Education Activist with Lennie Jarratt CW 25- Transcript

Education ActivistJohn Tsarpalas: Last week in podcast #24, I spoke with Lennie Jarratt about running for local office and basic political campaign websites. Lennie is back today with part two because Lennie’s a multifaceted guy. Today we are going to talk about school boards and how to be an education activist.Lennie’s been at it for a long time. You are going to hear about FOIA requests and other techniques. You are going to hear about some of the dirt Lennie’s dug up. So this is Education Activist with Lennie Jarratt, Commonwealthy #25.

Let’s head towards school board messaging. One of the problems we have as limited government people is we are always saying no. But it’s about the positive we bring to the world. We will have better schools if they are operated with efficiency, fiscal conservancy, and really paying attention to what’s going on. I think our schools are on autopilot being run by the unions partially.

Lennie Jarratt: For the most part, yes they are.

John Tsarpalas: At least in this area, in Illinois.

Lennie Jarratt: Yes, in Illinois.

John Tsarpalas: And if you are in a state that hasn’t gotten that problem yet, it’s coming. Get ready, get on that school board, and steer things on the right path.

Lennie Jarratt: Yeah, I was actually just talking to a friend of mine in another state. They came from Illinois and they are seeing the signs of the teacher’s union trying to infiltrate their districts and stuff now just like they did here.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, wow.

Lennie Jarratt: It’s a problem.

John Tsarpalas: Yes, it really is. All right, so let’s start with some basic messaging. What issues are going on in more school districts?

Lennie Jarratt: Common Core is the biggest issue going on in school districts right now and in the curriculum associated with Common Core. So that is a big issue. It gets a lot of people upset.

Honestly, to me that isn’t the biggest issue because there is always going to be a new curriculum. There is always going to be something with that going on. The fiscal issues are really the bigger issues because there is an influx now of newer students.

The next generation of students is coming in. It’s bigger than the generation that is going out. So it’s putting more and more strain on the system right now. So schools have got to figure out how to be more fiscally sustainable with the state budgets lacking.

If you heavily rely on property taxes like we do here in Illinois, it’s a problem. It’s driving families out and it’s making it hard for districts to actually deal with stuff. The fiscal issues are more important right now honestly than curriculum in my opinion.

John Tsarpalas: So how does a candidate talk about that and not sound like a curmudgeon who wants to slash budgets? And oh my gosh, the children are going to get a bad education.

Lennie Jarratt: You have to talk about the money. Instead of going to the system itself, it needs to be focused on the child. That’s the key when you are messaging. You have a lot of voters out there that are angry about how high the property taxes are.

You don’t want to go in there and say, “We are going to cut property taxes.” You are never going to cut property taxes per se by doing that. What you want to do is you want to go in and try to get the district to be fiscally sustainable so no matter what fiscal crisis is coming, the district always has enough money to pay for it every year.

Right now, the schools raise their budgets every year to take advantage of maximizing their levy. They want to raise their levy to the maximum amount every single year because they don’t know how the state is going to fund it.

So you’ve got to come up with ideas to start fixing that. I’ve actually proposed multiple ideas on that. One of the ideas I ran on actually back in 2012 was when the Zion High School District had a teacher strike. I ran up there and held a town hall. I helped them with an idea and presented an idea to the school board, which they ended up actually using.

You change the paradigm. We have so many young teachers coming in that are gone within four to five years. A lot of it is because of the pay. They are not being paid well. And a lot of it is the people at the top are getting huge raises while the people at the bottom are getting very small raises.

So I proposed shifting that paradigm, helping the people that needed it the most at the bottom get bigger raises and slowing the raises at the top. Or if you had to freeze them for a while, freeze them so you could help keep good teachers within the system.

What that also does is it makes the money in your system more fiscally sustainable because now you are not giving raises at the top. You are not giving four or five percent raises at the top. You may be handing out four or five thousand dollar raises every year, where the people at the bottom you are handing out seven or eight hundred or even a thousand dollar raises. You’ve changed the dynamic of how you’re paying and how the pay structure goes.

So you are not only keeping good teachers. The good teachers are still being paid well; they are just not getting as big of raises. But the money angle has completely changed. Now you’ve become sustainable.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. Have you written about this? Is this stuff available at Heartland?

Lennie Jarratt: It’s not available at Heartland yet. I actually did an article and wrote about this when I was with Champion News. So that is out there as well.

Actually I started my own organization, For Our Children’s Future, at that time as well. I kind of did some of that stuff through that to champion that. After I didn’t win my primary, I started trying to champion some of those ideas.

