Monday, December 7, 2009

Full Day Kindergarten?

Tonight at (my first) Board meeting, we discussed the desire to offer full day kindergarten. There are some challenges to doing this, not the least of which is financial. The biggest costs are facilities and staff. At the same time, we know that parents really want this option, so we want to see how we might be able to do this.

We've asked the administration to explore a possible public-private partnership. the concept is that the district would offer a half-day program, but would partner directly with a private party to offer the "afternoon" part of the program. The first part is pretty simple- it's what we already do. The second part is basically enrolling a student in a private program where the district rents the space, but doesn't directly manage the program. It would be up to the private party to supply the second half of the day.

This all implies that there would be cost to the parents, which is essentially unavoidable in the current environment. However, that would hopefully be a modest cost.

I want to stress that this is in the investigation phase. However, it was interesting enough that we're willing to look at it and see what we might be able to do. More details will be available at the Jan 11 Board meeting. I can't make any promises whatsoever. However, I'm excited that we're trying to see what we can do.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

More than just "Book learning"

There was an interesting article in Time Magazine last week about the current generation of children and how parents play a different role than in the past. The thrust of the article was "let kids make mistakes, because that's how they learn". At a micro level we can think about kids learning to be responsible by suffering the consequences of forgetting their homework.

I chose to focus on a different subtext to the article, though. There are interesting comments about the ability of new college graduates to be true leaders, to experiment, and not be afraid to fail. This is critical to their success as adults, and this skill is learned as a child.

Have a read of the article and please let me know how you think we're doing with this aspect of raising the next generation.,8599,1940395,00.html

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Victory in the Courts

This past week, the Santa County Superior Courts handed down a ruling on the most recent lawsuit brought against LASD by the Bullis Charter School. The courts agreed with LASD on virtually every part of the suit. Specifically:

  • Upheld the District decision not to provide space for 7th grade for 2009-2010, given that BCS had publicly said they wouldn’t offer the 7th grade in this year
  • Upheld the District’s space calculations for classroom and non-classroom space
  • Supported the district’s position that “space” is only one aspect of the “reasonably equivalent” test, and that the test allows for some flexibility in how it is implemented

On the question of the Gardner Bullis campus, the court made the following observation:

"It appears to the Court from the record presented and the history of disputes between the parties that some of the Charter School's supporters are motivated by a strongly held yet entirely unjustified sense of superior entitlement to the Gardner Bullis Elementary School site, likely stemming from deep resentment over the closure of the former Bullis-Purissima Elementary School. This position undermines the Charter School's credibility, as despite occasional remarks to the contrary it repeatedly (and unconvincingly) suggests that the only possible outcome which would fully satisfy the goals of the Charter Schools Act would be for it to be given the Gardner Bullis Elementary School site." (page 26)

I’ve attached the Court’s ruling for those who would like to read through it. There is also an excellent article posted on the Town Crier’s website.
Pretty much the entire ruling was in favor of the district, save for a small point about share space. I’m not exactly surprised, though, at the court’s admonishment to the district to work better with the Charter School. The judge observed that we have a responsibility to work well with BCS, and “not adopt a reflexively adversarial position”.

I’m thrilled with the outcome of this suit. From the beginning, I’ve been frustrated with the use of litigation to deal with this issue, and the courts were very clear about their thoughts on this topic as well. “To the extent that [BCS] cannot reconcile themselves to the policy decisions made by elected bodies such as a school district board their energies might be better directed at the ballot box than the courthouse.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wow! Elected...

Last night I was elected to the Board of Trustees for the Los Altos School District. I must say, this isn't really the path I expected when I started doing all of this, but I'm grateful for the support of so many people. The district has a lot of challenges in front of it, but I'm confident that we'll continue to excel, both academically, and in our goal to inspire lifelong learning in our students.

I would be a complete clod if I didn't thank some people for this. First, thanks to the voters for the trust and faith they're placing in me. I'll do my very best. To the many friends who have hosted parties, distributed lawn signs, emailed, spoken to their friends, and generally propelled this effort forward: I can't thank you enough. To my family, who has already given up a lot of time, and who will be giving up even more over the next four years. My daughters have had a front row seat to both a fabulous lesson in civics, and also to the power of community support and involvement.

I intend to continue to blog here about district events. Please know that this blog reflects my personal opinions, and is not the official policy of the LASD Board of Trustees. I invite comments from the community on the topics that are most important to you, and I look forward to serving on the Board of Trustees.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

PTA Discussion about Suspensions

Tonight at the Almond PTA forum, I was asked a question about a statement I made to the Board last year regarding the district's suspension policy.

In the spirit of being open, at the PTA meeting I volunteered to make public my correspondence with the Board on this matter. I discussed this topic with my wife, and upon reflection, I'd prefer not to post the full text becuase it involves both my daughter's school record as well as that of another student. In the age of the internet, once something is "out there", it's out there forever.

However, I also want to respect what I said in the meeting. I don't have anything to hide on this topic. Therefore, if anyone is interested to read the correspondence, please contact me ( and I'll be pleased to meet with you to allow you to read a printed copy of the entire document, minus the name of the other student, of course.

