School board candidates: Area 1

Online only answers to SN&R’s endorsements questionnaire

Below are the responses from the candidates for the Sacramento City Unified School District school board in Area 1 to SN&R’s questionnaire about local education and school district issues.

What are the most important issues for schools in the area where you are running for office (Area 1), and what’s your plan to tackle them?

Ellyne Bell: Preserving what is admired about the quality programming and offerings within Area 1, but also paying diligent attention to our priority schools. As board president, though, I am ultimately concerned with the success of all schools within the district.

Paige Powell: The most important issue for the schools in my area is the failure of most of our children to achieve academically. We have Crocker Riverside and Sutterville, which are very successful, and Jedediah Smith and John Cabrillo, where fewer than 20 percent of our third-graders have proficient reading levels. We must implement frequent benchmark assessments to immediately determine students who are failing to master a particular standard, and we must have immediate academic intervention for these students until they are no longer behind.

Dave Ross: Schools in Area 1, as with schools throughout the district, are all suffering from the current district financial issues. There are some specific problems that are unique to certain schools in Area 1, but the main issue is financial. My priority for the fiscal situation is to fund our individual schools to staffing levels they need to ensure success of all of our students. Monies to fund our individual schools completely will be transferred from the 5100 and 5800 outside vendor contracts. This is a gross oversimplification of a complex process, but I think it helps to get to the heart of the matter. Schools in Area 1 have a diverse social and economic population with some schools steeped in poverty, and others enjoy a relatively high-income population. The problems associated with poverty, culture, children of color, haves and have-nots is not unique to Area 1, but it is a priority problem. Ensuring that all of our students regardless of the schools they attend can participate in the enrichment programs that are offered is crucial to help level the playing field when they get to middle school. Not having these enrichment programs is putting these students at a great disadvantage.

I think that the way to determine if a school should be closed should be by the attendance of the school.

Give us your critique of the way the district has handled school closures thus far. What would you do differently? (Please be specific about school closures in your area.)

Bell: Less than a critique per se, I would point to the trade-offs and sensitivities that must be kept in the forefront as we consider closures. I would point to concerns I have with the closure of Alice Birney Elementary, in South Land Park, which was because of low enrollment, but it also was struggling academically (in the bottom 10 percent statewide). Fortunately, students from that school re-enrolled in the fall in other traditional neighborhood schools. Unfortunately, Alice Birney had an exceptional special-needs program that assisted many children—it was a difficult time and difficult decision. I am still concerned over the special-education programs in the district, though, and will work to ensure that parents and children will be able to find the resources that they need.

Powell: It is never an easy or popular decision to close schools, but in these dire financial times, sometimes that is the only answer. I would listen to all the stakeholders and community members before closing a school, and I would make my decision based on the impact on the community and the district’s overall finances.

Ross: The school district has chosen an arbitrary figure of $500,000 in operating expenses as the basis of whether a school should be closed or not. This dollar amount is still an unfounded guesstimate with no actual data being presented to the board that backs it up. The district has not studied or presented to the public the financial data of how much schools were costing before closure as opposed to after closure. The district has had a full year to capture the data but has yet to present it. The district’s outreach program that was done last year for the school closure was on the surface a nice attempt at involving the public, but ultimately was a farce. It was a farce because there was no hard data or criteria for how to determine if a school should shut down or not. This drops the discussion back to the emotional level of “We love our school, don’t close it,” instead of the “Your school was designed for 750 students and it only has 250 in attendance, and therefore only has x dollars to operate it, yet is actually costing the district y dollars to keep it open.”

Without this information, neither the public nor the board can make a decision that is realistic. When district staff is prepared to give the true operational costs of a school before and after closure, you can then move forward to determine if it is worthwhile or not.

The other aspect that must be considered in the determination of a school closure is the emotional cost it has on the students, parents and staff, and the fiscal impact on the community surrounding the vacant school. The current board should really assign a figure to that cost per student to truly know the number of students it takes to equal the $500,000 in savings.

Then, of course, there are the costs associated with students and teachers who now need to find other places to attend. It is also unfathomable that three schools would be shut down within one area.

Overall, the closure of schools needs to be operated on a definite long-term financial benefit to the district that supersedes the emotional and educational disadvantage that applies to the school community being closed.

How many SCUSD school board meetings have you attended? What grade would you give the current SCUSD board? Where do they lose points? What are they doing well?

Bell: Four years’ worth of meetings. I would give us a C, with points lost for board members not working together as well as they might, for not being prepared, and commitment to being on time and [participating]. Points gained for our new approach to governance and student-centered decisions.

Powell: I’ve attended numerous board meetings, and those I don’t attend in person, I watch from home. I’m hesitant to assign a “grade” to the board. I have no doubt that all of the board members are well-intentioned community members who care about our children. For that I would give them an A. However, there is not enough discussion at board meetings about actual student performance. One rarely hears how our students are performing academically.

