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Life on the San Carlos School Board https://board.olbert.com occasional ruminations on being a school board trustee Tue, 18 Sep 2018 17:26:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.0 One Door Closes https://board.olbert.com/2011/12/17/one-door-closes/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/12/17/one-door-closes/#comments Sat, 17 Dec 2011 16:55:11 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=594 and another opens.

Having officially left the Board by virtue of joining the City Council this past Monday it’s time to shut down this blog.

It’s been a lot of fun interacting with the community over the last decade through it and its predecessors. I’m proud that, in some small way, this vehicle was able to engage more parents in the governance of our District, and help explain issues and decisions to them. We are more effective when we work together, and the foundation of being together is shared understanding.

Simultaneously with closing this portal I’m launching a new one dedicated to my City Council role. You can find it at http://council.olbert.com. I hope you drop by, and subscribe.

All the best,


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Why Not Let the People Choose? https://board.olbert.com/2011/11/29/why-not-let-the-people-choose/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/11/29/why-not-let-the-people-choose/#respond Tue, 29 Nov 2011 19:56:08 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=588 This is an op ed I wrote for the San Mateo Daily News that was published on Tuesday, November 29, 2011. In it I lay out the pros and cons of whether the Board should appoint replacements for Carrie Du Bois and me, or call a special election.

Lincoln famously observed our government is “of the people, by the people, for the people”. But when replacements are needed, school boards can either appoint trustees or call an election. The San Carlos School Board must decide between these two approaches because Carrie Du Bois and I were just elected to new offices. Voters can require an election by submitting a petition with about 250 signatures within 30 days of any appointment.

Let’s start our review of the alternatives by listing the major reasons favoring appointments:

  • An election costs $60,000, about the salary and benefits of a new teacher.
  • In the six months it would take to hold an election and seat new trustees the Board must make some big decisions. These include developing and approving another austerity budget, and deciding if, and how, to build more school capacity.
  • Three trustees are needed to hold a meeting, requiring perfect attendance until new trustees are seated.
  • Decisions require a three vote majority, so while two positions are vacant all decisions must be unanimous.
  • While elections give voters a direct say in choosing trustees, appointments are made by trustees who are themselves elected. That’s only one step removed from a direct vote of the people.
  • Not everyone has the time, money and personality needed to run a campaign, so some good potential trustees are only available via appointment.
  • Three people ran for two seats a few weeks ago. Why not at least appoint the candidate who came in third?

There is some merit to each of these arguments. But there are good reasons to hold an election, too:

  • Knowing the three continuing trustees as I do – they’re diligent, committed public servants — attendance is a scheduling issue that can be solved.
  • Appointed trustees get “unearned incumbency” should they run when their two year appointment ends. This can cause future potential candidates to stand aside.
  • More people will run in a special election since no incumbents will be on the ballot (many more than the two newcomers who ran in the recent election have expressed interest). The community is better served when it gets to choose from a broader field of candidates.
  • Elections give voters a chance to decide who wields power – power that can affect voters’ lives and pocketbooks — on behalf of the community.
  • Almost all Board decisions are unanimous…except for those that are complex and/or far-reaching. Which are precisely the ones where the community has the greatest interest in picking representatives to make decisions on its behalf.
  • Appointments will result in almost a majority of the Board’s decision-making power (40%) not having been chosen by the community, for a period of two years.
  • Appointments can erode the Board’s most important asset: legitimacy in the eyes of the people it represents. That can cause problems when community support is needed for District initiatives.

Reasonable people can disagree about which set of arguments is more persuasive. Certainly operating with open positions during an election cycle would be hard on the District and the Board. But not holding an election would ignore important community values and interests. It isn’t an easy decision. But, absent overwhelming arguments in favor of appointments, why not let the people choose?

Personally, I strongly believe the Board should call an election. While it will be inconvenient for it to operate until the process is completed, appointments strike me as undemocratic given the number of positions to be filled (2 – almost half the Board) and the length of time appointees will serve (2 years).

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Guest Opinion: Kate Wormington — Response to Stay or Go https://board.olbert.com/2011/08/28/guest-opinion-kate-wormington-response-to-stay-or-go/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/08/28/guest-opinion-kate-wormington-response-to-stay-or-go/#respond Mon, 29 Aug 2011 04:18:22 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=584 I believe in all the years I’ve been blogging (even before that’s what it was called :)) I’ve never posted a guest opinion. But there’s always a first time, and that time is now.