The crux of my concern was best summarized by this paragraph, taken from my first contact with the district on this topic:

The state guidelines specifically say that suspension should not be used for a first offense unless the student presents a severe threat to other students. No reasonable person could interpret what occurred as a serious intent to physically harm another student. In fact, the state guidelines say that suspension is appropriate for a first offense only in the case of firearms, knives, selling of controlled substances, sexual assault, or possession of explosives. I believe we are all in agreement that none of those circumstances is present in this case.

I think that Mark Goines' comments on the topic this evening reflected a desire for more flexibility in the policy, which is consistent with my own views. We need to make sure our educators and adminstration have a range of options and exercise good judgement within that range. Again, I'm happy to meet with people and explain this in further detail should you be so inclined.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Way to go, Joe

SB19 passed this weekend, for which we should all be grateful.

SB19 unwound a previous bad law that was hurting every public education student in California. Some time ago, we wrote into law a "firewall" that prohibited using test scores to evaluate teacher performance. I won't debate why the law passed, but I will say plainly that I'm pleased it was repealed.

There are two big wins here. One is financial. The Obama administration has earmarked $4.5B for improving schools. One of the specific requirements to be eligible for that funding was -- you guessed it -- that the recipients had to permit the use of test scores in teacher evaluation. Even if it were only for mercenary reasons, it was a good idea to pass this law. The State of California simply can't afford not to be eligible for this funding.

The second reason this is good news is just plain common sense. Evaluating employees can be very difficult. Just because something is difficult doesn't mean you shouldn't try, though. In private industry, good companies devote tremendous effort to understanding who is contributing, who isn't making the grade, and what we can do to help those who are struggling to learn from those who are stars. Teaching is on of the most important professions. Wouldn't it stand to reason that we want to use every tool available to figure out who is doing well and who needs more coaching?

To be clear, I don't think test scores should be the be-all, end-all for evaluations. It should only be a piece of the puzzle. Still, this opens the door for a meaningful dialogue to evaluate employees on the basis of quantifiable data along side the more subjective observations. Thank goodness for common sense.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Relief... for Now

At tonight's Board meeting, Randy Kenyon presented the updated financials for the District. The good news is that we actually have a bit more than we thought. Through a series of favorable events, we've ended up the year with a reserve balance of $3.1M, or 7.4%. This is great, considering we were staring down a <3% reserve at the last meeting.

Here's the bad news. The big swings were due to a lot of one-time monies, so the deficit gets bad, quickly. Within 2 years, we'll be down to ~1.5% reserves if something doesn't change.

Hopefully folks are smart enough to focus on the long term picture, which remains bleak. "Hope" is not a substitute for "planning".

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How To Choose a Board Member

Since I'm now running for the Board of Trustees, I've been thinking and talking to folks about what makes a good board member. Someone passed along this article, which I found to be particularly good. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Covington After School Program

At this week's board meeting, one of the board items was to review a draft agreement under which the city would take responsibility for the after school programs that have traditionally been run by the PTA's. The plan was to hold a pilot at Covington this year, then roll it out across the district next year.

I was pretty surprised by the outcome. The city in fact will not be sponsoring the program, at least not yet. There were several factors that rolled into this decision:

No parents were included in the definition of the pilot program. The head of the Covington PTA and the head of the Site Council spoke to the board about the fact that the parents have not been included in the process. Under the old system, the PTA selected all of the vendors who held the after-school courses. They hadn't been consulted at all by the pilot study group, nor had the Site Council.

The revenue split has left a number of unanswered question. The city has said their program would be roughly "cost neutral" to the parents, but they also asked vendors for a 40/60 revenue split. Generally this means the vendors will have to charge more to take home the same amount of money, as the schools previously only took 15% to cover the cost of janitors, lights, etc.

The district wasn't being compensated at all for lights, utilities, janitorial, etc. This would have resulted in a cost to the district of approximately $8,000 per site.

There was not a list of actual offerings available. The city hadn't finalized which classes might be offered- they only had a sample list. This made some folks uneasy, to try to approve something we didn't have all the details on.

The city program wouldn't be ready for launch until ~28 September. Normally these programs are ready right after labor day. This would create a gap for parents of students at Covington who rely on the after school program for child care.

On the flip side, the city would bring to the program some disciple that it was agreed would be useful, in terms of formalizing the list of children participating (making it easier to deal with emergency situations), background screening / fingerprinting of vendors, etc. While those are valuable "pluses" to the program, there were simply too many unanswered questions about how the program would actually come together. After a pretty vigorous discussion, it was decided that the PTA would launch the fall program offerings. The city will go back to the drawing board and plan a pilot that will begin in January, which is a time when the existing programs normally turn over to new offerings anyway.

I think this was a good outcome. I'm glad to see such a strong emphasis on parental input to the program, and close scrutiny of how the finances would actually work out. While I'm sure it was disappointing to those who had been working on getting this going for September, it's better to get it "right" the first time it hits the schools, so it can be fully supported during the pilot.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Financial Emergency

Last week at the Board Meeting, there was a vigorous discussion about declaring a financial emergency. Among other options, it would give the administration the ability to freeze step and column movement for teachers.

