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Bill Cirone: Teacher of Year a Symbol of Bittersweet Times for Education

The same day Diane Siegal learned of her honor, she also was told her position had been terminated

By Bill Cirone |

“As the needs of classes vary, I have to adapt my delivery, but not the content. It is always a collaborative effort, and if I am diligent, prepared, reasonable, animated and engaged with my students, that is what they reflect back to me. ... I propose a student-centered, humane learning environment wherein students are ‘seen’ in their varied competencies … and offered a classroom culture that is inclusive, authentic and stimulating, because that is the true and noble purpose of public education, rather than winnowing the weak.”

Bill Cirone
Bill Cirone

So wrote Diane Siegal, a ninth- and 11th-grade English teacher for nine years at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School who was named this year’s Santa Barbara County Teacher of the Year.

Siegal, an absolutely outstanding example of the truly exceptional teachers in classrooms countywide, was selected by a committee including representatives of teachers, administrators, PTAs and school boards.

The same day she learned of this honor, she received word that her position had been terminated. In this sense, she is a true representative of the educational community in this county, this state and this nation. We are sustaining devastating blows. Dire budget circumstances are forcing districts to lose their best teachers, their best programs and their best opportunities to reach and teach their students.

Each year, the county Teacher of the Year is a truly exemplary teacher and human being. Each one brings different skills and passions to the table, and represents all that is excellent in classrooms throughout our county.

Look at some of Siegal’s bonafides: She first worked as a teacher of English in Japan, and then served as chairwoman of the board of directors of the Starr King Parent Child workshop. She has served as the faculty adviser for Santa Ynez High’s mock-trial team, took part in an intensive language academy in Costa Rica, studied abroad at the University of Valencia in Spain and was a competitive cyclist in Osaka, Japan.

She has won recognition as Educator of the Month from Montecito Bank & Trust, and was awarded C.E.O. New Chapter award and Outstanding Adult Adviser awards from People to People International. She is the community liaison for Achievement/Risk/Challenge (ARC) leadership and literacy program at Santa Ynez High, raised money for the Jesse Rohde Foundation Community Medical Clinic in Ghana, and has her class do projects to support Heifer International. She has been developing a schoolwide service model in conjunction with the school’s leadership team and was testimonial speaker at the formal installment ceremony of newly appointed Judge Kay Kuns. Last year, she was a Santa Barbara County Distinguished Educator.

This is not an all-inclusive list.

Siegal’s nomination next will be reviewed for consideration as California Teacher of the Year in the fall. The California winner will proceed into consideration for 2010 National Teacher of the Year.

Ironies abound.

Educators have always taken pride in the ability to take a “hit” and keep on performing. Hit after hit after hit has been sustained, and the institution has survived. Those in positions to know the difference have despaired over what cuts have meant in terms of services provided, but the public has largely been shielded from seeing the effects. This year may well be different.

Two years ago, Ron Zell, a music teacher in Buellton who provided music instruction to every child in the kindergarten through eighth-grade district, was County Teacher of the Year. This year he, too, was informed that his position and his program were terminated. Excellent teachers cut. Programs devastated. Services eliminated.

Where will it end? And what will the impact be on this generation of students?

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.

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» on 06.06.09 @ 05:02 AM

It is indeed ironic that Ms. Siegal was terminated at the same time she was awarded Teacher of the Year. I also find it ironic that Mr.Cirone failed to mention that this is also the result of teacher unions who have insisted that when teachers have to be laid off it must be based on seniority. If this was based on performance there would be no reason to dismiss her. As a matter of fact, without these self-serving rules she would also earn more than than her peers. Unfortunately, her pay is also determined by seniority. Mr Cirone should write an article on how teachers unions have ruined our public educational system. Teacher tenure and seniority rules exist to serve teachers not the students they pretend to care about.

» on 06.06.09 @ 08:51 AM

If we kept teachers based on ther performane rather than seniority this wouldn’t happen.

