About this site

I was a Governing Board Member of the San Carlos School District, elected November 2007 and again in November 2011. This site was originally used for the purpose of communicating with school district constituents, however now it is used for surfacing ideas and expressing opinions on various subjects in education, politics, business, or otherwise.

Please note that any opinion express here is purely personal and does not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of anyone else or any organization with which I am, or have been, associated.

I will not accept anonymous comments, and all persons who post comments must have a valid e-mail address. Note that I reserve the right to edit, reject, or delete posts based on spelling, grammar, readability, or my judgment of what is appropriate discourse.


May 2018
« Mar    

Teacher Contract Approved, Barely

At Thursday’s board meeting, the Board voted 3-2 to approve the new contract with the San Carlos Teachers Association (SCTA). This agreement included a 2% raise in the salary schedule as well as increased contributions to health benefits. Although the agreement was approved, every single board member expressed serious frustration at how the negotiating process went this year and the lack of constructive engagement by the bargaining unit. Rather than try to summarize everyone’s comments, I invite folks to watch the video of this agenda item (the discussion is about 20 minutes long — from approximately 13:44 – 34:20 on the recording), as I think there were very thoughtful comments by all board members. There was also an article today in the San Mateo Daily Journal giving a brief summary of the item.

Below I have included a transcript of my own remarks:

This is my seventh year going through the negotiating process, and I must admit it always felt like one of the strangest parts of the job, and certainly the most anachronistic. There are plenty of folks out there who are just stunned when we learn that in the 21st century, we still have this incredibly old framework for managing how our employees work and how much they get paid. Particularly in a context where otherwise we think of our staff members as professionals, it’s odd that we revert to this old factory-worker mentality for this large subset of important issues.

There’s no doubt that teachers need to get paid more. Our teachers do amazing work in this district, and I’m certain my colleagues on the board all agree that teachers are fundamentally underpaid. I’m sure most parents would agree with that too. I wish we could do something more dramatic about that, but we all know that we have so little control over our funding, and that the state had systematically underfunded education for decades. We strive to do the best we can, and supporting SCEF and putting multiple parcel taxes on the ballot gives us a little more breathing room. Is it enough? Of course, not.

But then it would be flawed logic to conclude that this District or this Board does not care deeply about its teachers or does not understand the criticality of a great teaching staff on students. Does anyone think that these five people sitting up here volunteer thousands of hours of their time because they don’t value teachers? Does the fact that our teachers get paid toward the top end of the scale of Revenue Limit districts in this county mean we don’t care about teachers? Or is more likely that making these decisions is quite difficult and complex, and that there are a lot of competing needs that need to be weighed, all under the cloud of continued financial uncertainty? Is it possible that we understand that with limited resources we cannot fully fund everything we would like?

There are many flaws in this collective bargaining process that we are required to undertake. The first is the obvious one — the assumption that the same compensation scheme and work rules would be right for everyone. I recognize this would be a challenge to change, but perhaps one day we will be able to treat our employees as individual professionals with individual needs and customized responsibilities. The second, less obvious, flaw is the application of a private sector “zero-sum” framework. In the case where the UAW is negotiating with General Motors, for example, the union may make a reasonable assumption that any money not captured by the bargaining unit goes back to the company, and hence would eventually flow to “management” or to shareholders. We don’t have this dynamic, yet the underlying assumptions and rhetoric are often similar. If the District “saves” money by not spending it on teacher salaries, for example, it’s not as if another group gets richer because of it. Rather, by definition, that same money goes right back into services for students — maybe not in the same year, but eventually it must. There is no “profit” taken out by anyone and there is no management windfall achieved by cost savings. And since 80% of our spending goes toward personnel, when that money is eventually spent it will go back to supporting our staff — maybe in not the exact same way that everyone wants, but supporting our teachers and our students nonetheless. The last flaw is the century-old assumption that the way to advance your cause is to “put pressure” on the board, rally the troops, and rally parents to your cause. I would think that we all would have learned that in 2014 in San Carlos, this technique is actually counterproductive. I suspect this administration — and I’m sure this Board — responds more positively to constructive engagement than to pressure.

In these seven years, we’ve had some more difficult and some easier ones with respect to negotiating. As you recall, we had years when we had to cut salaries because our own funding was cut so dramatically. We are fortunately not in that situation today, but as we all know, San Carlos was not a beneficiary of the new Local Control Funding Formula. Funding will continue to be very tight for many years — that is our sad reality. This is why it is crucial we renew and/or increase our parcel tax and we do everything we can to support SCEF growing.

I understand that Dr. Baker and the SCTA leads are discussing making changes in our process as well as the potential representatives on both sides of the table. I look forward to seeing such changes, but until such time, I can’t support such agreements and will vote no on this contract.

