Monday, March 28, 2011

Comments from 3/21 Board Meeting re: BCS Final Offer

Below are the text of the comments I made during discussion of the BCS final offer. I prefaced this with an acknowledgement that many of the speakers seemed to have adopted a more 'community minded' tone than what I received in email during the weeks prior to the meeting. I'm grateful for the improvement in tone.


Once again we have reached that point in the year where the LASD Board approves a final facilities offer for BCS under Prop 39. What appears to the public as a simple vote is actually the culmination of a year-long process involving countless staff hours, meetings and negotiations. I’d like to first thank Randy Kenyon and the district staff for pulling this together, as well as Katia Kamangar, Peter Evans, and Andrea Eyring of the BCS board for their participation in this process.

I’ve received several emails from the public over the past several weeks asserting that the LASD offer indicates that LASD has shortchanged BCS students in one manner or another. I assure you, the public, nothing could be further from the truth. LASD has consistently complied with and exceeded the requirements set forth by Prop 39. We have allocated space in a manner that is reasonably equivalent to other district schools. "Reasonably equivalent" is the key phrase from the regulations. It doesn’t guarantee exact equivalence- for exact equivalence is literally impossible to achieve.

Two areas come to the front more than most others, so I want to explain briefly, for the benefit of the public, what the true facts are.

Speakers tonight have suggested that LASD has provided an insufficient number of classrooms for the BCS student population. They cite a "growth of 70+ students" over last year, and focus on the addition of a single classroom in the new offer. The implication is that the district proposes to put 70 students in a single classroom, which of course is not true. What is not called out is that the student-to-classroom loading ratio is a significant factor in the process. This year LASD classrooms for 4th to 6th grade averaged 26.88 students per classroom, even though the District used a more favorable ratio in allocating classrooms to BCS. This fall the District expects to load at a higher level, and that increase in the District’s ratio has an impact on the allocation of facilities to BCS

Furthermore, although not required by law, we reached an agreement with BCS last fall that allows for a change the classroom loading for BCS if the District’s own classroom loading changes before June 30. That means if the parcel tax passes, or the Governor’s proposals make it out of Sacramento and are passed by the voters, BCS could stand to benefit from a reduction in the District’s student-to-classroom ratio. Of course that’s a two-edged sword. If BCS parents continue to lobby against the parcel tax, BCS could stand to suffer from an increase in the District’s student-to-classroom ratio.

The other area I hear about is field and asphalt space. Several letter writers this week have mistakenly asserted that LASD is "shortchanging" BCS because BCS is "entitled" to 115,000 square feet of turf. They reach this number based on the average amount of space per student across all of our comparison schools. Proposition 39 does not require that the District allocate field and asphalt space on an absolutely equivalent basis to all schools. The per-student amount of Kindergarten space, Blacktop and Turf space allocated to BCS is well within the range of the amount allocated to other District schools. In point of fact, several schools have less space per student in these categories. Loyola actually has less space per student in ALL THREE categories. We hope that the parents at Loyola won’t decide to sue LASD because their space isn’t exactly equivalent to the BCS space. In his ruling last fall, Judge Kleinberg upheld the District’s allocation of Kindergarten space, Blacktop and Turf space allocated to BCS. The Proposition 39 regulations recognize that school sites don’t come in "one-size-fits-all" allotments and that some variance in allocation is to be expected.

Letter writers this week have directly or indirectly asserted that the Gardner Bullis campus is underutilized, and some boldly suggest we should move them off their campus and provide that space to BCS. Not once do those letters even acknowledge that the parents of today’s 300 Gardner students would be just as outraged as the founders of BCS were just a few years ago. They give no thought to the impact on that school community, or the students who attend it. I am frustrated when I receive letters that seek to advance the goals of one group of students at the expense of another group, while those same letters also urge me to treat all public school students fairly. The irony of this language may be lost on the author, but it is not lost on me.

This year, as we have consistently done in the past, the District is providing more than we are legally required to do. This isn’t about hitting the legal "minimums", squeaking by with the least amount that we can. We have consistently striven to be fair to the BCS program, and will continue to do so in years to come. Hopefully we can soon work on a bond measure together that would help us put to bed the question of facilities for an extended period of time, but that isn’t for today.

I don’t pretend to believe that my comments here will move those who view the situation as BCS vs. the District. As the trustee on our Prop 39 committee, I can safely say that I spend more time than any other Board member on BCS matters. I attend BCS recruiting events, and I have made repeated efforts to reach out to the BCS parent community. We may not ever be the best of friends. I only hope that my comments provide some context for the general public, so that they know we as a Board are meeting our legal responsibilities. We can’t invent more land, and we have limited resources to share across all public school students. We will continue to do what we have always done- uphold the law, and do our very best to share our limited resources across all of the students we serve, regardless of what school they attend. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to reach out, and I thank the general public –and the BCS parents – for their input.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Seniority-Based Layoffs

And once again, a reminder: This is my personal blog. It does not reflect the views of the Board as a whole. It's a place for me to share what's on my mind, and to spark discussion with stakeholders. Don't confuse this with official Board action.