» on 06.06.09 @ 09:06 AM

And so Mr. Cirone, why are you not addressing the question obvious to every reader of this article: Why do public schools continue the ridiculous and asinine system of basing these decisions on seniority rather than merit?

Why should we lose this teacher simply because she has worked fewer years in her district than others who are not as effective? If it was your child who was losing this teacher, wouldn’t you be outraged?

If “dire budget circumstances” are forcing us to lose teachers like this, why not eliminate the bureaucratic county office of education first. Seriously, why do we need this if we already have school boards and administration for each school district?

» on 06.06.09 @ 09:44 AM

I would really like someone who is strongly pro-teacher-tenure to address this and comment. As a student at a public high school, I have seen some of my favorite teachers fired solely because they are new, while teachers that are… well… lacking in almost every way, are safe job-wise due only to longevity. I don’t understand. Can someone please explain to me why this is a good system?

» on 06.06.09 @ 12:05 PM

Couldn’t agree more. As a parent, I have witnessed firsthand the harmful effects of the teacher’s union for too many years now. Diane Siegal sounds like an amazing teacher—what a loss for the community.  I wish she were a typical example of a public school educator.

Many of these public servants complain about the cuts in their benefits (most workers don’t even have benefits any more, especially those who work 9 to 10 months each year) and rarely retire before they spend a few years teaching without the enthusiasm required for the job. The salaries, by any standard, are very good.

Sad but true, the kids are the one who lose.

» on 06.06.09 @ 12:25 PM

Thanks for the supportive article and comments. I agree that I am a casualty of the seniority system, so I propose a dialogue (here is good) about an alternative system of teacher evaluation that is both judicious and efficient. Any suggestions? The unions have an interest in protecting their constituents, so they certainly should be a part of the dialogue. Our whole way of conducting public education is under assault, so the mic is open for constructive conversation about reform. I’m listening, and I suspect Bill Cirone and many union-affiliates are as well. BTW, this would not be such a glaring issue if the state were providing adequate funding to educate California’s youth (48th from the top in the country) and the districts were applying the funds effectively and transparently. There are a few different prongs to this beast. Again, thank you for the support. It definitely helps the morale.

» on 06.06.09 @ 12:49 PM

Dear High School Student…you are 100% correct. We need your generation to change things. The union controls without wisdom as does the State educational system.

» on 06.06.09 @ 01:32 PM

East coast exasperation comment…

Refer to the CA Lottery story last week and ask “why?”  The sales pitch for lotteries included money for schools but as printed by writer, the school budget is above the needs of 1/3 of lottery income these days.

The powers that be need to revisit the combo of lottery income giving first and most of same to schools.  Get the priority straight!!  Our young people need education more now than ever.  I.E. from high school students: “What is D-Day?”

Meantime.. yes, Unions need to judge tenure on Merit, not seniority.  Tenure in any profession regardless of merit (even our Supreme Court)has always been a sick situation from coast to coast. Some of our best teachers are now waiting tables, cleaning houses, etc.

» on 06.06.09 @ 10:21 PM

All teachers are required to be evaluated by their principal on a regular basis.  Good and bad teaching and teachers are “relative” terms.  Test scores are only one piece of the process. Please don’t start pitting one teacher against another!  The profession is extremely complex and multi-layered. Would you really want to be able to mount a campaign against one teacher over one issue and have that teacher fired?  Let’s put HMO providers under the same microscope and if they don’t cure your acne, backache, or cancer then out you go!  PLEASE!