Movin’ On Up

Last night the board made a final decision on the location of CLC. As I reported a few weeks ago, the School Board voted on August 28th to keep CLC on the Tierra Linda campus (even though I was the dissenting vote). However, at that time, we wanted to get more information before deciding the specific location on that campus. At last night’s meeting, the Board agreed to locate CLC on the upper section of the TL campus, roughly in the area currently occupied by Edison Montessori and some district Special Education preschool classes. This was determined to be both the most prudent fiscal option as well as the one which best gave CLC its own campus within the campus. After the new CLC is built, the buildings currently occupied by CLC would be remodeled to be the new 4-5 school.

Certainly having a new, separate, parcel of land for CLC would have been ideal for all, but the failure of the land swap proposal with the City caused us to choose one of our existing pieces of property. Even before we passed the District’s Facilities Master Plan 18 months ago, we knew this was a likely scenario.

There are a few open issues left, including determining a new location for the Montessori school and the other preschool classrooms, and there is still a fair bit of work to do in designing new traffic circulation paths around the campus. The District has been working with the City of San Carlos, the City of Belmont, and the Sequoia Union High School District to together devise solutions to help ease traffic flow on Alameda and Dartmouth as well as inside the TL campus. You will likely be hearing about some of these proposed solutions in the coming months.

In any case, it’s nice to have this closure for the CLC community and for the rest of the District.

The Stealth Tax, Courtesy of the Rating Agencies

There is often much misunderstanding and controversy surrounding the issuance of facility bonds by local school districts. The recent flap over Capital Appreciation Bonds is one of them, but completely ignored is a real cost added on to taxpayers by rating agencies who either don’t understand, or choose to ignore, how they work.

As background, if a school district issues local general obligation bonds (which must be placed on the ballot by the school board and then approved by local voters), these bonds are funded by an additional tax levy on property owners; this tax pays the interest and principal costs of these bonds over their life. Typically, this is an “ad valorem” tax, meaning the tax levied to pay debt service in any given year is based on real estate values (generally annual debt service divided by assessed values in that year). Each property owner pays an equal percentage tax tacked onto their annual property tax bills. So, effectively the bond debt service is collateralized by the property tax stream from the property owners. This is in contrast to a standard municipal bond where the issuing agency (the one receiving the proceeds) is the same as the one servicing the bond debt.

Like any financial instrument, the cost (interest in the case of bonds) is determined by the market. While investors generally conduct internal credit analysis, the bond market still relies on rating agencies, such as Standard & Poor’s (S&P) and Moody’s, to assign a rating to each bond issuance. For S&P, these ratings go from AAA all the way to D, with gradations along the way (AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, A, A-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-, etc.). The lower the rating, the higher the interest cost, on the theory that a lower rated bond has a higher likelihood of default and therefore must compensate investors with a higher return to accept that higher risk. For all bond issuers, public and private, getting a strong bond rating is key to keeping costs down.

When a school district issues general obligation bonds, it also goes to an agency like S&P to get a rating. As it does for other issuers, S&P rates the creditworthiness of the issuer on four key factors — the health of the local economy (which includes the tax base), the finances of the district, the management of the district, and the indebtedness of the district. The problem, however, is that three of these four criteria actually have nothing to do with the credit worthiness of the bonds. As school bond debt service is paid by property owners (unlike standard municipal bonds), the financial health of the district isn’t relevant at all. Even if our school district ceased to exist tomorrow, all of our bonds issued would still be paid off with no risk of default because the debt service isn’t coming from the district — it’s coming from property owners! The only possible scenario where these bonds could default would be if every property owner in the district declared bankruptcy, and did it simultaneously! Because even if the town were hit with a severe recession or if a substantial number of citizens moved away, the burden of debt service would just shift to the remaining taxpayers (who would then each pay a higher percentage ad valorem tax rate). In practice, the only conceivable — albeit farfetched — scenario to have a bond default would be some natural disaster where overnight our town literally ceased to exist!

It may be too easy to assume that this ignorance by the rating agencies is just laziness, but I would suggest this standardized approach is rather simply self-serving — the rating agencies generate business by doing this “research” on each local district when in reality no such research is necessary, because any objective analysis would conclude that all school bonds of this sort must be AAA rated almost by definition. This “rating deflation” costs taxpayers and districts real money — districts get reduced bonding capacity (given tax rate limits, a district can issue less bonds) and/or taxpayers pay more interest for no reason. For example, our district was rated AA- for its recent bond issuance, which is considered fairly strong by current methods. But even that three-step distance from a AAA rating can mean a difference of 0.35%, so for every $100 million in bonds outstanding, the taxpayers are burdened with an extra $350,000 per year (and of course, much more for districts with lower ratings).

Some bond attorneys argue that S&P has concerns about a theoretical situation where a district goes bankrupt and then looks to “sweep” money from the dedicated debt service account for general fund purposes. As this has never actually happened and is even against the law in this state, it’s a better assumption that keeping the status quo is just in the rating agencies’ self-interest. What incentive do they have to change a system so as to minimize or eliminate their “value-add”? Perhaps there are two conclusions here: (1) school bonds are probably one of the best debt instruments an investor can make given the relatively higher interest rate with no higher risk, and (2) in the absence of the rating agencies doing the right thing, maybe a state policy change can mitigate this long-standing, monopolistic power that is surreptitiously issuing an additional tax on most of our citizens.

