Who will fix our schools?
Everyone agrees Sacramento schools are in trouble. But solutions are hard to come by. See what candidates for the Sacramento City Unified school board think.
Your neighborhood school is in trouble. Even if the physical building is in good shape—a big if—the place may be in danger of closure because of low enrollment or, worse to some minds, low test scores.
At the very least, your neighborhood school has probably recently lost talented teachers and other personnel to budget cuts. And it’s become more and more difficult for parents, especially in low-income neighborhoods, to raise money for after-school programs and field trips.
Most California school districts are affected by the state’s budget crisis. But the problem is compounded for schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District because of falling enrollment and the loss of state money pegged to daily attendance numbers.
In fact, the district has fewer students than it did 20 years ago. Partly that’s a reflection of a changing population—as families shift to the newer suburbs and the central city grows in appeal for the childless young and the childless old.
But many chalk up the declines to substandard schools.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson certainly does. He’s throwing himself into an effort to “mayoralize” the Sacramento schools and loosen the grip of the Sacramento teachers union (see “Waiting for K.J.” SN&R Feature sidebar). To that end, he’s endorsed a slate of reform candidates in this November’s election for Sac City school board trustees.
There are three seats up for election on the seven-member board. The new board will govern a district that is facing its worst financial state in decades, with a superintendent and teachers union that have been at odds since the chief executive, Jonathan Raymond, arrived in the district a year ago.
And several of the school board candidates—not just the ones endorsed by Johnson—are speaking the new language of school reform: more testing, performance pay and tenure reform.
But just as many candidates are suspicious of new emphasis on testing and accountability—some call it punishment—being pushed by the mayor.
Parents, of course, aren’t nearly so ideological as the mayor or the unions. They worry about student achievement, but they also want their neighborhood school to be safe and well-maintained. They want their neighborhood school to remain open. Or they struggle with navigating “open enrollment” and waiting lists for the schools they want their kids to attend.
Can these school board candidates do anything about these problems? Can they even agree what the problems really are?
Pocket full of candidates
Area 6: Pocket, Greenhaven
When longtime school board member Roy Grimes announced at the last minute that he would not run for re-election for his seat representing Area 6, he immediately tapped his friend Darrel Woo to be his successor.
With his résumé and list of endorsements, Woo certainly seems like an anointed candidate. He’s been a Sacramento City Planning commissioner, one of several boards and commissions he’s served on. By day, he’s an attorney with the state Department of Insurance.
Woo has the endorsements of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, the Sacramento County Democratic Party and a long list of elected officials, like state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, as well as Sacramento City Council members Rob Fong and Steve Cohn.
He told SN&R that business owners in Area 6 are concerned about the quality of the schools. “I hear from small-business owners who tell me that some of their job applicants are just not prepared for life after high school.”
A longtime civil servant, Woo is opposed to ending teacher tenure or tying teacher evaluations to test scores, as the mayor would like to see. Instead, he suggests a peer-review process for teachers, similar to what happens at Lincoln Law School, where he teaches classes part time.
Among Woo’s opponents, Shane Singh, an attorney and executive director of the Greenhaven Soccer Club, seems to have the most money and organized support. Last week, he won the endorsement of the mayor and The Sacramento Bee.
Singh says his area is fortunate. “We have pretty good schools.” But he’s concerned about student performance districtwide. “If we don’t take care of the graduate of Hiram Johnson High School, he’s going to be breaking into your house.”
Singh identifies himself as a conservative and a Republican, but he doesn’t necessarily embrace the adversarial posture with unions that some candidates have embraced. Singh is more moderate on the question of tenure reform, for example.
“There should be a mechanism to identify problems, but we shouldn’t get rid of tenure,” he told SN&R.
He said he’d like to see the district expand vocational education, including a charter high school focused on careers in public safety, like police and fire services. Singh has won the endorsement of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, (soon to be former) City Councilman Robbie Waters, County Supervisor Jimmie Yee and the Sacramento Metro Chamber Political Action Committee. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, however, Singh has raised only $3,220, mostly in loans from himself.
By comparison, Woo is far ahead in fundraising, with the latest reports showing $28,000 raised this year. The biggest single contribution came from the ubiquitous Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 447, one of the main benefactors for local Democrats.
None of the other candidates in Area 6 have raised significant money. Sharon Owens Thomas is the most focused on teacher accountability and test scores. “Especially in Area 6, parents are concerned about test scores,” she told SN&R.
Thomas was a teacher in the Sac City Unified School District until earlier this year, and said, “The district needs to bring highly effective teachers into every classroom.” By her estimates, about one-third of the teachers in the district are “great teachers,” one-third “just don’t know how to do it” and one-third are somewhere in the mediocre middle.
She thinks the district should evaluate teachers based on student test scores. On the other hand, she’s not in favor of scrapping or making drastic changes to teacher tenure. “I was not a great teacher my first two years. I was good, but it took me three or four years until I was a journeyman teacher.”
