Not by the numbers

Former teacher falls out of good graces with district over school-closure disagreement

Karen Swett is something of a guru when it comes to school budgets, particularly in the Sacramento City Unified School District, where she was once a teacher.

Though retired from the district, she was until a few weeks ago given access to the school district’s online budget data. It’s all public information, but most of us have to go through the district public-information office to get it. Swett got to pull information for herself, accessing the online system, called Escape, and the ability to generate reports on her own.

She says the access came from Superintendent Jonathan Raymond himself, so that she might help the community better understand school budgets. Swett used her access and her knowledge to work with parents and with the many official school site councils—made up of teachers and parents and principals—who meet to figure out how to make the best of the limited dollars available to each school. She even formed a little nonprofit called Making Cents Work, to help school sites and residents navigate the sometimes bewildering terrain of school finance.

For the most part, Swett kept a pretty low profile, even when she saw things at the district she didn’t agree with. But she couldn’t keep quiet about the district’s mass closure of schools in Sacramento low-income neighborhoods. It didn’t make any sense to her, didn’t save much money, and much more money was being wasted or left on the table in the form of “categorical” funds from the state.

She said so, leading community meetings and working with others who are fighting school closures to come up with an “alternative budget.” She tried to talk some members of the Sac city school board of trustees, hoping to show them just how damaging and unnecessary the school closures were. But those men had already made up their minds long ago.

Jonathan Raymond giveth, Jonathan Raymond taketh away. For wavering from the district’s line, the district cut Swett off from the valuable budget information.

“It has become very clear to me that the information that you are providing to sites and to Board members does not clearly and accurately reflect the actual financial position of the District,” wrote Richard E. Odegaard, the district’s interim financial officer, to Swett. “Your access will be terminated effective today.”

Swett was getting increasingly vocal about the fact that many of the schools slated for closure consistently have big chunks of restricted or categorical state money left over every year.

You can see that clearly in the financial reports that the district has made public. The disagreement is merely over how much flexibility the district has with those funds. Swett says a lot, the district says none. And it’s pretty clear the district cut Swett off because she was contradicting them.

“There has seemed to be a misunderstanding from some in the community about district budgets and available resources,” said district spokesman Gabe Ross. The “lack of context” around the budget data from the online system, said Ross, “may have contributed to the confusion, hence the timing of the decision.”

A lot of people are still working hard to keep these neighborhood schools open—even as the district tries to shut up its critics and finish the deed. Perhaps that is why district officials are moving to clamp off public information. The new political group Hmong Innovating Politics is still organizing parents at the affected schools. A civil-rights lawsuit is in the works—students of color account for 93 percent of the kids displaced by the decision—as is a grand-jury complaint.

Some parents are pushing for recall of certain board members. That seems to Bites unlikely to succeed, unless the teachers’ union throw in money and volunteers in hopes of getting a new board and getting rid of Raymond. That would be morally complicated for them, however, since the union has been in favor of school closures in the past and was late in opposing this plan.

It seems more likely that some board members will find it a bit harder to win re-election, or they may get the cold shoulder from some former allies when they reach for higher office—say, county supervisor. Bites figures the old rules still apply, and under the old rules the politicians who voted to close schools likely won’t pay the price for their actions. Poorer communities, the ones that are most hurt by this decision, are still the least likely to come out to the polls.

But people are mad, and the district keeps giving them more reasons to be. Many displaced students are getting shunted into schools they don’t want to go to, even though they were promised “priority” in the open-enrollment process. And the more the district does clumsy, autocratic things, like cutting its critics off from information, the madder folks will get.