Please welcome Kate Wormington, president of the San Carlos Educational Foundation. Kate’s guest posting was sparked by my recent entry on the CLC/San Carlos Educational Foundation discussions entitled “Stay or Go?” It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that her opinions are her own, not mine. I am publishing her post because I believe it enhances understanding of this complex issue, and as a courtesy to Kate since she doesn’t have an online presence where she could post it herself.

Thank you for a great write-up on this subject.  I’d like to clarify an important point: the focus of my initial meeting with Chris was looking forward to see how the Foundation and CLC could work better together. As the new president of the foundation, I met with him to learn more about CLC’s philosophy and programs — they are a very unique school — and to learn more about the financial issues they faced.  (The district’s CBO mentioned in an earlier meeting that they were under significant financial pressures, which made me both concerned and curious.)

We had a great meeting.  Chris was extremely professional, cordial, insightful and, frankly, I had a wonderful time talking with him.  My questions to Chris were exactly the same questions I posed to Craig Baker — the superintendent of the 6 other schools in the district.  This was the major question: “We’re planning on raising $2M this year.  Will that amount cover your need?”

While Craig was supportive of a $2M target, the financial pressures on CLC made Chris more wary.  In fact, he’s worried about CLC’s future financial viability given SCEF’s projected targets.  So, our conversation naturally turned to next steps for CLC.  One of the potential next steps the CLC Governance Council considered — and there were many options — was to pursue independent fundraising.  Before taking the leap, their GC wanted to get input from the school board trustees.

I’m proud of the conversations I had with Chris and with Craig.  I would have those conversations again in a heartbeat.  The questions I posed to both were the same.  They are the questions any responsible foundation president would (and should) ask.

Perhaps more importantly, the ensuing conversations caused SCEF and CLC to closely examine why we work together: what’s working, what’s not and whether the relationship is worth maintaining.  Any good relationship needs this scrutiny from time to time.  And, I’m happy to say that CLC decided to stick with the foundation.  They are, in their words, “All In!”   This is music to my ears.

Our partnership is re-energized and much more positive — all good things for our community.   We’re going to have a wonderful year together.

Kate Wormington
SCEF President

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Stay or Go? https://board.olbert.com/2011/08/26/stay-or-go/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/08/26/stay-or-go/#respond Sat, 27 Aug 2011 02:05:45 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=580 At last night’s Board meeting there was a lengthy discussion of what, if anything, the Board should do as a result of the fundraising agreement between CLC and the San Carlos Educational Foundation not working. Neither the District nor the Board is a party to the agreement between the Foundation and the seven school sites (including CLC). But the District and the Board have  a keen interest in seeing the Foundation’s fundraising efforts be strong since it accounts for roughly 8% of the District’s revenue.

Rather than focus on why this situation came about, I’d prefer to just lay out what I know and talk about where we go from here. Two years ago CLC determined that it had to raise a bunch more money, quickly. They achieved this, but it raised hackles in other parts of the District community because it was seen as undermining the “one for all, all for one” fundraising philosophy that had achieved such great success over the last few years. This led to the Foundation and the school sites negotiating a fundraising protocol that was supposed to govern, and limit, site-based fundraising.

Around the same time, the District began negotiating a new agreement with CLC to govern the day-to-day interactions between CLC and the District. One of the Board’s goals in negotiating that agreement was to link CLC’s continued participation in the Foundation to the District agreeing to continue to treat CLC as part of the District. “Treating CLC as part of the District” meant not doing strict accounting on help and support that was provided by the District to CLC, allowing CLC to continue to participate in District-wide and Tierra Linda-based programs (e.g., ROPES and band/orchestra), etc.

Unfortunately, as the year unfolded it became clear the Foundation/site fundraising protocol was not working well for either the Foundation or CLC. For the Foundation, the agreement meant having to play cop, and deal with various actions taken by CLC which were seen as being at odds with the agreement. I’m not asserting those actions really were at odds, by the way — opinions can differ on what the terms of a contract mean — but the simple fact was that there were things happening that the Foundation did not expect and did not want, and it did not want to have to play the heavy. For CLC, its conversion last March to a 501(c)3 organizational model apparently created more significant demands for revenue than had been expected. This made abiding by the protocol more problematic.

