Thursday, August 30, 2012

Column for Aug. 30, 2012

This week we sent our now nine-year-old back to elementary school for his fourth grade year.  The one private school in the area closed several years ago, so we never got to send him to that institution.  Our options are down to home schooling, the one county charter school, and our local elementary school.  Since we have neither the time nor the inclination to home school, considering that we have a toddler and a four-month-old in the house, we are going with public school education.  Since I try to be as active a father as I can reasonably be, I went to the back to school orientation night at our local school to meet my son’s new teachers and school staff.

Not being one to shy away from a serious conversation about opinion and common sense, I decided to talk to the two guidance counselors that were there after they offered me a flyer.  “Guidance counselors at an elementary school?  Really?”   That was my expression of frustration at the seeming overkill of staffing.  For several years, I have lamented the existence of a guidance office in an elementary school, seeing it as a huge waste of money.  We then proceeded to have a discussion about how they thought that children needed someone with whom to talk, counsel, and work out their issues.  I retorted that as children, we rode in cars without seatbelts, played with pocket knives and lawn darts, didn’t have counselors in elementary school, and we turned out just fine.  We didn’t have any form of guidance counselors until I was in junior high and high school.  Both were in the same building, so the staff there did a lot of double duty.  The main focus for the guidance counselors was not for making us feel good or to get the free services of a para-psychologist so much as it was to help with planning our academic careers.  I am pretty sure that children in primary school are not yet planning their educational careers.

I am convinced that part of the reason we have the violence we do in society is because we have discipline problems in schools and families.  We caudle children, working to build their self-esteem and the feeling of being equal to everyone else rather than building in them the drive to succeed beyond others or their own perceptions.   What we end up with is a bunch of spoiled, undisciplined brats that feel good about themselves.

John Tedesco, who is running for Superintendent of Public Instruction, asked for online feedback from citizens.  He asked simply, “What would be the first three things you would do to improve schools in NC?”  I read with interest some of the feedback given by others.  Some of it I agreed with, some of it I didn’t.  I am not going to share the words of others, only what I responded.  “1. Return to a focus on the basics. Learn them well and the other subjects can come after a mastery of the basics. 2. Return to as much local control as possible with local funding rather than being beholden to large government bureaucracies for money. 3. Keep staff based upon need and merit, not based upon tenure, available funding, experimentation, concepts such as small class sizes, or programs that just sound good.”

I read an article recently that spoke of how schools are dealing with and still operating after budget shortfalls and staff cuts.  The article also showed how the dire threats by opponents of state education budget cuts were over-stated.  The article had the headline, “After N.C. classroom layoff angst, schools make do”.  Of course they “make do”.  That is what we do.  To quote Clint Eastwood in the 1986 movie, “Heartbreak Ridge”, “You adapt.  You overcome.  You improvise.”  Look, when I was in elementary school, we had ratty old science textbooks that were falling apart and that said something to the effect that “someday, man will walk on the moon.”  The man who just recently died, Neil Armstrong, did that very thing some ten years before I even got that textbook.  Still, the information of pure science didn’t change, nor did the value we got out of those old books.  We didn’t need new ones to learn.  We made do with what we had.

I got what I believe is a decent public school education.  I applied myself and the school faculty challenged me to excel.  And this was in a state that was ranked at the bottom of per capita state education funding yet at the same time had the highest SAT scores in the nation.  We can have that same attitude again in public schools and start producing some well-educated, well-adjusted children rather than under educated brats that feel good about themselves.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Column for August 23, 2012

I am sitting at my desk with a medical bill in front of me from Johnston Health.  I shouldn’t have a bill in front of me, but I do.  2012 will be known in our home as the year of medical bills.  The year is not even two thirds over and we have already spent more on medical bills than in any other year.  Three of us have been to the eye doctor for routine eye exams and new eye glasses.  My son has a birth defect and we have been to UNC Children’s Hospital several times for consultations, an MRI, x-rays, and more consultations.  There are plenty more trips in store for treatments.  I have been to the doctor numerous times for small things, some of which turned out to be larger, pre-op visits, a cardiologist visit, EKGs, and a bunch of other tests.  In addition to that, my third son, Benjamin, was born in April.

Since we live right here in Johnston County, we would prefer to get our medical care right here, if possible.  Two of my sons were born in the Women’s Pavilion at Johnston Medical.  My son had his tonsils removed at the new Johnston Health Center in Clayton last year.  In general, we have received acceptable care from the Johnston Health system.  We just have not received acceptable “back office” support.