I won't go into the specifics of the step-and-column discussion, but I will say that I believe this went as well as it could. For those who didn't attend:
- the district was considering declaring an emergency
- the teachers and classified staff have said they feel they are being effectively blackmailed
- the district has decided not to act until the Aug 17 Board meeting. If no meaningful agreement has been reached by that time to close the budget gap, the district will act unilaterally to address the shortfall

My thoughts:

1) I agree with the decision to consider the motion now. It is important that the employees understand that there is a very real problem here. In start-ups where I have worked, wage concessions and other austerity measures were better received when folks have some visibility and have been given the opportunity to chime in.

2) in this case, the teachers and classified staff will have an opportunity to make meaningful concessions at negotiating sessions before Aug 17. They've said they pride themselves on the working relationship. It is time to see it in action.

3) I also agree with the decision to postpone the final vote until Aug 17. Give folks one last chance to address the problem.

Let's all follow this closely and see where it goes.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Is this really a fire?

This week brings us an article from the Town Crier covering a grand jury report on school districts in Santa Clara County.

This report first surfaced in the Mercury News about two weeks ago: and they followed up with an editorial today pointing out that the expenses in question make up a very small percentage of the school district budgets.

In our case at LASD, Administration makes up approximately 9% of our district budget. That's significantly lower than the state average - low enough that the district has been repeatedly recognized for it's fiscal responsibility.

I'm not suggesting that there is no room for improvement. During the spring discussions of the budget crisis, I was disappointed that administration declined to offer a reduction in their salaries as even a symbolic contribution to addressing the budget shortfall. This was particularly disappointing because the administration will be pressing hard for teachers to take either an outright pay cut, or some form of furlough days to help close the budget gap.

The Town Crier article, though would lead the casual observer to conclude that our district is equally flawed as other districts cited by the Grand Jury. The truth is that the Grand Jury made general observations, and that it requires more thoughtful analysis to see if our district is guilty of the practices they mention. My personal observations of the key items in the Grand Jury Report:

- The district does, indeed, spend a fair bit of money on legal fees- particularly as it relates oat the charter school. However, as I've observed in prior posts, I don't fault the district for this. I'm happy to engage in a longer discussion about why I see a need to defend against these suits rather than simply "cave in" and save the money. It might be interesting, though to assess whether there are more cost effective ways to get good representation. For example, are there parents who might be willing to perform this work pro bono or at a discounted rate? Are we making full use of the county attorneys that are available to us?

- The School Board receives $40 per meeting. I'm not sure what else goes into the $400/month figure the town crier cites, but I am certain it isn't cash compensation. $40/ meeting is very little money give the time I've seen people put into this activity. As one board member observed, it's usually not enough to cover the cost of a baby-sitter for the time he's at the meetings. In point of fact, 4 years at ~10 meetings per year would barely recoup the fees it costs to put one's name on a ballot to run in the first place. The Board performs a public service - to suggest that ours is living large on the $40/ meeting is somewhat amusing.

- Our Superintendent is, indeed, well paid. The comparison to the Mayor of San Jose, however, is irrelevant. There are CEO's who oversee fewer employees but earn more money. This is simply a question of what the market demands.

- On the other hand, annual raises not based on performance bother me. I'd like to see raises tied to performance.

- In terms of using search firms to recruit for the Superintendent-- I know of few companies that wouldn't look far and wide for the best candidate. The fees paid may need to be negotiated, but it's folly to suggest that we should restrict our search in an effort to economize.

What's the upshot? I think the article in Town Crier paints with too broad a brush. It lacks enough information to really determine if we have a problem here. Fortunately, I think most of the residents of our community are smart enough to figure that out.

By The Way: If you've never read a Grand Jury Report, you might be surprised at the (lack of) detail. While the report carriers plenty of tables to show district-by-district expenses in several categories, it does little or nothing to investigate the actual reasons for the discrepancies. For example, in comparing legal fees, it makes no assessment of the causes for outside legal representation, success rate of the firms, or whether the district was well served. They simply state how much each district spent. It is not what I'd call a careful analysis.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Congrats to the Town Crier

I've made no secret when I'm disappointed with coverage in the Town Crier. Often I've felt that they too easily are swayed by what the Charter School has told them, and they don't spend enough time digging into the story. In last week's editorial, though, they did get it right. The editorial says, in a nutshell, "this isn't the time for lawsuits."

Good job on this one, folks.

Sadly, the Charter School looks like they're moving ahead anyway. Stay tuned for more disturbing news.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bullis Charter School Threatens Suit... again...

Call me the Great Oracle. As predicted, BCS is threatening litigation... again. It's amazing how this happens so frequently. There appears to be very little give and take in this relationship.

