School board candidates: Area 6

Online only answers to SN&R’s endorsements questionnaire

Below are the responses from the candidates for the Sacramento Unified School District school board in Area 6 to SN&R’s questionnaire about local education and school district issues. Shane Singh and Darrel Woo were the only candidates to return questionnaires in this area.

What are the most important issues for schools in the area where you are running for office (Area 6), and what’s your plan to tackle them?

Shane Singh: Declining enrollment in our flagship (Kennedy High School); fewer and fewer Area 6 residents are enrolled at that campus. We need to improve our school in order to maintain our enrollment numbers and to compete with private schools and schools in the suburbs.

Darrel Woo: The most important issue facing every school in the district is our budget deficit. We have to cut another $14 million from the SCUSD budget next year, and this is going to require everyone working together to come up with solutions on how we are going to reduce spending. I am the only candidate in my area that has experience working on government budgets and contracts. I review budgets and contracts with a keen eye for whether they make business sense. If elected to the board, I will use that experience and approach when tackling the issue.

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.)

Singh: This question directly affects my area. Having been raised in Greenhaven, I am personally aware of the demographic shifts. The closure of the school was an appropriate decision, and I am also very pleased that the Waldorf school relocated to that site. My soccer club is working to improve the recreational facilities at that site.

SCUSD has about twice as many elementary schools as other districts in our area. I would consider a case-by-case analysis with regards to elementary-school-closure issues. I want every elementary student in SCUSD to be able to walk to a safe and high-performing school. I will keep that thought in mind as I make my school board decisions.

Woo: The district should have taken a more holistic approach to the school closure issue. Facility management and reuse of facilities should be an integral part of any discussion related to school closures. Rather than taking into consideration what a school closure would mean in terms of facility management and reuse, the school district chose to omit this very important component from the discussion. At one point during a school board meeting on this issue, board member [Donald] Terry asked then-Superintendent Susan Miller whether the district had a plan for what it would do with facilities that were being recommended for closure. The superintendent’s response was that those issues would be dealt with separately, after schools had been closed. I believe this was shortsighted.

Drawing upon my six years of service on the Sacramento City Planning Commission as well as the Locke Management Association, I believe any decision related to facilities (including recommended school closures) should be viewed from a planning perspective. The school district has a severe budget deficit. Therefore, when making decisions pertaining to which schools should be closed and which ones should remain open, figuring out which facilities could create revenue for the district (if closed) and which would serve as a financial burden to the district should have been part of the discussion.

Furthermore, the public input process should have been more transparent. It should have been done in a manner where decisions of gravity are flushed out in a public forum, with full transparency, so that every stakeholder has an opportunity to air their opinions, issues and concerns. I served on the SCUSD’s 7-11 committee (an advisory committee to the school board) earlier this year. As a member of the committee, I had the opportunity to work with parents, teachers and other community members on developing procedures for reviewing the closure and reuse of district schools. Judging from the frustrations of my peers, I could tell that the district could have been more transparent in its process.

That is why as a member of the 7-11 committee, I proposed if a school or schools were to be considered for closure or reuse that public workshops attended by board members and school staff be conducted in each of the affected districts. The purpose of these workshops is to spread the word to the community on the “whys” that closure or reuse is necessary, and to solicit ideas and considerations so that decisions are not made behind closed doors but with full transparency. Although the district held similar workshops around the time they were recommending school closure, I do not believe this process was as transparent as it could have been. As a board member, I would work more closely with the community on developing a more transparent process.

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?

Singh: I personally attended one to discuss the importance of SCUSD continuing its relationship with [the Sacramento Police Department] regarding [school resource officers]. It was sad that SCUSD was even considering the shuttering of this effective partnership. I have watched a number of meetings online. I feel that some of the current school board members are not prepared for meetings.

Woo: I have attended a few board meetings, but honestly I have not kept track of how many. Most of my involvement with the school district has been as a member of the 7-11 Committee. I do not want to accuse the current board of losing points because there is a possibility I will be serving with them in December, and I do not want to attack anyone in particular.

Instead, I will say that I feel the board as a whole could improve their communication with each other. I know there are divisions within the board. If I’m elected, I would like to bring the board together. I believe they made a good decision by choosing a new superintendent, and I feel they need to work closely with the superintendent to make positive changes in the district that are in the best interest of the community.

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

Singh: B. I met with Raymond last week. He has some good ideas, but he does have to improve his communications with parents. He almost had a major problem with the [School of Engineering and Sciences] “donation” to Hiram Johnson.

Woo: I won’t grade Raymond or mention where I think he loses points, because once again, I may be working with him in December, and I want to get off to a good start with our superintendent. However, I will say that he is a visionary leader, and that is the kind of leadership the district needs right now. I may not agree with all of his ideas, but I respect that he is a man of vision who is focused on getting the job done right. I also view him as a very talented leader and administrator.