After our son was born earlier this year, we got statements about the costs associated with the delivery.  I have an excellent health care plan through my employer, for which they and I pay a good amount of money.  The benefits package with my employer is one reason I have stayed there almost 18 years now.  In my lifetime, I have gone through periods of not having any health coverage, sometimes for up to seven years at a time, but this was a conscious choice on my part in seeking my career path.  Even after insurance coverage, there were significant bills.  We paid them all.  Within a couple of months, we started getting small bills in the amounts of approximately $120 and $140 from the hospital.  We had no idea why, since we had already paid the post-insurance amounts.  We paid those bills, too.  The amazing thing was that we started getting collection agency calls on those bills not long after we got the bills.  After paying a $140+ bill, we quickly got a refund check for the exact amount we paid.

Just within the past two weeks, I got another bill for just over $170 for the post-insurance balance due from my preoperative screening in April.  I have not paid that bill just yet since we just received it for the first time.  Well, just today I got a nasty automated collection agency call telling me that this bill was past due.  I have not had good success with trying to get information from people who deal with bills in the Johnston Health system.  I have dealt with ignorant (by design) clerks who don’t have access to the billing system but can take money.  I have wrestled with telephone systems that lead me to voicemail jail or to extensions that nobody answers.  Finally I went through different prompts upon calling again and got a customer service representative who was all the way in Chattanooga.  Yup, she was in Tennessee, not anywhere near Johnston County.  Fortunately, the lady with the cute young voice was very helpful, verifying that the billing was done twice, the refund was legitimate, and that the $170 bill was not past due.  Perfect.  Or so I thought.  Later in the day, the friendly neighborhood mailman delivered a bill from Johnston Health for the same $140+ charge that I just had determined was paid in full.

Another newspaper in the county has been fairly critical of the Johnston Health Board of Commissioners for seeking an alliance with other health care systems.  Personally, I am in favor of such a thing and have written so in this very publication.  If a larger, more experienced, and efficient system can bring better health care, better financial management, and especially better billing practices to Johnston Health, I am all for it.  I have a stack of medical bills in front of me from UNC Hospitals and I don’t have these sorts of problems with them at all.

Johnston Health has evolved and come a long way from its inception.  The county is one of the fastest growing in the state and nation, so we will eventually need to keep pace with the growth.  I just hope that better management will lead to better customer service.  I shudder to think what the system will be like when Obamacare is in full swing.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Column for August 16, 2012

When considering the role of government and the different levels of government in place, perhaps the most basic, most flexible, and most important is that at the municipal level.  Town and city governments are perhaps the closest to their citizens and can affect the citizens more favorably or adversely than any other.  I once discussed this concept with a representative of the National Rifle Association.  I was informed that the NRA didn’t want to get involved in advocacy at the municipal level because gun rights issues were usually being debated at the national and state government levels.  The irony was that during this period of time, the NRA was relocating their annual convention because of Cincinnati’s (the proposed host city) anti-gun ordinances.  Local governments can affect your roads, garbage removal, property tax rates, your fire protection and insurance rates, where you can locate your business, and a host of other issues.  In our area, towns even affect electricity rates.

In Smithfield, the local town council seems to have forgotten about their recent history of personnel and administrative issues.  That elected body is standing by the decision by their town manager, Paul Sabiston, to hire Tim Kerigan of Gulf County, Florida as their new Human Resources Director.  Apparently, Misters Sabiston and Kerigan knew each other while working in Florida.  Though I can appreciate hiring someone you know, I have seen that concept go horribly awry before.  When I worked for the state, I saw a dean at NCSU hire a police chief with whom he used to work at a much smaller college.  I served on the committee to screen and interview candidates for police chief, and the new chief selected by that dean was at the bottom of the committee’s preference list.  That was a horrible hiring decision that ended in misuse of state funds, careers being adversely affected, and a lot of negative publicity.  I watched the news stories on television about the utter shame and scandal in that department years after I left.

One would think that the last thing that Smithfield would want is negative publicity.  However, I have read plenty of it over the hiring of Tim Kerigan.  After so many scandals in Smithfield Town Hall over pay raises, abuse of town policies, and misuse of town funds, you would think that the town leaders would not allow the hire of a man who was fired from his last government job for misuse of county funding and inappropriately funneling government business to his brother’s company.  To top it off, he has never held a job as a human resources director before.  Other applicants were turned down for having only private industry HR experience whereas Mr. Kerigan has none.  Importing a “good ol’ boy” with a record of financial misdealings and ethical problems into a town government that has been plagued with financial misdealings and ethical problems does not seem like a good idea to me.

On to a different town we go.  One of the reasons I decided not to seek another term on the Selma Planning Board was that I believed more in freedom and property rights than the town council did.  Often my vote was contrary to their decisions and those of my fellow board members.  In Selma, the town is considering placing restrictions on daycare businesses in the downtown area.  Apparently, two businesses have applied to operate daycare centers in the downtown business district and have been denied.  This is ostensibly for reasons of safety and traffic.

