Articles in the School District Reorganization category

School boards urge U.S. appeals court to provide flexibility for schools in promoting a safe environment

The National School Boards Association (NSBA), joined by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education (MABE), filed a “friend of the court” (amicus) brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in the case of Doe v. Board of Education of Prince George’s County. At issue in the case is the standard that courts should use to hold a school district liable for money damages under Title IX for the alleged harassment and sexual assault of a student by another student. Title IX is a federal civil rights statute that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds.

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, developed a clear and stringent standard in peer-on-peer sexual harassment cases that only when school officials are deliberately indifferent to severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment of which they have actual knowledge are school districts liable for monetary damages.

“School officials who know their students and local circumstances are in the best position to respond to reports of sexual harassment in a way that makes sense,” said NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel. “The Davis standard recognized the importance of school officials retaining the flexibility to make professional judgments about how to address discriminatory peer harassment.” In its amicus brief, NSBA and MABE seek the Fourth Circuit’s support of the judiciary’s long-standing deference to school officials’ decision-making about maintaining safe, harassment-free learning environments for students.

The parents offered guidance documents from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) – along with “expert” reports and testimony – to support their claim that the school district did not do enough to investigate the reports of harassment and would have been able to prevent the alleged subsequent assaults had they done so.

“The legal argument for liability in this case is contrary to existing law,” said NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón, Jr. “Unfortunately, this argument relies in part on confusing statements from OCR, which NSBA has warned previously would lead to more lawsuits needlessly filed against school district based on an incorrect legal standard.”

In their brief, NSBA and MABE make clear that the parents’ approach departs from established legal doctrine on deliberate indifference and is one that the Supreme Court has rejected. The effectiveness of the district’s response as judged in hindsight, based solely on “expert” evaluations made after the fact and recurrence of harassment is insufficient to establish deliberate indifference.

“We have to get this important case right,” added Gentzel. “School personnel who have exercised appropriate professional judgment in carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities cannot live in fear of lawsuits that second-guess their decisions, especially when those decisions are based on Supreme Court precedent.”

Alexis Rice|June 6th, 2014|Categories: School Boards, School Climate, School District Reorganization, School Law, School Security|Tags: , , , , , |

Missouri businessman, MSBA announce $1 million incentive for Baldrige school district award

A Missouri couple will donate $1 million to the first public school district in their state that can win a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which recognizes organizations for achieving performance excellence. The award will be announced at the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA) conference this weekend.

Larry Potterfield said he and his wife, Brenda Potterfield, are making the donation because they want to help improve public education in Missouri. “This is for the children,” he said. “We want to impact the educational system, to make the school districts more accountable, to better prepare and educate the next generation so that our nation can continue to compete in the global marketplace.”

The gift challenge will reinforce current efforts for measurable educational improvements among Missouri’s 520 school districts as they strive to achieve “role model status,” as defined by the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence. Each year, the President of the United States honors American organizations in business, health care, education, non-profit, and government that win a Baldrige Award, the nation’s only award for performance excellence.

Anne L. Bryant, who sits on the board of the Baldrige Foundation and is a former executive director of the National School Boards Association, said that Larry and Brenda Potterfield’s million dollar challenge has called upon the entire state of Missouri to “show the way” by encouraging every school district across the state to consider taking up the Baldrige quality and excellence program.

“Like all Baldrige Award winners, a school district that goes through the process is demonstrating to its students, faculty, staff, parents and entire community that it wants to be the best,” Bryant said. “I watched my neighboring district, The Montgomery County Public Schools (MD) go through the process and reach the national award with such pride and excitement. It reinforced to the community and the entire state that this public school district could be an example for all.”

Moreover, Bryant said that the Baldrige community is “thrilled by the Potterfield’s generosity but, even more importantly, by their foresight to focus on education…which indeed is the cornerstone of a state’s economy and future.

The $1 million gift will be stewarded by the Foundation for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award until it is awarded.

“The million dollar unrestricted gift will be an obvious benefit to the school district that demonstrates outstanding performance,” said Potterfield, who is CEO of Midway USA, a company that sells hunting and gun supplies. “The school district will receive tremendous recognition for winning the Baldrige Award. Most importantly, the winner will have to demonstrate an improvement in educational outcomes because the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence are results-driven.”

The Potterfields’ official announcement will be made at the 2013 MSBA Annual Conference on Oct. 5, 2013. The conference is held in cooperation with the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA).

“We’re delighted Larry and Brenda Potterfield chose the MSBA Annual Conference to announce their gift,” said Dr. Carter Ward, the MSBA executive director. “MSBA strongly supports school districts interested in utilizing the Baldrige Criteria to create a culture of continuous improvement ultimately aimed at providing the finest possible education for the students in our public schools.”

Dr. P. George Benson, chair of the Board of Directors of the Baldrige Foundation, called it “gratifying” for the Potterfields to link their donation to the Baldrige National Award for Performance Excellence.

“It demonstrates the faith and confidence that Larry and Brenda Potterfield have in the Baldrige Program,” Dr. Benson said. “For 25 years, we helped organizations in the public and private sectors reach their peak level of effectiveness, and honored the very best with a Baldrige Award. With their generous donation, the Potterfields are challenging Missouri school districts to provide a better education to their students.”

School districts must reach the highest level in the Missouri Quality Award, the state Baldrige-based program, to apply to the National Baldrige Performance Excellence Award Program. School districts will need to demonstrate performance results that are national benchmarks and better than their peer groups at comparably-sized school districts across the country. In so doing, they will be improving their budget and operations, as well as the education they provide in the classrooms.