Staying Put

At last night’s School Board meeting, the Board voted 4-1 to keep the Charter Learning Center (CLC) on the Tierra Linda campus. I was the dissenting vote. Although I think re-locating CLC to the Heather School campus would have been the more optimal solution, I’m glad that the decision is made and we can move on. As I said last night, despite the relative angst generated by this question, the truth is both of these solutions will work out fine for students, teachers, and for all of the schools involved. I had just felt that moving the school to Heather would have been a more efficient use of our land, would have given us greater future flexibility for growth, and would better disperse traffic throughout the city. My colleagues did not give as much of a weight to these arguments, and all cited the specific preference by CLC to stay on its current campus.

In the grand scheme of things, this is the last piece of the puzzle that defined how we move forward on our Facilities Master Plan. And of course, this decision faced by the School Board was the result of the City Council’s inability to bring to the voters the proposition to swap land to have a new site on Crestview for CLC — that would have been better for both the school district as well as all San Carlans for for many reasons. So, despite the fact that CLC won’t be either in the optimal location (Crestview) or in what I think was the better back-up location (Heather), the decision allows us to move forward in what is, overall, an incredible plan for the school district and its students. We will have two new 4th-5th grade schools on each of the Central and TL campuses (built for 21st century learning), and we will relieve overcrowding at all of the elementary schools.

The default assumption has been that CLC would move to the upper part of the TL campus and the new 4-5 school would be where CLC is now. But in our upcoming board meetings, we will look at specific plans which could include an alternate configuration of leaving CLC in its current location and building the 4-5 in the lower section of campus.

Now, the main challenge will be traffic mitigation measures on the Alameda/Club/Dartmouth corridor. As our enrollment grows as does the enrollment of nearby Carlmont High School, there will need to be a fair bit of work on safety and traffic mitigation measures. There is a committee of four government agencies that has been working on some recommendations, so we will likely hear about that soon. Also, the District may need to consider re-locating some of the other facilities on the TL campus, including the Montessori school as well as the bus transportation yard.

Phoenix or Icarus?

As I wrote in my end of the year wrap-up, the City of San Carlos reconsidered its original opposition to the idea of the land swap proposed by the school district and agreed to a joint meeting of both agencies. We then had a series of negotiation sessions with the hope that we could reach an agreement to both meet the school district’s need to accommodate additional enrollment without further exacerbating traffic and safety issues on the Alameda/Club/Dartmouth corridor and the city’s need to both preserve and increase available park and recreation space.

Due to a strong commitment to the cause as well as an incredible number of hours devoted by folks at both agencies, we have reached a tentative agreement! This agreement has the following terms:

  • In exchange for the City deeding the Crestview site to the school district, the District would deed the city the Upper TL site as well as the Heather Dog Park (a site few probably even realized was owned by the school district)
  • The District would agree not to build any buildings on the current fields at Heather School for a period of at least 5, but potentially up to 10, years
  • The District will work with local sports groups who have already pledged to contribute $1.5 million for the building of a field at the Upper TL site
  • Both parties would agree that if either chose to sell any of these three parcels, the economic benefit would be split 50/50 (which in reality would give a strong disincentive to sell any of the properties to a developer)

There are at least three more major hurdles to clear before this deal becomes reality:

  • The City Council must hold a “protest hearing” on June 30th where it must decide whether or not to put a measure to the voters in November to change the current classification of the Crestview parcel as a park — at this hearing, at least 4 out of the 5 council members must vote yes to proceed
  • A majority of San Carlos voters must then vote in favor of this measure in the November election
  • The School District must determine that the Crestview site is indeed capable of housing the new school, including any environmental site, engineering and constructability assessments and any state approvals necessary — the District will have to invest a modest amount of money to get such assessments

In addition, one of the homeowners associations on Crestview Drive has threatened to sue the City and/or School District to prevent such a transaction. Although all evidence points to the fact that they would not likely to be successful, they could certainly delay the process and/or cause greater expense for one or both agencies. I implore local residents to work with the District to develop the best possible mitigation solutions while embracing the school rather than fighting a battle which will only cause all to lose.

I, like many others, was very skeptical on the likelihood of reaching a deal after the initial city council meeting in May, but a combination of the incredible public support and a bona fide effort by all parties has gotten us to where we are today, so I thank all involved for the tremendous work! I hope that the city council allows the voters to decide the matter and that the voters approve a historic partnership which will serve all San Carlans for decades to come!

2013-2014 Year End Wrap-Up

As the school year has just finished, I like to send out my annual wrap-up of the state of the San Carlos School District. It has been an interesting year, characterized by incredible progress on many fronts as well as a number of frustrating periods.

This year felt like everything hit us at once — some changes coming externally while others originating internally. And although this is hectic and difficult at times, I believe it’s fundamentally a sign of great progress, and we are all better off in the long run when we make many changes at once.