Let’s be honest.  The only traffic jams we have in Selma is when a train is coming through town.  Downtown Selma is not exactly a major metropolitan center.  We don’t have a problem with an overabundance of vehicles at any time.  I can’t really buy the concept of safety being the issue.  It seems to be more of an issue of control than one of safety to me.

I understand systematic citywide planning.  Heck, it was part of one of my college courses and as I said, I was on the town’s planning board.  However, when we have ordinances that hinder rather than encourage business, we are not necessarily helping the town.  Zoning laws can easily become just as much a form of a soft tyranny as federal regulations in the name of safety, environmental protection, or public health.  If the town keeps getting harder to deal with for business, we won’t see the town expanding; it will continue to shrink.

Municipal governments can be a great boon to its citizens.  Unfortunately, it can also be a source of scandal, control, and frustration.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Column for August 9, 2012

NOTE: There was a mix up in which this column was actually published on 7/26/12 and the column I listed here for 7/26 actually ran on 8/9/12.


There have been public indecency laws on the books across the nation for a few centuries now.  As time goes by, many things once considered indecent are now societal norms.  For instance, it was once considered indecent for a woman to have a bathing suit with exposed knees and arms.  Nowadays we can find more cotton inside an aspirin bottle than in some bikini tops.  Laws have evolved over time, but the concept that there are some things that are just plain contrary to societal acceptance and tolerance is not.

In one Harnett County town, there is a new ordinance that has been proposed that would ban saggy pants and exposed underwear and fine repeat offenders.  I am not talking about the inadvertent “plumber’s crack”, I am talking about the purposeful wearing of pants very low and boxer shorts high.  What began as a signal to fellow prison inmates that one was ready to be sodomized has now become a public symbol of defiance and disrespect.  Dunn Mayor Pro Tem Carnell Robinson has had enough of the public display of disrespect and has proposed the ordinance that will be up for consideration in August.  Robinson was quoted as saying, “I believe this form of dress is totally disrespectful.  (This is) just a simple matter of the community re-establishing some standards."  He claims that the wearing of sagging britches “is part of a culture that breeds drug sales, drug addictions, crime, and murder.  That is not what I want for our community.”

Normally I am very libertarian in my beliefs about personal behavior and choice.  However, I rather side with Carnell Robinson on this issue.  I try to teach my children modesty and decency.  One of the things I love about my bride and attracted me to her is her propensity for modesty in her apparel.  I wish to instill that into my three boys.  However, I already have one boy who attempts to emulate the trashy dress of exposed undergarments and certain style apparel because he sees it modeled before him in school and on the street. 

For years I have lamented the obnoxious behavior of purposely exposed underwear.  It is just plain rude and disrespectful.  That sort of attitude is prevalent in a particular cultural paradigm and is not necessarily inherent to a particular ethnic group.  I do realize, however, that predominantly this behavior is exhibited by young males in the Black community.   I am sure that there would be a great outcry in Harnett County if the town ordinance was proposed by a White guy.  Carnell Robinson, however, is not Caucasian.  He is an articulate, older, Black gentleman who is exercising common sense.  If we both support the idea of a standard of public decency and the wearing of exposed underwear is mostly done by young Blacks, does this make us racists, or does it simply mean that we both believe in appropriate public conduct?  Robinson and I are probably very opposite in many opinions.  I am a big White guy who is extremely conservative.  He is chair of the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus, and I am looking at him posing for a picture with President Barack Obama posted on the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus web site right now.  Still, we agree on the concept of public decency as pertaining to high riding boxer shorts and low riding denim.

At one time, a local convenience store had a sign posted on their door saying that people with exposed undergarments were not allowed in their store.  Last week I wrote about businesses that can attract or drive away patrons by their stances on certain issues.  This is one business that I applauded for this stance and I patronize them on a regular basis as a result.  Granted, I usually use their gas pumps and car wash, so I don’t know if that sign is still on their door, but they have gotten thousands of dollars of my business over the years as a result.

Considering that there are long standing public indecency laws across the country dealing with such things as public sexual behavior, nudity, and even dress codes, I have no problem with a local community deciding its own standards of reasonable public behavior.  However, this particular one is more than just a dress code; it is about showing a little respect for one’s self and the rest of society.  I wish that more communities would care about disrespectful and indecent behavior and consider the adoption of similar standards.  Until that happens, I have this simple plea.  Pull up your pants!  You look doggone stupid and show your disdain for everyone around you and the community.  The only saving grace to your wearing your pants dragging the ground is that it will be hard to run from the police when your pants are around your ankles.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Aug 2, 2012

For some reason, no column ran in the newspaper for Aug. 2, 2012.  The column was submitted but nothing ran.  Oh, well.  Look for it next week, instead.