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Robert Niles

Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the author of How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online and Stories from a Theme Park Insider.

Robert is a native of Los Angeles, and today lives in nearby Pasadena, California. He graduated from Northwestern University, where he majored in the school's program in Mathematical Methods in the Social Sciences as well as in Political Science. He also holds a master's degree in journalism from another university.

Along the way, Robert has worked as a Pirate of the Caribbean (at Walt Disney World) as well as a reporter, editor and/or columnist for the (Bloomington, Indiana) Herald-Times, the Omaha World-Herald, the Rocky Mountain News, the Los Angeles Times and the University of Southern California.

Today, Robert Niles runs, and (with his wife, Laurie)

February 20, 2015

Who is Sandra Siraganian? Part 2

Earlier this month, I asked Who is Sandra Siraganian? Now, we're getting some additional answers, as Siraganian has sent out her first two campaign mailers. While the flyers are providing some additional information about this PUSD school board candidate and her beliefs, they should raise even more doubt about her fitness to serve.
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February 2, 2015

Who is Sandra Siraganian?

A school board race might not seem as important as races for higher profile offices such as Congress and the Legislature. But a school board can have a direct effect on the lives of thousands of community children and their families. When voter turnout is small, it's all too easy for candidates with extreme views and questionable interests to make their way on to the school board.

So who are these candidates running for school board? It turns out to be a very interesting question, in the case of District 6 in the Pasadena Unified School District, which includes Sierra Madre, East Pasadena, Chapman Woods, and my neighborhood, an area of unincorporated Los Angeles County between Pasadena and San Marino. Two candidates are running to replace the retiring Tom Selinske for our district's seat.

Larry Torres is National Board Certified Teacher with 29 years' experience teaching in public schools. He's served for 14 years on PUSD school site councils and holds a master's degree in education from Harvard. He has a campaign website and has appeared at multiple local candidate forums, providing district residents with plenty of opportunities to get to know him and his positions.

Torres' opponent is Sandra Siraganian, a Sierra Madre real estate agent. Siraganian doesn't have a campaign website, and she's not bothered to show up for any candidate forums yet, making it hard to get any sense of what she thinks about education or what kind of board member she would be. We do know that the Pasadena Foothills Association of Realtors has endorsed Torres for the seat. Why would Siraganian's own co-workers endorse her opponent?

When I was teaching journalism at USC, I told my students that the best way to get to know a candidate is to learn about the people donating money to that candidate. The City of Pasadena publishes campaign contribution reports from candidates for the PUSD board. It's still early, but Siraganian has submitted one contribution report already.

And it's a biggie — $1,000 from Frederick "Fritz" Hitchcock, who was listed with a Las Vegas address on the contribution report. Despite the Vegas address, Hitchcock is the chairman of California Chamber of Commerce and lives most of the year in the Ritz Carlton Residences at L.A. Live, according to an interview published on the chamber website. He's a major player in Republican politics, having contributed more than $142,000 to federal and California state candidates and campaign committees alone just last year.

Why is a high-roller GOP player from Vegas and downtown LA dropping a grand on a Pasadena school board candidate? Let's take a look at Siraganian's own campaign contributions to get a better picture of her political beliefs.
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January 21, 2015

There's No 'Standard' Solution to Improving Education

When I graduated high school in Indiana in the 1980s, there was no requirement to take a class in the arts. As someone who spent his elective classes in show choir, that wouldn't have been an issue for me. But my daughter faces many more requirements to get her high school diploma than people my age — and older — did. It's not just an arts class — it's exit exams, and extra classes in math, science, history, and other core subjects.

And we're still adding to the requirements. The Pasadena Unified School District has approved yet another increase in high school graduation requirements, one that follows state models to create multiple tracks for students to follow toward their diplomas. In most tracks, students are left with fewer electives as they must complete the additional track requirements.


I suspect that most people would agree without hesitation that tougher graduation requirements are a good thing. After all, the world is getting more competitive, and don't we want to prepare our young people to be able to compete?

As I just wrote, though, we've been raising requirements for years. We've been preparing more and better educated high school graduates than ever. Perhaps we should take a moment to ask ourselves: Has it worked?

Here is the answer, and it is one that none of us want to hear: No.
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August 28, 2014

Sunday Sermon: The Work That Even God Cannot Do

The senior minister my church, the Rev. Jim Nelson at Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, holds a "Preacher in You" class each year to teach church members how to write a sermon and conduct a church service. It's a fascinating look into another form of public speaking, so I took the class this year. And in the summer, the class participants run the service for a Sunday while the regular ministers are away. Here is my sermon from last Sunday. Prefer to listen than to read? Here's the audio of the sermon.