Another idea I proposed to some school districts, that I know one has partially implemented, is to switch to being self-insured. With all of the health insurance changes and stuff like that, there have been a lot of school districts that give the teachers the money to go buy their own insurance. Or they just give them money because their husband already has insurance. So they are giving them money.

It affects the way your ratings are when you are doing health insurance. If you go self-insured, the way that works is with in two years, most decent sized school districts (the one I proposed it to had about 400 teachers) would save automatically two million dollars every single year off of their budget. They would have built up the funds to pay anything they had come up and work through that.

So it’s a huge money saver. If you compound that two million dollars every single year you don’t have to put into your budget.

John Tsarpalas: Right, or you can use it other things in the budget. Here’s what I don’t quite understand. Isn’t the medical running through the unions?

Lennie Jarratt: No, in Illinois, it does not run through the unions. In Wisconsin it did.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, in Michigan it did.

Lennie Jarratt: In Michigan it did, too.

John Tsarpalas: I remember the fights up there.

Lennie Jarratt: So that’s been some issues. In Illinois it doesn’t run through the unions.

John Tsarpalas: Oh, it runs through the school district. They are buying it.

Lennie Jarratt: The school districts decide. The school districts do everything. There are many self-insured districts in Illinois. It needs to be more.

John Tsarpalas: So self-insured means they are paying out. They are not paying an insurance company to do all of this. They are paying themselves.

Lennie Jarratt: Well, the way it works is they actually pay an insurance company to do the monitoring and still handle all of that. The school is actually just paying bills via that manager that they have set up.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, so they are paying the medical bills, but they didn’t pay for insurance to pay the medical bills.

Lennie Jarratt: Right.

John Tsarpalas: So they saved that differential because somebody made a profit in there.

Lennie Jarratt: Yeah! So instead of the insurance companies making the profit, now the school district is saving those profits. And the teachers are still getting just as good as care as they ever did. In some way you can actually make it better because those schools can the start their own medical savings accounts and help the teachers even more.

John Tsarpalas: So where’s the pushback on that? What are people complaining about? I can’t say everyone goes, “Oh, this is great.” Someone’s got to be upset about it. Why?

Lennie Jarratt: There are. Well, a lot of school districts, specifically the one I proposed to- I didn’t want to mention their name.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, don’t mention names.

Lennie Jarratt: They had a flex spending. If you did not accept the insurance, the school district would actually give those teachers over six grand every year.

John Tsarpalas: Is this a FSA?

Lennie Jarratt: No, it wasn’t. They didn’t do that; that was the issue.

John Tsarpalas: Oh, okay.

Lennie Jarratt: So they gave it to them. They took the taxes out of this money. So these teachers did not have to use that for health coverage of any kind. It was basically like getting a bonus over six thousand dollars every single year that they could use for whatever they wanted. So it was an extra perk.

John Tsarpalas: That would go away.

Lennie Jarratt: That would go away. That’s why a lot of them were fighting it.

John Tsarpalas: Okay. And did Obamacare change that?

Lennie Jarratt: Actually Obamacare should actually change it in the way it should force more schools to look at being self-insurance. Why that school district looked at it was they were facing a million dollar fine for the regulations with Obamacare and their gold plated healthcare plans.

Another school district here locally was facing almost a ten million dollar fine. So it was going to affect them so they had to figure out ways to start changing the plans and still have good coverage for the teachers.

John Tsarpalas: So it sounds like a win-win; the school district saves money and the teachers are getting the same coverage. But in those situations where they have that FSA plan. But that’s not everywhere.

Lennie Jarratt: Right. It wasn’t everywhere. It’s just hard. You’ve got to get in there. It gets a little bit more steric.

When you are talking about school board messaging, when you are talking to taxpayers, there are two messages in running for school board. One is you want to stop the out of control spending because it is really what it boils down to.

People want to stop having their taxes raised every single year. That’s a winning message with over seventy-five or eighty percent of the people. It doesn’t matter what political persuasion you are; they are tired of the taxes going up.

The other is you’ve got to message to the parents because they don’t want you affecting their child’s education. They want their child to get a quality education.

John Tsarpalas: Right, no parent wants less spending when their kid’s in school.

Lennie Jarratt: Exactly. But everybody wants quality education. So how you message that is the key because you can’t go in there and go, “Well, I want to cut this curriculum. I want to cut that curriculum.” Some people like it; some people don’t.

