Category Archives: Not so great things going on

Bad news from Sacramento: June election is dead.

The June special election is dead, officials in Sacramento agree. They disagree on who was more unreasonable in their demands, and therefore who should be blamed for the failure to JUST LET THE VOTERS WEIGH IN on whether the state should raise taxes.

What does this mean for SFUSD? I haven’t received updated guidance from the Superintendent, but last month the Board was told that without voter-approved tax increases, we would be looking at a $330 per student, or $20 million, cut for 2011-12.

I’ll keep you posted on the options.

Update: Listen to the Governor on the decision to end the negotiations:

A bad week for school boards

This has been a bad week for school board members in California and across the country — starting with a terrifying incident where an desperate member of the public threatened school board members in Panama City, Fla. with a loaded gun. Here’s the video:

Reader, I promise never to sneak up behind an armed gunman and hit him with my purse (school board member Ginger Littleton is being lauded for her bravery but acknowledges her act was “stupid”);  I have asked Superintendent Garcia to simply dive under the desk rather than argue with said gunman if we are ever — cross your fingers — in a similar situation. Still, the bravery and calm under pressure shown by all of these public officials in a terrifying situation is nothing short of amazing. The whole incident is sobering in its depiction of the desperation and hopelessness some people are feeling today — the easy availability of guns makes such an incident possible.  At almost every Board meeting, people come before us who are feeling very angry, desperate and hopeless — I am not sure we are fully prepared for what could happen if one of them were armed.

I fear what we saw in Panama City — the gunman was reportedly bipolar, and upset because his wife had been laid off by the school district — is just the tip of the iceberg. Last night school officials in Mt. Diablo Unified, just to our northeast, contemplated the desperate steps of closing up to seven schools, and the district is asking its employees for millions of dollars in wage and benefit concessions. District officials told the public that without the proposed cuts, they are on the road to bankrupcty and state takeover.

The same day, Governor-elect Jerry Brown had nothing but bad news to impart in a well-publicized education budget summit in Los Angeles:

The Democrat called education and public safety the pillars of a civilized society but warned that the magnitude of the deficit problem facing California is “unprecedented in my lifetime” and that the state must prepare for drastic changes.

“I can’t promise there won’t be more cuts, because there will be,” he told a gathering of school administrators, teachers union representatives and other public education officials from across the state during a special budget forum in Los Angeles.

Brown implored those at the forum, which focused on education spending, to “please sit down” when they see his budget proposal on Jan. 10. “If you’re in your car, fasten your seat belt. It’s going to be a rough ride, but we’ll get through it,” he said.

Insiders say that the cuts being contemplated for the 2011-12 budget could reach $500- $750 per student — which could translate to an additional $20-$35 million reduction for San Francisco Unified (that would be on top of the $113 million in cuts we made this past year, which reduced the length of the school year by four days in 2010-11 and in 2011-12, along with many other painful cuts).

So what I think is that we are in for a very difficult year — maybe even more difficult than the one we have almost completed.  In the words of our aging diva Governor-elect (channeling aging diva Bette Davis in “All About Eve”): Fasten your seat belts.

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In other news: I was suffering from some kind of virus last night, so I missed the Board meeting (which is why there’s no recap). But yeah: the Board voted to slash transportation by several million dollars (the cuts will be implemented gradually between 2011-12 and 2012-13).  I wrote at length about the proposal in my recap of the December 13 meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment.

The Board also voted to deny a charter to the C-5 International School, which was seeking  a Reggio-Emilia inspired K-8 school.

The appalling failure to include Eliza Schaaf

Today I learned the appalling story of Eliza Schaaf, a 20-year-old woman with Down Syndrome who enrolled in an “Introduction to Ceramics” course at Southern Oregon University as a non-credit student (the university calls this “non-admitted status”) this Fall.

According to her mother, Deb, “Eliza has always been included with her typically developing peers throughout her educational career and through that has developed a very strong work ethic and sense of appropriateness in class. She thrives on watching and learning from others.”  But despite every apparent effort by her mother to prepare the university and assist in a smooth transition for Eliza,  administrators abruptly asked Eliza to withdraw from the course with just two sessions remaining.  Today, the southern Oregon newspaper Mail-Tribune reported that Laura O’Bryan, the University’s dean of students, upheld the decision in a letter to Eliza and her family:

In the letter, O’Bryan stated that Schaaf’s enrollment at SOU was a “novel situation” for the university.

“The non-admitted policy was not designed or intended to provide an avenue for participation to individuals who are not otherwise qualified for admission to SOU,” O’Bryan wrote.

I hereby wish to invoke the power of the Internets to show Southern Oregon University how wrong-headed they are by failing to see the benefits (let alone the moral imperative) of including a person with a disability. Stories abound of students with Down Syndrome, like Eliza, who are now attending college — Katie Apostolides of Massachusetts is one example (she’s been profiled in The New York Times and U.S. News & World Report); former prom king Zach Wincent of Illinois is another.  Last year, our own CSU-East Bay announced plans to create a college program for students with autism.

It’s happening, Dean Laura O’Bryan of Southern Oregon University — 35 years after the signing of IDEA, students who have experienced inclusive environments throughout their K-12 educations are now knocking on the doors of colleges like yours. Eventually, they’re going to gain access. Wouldn’t it be better if you figured out a way to welcome them?

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.