CLC and the Foundation have been talking recently about where they go from here. My understanding is that the Foundation would like for CLC to remain in the Foundation, provided it abides by the Foundation’s expectations under the fundraising protocol. CLC would like to consider reducing or ending its involvement with the Foundation, to beef up its site-based fundraising, but is concerned about what the Board’s reaction would be vis a vis the agreement between the District and CLC. Thursday night’s discussion was the first time the Board had a chance to talk about what kind of reaction it would have.

While no decision was made, my takeaway from the discussion is that a majority of the trustees view a CLC departure from the Foundation as a significant negative and a “threshold event” that would cause the District to view itself as consisting only of the six schools it actually operates. CLC would become like St. Charles: a school that operates in San Carlos, but which is not part of the District. There was also a pretty similar reaction to a partial departure by CLC (e.g., being involved only with Spring Fling).

Many good points were made about how the Foundation is such a great success, and the envy of many surrounding communities, because it is so broad-based. Having one of the long-term “members” of the Foundation, CLC, leave the fold would not be a good thing. Personally, I think there would be only a short-term effect — I’m confident the six District-operated schools would carry on without CLC, albeit perhaps on a slightly smaller scale — but nonetheless it would be a negative. On the plus side from CLC’s perspective, not being constrained by the fundraising protocol would allow it to raise more money.

Many good points about unintended consequences were also made. For example, “not being part of the District” immediately raises questions about the behind-the-scenes help and support the District has provided. Would CLC continue to be able to involve its students in Tierra Linda’s band, orchestra and sports programs? I suspect a majority of trustees would take the position that such arrangements ought to be ended. Not out of spite, but because if CLC is not part of the District it’s not appropriate for the District to use scarce resources to assist its program. Alternatively, if continued participation was allowed, I would expect it to have to be paid for by CLC.

A bigger potential consequence would likely involve the classroom space provided CLC by the District. By law, the District is only required to provide CLC (at essentially no charge) space to educate its in-district students. The District is under no obligation to provide CLC, at any price, with space for the roughly 30% of its students who do not live within District boundaries. Given how incredibly short of space the District is, I suspect the Board would not want to continue to provide extra space to CLC.

At this point I suspect there will be a number of interesting discussions at CLC and between CLC and the Foundation. What happens next I don’t know. But I’ll share a sense of what I think ought to happen. It’s predicated on my sense of what CLC’s leadership wants.

I believe the decisions made and actions taken by CLC’s leadership over the last few years clearly demonstrate it wants to “cut loose” from the District. That hasn’t been baldly stated (probably because it would raise eyebrows, at a minimum, among a number of CLC parents), but I don’t see any other reasonable explanation for how the relationship between  CLC and the District has evolved.

To me, that argues for CLC leaving the Foundation. Like my colleagues, I’ll be disappointed to see “the seven District schools” become “the six District schools”. But life goes on. In fact, I believe life would be better, in fairly short order, for both CLC and the District after a departure. That’s because CLC won’t be constrained by the District or the Foundation, and the District and the Foundation won’t be spending inordinate amounts of time dealing with an organization that doesn’t really want to belong to either of them.

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It’s Called Accountability https://board.olbert.com/2011/07/23/its-called-accountability/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/07/23/its-called-accountability/#respond Sat, 23 Jul 2011 16:32:45 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=575 A number of months ago a group of San Mateo County school districts began a legal action against the County Treasurer and the County seeking compensation for their mismanagement of funds invested with the Treasury. Recently, several articles in the San Mateo Daily Journal covered developments in that action, but, in my opinion, told the story pretty much only from the County’s perspective. This prompted me to write a guest perspective that appears in today’s Daily Journal. Here it is as I submitted it.

A recent Journal article about the lawsuit between several school districts and the County showed that disregard for accountability is alive and well in San Mateo County. While I am a trustee for one of the districts bringing that suit, it’s as a private citizen that this most disturbs me, and causes me to share my perspective on the facts and issues.

State law generally requires school districts to invest funds not needed to pay bills with their county treasurer’s office. That’s because the Legislature decided districts aren’t investment experts. The presumption was that a treasury’s full-time professionals would know what they’re doing.

The contract between the County Treasury and the public agencies whose money they managed declares that maximizing safety and liquidity are the first and second, respectively, goals for the fund. Earning a high rate of return comes after those two goals are met.

