CLC Community Meeting

Last night I attended a CLC community meeting whose subject matter could best be described as “how should CLC move forward?” What follows are my general impressions, and some specific reactions to what I heard.

Bottom-line, I don’t envy the CLC Governance Council’s situation at this point in time. There are some significant potential changes to CLC in the offing, but – for perfectly understandable reasons – the broader CLC community appears unclear about what it all means. I applaud the GC for their outreach effort, but I think there’s a lot more education that needs to take place.

Background

The GC and CLC administration are in the midst of making some significant changes to the way CLC is structured, and in its relationship to the District. While the changes don’t directly impact the way instruction is delivered, they have the potential to impact the school.

These changes often get discussed in terms of relatively narrow issues, like “becoming a 501(c)3” or “opening up a new charter school”. But I think a better way of looking at them is that they are, collectively, a proposed response to two issues: CLC’s structural financial deficit, and a desire for increased independence.

CLC spends about $150,000 more per year than it takes in, which is unsustainable for more than even a few years. However, roughly half of that structural deficit is based on the assumption that the expiring Measure D parcel tax will not be renewed by San Carlos voters this spring.

The rest of the structural deficit was presented as mostly due to CLC’s compliance with a site-based fundraising cap that all of the parent-based fundraising groups at all of the schools in the District accepted. That cap exists because there is a difference of philosophy as to the best way to raise money philanthropically for the District. Outside of CLC, the belief is that more money is raised at lower “cost” when it is to done through the San Carlos Educational Foundation. My sense is that this belief also exists within the CLC parent community, but with an important caveat: if a site’s perceived funding need is great enough, the site should be allowed to raise whatever is necessary.

Fundamentally, of course, this means that there isn’t a shared belief regarding fundraising. The cap is a pragmatic attempt to split the difference and allow more site-based fundraising than the rest of the District parent community thinks is best, but not as much as the CLC parent community would like. The cap allows the Foundation to focus on fundraising (its leadership spent a lot of time last year dealing with the political fallout of a surge in CLC site-based fundraising), and gives the CLC community time to work with the Foundation to grow the community-wide fundraising to the point where the cap would be moot.

That point – the level of Foundation-orchestrated fundraising which eliminates CLC’s structural deficit as it exists today – depends on whether or not Measure D is renewed. According to the GC, renewal sets the bar at $2.5 million per year, while non-renewal would up the ante to $3 million annually. Given that last year the Foundation raised $1.7 million, and this year they’re targeting $2 million, the $2.5 million is in my mind achievable within CLC’s timeframe, albeit with a lot of work. The $3 million level is more problematic within that timeframe.

Before leaving the structural deficit topic it’s worth remembering that deficits have two components, income and expenses. The preceding discussion assumed expenses were essentially fixed. The reality is they’re not. However, “reducing expenses” at a school generally means “cutting program”, which few parents are keen to do. Part of last night’s discussion was to get a sense of what programs, if any, the CLC parent community would be willing to reduce or cut.

Independence is a more complicated topic. Like fairness, it’s in the eye of the beholder, and difficult to quantify, or even pin down. Historically, CLC has operated independently of the District. The environment that allowed that degree of independence is changing, however, as is the CLC leadership’s approach to exercising its independence.

On the environmental side, the two biggest changes involve facilities and the District’s need to operate more efficiently. Enrollment growth has resulted in a shortage of facilities, particularly classrooms, throughout the District. This has made CLC’s recent enrollment growth, from under 250 students a few years ago to the current level of 301, with a desire to grow to 360 students in a few years, challenging for the District. The Board is not keen on installing more portable classrooms on the Tierra Linda campus. Acquiring a new school site would be expensive and time-consuming. All of which acts to limit CLC’s independence as the District seeks to manage its overall growth.

Increasing the efficiency of operations at the District translates to doing more with less, particularly in the support functions like the business office. There’s also been a big push on to maximize the value of the money invested in special education. Both these changes put a premium on streamlining and simplifying organizational processes. Which, unfortunately, doesn’t gibe with CLC’s desire to do things its own way. It’s not a matter of which approach is right or wrong, because there are almost always multiple ways of achieving the same goal. But accommodating differences is costly, and time-consuming, neither of which the District can afford as easily as it did in the past when the fiscal environment was better.

The shift in the way CLC’s leadership exercises its independence is one where I suspect there are differing opinionsJ. From my perspective, there’s been an increase in unilateral decision-making in recent years.

A good example was the decision to increase enrollment. In fairness to CLC, they did approach Steve Mitrovich, the former superintendent, to discuss their desire to grow. But no one from CLC approached the Board, even though CLC’s charter comes from the Board, and can only be modified by mutual written agreement with the Board. The superintendent is not a “signatory” to the charter, and the Board has not, in my years as a trustee at least, delegated negotiating the CLC charter to the superintendent. The end result of all of this was that the Board was quite surprised to learn, after the fact, that CLC’s enrollment had increased significantly, and was expected to increase even more. The point being not who was  right and who was wrong, but simply that the decision ended up at least looking unilateral.

