Posts tagged ‘Bill Ferguson’

April 11, 2012

Reflections on Year One of Re:education in Baltimore

Honoré Daumier 017 (Don Quixote)

Don Quijote and Sancho Panza by Honoré Daumier, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A week ago Baltimore storyteller Rafael Alvarez challenged me, over pita points and taramosalata at Samos, to explain what I was doing with this blog and who I was doing it for, in 140 characters or less. I couldn’t. But I took up the challenge to explain my quixotic quest, as he painted it, in my anniversary post.

Today marks one year of Re:education in Baltimore. It’s my paper anniversary. After filling a dozen creamy pages with ink (they used to call that writing), it’s time to transfer some thoughts to the Web.

What am I doing? 

I started this blog to prevent myself from alienating my friends and family. After a year of engagement with the charter versus neighborhood school quandary, I was bombarding everyone in earshot with talk of issues they either didn’t want to talk about or didn’t want to confront at the same high level of intensity. I’d learned a lot. The people in a ten-foot radius may not have cared, but I was sure others did. Why not write a blog?

What started as (and still is) an outlet for sharing knowledge and curating stories of interest quickly turned into a platform for staging public resistance. Less than a month in, I published “Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not Just Yet. Not So Fast.).” May 2011 would prove the blog’s biggest month in page views for all of 2011, not surpassed until January 2012. The uptake was thrilling in a sort of crazy-making way. I was the rookie who hit a homer in his first at bat. But it was only the beginning. I was in it for the long haul. I had bigger fish to fry.

The uptake of that post changed the direction of the blog when Baltimore NewsTrust reposted it. The site was a short-lived experiment in allowing the public to evaluate the merits of local news stories. It’s sort of like Star Search in that readers can rate selections for “style” and “originality.” It’s a grand experiment. It’s also supremely irritating in that it turns readers into judges. State senator Bill Ferguson, of all people, rated the post, and rated it “poor.” This did not endear him to me. It did get me on his radar, though, and I called him to see if he could help me improve my neighborhood school. He gave me some names. This blog became a foot in the door, a way to link to potentially helpful people in real life. I love it for that. I think that’s why I value it most.

As a result of the NewsTrust attention I began to think of myself differently as a blogger. I began to think of myself as having a journalistic obligation. That was odd. I have a full time job writing for a marketing agency that brands colleges, universities, and independent schools. I hadn’t reported a news story since 1999. But I couldn’t help seeing a major hole in news coverage in this town and a slant in opinion making that is less than progressive or populist – two words I would like to think describe my political values. When mayoral candidate Otis Rolley came out with an education agenda that encapsulated everything that was wrong with the federal push for reform, I used it to take the national conversation down to the local level. I loved his candidacy. There is no greater friend to an activist than an enemy with a four-point plan. But the race ended. And so did my turn as a spotlighter of local politics. I turned inward again, back to the mission to make my neighborhood school a top choice, and the personal tale that goes along with it.

Who’s it all for?

“This isn’t just for your son,” Rafael tells me between bites of a gyro sandwich. He’s right. I wish I could say it was. But it’s not.

Who am I fighting for? Poor people? Black people? I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself. I can’t. I won’t. I write as a parent whose salary is not commensurate with her level of education. (The irony is that I haven’t been able to cash in on my education because I work in education. I sell it. Before that I developed content for it. These are not lucrative tasks.) I might say I am a fighter for the shrinking middle class. I’m one of its voices. I care about the direction the country is taking. I worry about the future of the world my son is growing up in. I witness behavior and read language that is thoughtless and careless, that is based in prejudice, classism, and racism, and I feel compelled to call it out. I’ve been doing that since the ninth grade. It has never won me any friends.

“You’re earnest,” Rafael tells me.

“That’s my blogger persona,” I explain. “I cultivate that. I can do snark and irony and cynicism, but the blogosphere doesn’t need it.”

“That’s fine,” he says. “You can make your nuanced arguments. You can take the high road. But people want their 140 characters.”

Fine, then: I want to leave my little world better than I found it.

If that’s not enough, follow me on Twitter. Better yet, help me celebrate my anniversary by subscribing to Re:education in Baltimore today.


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October 4, 2011

Back and Forth with Senator Bill Ferguson on DFER and Parent Revolution

To Senator Bill Ferguson:

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to my post on the parent trigger law, Parent Revolution and Democrats for Education Reform. You’d written to me that your comments were written “off the cuff.” I’ve tried my best to respond in the same fashion, and I thank you, too, for laying out ideas that have helped me clarify my thinking. I am hoping this is only the beginning of an extended conversation.