Candidate Robert Bartron is a retired naval commander, and cites his long experience “in many leadership roles within a large bureaucracy” as one of his strengths. Bartron told SN&R that he declined an interview with Mayor Johnson, and that while he would welcome the mayor’s input, “The district is lead by the school board trustees, and not the mayor or the city council.”
Compared to the other candidates in the race, Bartron has posted a rather detailed description of how he thinks teachers ought to be evaluated. He eschews reliance on standardized tests in favor of judging teachers based on their expertise, lesson plans and their classroom technique.
A fifth candidate, Rob Gunn, was unavailable by press time.
Private schools and priority schools
Area 1: Land Park, Curtis Park, Downtown, Midtown
What’s wrong with Sacramento’s schools depends a lot on who you are and where you live.
“I’m astounded by the number of people in Land Park and Curtis Park who are sending their kids to private schools,” said Paige Powell, who lives in Sacramento and works as a high-school teacher in Roseville.
Powell is running against Ellyne Bell, the only incumbent up for election this year. She faults the current board, including Bell, for not doing enough to close the so-called achievement gap between white and minority students.
“I wish the board would spend more time talking about student achievement,” said Powell. Like all of the mayor’s picks for school board, Powell stressed the need to introduce more stringent evaluations of teachers, in part based on student test scores. “We absolutely have to look at teacher effectiveness.”
Powell is also in favor of at least modifying teacher tenure and changing the seniority rules that lead to pink slips for new teachers while protecting teachers with more years on the job.
By day, Bell is executive director of Wind Youth Services, a homeless shelter for teens in north Sacramento. She has the support of the SCTA, but helped to hire new superintendent Jonathan Raymond, who immediately clashed with the unions. Among the changes he’s made is introducing a policy on “priority schools,” removing principals in the schools that make the least improvement in test scores and trying to lure talented teachers to the struggling schools with higher pay.
“We hired someone to make some changes, to shake the district up,” Bell told SN&R. And she supported “sunshining” the teachers contract—asking for concessions from teachers even though the contract was not up for negotiation until next year.
Bell declined to sit for an endorsement interview with the mayor. “It just seemed like some sort of a power play. I didn’t want to go there with him,” said Bell. Her supporters believe the mayor is particularly interested in getting Bell voted off the board, because of her opposition to Johnson’s takeover of the Sacramento High School in 2003.
She also has a low opinion of the mayor’s interest in Sac City schools. “We have enough issues in our city that haven’t been dealt with which require the attention of the mayor.”
Powell, on the other hand, applauds Johnson’s initiative. “I think he’s on the right track. But I don’t know if he’ll be able to do everything that needs to be done. There’s definitely a tight union fist there,” Powell told SN&R.
Yet, when asked what she would have done differently had she been on the board last spring while the union was resisting cuts to their pay and medical benefits, Powell said, “I would hope that I’d be able to build a better relationship with the teachers union, as a teacher.”
Powell is endorsed by the mayor, County Supervisor Jimmie Yee and City Councilman Robbie Waters.
Powell has raised nearly $20,000 for her run. Most of it is from her husband, Craig Powell, the main benefactor of Measure B, an initiative on the ballot this November that would roll back utility rates and cost the city about $22 million. Powell is the only one of the mayor’s favorite candidates not endorsed by The Sacramento Bee. The Bee gave Bell the nod this time, noting she’d be the only member left on the board with more than two years of experience.
A third candidate in Area 1, Dave Ross, has raised little money so far. He is hoping to set himself apart from the other “special interest” candidates in the race, and says he’ll bring fairness and transparency to the board.
“We have a board that listens to the teachers unions, but not necessarily to teachers,” Ross told SN&R. He said that one of the questions he hears from parents while campaigning is “What do you do when you have a bad teacher?”
He answered with another question: “How many bad teachers have you really met in your lifetime? I wonder if we’re focused on something that’s really only a very small percentage of the problem,” he added.
While Ross lacks the money and institutional support of the other candidates, he has a long résumé of service. Ross has been a parent representative on the site council at Sutterville Elementary School (both his children have been district students). He also served on the Sac City District Advisory Council, and on board for the Cordova Recreation and Park District. His day job is running the ski-trip business that he owns.
As part of the District Advisory Council, Ross has been digging into the SCUSD budget for several months. One thing he’d like to do is to investigate many of the outside contracts that the district awards. “There are a lot of services we’re contracting out for a pretty hefty price. I’d rein in some of the consulting contracts and the special curriculum and get that money back into the local schools first.”
Where’s my high school?
Area 2: Midtown, East Sacramento, Elmhurst
Thanks to new area-based elections, neighborhood concerns are getting a new prominence in school board contests.