Most people know Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy cost the County $155 million. But few people know our Treasury had invested four times as much in Lehman securities as any other county in the entire country. In fact, it invested more money in Lehman than the next eight counties combined. Shortly before the bankruptcy announcement more than 10% of the fund was invested in Lehman securities. More than 80% was invested in the financial services industry, a sector which subsequently collapsed.

This bordered on the insane. It is an axiom in the investing world that you never concentrate a “safe & liquid” portfolio that way. Any college freshman finance major knows this. The only reason I can imagine for doing so is to boost yields.

If that’s what the Treasurer’s office was doing – and I believe it was – then, in my opinion, they were violating the contract with their clients. The fact that Lehman securities paid well meant the financial markets saw Lehman as a poor bet. So did many financial journalists. Numerous articles written more than six months before Lehman’s collapse highlighted just how risky it was becoming. Its eventual demise was hardly unheralded. A prudent and diligent fund manager, pledged to preserve safety above all else, should never have allowed a portfolio to become concentrated the way San Mateo’s was.

Worse than the Treasury’s mistakes, however, is the notion that merely because it isn’t contractually overseen by the County Board of Supervisors, the County can wash its hands of the situation.

I expect my elected officials and the staff they employ to protect our public interests, regardless of whether there are contracts involved or not. The very first thing my Board did when confronting this crisis was recognize we could have kept a closer eye on what the Treasurer’s office was doing with our money, even though we have no control over investment policy. If a State legislator or an official from a neighboring jurisdiction proposes something that would harm San Mateo County, county officials have a duty to speak out against it, and try to stop it. Had the County exercised reasonable oversight of the Treasury in the Lehman situation we would have avoided the specter of taxpayers paying for the Treasury’s mistakes by preventing the problem from occurring in the first place. So far as I can tell, the supervisors and county staff never raised concerns about the Treasury’s mismanagement, even though they were the appropriate level of government to do so.

The idea that no one is accountable for what happened has been a feature of this crisis from the beginning. Shortly after Lehman’s bankruptcy I attended a meeting hosted by the Treasury. As you might imagine, many pointed questions were asked by organizations that had lost money. So many, in fact, that the then Treasurer reminded attendees he was only a messenger. That caused one person to leap to his feet and ask “But don’t you manage the fund? How can you just be a messenger?” The former Treasurer hemmed and hawed his way through to an admission that, well, gee, he guessed he was more than just a messenger.

When an elected official of the previous Treasurer’s tenure makes such an outrageous statement it’s a sure sign he doesn’t understand what accountability means. Since leaders set the tone for an organization, it’s no wonder the Treasury has sought throughout this unfolding drama to dodge accountability for its actions. But it’s even sadder to see disregard for good governance demonstrated by others within County government.

Defendant’s counsel Gasner said, “This is a lawsuit that ought to end as soon as it can.” He’s right, it should: by the Treasury, and the County, taking responsibility for their mistakes –of commission and oversight – and compensating the plaintiffs, who entrusted money needed to educate our children to “experts” who had a duty to know better.

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Redevelopment Agency Brouhaha https://board.olbert.com/2011/07/21/redevelopment-agency-brouhaha/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/07/21/redevelopment-agency-brouhaha/#respond Thu, 21 Jul 2011 21:25:17 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=564 The recent arguments by local officials on behalf of redevelopment agencies (RDAs) probably made some people conclude the Legislature and Governor were breaking the rules when they proposed changing the way RDAs work. The reality is the situation is more complicated than some of the proponents let on.

RDAs were authorized by the Legislature in the 1940s to address urban blight. The idea was simple: let a public entity – the redevelopment agency – borrow money to subsidize private development in blighted areas, and then use the increased property taxes resulting from the improvements to repay the debt. In this way communities could help stricken areas “break out” of the urban poverty cycle, to the benefit of all.

Of course, like most good ideas, this one was quickly seized on by local governments and developers and pushed far beyond what the Legislature intended. Blight, it turns out, is pretty much in the eye of the beholder. For example, I live in San Carlos and our City Council recently used redevelopment money to buy property to combat blight in our downtown area. See if you can spot the blight in the following photo (click to enlarge):

[See image gallery at board.olbert.com]

Looking south on Laurel Street from San Carlos Avenue, San Carlos, CA

Don’t see it? Me neither. Granted, a property in the middle right of the photo has been vacant for a couple of years. But that hasn’t affected the vitality of the surrounding area, which saw substantial private investment during the same period.