One question that has come up several times for me recently as I talk with community members is the sequence in which we issue layoff notices. In particular, people have expressed concern with the fact that teachers receive notice in the reverse order in which they were hired (Last in, First Out). Once again, this is a matter of State law. California Civil Code requires that we use last in, first out unless we reach a different agreement through collective bargaining with our employees. If we do not reach a different agreement, last in, first out is the process we must use.

Some folks might grab onto that phrase "unless we reach a different arrangement through collective bargaining." While this possibility exists, it is a bargainable item, and one that is not easy to overcome. Recently some school districts across the country have made headway on this, but it is something that requires a long negotiating process.

The San Jose Mercury News published an article on March 1, entitled "San Jose City Council votes to study idea of including job performance as layoff factor" The City manager explained to the council that, while it's worth studying, it won't be possible to do anything for the round of layoffs the city is currently facing. It's a long process, and government entities (like school boards and city councils) can't make radical shifts on our own.

There are a couple of key ideas I'd like to put out there to consider:

1) Just because we can't do this immediately doesn't mean we shouldn't consider it. I'd love to know that this is the last time we'll ever issue a pink slip, but it probably isn't. It would be nice if, at a future layoff, we could include performance evaluations as one part of the process.

2) Making this change would up the stakes of employee evaluations. We have recently redesigned our evaluation process, and in doing so I believe we have made it more professional and fairer to both the employee and the district. This was not a simple thing, but it was positive outcome of the last contract.

3) Teachers frequently express concern about including evaluations or other criteria in the process. Most often, I hear things like "what if I have a really bad principal?", or "what if I have a bad year?" It is important to remember that I'm suggesting that evaluations be ONE factor in the process, not the ENTIRE basis for the discussion. To the comment about a "bad principal", I wonder, "why would you want to stay working for a bad principal?" Most, if not everyone, in the private sector has worked for a bad boss. The response for most of us is to seek out a position with a better employer. Seeking refuge from dismissal would only prolong contact with someone the employee has already said they don't want to work with.

My point in posting this isn't to "stir the pot". I've expressed my thoughts on this to our negotiating team, but there are a lot of things that we need to address. This may or may not make the cut this time around. I also post this because I think it's important to both our teachers and to the community to know that it's on everyone's radar. As I said, this is not a simple change, but it's something worth considering.

As always, thoughtful comments (or personal emails) are welcome.

Layoff Notices (again)

This Monday, the Board will once again have to vote to issue layoff notices to many of our teachers. This is an unpleasant process, to say the least. I didn't join the school board to lay off teachers. Unfortunately, we can't ignore reality- we have to balance our books.

One strange thing about layoffs for us is that we have to plan for the worst case scenario. We are obligated by state law to notify teachers by March 15 if they may not be brought back for the following school year. In reality, our budget doesn't get finalized for many more months, so we often recall some or all of those teachers who are notified. This has to be unnerving for the teachers, but the Board of Trustees is bound by the law of the State, so we'll do what we have to do. In a better world, we'd be able to wait longer and have a better view of our actual income for 2011-12 before we had to do this.

This year will be particularly grim, because of the variables in the process. Gov. Brown has proposed some tax extensions for the State. Likewise, LASD has placed a parcel tax on a May 3 mail-in ballot. If either of those two tax measures fail, we need to reduce our spending. We don't get to wait until those measures are voted up or down- we have to issue layoff notices by March 15. So, we'll do what is responsible- we'll send out enough pink slips that we are still financially solvent in the worst-case scenario. Once we have the outcome of those elections in hand, hopefully we will be able to reinstate some or many of those teachers.

As an aside, I have heard that certain lawmakers are trying to block putting the Governor's proposal onto the ballot in June. As a voter, I find that idea insulting. The people of California are entitled to vote on a matter as important as this. Grandstanding on ideological grounds puts individual beliefs ahead of the will of the people. I believe we deserve the chance to vote on this important issue.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Offer to talk with BCS

Sometimes outreach is done behind the scenes,a dn quiet diplomacy is useful. However, it's also important for the public to know that efforts are being made.

Back in January, BCS approached LASD and asked that a portion of the proposed LASD parcel tax be given to BCS. We had a meeting with represnetatives of their board and discussed our concerns. I'll blog about those specific concerns at a later date. Unfortunately, the meetings took place just two weeks before we had to submit the final resolution to the Registrar of Voters. There wasn't enough time to address the various legal and practical problems to directly transfer a share of this parcel tax to BCS. It was a disappointing response to BCS.

It's important to know, though, that the parcel tax does benefit BCS. Amongst other things, the parcel tax affects our classroom loading. If the tax fails, our classroom loading will go up- and under the terms of Prop 39, so will the BCS loading. Under the agreement we signed in September, that change will apply as early as the 2011-12 school year.