*

My take on the Democrats for Education Reform rhetoric, which I describe as pitting the interests of children against those of unionized teachers, is based on the first paragraph of DFER’s “Statement of Principles”:

A first-rate system of public education is the cornerstone of a prosperous, free and just society, yet millions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children. This perverse hierarchy of priorities is political, and thus requires a political response. (SOURCE: http://www.dfer.org/about/principles/ Emphasis mine.)

I’ve taken no liberties there. The statement continues: “Fighting on behalf of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.” That’s debatable. But it’s more than safe to say that fighting for millions of vulnerable low-income children of color is what DFER thinks it is doing. They portray themselves as spokespeople for the disenfranchised – children, who can’t vote, and low-income children at that, the parents of whom politicians generally do not spend their campaign dollars enfranchising.

It’s unclear, at least to me, that the mandate to a) close the achievement gap, and b) do that by (i) opening public charter schools and (ii) beating back teachers’ unions when that’s deemed a necessary “means” (to use Joe Williams’ word) is coming from low-income children of color.

I take from the Joe Williams blog post you mentioned that the means-to-an-end ethic justifies DFER’s engaging in battles with teachers’ unions from time to time. DFER isn’t anti-union. It isn’t pro-union, either, unless standing in solidarity is in its interests. It has no principled stance on unions – protecting the rights of which many in the labor movement think the Democratic Party is supposed to stand for.

Democrats for Education Reform is in a fight with the teachers’ unions over the soul of the Democratic Party. Children shouldn’t even be in the room.

To the next point: “I am sure there is not a single person associated with any of the foundations listed or amongst DFER or its supporters that would say that ineffective teachers are the sole cause of educational achievement gaps.” You’ve phrased this claim in almost the same way that DFER board member Whitney Tilson did back in May:

“I challenge anyone to show me even one quote from one leading reformer who says that reforming the schools is all that is needed or who believes that great teachers and improved teaching methods are all that’s required to improve student performance.”

Robert Podiscio of the Core Knowledge blog has already taken up the challenge. Here’s the link to Podiscio’s post, “Says Who? Lots of Folks, Actually…,” which has some gems from various education reformers, including the Obama administration’s Arne Duncan. You may be right that none of these people are officially DFER supporters. Maybe it’s enough that Arne Duncan was a cabinet pick supported by DFER.

In any event, whether or not these folks think poverty has an impact on what goes on in schools, they’re not doing anything to fix poverty other than trying to fix teachers. The point of contention is whether you can fix schools without addressing poverty and its effects – hunger, low attendance rates, poor study habits, a fundamental distrust of authority, and so on.

Poverty is itself a negative “externality” (to use your term) of the very same laissez faire economic policies that have already weakened labor unions. The frustration and anger coming from Diane Ravitch and the Save Our Schools movement – which is often directed at financiers and corporate philanthropists – is in part a response to the hypocrisy of the greatest beneficiaries of the free market offering market-based solutions to a problem that is a by-product of wildly free markets. The market creates a mess, in other words, that public school teachers have been trying to clean up for years, with little in the way of thanks from the people who can’t help making it.

You write: “…public education is the arena where public dollar investments have the biggest impact. It’s why a number of well-intentioned people with money have started focusing on public education. They believe it will have the biggest return on philanthropic investment…” The obvious question here is why, if what you say is true, well-intentioned people with money would rather use wealth that has been sheltered from taxation to reform public education than pay taxes on their earnings to boost the supply of public dollars available for public education and other social programs?

Giving is good, but no human being gives solely for giving’s sake. That’s why governments create financial incentives to promote charitable giving. Acknowledging the power of philanthropies to help government to address systemic poverty, governments are now offering social impact bonds – the Obama administration calls them pay for success bonds – to offer philanthropists opportunities to profit from tactical investments in social programs. This isn’t to say anyone is evil. It’s just to explain how the system works.

My own purpose in following the money is to find a logical explanation for political and legislative agendas that are at odds with what I believe (along with many others) to be the solution to the problems we face: community schools built on a core of trust between teachers, parents and guardians and the children that it is their privilege to fight for. There’s hope in doing it – hope that reasonable and well-intentioned people can work together to find a better way forward. I know we can do that.

Thank you, again.

Edit Barry

September 29, 2011

Parent Revolution: Maryland State Senator Bill Ferguson Comments

In response to “Parent Revolution: Straight Outta Compton,” Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson submitted this comment, on September 28 at 10:45 pm. I asked his permission to post it here, so it wouldn’t get buried in the comments section. He generously agreed:

“Thanks for bringing attention to the issue. I certainly understand your position.

