SOUTH FLORIDA WORKFORCE
THE CASE OF ELIZABETH
The Workforce Investment Act Regional Board Game, the College Transfer Credit Game, and the Local Autonomy Game, Lessons in Wasting Money and Passing the Buck
December 16, 2010
By David Arthur Walters
Miami Beach, Florida
Elizabeth was well off and well known in the highest social circles. She had lived the high life. She enjoyed her fine wardrobe, the world travel, the private plane, the residences all over the world, especially the Waldorf apartment in Manhattan. She enjoyed keeping her households in order, advancing charitable causes, entertaining wealthy and powerful people – she was one of them for awhile. But she did not enjoy the brutal beatings. She did not like being suddenly and without warning punched in the face for the hell of it, or being thrown down stairs and having her back broken and spending months in the hospital. That is not something any woman in her right mind would like to suffer.
Her last husband turned out to be a fraudster despite his high rank. She tried to save her marriage, spending a great deal of her personal savings on his rehabilitation. She finally got a divorce. The property settlement did her no good because law enforcement had seized almost everything. She wound up in Miami with a restraining order, her wardrobe, her wedding ring, and a hard drive with enough evidence on it to help ruin her former husband, who was running more cons elsewhere, and to put him in prison for life.
The proceeds from the ring were barely enough to live on for a brief spell. She did not whimper and whine, become a professional victim. She rented a respectable little apartment, donned what remained of her fine clothes, held her chin high and forged ahead on her lonesome. She got a low-paying job raising funds for abused women and children. She was well suited for the job at the time, but she was laid off with the economic downturn. She applied for unemployment. A woman at the Workforce One-Stop sold her on the idea of getting a government-funded degree in interior design at Miami Dade College. She already had considerable experience in that field, and quite a few college credits to boot. She had been employed as an artist with a national firm; her job included illustrating the interiors of historic estates. A prenuptial agreement had precluded her from working a regular job for quite a while, which gave her the opportunity to further her art studies at the finest schools.
She committed to finishing the program at Miami Dade College. Her Workforce and Miami Dade College advisors said the interior design curricula qualified graduates to sit for the exam at the Board of Architecture and Design, a prerequisite for licensure in the field. She could eventually go into the interior design business for herself in Florida. The college eventually agreed to accept her credits. Many of the classes she had to take were merely academic, had nothing to do with interior design; she knew so much about the subject that she could have taught the classes that appertained. Suffice it to say that she was an honor student, and went along with the program. She accelerated her studies to complete the interior design program in her final semester, and was told she would graduate upon passing the last exam. As Fate or God would have it, she got a job in interior design just before she took the exam, and she proceeded to work long hours, seven days a week, due to demand from high-end clients. Her college advisor, the head of the architecture department, said she would have to work for an interior designer for three years before she could get a license.
I became acquainted with Elizabeth in downtown Miami one day. I spoke with her often since then. She became one of my heroes even though she is an arch-conservative Republican; I was, at least before I met her, a bleeding-heart liberal and muckraker. There was much to disagree about – I dared not say a critical word about President Bush et al in her presence, and that certainly cramped my style. Still, I could not help admire her courage, determination and perseverance. Once she made up her mind to do something, that was it, come hell or high water, and she did it damned well, so forget about trying to dissuade her. I was very proud of her when I heard that the time had come for her to graduate. I told her I wanted to write about her, to tell her success story.
And then the bad news began. Miami Dade College had changed its policy retroactively, would not accept Elizabeth’s transfer credits, so she would practically have to start all over again, take courses she could teach even better than the Miami Dade College teachers.
She was not the only one. The scuttlebutt was that the college was playing the Transfer Credit Game, manipulating acceptance and denial of credits obtained elsewhere in order to increase its tuition revenue. For example, by making Elizabeth take the beginning courses, the college might milk the grantors for another $5,000. That is of course peanuts compared to the $27 million in federal stimulus funds Miami Dade College expects to receive by 2011, but every little bit adds up. Enrollment has gone up 15 percent at the college since 2007, and tuition dollars are growing to boot.