I've read the BCS letter with their threat to litigate the assignment of their facilities. The letter cites five areas of disagreement (The Town Crier reported only three)

(1) facilities offered do not include seventh grade
(2) the offer letter (from LASD) apparetnly lacked a square footage description for each LASD school. (This would serve as a basis of comparing BCS facilities to LASD facilities)
(3) unsatisfied with the proposed shared use of the turf space with Egan
(4) a complaint about the inclusion of the BCS-provided multi in space calculations
(5) a complaint that the LASD offer sought a response by a May 1, 2009

I'm not going to disect every one of these arguments -- tit-for-tat isn't the purpose of my blog. I still believe what is at play is a move for a campus that is not co-located with Egan. Apparently the BCS has continued to request facilities for a seventh grade even though they have made statements to the effect that they won't be offering seventh grade this fall. The underlying purpose of a request may be to force comparison of the BCS campus to Egan, which does not have any portables for their students.

Really, folks... if we were all focused on quality education, do you think we could come to a long term agreement that takes into account the near-term economic realities? As someone who watches the district struggle to balance our expenditures with the current budget situation, I can't help but wonder wha the cost of the BCS litigation is, and what the impact is on kids within the district and at the Charter School. Wouldn't both groups of kids be better served by spending that money on education?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Board Meeting Results

At last night's LASD Board Meeting, Gardner Bullis was well represented by a number of GB parents. I addressed the board on the topic of the BCS offer for our campus, and let them know that the LASD is not served by an offer such as this. As a parent, I'm also proud that my daughter, who is president of the Gardner Bullis Student Council, also addressed the Board on this important topic. I have attached the text of my speech below for those who are interested. After the meeting, I discussed the issue informally with several board members. They are grateful for our public support, and welcomed the comments both at the board meeting and via email. Two Board members confirmed to me that the feedback will be extremely valuable during the litigation which is nearly certain to occur. Note that if you were too shy to speak last night, or simply couldn't make the meeting, you can still email comments to the Board.

On a broader note, the Board of Trustees recognized a number of high-achieving students, of which we should all be very proud. LASD had 10 students qualify for the finals in the State Geography Bee, and they placed exceptionally well. Blach received an award from Walden West in recognition of their outstanding efforts for the environment. The Egan Chess Club won at state competition recently, and their students and faculty sponsor were also recognized. Congratulations to all of these big winners!

Comments for the LASD Board Meeting, 1 June 2009

My name is Doug Smith. I am an incoming member of the LAEF Board, but tonight I’m speaking only as a Gardner Bullis parent.

The Bullis Charter School has made a public issue of their proposal to lease the Gardner Campus. I felt that this public “offer” required a public response. I applaud the LASD Board of Trustees for their swift rejection of this offer. The financials of this offer look more like a low-ball offer to a distressed home owner, but that isn’t what troubles me. No, plain and simple, this is an existing school community. The BCS offer would displace over 200 local Gardner students in favor of BCS students. I find it hard to comprehend that a group founded in specific response to the closing of a neighborhood school would believe that they can further their objectives by displacing another group of neighborhood kids. Apparently not all children are equal in the eyes of the BCS Board.

For whatever reason, the media has chosen to serve as the PR wing to the BCS. This offer can have no practical purpose other than generate publicity for the Charter School, or to serve as a precursor to coming litigation. No thinking journalist could believe that this offer would do anything other than irritate the Gardner community.

I come here to make known my opposition to any arrangement whereby the Gardner Bullis students would be removed from the campus they have come to call their own. They have undergone the challenges of moving schools in the fall of 2008, have formed new friendships, and have established themselves in their own community. Likewise parents are volunteering tens of thousands hours and helping to ensure the success of our neighborhood school. The Gardner Campus is not some abstract piece of vacant land. It is our school, our community. Those who might try to usurp our use of our neighborhood school for their own purposes, no matter what their goals justifications, will discover that Garnder parents will vigorously defend our children and their right to their own neighborhood school.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Take it to the Board!

In the interest of making sure our opinion is heard, I'd encourager people to attend the LASD Board meeting this Monday night at 7pm. There is always a "public comment" time, at the beginning of the Board meetings. I plan to speak to the board about my feelings related to the BCS offer. I'd encourage all of you to do the same.

To be clear, I don't believe that the LASD Board is entertaining this offer seriously. However, it is important that we nip this behavior in the bud. Please come, and if possible, wear a GB shirt. I've seen this before though- even if you don't speak, the show of support will have an impact. Speaking slots are typically 2-3 minutes long, but of course you don't have to speak for the entire time.

Board meeting is at Covington, normally in the District Board room. 7pm. See you there.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who's kids come first?

The Bullis Charter School has recently proposed making a one-time payment of $3m to the LASD in exchange for exclusive long-term use of the Gardner Bullis Campus.

I understand the idea of advocating for one's own children, and I have been frustrated at times with the LASD. However, this proposal seems like it should be beneath any rational person. I will not dwell on the discrepancy between the $3M offered for the campus and the $12M the district just paid to renovate it. I will also skip over the fact that a one-time inflow of $3M will hardly fix the District's ongoing financial woes caused by the economic downturn. Focusing on the dollars offered makes this about money, and that's not where this really is troubling.

