Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Farming Danaus plexippus

Summer 2017: Danaus plexippus

My wife Susan has become a farmer this summer.  And under her careful husbandry, she’s produced at least 50 progeny and is on the way to over one hundred. 

One hundred Monarch butterflies. 

Unlike other species of butterflies, Monarchs are more like birds than insects.  They migrate great distances (50-100 miles each day) to get to over-wintering grounds in Mexico and southern Texas/California.  The journey itself, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, can take up to two months.  The farthest ranging Monarch ever recorded traveled over 250 miles in one day.  That’s generally against the wind which pushes back from the south and west.  Total distances traveled can reach well over 3000 miles. 

Consider the butterfly, flying against the wind for two months over 3000 miles.  That’s not a math problem; it is a metaphysical miracle.

“The eastern population of North America’s monarchs overwinters in the same 11 to 12 mountain areas in the States of Mexico and Michoacán from October to late March.
“Monarchs roost for the winter in oyamel fir forests at an elevation of 2,400 to 3,600 meters (nearly 2 miles above sea level). The mountain hillsides of oyamel forest provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here temperatures range from 0 to 15 degrees Celsius. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out allowing them to conserve their energy.”

The Monarchs you and I see up here are the result of three or four generations of travelers making the pilgrimage north.  After mating, a single female deposits about 700 eggs on the underside of common milkweed leaves, and she expires.  Waiting for those 700 eggs are a rogues’ gallery of aphids, beetles, flies etc., looking for a choice meal.

This is where my wife steps in.  She collects the eggs she finds – small elliptical off-white cylinders about the size of a period at the end of this sentence, and she brings them home to be hatched.  Placing them on a wetted paper towel, which she keeps moist, she’ll await their almost microscopic hatching.  Often their “birth” is announced by the small pinholes on the leaf, which gives away something nibbling at the blade.  They are infinitesimally small at first. 

In the great outdoors, Monarchs are still the prize “quarter-pounder” for scavenging insects. 

So, yes, nature can be cruel, but as hard as those odds are, Scott Pruitt and the EPA have made sure that even greater odds will be stacked against their chances of surviving, much less making the epic journey back to Michoacán.  Enter stage far right: Posion. Monsanto.  Dow. 

As early as the 1990’s, the theory that encroachment and the increased farming of open fields used by Monarchs as the central issues to their devastating decline was replaced by the realization that the overwhelming use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup) was responsible.  In short, Roundup was specifically lethal on common milkweed. 

“Recently… a dramatic change in farming practices — the widespread cultivation of genetically engineered, glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans—has triggered a precipitous decline of common milkweed, and thus of monarchs.
Glyphosate, sold by Monsanto under the name of Roundup, is one of the very few herbicides that is effective on milkweed. Unlike many other weedkillers, once absorbed it is translocated (moved internally) to root tissue, where it kills milkweed at the root and so prevents regeneration.
Glyphosate is particularly lethal to milkweed when used in conjunction with Roundup Ready crops. It is applied more frequently, at higher rates, and later in the season — during milkweed’s most vulnerable flowering stage of growth — than when used with traditional crops.
The increasingly common practice of growing Roundup Ready crops continuously on the same fields means that milkweed is exposed to glyphosate every year, with no opportunity to recover.”

Stopping monetarily on a hemlock
Our first release occurred last month, when my wife Susan held a trembling young male on her outstretched hand on an early July afternoon.  He made a fluttering pass around us and landed momentarily on the hemlock in the back of our yard. You can tell a male because he has two markers on the lower part of his top wings – like an enlarged dot on the already black vein.  Once he’d gathered himself together, he launched into a sometime fluttering and gliding flight over the neighbor’s trees to the west.  Vamos con dios, amigo.  

This is a great year for us and other “farmers.”  Last year, overwintering colonies in Mexico and elsewhere were hit with an ice storm that depleted huge numbers of Monarchs, just when population numbers were already down.  Some overwintering grounds lost nearly 50% of their populations.  In fact, last summer, my wife was unable to propagate a single butterfly. 