» on 06.06.09 @ 11:38 PM

High School Student, I thought you deserve an answer to your question. Although I am certainly not pro-union, the pro-tenure crowd would tell you that teachers cannot be fairly evaluated and any system other than seniority would be highly political.
  Although no system is perfect, I do believe that teachers can be evaluated and it is possible to distinguish the good teachers from the bad. When my son was in the Santa Barbara schools, it was common knowledge among the students and the parents who the good teachers were. I don’t know why the principal and his assistants are not spending the majority of their time observing teachers. There should also be a system where students and parents can offer their input. Finally, assessing test scores and student achievement can also be utilized.
  The reason why this is not happening is because the teacher unions are extremely powerful. Over the years they have become an appendage of the Democratic party. They contribute millions of dollars to the party and work extremely hard to elect and re-elect Democrats. As a result, the Democrat party will pretty much do whatever the teachers unions want.
  What bothers me the most about this is the rank hypocrisy exhibited by these politicians and union members. For instance, President Obama, a strong union supporter, sends his kids to private school, as did the Clintons and 95% of Congressional members. No way they are going to send their kids to the appalling Washington DC. schools. A number of years ago, the Bush Administration instituted a scholarship program to send low-income and minority children from the Washington schools to private schools. By all accounts this program has been very successful. A few months ago, Congress failed to fund the program and, consequently, it will cease to exist next year. It is obvious that the Democrats in Congress are paying back the teacher unions for their significant monetary support in the last election. So much for their apparent concern for the children in the Washington schools.
  Finally, you will always hear how terribly underfunded our public schools are. There is some truth to this, but it is also true that the Washington schools and other inner-city school systems have the highest per capital spending in the country. Clearly, without the necessary reform all the money in the world will not fix our broken schools. Speaking for myself, I might be amenable to paying higher taxes to increase public school spending and teacher salaries, but only if tenure and seniority are eliminated and true reforms are enacted which will truly change the culture of our public schools. I don’t want to speak for Mr. Cirone, but I am quite sure he will never raise these issues in public. Most school board members are Democrats and their union patrons are far to powerful for him to be truly candid. If he did write an article explaining the real reason for letting Ms. Siegal go, he might have to accompany her. I won’t hold my breath but I challenge him to comment on this board regarding these issues.
  High School Student, I hope I addressed your question. You sound very intelligent and aware for a high school student. Maybe you and your generation will be able to fix this problem one day. If we don’t and our educational system continues to fail us, America will become a third- rate nation, left behind in this global economy.

PS.  A few weeks ago, the LA times did an expose revealing that only a few teachers in the LA City Schools have been fired in the last five years. They highlighted specific examples of teachers accused of sexual and physical abuse who were still being paid because of the support of the unions and the system which allows incompetent teachers a multitude of appeals which can take many years before they are exhausted. If you get a chance, I recommend that you look up this excellent article.

» on 06.07.09 @ 08:42 AM

The point is not which teacher is terminated, but why in this state is there not enough money to fund education.  California will be 50th in the nation in the amount of funds per child it spends after this next round of budget cuts.  This is insanity!  Unions have not created this mess, the legislature has.  It is time to change the two thirds vote to pass a budget and to overhaul Prop 13.

» on 06.07.09 @ 10:04 AM

Mr. Cirone, I am saddened by this story and even more saddened by the lack of answers you have for this situation. As a multi-year politician first/educator second in the position of County Superintendent of Schools, what solutions and leadership might you offer to our beleaguered schools and teachers? I find your article severely lacking in that you offer no hope or direction for our schools. What is your job anyway?

» on 06.07.09 @ 10:18 AM

There’s also the issue of new hires that have lots of experience, competence and advanced degrees. They can’t get a job because it’s cheaper to hire new grads with no experience and no proven competency. I know. I was in that position.  I witnessed a school allow 4 teachers experienced, honored, loved and respected by students and colleagues leave in a political dispute. They were replaced by new hires saving the school an estimated 160K per year.  The school could have hired additional staff and decrease class size but no, they just pocketed the money.  “The system” is clearly broken and the children suffer the consequences with California ranked near the bottom of the list of states with the worst education system and highest illiteracy. Mr. Cirone should know better. He comes from a state that has had in the past the best education results in the nation. Now he oversees the bottom of the barrel. How sad.

» on 06.07.09 @ 12:01 PM

I think that Mr. Cirone should have thought more about this topic before writing what he has written. He should have realized that the lay off of the “best” teacher in the district due to union seniority rules would not go unnoticed.