It’s more of a fine line. Budget issues are better to stay on when you are doing that. If you are a school board candidate and you start talking about austerity, you’re done.

John Tsarpalas: No way you’re winning.

Lennie Jarratt: You are never going to cut spending in the school district to start with.

John Tsarpalas: So what you’re there for is to get the most out of the money and the most for the students.

Lennie Jarratt: Yes, make sure the money is focused on the classroom and the students instead of on the system itself. There are a lot of school districts you can go in that are overburdened with administration. And honestly, that’s what Common Core is pushing. Common Core is actually forcing more administrations just to manage the process, which is another problem with it.

John Tsarpalas: So more bureaucracy from the top down.

Lennie Jarratt: Yes, it produces more bureaucracy and less money going to the classroom.

John Tsarpalas: Wow. Okay. The school issues are overwhelming to me.

Lennie Jarratt: There’s a lot there.

John Tsarpalas: There is a lot there. But the key, number one, is education is the hope in the future.

Lennie Jarratt: It is. It’s the key to the future itself.

John Tsarpalas: It’s the key to future for getting people out of poverty. It’s the key for having freedom in a democracy. It’s a key to electing good people in the future.

Lennie Jarratt: It is.

John Tsarpalas: You touched on Common Core. You don’t think that people really need to go there. Stick to the budget issues.

Lennie Jarratt: If they are running, they can talk to some people about Common Core. Honestly, I think Common Core is more of a distraction than it is everything else I know. I don’t like Common Core, but there are a lot of reasons to not like Common Core. It’s really the curriculum that should be the focus.

The big piece fight against Common Core is the testing. It just requires so much testing, which is insane. You are spending so much time on that and you are not focusing on the educating. That’s part of the problem.

The curriculum, though, is separate from the standards. You can have good Common Core curriculum or bad Common Core curriculum. Unfortunately, most of it is bad. A lot of the Common Core curriculum that says they are Common Core isn’t even aligned with Common Core. It’s just somebody slapping a sticker on it to sell books.

If you really want to know what is going on, it’s all about the money. Its book sales. That’s really all it is. Pearson is one of the booksellers out there. Somebody just did a review of their math books. None of them are actually aligned with Common Core, even though they are selling all their books as Common Core aligned.

So there are a lot of issues out there just on that: what is Common Core aligned and what is not Common Core aligned? I wish Common Core would go away, but it’s just going to get replaced by something else. So we have to try to figure out a way around it instead. It’s a distraction to what the real problem is, and that’s the creating of a bigger bureaucracy. That’s where the real issue lies.

John Tsarpalas: So how does someone get as well informed as you are? How do they turn into Lennie, Jr.? You started going to school board meetings. How did you get informed about what’s happening in the schools?

Lennie Jarratt: I started researching. Honestly, I looked into our school district when they were having a referendum. So I am like, “Okay, how do I find out whether this referendum is needed or not needed?”

John Tsarpalas: How much were they asking for and what was it about?

Lennie Jarratt: They were asking for 34 million dollars for a new school building plus raising the levy. It was almost 89 cents a new levy on top of everything that they were going to phase in, which actually would have been much higher than 89 cents the way it works I found out.

So I found out a site that said, “Okay, if you are a looking at a referendum, here’s what you FOIA. You do a Freedom of Information on budgets. You do a Freedom of Information on the contracts.” You see what’s there and really see how they are spending their money.

So that’s what I did. I had no clue what I was doing at that point. I found out real fast that they don’t like that. I was on a forum that was discussing it, so I would ask people questions about where this is going, how this is going, and how they are spending their money.

As soon as I did my FOIA’s, two weeks later, I had my website hacked where I was going to post all of my FOIA information. Somebody was on the pro-referendum forum posting my name, my address, how many kids I had, how much I paid for house, and all sorts of other public information. It was public information, but they were posting it.

John Tsarpalas: They were putting it all together.

Lennie Jarratt: It was in a way for intimidation to have people attack me to try to get me to shut up. And then they took down my website. I have this tendency to get very angry when somebody tries to bully me, so I fought back.

John Tsarpalas: Okay.

Lennie Jarratt: I kept researching. I was planning on going away when the referendum was over. I just wanted to find out if it was worthwhile or not. They started to bully me and I didn’t go away. I kept digging and kept researching. I have uncovered all sorts of consortiums where they do no-bid contracts and just award money out for energy consortiums and other things. I think that’s what actually ended up having us meet was that energy consortium.

John Tsarpalas: That’s right. I remember that.

