Catfight At The School Board Despite Gov. Brown’s Funding Pledge

by on May 23, 2011 · 1 comment

in Education, The Chronicles of Edumacation

After months of warning the public about the impact that an “all-cuts” California budget would have on San Diego City Schools, you’d think that the SDUSD Board of Trustees would be at least “not sad” over news that Governor Brown’s “May Revise” version of the state’s spending plan for next year actually restores about 40% of the anticipated shortfalls.  Forty (or Fifty, depending on which version of California Accounting 101 you use) extra million dollars is nothing to sneeze at.  Even the GOP’s Darth Vader (R-Death Valley) 2011-12 budget, pledges a similar level of funding for K-12 public schools.

Sadly, the better-than-hoped-for State Budget proposal (better because it promises more long term funding stability) has deepened divisions within the SDUSD Board of Trustees.  The prospect of a takeover by the County Office of Education, should the Trustees fail to pass a budget, is more real now than it ever was. Such a takeover, should it occur, will likely give encouragement to advocates of privatization of public education. San Diego’s County Office of Education is, after all, headed up by Randall Ward, a “turn around” specialist whose “top-down” approach to education management gained him both fans and critics during his tenure as the Superintendent of Schools in Oakland.

This “top down” approach was also the hallmark of former (1999-2005) San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin, whose legacy includes many of the divisions that plague SDUSD.  The “top down” management style, which is currently in vogue amongst corporate backed school reformers, has yet to create a replicable model that results in improved education for students within a big city school system. But it comes with one huge payback for the various corporations that have established symbiotic relationships with districts around the country—massive profitability.

Pearson Education, whose brands include Prentice Hall, Longman, Scott Foresman, Addison Wesley, Allyn & Bacon, Benjamin Cummings, PASeries, ELLis, Celebration Press, PEMSolutions, SuccessMaker, Waterford, and Family Education Network, has seen their profits soar from $293 million (2002) to $1.64 billion (2009) in the era of “No Child Left Behind”.  The front page of their corporate web site openly boasts of their relationship with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is active in funding “top down” reform initiatives around the country. A recent article in the New York Times suggests that the Gate’s effort is now been expanded to include seemingly independent (astroturf) advocacy groups.  (But I digress…)

The San Diego Conundrum

Left along the side of the road during the planning process in the hunt for savings in the face of a potential $115 million dollar deficit for San Diego’s schools have been librarians, school nurses, limitations on class sizes, and a wide variety of popular programs. About 1800 positions (as opposed to actual people, since many are less than full-time) have been eliminated.  All this cutting hasn’t made any school board member particularly popular with a wide variety of constituencies.  The school board president that (according to local reactionary wisdom) who was supposedly owned by the teachers union found himself as the target of a ongoing protest, triggered by the Board of Trustees’ decision to issue layoff warning notices for nearly 1000 certificated personnel. Other board members resorted to grandstanding (taking positions devoid of any understanding of reality, regardless of what budget they were voting on), hoping to please their critics.

So, now that the money—or a portion of it– is “back”, what can we expect from the Trustees?

Although the Governor’s “May Revise” budget has been the standard by which past years’ have been based on for the past decade (or more), Trustee Scott Barnett has allowed his baser Republican instincts to come to fore, essentially saying that this year’s version is bogus.  His position mandates that the SDUSD Board stick to its previous all cuts plan.  It’s worth noting that many observers feel that the County Office of Education may adopt a similar stance, one that could (and probably would) be over-ruled by the California Department of Education.

Trustee Kevin Beiser has essentially adopted a “head in the sand” posture regarding budgetary cuts.  As a working teacher, he most clearly “feels the pain” of the people who stand to lose their livelihoods as a result of budget reductions.  Local politicos that I spoke with regarding Beiser’s eventual position on the alternatives posed by the “May Revise” felt that he would ultimately cast a “protest vote” regardless of the proposal offered.  That stance will make him popular with the unions.  It will also likely lead to a County takeover of San Diego Unified.

