Calming Twin Rivers
Sacramento’s historically troubled district is trying to leave the drama behind. Will school board candidates help or hurt that effort?
In its eight-year history, the Twin Rivers Unified School District has suffered more than its share of embarrassing situations, often at the hands of elected leaders who fiddled and bickered while their schools—serving some of the poorest students in the state—got burned.
Now, with three of the seven TRUSD board seats up for grabs on June 7, current school board members and those vying for their seats say they want to continue improvements under Superintendent Steven Martinez, not go back in time.
“I’m always going to run a positive campaign,” promised Basim Elkarra, an Area 5 candidate and executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations-Sacramento Valley. “That’s how I ran my campaign last year, and that’s how I’m running it now.”
But is Twin Rivers really over the drama?
It was just last year that the Area 5 contest between Elkarra and charter school champion Sonja Cameron devolved after a mysterious Islamophobic flier appeared in mailboxes of area residents. Both sides denied involvement and Cameron ultimately edged out Elkarra for the one-year term. Twelve months later, Elkarra is back out campaigning against community volunteer Michelle Deleon for the board seat that covers just two schools.
Deleon recently got into trouble for listing herself as an “educator”—a title she says she didn’t even want—on documents she filed with the county elections office. That status was tossed out by a Sacramento Superior Court judge after the Democratic Party of Sacramento County, one of Elkarra’s endorsers, disputed it.
“I asked to be labeled as a ’parent leader,’ but I was told that wasn’t an option,” Deleon told SN&R. “When I asked what I should use as a title, the county suggested ’educator.’”
So far, that has been the only issue of political controversy, even with nearly half the board in contention. (A fourth school board member, Michael Baker, is running unopposed.) The candidates are largely sticking to the issues.
And in Twin Rivers, there are many of them.
Since the 2008 merger of the North Sacramento, Del Paso Heights, Rio Linda and Grant Joint Union school districts, TRUSD has had issues with: an allegedly overzealous police force, cold classrooms because HVAC systems were collecting dust in storage instead of being installed, and a former trustee who tampered with a paternity test, among other missteps.
“Looking from the outside in, you tend to only see the bad,” acknowledged Area 3 incumbent Walter Kawamoto. “But when you compare this district to four or five years ago, you can see we’re going in the right direction.”
Kawamoto, who’s running against longtime community volunteer Ramona Landeros, says the district’s past problems with its police force is one of the main reasons he ran for a seat. “That first year or two was all about cleaning house,” he explained.
Cleaning house was also the recommendation of the Sacramento County grand jury, which released a top-to-bottom critique in 2011.
According to the grand jury investigation, the startup district was beset by a hostile school board, fragmented curriculum and perceived issues of bias against minority students. The jury recommended that the district dump its entire administrative staff.
The report lambasted the corrupted TRUSD police department for ticketing and towing cars to boost revenue, responding to and “jumping” calls outside of its jurisdiction, and misuse of paid administrative leave. One such case involved an officer who got paid more than $120,000 despite being on leave more than 500 days.
The scathing grand jury report and ensuing lawsuit settlements preceded a massive overhaul of the district’s top administrators and changes to how community members elected their school board representatives, approved by voters in 2012.
Months later, the scandal-prone district hit another low point.
In late 2013, then-Trustee Cortez Quinn resisted calls to step down while being prosecuted for financial improprieties that surfaced during an ugly paternity suit in which he tampered with DNA evidence. Quinn eventually accepted a plea deal from prosecutors, which allowed his board colleagues to force his ouster.
But that decision also set in motion a search for Quinn’s replacement.
In yet another controversial move, the TRUSD board appointed Cameron, co-founder of Pacific Charter Institute, to finish out Quinn’s term. The local Democratic Party fought the appointment and ultimately forced the district to pony up for a special election, the one where Cameron defeated Elkarra.
To parents and activists, these kind of interleague squabbles can seem out of touch for a district that has one of the most diverse—and poorest—student bodies in the state.