The BCS argues that they want that campus to provide a neighborhood school for their students. BCS was conceived of in response to the closing of the Bullis Purissima campus, so I get the idea that folks are attached to a neighborhood school. My question, though, is very simple: what happens to the 210 students currently enrolled at Gardner, for whom Gardner is their local school? The message delivered by the BCS proposal is that someone feels the Charter School students are more entitled to a local campus than the students living on Robleda Ave and attending the Gardner Bullis School today. Viewed in this context, one must ask if it makes sense to displace 210 students to appease another group, regardless of the economics.**

The only likely outcome of the BCS offer is that it irritates the LASD Board and Administration. The BCS Board might also be concerned that they have now also irritated all the parents of students attending Gardner Bullis- a group likely to be just as vocal and as just formidable as those who formed BCS. In the process, BCS is making enemies where there were none before. Not a smart move...

** BCS is, by law, permitted to give preference to LAH residents for up to 50% of their spaces. The numbers still don't work. That would imply displacing 210 GB local resident students for fewer than 165 BCS equivalent resident students. (numbers based on GB attendeance of 210 students in 2008-09, and 326 BCS students in the same timeframe. GB attendence projected to increase by at least one class for the 2009-10 School year.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Upcoming restructure meeting

The May 18th school board meeting will showcase some of the changes to our programs that have been designed to deal with our budget shortfall. It would be a good board meeting to attend to learn how your child(ren) may be impacted by the upcoming changes in the district.

I try to attend most every board meeting, but I will be out of town for this one. If you are around, please show your support and try to attend.

Please Vote - and vote YES

The Superintendent's office sent out an update last week talking about the upcoming eelction. I think they've done a good job of telling folks about hte election, yet complying with the state law that prohibits them from taking a postion on the election itself. No such state law constrains me, so I'm going to be more direct.

Please Vote "YES" in the May 19 Election for all measures.

Even better, vote YES and get a few friends to vote YES also.

To be really clear, I'm a fiscal conservative and I don't like seeing taxes raised. However, without these ballot measures, our schools will suffer further revenue cuts, which means we'll lose more teachers. We simply can't afford the cuts.

The upside, if you're conservative like me, is that the ballot measures also create a reserve fund, which will help balance out the swings in state finances such as this one. It's about time we did that.

I normally wouldn't bother to tell folks about an election I'm pretty sure they'd support, but statewide polls show the ballot measures are in trouble. We need to get people out to the polls, and voting yes. Mail-in elections typically favor conservatives, which is putting pressure on the measures. Please, PLEASE find the time to vote in this important election.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Something's Working with Math!

I was at the school board meeting again this week. Among the normal news was a small ceremony to recognize 10 kids from Egan for their participation in a worldwide math competition. This contest has thousands of kids from across the globe competing on a series of 25 difficult math problems. The entire team did exceptionally well, and they are to be congratulated for their work. Of special note- 3 of the kids managed to get 24 of the 25 problems correct- putting them in the top 1% of all 8th graders, worldwide.

Nicely done!!!!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Parcel Tax for Cupertino?

There was an interesting article in the Mercury News the other day about the campaign for a parcel tax in Cupertino. It will be interesting to see whether the parcel tax passes there or not.

It is somewhat surprising to me to see that Cupertino does not already have a parcel tax. They are a high-achieving school district, and the quality of the local schools is a huge plus for the local home values.

The biggest difference between Cupertino and Los Altos is sheer size. Los Altos is a very small city, with a population that seems to favor keeping businesses out. (One need only look at the number of failed proposals to redevelop the Thrift Shop at First and Main, or the failed attempt by the Safeway to win approval for renovations). Cupertino, by contrast, has a large geographic footprint of Cupertino that translates into space for businesses. They also have taken a very friendly stance toward businesses by encouraging major redevelopment projects.

Mountain View has a similar situation. If one considers the most recent commercial development in Mountain View, they've built a Best Buy/ Bed Bath & Beyond/ REI mall at Rengstorf & 101. They also allowed the BMW dealer to build a multi-story parking garage to expand their business. These businesses contribute huge $$$'s to the tax coffers of the city, providing valuable services. They also pay significant property taxes, which fund the schools. Los Altos, by contrast, makes it very difficult for businesses to grow. IN the long run, this means that the residents have to kick in for one of the highest parcel taxes in California.

Don't get me wrong- I'm a big supporter of the schools, and by extension I understand the need for the parcel taxes. Los Altos residents enjoy their high property values but don't seem to want to enable businesses to share in the cost of running the schools. That only leaves an increased parcel tax to pay the tab. Unfortunately, this year we were unable to gain anywhere near the support we'd need for a parcel tax. Either way, it is a shame...

Disclosure: I served on the LASD Parcel Tax Survey Committee for 2008-09.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Change... yet still the same... and some change!

In a stroke of irony, the updated Advanced Math program looks... a lot like the old one. After contemplating a change that would have sent the Adv. Math students to the Jr Highs first thing in the morning, the district has changed it's mind. Ah well...

In our house, my daughter was looking forward to the "Jr High School Preview", but that's OK.

Kudos to the district for working with the Town Crier to get the story out.
I had a chance to meet with the Superintendent Justus and the Assistant Superintendent Baier last week to discuss communications with the community. I stressed with them how important I felt it is to reach out through non-traditional channels. Hopefully this is a sign of change to come.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Curriculum - Arts & Music

During Jeff's update on curriculum, he talked about the impact of the budget cuts on the music program. A couple of key ideas here:

1) Instrumental Music will still be available to all 5th and 6th grade students. This is great- there was a lot of support for instrumental music during the discussions, so it's good to see that this is staying.