Lennie Jarratt: That was over seventy some school districts here in Illinois. They were just doing no-bid contracts to buy all their energy. And then I’ve uncovered in my school district at least one felony, multiple misdemeanors, and multiple other crimes. And there is still stuff there that I know about that I have not been able to get the data to prove yet.

I’ve done this in other districts as well. You start looking at other districts and how they are spending. So far, I have yet to find a district where you can’t find misspending and overspending or some type of corruption in the district, where the district is hiring friends and family instead of hiring the best qualified people. It’s just rampant here in Illinois.

John Tsarpalas: But we need to warn people: if you want to be an activist, you go that route. If you want to be a candidate, you show up to the meetings and ask polite questions. You don’t start digging; you start talking about trying to get more efficient. You want to do the most for the children.

Lennie Jarratt: Yes, if you want to be a candidate, don’t do what I did.

John Tsarpalas: This is an important. If you want to be an activist, start digging. You made me just think I want to do a podcast on how to do FOIA requests and FOIA searches.

Lennie Jarratt: FOIA requests in Illinois are interesting. You could do a whole podcast on that.

John Tsarpalas: Oh, yeah. We’ve been down that FOIA road. When we worked at Sam Adams, we did a lot of that.

Lennie Jarratt: I’ve actually done a few training classes for a couple of groups on how to do FOIA’s affectively in Illinois. So we’ll have to do another on that.

John Tsarpalas: We’ll have to get into the FOIA issue.

Lennie Jarratt: The thing I tell school board candidates is if you are going to a school board meeting and you are starting to talk, the key that you want to do is just ask questions. You don’t have to give your opinion on everything. Ask questions over and over again.

Learn as much as you possibly can because that’s how you are going to actually effectively be a school board member. Learn what they do and how they do it. And then you can effectively start to change things.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, good.

Lennie Jarratt: And there’s a lot of preliminary documents that you want to look at. When you become a school board member, you want to immediately go look at their budget. You should have already looked at their budgets, but you want to look at their current budget. You want to look at the teachers’ contract. You want to look at all of the administrative contracts.

You want to see where all of the money is going for lobbying. There’s a lot of information there. You want to look at their credit card bills. Look at how they are spending their money.

I know the ISB and stuff recommends that you trust the superintendent and you trust the staff, but as the school board member, your responsibility is to represent the taxpayers. So you better be willing to go in there and ask questions. Yes, you can trust them, but ask them to verify everything that they are doing. So its trust, but verify.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, right. You have a fiduciary responsibility. You need to know what’s going on. And you do it politely and do it gently. You look and you don’t accuse. Just take a look and see, and then suggest.

Lennie Jarratt: You don’t have to get on rants and do that. Let the activists do that. But ask questions because that’s the way you are going to find anything.

John Tsarpalas: Okay, very good. Where people can find more info? You started doing research. Does Heartland have good information on education?

Lennie Jarratt: They have a lot good information on education. There’s actually a brand new school choice page up. That gives you all of the information on school choice. There is a page on Common Core. It gives all of you all sorts of research about the good and the bad.

Heartland is very good about that. They will show you the positive. They will show you the negative. You get to look at both sides of the argument and figure it out for yourself. That’s always the way to go.

School choice has not a complete timeline yet. It’s still under construction. But it goes back all of the way back into the fifties and sixties about some of the school choice movements as far back as then.

School choice is a bipartisan issue. There were a lot of progressives involved in the school choice movement. In fact, the first voucher program in California was started by a progressive professor. He started being funded by Lyndon Johnson. And then Richard Nixon helped fund the first three years of the project. A lot of people don’t know even know about that. School choice really is a bipartisan issue.

John Tsarpalas: That’s great. You wouldn’t know it nowadays.

Lennie Jarratt: No, you would not know it nowadays. Things have become so politicized now. I was just having a discussion here recently about some of the APUSH curriculum. And I’m like, “Curriculum has become so politicized now that the focus is being lost on education. The focus isn’t there on education anymore.”

Really, that’s the problem school choice solves. It gets the politics out of the education field and empowers parents so the focus can be on the child again instead of on the system. The system is inherently going to be political.

John Tsarpalas: So if people want more information on school issues, where can they reach you?

Lennie Jarratt: They can reach me on the Heartland blog, which is called Somewhat Reasonable. You will find Lennie Jarratt there. My email address is ljarratt@heartland.org.

John Tsarpalas: Great. Thank you for being here. We covered a lot of things and a lot of topics.