But I think you’re taking a bit of liberty in generalizing and characterizing the groups affiliated (even remotely so) to parent empowerment efforts and their intentions. I am sure (although there’s no reason to take my word for it) that not a single person associated with DFER would ever claim to be the spokesperson for low-income communities of color. More importantly, I am sure there is not a single person associated with any of the foundations listed or amongst DFER or its supporters that would say that ineffective teachers are the sole cause of educational achievement gaps.

In fact, I’d imagine that nearly all of them would say that poverty and the struggles that are associated with poverty are the driving causes of the achievement gap. They’d also say that the risks associated with a poor education are significantly greater for children living in poverty than for children of families of means. That’s the point of contention.

Without hesitation, poverty and its externalities are leading causes of achievement gaps between socioeconomic cohorts. The single most effective vehicle for creating a path out of poverty, though, is through access to an excellent education. Safe housing options matter; effective & affordable health care plans matter; employment opportunities matter; sustainable wages matter; and the list continues. But public education is the arena where public dollar investments have the biggest impact. It’s why a number of well-intentioned people with money have started focusing on public education. They believe it will have the biggest return on philanthropic investment (and that’s investment and return in people, not in dollars). If we can create amazingly great schools for all communities, especially in low-income communities, we will have a better opportunity at leveling the playing field and setting the framework for allowing all kids the chance to excel. Do we have to work in the other areas as well? Absolutely.

I understand that it’s tempting to look at funders, find a commonality, and allow that commonality to drive a conclusion. I completely understand. But I believe it is unfair and unreasonable to paint someone as evil or ill-willed merely because he or she works in the financial sector; has created significant wealth used to start a foundation; or is willing to make political contributions to candidates.

The public education challenges that we have in Maryland, and across the country, are enormous. While I understand that many may disagree, I do not believe that educators and current parents of kids in schools alone will solve the problem. We need good ideas and good advocacy from all sectors in order to truly offer a new way for families that have faced generations of poverty. I believe that it will take people of significant means, non-traditional business leaders, ministers, journalists, artists, doctors, and many many more to truly move the needle on the achievement gap. Will every idea be good? Absolutely not. But some will be, and we need the diversity of resources from people of all backgrounds to address this gross inequity.

I urge you to take a second look at DFER. They are not anti-union, nor are they in any way anti-teacher. They believe that all kids should have access to a great education. They believe that teachers are not interchangeable widgets. And they believe that all kids can learn in the right environment. If you have a minute, here’s a blog entry that I found with a quick google search that touches on the subject: http://www.dfer.org/2011/02/dfer_on_wiscons.php.

One last, quick note of clarification, I did put in the Parent Empowerment Act during the 2011 Session, but I also withdrew it before any bill hearing took place. I believed that the problem had not clearly been defined in Maryland, nor was I sure that the mechanism I had drafted was the correct way to address it. So I withdrew the bill. Here’s the link to the bill status:http://mlis.state.md.us/2011rs/billfile/sb0776.htm

Bill Ferguson
billforbaltimore.com

September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton?

You can buy an N.W.A.-inspired Straight Outta Compton cap today from Zazzle.com. Word.

Two stories of class ventriloquism jumped out at me last week. You probably heard about Mitt Romney’s delusions of middle class brotherhood. Romney, who has a net worth of at least $190 million, called himself one of “us.” (Which was, if you think about it, a nice acknowledgment that you ought to be if you’re going to attempt to represent “us.”)

Then there’s a story of political inauthenticity you may not have heard. It’s about an experiment in Compton, California, with a piece of legislation called the parent trigger. Here’s the story: ‘Parent Trigger’ Law to Reform Schools Faces Challenges.

Here’s some background, organized as a sort of Q & A.

What’s the “parent trigger”?

It’s a California law that “empowers” public school parents to do one of four things:

  1. Allow a charter school nearby that is “doing better” than the local school to take it over. That’s called a charter school conversion.
  2. Have half the staff fired, bring in new leadership, and get more local community control over making changes. That’s called turnaround.
  3. Force the school district to find a new principal and make a few other small fixes. That’s called transformation.
  4. Gain “collective bargaining rights” by collecting names on petitions.

(If this is raising questions in your mind about the person firing people, finding new leadership, and granting community control – or why you need a law to create a petition – we’re in the same boat. Grab a paddle.)

How do parents get their finger on the “trigger”?

