Last night the Board approved the District’s Facilities Master Plan (FMP) — this is the road map for the building and renovation of our facilities over the next decade. The version posted online was not the final one passed — there were a few minor changes in language and organization of “phases” for certain projects — the revised one will be posted soon on the district web site. This is a major step forward and allows us to start the work on design and construction.
The FMP is not just about Measure H — it’s about our broader facility needs, and as you can see in the plan, we outline projects that cost far in excess of the $72 million authorized under Measure H. However, we identify other potential sources of funding, which include state grants, separately financed projects (such as for sustainability initiatives), and private grants and donations. Although the intent is to do projects at each school site (particularly on technology infrastructure and sustainability), the bulk of the work will happen at the middle school sites and in the building of our new 4-5 schools. In addition, it is a priority to find a new location for the San Carlos Charter Learning Center (CLC) in order to create more space on the Tierra Linda campus.
On a related note, the Board gave direction to the Superintendent to proceed with his proposed Design Team for the new 4th-5th grade schools. This is a team of administrators and teachers who will work over the next 18-30 months to design the curriculum, structure, and personnel model of our new schools. Their role will also be to ensure that the physical design of the schools aligns with the curricular design. This will be the first substantial opportunity to re-think many of the historical elements of public schools and to implement a real 21st century learning environment, both in terms of the physical learning spaces as well as the very design of the curriculum and school day itself. It will be the first instantiation of our overall District Strategic Plan which we will finalize by the end of this school year. I’m looking forward to seeing it develop!
Last night the board passed the first ever Sustainability Policy adopted by the San Carlos School District. I’m very excited about this!
The policy is of course just a first step toward (and a prerequisite for) real action on this front. The policy is designed to be reasonably holistic and cover a number of areas, including:
- Integrating environmental education and stewardship into the curriculum
- Develop programs to monitor consumption and conserve use of natural resources such as energy and water
- Build capacity for renewable energy generation, e.g. solar power, for all school sites
- Commit as much as possible to use of green building materials in new construction, including all our upcoming construction related to our Facilities Master Plan and recent bond measure passage.
Of course this is all easier said than done. It will take a lot of work and many years to fully implement the ideals stated in this policy. But this policy will give us a road map for future work and will also potentially allow us to qualify for grants to pursue additional projects in the area of sustainability. In addition to the obvious ideas such as adding solar panels at each school site, we have to think about how do implement programs that both make our infrastructure more energy (or water) efficient but also potentially change behavior to reduce our footprint. So, I predict a lot more to come in this area, but it was certainly a big step last night. I’m proud to live in a community that almost universally has such a commitment.
Click here to read the full policy.
Last month I gave a preliminary take on the Governor’s proposed budget, which looks to replace our existing funding system with a new Local Control Funding Formula. Last week the State Department of Finance released it’s district-by-district calculation on the impact of the LCFF. It should probably come as no surprise that San Carlos comes out at the low end of that calculation (it would remain the lowest funded district in San Mateo County) with its relatively high income population and low percentage of English language learners, while at the same time being a Revenue Limit district. Unlike a similar proposal the Governor made last year which would have actually re-distributed existing funding, this proposal has a “hold harmless,” meaning that no district will lose money compared to what it has now. Although I like the concept of this new system, there are issues in the details, particularly as it relates to San Carlos. Unfortunately we may be held to a low funding level for a long time. I re-print my article published yesterday in EdSource today which goes into more explanation:
I want to like the governor’s proposal — I really do. Governor Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula is certainly the first sign of real and meaningful education finance reform in decades. As a very active voice decrying our dysfunctional system, I should be jumping for joy right now, shouldn’t I? The governor absolutely needs to be commended for his political courage and vision to change this system, and the notion of directing more money to districts with higher needs is spot on. And folks who are more politically savvy than I in the ways of Sacramento tell me this is the best chance we’ll have to make these changes. So, what’s the problem?
To be clear, I have always argued that communities with economically disadvantaged students and English-language learners should get more funding, and if anything the weights in Gov. Brown’s LCFF probably aren’t nearly enough to compensate for the inherent challenges in educating certain populations. However, I have also argued that adding universal preschool would go a long way toward leveling the field for our students, and ironically may even be more powerful—and maybe even cheaper in the long run—than compensating districts in later grades for more challenged populations. Despite the recent attention this issue has been getting (not unrelated to the president’s call for expanded preschool), this issue seems to be mostly absent in this conversation at the state level about education finance reform despite its clear linkage.