Lennie Jarratt: There’s a lot more information in my head.

John Tsarpalas: Well, we’ll have to do this another time. Make some notes and we will sit down and do it. I think school board things are really huge.

Lennie Jarratt: There’s not a lot of people helping school boards. There’s not a lot of resources out there. Honestly, a friend of mine, who has now moved out of Illinois because of the idiocy that happens here, and I actually worked together after the 2012 campaign for 2013. We worked in Lake County and tested some theories out on how to run for school boards.

We had 35 candidates running. Twenty-two of them won their election in the spring of 2013. We expanded that campaign more statewide and more suburban in 2015. We worked with 128 candidates, not all school board, but school board, village trustee, community college boards, and stuff. We got 80 of them elected out of the 128.

John Tsarpalas: That’s fantastic.

Lennie Jarratt: There’s ways to do things.

John Tsarpalas: And that’s fantastic in this environment. We are sitting in a blue state controlled by unions and Democrats. All of the districts have been gerrymandered. It’s difficult.

Lennie Jarratt: After the 2015 elections, they actually changed the law.

John Tsarpalas: To slow you down, huh?

Lennie Jarratt: Actually to help hide money from the unions coming in to support school board candidates. The limit used to be three thousand dollars. So you could spend up to $2,999 and never report anything to the state.

When we got involved and started helping all of these candidates and doing stuff, they raised the limit to five thousand dollars after the 2015 elections.

John Tsarpalas: So they can pump more money in without being known.

Lennie Jarratt: Yes.

John Tsarpalas: Yeah, Tina- I don’t know if you know Tina Keats or not.

Lennie Jarratt: Yes, I do.

John Tsarpalas: Tina and I’ve done quite a few of these podcasts. We often talk about the unions being in the background.

Lennie Jarratt: Oh, they are there. The case I talked about where I discovered the felony and misdemeanor was the union support was rampant throughout that whole entire case. I was FOIA-ing emails from multiple school districts. We actually ended up having to go to court to finally get the rest of the emails because the school district tried to cover everything up.

A school board member was committing felonies by basically bribing kids to register to vote. And then we had the school board president electioneering on her district email. The superintendent was electioneering on her district emails.

There were multiple other cases of electioneering that we didn’t decide to push because it was one email here and there. It wasn’t a concerted effort.

John Tsarpalas: We should explain that it is illegal to use government-funded systems, like email or phone systems. You cannot make politically related phone calls from your school office.

Lennie Jarratt: Right, or send politically motivated emails or use the copiers or any of that kind of stuff.

John Tsarpalas: Right. It has to happen outside of the taxpayer supported system.

Lennie Jarratt: Except the unions get away with that. The unions can actually do that. The union president we could not touch because she was union. They have different rights inside of the contracts that they can actually use the school resources.

John Tsarpalas: Of course they do. Why would they have the same rules as the rest of us?

Lennie Jarratt: Right.

John Tsarpalas: Wow. Well, we could go on forever, couldn’t we?

Lennie Jarratt: We really could.

John Tsarpalas: My thanks to Lennie for coming on the podcast and helping us get some ideas on what’s happening in our school districts and how we can possibly find out more and become more of an activist or candidate.

So if you want to get a hold of Lennie and you’ve got questions for him in his role as education activist at Heartland Institute, email him at ljarratt@heartland.org. He’s the project manager for school reform at Heartland. You can also find him @SchoolReform.

If you’ve got questions for me or any kind of question about activism or running a campaign, I am always available at john@commonwealthy.com. There is all kinds of information on the website at Commonwealthy.com. We always have show notes and transcripts.

We’d love to have you come ask us a question. There’s even a little button on the right side of the website. If you click on it, you can leave us a voice message. If you’ve got a question you’d like asked on the podcast, you can record one there.

I look forward to talking to you next week. Thanks for being here. Take care.

Lennie Jarratt: And there’s a lot of preliminary documents that you want to look at. When you become a school board member, you want to immediately go look at their budget. You should have already looked at their budgets, but you want to look at their current budget. You want to look at the teachers’ contract. You want to look at all of the administrative contracts.

You want to see where all of the money is going for lobbying. There’s a lot of information there. You want to look at their credit card bills. Look at how they are spending their money.

I know the ISB and stuff recommends that you trust the superintendent and you trust the staff, but as the school board member, your responsibility is to represent the taxpayers. So you better be wiling to go in there and ask questions. Yes, you can trust them, but ask them to verify everything that they are doing. So its trust, but verify.

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