2) I need to get more detail, but Jeff mentioned that they were trying to work out some better options for kids who don't want to play an instrument. It wasn't 100% clear what this might look like (drama classes? art appreciation? music theory?) but it was great to see that we're not just flushing things away. I'll try to get more data on this and update the posting.

Curriculum Updates - Math

During the Board meeting this week, Jeff Baier provided a couple of updates on the Curriculum.

In the "Normal Update" topic: We've already discussed that the Math Curriculum is being updated this year. The pilots are going well. For those interested in looking at the materials, they are:

Scott Forseman enVision Mathematics
Houghton Mifflin (no link available)

You can also check out the materials in the district office.

One big benefit of the new math curriculum is that both texts support letting students work at their own pace foe each unit. If a child is "at grade level" for multiplication, they can do the exercises for "at level" students. However, if they are more adept at geometry, they can take on the more challenging geometry exercises.

The one concern raised about this concept of having three streams in a single classroom is that we'll need to make sure the teachers are pushing the kids and teaching across all three levels. The texts are designed with a single set of instructional materials, but different exercises. The parent who spoke up (not me) was concerned that the teachers might not push the kids to attempt the harder materials. This is definitely something we have discussed at the District Curriculum Council. We'll see how the feedback comes in from the 30+ pilot classrooms we're running.

Updates from the Board Meeting

I attended the Board meeting Tuesday night. Key take-aways:
  • As expected, the Board approved the layoff plan for all classified staff. We knew this was part II of the process. My only complaint is that they don't actually read the resolution out loud before they vote on it. If they decided to change who was affected, how would we know?
  • There were a couple of Curriculum Updates, which I'll include in a separate post.
  • We are now looking for 4 principals. This seems strange, given that last year we also hired 4 principals. That amounts to 100% turnover in just 2 years. There hasn't been any public discussion about this. It would be interesting to know if this has hit anyone's radar.

In the context of the budget, the admin staff has agreed to cap their benefits next year as a way of helping save money. The exact dollar amount of savings was not discussed. While any savings is good, I can't help but be a bit underwhelmed. Usually in situations like this, management sets the example by taking a greater cut than everyone else. If this is the best "management" puts on the table, it would not be entirely surprising that the LATA might take a hard line. Even if LATA makes a concession now, I will not be stunned to hear of bitter negotiations at the next contract discussion. Essentially the message this sends to certificated staff is "if you want to save the jobs of your colleagues, that's up to you."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Reminder: Important Board Meeting Tonight


Just a quick reminder that the LASD Board meets tonight. At the last board meeting, they agreed to the plan to reduce certificated staff. That is generally "core teachers". Tonight they'll discuss reduction in certificated staff. Certificated staff ranges the spectrum from the secretaries in the office to, librarians and in some cases folks we think of as "teachers". Please make every effort to attend and show support for these important and valued employees.


Thursday, March 12, 2009

Advanced Math at Egan

At the Board meeting, a couple of folks expressed concern about having ~75-100 more drop-offs at the Jr High Schools. I am aware that there have been some issues- these same folks have come to the meetings previously and asked the Board to help them. Adding more bodies at the peak time seems daunting.

I suggested to Jeff Baier that they shift the start time just for kids taking Adv Math. Those 6th graders will all be in the same sections, and their classes will all start first thing in the morning. Rather than have them start at 8:12 like the rest of the school, I suggested that they start at 7:55. Their drop-offs would then be out of the peak drop-off time (giving parents like me an easier trip from Egan to Gardner Bullis to drop off my other child.) It would also create 20 minutes of prep time for the Adv Math teachers, between their 1st period and their second period class.

Jeff needs to look into some things to see if this is doable. (For one thing, it means the teacher would have to start earlier). I'd be interested in comments from folks about whether you think this is a good idea.

Kids and the Layoff

We explained to our daughters that they should wear pink tomorrow to show support for the teachers who will receive their pink slips tomorrow. McKenna asked who is affected. Since it's not official, and there's a sliver of hope that we'll be able to save these folks,we chose not to tell her who. She burst into tears and said "Please don't let it be Mrs. Evenhuis. She's really good and I really like her."

Our thoughts are with those of you who will be affected tomorrow. Hopefully this will pass, and we can work out a way to balance the budget.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Per Pupil Spending

After tonight's School Board meeting, Tom Campbell and I had a lively discussion about per-student spending. During the meeting, a Board member said that California is 47th in the country in per-student spending. Tom felt that the per-student figures are meaningless. While I agree that it's possible to lie through the statistics, there might be merit in a claim that CA is missing the boat if we're 47th in the country. After all, Los Altos is a very expensive place to live. It costs more to service a car here, to visit a dentist,, and even to buy groceries. It should stand to reason that our expenditures per pupil would also be higher than some, if not all of the other parts of the country.