The LCFF also presents some very practical challenges for districts such as my own. Ours, like 90 percent of districts in the state, is a Revenue Limit district, meaning that its funding is essentially dictated by the state, but we live in a high cost-of-living area with a middle-upper income population. So, properly, we’re on the low end of this weighted formula, but that hardly accounts for what it really takes to educate our children. For example, the most obvious “weight” missing in the LCFF formula is regional cost of living. Ultimately, it’s not the inputs (e.g., money) that matter but rather the outputs—what you can do with money. We must pay teachers a higher amount than most other places in the state or else they wouldn’t even be able to afford to live within a commuting distance! So, the same dollar does not buy the same teacher (or administrator, or counselor, or librarian, etc.) across the state. I’ve discussed this issue with a number of our state representatives who generally agree that although this is an honest intellectual argument, it’s a dead political one. No one is going to stand up and advocate to give more money to “rich” districts despite the truism that some places get more for their dollar than others. Although this issue is a challenge for my district, it also affects the number of economically disadvantaged communities within our county that still suffer from the same relative high cost-of-living pressures. Although they will gain from the “weights” in the LCFF compared to a district like mine, they will still lose out compared to similar districts in other counties.
One potential political “compromise” here is the lowering of the parcel tax threshold to 55%. SCA 3 would place a measure on the ballot, which if approved by voters would lower the threshold to pass a school parcel tax from the current two-thirds required. Although I am a supporter of doing this in any case (as the 2/3 requirement has been particularly onerous, and lowering it will allow more communities to help fund themselves), its passage would act as a bit of a counterweight to the inherent bias in the current LCFF formula against districts in higher cost-of-living areas—many of these (although not all) have demonstrated an increased capacity to tax themselves to compensate.
The next big issue is the definition of LCFF’s “hold harmless” concept (the promise that no district will lose money versus what it gets today). Of course the LCFF is a major improvement over last year’s Weighted Student Formula, which would have actually taken base money away from districts (including mine), but the hold harmless provision still misses two key points. First, we will still be losing some streams of “categorical” money that we received in the past and which, in our case, won’t be made up by the new LCFF weights. Second, many revenue limit districts are funded at a rate 20 percent below what they were pre-recession. And California wasn’t exactly funding our schools well even at that time. So, the promise to hold us flat at our current lower level is cold comfort. According to our preliminary calculations, our district will crawl back to its pre-recession funding level once the formula is fully implemented (assuming state revenue projections hold up). This is consistent with the governor’s plan to take seven more years to bring districts back to their 2007-08 funding levels, but this means it effectively will have taken over a decade—more than an entire generation of students in our K-8 district—just to return to the modest level of funding we had before. The obvious alternative—as discussed in the interview with Assembly Chair Joan Buchanan in EdSource Today back in November—is to first restore all districts to pre-recession levels before implementing the weighted formula. But of course this would cost a lot more money and would delay relative funding for those districts most in need.
Lastly, we have an expectation-setting problem. Each of our local communities (and our employees) may have greater expectations than reality will bear out. On a statewide level, just like the passage of Proposition 30 last November, LCFF implementation runs the risk that it will give many the erroneous assumption that we have now “fixed” the problem. It’s a major step in righting the ship, and I continue to applaud the efforts. But unless we recognize that it is just a first step, California will continue to systematically underfund public education and shortchange our future…we will have just spread around the misfortune a little more rationally.
Last night the administrative team came back with the proposal for middle school math based on the board discussion we had in November. The plan is a very rational approach — developed by the teaching and administrative staffs at the middle schools and the district office — that aligns the approach between the schools and gives more students an opportunity to take higher level math classes.
As I wrote about then, this has been a long-standing issue in our district that has unfortunately been ignored (including by the Board). Historically, our two middle schools have approached math differently, both in terms of the criteria of which (and how many) students get into Algebra and Geometry and how they teach Geometry (Central has a teacher, TL kids go to Carlmont to take the class). In addition, the district has been very conservative compared to comparable neighboring districts in terms of the percentage of students who are placed in higher math classes (e.g., we place about half as many kids in 8th grade Geometry as do Belmont or Menlo Park, and in those two districts, 100% of their kids still score proficient or advanced — so clearly they are not stretching by any means).
