 percent to 28 percent. In Escondido it’s the same. In San Marcos Republicans are in the majority by 42 percent to 29 percent. In Poway it’s 47 percent to 25 percent. In Oceanside Republicans edge Demos, 39 percent to 32 percent.

So Manchester is likely to find friends up here. That’s important, not only to his ego, but to the pocketbook of a developer, disguised as a newspaper publisher, in search of political favors.

Former editor of the North County Times, Kent Davy, told a KPBS interviewer his mission for the NCT was to be a mirror of the community. Manchester’s mission for the U-T San Diego North County Insert is to be a mirror of himself.




Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Showdown at Sage Creek: How to Vote Against Schools

According to a local newspaper columnist, allowing Carlsbad’s new high school to sit empty for at least a year is the answer to the district’s financial woes. But T.K. Arnold’s argument for delaying the opening of Sage Creek High is about as watery as the school’s fictional namesake. A closer look reveals how his politics trumps his punditry.

Calling Prop 30 “Gov. Jerry Brown’s blackmail ballot” tells you all you need to know about Arnold’s political bias. But what’s equally troubling is his reasoning. In a facts-free claim, he says the district could “save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year (my italics) in operating costs that could be used to close a gaping budget hole as high as $11 million” if Proposition 30 fails. The mixed metaphor (I’m trying to picture a “high” hole) could make you chuckle if the subject weren’t so serious.

Arnold doesn’t bother to estimate the cost of letting a $104 million high school campus remain vacant for at least a year, as well as the loss of learning opportunities to students denied access to new facilities.In his quest for savings, Arnold reminds us that the old high school has been completely rebuilt and that the greatest projected increase in high school enrollment is in the low single digits. He doesn’t bother to cite actual numbers, so here are the official enrollment projections released by the district last month.

Carlsbad High School enrollment this fall is estimated to be 3,199. It is projected to rise to as high as 3,552 next fall. That’s an 11 percent increase, hardly a “low single digit.” If Sage Creek High won’t take them, CHS would have to squeeze another 353 students onto its campus. At what cost to kids?

According to enrollment projections, high school enrollment is expected to grow by as many 800 more students over the next five years, 24 percent higher than this year. And Arnold suggests opening Sage Creek High School next fall is no big deal?

When I wrote for the North County Times, community columnists were not allowed to endorse candidates for office. But it looks like “there’s a new sheriff in town,” with Arnold’s endorsement of Ray Pearson to replace either of the incumbents on the Carlsbad School Board.

He explains that declaring themselves “happy with the district’s direction” in opening Sage Creek next fall makes the incumbents unacceptable, and that Ray Pearson says he’d take the money being spent on the new high school and use it to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes.

But in San Diego County’s Sample Ballot and Information Pamphlet, Ray Pearson is not quite as forthcoming. He writes, “Now is the time to ask parents, community members and stakeholders would they prefer delaying the opening of a new high school or using the funds for classroom reduction.” Assuming he meant “and” instead of “or” it sounds like he wants to survey his constituents rather than persuade them.

But the largest assumption of all, by both Arnold and Pearson, is that delaying the opening of Sage Creek could produce the savings needed to produce the results they want.

Sounds to me like two guys who’ll be voting against tax increases and looking for justification to vote against schools.

As for me, I’ll be voting for Elisa Williamson and Kelli Moors as well as Prop 30. I agree with them that the district is heading in the right direction by opening Sage Creek High next fall.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Carlsbad City Council's Sweet Deal

Getting fan mail from elected officials is one of my pet peeves. They want “my opinion on the issues,” they say. But what they really want is the answer to a question not included in their questionnaires: “Do you still love me?”

To add insult to injury, I’m paying the postage for their reelection campaign. If politicians made decisions based on their deeper understanding of the issues, rather than their popularity, their newsletters would be more informative and voters could make better choices at the polls.

It’s doubtful the Civil Rights Act would have won the popular vote in the general election of 1964, the year Congress passed it into law. Our elected representatives had the courage to do what was right, at the risk of popular opinion. The Democrats lost the Solid South because of it.

Fast forward to this year’s Election Day in Carlsbad. By putting Proposition A on the ballot, the City Council found an easy way to shirk their responsibility for making tough decisions. What could be better for elected representatives than being allowed to decrease city employee benefits, but requiring a vote of the people to increase them?

It’s a politician’s dream.Section 502 of the City Charter, approved by voters in 2010, has a deceptive title, “Retention of Benefits.” It locks in a reduction of retirement benefits for police officers and firefighters hired after October 4, 2010. If Prop A passes, the same limit will apply for the rest of Carlsbad city employees hired after November 27, 2011.

Section 502 stipulates the city council continues to have the right to reduce benefits, but an increase will require a majority vote in a special or general election to amend the City Charter.

“Retention of Benefits” sounds more like, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

Supporters of Prop A say it will save the city millions over the next decade, but that is simply not true. The reduced retirement benefits already negotiated, not Prop A, will create the savings. To claim otherwise is insulting to city workers, who agreed to the reduction in their negotiated contract with the city.

Prop A won’t save money, but it will create costs. The price of putting the previous city charter amendment on the 2010 general election ballot came to about $35,000. The estimated cost of special elections ranges from $450,000 to $500,000.

Although the failure of Prop A will have no effect on the city budget, it will require council members to summon up the courage to do the job they were elected to do.

This evasion of council responsibility and assault on collective bargaining should be re-titled, “The Incumbents Security Act of 2012.”