This prompted me to go do some research. I wanted to know how the LASD stacked up against the national averages. I looked up the statistics on the US Census Bureau web site. The latest data they have is for 2005. Here's what I found:

CA Spending Per Pupil: $8,067
LASD Spending Per Pupil $9,739

(sources: US Census 2005 Annual Survey of Local Government Finances,
LASD 2008-09 Budget Executive Summary)

The CA per pupil spending ranks us 27th in the country, not 47th as was stated at the School Board meeting. The LASD per student spending would put us 15th compared to the other states.

Having said that, I stand by my earlier post about the desperate need to improve the district funding. We just want to make sure we're accurate in the process.

Broken Budget

Fresh from the school board meeting...

The most important thing to remember is that the budget model as a whole is highly dysfunctional. Having teacher salaries and school supplies be paid for out of year-to-year monies like the LAEF and the PTA puts our district in a constantly precarious position. Every year we have to reassess whether we can fund that science aide, that new chalk board. We need to move to a model where the community, which benefits greatly from having a top-notch school district, is funding a bigger portion of the program. After all, the property value you save may be your own.

I was on the Parcel Tax Survey Committee earlier this year. Unfortunately, in the current climate, there's just no way to pass a meaningful parcel tax. I believe that the current restructure does what we need it to do- that is, it keeps the district functioning as best we possibly can until the economy improves. Once that happens, I believe we should press hard for a parcel tax that more adequately funds the type of program we all want the children in this district to enjoy.

Until then... watch for a bake sale near you.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Class (Size) Warfare

I've been asked by a few people what's the story with class size reduction. The 2009-10 budget shows that we'll save $300,000 in class size reduction. Here's where the money comes from... and goes to...

The State of California sends funding to school districts in exchange for a commitment to keep class sizes for K-3 at ~21 students per teacher. That money does not completely offset the cost of the additional teachers needed to fit under the size limit, but it's a start.

In the past, if you didn't meet the threshold, the penalties were pretty strong- I believe if you went over the threshold, you lost ALL of the funding for those students. Under the new budget, they've set up several tiers. Thus, the district would get 100% of the funding if we're under 21 students per class, but we'll still get 70% of the funding if we're under 24 students per class.

Obviously this isn't a simple equation. If you have exactly 42 first grade students at your site, there is no savings to create one class of 24 students and one class of 18. However, we do have several instances where we have "cohort groups" (an entire group at a grade level) that makes this recombination attractive because the numbers work out. If a campus has 72 first grade students, we'd currently be running 4 classes of 18 students each. Under the new plan, we could run 3 classes of 24 each and still qualify for 70% of the State subsidy.

Across the district, it works out such that we can eliminate 10 teacher positions and combine classes into these slightly larger rooms. We'd save something like $600,000 (my est.) in teacher salaries and benefits, but it is offset by a reduced state subsidy. The district has done all the puts-and-takes and determined that we'll net $300,000 in savings. Based on comments from the School Board, I *believe* they are not planning on moving kids to different campuses to achieve this savings.

What to do:
If this were my daughter's class, I'd be very concerned about an increase from 18-20 kids up to 24 kids. It's a big load on a teacher. I would expect that next fall, the K-3 teachers will be looking for more parent volunteer hours to help in the classroom. This particularly makes sense with things like reading groups, where breaking the kids into small groups is desirable. We can all help by planning for more volunteer hours next fall.

Keep in mind, also, that Classroom Size Reduction is the #1 item to be brought back as we find sustainable funding. That means that if the LATA gives something back in their contract, or LAEF finds a spare $300K under the mattress, this is the first program we'll restore. Hopefully this will come to pass and it won't be an issue.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Advanced Math

One of the items on the budget list is a change to Advanced Math. I currently serve on the District Curriculum Council, where we are evaluating new math text books for next year, and I wanted to share a little bit about the new texts and how it might impact the advanced math program.

Please note: I am speaking for myself, not as official position for the DCC.

Much of the current thinking on teaching kids math has changed from when the LASD AdvMath program was created. Our current program labels children as "gifted" in math largely based on computational skills. We test a student, she completes a certain number of equations accurately within a specific time period, so we decide that child is gifted. The "reward" for being so labeled is that you skip an entire year of math concepts and move on to a different track. Our Jr. High math teachers report that this has created some problems in that some of the AdvMath kids have alarming holes in their depth of understanding of specific concepts. Basically, they learn some concepts just enough to get through the material, but they didn't master it the way their peers did. This includes kids who got all "A's" in advanced math.

Newer thinking on this topic is different. Experts now seem to agree that kids may have some areas where they are ahead of their peers, and other areas where they are at peer level- that the idea of "gifted" as being absolute isn't necessarily true. The focus is now on adapting the texts to challenge kids where it is appropriate, and yet make sure they cover all of the material in an appropriate way. The two new texts we are considering cater to this idea.

I had a chance to review both texts currently under evaluation for use within the district. There are a couple of key changes to how they teach:

  • The way material is first presented to kids has changed. At least one of the texts draws on Singapore Math presentation concepts, which tend to be more visual in nature. Feedback from teachers so far has been very positive about the ease with which kids of all levels are learning with this approach.
  • With the advent of better presentation methods, more time is spent on presentation and less time on sheer practice - and we've seen better results in comprehension and retention as a result.
  • Within the exercises the kids do, they are broken out into groups for advanced students, at level students, and students who need more support. This would allow kids within the same class to do different problems based on their abilities.
  • Both texts also emphasize evaluation at the beginning of the chapter as well as the end. This would allow the teacher to see that the student is "above level" in one particular chapter and "at level" in a different chapter-- and then assign exercises for that chapter accordingly.