I loved Jay Ward cartoons: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Peabody's Improbable History, Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. How can you not love a show that name checks The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam through a story about Bullwinkle the talking moose finding on the shore of a local pond a model boat encrusted with red jewels? That's right -- a ruby yacht. For a youngster struggling with his teachers' attempts to impose strange rules of grammar and syntax, I loved watching Jay Ward's characters gleefully blow up the conventions of language and of history and rearranging the debris for the sole purpose of making me laugh. I didn't understand most of the references. Heck, I was deep into my teens before I got that Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam joke. But I did learn an appreciation for the power of irreverence.
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May 1, 2014

My final word on public education reform

If we're going to improve public schools in America, we need three things: 1) The abolition of charter schools and voucher programs -- all public funds should be spent on schools under voter control. 2) A reaffirmation of neighborhood schools -- kids should be assigned to the schools nearest them (with options for kids with unique talent to go to other schools with specialized, audition- or application-based programs). 3) Aggressive new funding to support kids from poor families -- this includes restoring state funding for extracurricular activities as well as for lowering class sizes and paying for after-school and vacation-time tutoring and child care.

What we don't need? 1) More standardized testing -- let's better replicate "real life" by asking students to demonstrate their ability by creating projects in the subjects that interest them instead of taking tests that don't replicate any real job experience. 2) Tying school funding to test results -- that's a death spiral that chokes funding from schools serving poor kids, who are more likely to score poorly on standardized tests. 3) Changing work rules to leave teachers with lower pay, fewer pensions, and weaker job security -- if we want better even teachers, we need to offer better compensation, not worse.

Education suffers when we view it as something for "them" rather than something that is a cooperative effort by all of us. That's why charter schools and voucher programs are so corrosive. They reduce education to a consumer product, provided by organizations separate from community oversight and control. We need to restore community support for our local schools. Attacking the corporate-funded lies about American public education is just a first step. (When you account for differences in family income, American school test scores are rising, and rank among the top in the world, despite the public beating that our politicians have been administering to schools since the Reagan administration.) The next step is to quit making public schools behave like consumer products, and to allow them to once again focus on serving the kids in the neighborhoods nearest them.
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April 21, 2014

School attendance zones should build, not break, communities

The Pasadena Unified School District is asking for public input as it redraws the attendance boundaries for its elementary, middle and high schools. By redrawing its attendance zones, PUSD has an opportunity to fix one of the major problems that's been crippling the district in recent decades. But will the district take this opportunity, or let it slip away?

PUSD attendance zones

Currently, PUSD breaks up its elementary classes, scattering kids from the same elementary to multiple middle schools. The same thing happens when children move from middle school to high school. The district's attendance zones for secondary schools cross the attendance zones for the various elementary schools, instead of overlaying them neatly. Throw in an elementary school, a K-8 school and a 6-12 school with no geographic zones — where students are selected for attendance by random lottery — and it's nearly impossible that a child entering a PUSD school in kindergarten will find the majority of his or her classmates attending the same school with him or her in high school.

Here's the problem with that: When the district breaks up elementary school communities, it doesn't just separate kids. The district separates parent communities, too. Active parent communities are vital in raising money and providing volunteers to support field trips, sports teams, performing arts programs, and many other student activities. When a district breaks up the networks that parents form during their first six years in the district, that makes the challenge of moving up to middle school even more difficult. And when parents don't see a functioning parent support community at the secondary school where they've been assigned, if they have the resources to leave the district, there's a strong chance that they will.
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March 6, 2014

Classical music fans: ' Interviews' now available in paperback and for Kindle

We are pleased to announce the publication of our next book! Laurie's Interviews: Volume 1 is now available from, in paperback ($19.95) and for Kindle ($9.95). The 300-page collection includes more than two dozen interviews with top violinists that Laurie has done for over the past six years, including ones with Joshua Bell, Sarah Chang, Anne-Sophie Mutter, and David Garrett. Interviews: Volume 1Two-time Grammy Award-winner Hilary Hahn wrote a lovely foreword for the book. "Laurie addresses topics that are comfortable but all-consuming, such as current projects, and delves into the delicate nuances of creativity. She captures specific moments in time. I love that. In this collection, you can observe her at work, but you will also travel along with her interview subjects," she wrote.

If you buy a paperback copy of the book through Amazon, you soon will be able to add a Kindle version for just $2.95, under Amazon's Kindle Matchbook program. (It takes about a week after initial publication for that option to become active. In the meantime, if you visit that link, Amazon will suggest Kindle versions that you can buy now at a discounted price, of print books you've already bought from Amazon.)

We're planning a book launch party in Pasadena, as well as some other promotions for the book. In the meantime, we appreciate all the support from our friends and readers in buying the book and rating it highly on Your purchases and recommendations encourage Amazon to suggest the book to other customers, helping expose Laurie's work to more potential readers. (And if you'd like to "like" the book on Facebook, the official page is at
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