Ross: Too many to count. As a courtesy to board members, since becoming a candidate, I have observed the meetings on the district website instead of in person. The board loses points for asking questions of staff repeatedly on the same subjects, adopting a system of governance that effectively requires them to have a hands-off approach to running the district, authorizing multimillion-dollar contracts without discussion as a consent item on the agenda, authorizing a budget that has up to one-third of its expenditures going to outside third-party vendors instead of local schools, the lack of respect and courtesy for the public when addressing the board, using their position on the board as a “stepping stone” to higher office [and] having meetings that run too long to be effective.

They get high marks for recognizing that they have not been getting the most complete financial information available.

What letter grade would you give Superintendent Jonathan Raymond? Where does he lose points? What is he doing well?

Bell: I would give him an A minus, with points gained for his ability to push for change in the district, and a minimal hit for not being sufficiently wary of the underlying political tensions and motivations within our community on the subject of public education.

Powell: I think Superintendent Raymond has the right vision for the district. I think he will have an almost impossible time fulfilling that vision with a union-backed school board.

Ross: I would give him an A for his overall public image, a C for restructuring Title 1 qualifications, an F for allowing expenditure reports to be pulled from public access.

What letter grade would you give the Sacramento City Teachers Association? Where do they lose points? What are they doing well?

Bell: I would give them a B minus. While building communications with the greater community always needs work, they should be credited for their willingness to innovate on what is best for teachers and kids in the classrooms.

Powell: The Sacramento City Teachers Association is very good at protecting their members’ interests, and I know that the union is comprised of many fine, hardworking teachers. However, I think that the union leadership often puts the interests of the adults it serves over the best interest of children.

Ross: I would give them an A for acting as a union only concerned with itself and its members, an F for not recognizing public distrust in the union and its teachers, [and] another F for not examining expenditure reports to invalidate the district’s “no money for teachers” stance.

What, if anything, would you do to increase parent involvement in schools and in their child’s education?

Bell: This is the very reason that I sought a position on the board in the first instance; furthermore, the district has just elevated the position of director of parent and community engagement to Cabinet level, therefore demonstrating the seriousness with which this is being pursued.

Powell: We need to do our best to reach out to parents. We need to assure when parents call a school or the district that their experience is positive. We need to assure that we are easy to reach and are immediately responsive. I also support the district forming partnerships with nationally recognized tutoring and mentoring organizations that will build bridges between home and school.

Ross: While parent participation is encouraged at all schools, it is especially important at the lowest performing schools. However, parents at these schools don’t have time, desire, education or many other reasons to participate. We need to first acknowledge that the above is true and then answer to the cause. Second, we need to recognize that when participation is going to be low we must de-emphasize parent involvement and increase emphasis on school involvement, such as homework clubs and teacher home visits. We also need to take the 1 percent parent-engagement monies and not be afraid to target it to events that include food and child care. Offering these services (as recently observed at the Cal Middle Back to School Night) is a bigger incentive for parents to participate.

What would you have done differently had you been on the board last spring, when the district and SCTA could not agree on cuts to teacher pay and benefits?

Bell: I was on the board last spring and voted for these minimal concessions, with my primary concern being that budget cuts should be kept as far away from the classroom as possible.

Powell: As a teacher, I would have tried to reason with the SCTA. Almost all of our neighboring districts’ teachers stepped up to do what was necessary to protect student learning in these difficult economic times. I would hope that as a teacher and a union member in a neighboring district, I would have the credibility necessary to reach an equitable agreement with appropriate concessions.

Ross: Since discussions were closed and all sides signed off on the settlement, I cannot tell you what transpired. Thus I cannot comment as to what I would do “differently.” It appears that the district and the union need to have a higher level of trust. The first step would be to place a board member on the team meeting with the union. Second, if an impasse is met, utilize mediation (not arbitration). Third, if the district and SCTA still cannot come to an agreement, there is no better way to come to a consensus than to have an open meeting that allows the public to hear the process.

What’s your opinion of the way the superintendent has managed the district’s “priority schools”? What would you do differently?

Bell: This is the superintendent’s role, not the board’s, and it is too early to tell; however, we should keep a keen eye on the leadership of each school.

Powell: We need to focus on our schools that are having the greatest difficulty, and we need to make sure these students are served by our best principals and teachers. I applaud the superintendent’s efforts in this regard.

Ross: Past efforts of the district to move priority schools out of [program improvement] status have not been effective. So, any effort that the superintendent has put in to this date can only be viewed as positive. We have less than a year of experience with the superintendent’s new directions, and therefore it is too soon to make a judgment on his efforts.

A positive way to assist the priority schools is to model those successful programs at nonpriority schools and implement them at the PI schools. However, I would not break up the working model by taking those teachers and placing them into the PI schools. This disrupts the unity and success of the existing model. Instead, have those teachers from the working model demonstrate and teach the model to the PI school staff.