First they find out if they’re school is failing. (Apparently, they might not know that.) Next, they organize more parents. “Parents” may be current parents, future parents zoned for the school, and parents whose children are set to feed into that school. Who calculates the total, I don’t know, but if 51 percent signs a petition demanding one of the four prefab options that the authors of the law built into it, bang. They’ve pulled the trigger.

Who drafted the parent trigger law, and who got it passed in California?

The parent trigger law was introduced by Gloria Romero, a former California state senator. She is now the director of the California branch of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER. Ben Austin drafted the law. Austin is a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a policy consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator. Austin has a seat on the Los Angeles school board – California governor Jerry Brown dismissed him from the state education board – and he is the executive director of a nonprofit called Parent Revolution.

What’s DFER? And why should I care?

DFER is a political action committee run by hedge-fund managers and investment bankers. Closely tied to KIPP charter schools and Teach for America (the single largest donor to which is now the Walton Family Foundation), DFER’s aim is to close the “achievement gap” between students in poor black Harlem and their peers in rich white Scarsdale. To that end, the PAC raises money for Democrats who push an education agenda that includes the closure of “failing” public schools and the proliferation of charter schools. It’s an agenda shared by the Obama administration, and it’s being pushed by their education reform competition, Race to the Top.

In Baltimore, DFER has supported two candidates for public office (that I know of). One is Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who worked for Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andres Alonso before running for state senate. (You can watch him tell the story of how he got elected here. It’s cool.) He put forward a version of the parent trigger law called “The Parent Empowerment Act” this year. (You can see Senator Ferguson’s legislative agenda from February on his Facebook page.) It didn’t pass. DFER also backed mayoral candidate Otis Rolley, whose platform included mayoral control of the public school system, making charter laws more amenable to outside operators, and providing means-tested vouchers to children in the lowest performing middle schools. He didn’t win.

What’s remarkable about DFER is less its political track record than its rhetorical strategy. DFER presents its interests as the interests of children. (In effect, its spokespeople have appointed themselves spokespeople for America’s mainly urban, mainly black and brown public school children.) DFER pits the interests of these children against the interests of unionized teachers, who are, in the DFER narrative, ultimately responsible for high dropout rates and abysmal performance on high-stakes standardized tests. DFER does not admit that lack of school funding or poverty is an important determinant of academic performance, citing academic outcomes at KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone as evidence of what great instruction can do. DFER’s critics point out that the PAC has a stake in undermining the pull of teachers’ unions, the largest single source of funding for the Democratic Party, in order to wrest power and political influence in its favor. Many on the right support their aims. Indeed, their agenda was effectively authored by George W. Bush.

What’s the deal with Parent Revolution?

When Diane Ravitch warned her Twitter followers to watch out for “astroturf” parent groups, I bristled. How can anyone question the authenticity of parents who are organizing on behalf of their own children? But I didn’t understand what she meant by “astroturf” – a group that adopts the populist guise of a grassroots organization in the interests of parties that are neither populist nor grassroots. Independent bloggers at Solidaridad have been calling Parent Revolution “astroturf” for years. This story in a March 2011 article in Mother Jones magazine is more mainstream, explaining the group’s corporate ties.

Parent Revolution operates on a $1 million budget, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that the Gates, Walton Family, and the Broad Foundation combined invest far more funding in education reform than any foundations before them, with unchecked power to expand charters, vouchers, and other business-inspired reforms.

In Compton, Parent Revolution paid organizers from outside the community to gather signatures in support of a charter school conversion at McKinley Elementary School. Their second-in-command allegedly invented a group called “McKinley Parents for Change” and claimed on its behalf a desire to open under new management. The group never told the P.T.A. at McKinley that they were circulating a petition.

Volumes of news stories and opinions have already been published on the battles over the parent trigger law and its expansion across the country. (I particularly like California community organizer-turned-teacher Larry Ferlazzo’s take.) Ben Austin’s summary of the Compton results in that story I mentioned from the Times shows a level of awareness that ought to lead to a major course correction:

We came in with a prepackaged solution of a charter school and didn’t have enough of a deep buy-in from enough parents, and we didn’t develop enough leadership,” Mr. Austin said.

This year, he said, the organization will rely on the local parents’ unions to ask for the specific changes they want. In some cases, it may be as simple as more consultation from school leaders.

Now what?

DFER and Parent Revolution continue to organize “parent unions” across the country from the top down. The rhetoric pitting teachers against “kids” drones on. Billionaire philanthropists keep throwing money at a problem that they argue a shift of wealth from the top can’t fix. And Diane Ravitch keeps tweeting her fingertips ablister to keep concerned citizens up to date on the latest expressions of all this misguided reform.