Board member Sheila Jackson’s vote on anything these days is anybody’s guess, as she’s moved into John DeBeck’s old seat as the curmudgeon of the Trustees. Ideology and practical politics be dammed—if she deems the “wrong” persons to be in support of any issue, she’ll vote against it.  During the latest round of budget negotiations, she distinguished herself by holding out for no cuts for non-teaching positions, a position she’s likely to hold to as the Board considers the current version of fiscal reality.  But then, with Sheila Jackson, ya’ never know.

Board member John Evans has, as of late, become even more wonkish (I know, that seems impossible) on the minutiae of the budget and fears that applying too much of Gov. Brown’s “windfall” to this year’s shortfalls may come back to haunt the school district in future years.  It’s likely that he will vote to restore some laid-off personnel in both certificated and classified positions.  Class sizes for early learners, currently slated to balloon to a 29:1 kids to teacher ratio, might be cut back to, say, 24:1. (Anything over 20:1 costs the district money in State penalties that mandate teacher student rations)

President Richard Barrera is definitely the optimist of the bunch, with word being that he’s willing to consider rescinding the layoff notices to over 400 teachers, which could effectively reduce the classroom ratio to 20:1. He spent a great deal of (wasted) time at a recent Board meeting arguing that up to 350 additional layoffs could be averted through attrition during to retirements and relocations.  What makes this a more difficult proposition was that SDUSD’s Human Resources Department inadvertently converted nearly 400 instructors from (one-year) contract positions to “probationary teachers” (who have more vested rights) when it failed to mail a required letter (called a Kavanaugh notification, after a 2003 court decision) in a timely manner to those teachers.

To sum up, Evans and Barrera are likely to push for passage of a final budget based on Gov. Brown’s proposal. (Superintendent Kowba will introduce a measure that reflects the district bureaucracy’s view on June 6th.)  How trustees Jackson or Beiser will vote depends on how they’re “feeling” on the day of the vote. Scott Barnett is unlikely to vote for anything resembling recognition of Gov. Brown’s budget, and is unlikely to support any proposal that the other two undecideds/wild cards will advance.

The final date for the Board of Trustees to adopt a budget will be the meeting on June 16th, and it’s my best guess that the outcome of that meeting won’t be predictable. Or as Yogi Berra used to say, “it ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”

Postscript: The Trojan Horse is Still A’rollin’

Amidst all this infighting on the School Board, a local “reform” group continues its stealthy approach towards stacking the deck.  San Diegans For Great Schools, who turned over more than 130,000 signatures to the City in hopes of getting an initiative on the ballot that would (among other things) increase the school board by four appointed members, is waiting for confirmation that the signatures are valid.  The group used paid canvassers, and questions were raised as to whether their methods were ethical or truthful.  In the face of rumors that the measure might be disqualified (we’ll find out next week), there are signs aplenty that SD4GS has shifted tactics.  Some say that they are now banking on a push by City Council President Tony Young that will get the Council’s support for a ballot measure. Others are saying that the group is attempted to polish up its image prior to any election campaign.

What we do know is this: SD4GS has now “morphed” into Voices for Our Kids.  They are pushing forums featuring embittered (over losing a primary that she felt she deserved to win) ex-legislator Gloria Romero, who has become the State’s “Democratic” poster child for “Education Reform”. One educator that we are aware of received an invite to an upcoming gathering (June 25th, Recital Hall, Balboa Park) to testify about what’s “wrong with education”.

So it’s a now a kinder, gentler “reform” movement that’s putting up Democrats and ex-school board members (Mitz Lee) to front their nefarious notions.  Read more about this group here and here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

annagrace May 23, 2011 at 2:05 pm

Doug- I’m glad you are trying to make sense out of all of this–I’m struggling. But can you imagine 4 more people on the school board?


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