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Education Desk Jan. 28, 2015

SCUSD Board Looks at Future Enrollments, Finances, Construction

On Jan. 22, Santa Clara Unified School District Board had a stuffed agenda – keeping the meeting going past 1 a.m.

The new year brings a new raft of state education funding changes, covered by Assistant Superintendent Mark Allgire in 18 minutes. There’s $4 billon in additional state education funding, bringing California’s education spending to about 60 percent of 2008 levels.

These increases mean little to Basic Aid districts like SCUSD. Since Basic Aid districts get more from property tax than the state’s per-pupil allocation, the additional money goes to revenue limited districts (the vast majority), funded by the state.

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In addition, there’s no additional funding for the district’s escalating pension contributions, which will almost double by 2020-21. Plus, the expiration of Prop 30 tax revenue – sales tax and higher income tax rates for the top incomes – by 2018 will cut off $7 to $8 billion in additional revenue now going to education.

The changes also include a new “huge” layer of bureaucracy for contractors wishing to bid on school projects; requiring them to demonstrate compliance with prevailing wage laws and registering to be on the “approved” list (at a cost of $300).

School districts will only be able to hire contractors from this registry, which will likely impact SCUSD because of the construction and maintenance planned for the next few years.

There’s also a new state public school funding “stabilization account.” This comes at the same time the legislature is imposing “severe” limits on now much local districts can hold in reserves. “So we just have to trust the state,” Allgire noted. “We’ve seen how successful this has been in the past.”

The board is also setting priorities for work funded by the new Measure H bonds for maintenance on existing schools in dire need of repairs and replacement, as well as planning for new Northside schools, and finding additional classrooms to accommodate class size reduction.

SCUSD Bond Projects Director Larry Adams reported that the plan for expanding the campus at George Mayne Elementary School triggers a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirement that the entire school be elevated from its current four feet to 13 feet above sea level. If there’s no expansion, the school can continue to operate at what FEMA considers an unsafe level in a flood plain.

A demographic report forecast that district enrollment will grow by 2,000 students between 2018 and 2024, two-thirds of it on the Northside. “Numbers jump when new schools open,” said Tom Williams of Enrollment Projection Consultants. “Families don’t move in until there are schools.”

Williams noted an anomalous drop-off in SCUSD enrollment between elementary and middle school. This launched a bout of sniping about whether or not SCUSD middle schools were “undesirable” or whether two years of denigrating middle schools and their principals by some board members had soured public opinion. Board President Albert Gonzalez quickly squelched this off-agenda discussion before anyone could say “data-driven,” although it’s likely that the board will take a look at this in the future.

The board also revisited last year’s discussions about acceptable proof of district residency, reviewing a revamped policy. The proposed policy change raised “civil rights issues” for Trustee Christopher Stampolis – people who only use P.O. boxes (never accepted as residency proof) and those who’ve recently moved and don’t have current rent receipts. As the clock ticked past midnight, Trustee Jim Canova interrupted, asking to move this along due to the late hour. The board agreed to use the revised policy and asked staff to recommend changes if needed.

Board Denies New Charter School Proposal

The SCUSD board unanimously turned down a proposal for a new, independent district charter school, STEM Academy of Silicon Valley (SASV), brought forward by Yilmaz Ak, principal of Magnolia Charter School – part of the Magnolia Public Schools chain, and a county charter that leases SCUSD’s Central Park School (previously Millikin Basics+ Elementary). Trustee Michele Ryan, a Magnolia employee, recused herself.

Magnolia’s lease expires in June. When it was signed, Magnolia was told it was likely the district wouldn’t renew it because, as turns out to be the case, the school is needed to relieve over-crowding at other SCUSD schools. Shortly after the lease renewal was refused, the SASV proposal was presented.

District staff’s analysis, reviewed by SCUSD’s legal advisor, Clarissa Canady, judged that SASV’s charter petition “lacked a realistic and sound financial and operating plan,” and inadequately described its K-5 program.

“It’s unclear where the startup funding will come from,” she said. “There’s a failure to provide any documentation. We’re completely unable to [identify] where those numbers come from.”

The same thing was true about the proposed elementary curriculum, Canady continued. SASV’s proposal also showed “very heavy emphasis on high-achieving students,” another group that Magnolia focuses on. “There are issues in terms of [how they plan on] reflecting the demographics of the district … about assessments … [and] whether they will be able to use Magnolia programs” – a basic assumption of SASV’s proposal.

“If you’re no longer going to be associated with the CMO [charter management organization], I’m concerned about financial stability,” said Trustee Andy Ratermann. “To start up, there’s a significant chunk of money [needed].”

“If Magnolia goes out of business they will turn [those assets] over,” Ak replied. “I’ve tried to get the commitment from the new CEO … I haven’t got any commitment. I will have to convince them. Otherwise I will have to get a loan.”

“I just heard you testify … that you do not know where the books are coming from,” Stampolis said. By law, acquiring the assets of a defunct charter school “would only happen only if they [Magnolia] would turn in all their documents to the CDE.”

“I have no commitments,” repeated Ak.

“Are you saying that if you get the charter, [then] you’ll figure it out?” Stampolis responded. “Do you have an actual plan?”

These responses “pretty much reflected what’s here in the report,” observed Ratermann. “This thing is so riddled with issues and problems. It’s a wish and a prayer. I have no problems with risk, but this is a risk with kids’ futures.”

“Don’t they have to do what’s in that charter?” asked Trustee Jodi Muirhead.

Indeed they do, answered Canady. “You can’t just change an aspect of the charter without [officially] changing the charter. For example there’s no loan in the application. There’s no debt service. That’s substantially different than what’s in the plan. The charter has to operate according to the charter.”

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