Miami Dade College is not the only community college that plays the Transfer Credit Game: The Washington, D.C. Center for Progress’ October 2010 report by Rebecca Klein-Collins, Amy Sherman, and Louis Soares, entitled Degree Completion Beyond Institutional Borders - Responding to the New Reality of Mobile and Nontraditional Learners, states that time and effort and money are being wasted annually due to transfer credit barriers at educational institutions.
“The average community college student earns 140 credits in the course of pursuing a bachelor’s degree, even though typically only 120 credits are necessary. Those 20 extra credits represent individual time, effort, and money, but they also represent public investment in the form of federal Pell grants and state subsidies to public colleges. All of this adds up to billions of dollars annually once all of the costs of wasted credit are factored in—student-paid tuition dollars, state subsidies to public institutions, student financial aid, and delayed tax revenue when students take longer to access higher-paying jobs that require college degrees.”
The authors did not point out that colleges are deliberately playing the Transfer Credit Game to raise funds for their respective institutions, for that would offend the audience they were writing for; instead, blame is laid on disarticulation i.e. the failure of institutions to agree on what credits are mutually acceptable. The authors lamented that transfer credit policy are preventing colleges from meeting President Obama’s goal of more college degrees by 2020, but they fail to address reality by pointing out that there will never be enough high-paying jobs for college graduates, and that the notion that higher education can solve the problem of low wages, underemployment and unemployment is an American Dream or myth costing citizens trillions of dollars.
Elizabeth put on her stoic face when she broke the news to me: my success story was going down the drain because Miami Dade College was playing the Transfer Credit Game. I could feel her pain, but she was not about to show it to anyone. She was not about to lay herself down and whine like an abused dog.
Surely, I thought, there must be some innocent mistake, so I called Rick Beasley, Executive Director of the South Florida Workforce Investment Board. The South Florida Workforce Investment Board is a creature of the South Florida Employment and Training Consortium Board created by an Interlocal Agreement between Miami-Dade County and Monroe County for the purpose of acting on behalf of the elected officials whose representatives sit on the Consortium Board. It receives grant money, assumes financial liability according to state and federal law, and is responsible for appointing the members of the South Florida Workforce Investment Board. The personal power at the center of the local structure is presently Miami Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who is responsible for the appointment of the members of the boards. Local board duties include planning and oversight, budgeting, collecting data, promoting private sector involvement in the statewide investment system, and negotiating agreement on performance measures. The South Florida Workforce Investment Board may not directly provide services to the public, but it selects One Stop operators that do as well as youth service providers. For example, in the South Beach area of Miami Beach, the One-Stop operator selected is Unidad Miami Beach, Inc., a non-profit corporation controlled by influential Cuban Americans and doing its One-Stop business as Unidad MBHCC (Miami Beach Hispanic Community Center). It was this One-Stop business that sold Elizabeth the Miami Dade College courses
Rick Beasley promised to look into the matter. He noted that the Transfer Credit Game is par for the course at many colleges, so he would have to take a look at the file. He had Assistant Director Sergio Perez speak with Elizabeth. Mr. Perez insisted on trying to claim her as a success story because she had gotten a job.
There was no way she would accept that falsehood, Elizabeth told him. South Florida Workforce had done nothing to get her a job. She got the job through a friend because of her reputation for interior design. The only way she could be claimed as a success story is if she were given the degree she had been promised. Otherwise, she said, the grant money should be refunded to the grantor. She wrote a 25 August letter to Mr. Perez and Mr. Beasley to that effect, copying Eduardo Padron, the president of Miami Dade College. She said she was shocked that not a single person had yet responded to her two months hence.
I repeatedly followed up with Mr. Beasley, to no avail. I was greeted with silence or prevarication, and I concluded that the highly paid professional bureaucrat was evasive, to say the least. He was stonewalling me, probably thinking I would just go away like most people probably do. But I was not about to get lost. I happen to be a person whose friends sometimes plead “Please don’t” when I promise to look into something they mention. Something was wrong here, and I could feel the pain. A lawyer told me years ago that when one feels injured by someone else’s conduct, most likely there is legal ground to take a stand against that person, although one may lose the case.
“Qui tacet consentire videtur,” I quoted the now obsolete legal maxim to Mr. Beasley on October 13, 2010. “Given your silence on the issues presented to you several times, I shall now proceed with the belief that your silence confirms the allegations as being true.”
