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Santa Clara Education Desk: Oct. 16, 2013

Baby Boomlet Hits SCUSD

There are only six remaining kindergarten spots in the district, Santa Clara Unified Superintendent of Human Resources Brad Syth told the Oct. 10 board meeting. And because those six spots are in schools that are in Program Improvement – “persistently lowest achieving” by the California Department of Education (CDE) based on federal standards – the district, by law, must offer an alternative that’s not at a PI school.

The bottom line is that a new kindergarten class will open at Sutter in a few weeks. “We have a huge bubble of kindergarteners…where we’ve almost exceeded the space we have for them,” said Syth.

“Significant Gap” Between District Offers and Employee Demands

Contract negotiations with the Santa Clara Unified’s employees are not going well. Representatives of the teachers and classified employees unions were out in force last week to protest what California Teachers Association (CTA) president Michael Hickey calls a “significant gap” between what the district is offering and what the employees are asking for. Negotiations are conducted between the district management and employee bargaining units.

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“We are disappointed in the progress of negotiations,” Hickey told the board. “Every other district around that has uncertainties…has come to an agreement.”

The SCUSD unions are currently in the middle of a three-year contract, in effect until 2015. However, any party can “sunshine” – revisit – contract provisions, and employees are asking to renegotiate compensation and benefits in the face of a significantly changed budget picture. SCUSD has been in negotiations since last spring, and is the only district in the area that hasn’t renegotiated contracts written during the difficult budget years over the last decade, according to Hickey.

“The compensation that you say you can afford to pay is different from what you can afford to pay,” said Hickey, noting that the district will receive an additional $6 million from increased property taxes in the 2013-2014 school year. Speakers noted that in the last decade, district employees have had furloughs and the prospect of layoffs, and no increases in salaries or benefits.

First Steps Toward Consolidating Adult Ed

Superintendent Stan Rose reported on a meeting of a South Valley consortium to address the consolidation of K-12 and community college adult education programs. The consolidation is mandated by a state law that restructured education funding this year.

“We have started to talk about putting together a planning grant that could include all of us and serve as a model in the state as we move forward. The idea would be that the state would provide a funding grant for all of these agencies to bridge the gap. Not just making opportunities available at community college and adult school, but pushing it into the community where the people are.”

Open Enrollment Discussion Continues – How Much Attention is Enough for 11 Percent?

Last spring 1,747 parents applied for open enrollment for their children to attend a school other than the one in their attendance area – down from previous years according to SCUSD Classified Staff Director Michele Burchfiel, who made last week’s presentation. That’s about 11 percent of the district’s roughly 15,300 K-12 students SCUSD’s population. Another way to put that is that 89 percent of SCUSD residents are satisfied with their neighborhood schools.

Yet the board spent about an hour last week – about 30 percent of the meeting time – discussing the education options afforded to this 11 percent.

Of that number, 879 wanted to go to Millikin Basics – 6.5 percent. Only 93 were enrolled. The district’s two alternative schools – Millikin Basics and Washington Open – aren’t local attendance area schools, so all of their registration is the open enrollment process.

“I did a little subtraction,” began Trustee Ina Bendis, who has for years treated the needs of the open enrollment constituency as a top concern. “The number of children who applied to schools as choice one and didn’t get it…of the 786 in Millikin who applied to choice one but didn’t get a slot, how many of those were kindergarten, how many of the 786 were kindergarten?

“My point is going to be, I’ve made this point before and it’s fallen on deaf ears. But now we have new ears!” she continued. “We have 786 whose parents thought this was the best school…..there are two schools worth of students – and those are just kindergarteners.

“We have an open enrollment school whose parents wanted them to go there, [that would] fill eight times the kindergarten space…That says to me something about what parents in this community are asking…I hope that the superintendent and staff will listen to them more than we have in the past…Adding one more kindergarten class when we needed eight more kindergarten classes just doesn’t cut it.”

It’s clear the waiting list represents something, but what exactly isn’t so clear. Further, that some have applied for admission at both Millikin Basics and Washington Open, makes it difficult to see how this represents informed choice, because the schools have diametrically-opposed educational methods.

Washington features “whole child open learning where academic, social, physical and emotional growth are equally important,” while Millikin “stresses the teaching of basic education fundamentals…using established teaching techniques in a structured environment.” What the schools do have in common is high Academic Performance Index (API) scores – which some cynics call the “Affluent Parent Index.”

Hickey, who teaches kindergarten and first grade, made that point. “There are some other questions: Why are so many parents requesting Millikin? Is it based on a number printed in the newspaper once a year? What are we doing to highlight the great work we’re doing in other schools? This number in a newspaper once a year is overvalued.”

One parent reinforced Hickey’s point, saying that not getting her first open enrollment choice “was the best thing that happened.” By attending a neighborhood school within walking distance, her child was able to spend more time with nearby friends and in local activities, and the family could be more closely involved in school.

The board asked Burchfiel to return to the board with more information. First, how many students whose parents had asked for open enrollment in another school didn’t ultimately enroll in kindergarten in SCUSD? “If people live here and pay taxes here we should be meeting their needs,” said Board President Christine Koltermann.

The second question was, how many kindergarteners admitted under the sibling preference whose older brother or sister was in the 5th grade when the application was made (and therefore, wouldn’t still be in the school the following year)?

Trustee Christopher Stampolis also asked, “if we could have the actual algorithm” used in the open enrollment lottery program.

Last March, the board had virtually the same discussion on open enrollment, and last week’s chapter did little to crystallize any policy change. The most likely change in the near future – and the easiest to make – is to require that children from the same family be actually attending the school at the same time in order to get the sibling preference.

District Policy Update Continue Forward Despite Grammar Disputes

The Board approved the new complaint policies Section 1312.1-1312.4, complaint procedures, with considerable objection raised by Bendis over wording:

“When such complaints occur complainants will be directed to specific procedures.”

The gist of her objection was that the procedure mandated that Trustees “must” inform people of the procedure, rather than explaining that they “should” inform people about procedure. And her request was to change the wording to “…complainants will be informed of specific procedures.”

“That seems to me to be just what the AR [policy] says,” observed Rose. “I think the language is clear enough,” said Trustee Michele Ryan. “I don’t think we should be word-smithing.”

But “must” was precisely what at least one board member meant. “At the last board meeting I asked that board policy 9200 be agendized…because that has specific language about board member interference in [complaints against] employees,” said Trustee Andy Ratermann.

“We have had recent situations where employees rights were violated…under complaints. I don’t want them [complainants] to be just informed. I want this to be an obligation of board members to adhere to policy. As individual board members we have zero authority and we should have no involvement in investigating.”

Bendis wouldn’t give up, however, and tried to separate the question into two votes. Without a second, her motion died, and the policy was passed 6-1.

New District Finance Chief

The Board also hired a new Superintendent of Business Services, Mark Algier, who comes from Marysville. Algier, who will be on the job in mid-December, takes over from interim district finance director Terry Ryland, who has been filling in since the 2012 departure of Jim Luyau after a county audit found improper practices with regard to the district’s handling of subcontracted services.

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