“In the best-case scenario of a 7.4 percent mortality, the monarch population that actually migrated north was just 139 million, not 150 million, and so only decreased by 22 percent rather than the 27 percent based on pre-storm population numbers. In the worst-case hypothetical scenario of 50 percent mortality from the storms, only 75 million monarchs would have survived to migrate north in 2016 but were able to build up their population to the current number of 109 million, showing a possible 45 percent increase in population.”
So, my wife and I are taking advantage of an increased population this year, but we do not fool ourselves.  The recent March 2017 push-back by Pruitt’s EPA team on the previous administration’s concern on possible dangerous effects of pesticides like glyphosate on humans – especially developing young brains – should give us all pause. See the press release from his office where no one is allowed to bring cell phones, recording devices, or take notes. 
“Sheryl Kunickis, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Pest Management Policy, was among those who applauded Pruitt’s decision, which she said was “grounded in evidence and science.”
“It means that this important pest management tool will remain available to growers, helping to ensure an abundant and affordable food supply for this nation and the world,” Kunickis said in a statement.”
And, my wife’s task becomes more difficult as it also rewards her sense of doing something.  Many of the local growers and producers of seeds, plants, flowers, etc., are selling neonicotinoid-treated plants.  That is, a “new and improved” pesticide that is applied to seeds and taken up through the plant’s vascular system as it grows, where it is expressed in the pollen and nectar that pollinators like bees and butterflies consume. 
We carry on in our micro-environment.  In the macro, we hope and wait for the people to rise up against this assault on our air, earth, and water. 
In Illinois, Garden Clubs of Illinois provides common milkweed seed and information on helping restore the populations of Monarch’s, which were so common in our youth.  Palos Heights has become the first village to embrace an action plan to help grow and sustain the development of populations in Illinois.  What used to be an elementary classroom project is now a call to all of us for the preservation of a species.

Wish you all well.


Thursday, August 10, 2017

When Do I Break Even?

Will Your Contributions to TRS Ever Match Your Eventual After-Retirement Earnings?
When Do I Break Even?
What Will Tier III Do To Me?

Have you ever wondered just how many contributions to your retirement plan it would take before you broke even?  Breaking even would be that point in a teacher's career where her contributions would match the value of her benefits in retirement?  "Value" is an actuarial measurement of the returns or benefits of the pension, including life span expectations and other factors. 

If you read the Chicago Tribune, listen to the administrative support team of Governor Rauner (Illinois Policy Institute), or have a family member or neighbor who works in the private sector and abhors taxes of any kind – well, you’d think you would get a sweet return which would always wash over what you put in, wouldn’t you?

But you’d be wrong.

Nearly 3 out of 10 teachers leave the profession within the first five years, and we can expect their contributions to the pension systems will never match any real return. In fact, they’d be wise to take it with them.

Pension contributions are back-loaded.  That means that teachers put in increasing amounts as they gain experience and raises (salary) in the classroom.  In Illinois, 9% of $25,000 starting salary is much less than the later multiple-degree salary of $60,000.  In fact, only about half as much. 

Somewhere out there in the future, the meeting between what teachers have given and what they will earn in benefits crosses. 

According to a recent research paper looking at all states, that moment of contributions' and benefits' equivalence may be longer away than any teacher thought, and it will be VERY dependent upon the specific state’s retirement program. 

Two significant findings occur in this brief, “Negative Returns: How State Pensions Shortchange Teachers.”

“First, in the median state, teachers must serve at least 25 years to receive a pension worth more than their own contributions. Teachers with shorter careers get no school-financed retirement benefit despite their many years of service. They may be better off taking back their own contributions when they quit rather than waiting to collect a pension.

“Second, the authors estimate that more than three-quarters of new teachers will earn less in pension benefits than they contributed to the plan. Instead of benefiting from their pension plans, most teachers are net contributors."

Why?  Because new plans in many states – known in Illinois as Tiers – will push the intersection of contributions and expected retirement earnings far into the future.  In Massachusetts, for example, recent changes for new hires have made it IMPOSSIBLE for any of them to ever meet the parity between contribution and retirement benefits/earnings. 

According to the authors, Aldeman and Johnson, Tier I teachers in Illinois can expect to achieve a “breaking even” point after 28 years of teaching. 

The plan for Tier II in Illinois, which passed the General Assembly in less than 24 hours, asked new hires after January of 2011 to pay the same contribution as Tier I for less in retirement benefits:  a simple rather than compounded annual cost of living increase, a capped retirement annuity at $112, 408, a retirement age of 67 and with severe deductions for an earlier exit,   

This means that actuarially, Tier II teachers will need to provide classroom instruction for 35 years before the “break even point” in deserved benefits.
Only Hawaii and Ohio match our current adverse calculation.  All other states are less.