“Good Afternoon,” he replied. “Since raising the alleged training allegation regarding [Elizabeth], SFW staff and Career Center Provider staff have been in communication with her. Please be mindful that I'm not at liberty to discuss (Elizabeth’s] case due to the information being confidential. However, SFW staff and Career Center staff have and will continue to assist [Elizabeth]. Again, thank you for bringing the issue to my attention.”
Nonsense: Mr. Beasley was prevaricating. Professional bureaucrats prefer to ignore, evade, and procrastinate when there is no deadline pressure and no certain penalties for unresponsiveness when information conflicting with their biases is presented. He had done nothing to respond to Elizabeth’s 25 August plea for her degree or a refund to the grantors. His staff had not assisted Elizabeth in the matter, and it was evident they had no such intention. Evidently he figured from long experience that he could get away with doing nothing. Someone could always make a formal grievance to some obscure department if it could be found, but that would be to little or no avail either, for its purpose is to pave over hypocrisy with sophisticated casuistry.
As for the confidentiality of the information, the public records law provides for civil and criminal penalties and attorney’s fees when public information is not provided on request; certain information is exempt. The Florida law governing the regional workforce boards states that the public disclosure law applies to them. I asked twice to see the file, and offered to provide Elizabeth’s authorization if need be, to no avail. Mr. Beasley was not even going to tell me what he knew, i.e. what funding programs were involved, who the grantors were – most recently, the information was offered provided that a fee of $50 be paid. Worrisomely, the file had apparently been misplaced when Elizabeth dropped by the One-Stop, where her complaint was ignored as the case worker, following the party line, insisted she was a success story instead of representing a failure of South Florida Workforce to understand and oversee its educational partners’ training programs.
My subsequent investigation brought to light the fact that the Miami Dade College interior design curricula had not been approved by the Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design, as represented by Workforce and Miami Dade College, therefore qualification for licensure was not even assured although the Board could take a look at the credits earned there just as it could look at the credits of out-of-state institutions. And I discovered that Elizabeth might not be required to serve as a virtual apprentice to another interior designer, for a provision in the law allows licensure for those who have three years of education, without graduation, and three years of experience, provided it is approved of by Board review.
Florida is only one of three states that requires licensure of interior designers; whether or not the public has an genuine interest in licensing trade is debatable; the definition of “interior design” is controversial; and that so-called interior designers are hypothetically practicing interior design without a license under other names, such as fashion designer, seating designer, collection coordinator, furniture placement designer, etc. Florida law states that an unlicensed interior designer can design and decorate the interiors of residences providing the interior designer does not call herself an interior designer! No kidding: “481.229 Exceptions; exemptions from licensure… (6)This part shall not apply to: (a) A person who performs interior design services or interior decorator services for any residential application, provided that such person does not advertise as, or represent himself or herself as, an interior designer.”
However, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida, in Eva Locke et al v Joyce Short et al (Case No 4:09cv193-RH/WCS) sanely ruled otherwise on February 4, 2010: the court held that the Florida statute requiring a person to obtain a license in order to provide nonresidential “interior design” services—as that term is properly construed—is constitutional. But the statute barring a person who provides lawful residential interior-design services without a license from advertising herself as an “interior designer” violates the First Amendment. The case involved unlicensed interior designers, who by law are allowed to practice residential but not commercial interior design without a license, sued licensed interior designers in their official capacity as members of the Florida Board of Architecture and Interior Design, because they believed the law preventing them from representing themselves as interior designers unreasonably regulated free speech, for one thing, and also infringed on their rights to due process and equal protection of the laws, because the state requires a license to perform ordinary tasks that nobody could rationally believe should be subject to licensing, hence irrational distinctions were drawn by the legislature. Architects make sure walls do not fall down, whereas interior designers make sure people do not run into or trip over things. The court noted that most states had rejected the argument that the interior designer, distinguished from the architect, like the physician’s assistant from the physician or nurse practitioner from the nurse, should be licensed to promote competence in the first place, but the Florida legislature certainly had a right to require licensing in its own state, said the court.
