Fiscal Realities

The Board, superintendent and middle school principals received a lengthy email from supporters of the orchestra program today (they’re concerned it may be trimmed). I wrote a lengthy reply which I was planning on editing into better shape for a blog post. But in the end I’ve decided it’s better to post it as is, warts and grammatical idiosyncrasies and all.

BTW, the original email appears below my response, if you’d like to read it.

Kristina et al,

I’m only replying to the email that was sent to the Foundation, as it appears all three that I received were essentially identical, just with different addressees. If I’ve missed anyone as a result of taking this approach please feel free to forward my response to them.

You’ll also note I did not cc the Board, or any other individual trustee, on this reply. You are welcome to communicate with any or all of the trustees, but trustees are not allowed, by law, to communicate with each other outside of a scheduled Board meeting if in doing a quorum or more of the Board would be involved. For our Board that means I can only email one other trustee, at most, and since I can’t know ahead of time if that one trustee has already communicated with another trustee I’ve opted to not copy any of them.

To stay compliant with the law (i.e., the Brown Act) I would appreciate your not copying other trustees on replies you may make to this particular email I’m sending you. You are of course welcome to send further general emails to as many trustees as you want. I just don’t want to have you inadvertently communicate my particular positions/statements to other trustees.

With that out of the way, let me start by saying I appreciate your concern about the possible changes to the District’s orchestra program. Both of my kids got a lot of benefit, both personal and academic, from participating in the District’s extensive music programs. Each child learns differently, and for some music instruction is the doorway through which they achieve understanding.

I also want to point out that the program isn’t being eliminated. There are efforts underway to make it as efficient as possible, but that’s something the District is doing in all its programs. The current economic climate, unfortunately, demands such a sharp pencil be wielded.

Which is a good launching point for the bulk of what I want to say. California is in the midst of the worst fiscal crisis in at least a generation. Since education spending makes up roughly half of the state budget, that’s meant funding for public education has been dropping, despite the best intentions of legislators to hold the line. Craig Baker, our superintendent, likes to point out that California, in inflation-adjusted terms, is now spending less per student on K-12 education than it did during the depths of the Great Depression. That’s how bad the situation is today. And, to be brutally frank, there is a reasonable chance it will get worse for another year or so before starting to turn around.

I’ve had the sense for several years now that the San Carlos community, even the parent community, does not really appreciate just how bad things are. In part that’s because the Board has not done a particularly good job of communicating the situation (I used to write about District fiscal issues, among other things, quite extensively years ago when the topica email system existed – unfortunately, while I understand the motivation behind getting rid of an open-forum email list like topica, its meant that it’s far more difficult for individual trustees to reach out to the parent community, so I’ve pretty much abandoned the effort, except for my occasionally-updated blog at http://board.olbert.com).

Paradoxically, the fact that the District and Board have been very clever in meeting the increasing fiscal challenges (we all owe a great deal of thanks to Craig and his staff in that regard, particularly his often-unsung business office team) has also tended to lull people into believing the District is divorced from the general collapse of California’s finances. Add to that the tremendous effort put forth by the Foundation and it’s no wonder people don’t appreciate how bad our situation really is.

But it is. We are getting by, but only just barely. And we cannot continue to count on Craig and his staff or the Foundation pulling rabbits out of the hat.

I bring all this up because it’s important for everyone to understand that budgetary choices are rarely about whether a particular program is “good”, or adds value. In fact, if the Board finds a program in the budget proposal that doesn’t add value then Craig and his staff have not done their job properly. The Board should only be choosing between good programs that add value. That makes for tough, very tough, decision-making, but it’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

I am sorry to have to say (from a personal point of view J) that the District staff does a great job in this regard. I’ve only had the opportunity to make difficult budget choices since I’ve been on the Board. And, unfortunately for me, I expect to continue to have to do so for the remainder of my term.

So please understand that when we tinker with programs, and student/teacher ratios, and the like, we are trying to get the best value we can for the shrinking pool of dollars we have to spend. It means that we often have to say no to good things, or “buy” less of them then we want to, simply because to not do that would mean we would have to curtail something even more important.

I started out explaining that I think music is important, from both a personal and an educational point of view. But I want to be clear about something: if pushed, I would grudgingly shrink or cut our music program if the alternative was to, say, curtail literacy education. Music is important, but having all our kids learn to read well is even more important, at least to me. Given our deteriorating fiscal situation those kinds of stark choices are at hand. In fact, we’ve been making them for a couple of years now.

This brutal fact of current day educational life also bears on some other points raised in your email. I refer here to the veiled threat to curtail support of the Foundation, or of Measure A, if cuts are made to the orchestra program.