That’s why I’m voting no on Prop A.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Education in Romneyland

Posted in Carlsbadistan.com

Carlsbad school officials worry that if voters don’t agree to a tax increase on November 6, a midyear budget reduction could lead to cutting the school year by up to three weeks. But a greater threat to local schools in the long run hangs on the outcome of the Presidential election.

Mitt Romney has announced a plan to “restore the promise of American education” by promoting choice and innovation. Titled, “A Chance for Every Child,” it signals a retreat from the goal of No Child Left Behind. A chance is not a promise. Romney’s vow to use federal funds to support school choice, rather than school improvement, will produce winners and losers. That’s a far cry from the role of public education as a springboard of equal opportunity for upward mobility.

Romney also believes school reform can be done on the cheap, evidenced by his claim class size doesn’t matter. He’s fond of quoting a 2007 McKinsey report, “How the World’s best performing school systems come out on top.” The consultants claim studies show good teachers are more important than smaller classes. To that earth-shattering discovery my response can only be, “well…duh!”But that’s not the point.

The McKinsey report refers to evidence from a 1997 study in Tennessee showing reducing class sizes from 23 to 15 students improved the performance of an average student by only 8 percentile points, while good teachers showed an impact of up to 50 percentile points when the achievement of two 8 year-old students was compared.

Fast forward now to the Carlsbad School District’s 2012-13 budget that sets student-to-teacher ratios at 32 for elementary schools and 39 for the high school. To a former teacher who once complained about having to teach American Literature to as many as 35 in a class of high school juniors, Romney’s claim that class size doesn’t matter is as scary as his plan to bring a competitive free market to public education.

Although he doesn’t bother with details, here’s how Romney describes the plan. The $25 billion the feds currently give public schools to serve low-income families (Title 1) and students with disabilities (IDEA, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act), would be “portable,” allowing the student to choose from any district or public charter school or private school or to use the funds for hiring a tutor or provider of online instruction. It would require states to allow open enrollment, so students could choose schools outside of their local districts.

Here’s how Romney’s redistribution of federal funds might work in Carlsbad.
The district received $2.7 million from the feds in Title 1 and IDEA funding in 2011-12. The district reports it enrolls 1,133 students with disabilities. Based on the number of economically disadvantaged students taking STARS tests, I estimate there are about 2,500 low-income students who would qualify for Title 1 funding.

Assuming some overlap in students who have disabilities and are low income, a fair estimate is that the number eligible for “portability” under Romney’s plan would come to about 3,000 students.

If the $2.7 million of the district’s current federal dollars are divided by the 3,000 students eligible to take their share and shop for another school, it comes to $900 per student. The per-pupil expense in the Carlsbad School District budget is $7,000. The tuition for Carlsbad’s newest private school, Pacific Ridge School, is $24,600.

The bottom line for Romney’s plan is that it abandons our country’s commitment for all public schools to serve all students. The money transferred from school to school would be insufficient to serve the needs of those its intended for, and the schools they leave would be hit with budget cuts that hurt the students who remain.

It calls to mind a U.S. Army major’s sad justification for civilian deaths after the bombing of a North Vietnam village: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Romney’s education plan is equally ironic. He justifies the abandonment of public schools to save public education.

And that’s why Carlsbad school officials should care about the Presidential election as much as the vote on state tax increases.

Censorship Comes to North San Diego

From Carlsbadistan.com

Beginning in October Carlsbadians will get only Papa Doug Manchester’s (right) slant on the daily news.
Who’s Papa Doug (his preferred first name) and why should we care? The hotelier-turned-media mogul bought the North County Times [for $11.95 million]. Added to his acquisition and name change to the San Diego Union Tribune two years ago, he’s hellbent on creating a Hearst-like media empire in San Diego County.

And why should we care? He’s declared an editorial war on government employees, unions, President Obama, writers who don’t help promote the community, and anyone who walks, talks or acts like a Democrat. My last North County Times column critical of the empty boosterism of Carlsbad’s latest State of the City video would not see the light of day in a Manchester newspaper.

I experienced Papa Doug’s reign of terror for journalists when I submitted what was intended to be my last The Riehl World column scheduled for publication tomorrow. Here’s the part that was deemed too hot to handle, followed by Editor Kent Davy’s explanation.

“After being able to rant on this page for nine years, often at odds with editorial board positions, my homework assignments for the NCT end with this, my last column. I made that decision after learning the newspaper had been sold. Not that the new owners would have welcomed my prickly presence on their opinion pages.

In a KPBS interview on September 11 Doug Manchester said he hadn’t yet decided on the “brand” of the North County Times. But he left little doubt it will be a virtual clone of UT San Diego, given his primary goal to “salute what’s right and good about San Diego,” with a special pro-military, pro-business, and pro-Padres and Chargers focus.

NCT Editor Kent Davy, on the same KPBS show, described the newspaper’s mission: “We don’t work for corporate masters. We work for readers and the notion of doing good work,” to “hold a mirror up to the community,” to “show the community its successes and failures” and to “right wrongs.”

Asked if the new NCT will keep its own editorial board, Manchester replied, “We will definitely get editorial input from the North County area.” He didn’t promise editorial independence. But he did promise that the NCT, like its big brother in San Diego, will carry front page editorials advancing his conservative political agenda.

I’ll be rooting from the sidelines for the survival of NCT’s journalistic integrity, but I’m not holding my breath.”

And here’s Davy’s explanation of why the column was rejected:

“Richard: I am not willing to let you tee off on Manchester this way. There are people here who will have to work for him even if you don’t.” — Kent R. Davy | Editor | North County Times

It’s a sad day, not only for journalists, but for Carlsbad residents who will need to find sources other than their daily newspaper to find a diversity of opinions about issues they care about.