I am here tempted to delve into the fascinating definition of interior design as “properly construed,” but that Talmudic excursus must be belayed for now; suffice it to say that South Florida Workforce and Miami Dade College negligently wasted the grant money as well as Elizabeth’s time and effort: they either innocently, negligently, or fraudulently misrepresented the requirements for licensure as an interior designer in Florida. She was already an accomplished interior designer, perhaps with enough academic credits and years of experience to qualify for licensure without further education, provided that the Board of Architecture and Interior Design approve of her credentials and she passed its exam. She could hold herself out in Florida as an interior designer of residential interiors without a license; she could practice interior design without a license in 47 states. Most of the courses she was required to take by Miami Dade College had nothing or little to do with interior design. The grant money would have been put to better use as direct funding to her to set up her own business as a residential interior designer.
However that might be, I was perturbed by Rick Beasley’s evasiveness and deceptiveness, and by the fact that not a single soul at South Florida Workforce or Miami Dade College had bothered to address the concerns Elizabeth had raised in her August 25 plea to them for her degree or a refund to the grantors. I took her plea and my own complaint about the potential wastage of millions of grant dollars at Miami Dade College and the irresponsible behavior of its partner, South Florida Workforce, upstairs, to Florida Governor Charlie Crist. The governor’s office referred the matter to Workforce Florida Inc.
Workforce Florida Inc. is the non-profit corporation that monitors and oversees the administration of statewide Workforce policy and all activities including designating local areas, reviewing local plans, and the programs and services implemented by the local boards. It is not a government entity, and is not in any manner subject to the control of the state agency named the Agency for Workforce Innovation. It is obliged by law to design and implement strategies that help Floridians enter, remain in, and advance in the workplace, to serve as the statewide Workforce Investment Board pursuant to the federal Workforce Investment Act, and to providing oversight and policy direction to ensure that relevant Workforce programs are properly administered by the Agency for Workforce Innovation in compliance with approved plans and under contract with Workforce Florida, Inc.
I received a response to my communication to Governor Crist, from Adriane Grant, Director of External Affairs for Workforce Florida, Inc. She referred the matter back to the local level, with advice that the state Agency for Workforce Innovation may be contacted if the local workforce investment board, namely South Florida Workforce Investment Board, is unresponsive – that was, in fact, the nub of my complaint to the governor!
“It appears the issues you raise on behalf of [Elizabeth] require local attention and resolution with Miami Dade College and South Florida Workforce, which oversees the delivery of workforce-system training in Miami Dade and Monroe counties. I have been informed by Mr. Rick Beasley, Executive Director of South Florida Workforce that local workforce staff members have tried to reach [Elizabeth] to further understand the issues she has raised and assist her, as appropriate. We strongly urge customer inquiries such as these be addressed at the level nearest the customer. However, in cases in which that is not possible, we do have protocols for customer-service complaints that may require state intervention to resolve satisfactorily. This protocol includes contacting the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the state agency responsible for administrative and fiscal affairs of the workforce system, which [Elizabeth] may ultimately choose to do after exhausting all local opportunities for remedy.”
The truth of the matter is that Rick Beasley was stonewalling, and that his claim of reaching out to Elizabeth was deceptive, as neither he nor his staff nor the college had made any attempt whatsoever to contact her in response to her August 25 plea for justice. A stone wall exhausts anyone who cares to but his or her head up against it time and time again, wasting a great deal of time and energy – no doubt the bureaucrats behind it are accustomed to people becoming exhausted and going away without further ado. The only opportunity a stone wall presents is in climbing over it, going upstairs, which is what was done in this case, for dealing with the South Florida Workforce Investment Board was obviously futile.
The issue was also referred to the Florida’s Agency for Workforce Innovation, the state’s leading workforce agency. The Agency offered nothing except information. It describes itself as a “partner” of Workforce Florida, Inc. Its duties are set forth in Section 20.50 of the Florida Statutes, and include ensuring that the state appropriately administers federal and state workforce funding by administering plans and policies of Workforce Florida, Inc., under contract with Workforce Florida, Inc. The Agency receives federal grants and funds and administers them as directed by the Governor. It expends the funds according to law and as directed by Workforce Florida, Inc. The statute declares that “All program and fiscal instructions to regional workforce boards shall emanate from the agency pursuant to plans and policies of Workforce Florida, Inc. Workforce Florida, Inc. shall be responsible for all policy directions to the regional boards.” It has many other duties besides.