BTW, I’m not offended by the veiled threat being made; people often do that in talking to elected officials, because they think they have to get our attention. I won’t speak for all politicians everywhere, but, believe me, each of the trustees on the San Carlos School Board are intimately familiar with how vital our parcel taxes and our community’s philanthropic support is. The only reason we ever consider doing things which we know some segment of the parent community will dislike is if the situation is bad enough. As it is today.

I would like to point out, as regards those threats, that reducing donations to the Foundation or rejecting Measure A would, in fact, be rather counterproductive. Because either, or both, would exacerbate the budget problem facing the District, requiring even more cuts on top of those being made in response to the poor state of California’s statewide finances. It would arguably be an example of shooting oneself in the head to make a point.

That said, I can understand why people who have diligently supported the District and the Foundation because of its commitment to music would look askance at our potentially trimming the program. But it would be far more helpful to me, in representing you, to hear not just that you don’t want music or orchestra trimmed, but to hear what you would be willing to see reduced instead. Counselors? Assistant Principals? Literacy programs (I said I won’t support cutting too far into those, but you may be willing to)? Teacher and staff salaries and/or benefits? Class size increases? A shorter school year? Again, I have my own views on these, but hearing yours would be helpful.

Apologies for this being such a lengthy email, but you raised a number of points that I wanted to respond to. Thanks for taking the time to write, and please let me know if you have any ideas for reducing costs and/or increasing revenues.

– Mark Olbert
“Too much sanity may be madness! But maddest of all — to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Subject: Parents ask SCEF to continue to support CMS orchestra director, high-quality music program

(Sending on behalf of 50 San Carlos families, signing below and cc-ed on this email.  Also cc-ed are members of the San Carlos school board, Superintendent Baker and CMS and TL prinicpals. — Kristina Scott, mother of Martin Pollack, 5th grade, CMS and Jianna Pollack, K, BA).

Dear Members of the SCEF Executive Board,

Each year, the San Carlos Educational Foundation (SCEF) prominently features the district’s exceptional music program as a star example of the kinds of activities that donor funds make possible. The Orchestra Director positions at Central and Tierra Linda Middle Schools are listed on the SCEF website as SCEF-funded, an integral part of the “pitch” SCEF makes to parents, businesses and the broader community when asking for donations.  The widespread support for middle school music programs among the San Carlos community has been key to SCEF’s fundraising success.

That’s one of the reasons why, as SCEF contributors and San Carlos School District parents, we are particularly concerned to hear of the proposed reduction in the middle school orchestra program by eliminating one of the two orchestra positions funded by SCEF.  We understand this will likely result in music being cut back to only two periods a day at each middle school, significantly diminishing the quality and effectiveness of the music program:

  • If the SCSD ends up going down the path of combining ages and/or abilities in a single orchestra class, we are worried that this could lead to the demise of a viable orchestra program in San Carlos schools.  Students across the age/ability range will likely become frustrated or bored and will end up dropping out of orchestra.
  • For instance, placing 6th, 7th and 8th graders in a single, combined class would mean that second-year players (6th graders) will share instruction with some All-State-level players (8th graders), depriving students of all abilities the opportunity to achieve their full potential.
  • Already many of our incoming 6th graders have told us they’re hesitant to play in much larger, combined-age groups with more advanced players.  And incoming 8th graders would have legitimate reasons to be worried about being “held back” by being placed with 6th graders, and 6th graders about being “held back” by being combined with new, 5th-grade players.
  • Existing classrooms at the two middle schools may not be of adequate size (considering students and instrument storage) for some of the possible, new class configurations being considered.
  • Having one, part-time instructor be responsible for teaching 150 or more students in four periods at two schools would create a high-stress teaching environment leaving little time for instructor preparation or individualized focus on students’ needs, running the risk of even more instructor churn in what’s already been a high-turnover course, and further undermining the quality of our kids’ learning experience.

Since 2005, the amount SCEF asks supporters to contribute has doubled, from $500 per student to $1000 per student.  Overall funding targets in the last few years have risen from $1.4M to $1.7M to $2.0M this year.  As SCEF contributors, it’s difficult to reconcile increased funding requests on the one hand with this significant cut-back in what has long been advertised as a SCEF program priority, middle school music.

At the same time, the San Carlos community is being asked to support a parcel tax (Measure A) to provide additional money for district schools. The Measure A ballot expressly says funds would be used to “maintain art and music classes.”  Measure B similarly cited music classes as examples of what would be supported by community-contributed funds. If the San Carlos School Board decides to make painful cuts to programs that the community believes its donations support, the significant issues of trust this action would raise will likely undercut future fundraising efforts.

We strongly urge you to contact Superintendent Baker and the School Board to reiterate the priority placed on middle school music by SCEF contributors.  If our music students aren’t motivated to reach their fullest potential by having the ability to receive high-quality, appropriate-level instruction and to play in ensembles with other students of similar abilities, we can expect progress and retention rates to plummet.

We appreciate your continuing work on behalf of our schools and children.

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