Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Don't Drink the ACUSD Kool-Aid

by Lisa Lucke

Currently, two important issues affecting our community are being considered by the ACUSD Board of Trustees: reconfiguration of our school district, including possible closures and/or consolidation of the high school and jr. high campuses, and raises for our teachers. At the last ACUSD Board of Trustees meeting, Trustee Mary Walser was quoted in the Ledger Dispatch as having said this:

"Do you want to wait 10 years for your raise, or do you want to see us do something now where we can save some big money and get things right?"

This comment was in response to arguments made at the board meeting as to why it was necessary to make such a drastic, permanent decision to consolidate the high schools, even in light of the fact that county population is expected to rise, and district-presented data shows that enrollment has leveled out and is expected to remain steady at least through 2020. One obvious way of interpreting Walser’s comment is that she is suggesting that teachers cannot get a raise unless the district saves "some big money" and consolidates the high schools, and conversely, two high schools cannot be sustained if we give teachers a raise.

In other words, one group, we'll call them "proponents of two high schools" should back down so that another group, we'll call them "teachers," can have the raise they so deserve. This sure seems to conveniently shift responsibility for these decisions from the board, to the general public and teachers. The potential for disaster here, if these two groups end up pitted against one another, is great. Is the district trying to leverage the need for a raise with their desire for high school consolidation?

To put it another way, it's almost as if Walser (and any Board member who does not speak up when comments like that are made) wants the public to believe a number of things:

1. The only thing standing in the way of the teachers getting a raise is the fact that we have two high schools.
2. The only thing getting in the way of keeping two high schools is the fact that the teachers want a raise.

I, for one, am not going to drink the Kool-Aid.

A couple of questions for members of the community, especially the Board of Trustees, to consider:

Has the ACUSD done a cost-benefit analysis that quantifies "some big money,” because I have been unable to find “some big money” on any of my calculator’s buttons. Or is Walser quoting Assistant Superintendent of Business Services, Tim Zearley? Is that what the board is requiring of the person who makes, according to the school district administrative salary data available on their website, between $98,000 and $109,000 per year? When I go on business trips, I turn in my receipts so that my employer knows exactly where his money is going when he reimburses me. The residents, parents, and taxpayers of Amador County deserve the same level of accountability from the elected officials and hired employees who are running our district. Our site principals must account for every penny that comes in or goes out of their sites. Why isn’t the District held to the same standard?

Is it sensible to take such a drastic step as to close campuses and consolidate others without knowing exactly what the short and long term savings will be?

If I owned a taco truck, and someone told me that I would make "some big money" if I changed locations, I wouldn't even consider the idea of relocating until I knew the fiscal benefits and/or downsides. Will it lower my overhead? How much more money could I make? Would the extra income be worth the hassle of changing locations, for me and my employees? Would it affect the quality of my product?

Why is the governing board of a multi-million dollar entity not doing the same due diligence? If they have completed the research, why aren’t they sharing it with the public and helping educate us on why their plan is superior? Thus far, it has not been shown that research is a necessary component in their decision-making process.

Teachers, are you comfortable with your employer not knowing the financial impact of consolidating our high schools? How many teachers will be terminated? Does the district have this information? If they do not, why not? If they do, why haven’t they shared it with us?

Teachers, parents and community members: given the fact that we are a small, tightly-knit community, in which our neighbors are sometimes our kids’ teachers, and our teachers are sometimes our close friends and family members, are you comfortable being put in the middle? Are you comfortable being made to feel like it's either consolidation, or no raise? Do you feel this will create a more stable, collaborative learning environment for our children?

Has the board considered the upheaval that this community will experience, including impacts to our students' learning environment, if consolidation is enacted on the basis of a hunch that it will save the district money “some big money?”

The ACUSD Board of Trustees, and the district office execs seem to be content to rely on enrollment projections, and to entice the public with yummy sound bites, such as, "more electives" and "more AP classes," etc., etc., when in fact they have no evidence that these two areas will improve.

Our high schools, such as they are at this moment, send students to Ivy League, UC and many other universities, including Harvard, UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, UCLA, and the list goes on. Our students can make anything they want to out of the high school education they receive right here in Amador County, with our two small schools. We do not lose AP programs because there are not enough students to fill the seats at two high schools, as I’ve heard board members and district personnel suggest recently. We do not stop offering classes because of a lack of student interest, as I’ve heard board members suggest recently. We do NOT lose valuable programs like auto because of lack of student interest; our once fully-outfitted working auto shop sits idle because we could not attract a dynamic leader who would nurture it and attract interest in it the way the previous teacher did. It’s almost as if programs have been left to wither away and die, like rusty hubcaps and dried up flowers on the vine, in order to sell the idea that one high school is the solution to all of our problems. But that would be preposterous, wouldn’t it?