I was contacted by the Agency’s director of communications, Robby Cunningham. It was beyond the scope of his office to take decisive action to resolve the issues. His job function in the matter was naturally limited to public relations functions, to providing information. He could not take decisive action to resolve the issue. He provided some useful information, which raised even more questions, and referred me back down to the South Florida Workforce Investment Board.
Thus my trip upstairs was to no avail, and I was sent downstairs to – you guessed it – Mr. Beasley, who referred the matter to his communications director, Olivia Almagro. Evidently the system was a vicious circle. Olivia Almagro, in turn, denied that the South Florida Workforce Investment Board was responsible for overseeing Miami Dade College in respect to the Transfer Credit Game, stating that that was a matter entirely between the college and the student. Her renunciation, made on behalf of the money-distribution power, threw Elizabeth and all like her back to the wolves in sheep’s clothing, where they are left powerless below the money-grubbing predators in the top offices.
The fact of the matter is that the South Florida Workforce Investment Board is responsible for oversight, as is the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation and the public-private state oversight institution, Workforce Florida, Inc. All of the above tend to play Round Robin with complaints that do not match the self-image projected in overarching plans and reports, preferring to wash their hands of dissonant information, passing complainants back down to the offending local authorities for re-victimization. Undue discretion is provided to high political officials of the locality for the sake of local autonomy; the oversight rhetoric overlooks the political packs that partner with business to prey on the local populace. They do not have to do be genuinely responsible: the local power elite, whose tenure has bred it to arrogance, continue with business-as-usual, as Tallahassee daydreams.
After being put off by Ms. Almagro, who adopted a bureaucratic bullying approach during our initial conversations, insisting that I not publish negative information about her board, I discovered that she was also an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College!
Speaking of apparent conflicts of interest, Donna Jennings PhD, Director of Workforce Education and Development at Miami Dade College, sits on the South Florida Workforce Investment Board. Federal and state Workforce law provides that a member of a board cannot vote on an issue benefiting the institution she represents. However, the Miami Dade and Monroe inter-county agreement establishing South Florida Workforce Investment Board provides that a member simply may not sit on the Board if her institution benefits. Miami-Dade County Commission Resolution R-315-06 Resolution states:
"Representatives of business appointed to the South Florida Workforce Investment Board by the Chief Elected Official of Miami-Dade County or by the Chief Elected Official of Monroe County shall automatically forfeit membership on the South Florida Workforce Investment Board if the business so represented provides public workforce services with funds provided through or from Workforce Florida, Inc. during the representative’s period of membership on the South Florida Workforce Investment Board.”
Ms. Jennings, whose membership on the Board does create at least an appearance of impropriety, has thus far not responded to my inquiry to her as to whether or not the local resolution applies to her. It may apply to other members of the Board who represent private and for-profit educational institutions. No doubt it will be otherwise interpreted by casuists on board. And never mind that the state public-private “partnership”, Workforce Florida Inc., is an apparent conflict of interest incorporated.
In sum, I was being run around in a vicious circle, hopeful until I became so exhausted by the “opportunities” that I gave up, or butted my head up against the local stone wall so hard that I dropped dead. And that would be perfectly legal, in accord with the Local Autonomy Game. When the Florida legislature drafted the state law that implemented the federal Workforce Investment Act, a preference for autonomy was taken into account: Two of the six “elements” or basic operating principles embedded in the state law at Section 445.003 Florida Statutes appertain to local autonomy: “(e) Local Board and Private Sector Leadership.--Local boards will focus on strategic planning, policy development, and oversight of the local system, choosing local managers to direct the operational details of their one-stop delivery system centers; (f) Local Flexibility and Integration.--Localities will have exceptional flexibility to build on existing reforms. Unified planning will free local groups from conflicting micromanagement, while waivers and WorkFlex will allow local innovations.”
With that public law in mind, we should be reluctant to paint prominent members of the power elite and the Workforce Department of The System too darkly, as if they were forces of darkness consciously engaged in boardroom conspiracies. The System controls them as well, and what they do appears to be not only righteous because everyone does it but lawful as well. And the Law is essentially what rich and powerful people do, and constitutes the legalization of many of their crimes. Yet quite a few political rights and substantial economic crumbs have been thrown to the needy. No one is without sin.