The major external changes came from the state in the form of the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAP), and the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Although the first two got a lot of hype this year, it is actually the third which is the most fundamental. LCFF is certainly a good step in that it provides more resources for school districts with greater needs, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the “Revenue Limit” system of California finance (it just changes how that Revenue Limit is calculated) nor does it add more money into the system. In fact, SCSD is a district which is on the short-end of the new funding calculation, so our financial position will remain tenuous for a number of years. For the first time, we had to submit LCAPs which describe the school district’s overall vision for students, annual goals and specific actions the district will take to achieve the vision and goals. Although there are very specific LCAP requirements around goals, parent engagement, and other aspects, most of this was work we were doing anyway and certainly is only a subset of our District’s Strategic Plan. The District is developing its own “dashboard” of measurements to better understand our progress and areas for improvement, and I believe we will have a first draft of that next year. See my blog post which outlines the interplay among all of these changes and new requirements.

Common Core, however, is a real substantive change which will impact all of our students for years to come. Next year our school district (along with every other in the state) will be fully implementing the new Common Core State Standards in language arts and mathematics. These new standards are designed to be fewer, deeper, and to better promote critical thinking and conceptual understanding. The San Mateo County School Boards Association published a very good white paper reviewing the history of CCSS development and the benefits it will bring to public education, and this video is a good overview of what Common Core means. Although a lot of Common Core will seem unfamiliar to all of us, I believe it is an incredibly positive change and nearly all educators believe it will promote better outcomes for kids. SCSD has devoted (and will continue to devote) significant resources to professional development for teachers on Common Core, but certainly there will be bumps in the road in implementation. As many in the district know, we have had much research and study by our educators and many public discussions specifically around Common Core math — the new course definitions and new pathways through middle and high school. This is an area that has caused much anxiety among the parent population, but I believe we have developed a very strong plan to serve students at all ability levels.

We continue to make significant progress on the District’s Strategic Plan, and if anything we are ahead of plan as so many teachers have begun to implement elements in their classrooms. The board saw presentations on the amazing work being done at all schools — San Carlos’ plan has become a model for the county, and our teachers and administrators have been invited to speak at multiple events across the county to teach others in what we are doing! (Here’s one example). There is still lots of hard work to do, but we are in a very exciting time in our school district as we really re-think almost every aspect of teaching and learning to make it more relevant for the 21st century. The District continues to examine how we can expand elective offerings for all students, which may include some experimentation with the “master schedules” at the middle schools. I predict we will see some more concrete proposals in the coming year.

Related to our Strategic Plan is our unique and incredible partnership with the San Carlos Children’s Theater, which continued to strengthen and expand this year. New drama elective classes were brought to Tierra Linda in addition to those already offered at Central, and of course the productions continue to go strong. SCCT brought back to the Board an amazing report of their progress and the positive outcomes for the children — undoubtedly this partnership is helping fulfill our vision of ensuring our children are well-prepared for success in the 21st century and are versed in creative problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, adaptability, and leadership. We look to further growth in the number of, and breadth of, offerings for all students in the coming years.

Our building projects continue on plan (and on budget), with work already beginning on the Central Middle School site to prep for the new 6-8 middle school. The bigger unknown is the plans with respect to the Tierra Linda site, as it conditioned upon a final decision regarding the location of Charter Learning Center (CLC). As you’ve undoubtedly seen in the news lately, the District proposed a land swap with the City of San Carlos, where the District offered to give the upper part of the TL campus in exchange for an approximately equal size parcel on Crestview Drive. The benefits of such a deal are many, including accommodating increasing enrollment, reducing traffic congestion at the TL campus, increasing available park/recreation space in the city, and maximizing the use of existing resources of both the City and SCSD and saving taxpayer dollars. Public reaction was swift, with a clear majority of San Carlans for such a deal but with significant resistance from some local residents. The City initially balked at the proposal, but then came back with a willingness to have some joint sessions to negotiate a potential deal. The last session was this past Tuesday, but there may be some additional meetings. As of this writing, I cannot predict the outcome, but I am hopeful that the two agencies don’t miss this unique opportunity to best serve our community. It will take 4 out of the 5 council members at a meeting on June 30th to vote to move the idea forward toward a required November referendum, where it them would have to be approved by a majority of San Carlos voters. In another example of the “City of Good Living” becoming the “City of Made Up Problems,” some local residents have even hired an attorney to threaten to stop any deal struck between the two agencies. Regardless of one’s opinion on the idea of a land swap, outsiders must view it as odd that such negative energy is directed at the notion of being located next to an excellent school. All of that said, the District remains undeterred and is hopeful we will come to an agreement with the City.

The other big news was that last November there was a school board election. Carol Elliott and Kathleen Farley were elected for a full term (following their appointments two years earlier) and Nicole Bergeron was also elected as a new board member. We now have a very strong team on the board — all with slightly different perspectives and strengths, but with a common philosophy and action-oriented dedication to advancing the district forward and serving all students. I commend all of my colleagues and enjoy working with them.