One thing is true: Leaders make or break a program. The most successful programs at both schools are those led by dedicated people passionate about their mission, who year after year go above and beyond to make sure their students or athletes feel valued, respected and supported. These leaders not only know their subject matter and/or sport, but they know how to impart that knowledge and passion onto the kids. And students flock to them. We do not have waning sign-ups in certain sports or auto or art classes (to name just a few) because there simply aren’t enough kids to fill out the rosters; our programs have been left to wither and wilt because they have not been properly outfitted with passionate leaders (teachers and coaches) who are adequately supported and compensated by our district office, at the direction of our board. And why is that?

Our teachers have been working without a contract since 2012 and without so much as a cost of living increase since 2007. Our Amador County teachers are paid 8,000 to 12,000 dollars less per year than the state average of like districts. And yet Walser’s comment suggests that these two issues are somehow connected in such a way that they must go hand-in-hand in order for a solution to be found?

Were the board members who believe that one high school is the remedy for everything born knowing this fact, or can they simply not be bothered to produce data that supports it? The reconfiguration committee, in its final report, recommended further, deep research. They offered up their services to continue, and suggested the help of outside experts. And yet, we just keep getting spoon-fed helping after helping of enrollment projections pie and luke-warm glasses of Kool-Aid: not enough AP, we’re so broke, bigger is better, yada, yada, yada.

I urge the school board to follow the recommendations that I, and the other three dozen or so reconfiguration members spent a year of our own time putting together, and use it as a jumping off point: Direct the District office to investigate and release the data necessary to make an informed decision, which, at the very least, should include, 1) a cost-benefit analysis showing the short and long term fiscal benefits to consolidating compared to remaining “status quo” and 2) hard data defending larger schools with regard to student achievement (best of luck on this one).

Here is a bit of research that supports small schools and their benefits to student achievement. It took me about 30 seconds to find it. This is not a "one off." There is much more being published across the country all the time. The following quote is from GreatSchool.org (http://www.greatschools.org/find-a-school/defining-your-ideal/528-school-size.gs)

"In the 1960s the general thinking was that larger schools offered more comprehensive instructional programs of greater quality at lower costs than small schools (generally defined as schools of less than 400 to 500 students at the high school level) did. But in recent years researchers have discovered that the cost savings provided by large schools have had a negative effect on student achievement and graduation rates. As schools get bigger, student achievement declines and larger schools have higher rates of absenteeism, dropouts and discipline problems. In addition, "Dollars and Sense II," a 2005 study of 25 different small schools across the nation found that, on average, small schools spent 17 percent less per student than comparable schools in their districts while achieving equivalent or better results."

Before the REMAINING board members, who have not been pushing their own personal agenda of one high school for nearly two decades, completely buys into the idea that one high school is optimum for our district, I would strongly urge all members to do the research, beginning with getting out there and speaking to teachers—the true experts in the field—and get their opinion on how our programs, offerings, and athletic teams, could be improved—without any reconfiguration at all. I strongly believe your research should begin there. I believe you will encounter teacher after teacher who agrees that we cannot attract the highest quality teachers and coaches possible if we do not offer salaries that compete, at the very least, with neighboring counties.

If our teachers were paid a competitive wage, we might see more teachers and coaches applying for jobs in our district, and sticking around long enough to build quality programs. We would have a better, richer curriculum and universally stronger sports programs at both of our small schools because more people would want to work and coach here.

That’s pure, unfiltered spring water, right there. Stay thirsty, my friends.

The next board meeting is Wednesday, May 14 at 6:30. Parents and members of the community must get involved and voice their opinions. The board may well be making a decision on this much sooner than everyone thinks.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Upcountry Community Council Candidate Forum


All candidates who are running for Amador County Supervisor in District 3 or District 5 and for the Auditors position in the June Primary Election are invited to participate in our UCC Candidates Forum Monday 12th, 2014 at 6:00PM at the Mace Meadows Event Center in Pioneer.

We will begin with having each candidate introduce themselves and describing their platform goals and what they have to offer the people of Amador County. Each person will be allowed 5 minutes for this purpose.

Each candidate will pick a numbered card to determine who is first, to begin in answering the first question from the UCC Organization. All the candidates will answer each question. We will then rotate the candidates with each subsequent question so no person is always first in answering the questions. Each candidate will be allotted 2 minutes to reply to each question. After the candidates have answered all the UCC questions we will open the questions to the audience.

Proceeding that a UCC committee member will collect the written questions from the audience and the UCC committee will review the questions and consolidate all similar questions resulting in one question covering each topic to one or more candidates. One minute will be allowed to answer these questions. Other candidates who wish to respond shall have 1 min.

Any questions meant to be inciting, inflammatory or rude will be discarded.

We will present these questions until the allotted time is consumed.

• If any person or group of people tries to disrupt the forum or makes a personal attack on any candidate they will be asked to leave and ushered out of the meeting.

• Our goal is to have a respectful and informative forum so that our upcountry residents and businesses will learn about who might best represent them.