Enter stage right: TIER III:

The creation of a “new” Tier III (SB42) was cradled within the bills recently enacted in the Illinois General Assembly to override the potential veto of a new budget.  The bills sponsors – Senator Donne Trotter and Representative Greg Harris – managed a bill of nearly 800 pages, which included the language adopted to create a new Tier III, which provides for a “defined contribution” (403b) in a hybrid arrangement with a lesser-earning defined benefit (pension).

According to Representative Harris, the task of implementing the bill’s language will fall upon the TRS, SURS, and SERS.  Following the outline of language within the bill, they will develop the structure that will assure new hires of a certain date (possibly sometime in 2018) to enter into the new Tier.  Or they may decide not to. 

New hires will also be able to choose Tier II, the plan where working 35 years brings benefit parity with a ceiling cap.  Or they can choose Tier III. 

And so can ALL the Tier II current hires.  They can move from Tier II to Tier III and participate in a part pension and part 403b program.

If you’re confused, imagine what a finalized contract booklet will look like.

Oh, by the way, your selection is irrevocable.  Hotel California, my friend.  

We Are One Illinois provides no information thus far on the new Tier.  Illinois Federation of Teachers does not have anything either.  Go to TRS, and you will find a cogent description of the new bill by Mr. Ingram’s office.  Go to IEA, and you will find a Frequently Asked Questions review of the benefits, which states, “The IEA and all the unions within We Are One Illinois labor coalition took a position of neutrality.”

For me, a position of neutrality is unsettling.   Here’s why:

Tier III offers some tantalizing differences for the burgled Tier II teacher now 6 years into their profession.  Tier III will raise her retirement earnings ceiling from $112,000 to $127,000.  Contributions for a Tier III teacher will be reduced to 6.2% of salary, rather than the 9% they are now paying.  And they will be provided a defined contribution (think a 403b), for which they will pay 4% of salary and the local will match from 2% - 6%. 

Looks good from far, but it’s far from good.

Tier III reduces the multiplier for final average annuity from 2.2 to 1.25.  This means the break-even point will be moved nearly 40% further into the future.  What took 28 years or 35 years to make parity will take MUCH longer!  Example:  Under 1.25, a teacher will be eligible for 50% of a final averaged salary in 40 years.  The cap of 75% of earnings in retirement will take the Tier III teacher 60 years of teaching.  Start at age 25 and work until 85?

The annual cost of living adjustment will no longer contain a 3% simple rate.  Retired Tier III teachers will receive only will get ½ of the CPI, but nothing below zero.

According to Representative Harris, any teacher electing to move from Tier II into Tier III will have her multiplier frozen at 2.2 for those previous Tier’s years and altered to a 1.25 multiplier from thence on.   Example: Six years at 2.2 will equal more than 13% of final averaged salary.  At 1.25%, a bit over 7%. 

For the people who want “their own” portable investment program – a 403b – this may be perfect.  Not interested really in teaching? Teach a few years before finding another suitable profession.  

Interested in making a career out of teaching? Illinois may not be the place to seek a long-term vocation which honors your commitment with a once-promised retirement.  

In the FAQ section of Tier III for the IEA, leadership in IEA states, “We knew pension legislation of some kind was going to have to pass for there to be a budget.  So, we worked to ensure the unconstitutional model, which had been part of SB16 was not included.  Additionally, we worked to make sure end of career salary increases which could be sued for calculating one’s pension were not reduced from 6 percent to the consumer price index.” 

In Rauner’s outline of the budget, his office identifies the move to a defined contribution as a first priority for our state.  His interest in a consideration model, as proposed by Senate leader Cullerton is extremely valued, but not until some certitude as to its acceptance by the Illinois Supreme Court can be determined.  In other words, to be announced later.  It’s coming.

But, in actuality, don’t we now already have at this point a form of consideration for those people in Tier II and those coming in at Tier III very soon?  Choose a Tier II and pay more for less – even to the point that your funded ratio in Tier II is now 155% - or choose Tier III, where you can be given less for longer service in exchange for a 403b program which can be taken when you realize you’re being ripped off.

The ultimate ramifications of this “new” Tier increase my concern for our beleaguered educational system in Illinois.