I’ve deleted the following paragraph because the information from which I drew the conclusion was in error. Please see http://board.olbert.com/2011/02/11/a-correction/ for more information. I apologize for the mistake.

Another example was the decision to hire CLC’s current Director, Chris Mahoney. All people working at CLC are District employees because CLC is not today a legal entity. Historically, the Board has rubber-stamped CLC’s hiring and termination decisions to support CLC’s independence. Chris is the only District employee whose hiring was never approved by the Board. So far as I know that’s because the GC chose not to submit his name to the Board for approval. While much debate has occurred over whether or not this approach is allowed under the charter, my point here is different: whether or not it’s allowed, it was a unilateral decision that was done differently than in times gone by.

Questions

At last night’s meeting the 60-odd participants responded to several questions posed by CLC’s leadership. Here are the ones that I heard presented:

  • What are CLC’s program priorities?
  • How important is it to have CLC’s charter with the District?
  • What is the ideal size of CLC?  Should it be larger?  Smaller?
  • Should there be additional Charter Schools added?  In San Carlos?  In other school districts?

In addition, there were presentations on the pending conversion to 501(c)3 ownership and the memorandum of understanding (MOU) being negotiated with the District. The MOU spells out the way the two organizations will work together on a day-to-day basis.

Takeaway

Because of the number of participants, the audience was split into four subgroups. All of the subgroups discussed all of the issues.

There was a lot of lively discussion in each of the subgroups. I spent time with each group, observing and not participating except in response to questions directed to me.

Here are my overall impressions:

  • Parents like the way CLC is today, in terms of size and program. There was little desire to make any program cuts.
  • While I didn’t hear anyone oppose the idea of CLC “going 501(c)3”, I didn’t hear much support, either. In general people didn’t seem to understand the motivation for the change, and wanted to hear what the benefits and costs were.
  • There wasn’t much support for increasing CLC’s enrollment, although there was recognition that growth would help solve the structural deficit.
  • Opening up additional schools was unsettling because of concerns about undermining/jeopardizing the current program. There was less discomfort with opening up additional schools outside of San Carlos.
  • Being a part of the District is important to many CLC parents. People wanted a good relationship.
  • Being a part of the San Carlos Educational Foundation fundraising effort was also important. Again, people wanted a good relationship.
  • There was a surprising, to me, lack of knowledge about what it meant to be a charter school, the “rules of the road” for charters, etc.

This is interesting feedback for the GC as it seeks to define a roadmap for CLC moving forward. Making the case for cuts, particularly program cuts, will take a fair amount of effort. That will be more difficult given the desire to remain part of the Foundation, since the simplest response, at least so far as fundraising alone is concerned, would be for CLC to go it alone.

But beyond that I see a difference of philosophy or opinion between CLC’s leadership and the CLC parent community when it comes to how independence is pursued. People clearly like that CLC is different – it’s one of the most common reasons given for why people came – but they want to remain part of, and intimately related to, the San Carlos School District and the broader San Carlos parent community.

To put it another way, they seem less concerned about charter schools and independence than they are with maintaining the difference that drew them to CLC in the first place. That’s different (to work the word to death J) from what I think is the collective view of CLC’s leadership, which I see as placing a higher value on independence of action and decision-making.

Corrections

As anyone who has ever tried to explain a big, complicated set of issues knows, it’s impossible to get everything “right”. There were a few statements made by presenters last night which I’d like to correct (please bear in mind, as always, that when I write things like “the District/Board does…”, I’m saying “in my opinion…”):

  • Limiting the District’s liability exposure to CLC is not a major motivation for the Board in the changes being sought in the new MOU. That exposure is an issue I’ve talked about for years, but the Board considered it and decided, while a factor, it’s not a major factor. Put another way, it’s a “nice to have”, not a “must have”. The Board does not need CLC to become a legally-separate entity, although it is not opposed to such a move.
  • The District is not seeking to increase control over CLC’s decision-making in the new MOU. The goal is to reduce sources of friction, and reduce the need for day-to-day involvement by District administration in managing the relationship. A good case in point is the proposed language about special education: put simply, CLC is not required to follow the District’s approach to special education, but if it wants to use the District’s program it must generally do things the way the District does them. That’s not because the District believes its approach is superior, only that the District cannot afford to run what amounts to two separate special education programs at the same time.
  • The District has not, and does not want to, exercise control over who CLC brings on-board. The District does want to have input – as one party among many – to who is hired to lead CLC so long as CLC is not a legally-independent entity. That’s because the District/CLC relationship is strongly influenced by who makes up the CLC senior administrative team.
  • I’m not aware of any significant difference, in terms of years of experience, between the average newly-hired CLC educator and the average newly-hired educator in the other District schools (this was offered as a partial explanation for why CLC’s operating costs are higher than the District’s).
  • In the new MOU, the District is not seeking to have CLC pay for any and all additional portable classrooms placed on the Tierra Linda campus. CLC would be required to pay for the first such additional classroom, if one proves to be needed. Beyond that first portable, the parties agree to discuss how to allocate additional costs. At this point in time neither the District nor the CLC expects to need any additional portables during the term of the proposed MOU.
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