Category Archives: Not so great things going on

What’s next for CSBA after Director departs?

My inbox has been active these past few days, ever since a Sacramento TV station aired a report investigating the compensation and spending habits of Scott Plotkin, the Executive Director of the California School Boards Association (CSBA). On Friday evening, CSBA announced that Mr. Plotkin would retire Sept. 1; until then he will be on paid leave, using up accrued sick time.

Details are scarce, and the CSBA Board is being tight-lipped because this is, ultimately, a personnel matter. But Mr. Plotkin’s compensation — reported as being in the area of $500,000 for 2007 and 2008 — has raised eyebrows, as has his use of corporate credit cards to withdraw significant sums of cash at Sacramento-area casinos. (I think I am safe in saying that it is almost never good news when you read the words “cash” and “casinos” in conjunction with “corporate credit cards.”)

What makes this story bigger than your garden-variety “executive retires under a cloud” news is that CSBA (a private non-profit organization) is funded through dues paid by member school districts — districts that are of course funded with taxpayer money. And in a time when schools are cutting back to the bone, and suing the state of California for equitable school funding, this news is spectacularly ill-timed.

 It’s horribly sad to watch a long, illustrious career in education policy come to such an abrupt end, and though I only met Mr. Plotkin once or twice I am sure this is not how he envisioned his retirement. Still, I think it was right for the CSBA Board to act quickly and decisively, because the credibility of the organization is at stake.

School districts pay tens of thousands of dollars to CSBA annually in dues and other fees, and taxpayers have a right to know whether their money is being well spent. In my 15-plus months representing SFUSD at the CSBA Delegate Assembly, I have never had cause to doubt that the organization was accurately and aggressively representing the concerns of the staff and students of San Francisco. But in the past few days, constituents have asked me what, specifically, we’ve gotten for our investment in CSBA, so here are just a few thoughts:

  • California has very few urban school districts, even though those urban districts enroll most of the state’s students. The overwhelming majority of delegates to the Delegate Assembly represent rural or suburban districts, and the policies of the organization skew towards those concerns. SFUSD’s active participation in CSBA over the years has clearly advanced the concerns of urban districts, which tend to have more low-income students, more students of color and more special education students than suburban and rural districts.
  • CSBA has a seat at the inner circle that makes education policy decisions in California. If SFUSD were to decide not to participate in CSBA, we would lose access to that seat at the table. This is hugely important because of our unique concerns as an urban district.
  • CSBA gives school board members from different districts a forum to connect with and learn from one another. I have learned a great deal from participating in CSBA workshops and seminars, and I know I am a better Board member as a result. I’ve connected with Board members across California and particularly in the Bay Area, and we’ve shared stories and strategies that have been mutually beneficial.
  • Last but certainly not least, CSBA’s Education Legal Alliance has won important legal victories that have increased funding for all districts in California. The negotiated settlement on Behavioral Intervention Plans last year is just the most recent example; that single settlement brought more funding into SFUSD than we have spent in CSBA  and Legal Alliance dues in decades. 

The CSBA Board has some work to do now, to rebuild trust among the dues-paying school districts and the tax-paying public. I have no doubt that the organization is more necessary and more useful than ever, but its practices and spending must be above reproach if we are to continue to advance the cause of adequate funding and sensible oversight for California’s school districts.

Irony, anyone?

Listening to Stan Goldberg’s interview with UESF’s Dennis Kelly. In his comments, Dennis reminded me that Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Paul Revere Elementary with great fanfare last May, hobnobbing with principal Lance Tagomori, students and teachers.

What a difference a year makes! Last month, the state named Paul Revere as one of the 5 percent of schools in the state classified as “persistently underperforming.” As a consequence of landing on the list, a school has four options — every one of which involves replacing the principal.  Sadly, Mr. Tagomori has told his school community that he has chosen not to come back to Paul Revere next year. (I need to say here that the district is not, at this moment, planning to fire any of the principals at the 10 schools — at five of them the site administrator has been in the job less than two years, and so are exempt from the potential consequences).