We in CA pay more for education than almost any state and the results have been very poor to say the least. There are many reasons for that, not the least of which are the bloated highly paid administrative cadres (like all the deputy vice assistant superintendents on staff), the state bureaucracy AND especially the unions.

Ms. Siegal states “The unions have an interest in protecting their constituents…” From my experience in working with unions for many years I would revise that to say that “the unions have an interest in preserving the jobs of the union leaders” for, if there were no unions, they would not have the highly paid jobs funded by the union dues.

The political manipulations by the teachers’ unions are discussed here already so I won’t belabor that point. Suffice it to say that without these unions the school systems would be better off and, I suspect, so would most of the better performing teachers.

» on 06.07.09 @ 11:30 PM

Ms. Siegal, I am glad you have commented on this board. Thank you for being an outstanding and dedicated teacher.
  You asked for suggestions to improve the system. If I was king for the day, I would give the principal of the school the power and responsibility to hire, evaluate, reward, promote, and fire teachers. As you know they do not have that authority today because of union rules. Of course, I would hold them accountable. If they didn’t improve or maintain the performance of the school, they would lose their jobs. Secondly, I don’t believe the curriculum, particularly in the elementary schools, is working. To many students are graduating these schools without the fundamental skills in reading, writing, and math. These students do not write enough and their ability to write a coherent sentence is inadequate. Punctuation, grammar and syntax needs to be repeatedly drilled until it becomes second nature. As you know, if you can’t communicate verbally or in writing, your success in the workplace will be severely limited. Art , music and other programs are nice but until we successfully teach all students the fundamentals, we will have not done our jobs.
  Finally, to say that we rank 47th in the country per student spending is somewhat simplistic. That number is adjusted for regional cost of living differences. We are spending much more than most states, just not enough to account for these regional variances. That same study also said that teacher salaries in Ca are the highest in the country. Because of Proposition 98 we allocate almost half of the state budget for public education. State spending for education has increased over 70% in the last ten years, an average of 7% a year, well over the rate of inflation. The problem is that we have a 25 billion deficit and the highest marginal tax rate and sales tax in the country. This rate of spending cannot go on forever without bankrupting the state. We are going to have learn how to do better with less. That is why it is imperative that we make these reforms as soon as possible. We cannot afford the recalcitrance of the unions and the entrenched power structure.
If I can make a suggestion to Mr. Cirone: Why don’t you hire Ms. Siegal and have her train teachers to improve their performance. What we need are more teachers like her. Instead of complaining Mr. Cirone, let’s do something constructive.

» on 06.08.09 @ 10:34 AM

Shocking.  Children prejudiced in devastating ways by the ineptitude of their “leaders” and the greed and corruption in financial services and home lending.  These arrogant s-o-bs never stop for one second to reflect on how their actions impact literally millions, and especially the most vulnerable and weak among us.  Shame on the administration and legislators and bloated bureaucracy in California and in the school districts.  Shame on Citibank, Lehman Bros, AIG, Countrywide, and the rest of the gang of 100 +.  Shame on the Clinton administration for opening up this cesspool of greed.  Shame on the Bush administration for enabling it.  Shame on us all for not paying attention and not taking to the streets, op-eds, and other media in protest.  My heart goes out not only to these fine educators, but to the children who will not benefit from their skills but who soon will be sharing classrooms with 40-50 of their classmates, instead of 25….

» on 06.08.09 @ 11:04 AM

Teacher salaries are the highest in California because the cost of living is so high here. Teachers start at or close to around $40,000 a year, and if they work for 20+ years are able to get up to around $70,000. I don’t think that making $40-$60k a year for 20 years constitutes being overpaid by any means. If you want good and motivated teachers in education you have to be willing to pay them enough to live in the area in which they are teaching.

