Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Letter to the Town Crier

When last week's Town Crier came out, I was disappointed that they chose to be neutral on Measure N.  This is the letter I sent in (which was admittedly too long for them to print.)  To their credit, they had Jeff Baier and me in to speak with them.  I'm hoping that they will still reconsider and endorse the measure.  It's too important to our community not to pass.



From: Doug Smith 
Date: Wed, Oct 15, 2014 at 10:26 PM
Subject: Please correct your greiveous error
To: "Bruce (Town Crier)" , Paul Nyberg , Bischoff Howard


Gentlemen-

I write today to ask that you please correct the terrible mistake you've made in not endorsing Measure N.  I believe that the logic you have used to reach this conclusion is flawed and relied on incorrect information provided by people whose sole agenda is to hurt LASD.  Further, the impact to our community will be far reaching and devastating if Measure N does not pass.

Your conclusions in the editorial miss key facts, and appear to rely more on commentary from bond opponents instead of primary research.  
  • Measure N provides language that is equally specific as several other local bond measures, including ones run by Palo Alto and Cupertino.  The rhetoric from the No team is unsupported on this topic.  We would be glad to meet with you and review those measures if you would like.
  • The editorial implies that the Board of Trustees is less committed to the primary purpose of the bond - building a new school - simply because we've spent less time in public session discussion it.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It is specifically *because* we know that is the #1 priority that we needn't dwell on it.  The need for a new school site is not in dispute, and therefore requires no debate.  How to spend remaining proceeds is still subjective, and we thus spent more time on that topic.  But in the board  is fully committed to a new school site as the #1 priority of the bond.  It is spelled out in every presentation and in the instructions we provided to the FMPC. 
  • The editorial references a list of $300m worth of projects, implying that all of those projects are at existing sites.  A careful review of the FMPC documents will show that the $300m figure actually INCLUDES building one, possibly two new schools.  Of the $300m figure, more than 40% of that came from estimated costs to build a new site or sites.  Projects at existing sites represent a "wish list" and the Board has been crystal clear that this takes a back seat to accommodating growth.  Further, several or all of the candidates currently running have pledged not to spend money at existing sites until the 10th site is resolved.
The impact to our community if we fail to pass this bond is dramatic and painful.  Absent a new site, LASD would likely need to close an existing school to redraw boundaries and allocate space to BCS at the end of the 5 year agreement.  In doing so, the District would then be placing ~5200 LASD students on the remaining 8 sites in the 2018-19 school year.  Given our site locations and student distribution, we will be running several elementary schools over 750 students.  Picture the traffic jams at West Portola, except they'd occur at every site in the district.  That doesn't even touch on the decline in program quality.  LASD favors small schools because staff know each student by name, and no one gets "lost."  We have staff and administrators with substantial experience in larger schools in other districts.  They consistently cite our smaller school size as a key factor in our success.  Should we sacrifice all of that success now?

The editorial comes to the conclusion that we must take more time to plan.  With all due respect, we've been planning this for over two years.  We spend tremendous effort evaluating the need for additional site(s).  We've been looking at possible sites and we have run smack into the reality that, without cash in hand, we are being outpaced by developers who are rapidly tying up what might be viable options.  To say that we must have the perfect plan before we pass the bond is akin to saying that a parent shouldn't save money for college until he  sees the child's SAT scores.  By the time the savings start, it is too late.

Earlier this year, the Town Crier bemoaned the lack of candidates willing to run for public office.   If the standard we set for our public projects is that they must be perfect before they earn our support, I'd suggest we all settle in for a long stream of uncontested elections.  Who will put themselves through the work to formulate a plan for downtown if we constantly say "well, it isn't perfect yet"?  We need to be more practical about how we work as a community.  The LASD Board has been exceptionally transparent and hyper-inclusive as we've gone about our work over the past 5 years.  We hold community forums, collect input, and publicly debate options before reaching decisions.  It is not practical to say that the new board must define a plan down to the last light switch before we'll endorse a bond campaign.

I've gritted my teeth as I watched the Town Crier give 50/50 coverage throughout the conflict with BCS.  I simply didn't think that it was necessary to give equal ink to both sides, without regard to the merit of the arguments.  However, in a news column I at least understand you're trying to inform the public of what is going on.  In the editorial section, though, you are community leaders, helping to shape the future of Los Altos.  I would urge you to rethink this issue, and to come back with a clear statement that, while not perfect, the bond needs to be passed.  As a community, we have the ability to oversee the funds.  The law provides for this as a requirement of the bond.  This is not a $150 blank check- they are funds held in trust, and will be spent in accordance with the wishes of the voters.  But we desperately need to pass this bond - right now.

If it would be helpful, I can be available to meet with any or all of you on Friday afternoon or Saturday morning.  I would urge you to print a positive endorsement immediately, before any more absentee ballots are cast.

