- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Feb. 16

San Diego Union Tribune on the release of students’ personal information:

A U.S. District Court in Sacramento is releasing California students’ protected personal information, including Social Security numbers and home addresses, to a nonprofit organization that requested access to databases that contain behavior, health and discipline reports to ensure disabled students are being treated fairly under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other laws.

It’s a noble undertaking, and we laud the Concerned Parents Association for its advocacy. But in an age when identity theft is real and identity theft of a child a nightmare, we’re troubled that sensitive information - of any child who has attended a California public school since Jan. 1, 2008 - might fall into the wrong hands.

The court, which says the records must be protected and cannot be used outside the lawsuit, is letting parents opt out of sharing the information - if they know about the case and an April 1 deadline - but only by printing and filling out a form and mailing it or a private letter to the judge.

What irony: A nonprofit group can be trusted with a database of our kids’ Social Security numbers, but graduates and parents can’t be trusted with an easy electronic way to opt out of the disclosure.

We would have called the court to object, but its formal notice concludes in bold capital letters: “Do not call the court. The court will not accept phone calls about this matter. Your objections must be sent to the court in writing.”

Dear court: Please consider this our written objection. Please set up a safe email system to accept opt-outs from concerned parents.

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Feb. 16

Pasadena Star-News on next moves for the state Coastal Commission:

We’ll say this for the California Coastal Commission: It must have had a powerful reason for firing Charles Lester as director last week after facing down more than 100 of his advocates and six hours of impassioned testimony in his defense.

If only the public were privy to that reason.

Now the commission and Gov. Jerry Brown, who tacitly approved the firing, have to prove to Californians that the commitment to protecting the coast and controlling development that could forever change its nature remains intact. Last week’s action just raised questions, as evidenced by the introduction of a bill Tuesday seeking to bring transparency to the commission’s dealings with lobbyists.

Lester is, to his core, a defender of coastal protection and public access as intended in the Coastal Act, which led to the creation of the commission and to the job he held for four years.

He asked for a public hearing to save that job. But only after all the public testimony did commissioners offer hints of why they wanted him gone. Then they went into closed session for the final discussion and a 7-5 vote on Feb. 10.

Failing to publicly clarify their thinking made Lester an environmental martyr and cast doubt on the commissioners’ agenda.

Clearly legislators are concerned: Three Assembly members on Tuesday announced Assembly Bill 2002 to require anyone lobbying the Coastal Commission to report whom they work for, their pay and the issues on which they try to sway the commission.

Meanwhile, choosing a stellar environmentalist to succeed Lester will help rebuild trust. Commissioners also will need to scrupulously justify their every action from now on. Scrutiny will be intense.

Lester was only the second director of the commission, hand-picked as a successor by the venerated late Peter Douglas, who was instrumental in winning voter approval for coast protection in 1972 and in writing the Coastal Act. He ran the commission for 26 years, setting the gold standard as its advocate and enforcer.

Both Lester and his mentor were the truest of true believers in this cause. But Douglas also was more adept at the political and administrative elements of the job, a better diplomat than his successor. Some commissioners and others now say Lester was difficult to work with, insular and bureaucratic.

Identifying the commission’s concerns at the beginning of the hearing would have been fairer to Lester and the people testifying on his behalf. They might have better addressed the issues had they understood them.

Now the burden is on the commission to prove it represents the public, not development interests. And that conjures up an unfortunate comparison: It was Brown’s appointees to the commission who apparently fomented Lester’s removal. Brown has supported a California Public Utilities Commission whose members cozied up to utilities instead of protecting the public interest. Who can blame Californians for suspecting that a Brown-backed Coastal Commission, with Lester gone, will take the part of developers?

We hope that isn’t so. But like every other coastal advocate from San Diego to Oregon, we will be watching.

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Feb. 16

Porterville Recorder on agricultural success amid drought:

The recent report by the California Department of Food and Agriculture that ag remains strong in the state despite the lingering drought may have raised a few eyebrows in the cities, but we folks in the country know that ag remains strong because of the resiliency and hard work of those who farm.

The report, based on county crop reports, found that sales value generated by farmers increased by 5.1 percent between 2013 and 2014 to a whopping $53.5 billion.

Now, some will say that farmers can do with less water, but what the report did not show is farmers did more with less and that cannot be sustained. Growers up and down the San Joaquin Valley had to rely on groundwater to keep their crops alive. Some growers who did not have access to groundwater and did not get surface water watched their fields lay fallow or their trees die.

The record value is not based so much on production, but on prices paid for ag commodities. Like Tulare County, milk was the state’s leading ag commodity, topping out at $9.3 billion in value in 2014. Of that total, Tulare County’s dairymen contributed $2.6 billion, or an impressive 26 percent of the total. Many other farmers also enjoyed strong prices in 2014. Almost all nut crops did well.