» on 06.08.09 @ 01:55 PM

I’ll preface my comments by saying that I am a local high school math teacher, and I’m very pro-union, but there’s no need for a snarky blog battle. Unfortunately many of the posts here are written out of an understandable anger at Diane Siegal’s situation, combined with a forgivable lack of knowledge of unions and school systems.  I believe the anti-union sentiment here is misplaced, but it is undeniable that Ms. Seigal is, as she says, partly a victim of the seniority system. She’s definitely not the only one. Many local teachers have lost their jobs in the last couple of years in what some people call a “last hired, first fired” system. (It’s actually more complicated than that at the secondary level because of the single subject curriculum demands) It’s not a perfect system, and in this instance the result is really troubling and ironic. But it’s not the only culprit, as Ms. Seigal also references. Districts would not be firing so many teachers if they weren’t so devastated financially. They’re in million-dollar holes right now and are desperate to keep out of bankruptcy.  What to do about it? Good question, but so far I haven’t seen any constructive suggestions. Blaming the unions is far too simplistic. (I wonder, for example how many of the anti-union folks here voted against Props A and B, which if passed would most likely have lead to the retaining of Ms Seigal and many other fine teachers?)

I like some of Mr. Segal’s comments but his idea to give principals more power suggests they don’t already have any power, which is not quite true.  Principals have a great deal to do with who gets hired and fired at their school, but since they are not the employer (the district is) they don’t have the last word.  I have worked with some excellent principals to whom I’d have little trouble entrusting these decisions, but I have also worked with incompetent and vindictive principals, or principals who are too quick to cave into the demands of influential parents. The unions are there to protect employees from exactly the kind of abuses of power they are capable of, and believe me there are many ways that a principal can make life hell for a teacher if they really want to.  Principals typically stay around 4 to 7 years at a school, and good ones aren’t always easy to find.  Sometimes we have to take what’s available and just live with it. The same can be said of new teachers. There just aren’t a lot of people around with the skills and drive of Diane Seigal, who is not the typical young teacher, and on the whole experienced teachers do a better job than first or second year teachers.  Obviously there are exceptions, and I know that some older teachers aren’t as good as some younger teachers but in general the seniority system is the most fair to all concerned, including students.

It’s also a little-known fact that last year the local teachers union developed a much more extensive and detailed evaluation system for school administrators to use when observing and evaluating teachers.  This will provide more information about teachers’ performance in the classroom and hold them to clearer, higher standards. The teacher union is just as concerned about underperforming teachers as anyone else, but they can’t ignore the workplace abuses teachers are susceptible to.

Diane: My congratulations and condolences. It’s been a very troubling decade for education in California and your firing should never have happened, but I really hope you hang in there somehow in this profession. Your talents are rare and greatly needed.

» on 06.08.09 @ 02:32 PM

“The teaching establishment and politicians have hoodwinked taxpayers into believing that more money is needed to improve education. The Washington, D.C., school budget is about the nation’s costliest, spending about $15,000 per pupil. Its student/teacher ratio, at 15.2 to 1, is lower than the nation’s average. Yet student achievement is just about the lowest in the nation. What’s so callous about the Washington situation is about 1,700 children in kindergarten through 12th grade receive the $7,500 annual scholarships in order to escape rotten D.C. public schools, and four times as many apply for the scholarships, yet Congress, beholden to the education establishment, will end funding the school voucher program. Any long-term solution to our education problems requires the decentralization that can come from competition. Centralization has been massive. In 1930, there were 119,000 school districts across the U.S; today, there are less than 15,000. Control has moved from local communities to the school district, to the state, and to the federal government. Public education has become a highly centralized government-backed monopoly and we shouldn’t be surprised by the results.”—George Mason University economics professor Walter E. Williams

» on 06.08.09 @ 10:26 PM

This is just the start and send the illegals home—Please—anchor babies brought in by illegals—go home

» on 08.28.12 @ 09:17 PM

Mr. Williams, I just read your op-ed piece about our dysfunctional tax code and the phony issue of tax fairness that politicians love to routinely demagogue. I know this is a few years after you posted your excellent comment, but if you have the opportunity to see this, I would like to thank you for contributing to this forum.

BTW, I am running for the Santa Barbara School Board because of many of the issues that were highlighted in the comments to this article

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