Stretching the definition of blight may not cause you concern since RDAs don’t raise taxes, they just redirect them. But is that the whole story? The answer is no, it’s not. RDA investments do cause taxes to go up, but in a way that’s hard to spot.

It comes back to how California’s public schools are funded. About a third of public school funding does not come from local property taxes, and instead comes from money collected by the state as income taxes, sales taxes, etc. By law, the state is required to maintain minimum funding levels for our schools. When an RDA pledges an anticipated property tax increase to repay debt it is taking funds away from local schools. That causes the state to have to pay more out of its general fund to keep the schools whole. In the end, either taxpayers throughout the state must make up the difference, or programs must be cut, or both.

So are the Legislature and the Governor raiding RDAs to help solve the state fiscal crisis, as RDA proponents charge? Or is Sacramento just trying to compensate for an earlier raid on the state purse by RDAs? These are important questions to which the public deserves real answers, rather than rhetorical diatribes.

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Wellness Policy Debate https://board.olbert.com/2011/06/25/wellness-policy-debate/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/06/25/wellness-policy-debate/#comments Sat, 25 Jun 2011 22:47:41 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=558 At last Thursday’s Board meeting staff presented a revised draft “wellness” policy. What’s “wellness”? It’s essentially the notion that schools and education should play a role in teaching students about how to live a healthy life. Among other things it touches on nutrition. A committee of parents, educators and a couple of trustees had done quite a bit of work coming up with recommendations in this area over the last year, which informed the way staff drafted the policy. As it turned out, however, at least some significant parts of the draft policy were not supported by a majority of the Board, including me.

The discussion about the nutritional aspects of the proposed policy may well have been the most heated I have ever seen in my ten-plus years on the Board, with trustees opposed to sections of the draft policy being charged with being willing to endanger students by not supporting the draft policy as written. In the end I think more light than heat was generated, which will hopefully make staff’s redrafting effort more productive.

The rest of this post is an edited version of an email I sent to Craig Baker, our superintendent, after the meeting, outlining some thoughts on how I hope the District will proceed in developing a wellness policy.

I’ve been thinking about the discussion we had last Thursday regarding the draft wellness policy. I don’t have a specific, coherent approach to offer as an alternative, but I wanted to share some ideas that may be useful to staff as you take the next steps in this area.

I was rather taken aback by  the vehemence of those pushing a strict, restrictive policy approach (e.g., essentially banning certain snack foods from class celebrations). Contrary to charges leveled in the meeting, I don’t believe I am countenancing poisoning children when I want to retain for students, teachers and parents the right to have cupcakes or cake in the course of a classroom celebration. To me this is an issue about balancing rights, and minimizing governmental interference (by the District, in this case) with the rights of families and individuals to make their own decisions on matters that affect themselves. However,  the strong assertions did get me thinking about some aspects of the wellness policy that I’m not sure are well-addressed.

Everyone knows about nut allergies. But there are other medical conditions which can make eating “normal” snacks problematic. Those include diabetes and celiac disease, among others. It seems to me our overriding goal ought to be to keep students safe, with educating them about the importance of good nutrition a close second.

We could try to come up with a list of recommended foods that won’t cause problems for any child. But that puts staff in the position of having to understand and keep track of every possible food-sensitive medical condition in the District. It also would unnecessarily penalize classes which don’t include students with particular conditions. That same argument applies, by the way, to trying to define “excessive” consumption of snacks. What’s excessive to me isn’t necessarily excessive to someone else, because metabolisms and lifestyles (e.g., the amount of physical activity being pursued ) differ.

I think a better way to do this is to set things up so that parents and teachers will work together, on a class-by-class basis, to address the issue of what are appropriate “celebration” foods. Those discussions should also include talking about alternative ways of celebrating events that don’t involve any food at all. The District could provide a list of suggestions, and it should most definitely point out foods that can be medically “dangerous” to students with certain conditions, but the main goal of policy and practice would be to get parents and teachers to come together on what works for them. I believe such an approach will do a better job of preserving the personal freedom I find so important while protecting kids.