That last bullet is important. Being able to tailor the curriculum to each child, not only at the "whole year" level, but on a week-by-week basis is a big plus.

One of my daughters was not in advanced math in grade 4, but was in it for grade 5. Grade 4 math was tedious and painful until her principal began pulling her and several of her peers out of math to work with them in a small group setting on math problems that were appropriate for their skills. This is exactly what the new curricula aim to do- tailor the programs to the kids' skills.

The district may still move kids into different groups for math (i.e. one classroom might have students who predominately do the "advanced" exercises), but the flexibility of the materials really helps in that we would be less constrained by building a class of exactly 28 kids who meet the "advanced math" criteria.

One blog post won't change your mind if you're highly intent on having a child in "advanced math" What I will say, though, is that the new curriculum allows greater flexibility for the kids and the instructors. I think this is a good thing all the way around.

For continuity reasons, kids currently in 5th grade will finish out 6th grade in the curriculum they are already using. AdvMath 5th grade students are currently studying 6th grade materials. Their next stop is pre-algebra, which is normally offered to 7th grade students. For logistical reasons, we can save some money by having those kids take math at their respective Jr High Schools. As a parent of a 5th grader, that's not terrible-- but I'm really looking forward to seeing my second grader work in the new math program.

Budget Review

I attended the LASD Board meeting on Monday to get a better understanding of how the CA State budget is going to impact the district.

The good news: projections for the district deficit have ranged from $0 to $3.6m. Assuming the State budget holds, our deficit is actually ~$500K for the 2009-2010 school year. That's a lot better than we thought.

The less-than-good news: If all we do is fix the $500K hole, we're in a worse position next year.

I'm pleased that the district office has decided to take a structural approach to fixing the budget. While it would be tempting to look at the current financial crisis and hope that it will pass, few economists are actually predicting a rapid economic recovery. It only makes sense to fix this problem at a structural level and to start living within our means.

Randy Kenyon led an excellent presentation to explain all of the puts and takes on the budget.
(link to presentation)

The deck splits into three sections:
Section I explains the budget in broad terms, including some one-time sweeps we can make to recoup some money from this year into next year's budget. The key concept here is that we have a long term deficit issue, so we want to figure out how to take ~$2m out of the ongoing expenditures. That would give us break-even cash flow for approximately 5-6 years into the future.

Section II lists "efficiency gains" that the district is making. These are decisions that we should be making just because they are good management decisions. It's the sort of thing a Finance department does all the time, with or without a crisis. It can be summed up as "how to do the same thing for less money."

Section III is the hard part. These are program reductions. Every one of these is painful, and people feel passionate about each one of the cuts. The reality is that we have a serious crisis, so we have to make these tough decisions. I'll do another post on my take on these cuts later. Section III is presented in priority sequence. That is to say, as we find additional funding, we'd bring back those programs in the order in which they appear in the deck. (i.e. Class Size reduction is the first thing to return.)

Prior to the Board meeting, I proposed to the District Office and the Board of Trustees that they make a concerted effort to explain the current program and the impact of each proposed change. I'm pleased that they have tried to do that in most of this presentation.

While none of the cuts are trivial, they are trying to figure out how to deliver as much of the program as possible while still setting ourselves up for a budget that we can live with for more than just this year. Some of these cuts affect my kids, and I'm sure that most of you are affected by one or more of the proposed changes. It's tempting to plead for the specific changes that impact my kids, but unless I can propose where else the money should come from, I'm trying to restrict myself to learning how best to help my kids, and keep my pleas for clemency for my pet programs to a minimum.

More to come...

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Introductions are in order. I'm a parent in the LASD, with two daughters currently attending Gardner Bullis. Prior to the 2008-09 school year, we attended Almond Elementary. As a parent, I'm generally pleased with the high quality of the academic instruction and the richness of the program our kids receive. We are very fortunate to have such a robust program and dedicated District employees to deliver that program to our kids.

About a year ago there was a situation at my daughters' elementary school that caused me to get more interested in how the district is run. We've always been involved as best we could -classroom time, volunteer work for various extracurriculars, etc. I've also served on the Almond Site Council and am currently on the District Curriculum Council. However, I felt that the flow of information from the District isn't what it could be. My only goal with this blog is to try to share information.I can't possibly represent all of the good work that is going on within the District. There are PTA's, many different advisory panels and councils, and parents contribute literally tens of thousands of volunteer hours in the classroom. I can't possibly cover all the work that all of these people do. If you're active in some aspect of the district that I don't know about, please feel free to contact me. If you'd like to write your own posting, I welcome your contributions. If you'd like to have me summarize what you're up to, or provide a link to your own material, that's OK too.

The whole point of communication is that it's a bi-directional process. Hopefully I can share something useful to you, and I can learn something from you as well.

Best wishes,