Unfortunately this year also brought one of the most frustrating periods of my school board tenure, not because of anything we did but because a few individuals who went to great lengths to mischaracterize a creative move by the board so as to score political points and undermine the District. This shameful behavior was precipitated by the loan we gave to our Superintendent, a move which frankly should have been lauded for solidifying the District’s relationship with him and retaining undoubtedly the best Superintendent in the county (while actually making money for the district). As most of you know, I never shy away from a disagreement, am always willing to talk or meet with anyone, and I really enjoy the dialogs we have (both electronically and in-person). My only requirement is that we engage constructively, and unfortunately that wasn’t the case with this fringe element’s reaction to the loan. Any decision-making process can be improved (and perhaps better communication about the purpose and benefit of the loan may have helped), but in substitution for a critical and constructive dialog, the negative energy, nasty invective and deliberate distortions of a few made a mockery of the political process. While we’ve all become inured, unfortunately, to this kind of silliness on the national stage, I maintain that (almost all of the time) School Board service is a shining example of the ideals of political representation. Yet it’s worth remembering that such caustic behavior can strike anywhere, at any time, when a community lets down its guard (and although on a much more limited scale, the same behavior was exhibited more recently). Fortunately the effects were short-lived, but I do worry that incidents like this discourage good people from running for the school board.

Other important updates this year include the launch of a new and much improved District web site, which includes dynamic blogs from our staff in the areas of Innovative Learning, Learning Spaces, and Community Engagement. I encourage everyone to check out the web site regularly as it is now a much more valuable and timely resource. The District also agreed to a smart Naming Policy for the new schools that we will be building; we will be kicking off this fall the process to get community input on school names. Lastly, the District continues to be focused on issues of traffic and safety, particularly at a few of our campuses. There has been work with the City of San Carlos on Safe Route to Schools projects, including some work on better signage, crosswalks, and other street improvements. Most notable, the District has been actively engaged in the “Four Corners Working Group” which is a collaborative among our District, the Sequoia Union High School District, and the Cities of San Carlos and Belmont, to improve traffic flow and safety in the Alameda/Club/Dartmouth corridor. There has been a traffic study conducted and a number of potential mitigating measures identified, including potentially a new entrance into TL and other traffic flow changes. Based on the full analysis of a consultant hired, the working group is expected this Fall to propose changes to its respective governing bodies. In addition to traffic flow and related changes, my hope is that the group will propose (and support funding) a transportation solution which I have always thought is long overdue.

Personally, I continue to stay involved in many county-wide organizations, including the San Mateo County School Boards Association and the Peninsula Partnership Leadership Council (the Big Lift), and I still write periodically for EdSource on statewide issues. Speaking of statewide issues, perhaps one of the biggest other pieces of news was the recent Vergara v. California decision, where the Superior Court overturned five California Education Code statutes around firing protections, tenure, and seniority for teachers. This has the potential to be huge — see my blog post with my analysis and take on the opportunity.

I do want to acknowledge all of our staff for the incredible work this year — so much of it (particularly in areas of strategic plan implementation and facilities work) is behind the scenes, but I can tell you that the volume of work done this year has been truly Herculean. Kudos to the whole team for their passion and dedication!

I have only one and half years left on my second term, so 2014-2015 will be my last full school year on the board. I will not be running for a third term, as I think it is healthy to encourage and groom a strong bench of candidates to serve. I’d be happy to speak with anyone who wants to consider running for school board — notwithstanding even this year’s frustrations, it’s been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I look forward to another exciting year and active and constructive engagement by all! Thanks again, and have a great summer!

Constructive Behavior

School Board service is a funny thing. On the one hand, most recognize that my colleagues and I volunteer thousands of hours for no purpose other than to do the best thing for students. We have no other agenda — we have no political donors or parties to serve and no political career to protect. For me, it still a shining example of a representative democracy. And of course, we have a staff (from the Superintendent on down) who work for this public entity clearly not for the dazzling pay but for their devotion to children and their education. The work done by our leadership in this District is nothing short of groundbreaking.

But every once in a while (and fortunately not very often), people forget this dynamic and somehow imprint their view of politicians in general onto us, and in doing so engage in shockingly negative and downright mean behavior. Such was the case in the board’s discussion last night around the District’s approach to after-school programs. Unfortunately, the frenzy was kicked off by our current vendor, San Carlos/Belmont After School Program (SCBASP), who has been providing after-school programs for decades at some of our school sites. It has always been known by the District that students and families have been generally happy with SCBASP’s program, but the District has been reviewing all partnerships in the context of strengthening programs for kids, best aligning such programs with our overall Strategic Plan (where the goal is very clearly to better integrate all programs throughout the day), and examining financial alternatives given our continued poor funding from the state. Seeing an agenda item for yesterday’s board meeting, SCBASP sent out an alarmist e-mail full of half-truths to the families they serve, who in turn flooded us with e-mails and attended last night’s board meeting. I understand that parents were working with incomplete information, but it demonstrated something about social psychology that so many were willing to jump to conclusions without getting all of the information. I’m glad that many attended last night’s meeting so folks could hear what is really going on (which is the fact that under no circumstances would the after-school program go away — it was question of whether the District should consider “in-sourcing” it). And although some e-mails we received we only asking for more information, the far majority just parroted what they had heard and many went further as to sling insults at the Board at the District.