Anyway, I wanted to make public an offer I've made repeatedly to BCS. I am willing and ready to come speak to BCS parents about the parcel tax, and how it will benefit their students. I've asked the BCS Board of Trustees for an introduction to the head of the BBC (Bullis Booster Club, their parent organization) to arrange this discussion. In addition to these emails, I've repeatedly spoken with members of the BCS Board and made this offer.

I won't speculate on why nothing has happened. However, I'm saddened to think that we are struggling with an issue so important to the education of all public school children in the LASD.

From: Doug Smith
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 10:03 AM
Subject: Re: BCS & LASD Parcel Tax discussions
To: Ken Moore
Cc: Margot Harrigan, Peter Evans, Katia Kamangar


A little over a month ago, I first sent this offer to discuss the parcel tax with the BCS Board of Trustees and the BCS Parent community. I believe it is critical that we engage in dialogue about this issue. I have already heard of parents from BCS (including Ron Haley and others) contemplating a "no" campaign on the parcel tax. Clearly that's not a position I agree with, and I believe it is inspired by a number of misunderstandings and incorrect facts. Even if their facts were all correct (which they are not), a dialogue is a much more constructive way to move forward.

Should the parcel tax fail under pressure perceived to be driven by BCS, I believe it would substantially damage relations between our two entities. It would also have an immediate impact on the quality of the program at both BCS and LASD, and would certainly unravel some of the recent progress we have made together.

I understand that the BCS Board will likelynot endorse the parcel tax, but I would still appreciate a chance to talk with the BCS parent community about it. In the long run, this tax affects every member of our community, whether they have kids at LASD, BCS, private schools, or no children at all. As an elected representative, I'm interested in hearing the community's feedback. I would appreciate an introduction from you to the parents that head up the BBC, so that I can extend to them this offer to come and speak, and to hear their voices.

Douglas J Smith
Board of Trustees, Los Altos School District

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Doug Smith
Date: Fri, Jan 14, 2011 at 10:13 AM
Subject: BCS & LASD Parcel Tax discussions
To: Ken Moore
Cc: Margot Harrigan, Peter Evans, Katia Kamangar


I'm sure that in your recent discussions Peter and Katia have relayed our offer to come speak with BCS, but I wanted to reiterate our genuine desire to do so.

The Parcel Tax that LASD is considering putting on the ballot is a critical measure for all public schools students in the area. As Margot and I expressed, in the short period of time we have to make this decision, there was simply too much to overcome to add a significant variable such as explicit language about BCS to the
equation. However, a successful parcel tax campaign for LASD directly benefits BCS through classroom loading and other factors. Likewise, a failed campaign would have serious impacts to both organizations.

I know that it's disappointing that we couldn't get to the type of arrangement BCS
was hoping for, but we really do feel that this essential measure benfits all students, including those at BCS. I would welcome the opportunity to come and speak at a BBC meeting, to chat with your board, and anyone else you felt appropriate. In the end, folks will make their own decisions- we're just offering to provide our perspective as part of the dialogue, and to listen to what your folks have to say.

Could I ask you to put me in touch with the leaders of the BBC, so that I can extend this offer directly? Likewise, if you'd like to discuss this at a BCS Board meeting, or informally over coffee, I'd be happy to do so.

Best wishes,
Douglas J. Smith
Board of Trustees, Los Altos School District

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bill Gates Loves Khan Academy

(Updated 3/3 to include link to video of LASD students)

Recently I wrote about a pilot program we're doing with the Khan Academy. The goal of the program is to leverage technology to better deliver math instruction to students in a way that engages and excites them, and is tailored to exactly their particular level of understanding.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been directing tremendous resources to the question of teaching effectively. They recently came and made a video in some of our classrooms, and talked about the Khan Academy. Bill is clearly a fan of Sal's. Have a look at the video...

And here are our students...

Why LASD didn't combine districts with the high school

There was a letter to the editor in today's Town Crier that asks a question I've heard several times. Folks wonder if it would be economically more efficient to combine LASD (and possible MVWSD) with the MVLA High School District.

We received a request from the Santa Clara County Grand Jury not long ago, asking the same question. Their own rough calculations were that it would save significant amounts of money, so we should do it.

There were many reasons not to combine with MVLA and MVWSD. Some of them are related to the unique nature of our educational program, and whether we'd be able to maintain that under a combined district. Those who aren't as close to our schools, though, might be skeptical of those answers.

For those folks, I have a simpler answer: It would cost us a fortune.

Under State law, when two school districts combine, the higher of the salary schedules becomes the schedule for all employees. For those unfamilar with teacher salaries, it's very common that high school teachers are paid more than elementary and middle school teachers. A quick calculation told us that we'd lose several million dollars every year by moving to this higher salary schedule.

Couple that fact, with the fact that we spend a scant 1.5% on central administration, and it just doesn't make any sense to combine with MVLA. We're pleased to send them our students, but the system serves us all better if we remain separate entities.