Sincerely,

Douglas J Smith

Monday, October 20, 2014

Truth in Campaigning (c. 2014)

Update: 10/22/2014, 8:46pm

Since i posted this article, the filings at the county have been updated to remove the independent expenditures and reclassify funds as being spent directly with the campaigns.  It appears that the "Parents" PAC has been working too closely with the candidates, and has updated their filings to reflect that.  I certainly applaud the honesty, but it opens new questions.  The new form shows a combined total of  over $12,500 in expenditures for Martha McClatchie and John Swan.  This is starting to take on the air of someone with an agenda...  Updated docs are found here and here

Original Post follows:

A couple of years ago, I wrote a few pieces about the campaigning process, and why it was important for folks to understand who is funding political campaigns.  In the last election cycle, the BCS candidates tried to disguise their affiliation with BCS, which seemed disingenuous to me.

Fast forward two years, and we have the same problem all over again.  I've never been a great fan of PAC's.    (See my blog posts from October 2012 for clarification).  I find it even more troubling when groups try to dress themselves up as something they are not.

There is a new direct mail piece out in support of Martha McClatchie's candidacy for LASD Board of Trustees.  As a reminder, I met with Martha and found her willingness to cloak information from our community to be troubling.  (See Endorsements )  However, there's a new mailer out that tries to give the impression that Martha has significant support from LASD parents.  This has not been my experience, and it isn't helped by the facts underlying this mailer.

The return address on the mailer is 1787 Tribute Road, Suite K, Sacramento, CA 95815 which is the home of this political consulting company:  http://www.deaneandcompany.com/

The mailer traces back to a PAC registered at 26625 St. Francis Road, Los Altos Hills.  A quick search of county tax records shows this address not to be located in LASD.  It turns out this is the home of David Spector- a member of the BCS legal team.

The group's campaign filings are available in Santa Clara.  A diligent community member chased these down and I am posting them here.  One might reasonably ask why I've posted them, and the answer is simple: transparency.  It is important to know whose interests someone represents.  

In the most recent filing from this group, I'd note that there a current and former BCS Board members, BCS founding families, and other vocal supporters of BCS.  There's also a community member who is actively involved in the "No on N" campaign.  Read the list, and decide for yourself.  The filing also shows that they've spent nearly $10,000 on this mailer alone.  Mind you, when I ran for the LASD Board in 2009, I spent about $3500.  They're spending nearly 3x that on a single mailer.  I would also wonder whether the filing itself even complies with the legal requirements.  On the form, it requires "Full Name, Street Address, and Zip Code of Contributor" - yet the contributors are not listed by street address- simply by city.

All I can say is, I'm glad we live in a state with aggressive campaign finance disclosure laws.

As I said in my previous post- being a BCS parent or supporter doesn't automatically disqualify someone from the LASD Board in my mind.  Technically, one might argue that these folks live within the LASD boundaries and they might even be parents.  However, they don't appear to be largely parents of children in LASD schools.  

This pattern of strong support from the BCS community further supports my concern that Martha doesn't understand the LASD community.  We expect transparency and integrity from our public officials.  In my opinion, this mailer falls well short of the mark.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Endorsements 2014

It's election time, and like most folks in our community, I'm casting my ballot.  I don't pretend to be an expert in all things political, but I will share my thoughts on a couple of matters, given my close involvement with the schools over the past 5 years.

For LASD Board of Trustees:
Tamara Logan
Sangeeth Peruri
Vladamir Ivanovic

Tammy Logan has worked incredibly hard over the past 5 years to put the necessary ingredients in place for the success of our District.  She is a tireless voice for our students, and has been willing to challenge other board members when she felt we weren't doing the right thing.  Striking that balance is a delicate art, and Tammy has done it well.

Tammy also played a key role in the negotiations with BCS.  I was proud to have her as a partner in the final rounds over the summer.  The "peace treaty" that resulted was shaped in many ways by Tammy's thinking.

I am confident that Tammy will continue to be an asset for our students and our community, and I am excited to cast my ballot for her re-election.

Sangeeth Peruri is a relative new-comer to the LASD community.  His kids are younger, and he is not afraid to test the conventions of "how things have been done".  He has served ably in the Covington PTA, and has worked diligently on the LASD Citizens Advisory Council on Finance (CACF).   I have spent substantial time with Sangeeth over the past year as he tested our assumptions about the right path with BCS.  He has also built a substantial knowledge of our schools by engaging multiple points of view.   He is not afraid to throw himself into the work, which will help him ramp up on the board quickly.

Vladimir Ivanovic is another CACF member, and is the current CACF chair.  Over the years he has been a regular attendee at our board meetings.  He has put in the time to learn what the board is doing, why we've made the decisions we have made, and to share his own perspective when he felt it was important.  He is well versed in our financial status, which will be important as the District starts to wrestle with the expiration of the Measure E parcel tax and simultaneously increasing contributions to shore up state pensions.  His work also includes the Gardner Bullis Technology Committee, the GB Site Council, and a number of other groups.  He isn't a huge fan of public speaking, but I've always found his reasoning to be sound.  He is also a tireless advocate for open government, which remains important in our community.



I am not able to endorse Mathra McClatchey or John Swan for the LASD Board of Trustees.