Although the full effects of the changes will take two years to implement, the schools will begin applying the new criteria for placement for next school year. And we will use the same methodology at both Central and Tierra Linda. The criteria will include a number of factors, including multiple test data points, course grades, and teacher judgment. We also discussed last night how we can create a system to get both student and parent feedback into the decision process. The staff will develop the specific criteria over the next couple of months. Also, TL will join Central in having it’s own Geometry teacher, ending the practice of sending kids across the street to Carlmont to take that class. The chart below outlines the general pathways that students will have through middle school math.
Clearly the major decision points will happen between school years, but this system will also be designed so that there is some fluidity with students moving up or down as appropriate during a school year, most likely at the end of trimesters. Although those adjustments should be rare, we certainly want to give the opportunity for students to be re-assigned if the original placement wasn’t appropriate. We must also recognize that some of the specifics may change as we migrate to the Common Core Standards. Lastly, we all agreed that this remains a work in progress — we should monitor the outcomes of the system at the end of each year and adjust as necessary.
This is one of those “it’s about time” moments, and I appreciate all of the hard work by the district office and the teachers to finally make this a reality.
Four and half years ago, the then San Mateo County Treasurer (Lee Buffington, now deceased) lost tens of millions of dollars from public agencies across the county because he held almost 6% of the county portfolio (in which all public agencies are required to invest their cash) in bonds of Lehman Brothers. SCSD lost around $600,000. Although I won’t recount all of the details (I first wrote about the loss in October 2008), the level of incompetency was incredible (both to miss the warning signs about Lehman which were common knowledge as well as the practice of putting that high of a percentage of a portfolio in any single issuer), but perhaps even more incredible was the lack of responsibility taken by the Treasurer.
Two years later, I reported that our district had joined many others in a lawsuit against the Treasurer (with a subsequent update in January 2011). In the meantime, the then Deputy Treasurer, Sandie Arnott, won election as the new Treasurer in November 2010, and Mr. Buffington passed away in December 2011.
The wheels of justice turned very slowly, and unfortunately not in our favor. In November of 2011, the court gave a tentative ruling denying the plaintiffs’ claims. And just this week, a three judge panel of the State Appellate Court affirmed the earlier court’s ruling. Although I imagine we could appeal again, I suspect this is the end of the line.
The court essentially ruled that the Treasurer and his office have immunity from these sorts of civil suit. As I am no attorney or expert on government law, I can’t comment on that specific legal issue. However, I will say that a wrong was certainly not righted. Maybe the Treasurer does have legal immunity, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about the loss to our public schools due to the incredible incompetence and negligence of that office. We all deserved better.
The education community is positively giddy about Governor Brown’s budget proposal announced yesterday. All the details will not be released for a few weeks, but the major points appear to be the following:
- Overall increase in education spending by 5%
- Beginning to pay off the “deferrals” to schools (those payments made in the following fiscal year)
- The phase in of a new Local Control Funding Formula
- Removal of most “categorical” programs and increase of flexibility and control to local districts
- An overall state budget that is balanced and perhaps may even see a surplus
Clearly, some of the Governor’s flexibility is due to the passage of Proposition 30 (and 39), but presumably some of it must be based on more optimistic overall economic projections. This may be justified, but I remain cautious. For the last few years, we’ve been witness to budgets that have been pure fiction, requiring downward revision in the middle of the year. I believe Gov. Brown is genuine in his attempt to have a rational and balanced budget, and I take him at his word that education is a priority. However, after five years of bad news, the education community is chomping at the bit for a glimmer of hope, so let’s come down from the cloud and set our expectations appropriately.
The Local Control Funding Formula (which is effectively a rename and a tweak of the last year’s proposed weighted student formula), makes a lot of sense. It made sense last year, although then it was based upon a zero-sum game, where some districts would get money redistributed from others. The reason that WSF didn’t go anywhere last year was the strong objection from suburban districts — including ours — that would have been severe losers in such formula. Yes, Ravenswood needs more resources than San Carlos, but even San Carlos is far below where it needs to be, which is why any new formula requires more money in the system. And like last time, the formula doesn’t appear to take into account one of the biggest drivers of costs — regional cost of living. I appreciate the political difficulty in getting folks to agree to that, but perhaps the simultaneous approach by the state to place a measure on the ballot to lower the parcel tax threshold to 55% would somewhat mitigate this problem.