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

Singh: C. The union leadership is out of touch with its rank-and-file members. I have met a lot of teachers that do not agree with SCTA on basic issues. SCTA did negotiate with the district recently. I hope to continue this dialogue.

Woo: Once again, I am not going to grade the SCTA, because I may need to work with them in December. And I will not criticize the organization. I believe they made an honorable decision earlier this year in making some concessions on their contract, and they did it for the benefit of the children and the district. I want to work with SCTA in identifying what teachers need from the board in order to do their job effectively. At the same time, I will be realistic and pragmatic about what the district can and cannot do for them in these difficult economic times.

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

Singh: Parents have to be engaged and feel important to the process. If a school is improving, parents will want to be part of the solution. In high-performing schools, parents will walk children to class in the early grades! Perhaps requiring parents to sign in students in grades K-3 will increase teacher dialogue with parents.

Woo: I like the teacher home-visit programs in the district and believe that needs to continue. We need to do whatever we can to make parents feel more welcome. This includes multilingual outreach to the diverse constituencies that make up the district. Parent involvement among non-English-speaking parents is the area where the most improvement is needed.

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?

Singh: I would have scheduled a series of meetings with [SCTA President] Linda Tuttle and “classroom” teachers to spend more time to effectively tackle this problem.

Woo: I believe simple negotiation tactics were what started talks between the SCTA and the board. In the end, all parties signed off on an agreement that was in the best interest of the kids and the district. If I were on the board, I would have tried to speed up negotiations by asking the SCTA to present an alternative proposal sooner than they did.

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

Singh: The priority schools do need help; the problem is that parents in nonpriority schools are feeling left out. I would work on an approach that attempts to mirror the success in the schools that have problems.

Woo: I believe the superintendent has made fixing priority schools one of his main objectives. I like that he understands that more time and effort needs to be paid attention to these schools. Once again, I believe outreach in multiple languages to parents is an important component to fixing these schools. Many of the priority schools in the district are composed of many English-language learners, and engaging the parents of those kids is extremely important.

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

Singh: Yes. A tenured low-performing teacher is dangerous to our children’s education.

Woo: I recognize that some changes are needed, because teacher tenure agreements are outdated. However, in this day and age, some modifications are needed simply because not all teachers perform the same. Although there are many excellent teachers, there are in fact some teachers who need to improve their performance or find another career. Granting them tenure does make it a bit more challenging to motivate them. At the same time, we need to recognize that tenure is one of the few compensatory benefits that come with being a teacher. So we need to strike a balance. Let’s modernize our teacher tenure agreements while keeping in mind that if we make too many significant changes, we may lose highly effective teachers to other districts.

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

Singh: Yes. We need to have some measure of a child’s ability to learn material. We need more tests in the K-6 to make sure we have a gauge of progress.

Woo: I believe a child and their teachers are worth more than just the sum of his/her test scores. So we should not be evaluating teachers based on just how well their students perform on standardized tests. We need multiple measures for evaluating teachers. With recent race to the top legislation passed in California, we need to develop teacher evaluation standards that teachers and administrators can agree on. I would look to other school districts around the country to find successful models and introduce those to Sacramento.

With regards to standardized tests, I believe we have enough standardized tests already. What we need to do is find other ways (other than standardized tests) to evaluate whether children are learning or need more assistance. I believe that the ultimate goal of education is to actually educate children, not just evaluate them based on test scores.

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

Singh: The mayor has a vested interest in making sure that companies interested in locating to Sacramento have a pool of “educated” workers. I support the efforts of any politician that wants to improve education for children.

Woo: The mayor should try to work with school districts to improve education in the region.

However, this mayor doesn’t appear interested in collaboration. He appears more interested in pushing his own agenda, which is more right of center than my progressive way of thinking. His answer to solving our education problems appears to be all about promoting charter schools. I, on the other hand, am more interested in finding ways to improve our public education system. That is why he has endorsed my opponent, who is much more far to the right on education, and in general, than I am.

If I’m elected, I will work with Mayor Johnson, wherever possible, to improve our schools. However, we have some very contrasting views on education, so finding common ground on issues will take work.

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?

Singh: After years of declining student achievement, Sacramento High School faced possible state takeover in 2003. Based on the state’s Academic Performance Index, Sac High now ranks in the top 10 percent of schools that have a similar demographic (high poverty, high minority), according to the California Department of Education.

I was raised in a rented duplex, and my family had its share of financial challenges. As such, I have a strong passion for programs that improve the life of disadvantaged children and prepare them for good, high-paying jobs. The evolution of the Sacramento Charter High School is one of the remarkable success stories for disadvantaged children. These kids now have chance to compete for higher-paying jobs in our area.

All of our high schools have declining enrollment (maybe except for Rosemont); it is not prudent right now to open another high school in East Sacramento.

Woo: We, as taxpayers, paid for that building. Therefore, we have a right to use it. It seems backward to me that Sacramento Charter is not utilizing half of that campus when the community could be using it for other things. We need to go back to the consent decree and get what’s ours.