It saddened me to see members of our community act in this way, and it didn’t stop with the e-mails. Last night’s meeting demonstrated some of the rudest behavior I have seen at our meetings. Last night I tried to remind folks that if their goal is to influence policy, then insulting the policy makers is generally not a winning approach. Board members were constantly interrupted by some members of the audience and ignored the Board President’s plea for civility. It was an ironic lesson for our students in how not to behave.

I don’t know what the outcome will be for this particular decision, but I do know a few things. I am confident that our staff and Board will have an honest and thoughtful discussion and analysis around the issue, taking into account all dimensions of it and always keeping the quality of programs for our children as the prime consideration. I encourage SCBASP to join our ensemble of partners who have worked so hard to find collaborative solutions with the District and not work at odds with it, and I encourage parents to gain this perspective. Please remember that it is constructive engagement which influences.

Update on Math Pathways

At last night’s board meeting, we received an update on the District’s proposal for handling Common Core math implementation in the San Carlos School District. I wrote a detailed summary of our prior meeting in April where we went through some of the options and understood a bit better the approach behind Common Core. The big takeaways from that meeting included: (a) Common Core math is a much richer set of standards with an aim to significantly deepen students’ conceptual understanding of mathematics; (b) Common Core rethinks the sequence of when certain concepts are taught and blows up the boxes between what we formerly called certain areas of math, like Algebra, Geometry, etc. — in other words, certain parts of these “higher-level” math courses are actually taught a lot earlier than before; and (c) this is a very complex, multi-layered issue that has required extensive work by our math teachers and administrators, in collaboration with their high school counterparts. Because of all this, it is extremely difficult to compare our current offerings to the Common Core offerings. Some high schools for example, have embraced an “integrated” approach where they even remove the historical labels (Algebra, Geometry, etc.) altogether, and even though the Sequoia Union High School District is implementing Common Core, they are keeping a “traditional” nomenclature and sequencing.

As one could imagine, there is a fair bit of confusion and angst around this change, both because of the lack of comparability to the past as well our lack of history and data about what will best work for students. The District has continued to work hard on this issue and has had lots of community input (including at a meeting on May 7). Based on all of this, the Board received a more specific proposal last night, and I applaud the District staff for all of the hard work and for coming up with solutions that address so many of the needs and concerns.

My observation here is that there has been a healthy tension between parents who largely appear to be most concerned (and understandably so) about whether their kids will be challenged enough and educators who worry that the new deeper Common Core curriculum will actually be much more difficult and that we risk making inappropriate placement decisions if we use the same framework as before, e.g. “my child must take Algebra (or Geometry) by 8th grade.” Both of these perspectives are valid, and we must recognize that this is in the context of much uncertainty — all being new, we have no experience or data to inform decisions on placements of students and pacing of offerings.

So, to address all this, the District is proposing a broad set of offerings, with a number of different “paces” to find an appropriate one for each student. Although there has been some concern over the last few months by many parents that we wouldn’t any more be offering an “accelerated” class for 6th graders and/or a Geometry class for 8th graders, these options will indeed remain open. You can see the entire presentation from last night’s meeting, but the most relevant new piece of information was slide 5 (click on the image to enlarge):

These three “paces” should accommodate almost all of our students, but we will must recognize that each class is still more advanced than its counterpart in the past. For example, being proficient in Common Core Geometry as an 8th grader should be much more difficult than it is even now, so although there is no way to predict the percentage of the student body that will fall into each of these paths, the educators are saying they think this “3 year pace” may be reserved for a very small number of students.

The next step is for the middle schools to develop their schedule for next year and look at student placements. Parents will be hearing soon about the placement process for next year. But given that we will be in a transition period for the next few years, we must recognize that we will make mistakes in placement. So, the Board consensus last night was that we need to build in extra flexibility and fluidity into the system so that we can accommodate (and indeed, even expect) the movement of students from one “pace” to another, either from year-to-year or within a given year. Also, we must ensure that there will be frequent communication throughout the year with individual parents to best understand how their student is doing in the current placement and also provide the appropriate level of support for each child during any change.

In general, these changes are all very exciting, but they will certainly produce some anxiety (particularly among parents) as it moves forward. Perhaps in three to five years these issues will be moot as we will have the experience and the data to be certain in our offerings and student placements, but for now we will work forward in partnership between our dedicated educators and families.

Where Good Ideas Go to Die

Update on the proposed land swap between the San Carlos School District and City of San Carlos.