Do you think it’s time to end or significantly change teacher tenure in Sacramento schools?

Bell: This would need further assessment before I could consider it, and this is certainly more of a contractual issue that need be researched and then negotiated, with the anticipation of a contract renegotiation in February 2011 in any event.

Powell: We must stop protecting chronically poorly performing teachers. I support reforming tenure rules to make it easier to dismiss such teachers if they fail to respond to retraining opportunities.

Ross: Yes. If only to address the public’s perception that tenure no longer serves a valid purpose. A teacher’s position can be likened to a person who tells parents how to raise their children. Not an enviable position to be in. Tenure helps protect a teacher from the variety of opinions that exist on how to raise and educate children today. However, tenure has also become a roadblock in the removal of inadequate teachers. We need to find a new balance that allows for protection of teachers from individual or group ideology and yet allows principals and/or districts the ability to address teachers that are performing at a substandard level.

Do you think teacher evaluations should be tied to test scores? Should students be given more or fewer standardized tests?

Bell: We should consider absenteeism, student test scores from the beginning of a school year to the end (not scores of last year’s students with this year’s), classroom observations, in addition to peer- and self-evaluations. In keeping with this multifaceted approach to teacher evaluation, fewer tests should therefore be needed.

Powell: Teachers should be evaluated on their effectiveness, and that can take many different forms. I do not think we need any more standardized state tests, as these tests do nothing that actually impacts student learning. We get the results too late to provide academic intervention. We do need frequent benchmark assessments to immediately determine when a child starts to fall behind so that we can intervene on a timely basis.

Ross: No. I would suggest applying the same mechanism that most companies use. Have the employees’ immediate supervisor be the primary evaluator. In our schools, a teacher’s immediate supervisor is the principal. The principal is the person who is best suited to observe the effectiveness of teachers “on the job.” Effective principals already use test scores from the beginning of a school year to the end, student grades, student behaviors, classroom observations, self-evaluations, students’ work, as well as parent input to measure a teacher’s effectiveness. If the district feels that is not adequate, then a better evaluation of the principal is required.

However, under Race to the Top legislation, teacher effectiveness plays an important role, and new methods of measuring a teacher’s performance will be needed to satisfy that legislation. For purposes of the legislation, I recommend looking at what other districts around the country are doing and work to develop a model that teachers, administrators and parents will be comfortable with that encompasses the best practices of other evaluation processes that have proven to be successful.

I think the current level of testing is more than adequate. Standardized testing is merely a snapshot view of a student’s performance. Students currently endure benchmark and standardize testing along with regular testing as part of their curriculum. I think that is enough stress for the students.

What’s your opinion of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s interest in school board elections and in evaluating area schools?

Bell: I applaud the mayor for his concern in the welfare of our community’s children and in the improvement of the educational system, but I believe that, as an elected board member, I have a duty to protect the interests of our public school system. Ultimately, the mayor has ample responsibilities and challenges that the city is facing without moving into the realm of the school district. It would also perhaps be best for the mayor if he did not attempt to influence school board elections, as his sense of political sentiment has not always proven to be reflective of our community’s willingness for institutional change.

Powell: The mayor has a natural interest in schools. We cannot have a great city without great schools. Sacramento has a history of mayors who have cared deeply about education, like Joe Serna.

Ross: I commend Mayor Johnson’s interest in Sacramento city schools, as I would commend anyone in a leadership position for taking an active role to promote their ideas.

What’s your opinion of using the Sacramento High School facility to house Sacramento Charter High School? Should that building be put to another use or should Sacramento Charter High School share the building with another program? Do you feel the district needs a new comprehensive high school in that area? If so, how should the district fill that gap?

Bell: The ultimate question is about facilities usage, and I voted to (at best) share this facility. It is a good charter program where it is currently located, but ultimately it is the program, not the facility, that might be seen as the success.

I personally don’t feel it is a right fit for this space; however, I think that studying citywide enrollment trends, while also conducting community meetings and surveys throughout the city, will help map out our future options for a comprehensive high school in this area.

Powell: Sacramento Charter High School is doing a phenomenal job with the students it serves, and we should be hearing more praise from the board for their work instead of constant criticism by a very vocal minority. If there is actual community support for a new comprehensive high school in that area and there are adequate funds, I would be open to that option.

Ross: As the building is currently under contract for the use as Sacramento Charter High School, an independent charter school, it is not an issue at this time. When the contract comes up for renewal, a circumstance triggers a contract review, or Sacramento High School comes up for review, the data at that time will determine the direction the board needs to take.

I do not believe we need a comprehensive high school in that area, as the school population at other high schools is not impacted at this time. Should the district begin to experience overpopulation at its existing high schools, a review of the Sac High facility would be reasonable. However, with the district’s emphasis on building smaller special-interest high schools, one in the geographic vicinity of Sacramento High may be desirable.