Sunday, January 25, 2015

Whose Ethics?

A few stories about ethics have emerged in recent days, the juxtaposition of which has me wondering a bit about ethics rules, and who they are really for. To whit:

Dorchester teacher Nicole Bollerman won books for all of her students and $150,000 for herself as a result of a recent essay contest. SHE GAVE ALL OF THE PRIZE MONEY TO THE SCHOOL. Massachusetts is the only planet on which this could have raised any legal concerns, since "gifts" to public employees are limited to a $50. Hearing of the teacher's generosity (it is almost redundant to call a public school teacher "generous" these days, given their generally shabby treatment), comedian Ellen DeGeneres heard about her generosity and gave all the kids in the school another round of supplies, all the teachers gift cards for school supplies, and Bollerman another $25,000. Still, the ethics questions continue, though it is not clear by whom or to what purpose.

The Boston Globe's article about Bollerman makes a few interesting points. First, she gave away the original prize money despite the student loans that most professionals her age now carry, thanks to the refusal of legislatures to continue funding higher education at the levels they had enjoyed. Second, Ellen's $500 gifts to teachers are being questioned, while the common practice of teachers spending that kind of money on school supplies is not.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Stoughton, it has recently come to light that superintendent Marguerite Rizzi has been running an education consulting business, along with several of her non-teaching colleagues. Many are questioning how this group of executives has the time to operate a business, but my real concern is that they are so shamelessly profiting from the good work of actual teachers, by extolling their accomplishments as if they were their own. I am also reminded of something I have written about quite a bit in this space -- the absolutely absurd number of absurdly paid upper administrators in Massachusetts schools -- and municipal government generally -- resulting from our refusal to regionalize services.

Another "event" is fictional, but very real to me. One of our guilty pleasures is binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose protagonist is a teenager who, well, slays vampires. In the Checkpoint episode from Season 5, the "Watchers" who oversee the work of such slayers all come together to tell Buffy how poorly she is doing according to their metrics and protocols. "Don't mess with the slayer!" we say, as Buffy deftly explains the difference between those who do, and those who manage.

And finally, all of this comes as we learn that a former state official happens to be the most qualified (it seems) to pull down $300,000 a year as the overseer of Boston's bid to secure the 2024 Olympics and we are reminded of the many ways in which the Massachusetts legislature ensures that it can continue to operate in secrecy.

Ethics, oversight, and accountability, it seems, are for the little people.


This is not a recent story, but one that still grates. At a time when the governor would not bargain in good faith with state-university faculty, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift was "earning" $25,000 to co-teach one course at Suffolk University. That is, she was on the syllabus while a real professor did most of the teaching for a small fraction of that salary.

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