Martha has been an active BCS parent for the entirety of my 5 years on the Board.  This doesn't disqualify someone outright, but it certainly raises questions about how well they know LASD.  I met with Martha to discuss specific issues, and found her knowledge of the LASD program to be lacking.  She instead proposed that her knowledge of what draws people away from LASD should be an asset.  I disagree.  I am also troubled by her direct involvement in the cloaking of expenditures by BCS.  She was the treasurer of the Bullis Foundation when BPEF was covertly signing checks to PR firms and lawyers.  When I asked her about these expenditures, she was quite clear that there is such a thing as "too much transparency".  I do not believe the community's interests are served by making off-book expenditures and hiding from the public how money is being spent.  As the old saying goes, "if you wouldn't do it in the light of day, you probably shouldn't be doing it at all."

John Swan is one of the original founding families at BCS.  Although his children have been out for a while, I see no evidence that he has remained active in K-8 education leadership.  He only recently started attending LASD Board meetings, so his learning curve would be steep.  John's editorials in the Town Crier seem to indicate that he feels LASD is broken in some significant way.  He complains about teachers in generic language more suited to big city school districts, not LASD.  His own children haven't attended an LASD elementary school since 2003, so I'm not sure on what basis he would make that assertion.  His editorials are rife with rhetoric from the charter movement about what is wrong with education, but it bears little resemblance to our award winning schools and exceptionally dedicated staff and administration.  John just doesn't seem to have a handle on what we are doing in our schools, and what makes them such a unique place for children to learn.  He lacks the context of how our schools work or how to best engage with our staff and parent community, and I believe that would be a significant barrier to being an effective board member.


Yes on Measure N  We desperately need to pass measure N, so that we can build more schools and update our existing facilities.  Although some districts go out every 5-7 years, it has been much longer than that for LASD.  We desperately need to pass this measure to keep up with our exploding enrollment.  It is essential to the successful model that has earned LASD national and international recognition as a top tier school district.

Each of the trustees I have endorsed would be excellent stewards for the Measure N funds.  They are committed to an open process to refine specific expenditures and I believe they will make wise use of our precious capital.  They seek public input, and understand the need to stretch our dollars.  That is exactly what we want as we embark on the first major expansion of the District in many years.

I thank all of these folks for their interest and their willingness to serve.  I believe that Tammy, Sangeeth, and Vladimir will serve our community well, and I encourage you to give them your full support.






Monday, September 8, 2014

NY Times Article on Success Academy

Author's note: Although I am grateful for the recently signed peace treaty with BCS, I still have concerns about how charter law is structured.  Just as I assume BCS will continue to advocate for what they believe in, I will continue to highlight issues that I believe are important to the education community.  This article shouldn't be interpreted as a specific concern with BCS, but more a concern with the way state and federal laws are structured.

The NY Times presented a piece of Eva Moskowitz, head of the NYC charter chain Success Academy.  You can read the article here.

Diane Ratvich, a former charter advocate and now charter critic, was quoted in the article.  The quotes in the article seemed somewhat benign.  However, Diane has recently posted a follow-up of her own, indicating that the NYT author watered down her comments.  Here's a link to her article.

Whatever the truth is, I believe that the charter model can only be successful if it proves itself on a representative sample of students.  The only way for that to happen is really through conversion charters.  In a  conversion charter, an entire school is converted in place.  That school must admit all students in the area, and must meet all of their needs.  This approach would avoid the question of whether the student body is representative of the wider population.  Then we can gauge the results.  I look forward to seeing peer reviewed articles that look at this type of data.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Gov. Brown, the Meddler

Darn it!  I wish Sacramento would just keep their darn hands off local Districts.  In the latest affront to common sense, Gov. Moonbeam has passed a law that will require Districts to cap our reserves at 10% of revenues.  (article)

For those not familiar with the nuances of school funding, we are required by law to have a reserve of 3% of our annual revenue.  It's prudent to require that local districts have some amount of cushion that we can draw upon when times get lean.  But what genius thought it was a good idea to cap that reserve?  If we could squirrel away a larger reserve (say, 15% or 20%) and then guarantee that we wouldn't have to issue a single pink slip in a big recession, wouldn't that be a GOOD idea?  The article says some districts have reserves of 30%-50%.  I challenge lawmakers to show us one district with over 1000 students that has that kind of reserve.  LASD has 11% reserves, and we're considered very fortunate.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the Governor's way of buying political support.  At a state level, the CTA continues to press to minimize reserves because the most logical way a district spends reserves is on salary. By forcing districts to spend reserves, it helps the CTA membership, who in turn support Gov. Brown.  Nice trick, Jerry.

Now, I want to be clear.  I supported our recent pay raise for our teachers because it was the right thing to do.  They've worked very hard and have implemented a first class program that is achieving great results.  In negotiations, our particular teachers really do have a sense of cooperation with us.  But at a state level, the CTA and Jerry are just nuts.

PS:  The rationale behind all of this is that the State is going to carry reserves to make sure we don't need as much in our safety net.  That's great- except that the State has consistently raided the Prop 98 guaranteed funding we are supposed to receive.