Last night, the San Carlos City Council effectively killed the idea of a land swap between the school district and city. Over the objection of the majority of speakers who addressed the council, they rejected the swap idea but directed the city manager to go back to the school district and tell us they’d be willing to discuss a straight sale of the property, which of course is a non-starter. As an elected official I appreciate that public comments do not often reflect the majority of the citizenry, but in this case I believe the council heard a fairly representative sample of opinions during the public comment period. A far majority of the speakers supported the land swap, while a smaller group — almost entirely residents near the property in question — spoke out against it. I stopped taking notes tracking all of the factual errors thrown out by those opposing the deal. (BTW, I thought one of the most interesting comments came from a resident of the east side of San Carlos who argued that the Crestview community needs to do its part to contribute to the greater good of San Carlos such as his community has done with projects like the Transit Village, PAMF, and others. It was an interesting perspective that I hadn’t thought about).

Admittedly, it was a confusing topic because the council was effectively discussing two issues at once. The first was whether to bring to the voters a ballot measure that would allow the citizens to change the designation of the Crestview Property. The second was whether the council was in favor of a land swap. Council members debated how specific or general a measure should be and whether it should be tied to the land swap specifically.

In the end, here’s where each council member stood:

  • Mark Olbert was a strong supporter of the swap.
  • Ron Collins was fine with a swap, but wanted it to include other consideration from the district for what he believed were the inequity in “value” between the two parcels.
  • Cameron Johnson was fine with having CLC be placed at the Crestview site, but he didn’t want the Dartmouth site in return. So, he favored some other type of transaction to accomplish this, such as a long-term lease.
  • Bob Grasilli was in favor of a ballot measure to change the designation of the Crestview site, but wanted to preserve all options for the council to use the parcel as it wishes, and needed more information on a potential deal with the school district before agreeing to it.
  • Matt Grocott said he originally supported the deal, but after further reflection said there isn’t any value in it for the city. He at one point cited the desire to sell the land on the open market to a developer, but then later used the “green/open space” argument to say why putting a school there was a bad idea.

City Manager Jeff Maltbie asked for clear direction from the council on whether he can go back to the school district with the idea of a swap, lease, or outright sale. The only one that received a majority of council members in favor was the outright sale idea (which I have always found puzzling, because the city has always known that wasn’t an option from the school district’s point of view). So, there will be no public vote and no deal between the two agencies unless the city has a dramatic change of heart.

Naturally, there will be a collective frustration among many San Carlans about this missed opportunity. This would have been one of those rare “win-wins.” One other speaker put it really well when she asked which decision we are more likely to regret many years down the road (given the growth of school enrollment, etc.) — placing the school at the Crestview site or missing the opportunity to do it.

The upside here is that we at least have clarity. The school district has to solve this problem on its own. I appreciate the council’s taking up this issue and taking it seriously, even though I disagree with their conclusion and am disappointed by the lack of vision.

At our last school board meeting, we discussed our “Plan B,” which is now down to whether we keep CLC at the TL site or move it to Heather (no school board member thought the Arundel location was desirable). In that meeting, the sentiment of the school board was split, with three members leaning toward the Heather solution and two members toward the TL solution. Although I can live with both of these outcomes, I believe that moving CLC to Heather is a much more effective and efficient use of land and much better management of traffic and overcrowding. Frankly, the best argument to me for leaving CLC at TL is if there would be a significant reduction in total cost for doing so. So, the school board will look to making a final decision soon based on more details to be provided by staff, including traffic studies and cost detail, at our next few meetings. Finally, as a wildcard, the district could find some other new space to locate CLC, but naturally we can’t work on that assumption.

See a related article from the San Mateo Daily Journal on last night’s council meeting.

Adding Up the Common Core

As many of you know, next year our school district (along with every other in the state) will be fully implementing the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in language arts and mathematics. These new standards are designed to be fewer, deeper, and to better promote critical thinking and conceptual understanding. (The San Mateo County School Boards Association recently published a white paper reviewing the history of CCSS development and the benefits it will bring to public education.) Our district has embraced CCSS, and we have invested heavily in professional development for our staff around pedagogy based on these standards. Also, we are implementing the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), meant to gauge students’ progress on these standards (most parents may know that this is a “practice” year for SBAC where scores do not count, and these tests started in our schools last week). Most educators’ view is that CCSS is a marked improvement over the current “mile wide and inch deep” standards currently in use in California. If you’re interested in learning more about common core, I recommend this video which does a good job laying out the changes and the benefits.

One of the big complexities here is in the implementation of, and transition to, CCSS, specifically with respect to mathematics. CCSS creates pathways that will seem very unfamiliar to all of us who went to school in this country. Just one year ago, we made a significant change in how we approach math in our school district. We had a number of years of data that suggested we were being too conservative in how many kids were accelerated into higher math classes, and we had different approaches in our two middle schools. We changed the policy to make higher math eligible for more students, and we aligned the approach between the schools, including bringing geometry “in-house” at Tierra Linda. However, what we didn’t know at the time was what would be included in the general “Common Core” math standards in each grade.