Meanwhile, off the national radar, middle class parents like me are taking notes on cautionary tales like the one from Compton. We’re trying to learn how to breathe new life into local public schools that already have lives of their own.

Please share your own suggestions and cautionary tales in the comments section.

July 30, 2011

If the School Fits: Who’s Pounding the Drum?

This is what rapid growth looks like, in the world of stock images.

Baltimore City is a case study in the push for school choice. In November 2004, with the benefit of pro bono services from global lawyering giant DLA Piper, the founders of City Neighbors Public Charter School succeeded in an effort to eliminate the cap on the number of new charter schools that could open here. By 2005-06, there were 12; by 2007-08, 22. Now there are 34 of about 200. Next year, there will be more. With only 15 schools making Adequate Yearly Progress in 2011, no one can claim that the reforms of the past few years are doing much good. But right now, the school choice story isn’t about quality. It’s about quantity.

Whether or not Baltimore City will turn into another New Orleans, where 61 of 88 public schools were charters as of August 2010, the campaign for the exponential growth of charter schools in the name of “parental choice” is overwhelming. On July 17, the New York Times printed a story on conflicts over a boutique charter school in an affluent New Jersey suburb. This week, Maryland’s Montgomery County approved its first charter school.

In terms of national policy, under the leadership of Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education is “incentivizing” an increase in the number of charter schools by states as a condition of winning Race to the Top funds. Corporate philanthropies are also pushing hard and fast for choice. In February 2011, the Progressive Policy Institute published a report coaching charter school supporters on how to take advantage of acquisition opportunities and eliminate barriers to expansion titled “Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best.” The paper was written by three education policy consultants at Public Impact with support from the Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Walmart. As of this week, the Walton Family Foundation is also the single largest private donor to Teach for America.

Back in Baltimore, another backer of Teach for America, the political action committee Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), is making big ripples in the political pond. DFER is raising funds for local and state-level candidates who are on board with their board‘s agenda, which includes mayoral control of city school systems, opening more public charter schools, and closing failing schools the way an investor might dump poorly performing stocks. Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who bested a 27-year incumbent for the 46th district’s seat in the Maryland state senate (and who has commented on this blog), recognized DFER as one of the earliest supporters of his campaign. DFER board member and hedge-fund manager Whitney Tilson used his education blog last month to rally donors to the aid of Baltimore City mayoral candidate Otis Rolley. (Rolley’s education platform would be right up DFER’s alley, if not for the voucher part.)

Despite a 2009 report by BCPSS stating that the only significant area of superiority in the performance of charters versus traditional public schools is school climate, the school board’s push for choice in the form of charters continues. Given the resounding drumbeat, the number of “schools of choice” in Baltimore could double in the next five years. It’s reasonable to expect that it could more than double.

What then?

Related Posts

“Portfolio: The Vocabulary of Education Reform in Baltimore City – Lesson One”

“Highlights from Annapolis”

Related Stories

Astroturf Activism: Who Is Behind Students for Education Reform?
George Joseph and Extra Credit, The Nation, January 11, 2013

April 18, 2011

Highlights from Annapolis

First-term Maryland state senator Bill Ferguson today emailed constituents of the 46th District highlights of the 2011 Legislative Session of the Maryland General Assembly. From the email:

EDUCATION:
Despite having to make deep cuts, we, and others in the Baltimore City Delegation, made it a priority to replace the nearly $17 million cut from Baltimore City Public Schools as was initially proposed in the Governor’s FY 2012 budget. Baltimore City Schools have been making tremendous progress in recent years and such a deep cut would have been devastating to the quality of education for our City’s kids. We restored funds to education that the Governor proposed cutting, so that our students and teachers can continue their progress. As a result, public education will continue to represent 40% of the state’s general fund budget.

In addition, we created a path for utilizing surplus dollars to build new schools and renovate existing school structures. Our kids need safe and modern classrooms to learn to compete in the new global marketplace. As a former teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools, I can say firsthand that for many of our schools are long overdue for much needed upkeep. I was also pleased to sponsor and pass legislation that would give public charter schools the right to occupy existing school buildings if those buildings are no longer needed by the local school board. In addition, this legislation yielded a compromise for an ongoing debate in Annapolis about charter school facility costs by making charter schools exempt from local property taxes when these schools occupy private facilities.

Despite the budget challenges, the legislature was able to protect the $1.2 billion investment in public colleges and Universities, which will help to prevent drastic tuition increases. Keeping public college education affordable is vital to keep our kids learning and able to take the next step into higher education.

Senator Ferguson and his wife are both alumni of Teach for America in Baltimore City. You can find more about Bill Ferguson here.

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