Sunday, February 28, 2010

Superintendent Search
(Why do a Closed Search?)

I first got involved in school district politics when I felt my voice wasn't being heard during a principal hiring. It seems ironic, then that one of the earliest things I'd do is participate in a "closed" search for a new superintendent.

What is a closed search? A closed search is on in which the candidates meet only with the Board of Trustees and the advisers we have hired (Leadership Associates). The candidates do not meet with any members of staff, nor anyone from the PTA's, LAEF, or any other stakeholder.

Before the Board hired Leadership Associates, I reached out to several neighboring districts where Leadership Associates had run their search, and had used a closed process. For example, I spoke to both community members and trustees in Los Gatos. They have a district similar to ours (similar size, similar demographics, an active educational foundation and PTA community, etc.) Community members met with Leadership Associates and provided input early in the process. They felt that the resulting hire was an excellent fit for their district. Likewise, the Board member I spoke with has been pleased with the Superintendent they have hired. Thier search was a closed process.

In talking to Leadership Associates, they told us that a closed search would yield a much better candidate pool, including many candidates who might not otherwise consider putting their name in the ring. Candidates simply don't want to have to explain to their existing Board and community why they are considering moving to another district. Having validated the results of this process with Los Gatos, with former members of the Palo Alto School Board, and others, I've become more comfortable with this approach.

I still urge community members to make their voices heard. While the formal input sessions have already been conducted, I'd invite any feedback you might like to share. Please feel free to drop me a line with any thoughts on what you'd like to see in a new Superintendent.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Budget Crisis (aka Here we go again)

By now everyone who reads the paper knows the State of CA will be cutting funding for schools again. Even under the proposed "no cuts to education" plan, education will take a ~$2B hit. So what does that mean to us?

The Board is busy working with staff and stakeholders to determine the best plan to move forward. We are wrestling with both a short-term budget crunch as well as a long term structural issue.

But didn't we slash programs last year? Isn't that enough? Yes, we made significant cuts last year. At that time, we had a budget plan that should have kept us solvent for the next 6 years. Unfortunately the economy has worsened and tax revenues are down across the State. This ends up hitting the district.

But I thought we were Basic Aid, and cuts wouldn't affect us? Yes, the district is Basic Aid, which means we get to keep most of our property tax revenue. Unfortunately there are two things that work against us.

(1) Some of our expenses will continue to climb. Health benefit costs for our employees continue to increase every year, and to a lesser extent other expenses do also.

(2) The district will take a "Fair Share" hit to our revenue, along with Revenue Limit districts. Essentially this could be viewed as a political gesture, whereby it is wiser to participate in the sacrifice that affects all of the districts across the state so that we protect the concept of basic aid as a whole. Otherwise, given the small number of basic aid districts statewide, Basic Aid status would become a political target for elimination completely.

So what are you going to do? We are considering as many options as possible. In the near term, we are legally required to notify staff of possible layoffs. The deadline for this notification is in early March. If the budget gets better, we can rescind some or all of those notices.

What is the real impact to program? We haven't determined that yet. We are faced with some difficult choices. Staff has indicated a willingness to consider some furlough days, and we are grateful for that participation. That could help close some of the gap. We are also looking at a sweep of some funds from the "site level" back to the district. It is possible that some class sizes will increase next year also. Some scenarios have this being very modest, and some would be much more drastic. All three of these measures may not be enough. There aren't any easy answers.

Are we considering closing a school? I've heard from several people asking about this. As of this writing, there hasn't been any discussion about closing a school. I cannot guarantee that this would never happen. I can only speak for myself in saying that I would not look to that idea as a way to solve the short-term problem. There is a structural issue out there as well - our deficits get bigger in future years- but I would want to look at a complete picture, including increased parcel tax, a possible bond measure, private grants, and all other options. I would look at any structural changes such as changes to the number of sites we operate as a more strategic question, not a tactical "how-do-we-close-the-gap-this-year" measure. Again, as of this writing, I do not know of any plan to close a school site.

The situation is definitely serious. Our budget has been slashed for so many years, it's beyond crazy. Most every program that we consider part of a rich education - music, art, PE, libraries, etc - is funded by outside donations. It is a difficult time for schools everywhere. Los Altos is fortunate to have the support of so many community members, but the news is not going to be good this year.

I would encourage people to come to the Board meetings and make your voices heard. Please bring constructive suggestions. I've often heard people come and say "please don't cut this". We really need folks to help by suggesting where we *can* save money, or where additional revenues can be found.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A New Superintendent

Some of you may be aware that Tim Justus, our current Superintendent, will be retiring after this year. Filling this vacany is actually one of the most important things we'll do as a Board. While the Board sets District policy, it is the Superintendent who executes against that vision. In a public company, it's the CEO who leads the team. Our Superintendent is much the same.

The District has retained Leadership Associates, a search firm that specializes in superintendent searches. We have worked with Leadership Associaates in other capacities, and their team also comes highly recommented by Palo Alto and Los Gatos.

This is the time to start thinking about what you want in a new superintendent. I'd welcome comments and feedback on what you consider important. Ideas and thoughts can either be posted here as comments, or sent via email to

Monday, February 1, 2010

What makes a good charter school?

There's an interesting article in the LA Times today about what makes a good charter school. The author points out that the data doesn't bear out the idea that charter schools are a panacea for what ails education.

The thrust of what the author says is that there's a disconnect between the rush in public policy toward charters and the success rate in the field.

Let me be clear: I don't think this applies to BCS. They have a very successful program that is serving students just as well as if those kids had attended LASD schools. My point in bringing this up is that the legislature is skewed in favor of charter schools as all being good, and the data doesn't necessarily bear that out.