“I can’t tell you how many times the issue of Sac High comes up,” said Mary Hernandez, who is running in Area 2, covering East Sacramento, Midtown and Elmhurst. Hernandez is the political director for Service Employees International Union Local 1000 and making her first run for political office.
Her father was a school custodian, not wealthy, she said, but he did well enough that Hernandez feels like “fortune was on my side.” She said she got a good public-school education in the San Diego area where she grew up, but that “if I were a kid in today’s school system, I think I’d be in jeopardy.”
Hernandez is the only openly gay candidate running for office in Sacramento County right now. And she has a lot to say about making sure students don’t get bullied and singled out for being different. She’s also focused on student health, and bringing arts and physical education back into the schools.
“It’s not just the curriculum; we have to make sure all the elements of child wellness are there, too,” said Hernandez.
But while she’s knocking on doors, many voters are asking her what she’ll do about Sacramento High School.
Hernandez says that had she been on the school board in 2003, she would have rejected the charter awarded to Kevin Johnson’s St. Hope organization. Under St. Hope, test scores and college applications went up, but attendance plummeted to about half of its original level. Hernandez says the district has taken far too long to respond to concerns that there is no longer a public high school in the area for families who aren’t interested in the charter school.
“It’s been seven years, and we haven’t done anything to even create a plan on how to address this issue,” Hernandez told SN&R.
Jeff Cuneo, an assistant public defender also running for Area 2, agreed, saying he’s “committed to finding a solution to the lack of a comprehensive public high school.”
In his work defending juveniles caught up in the justice system, Cuneo noticed that “we’re losing a lot of the children in our community to gangs and delinquency.” That’s partly because schools are failing to show students “a viable path.” But, Cuneo said, “I’d like to see more active involvement with parents from day one.”
Cuneo has also served on the Sacramento County Children’s Coalition, which oversees the county foster-care system, and on the board of the Sacramento County Children’s Report Card, which helps oversee how the county provides services for kids.
Unlike Hernandez and Cuneo, candidate Andrea “Andie” Corso sees no problem with Sacramento High.
“The next time the district needs a new comprehensive high school, East Sac should be prioritized. But we’re very far from needing a new high school.”
It’s not surprising Corso would feel that way; she is a past administrator at that school, where she served as academic dean. “I was responsible for test scores,” she told SN&R.
She began her career in the Teach for America program after college, and then went on to get her master’s degree in public policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Nowadays, she serves as Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson’s main consultant on education matters and is helping to get his Stand Up Sacramento (see “Waiting for K.J.” SN&R Feature sidebar) organization up and running. Her checks come from the nonprofit, funded by donors like State Farm, AT&T and The Broad Foundations. She’s not officially a city employee, but her office is in City Hall.
She doesn’t mention her connection to the mayor on her campaign website, but if asked, she’ll tell you she’s very supportive of the mayor’s education agenda. “It’s not OK that looking at a child’s ZIP code determines whether or not they’re working on grade level. That is anti-democratic.”
She’s fully in support of the “value added” model of teacher evaluations, meaning that teachers should be judged at least in part on how much their students’ test scores improve. “Over half of the people I talk to say it makes sense to hold teachers accountable for student results.”
Of teacher tenure, Corso said, “I’m opposed to it in general,” adding that “It used to have a critical role in protecting teachers’ rights to free speech,” but is less important now. “We have those protections under the law already.”
When SN&R asked if Corso would give up her job as the mayor’s education consultant if elected to the board, Corso said, “No, why would I?” adding that she saw no conflict of interest. Later, however, she told SN&R she would give up the mayor’s job “if there were a conflict.”
Corso has raised more than $40,000, about half in loans to herself. Most of the rest came in small contributions from outside the Sacramento area. Earlier this year, she got the nod from the political action group Democrats for Education Reform—which supports a similar testing and accountability agenda. Corso is listed on the group’s “hot list” of candidates that supporters should contribute to. Last week, she got the official endorsement of Mayor Johnson and the Bee.
Needless to say, the local teachers union is not backing Corso. Hernandez would seem to be a good choice, with her union background. “It’s one thing to say, ‘We have to get rid of bad teachers.’ It’s a good tag line, but it’s really more complicated than that,” Hernandez told SN&R. “I think you have to have a dialogue with all the parties at the table.”
Hernandez has raised about $25,000, much of it from labor groups—including $7,500 from SEIU Local 1000, and $5,000 from the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 447. She also got $3,000 from the Stonewall Democrats of Sacramento.
But the SCTA has actually endorsed Jeff Cuneo.
Cuneo has done quite nicely in the fundraising department, too, raising $30,000 so far. But despite SCTA’s endorsement, none of his campaign cash is union money. And he says he wants to stay independent in the mayor-vs.-the unions fight.
“There’s a lot of rhetoric that the teachers are somehow in the way of progress. I think the education system is too combative,” Cuneo told SN&R. “I think running for school board has become politicized in a way that’s not good.”This story has been corrected from its original print version.