Through this past year, there has been a lot more clarity in the specifics around Common Core math offerings in both middle school and high school. In general, the Common Core math standards are much more rigorous than both the current standards as well as what we had expected them to be. At last night’s School Board meeting, we spent a long time on this topic, hearing presentations from David Foster from the Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative (SVMI) as well as from our own staff (administrators and teachers) who have been working on this problem throughout the school year. Although most of this work has not been visible to parents and students, our math teachers have been working a great deal with their counterparts at other elementary school districts as well as teachers at the high schools, and area superintendents have also been continually collaborating on this transition. This is a very complicated, multi-layered issue which took us quite a bit of time to unwrap. I’ll try to outline the highlights.

To best understand how Common Core is approaching math, we should start with the options for high school. High schools in California were given the option of one of two approaches to the pathway for math courses — “traditional” or “integrated.” Both choices would include the deeper learning inherent in CCSS, but they take different approaches to sequencing. The traditional approach is just that — it maintains a path we’re all familiar with — Algebra, Geometry, Algebra 2, Trigonometry, Calculus, etc (or some combination of those). The integrated approach is one which breaks down the walls of those traditional classifications and creates a sequence of courses, each of which teaches concepts inherent in all of these subjects, e.g. there are “calculus” concepts that would be taught in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade as well. Experts in the field (including SVMI) highly recommend the integrated approach as it better aligns with the deeper standards inherent in CCSS and has proven to work better as evidenced by the experience of high-performing countries around the world (that is why some refer to the integrated approach as an “international” approach). Different school districts within California have taken different approaches, and indeed whole states across the nation have chosen different paths. Over the objection of many (including many of the county’s elementary school districts), the Sequoia Union High School District (to which most of our students will matriculate) has chosen the traditional path.

For SCSD, there are a few levels of complication. The first is that the current courses at each grade level are not as rigorous as their Common Core analog. (Although this a gross simplification and not entirely accurate, it seems useful to think of the equivalent Common Core math course for any respective grade as being roughly one-half of a year ahead of the historical standard course for that grade. What is really happening is that these new standards are better addressing core conceptual mathematical principles. This in theory will address the superficial treatment and mastery of these concepts that often only become apparent in later courses — including in science — when students are called upon to “make use” of math to solve real world problems. So, the Common Core courses are more “advanced” without per se being “ahead of” the current ones.). Secondly, we have students who are currently taking Algebra (both in 7th and 8th grade) as well as some 8th graders taking Geometry. Particularly for the 7th graders taking Algebra this year and for 6th graders who would have gone into Algebra next year under the current system, there is a transition period where we may need to offer classes not entirely consistent with CCSS for a short period of time and/or perhaps “catch students up” to a course they can take next year. Lastly, we have to align our placements with the paths in high school. Notwithstanding the high school district’s choice of the traditional math pathway, there are still some adjustments and potential “compacting” that would need to happen, particularly to ensure that our higher-achieving students can have the option of taking calculus in high school. The presentation from last night’s meeting outlines some of the potential pathways through both middle school and high school (note that Carlmont and Sequoia will actually take different approaches to “compacting”).

So, there is still quite a bit of work to do, both with respect to the “transition” period over the next year or two as well as where we settle on the math offerings. For example, it’s very possible going forward we may offer only two course levels in 8th grade — “Common Core 8″ and “Common Core Algebra 1,” the latter being more advanced and richer than the algebra currently offered (note that in any case, we will offer Geometry next year for 7th grade students currently taking Algebra 1). But the board discussed two important concepts last night: (1) that we must provide support to students (identified by teachers) who need to “fill in the concept gap” between their current course and the following year’s accelerated course, and (2) we need to remain flexible in our future offerings, particularly for higher-achieving students. As this is still so new for all of us, we need a few years of data to better understand if we’re providing the right mix of classes and if we’re appropriately balancing being conservative or aggressive in the number of students at each level. Despite the changes in course names and sequences, what won’t change is the District’s overarching goal of creating the most appropriate path for each student and pushing each one to his/her potential.

The District will be communicating a lot more over the next couple of months about these pending changes. I encourage folks to read all correspondence on this topic and to attend any events that you can. The next local event will be Wednesday, May 7th at 7:00 PM in Mustang Hall at Central Middle School. This meeting will discuss the Common Core math progression and will include representatives from both Sequoia and Carlmont High School Math Departments. Bring all of your questions!

As parents and former students ourselves, we are inherently biased by our own experience with education, yet we are now entering an era where more and more things about our public schools will look very unfamiliar to us. This includes so many aspects of our Strategic Plan, our new 4th-5th grade schools, how we look at master scheduling, and certainly all of the curriculum changes inherent in the Common Core. I encourage everyone to embrace this unfamiliarity as symbols of real progress in a system that hasn’t changed much in a century. Despite all of the challenges and angst that will accompany this transitions (particularly with Common Core Mathematics), patience and persistence will ultimately yield great results for our students.