We probably won’t know for a few weeks how the new formula will affect each district — it’s implicit in the Governor’s statements that perhaps by raising the overall base funding for all districts (and/or having a “hold harmless” or phase-in), there won’t be districts that will lose money based on this approach. But we need to wait and see. The San Mateo County School Boards Association is having an event with state representatives Rich Gordon, Kevin Mullin, and Joan Buchanan (chair of the Assembly Education Committee) and by that time we should get more details, and I’ll report back.
Looking at the big picture, we have to recognize that most districts have had their budgets cut by 20% or more over the last five years (and even five years ago it was hard to argue that education wasn’t underfunded), so it seems like just having a stable state budget — albeit good news — is only a first step in starting to reinvest in education. We should expect that it will still likely take many years to get to where we should be.
In my five years on the school board, the most persistent (and justified) complaint that I have heard about our school district is the way we manage our math program in the middle schools, particularly for higher-level students. Primarily, parents have been puzzled by the lack of consistent approaches between our two middle schools with respect to the criteria for placement into higher math courses and how such courses are taught. In addition, there has also been anecdotal evidence — and a feeling among many parents — that San Carlos does not push its students enough into these higher level math courses relative to neighboring districts. This issue has come up periodically over the last few years, but honestly I can say we did not give it the requisite attention it deserved. And ironically, it’s a relatively easy problem to solve. This year finally it was placed on the front burner for a number of discussions, and at last night’s board meeting I believe we had a breakthrough.
By way of background, Central Middle School and Tierra Linda Middle School have been taking different approaches to higher math courses, meaning Algebra in 7th and 8th grade and Geometry in 8th grade. CMS has historically been more aggressive than TL in the number of kids placed in these higher math courses (with one exception this year). In addition, CMS has more of a “tracking” system, placing kids in 6th grade, for example, in an accelerated class, while TL has a “differentiated” program, where the teacher customizes instruction to multiple levels within the same class. Lastly, CMS has its own Geometry teacher while TL sends 8th graders across the street to Carlmont High School to take the Geometry class. These different approaches were not really by any design, but rather accidents of history and inertia from individual choices made some years ago.
As per the Board’s request from a prior meeting, last night the administration brought data comparing the differences between our schools as well as comparing San Carlos to other districts. The data proved that our hunches were correct — San Carlos is quite conservative in terms of the % of kids it sends to these advanced math courses. For example, on a percentage basis, we send less than half as many kids to 7th grade Algebra than does either Belmont or Menlo Park (ironically, the side effect of being more selective in which kids get accelerated is higher test scores…so this a is a great example where test scores shouldn’t be the goal!). So, it was universally agreed by both administrators and board members that we should not be an outlier and need to be more aggressive in this regard. So there was general agreement on a few things: (a) we should have a goal (the number 20% was discussed) for the number of 7th graders who go into Algebra, (b) we need to employ the same methodology for placement at both CMS and TL, and (c) we start this for next school year, meaning assessments done this Spring will follow a new protocol.
There was a bit more discussion around the other differences between the schools, mainly the “tracking vs. differentiation” issue and the use of Carlmont High School for TL Students. Although many in the room argued that both approaches can work, I pushed back on that assumption. In my opinion, Math is the most “linear” of all subjects, meaning that many concepts have to be grasped in a specific order (unlike History or Science where there are many paths through the curriculum). And as such, it feels counter-intuitive to me, that notwithstanding having great teachers (which we do), we can properly accelerate and prepare advanced students in mathematics using only a “differentiation” approach. Although I said I was open to being convinced otherwise by our educational experts in the districts, I had a strong bias toward taking Central’s approach to use across the district. With regard to using Carlmont for Geometry to TL students, I was equally strong in my convictions — it is time to end that practice. Particularly if we push more kids into higher math, we will certainly have more than enough kids to have our own teacher and our own classroom. The current practice is suboptimal on so many levels, and again, it’s an easy fix. Although I don’t know for certain, I suspect we will all ultimately agree on these two points.
There’s one last piece to this discussion. The district will need to communicate very clearly our new approach so all parents understand, and particularly understand (and embrace) the fact that this approach may likely reduce our math test scores, and that is not only OK, it’s actually a desirable outcome.
The next step is for Dr. Baker and his administrative team to come back with the final proposal in terms of our overall goals as well as the consistent implementation of methodology between the schools. But in any case, I was very excited about the conversation, and frankly I do accept some blame for not pushing this years ago. But we are here now, and it’s about time!