Such an approach dovetails nicely with something else I’d like to see come out of this discussion: creating a nutrition/wellness education strand in our curriculum. To be blunt, and not meaning anything other than constructive criticism, I believe the District has fallen short in this area. Carrie’s (nb: Trustee Carrie Du Bois) statement that her son’s teacher never provided any guidance to parents regarding birthday celebrations and/or celebration foods is, I suspect, the District norm. I don’t fault the teacher for that failure, by the way, because I see it as a sign that we have not made nutrition and wellness important parts of what we expect students to master as they grow through the District. We should do that, and our policies should be drafted with that goal in mind.

The whole area of nutrition and wellness education strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to bring the community – parents, teachers, and students – together. It’s a great topic for parent ed, and it’s a great topic for teaching children about what it means to have the ability to choose in a free society (i.e., being able to make choices is a large part of what it means to be free, but it carries with it the responsibility to choose wisely). It’s also a great topic to talk about the struggle a free society has in balancing individual choice with the impact those choices have on others. The more I think about it, the more I think wellness and nutrition education can serve as a framework for talking about a lot of very important issues in a way that even a young child could be lead to grasp, while also teaching them the specifics of how to lead a healthier life.

As you know from Thursday’s discussion, I won’t support a policy approach in this area that unnecessarily treads on individual freedom. That “unnecessarily” modifier is important. We don’t allow people to drive as fast as they want on our roads, even though some drivers and some vehicles could do so safely. That’s because granting those individuals the right to express their freedom in that way places other people’s freedoms, and lives, in unavoidable danger. But that doesn’t apply to food or drink, because you can always choose not to eat or drink something.

I reject Seth’s argument that we must substitute policy for thinking as regards snacks at school because our students are too young to be able to make informed choices. The fact of the matter is that our students, even the youngest, make these kinds of choices for themselves all the time. Educating them on how to make better choices is far more important than preventing them from making choices at school because they only spend part of their lives at school. My experience as a parent taught me that, particularly in the case of snacks, I cannot prevent my children from choosing to eat them. They’re too prevalent. What I must do is teach them why some consumption choices are better than others, challenge them when they make poor choices, and hold them accountable for the choices they make. I think schools can play an important role helping parents teach this information.

The fact that a given choice might be difficult for one person (e.g., a person who gains weight easily, like me) and easy for another (e.g., a person whose metabolism burns up calories, like my son’s) is part of life. Dealing with the potential for personal frustration (“why can’t I do X when Y does it?”) is a consequence of our choosing to build a society which seeks to maximize individual liberty. As a public agency charged with, among many other things :), educating youngsters to succeed in such a society we should be teaching what it means to be free, and individually responsible.

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Fiscal Realities https://board.olbert.com/2011/04/25/fiscal-realities/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/04/25/fiscal-realities/#respond Tue, 26 Apr 2011 01:42:46 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=555 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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And Now the Fun Begins, Unfortunately https://board.olbert.com/2011/03/29/and-now-the-fun-begins-unfortunately/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/03/29/and-now-the-fun-begins-unfortunately/#respond Wed, 30 Mar 2011 05:01:33 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=553 As expected, Governor Brown called off talks with Republicans in the Legislature about trying to get a tax extension package put before voters to complement the spending cuts he’s put together. You can read about it in this Sacramento Bee article.

This is potentially devastating news for every public school child in California.

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Congratulations, John Beiers! https://board.olbert.com/2011/03/02/congratulations-john-beiers/ https://board.olbert.com/2011/03/02/congratulations-john-beiers/#respond Thu, 03 Mar 2011 02:24:40 +0000 http://board.olbert.com/?p=550 The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors announced today they have chosen John Beiers to become County Counsel upon Mike Murphy’s retirement later this month.

They couldn’t have made a better choice, although I’m sure it was a tough one since they were evaluating a strong pool of candidates.

I’ve known John for years, ever since I joined the Board back in December, 2001. His advice, both legal and political, has been invaluable to me in many situations.

In addition to being a top-notch lawyer, he’s also a very supportive District parent who also coaches various youth sports teams in San Carlos.

In fact, if there’s any fly in the ointment with this well-deserved appointment it’s that he will almost certainly have less time to devote to the District because his span of responsibility will be significantly larger. But that’s okay, the County Counsel’s office has a deep bench.

So, congratulations, John!

And now get back to work :).


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