Monday, December 8, 2008

Is Utah Senator Howard Stephenson looking for a new job?

A week ago the Salt Lake Tribune wrote an article entitled "Did Utah senator's advocacy go too far?" and quoted from emails that he had written to the Utah State Office of Education (USOE). The tone of the emails spoke for themselves; Senator Stephenson was obviously upset. "I've had it" and "This is past a joke" were only two of many phrases that ripped into Superintendent Harrington and employees of USOE. The article was likely prompted by the Utah State Board of Education's recent change in Board Rule that now prohibits unauthorized personnel (including legislators) to view Requests for Proposal (RFP). The new rule was adopted in response to Stephenson's continued pressure and "help" that he was offering USOE. Superintendent Patti Harrington felt the need to protect her staff from political pressure and the Board agreed.

The article, and two subsequent follow-up articles, didn't make Howard Stephenson very happy. He decided to use his weekly Red Meat Radio program to let people know that he feels justified in his actions. He has "worked behind the scenes to try to get improvement there" and he wanted to "expose the underbelly of the most dysfunctional office in the state." He obviously has some very strong feelings. Despite the cooperation of Superintendent Harrington as she has worked so hard to be as cooperative as she could (read the emails, they speak for themselves) and they've worked things out before with success. Instead of acting like a statesman, an elected official, a man becoming a legislator, he makes a coherent, planned, thought-out decision to do USOE further harm and inflict further pressure. Is this how business is done on the Hill? Didn't somebody just get reprimanded for this kind of behavior?

Howard Stephenson is a senior member of the Senate, as he pointed out on his radio program, and Chair of the Public Education Joint Appropriations Committee. He has a lot of ideas about technology and education. His opinions are so strong and he believes he is so powerful that he has no problem getting involved. But is his involvement going too far? Is he trying to do a job that isn't his to do?

Everyone knows an "expert" who thinks they know everything, shouting the answers across the room to questions that weren't asked of them. They overheard the question and they know the answer! Sometimes there isn't even a question being asked, but they're still there, more than willing to let you know their opinion. Bosses out there may relate even better to someone in their office who is always trying to take over, who speak on your behalf when it hasn't been authorized for them to do so. Learning to deal with eager-beavers is a part of life and eventually most of them learn how to control their outbursts. We tend to have little patience for their actions and our annoyance is usually read as a sign that their behavior is unwelcome and inappropriate. Sometimes you must put your foot down and declare, "If you want my job why don't you just apply for it?!"

This seems to be the case with Howard Stephenson. He is so eager to do the job that may or may not be getting done at the Utah State Office of Education that he's literally trying to do it for them. This may reflect on USOE, but it also reflects on Stephenson. Why is he so insistent that one particular business get a contract over another company? Some suggest that he has something to gain, but what if he doesn't. What if he just really believes in the company and believes that they'll do the best job? He gave them an hour infomercial on Saturday during his radio program, ending with their phone number and website address; he must really like them. That's fine, but it's not his job to select the company! That's the job of USOE. If he wants to make decisions in that arena then I suggest he apply within. He certainly has the passion, perhaps he'd do ok in such a position, but he's not in that position!

Stephenson also has some strong opinions on what style of math should be taught in public schools. Again, one might ask, "What's in it for him?" I haven't been able to come up with anything substantial as of yet, although I've looked. I can only surmise that there must be some ulterior motive, that's the conspiracy theorist in me, especially when it comes to Legislators. But even if there isn't, even if he just honestly believes that Singapore Math is the absolute best thing for our children, it's not his job to decide that!! There are people hired to make those decisions and their name is not Howard Stephenson.

There are other examples, that this blog may decide to investigate further, where Stephenson has overplayed his hand and exerted his power and influence. Stephenson referred to it as so-called meddling on his radio program. That may well have been a good action word to use, but his decision to go on the air and publicly criticize the office has elevated the verb to bullying. Sad that we all know what happens to bullies on the Hill. Virtually nothing!

Is his influence still too strong to resist? When we act annoyed at the know-it-alls around us, they usually aren't in a position to give us a cut in pay or even demand that we be fired. But Stephenson believes he is so powerful that he can do just that. It would appear as though he may actually have that kind of influence. Try calling either employee mentioned in the emails that Stephenson recommended be terminated. You won't find them in the jobs they were doing. One of them left USOE earlier than anyone expected and the other is now a secretary. I can't say for certain that both circumstances are not coincidental or unrelated, but somehow I think otherwise.

I hope that his colleagues will help him recognize the error of his ways and seek to advise him on how a Senator acts in what must be a difficult situation for him. No matter how justified he thinks he is, his actions and words are inappropriate, to say the least.


Anonymous said...

I was expecting much more from the radio program. It started off with a bang but quickly got lame the moment the ProCert guy started talking. I tuned out, but did anyone from the Board ever call in? Stephenson made it sound like he had asked them to be on the show to defend themselves. Did he ever give them a chance?

Sara Brate said...

Larry Shumway, Deputy Superintendent of USOE, called in at the end of the show and also emailed the show to clarify how many people actually work at the State Office of Education. Stephenson was claiming 500+ and Deputy Superintendent Shumway was saying 180 that were actually paid by the State.

Despite Shumway's attempt to provide input, which he was invited to do, they got around to taking his phone call with just 30 seconds left in the program. The Senator let his listeners know that Larry Shumway would be welcome back next week and that he could take as much time as he wanted. I don't know if Shumway is taking them up on their offer. I guess that might be Stephenson's way of getting a few people to tune back in to his propaganda.

Anonymous said...

So if USOE employees are paid by federal tax dollars, we shouldn't count those?

Anonymous said...

I think Sen. Stephenson must be getting the 500+ number by including USOR employees (across all of Utah?) that work in the building, because there are only 300+ employees working at USOE. That would put the number of employees paid with federal money at around 120+, which is actually a bit of a surprise to me. I believe most of Special Education is one of the sections at USOE that are federally funded.

But, what does that have to do with anything? Who cares if it's 180 or 500? The Senator was either exaggerating or misinformed. I think you went way too easy on him in this post. Paul Hoffman sucked up today in a letter to the Tribune. He'll be paying for that hour-long radio spot for a long time. There has to be some connection, and maybe it's not Gill, but it's gotta be something.

By the way, a teacher told me that last week they were reviewing Singapore Math books at USOE. Anyone know if that's true? I have no doubt that has Stephenson written all over it.

Sara Brate said...

Update: Senator Stephenson and friends have renamed "Singapore Math" to "NASA Math". If you hear the latter term, recognize it for what it is. It's simply renamed and repackaged..