Nearly every chair was filled last night at the OB Town Council monthly general meeting. Many of the some thirty folks in the audience had come to hear Scott Himelstein speak about his group’s “reform” plans for City schools.
Himelstein had invited himself to deliver another spiel about “San Diegans 4 Great Schools” and was the night’s guest speaker. The group is going around town in an effort to get their message out to community groups. OB was the second stop on Himelstein’s rounds. Last week he had been in Tierrasanta.
After describing his group as a “coalition of businesspeople, parents, teachers and philanthropists”, Himelstein gave his pitch: the schools are failing, they have troubling results, money per student is rising, and it was time to examine how to build in greater accountability in the governance of the School District – one of the largest in the state. His big line: “the system of governance has not changed since 1931.” “It was time to evolve,” Himelstein explained. He downplayed one of his group’s ideas for change: have a special committee appoint four new seats to the School Board, which currently has five members – each elected from their districts.
Once Himelstein had finished, Council president Jim Musgrove asked for questions – and the hands shot up. And for the next half hour, Himelstein fielded queries that were not that sympathetic to his message.
“I see alot of business interests taking a lot of interest in our education system,” Annie, a resident who is also a teacher stated. She went on to lay out a scenario that challenged Himelstein’s views of test results and asked him if other factors besides money and test scores were taken into account. This was a good part of the tenor of the questions, as residents, School District staff and OB Rag bloggers kept up the pressure on the “reformer.”
Himelstein complained that the School Board had become politicized and resisted any changes to the numerous superintendents’ ideas over the past half decade.
Somebody asked where the money to fund the group’s study came from, and Himelstein acknowledged that the studies and the group wereas funded privately “by a couple members of the coalition.”
A male member of the audience asked “why not split the (School) District” instead of increasing the number of seats on the board? This had not been studied, Himelstein replied. He did say that all large school districts “are struggling.”
Doug Porter challenged him and his figures because they didn’t take into account the charter schools the District funds. Himelstein said he stood behind the numbers in the report. Others asked if the group had looked at private school scores and enrollment stats. Himelstein acknowledged that although public school enrollment was down 11%, private schools were down 22%, but charter schools were up 60%.
Himelstein kept floating the figure of 90% – the percentage of district monies spent on salaries and benefits of teachers and other employees. He was asked what other districts spend in comparison, and he did say it was not that unusual to see those numbers in large school districts.
Himelstein was pointedly asked, since he had earlier described his “coalition” as including teachers, just how many current teachers from the district were involved in his group. After squirming around that question, he finally said there were “two.”
This led me to ask Himelstein about other members of the group, that since it included billionaire Jacobs from Qualcomm, Danmeyer – who funded the study – a venture capitalist, and Cushman – a guy who built an empire from car sales, wasn’t the group and its effort an attempt by San Diego’s establishment to change the Board and wasn’t their effort also politicizing what they describe as an already politicized board? Himelstein simply responded that those were my views.
Frances Zimmerman – a former District Board member – and Bernie, a District information officer, were also in the audience and both raised good points that test scores were gradually improving among District students.
Mike Berrill, a resident and teacher stated: “I find it unbelievable that you guys don’t know where you’re going. People don’t spend that much money without knowing. … You have a way bigger problem than squabbling board members …. This was another dog and pony show, another typical San Diego power play by people with money to benefit people who have money.”
Annie, who had been the first to ask questions, summarized with this: “We’re still healing from the (Alan) Bersin regime and Bush’s No Child Left Behind and we need time to recover.”
Here is Emily Alpert’s version, of Voice of San Diego.