We recall that the governing federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was one product of a broad, popular social trend involving outsourcing government work to private businesses, welfare-to-work strategies, and public-private ideology. The Act purportedly provided more emphasis to the business demand for labor than the labor demand for social welfare benefits like education – I would myself go to school and study the humanities for the rest of my life if I could. Business would save money by having the government fund education, but it still wants employees relevantly trained, i.e. adept at tasks that enable business to make profits. The public education cult advances the notion that everyone can get a good education and live prosperously if not happily ever after.
Now history never precisely repeats itself, but there are similarities between the human tendency, prior to both the Great Depression and the Great Recession, to cultivate a reign of greed. Religion worships Absolute Power while Politics distributes it. Money talks; business controls politics; politics is about the distribution of power i.e. money; the business of government is business; the government is substantially a business cabinet. Business does not want to do much for government handouts; it certainly does not want the elected officials it buys to stand in its way. Business interests should do what they please in order to grow the economy, and the virtue of small, local business is extolled although small businesses must feed off the hind teats of big business to survive.
In any event, it is believed that local business-political autonomy, pluralism or “blessed federalism” is preferable to strong central federal control. But strong central control may occur with bad effects in localities too, particularly in localities like Miami Dade County, where Mayor Carlos Alvarez, utilizing the Cuban and Latin American traditional preference for strong men, managed to persuade the electorate to abnegate the pluralistic power of the county commission and approve of a strong mayor system shortly after he was elected – he was formerly a police official. He is the leading elected official who appoints members of the Workforce board, and Rick Beasley and his staff, including Olivia Almagro, are officially employees of Miami Dade County. What we have here is one ball of wax with a clique at its core. If you are not a member if the ruling clique or do not conform to it in one way or the other, your chances of success are slim.
Miami Dade County, and especially the great city of Miami, is the domain of a tightly-knit Cuban American faction. The understatement, “The Cubans run Miami,” is of course not true in every detail but is true in general respects. Not that the fact is necessarily evil, but the biases and prejudices must be taken into account by objective observers of all persuasions.
Miami Dade College, for instance, one of the greatest community colleges in the nation, was firmly established and is now headed by politically powerful Eduardo Padron, known as one of the principle heroes of the Mariel Exodus when Cuba’s strong man opened up jails, prisons and mental institutions for emigration to the United States. Miami Dade College’s feats in bringing Hispanic immigrants and other underprivileged groups into the workforce are legendary. The result has been stupendous. The college is sacred, can do no wrong in most of the eyes of the community it serves.
Elizabeth was wronged by Miami Dade College, yet she still loves the college. When she was asked if she was angry at the college, she said, “Yes, but can I tell you that I loved my experience there? It did not help me with interior design, but it provided a structure for me during a terrifying time, a time of unemployment, of not belonging, of not being wanted by employers. I don’t like what happened to me in the end, but I shall always love Miami Dade College.”
As for the academic courses that had nothing to do with interior design, Elizabeth said, “Frankly, I loved those courses, even the confusing philosophy course. I had enough mathematics for interior design, but the math classes at Miami Dade College really helped me to focus my mind, to concentrate on things. I would go to college the rest of my life if I could. I even thought about applying for a job at the college, but they were laying people off with the recession.”
The case of Elizabeth demonstrates that local autonomy may be no better than central control; a right balance is needed between the two, and that adjustments must be made at the center for difference in local circumstances.
The State of Florida State Workforce Investment Plan 2009-2010 states: “Beyond the requirements set out in federal law and those in Chapter 445, Florida Statutes, the State has allowed local chief elected officials the maximum level of discretion in appointing local RWB Board members, while reminding them of the importance of maintaining strong private sector business leadership and working closely with local business and economic development organizations to recruit and nominate the best local business leaders.”
Far too much discretion and local autonomy has been allowed by the center to the South Florida Workforce locality. The automatic kicking of information that conflicts with the high opinion that people at the top of the system have of the system right back down to the local authorities, throwing people who have been wronged back to the arrogant bureaucrats ensconced below, is a mistake. Ultimate control over new federal and state grant money and over the hiring and firing of local chiefs should be at the center. That is why state and federal officials should seriously consider the case of Elizabeth. And members of the United States Congress should certainly take the case into account when considering whether or not to reauthorize or radically reform the Workforce Investment Act.
Public Domain Document