If Secretary Duncan shows up again, maybe we shouldn’t let him visit any schools!  Just kidding — really, the state is the entity that placed Paul Revere on the list of persistent underperformers. But it’s also true that the state’s policy arose out of our efforts to qualify for Race to the Top; by all indications the administration’s flawed policy prescriptions are soon to become the law of the land through the reathorization of No Child Left Behind (now “rebranded” the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – ESEA). So the Secretary must share the blame for pulling the rug out from under schools like Paul Revere.

Oakland Unified imposes contract on its teachers

Did you feel it? On Wednesday evening, a little earthquake rattled through the headquarters of the Oakland Unified School District and reverberated through neighboring school districts. In voting (unanimously) to impose its last, best and final offer on its teachers, the school board in Oakland has drawn the attention of many school boards and teachers’ unions up and down the state, because imposition is a very drastic step. 

Imposition means no more talking and no more compromises. It means “take it or leave it” and let’s get on with educating children. It also (in Oakland’s case) means no raises for teachers even though an independent fact-finding report noted that Oakland’s teaching salaries are quite low (starting teaching salary in Oakland is $39,000 compared to $50,000 in San Francisco) and suggested an increase. (I haven’t read the report, but apparently the fact-finder also said that OUSD’s financial situation is dire).

In Oakland, bargaining over a new contract has dragged on over two years, and the district only just regained local control after emerging from a state takeover. They have millions of dollars in state loans to repay, and have reached the same “cliff” in state funding that San Francisco and every other school district in the state has. Oakland school board members and Superintendent Tony Smith have both said that they felt imposition was the only choice they had, but their teachers are understandably furious.

What happens now? Well, either Oakland’s teachers will go on an extended strike or they won’t. A one-day strike is scheduled for Thursday, April 29.  For good coverage on the situation in Oakland, read Katy Murphy’s blog  “The Education Report.”  >>>>>

Skips, bumps and seniority: how layoffs work

My commenters from El Dorado Elementary have angrily alleged that the district chose to focus the brunt of layoffs on hard-to-staff schools, pointing to a legal precedent in the case of Bledsoe v Biggs Unified School District (2008) 170 Cal. App. 4th 127 (skip to page 8 for the discussion of the case).

The teachers say this precedent gives our district the right to skip certain teachers without respect to seniority, and say that the fact that 60 percent of the staff  at El Dorado (or 67 percent of the teachers, depending on what you use as the base of your percentages) received pink slips shows that the district has abandoned the ideals of “Beyond the Talk.”

Strong words. I haven’t appreciated some of the accusations that have been leveled at me (for example, that I was spreading “misinformation” because I used the 60 percent figure), but whatever. They’re angry, they’re facing the loss of their jobs, and they’re mourning the likely breakup of a dedicated and idealistic staff team– so I guess I can take it. I did, however, ask the district’s legal counsel for an opinion on how Bledsoe v. Biggs applies to our current situation. Are the El Dorado elementary teachers correct that we have ignored a legal precedent that would save teachers currently working at hard-to-staff schools?
In a word, according to our general counsel, no. Here’s why:

  • In the Bledsoe v Biggs case, the district “skipped” teachers at its community day school (a school for students expelled from other sites). A more senior teacher asserted the right to bump. Notably, the court found that the senior teacher was both credentialed and competent to hold the position. However, the district successfully avoided the bump by showing that the more junior, skipped teacher possessed unique training and experience for teaching in that environment that the more senior teacher did not possess.  At our hard-to-staff schools, we do not currently require that teachers have special training or credentials to take a position. They do receive additional professional development and stipends after they begin teaching at a hard-to-staff school, but we do not require that professional development as a condition for beginning employment at the school.
  • We have instituted “skips” for particular kinds of “hard-to-fill” subjects or credential areas:  BCLAD (bilingual), special education, and single-subject math or science credentials, for example. But even within those skipped areas, more senior teachers have bumping rights. As an illustration, last week I was contacted by a special education teacher who could not understand why he received a pink slip. After the Human Resources department investigated, we were told that because there are administrators who received pink slips that also hold a special education credential, those employees could conceivably have the right to “bump” into special education classroom jobs to avoid a layoff. Hence, a handful of special education teachers still received pink slips despite the skip (the teacher who contacted me was senior enough that after the investigation, HR rescinded his layoff even though they concluded he was properly noticed in the first place). The bottom line: a job at one of our hard-to-staff schools is not the same–in the eyes of the law–as a job in a hard-to-fill area, in terms of the specific training and credential required. In addition, more senior teachers who hold the same credential as the “skipped” employee are still able to “bump” into his or her position in a layoff. Since teachers at hard-to-staff schools hold the same credential as their colleagues at other schools, they would not be protected from being skipped in a layoff because they could still be bumped by more senior teachers who received layoff notices.
  • As noted above, teachers are only permitted to bump into position that they are credentialed and competent to fill, and the district does have broad authority to decide what “competency” is for its teachers. Recently, for example, we decreed that all teachers employed by the district must have the CLAD credential (now required by the state for any teacher who works with English Language Learners). As a result, teachers who earned a credential before the CLAD was required (and did not go back and get the CLAD certification later) are no longer “competent” to teach in our district. However, competency criteria must apply equally to all staff. A competency requirement that would protect staff at hard-to-staff schools (such as requiring experience teaching in a hard-to-staff school) would result in finding the majority of the District’s staff to be not competent. Such a requirement would probably not survive a legal challenge.

The fact that I think the counsel’s analysis is sound does not mean I like it, or that I think it’s fair that 67% of El Dorado’s teachers received pink slips.  I think we should work on a side agreement with UESF that would enable us to go as a team to the legislature and request a legislative solution that saves teachers who choose to work at hard-to-staff schools.   I am also following the national conversation on alternative ways of conducting layoffs, and I hope there is a way that our labor unions will feel they can eventually participate in such a conversation (probably now is not the best time, since we are in the midst of a very difficult negotiation). Seniority is a major pillar of the labor movement, and it’s not the cause of all the ills in our schools –it’s not helpful to to blame our labor contracts for disproportionate layoffs at hard-to-staff schools,  just as it isn’t helpful to blame the district for the sad situation we’re in.

Recap: A sad but resolute board passes budget action plan

In the end, it was unanimous, but heading into tonight’s meeting I felt real anxiety about how the debate and final vote on the Superintendent’s Budget Deficit Action Plan would play out. For one thing, members of United Educators of San Francisco, San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP) and various parent groups spent the past week peppering Board members with increasingly desperate pleas to slow down the plan and address budget alternatives in detail. For another, at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting on the plan, several Board members seemed inclined to vote against the plan outright, while others appeared undecided.  Muddying the waters was an alternate budget proposal from SFOP’s Children’s Allocation Team (CAT), which they said would cut $113 million over two years through across-the-board cuts to centralized budget functions, sparing class sizes and other labor concessions.

I was concerned enough to go to the Superintendent late last week and ask him whether he would consider putting off a vote on the plan for two weeks. I wasn’t worried so much about the need for the Board to sign off on a prospective budget framework, and I also agreed it was important for us to approve such a framework sooner rather than later, in order to help school sites start planning for next year and offer our employees more clarity about whether they will have a job next year. But the level of uncertainty I saw in Board members and among members of the public made me worry that perhaps we were moving too fast, and that we hadn’t truly considered all the alternatives.

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The recession’s terrible impact on California schools

A group of researchers at UCLA have completed a sobering study of the effect of the economic downturn on California schools and their students, based on extensive interviews with 87 principals across the state.  The key findings in the study include:

–The recession has created acute new social needs for students attending a broad cross section of California public schools;
–California’s weak educational and fiscal infrastructure has limited the ability of schools to respond to these new needs, despite the extraordinary efforts of local educators;
–Conditions supporting teaching and learning have eroded;
–Many school programs and services previously viewed as essential (such as summer school) have been eliminated or cut back;
–Budget cuts have undermined efforts of schools to sustain improvement and reform;
–As school-by-school fundraising supplements inadequate budgets, opportunities for children in poor communities can fall further behind opportunities for children in wealthier communities. This has serious implications for attempts to close achievement gaps.