When Attorney general Madigan argued her "Soveriegn Powers argument" against the IRTA legal team in 2015, she put forth an affirmative defense - an admission of possible illegal action as more acceptable out of a more pressing need for the greater good of the State.  The Court denied that rationale.  The argument from IEA seems a defensive affirmative.  We are maintaining a position of neutrality because it could have been worse.  

It would seem we didn't win this battle, nor did we battle. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Primer: How a Dedicated Group of Young Actives Influenced a Board Election

This important and energizing primer to all active teachers and faculty leadership goes out as schools begin to gear up for the new academic year, meetings about contracts, or possibly new board elections.  Last year, a dedicated team of teachers successfully took on the incumbent Tea Party in an Illinois School District with the help of the entire faculty and a carefully constructed plan to tap into positive messaging.  Reading this outline is so motivating and helpful, I hope you will scrutinize and pass along.   You gotta admire these guys!  

Teamwork, Young Actives!
Against the Odds: Winning a School Board Election Amid Adverse Circumstances

“We teach in a high-achieving suburban high school district in a red county. Our Association has approximately 400 members. This is the story of how our Association-backed candidates won four seats on our school board in 2017. If we can make this happen, any local can. 

Facing declining enrollment and an adversarial relationship with the previous board’s majority, we knew we were up against incredibly difficult odds in the 2017 school board election. Four seats were up for grabs, with two incumbents running and a four-person Tea Party slate vying for them. Months in advance of the election, we began recruiting and vetting potential candidates for our Association to support. After our LPAC committee interviewed all of the candidates who were willing to sit down with us, we decided to endorse 3 candidates who we believed shared the values of our educational mission; we deliberately chose 3 (despite 4 available seats) because we did not want to attach ourselves to an unpopular incumbent in a change-based election. We also felt this would prevent our Association-endorsed ticket from being split by voters who liked the most well-known candidate from the Tea Party slate, who happened to already hold public office at the county level. Our endorsed candidates were strong and motivated, engaging in their own campaigning and canvassing, but we as an association were incredibly active in this campaign. 

From the beginning, we took an approach that was laser-focused: we, like many public employee organizations, had for so long been so intently driven to refute the outlandish and inflammatory Tea Party sentiments that devalue education and the role of teachers that we realized that we were preoccupied with their rhetoric. We deliberately made the decision to IGNORE THEM in this election. We will never change their minds, no matter how much we reason with them, because they fundamentally do not value the service we provide to the community. Instead, we focused on relying on the relationships we'd built over the years and connecting with those in the community who DO value education - fellow educators, parents of children in our schools and our feeder schools, recent alumni, and friends/family/neighbors living in the district - to increase voter turnout (which is historically dismal in these odd-year spring elections).

Follow this plan, please!
Our primary message?  
STRONG SCHOOLS = STRONG PROPERTY VALUES. The Tea Party slate was proposing a 10% cut to the levy that would absolutely gut education quality and, as a result, gut property values when school quality dropped. Whatever meager tax cuts they might provide in the form of decreasing the levy would result in disastrous cuts to education quality and very little actual realized savings to the taxpayer (approximately $200/year for an average district boundary household, according to our math). The Tea Party slate was promising tax cuts they wouldn't deliver and education cuts they would deliver. Meanwhile, our Association-endorsed candidates were fiscally conservative and responsible but also knew the value of quality education in our community.

So to get this message out, we took a three-pronged approach to the election: 

#1: Increasing voter turnout 
Education is a relationship-based industry, so we relied heavily on those relationships. It could easily be said that our relationships won this election for us. Please take that as the ultimate affirmation that WHAT WE DO MATTERS! People trust us as the professionals we are and when we talk about education, they will listen! Through internal communications with the Association (primarily home email addresses and Remind101 texting), we provided scripts to our members to share with friends/family who live in the district through whatever communication tool they felt most comfortable using (email, text, Facebook messaging, phone calls, personal conversations, etc.). We gave incredibly explicit instructions - easy copy-paste text and scripts - and our members shared it with everyone in their circle of contacts who lived within district boundaries to get the word out about the election.