On the flip side, in 2014 nearly half a million acres were fallowed and that acreage increased in 2015. There simply was not enough water.

Don’t expect the 2015 state crop report, nor Tulare County’s numbers, to be as impressive. The drought has taken a toll, and it is just taking time to show up and many expect the 2015 report to reflect the damage the drought and lack of surface water have had on the ag industry.

Farmers have been saving billions of gallons of water for years. Those days of flood irrigation are mostly gone. Farmers are not tilling as much so as to retain more moisture in the ground. They are using drip irrigation more and more. They measure soil moisture to put just enough water in the ground as needed by their crop. They have learned to do more with less and should be commended.

However, the breaking point is near. There is only so much water underground and without surface water for irrigation - water sent to the Valley from the north - our farms will literally dry up.

Our local economy and our way of life depends on water. Our lawmakers need to realize that.

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Feb. 16

San Jose Mercury News on improving California’s pension system:

Your credit card company doesn’t require you to make more than the minimum payment, but you know it would be much smarter to trim that balance faster. And there’s nothing stopping you from doing it.

Gov. Jerry Brown faces a similar choice. He was right when he lambasted the California Public Employees’ Retirement System last fall for failing to require that state and local governments pay more to shore up the pension plan’s beleaguered portfolio. But he and the Legislature could make more than the minimum payments.

That would benefit the state’s long-term finances and better protect pensions of current and retired state workers.

Of course, it requires a heavy political lift from Brown. If CalPERS had required higher payments, he could have simply planned for it in his state budget. Without the requirement, he has to persuade the Legislature to free the money.

That won’t be easy with shortsighted state lawmakers. But Brown holds leverage in budget negotiations. He should spend some of his political capital.

The administration also is justifiably concerned about how CalPERS would invest the money. The state should find a less-risky place to park the additional payments until the pension system starts behaving more responsibly with what it has.

CalPERS certainly needs more money. It has on hand only 73 percent of the assets it should have. That puts it in a much weaker position than it was pre-recession. The pension system dodged a bullet last time because it was fully funded in 2007. In just two years, its funded ratio plummeted to 61 percent. If that happened today, it would be devastating.

CalPERS is especially vulnerable because it assumes it can earn returns of 7.5 percent annually. To try to hit that target, it must make aggressive investments. In other words, it must take risk, which comes with upside potential and downside dangers. The higher the investment target, the greater the exposure in a down market.

CalPERS officials know they should lower their investment target and reduce their portfolio risk, even though it would require higher payments from government agencies. CalPERS staff suggested lowering the target over 20 years to 6.5 percent. Instead, board members last fall decided to make tiny trims to the target only in years when CalPERS achieves exceptional earnings.

At the time, Brown expressed deep disappointment in CalPERS’ “irresponsible plan that will only keep the system dependent on unrealistic investment returns. This approach will expose the fund to an unacceptable level of risk in the coming years.”

He was right. But he has other ways to attack the problem.

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Feb. 15

The Press-Enterprise on filling the state’s demand for more teachers:

It is a sorry reflection of the state of education policy in California when “investing in education” doesn’t actually mean what it should.

There is an understandable bit of concern over projected teacher shortages, largely reflecting a greater demand for teachers due to small class sizes and declining interest in the profession of teaching. Aggravated by the effects of the Great Recession, the number of teachers did fall, but has been on the rise for the last several years and class sizes have continued to slowly decline, but in the long-term there are likely to be problems.

Last week, The Press-Enterprise reported how local school districts are working to attract qualified educators, with signing bonuses and pay bumps the chief strategy.

While these are perfectly reasonable means of competing for teachers, one particular bit in the story caught our eye. Ed Sibby, a Temecula-based consultant for the California Teachers Association, one of the biggest teachers unions in the country, lamented the pay of teachers, saying there is a perception teaching “doesn’t pay.”

The Press-Enterprise notes it might take “16 to 24 years for Inland teachers to reach the top of the pay scale, where they receive about $95,000 to $105,000 annually.” In other words, it will take only 16 to 24 years to make nearly twice the median household income of the region. Taken together with the advantages of tenure and lucrative pensions, we’re not so sure throwing more money at teachers is the solution.

But that is certainly the solution teachers unions have in mind. The unions are currently riding high on temporary tax hikes via Proposition 30, set to expire at the end of 2018, which has largely masked the impacts of a long-delayed funding plan for the teachers pension system, passed in 2014 and set to engulf large portions of school district budgets.

It’s no wonder, then, that unions like the CTA are calling for an extension of Prop. 30, not because it will really help solve the state’s long-term issues, but because it will delay any discussion of pension reform with respect to teachers, and it will most likely go to across-the-board pay increases.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t a lack of money, but a system skewed to the advantage of teachers unions rather than the educational outcomes of students or the competence of teachers.

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