The study likens current conditions to what the state’s schools experienced during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the characterization is more apt than they know: California schools have not experienced funding cuts of this magnitude since–wait for it–the Great Depression.

Ugh, the Berkeley High science lab story

A friend drew my attention to this story last week, and I’ve been following it ever since (including a piece tonight on ABC 7 news).  As a Berkeley High graduate who received an excellent science education in high school, I had a visceral and emotional reaction to the idea that Berkeley High might gut its science program in the name of equity. But I’ve been hesitating to blog about it, partly because Caroline Grannan has already covered it all in her blog, and partly because the details still seem kind of sketchy (more on my questions below).

On the face of it, it sure seems like a “what were they thinking?” roll-your-eyes-and-say-only-in-Berkeley kind of story. Essentially, Berkeley High’s governance council (which may or may not have the required balance of parents, teachers and administrators, and which may or may not comply with other aspects of the state’s Education Code) recently recommended doing away with before- and after-school AP science labs under the rationale that they chiefly benefit white students; and that the resources spent on the labs could be better spent supporting struggling students of color (Berkeley High has a significant achievement gap).  The school board will debate the plan at a meeting next week (scheduled for January 13).  On the face of it, how can it possibly be good policy to end a high quality program because it fails to attract students of color? Wouldn’t it be better to figure out why students of color are not participating?

I do have some questions: first of all, the original story did not make clear that the labs are scheduled before- and after-school. In tonight’s ABC News piece, Berkeley Superintendent William Huyett is quoted as saying that it doesn’t seem all that equitable to expect students to be responsible for class work that is done outside of the regular school day, and he’s got a point. On the other hand, three years of lab science are required for students who intend to enter a four-year college, and aren’t we trying to encourage more students to build their skills in science and math? However, it appears from tonight’s piece that under the proposal, the labs would be rescheduled to occur during the school day, which would eliminate some teaching positions but might not affect the school’s science offerings overall.  (Finally, I don’t know what it means, but it’s interesting to see that the science teachers advocating to keep the labs are being led by Amy Hansen, who was briefly and tumultuously the principal of Lowell High School and who is now teaching science at Berkeley High.)

I’m truly hoping that there is more to this story that meets the eye, and that the governance council’s recommendation has been misrepresented – are there any enterprising UC Berkeley Journalism students (or reporters for the Berkeley High Jacket) out there who are willing to delve into this story more deeply? I do hope we learn more before Fox News jumps into the fray, but I’m not optimistic: the current “crazy Berkeley does it again” storyline is just too juicy.

Misinformation everywhere: is it just a bad week?

Lately I feel like I’m playing Whack-a-Mole. Yesterday, I wrote about a blogger’s parting shot on the quality of our public schools; today’s ARGGH comes in the form of a Chronicle blog post that is supposed to be about whether San Francisco is affordable for families, but is really just another piece of lightly-informed judgment on the school district, blithely masquerading as fact.

Atop the piece is a photo of children in school uniforms jumping for joy, with the caption: “Yay! Our children can afford private school!” (Right, because everyone would attend private school if only they could afford it!) But what really got me steamed was the blogger’s attempt to describe how student assignment works:

The district, in order to foster socio-economic and ethnic diversity, does not enroll students in schools based on where children live. Instead, students are bused from one corner of the city to the other, ensuring that for instance not only Chinese students end up in schools in Chinatown, or that only well-to-do students end up in Pacific Heights. Such a mission is laudable in theory. Unfortunately, this means that the idea of living next door to your child’s school is about as likely as winning the lottery.

We do not arbitrarily and involuntarily bus students from one corner of the City to the other. We allow parents to submit a list of up to seven school choices; from some neighborhoods we provide busing to our alternative schools. The system seeks to assign parents to their highest choice where they add the most diversity, and last year, 78 percent of families received once of the schools on their list. Upshot: the system has a lot of problems,  but busing kids “from one corner of the city to the other” isn’t one of them.