We also tapped into our relationships by reaching out to recent alumni; our membership sent emails and Facebook messages to students who had recently graduated, encouraging them to early vote over spring break if they were still registered in our boundaries (which many of them were due to the recent presidential election). We provided links to early voting locations and instructions. We also provided them with absentee voting information to vote by mail. Because so many of our recent grads value the experience they had in our classrooms, they were more than willing to go the extra mile for us when we let them know how important this election was for future generations of students to receive the quality education they'd received.

Finally, we connected with our PTO and athletic booster organizations, feeder school locals, and lists of IEA members living in our district boundaries.

Compared to the local election in 2015, we increased voter turnout by over 5%; this doesn't sound like a lot until you realize that turnout in 2015 was just over 10%. Turnout in 2017 was nearly 16%. While 16% is admittedly still terrible turnout, it signified a HUGE increase from the election two years prior. We considered this a huge victory.

#2: Social media outreach
When examining our target demographic, we discovered that placing a hard-copy ad in the local newspaper would be a pointless waste of precious resources; the demographic we were trying to target gets their news from social media (Facebook and Twitter primarily). Since we were organized early, we began driving traffic to our Association Facebook page four months prior to the election by posting "sunshine" stories about student and teacher successes. We also aligned these posts with Twitter to reach a broader audience. We "sponsored" posts using our IPACE funds to be sure that our posts were being seen by people of voting age in our district boundaries. When the official campaign started mobilizing, we shared local endorsements for our candidates, our candidates' written and video statements, video of candidate forums, and other pertinent information on Facebook and Twitter. We shared positive statements and videos about our candidates, touting their expertise and suitability for office. But this digital outreach became even more crucial when a candidate on the opposing Tea Party slate was found to have engaged in abusive, vulgar behavior online. We were able to show this activity to the public via social media and the candidate and opposing slate received tremendous negative attention online and in local newspapers when our posts went viral through extensive sharing.  We also designed easy-to-share and easy-to-read infographics that our members could use as their profile pictures and share with friends.

#3: Targeted campaigning
Our 400-person membership was tremendously engaged in this election process. However, we did have what we began to affectionately refer to as "The War Room" - a core group of about 10 members who were the driving force behind the campaign and were responsible for the campaign strategy and mobilizing the broader membership. One of the members of the War Room (a psychology/sociology/history teacher) came up with the idea of targeted campaigning; he analyzed the data from the 2016 presidential election and realized that although the county had gone for Trump, a large portion of our district boundary had gone to Clinton. We dissected this voter data down to the precinct, even down to the intersection. When it came time for mailers/door hangers to be distributed (which the opposing slate was doing in force and with a huge budget), we realized our meager budget did not allow for such activities. So instead, we looked at those precincts that voted Democratic in 2016 and targeted them; our philosophy was that these were, to generalize, people who valued education as evidenced by their prior blue votes but who might not turn out for this local election due to a lack of awareness. We believed it was our job to make them aware of not only how damaging the other slate could be for the future of education in our district, but also how valuable and beneficial our endorsed candidates would be. 

We stuffed envelopes labeled by precinct with door hangers advertising our candidates and how much they value education. At the final association meeting before the election, we distributed these envelopes to our membership along with maps of the precincts. We instructed them to hang these materials on the doors of any family with children, and then to canvass everywhere else. Again, we were targeting a specific demographic: people who value education but might not show up to vote on election day. When the election results rolled in, the precincts we targeted had much higher turnout than those we did not.

In the end, we succeeded in getting our endorsed candidates elected along with our preferred incumbent, which was a particularly surprising achievement given the name recognition of the opposing slate's top vote-getter. 

A bit too little and too late, but it's come to our attention that IEA actually provides many resources for locals to engage in grassroots action. We pretty much did everything with this election on our own; in the future, however, we plan to utilize the many resources that IEA provides.

So long for now.  Well done, War Room!
So, to summarize -- 

Keys to our victory:
Organization, organization, organization!!!
Strong candidates endorsed by the Association
Alumni outreach (absentee/early voting)
Outreach to boosters/PTO/other locals
Clear messaging
Social media outreach
Phone calls to all IEA members living in district boundaries
"The War Room" - core group of talented, motivated members who acted as a braintrust of campaign strategy and motivated the membership
Broad membership involvement
Targeted campaigning (right down to the precinct)

What we were up against: 
Motivated local Tea Party
Prominent county politician on the slate
Opposing slate "Tax Cut" agenda with no specific strategy (looks good on campaign signs)
Much larger budget

If we can succeed, anyone can!”