Hmong Innovating Politics organizer Jonathan Tran says district leadership needs to do more to help its teachers assist English-learning students and parents, for instance.
“Teachers’ troubles are hectic with having to adopt and teach Common Core on top of trying to teach EL students,” said Tran, referring to comprehensive educational standards California adopted in 2010. “[The district] tries to focus on big, controversial fights like public schools vs. charter schools, but none of that actually helps the education of these students.”
According to the California Department of Education, on top of the more than 40 languages spoken in the district, 29 percent of TRUSD students are learning English as a second language.
Another pressing issue is the high truancy rate, which directly connects to the district’s socioeconomics.
Under state law, a student is truant when he or she misses school without a valid excuse on three occasions or is late more than 30 minutes three times during the school year.
TRUSD has a 42 percent truancy rate, according to state figures. Its Grant Union High School teeters at a staggering 91 percent.
Linda Fowler, the Area 7 incumbent who’s been on the TRUSD board since the merger, downplays these numbers. “This is not just our area, this is statewide,” she contended. “If you look at the [state’s] statistics, you’ll notice that we weren’t below what is in the norm of California districts.”
That’s not entirely accurate.
TRUSD’s 42 percent mark is greater than both the county’s 38 percent average and the state’s 31 percent average. Those percentage points matter, and not just for the students who are missing class. An attorney general’s report last year showed that Sacramento County elementary schools lost more than $52 million in federal funds from students not attending class.
It’s a problem the district needs to solve, says Area 3 candidate Landeros. She suggests the money the district saves from addressing truancy could be reinvested in the students.
“We need to have an incentives program for truant students,” she said. “One of those incentives could be—let’s say a pot of money. Because the district receives money from [lowering] truancy, it should put a percentage aside that would go towards a college fund for kids.”
It’s not like the students wouldn’t need it. More than 75 percent of “chronically absent students are low-income,” the attorney generals’ report asserts. According to state education figures, meanwhile, 84 percent of TRUSD’s 31,035 enrolled students came from socioeconomically disadvantaged families last school year. In addition, 88 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
All the above issues collide when it comes to TRUSD’s struggling test scores, with 49 percent of students falling short of standards in state tests like the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.
Daniel Savala is one of Fowler’s Area 7 opponents. A representative of north Sacramento Councilman Allen Warren, Savala says the district’s challenges are widespread—and interconnected.
“Even if every kid had the best education inside those classrooms, the bottom line is, they all go home to one of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in the entire region,” he said. “We’re never going to change the city if we don’t help change the schools. And the schools will never improve if the people in the city aren’t making sure the neighborhoods are good.””
It’s not all doom and gloom, however.
One thing that even the TRUSD board candidates agree on is how the district has improved under superintendent Martinez.
In the years that led up to his 2013 hire, TRUSD had the worst student dropout and graduation rates—reaching 22 percent and 69 percent in 2010-11, respectively—out of all Sacramento’s major school districts.
However, according to new state figures cited by Martinez, TRUSD’s graduation rates jumped to 83 percent in 2014-15, and the dropout rate dropped to 9 percent—both records for the district.
In addition, half of the county’s 16 elementary schools that were awarded the 2016 California Gold Ribbon came from TRUSD.
“We’re no longer last in Sacramento County, and that feels good,” Martinez said. “This is a point of pride for the district and, I hope so, too, for the parents and students.”
The question is whether the school board and its aspirants can continue that progress—or subvert it.
For their part, Area 5 rivals Deleon and Elkarra have mostly put the trash-talking aside. And, on at least one issue, they do something voters in Twin Rivers aren’t accustomed to seeing from their political class: They find common ground.
“We have to get families more engaged,” Elkarra said. “And the district has to be more transparent with parents, because these parents are frustrated without knowing what’s actually happening.”
“Parents are frustrated because they don’t get enough information from the district,” Deleon seconded. “But district-wide, we need more parent involvement. How can [the district] know what parents want to see for their kids if it doesn’t get enough involvement?”
Sounds like a consensus.