Then I heard about an interview with Marc Benioff, founder of that appeared in the Chronicle earlier this week. Among other things, cloud computing pioneer Benioff was asked: “You have long San Francisco roots. If you could change one thing about the City, what would it be and why?”  Here’s his answer:

I just cannot understand why we can’t have better schools. That private schools are the only option for the kind of high-net-worth crowd, I think, is ridiculous.It should be a major initiative. It should be something we’re all working on. We have to get our head out of the clouds. All this green stuff is great, it’s great we don’t have plastic bottles or plastic bags and all of that, but how about some great schools?

Do I really have to say it again? The schools aren’t perfect, but they are better than any of these folks are saying. And instead of beating us up on various platforms (hasn’t the Chronicle been accommodating in that department lately?), why not get involved and help us? I am sending an invitation to Mr. Benioff to sit down with the Superintendent to see if he can marshall some serious resources to get through the next two or three years with our forward momentum intact (I’ll post my letter once I’ve written it; I just had the bright idea as I was writing the post). Here’s his contact information if you’d like to chime in:

Marc Benioff
Chairman & CEO
1 Market St., Suite 300
San Francisco, California 94105

Phone: 415-901-7000
Fax: 415-901-7040

Couldn’t find an email address, but he does have a Facebook account.

*Thought added after a full night’s sleep: It should be pointed out that, the company founded by Mr. Benioff, is a very progressive company, and its employees do a lot of volunteering in our schools. Last fall, for example, I was at Daniel Webster Elementary when at least 100 (probably more) volunteers from were busily painting the interior of the school.

Student newspaper duped into running extremist ad

You might as well read about it here, since it’s already hit the local news. The latest issue of The Lowell, the student-run newspaper at Lowell HS, carries an innocuous-looking, business card sized ad reading “Free Music Downloads” in large letters, then a web site address in smaller type. The web address leads to a web site that distributes “white resistance” music, stickers and other materials.

The ad was apparently submitted via email and cost $30 to place. While a Chronicle story indicates that the contents of the web site might have changed between the time the ad was submitted and the time it appeared in print, other reports question whether faculty advisors actually checked the link. In addition to The Lowell, other high school newspapers around the country were apparently targeted.

In any event, this was an underhanded stunt, pure and simple, intended to dupe student journalists into promoting offensive content that most would never run if they realized its true intent.

(Note: while I try always to link to other news outlets when their original reporting informs the content of a post, I have decided not to do that here in order to avoid giving this web site additional attention.)

Update on school secretaries – still endangered

City Hall watchers know that the Board of Supervisors has been trying to reverse the layoffs of scores of workers in the City’s Department of Public Health; layoffs that directly affect school district workers because of “bumping” policies that allow workers in certain Civil Service job classifications to bump into jobs either in the school district or in the City.

Unfortunately, the legislation that would have restored the Public Health jobs failed to get the required eight votes yesterday (voting against were Supervisors Alioto-Pier, Chu, Elsbernd, and Maxwell). The Chronicle reports, however, that the legislation could go back to committee for changes, allowing the authors to try again for an eight-vote majority at some later date. Time’s a wasting, however — the first layoffs go into effect as early as next week.

As I said, I’m sorry the jobs were not saved, because that would have given our workers some peace of mind. But I also think this would have been at best a temporary solution — there’s no guarantee our secretaries and other workers wouldn’t get bumped out of their jobs again later. The real solution — the one no one at the City seems to want to talk about — is that we need to get real about Civil Service job classifications for school district jobs. In no reality-based universe is the job description for a school secretary the same as a clerk in the Department of Public Health — however wonderful and hard-working. Being a school secretary requires specialized knowledge of how the school district works, including budgeting and staffing mechanisms; and in many case bilingual skills so that this essential “face” of our school office can easily communicate with parents. You don’t even have to take my word for it: ask the principals, teachers, students and parents who have been coming to City Hall in droves and writing impassioned letters to their elected officials in order to make the same point.