“Schools and districts interested in pursuing a Baldrige award can access resources through the recently launched Missouri Network for Educational Improvement (MNEI),” says Daniel L. Clay, dean of the University of the Missouri College of Education. “The network will help schools and districts strategically coordinate continuous improvement efforts.”  The MNEI is led by the Hook Center at the University of Missouri College of Education, in partnership with MSBA, MASA and districts around the state.

 

Joetta Sack-Min|October 4th, 2013|Categories: Announcements, Board governance, Educational Research, School Board News, School Boards, School Climate, School District Reorganization, School Reform, State School Boards Associations|Tags: , , , , |

More classrooms see return to “ability grouping,” NYSSBA reports

The following story was originally published by the New York State School Boards Association in On Board Online.

Ability grouping – a controversial approach in which teachers sort students into small groups based on their level of comfort with curriculum material – is back in classrooms.

Ability grouping became unfashionable in the late 1980s and 1990s, when critics said it was an unnecessary technique that sends negative messages to some students and highlights racial disparities.

“It was PC to criticize ability grouping,” Tom Loveless, a prominent education analyst with the Brookings Institution in Washington told On Board. But now ability grouping has resurfaced as way to differentiate instruction.

Seventy-one percent of fourth-grade teachers used ability grouping for reading in 2009, compared to 28 percent in 1998, according to a survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For fourth grade math, 61 percent used ability grouping in 2011, compared to 40 percent in 1996.

Ability grouping is not the same as “tracking,” which Loveless said has been persistently popular in the crucial subject of eighth-grade mathematics. While ability grouping refers to the practice that teachers use to separate students within a classroom into smaller groups, depending on their proficiency with a subject, tracking is usually district-driven and focuses on making choices and placing middle and high school students into programs in which they study different curriculums.

In a recent paper published by Brooking’s Brown Center Report on American Education, Loveless suggested that the return of ability grouping was linked to the accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind, as well as the increased use of technology in the classroom, which enables teachers to personalize instruction more readily.

The debate about ability grouping – when, whether, and how to use it – involves disagreement about the best way to deal with one of public education’s perennial problems – the “achievement gap.” Middle- and upper-income students, who are usually white or Asian, consistently outscore low-income, usually African-American or Hispanic students, on standardized tests.

In New York, only 16.1 percent of African-American students in grades 3-8 met or exceeded the ELA proficiency standard in 2013, compared to 39.9 percent for white students. Racial and economic gaps widen as students get older; 94 percent of students from low-need districts graduate from high school, compared to 65 percent of students from high-need districts.

Educators say they are taking a second look at ability grouping as they strive to make all students college- and career-ready. “We are seeing more of a trend to go back to specifically working with students in ability groups,” said Ken Eastwood, superintendent of the Middletown school district, who added that he is uncomfortable with the term “ability” and would rather say “proficiency groups.” Starting this fall, Middletown will offer a two-year kindergarten class “for kids who are not cognitively ready for kindergarten,” which represents about a quarter to a third of the class.

Ability grouping isn’t limited to less proficient students, Eastwood added. “There’s a push around rigor, where kids can accelerate,” he said. “Your best readers and writers have to be challenged. I like the concept of personalized learning, when we push kids individually.”

This fall Middletown is also adding two mastery classes in third grade. “We’re taking the highest learners and building a curriculum around their capabilities,” said Susan Short, principal of Presidential Park elementary school. “The sky is the limit. There will be a lot of project-based learning, with the teacher as facilitator.”

For many teachers, ability grouping reflects classroom realities. “When there’s a heterogeneous classroom, you’re still grouping students based on their ability level,” said Nicholas Sgroi, who taught fifth grade at Carter Elementary School in Middletown. “As lessons start going on, you see what they know, and see where they need support or push them further. It goes on all year long. The groups are pretty fluid.” Even students who stay in the lower group are “still growing at their own pace.”

In a lesson on fractions, for example, Sgroi has students who need more practice with the material adding like denominators. To challenge others, he’d offer a problem of adding fractions with different denominators or ask them to develop word problems on their own. “They’re not just doing work sheets,” said Sgroi.

But what happens when the kids in different groups are predominantly of different races? That’s something many districts with diverse populations want to avoid.

“We’re wrestling with big issues of equity,” said Laurence T. Spring, Schenectady superintendent. “Race, economics and disability cannot be predictors of students’ achievement. We need to think of lots of other things to do in the classroom. Most educational services should have a heterogeneous environment, especially in elementary school.”

He pointed to the district’s inclusive admissions process for the high school’s IB (International Baccalaureate) program as reflecting the goals of the district. As Spring said, “We want more kids in IB, to take the challenge.”

While ability grouping raises few eyebrows in the early grades, some worry that it might lead to tracking later on. These critics say that creating different groups for younger students to learn a given curriculum can create a culture that leads to older students being assigned to entirely different curriculums.

As Cathleen Chamberlain, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in Oswego, said, “Some of the problems with tracking is that we can actually be determining a student’s future when we are making tracking decisions. Some tracks point to a future in college while others send students directly to a career path and we may be inadvertently closing doors that are options for students. Again, we have to be mindful that we are not typecasting students.”

“I’m horrified that tracking is coming back,” said Carol Burris, a principal at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, Long Island, who was named principal of the year by the School Administrators Association of New York State. Her district has “accelerated all kids in math, including special needs kids, completely de-tracked ninth and 10th grade, and offered IB English to everybody in 11th grade,” she said.

With 15-16 percent of the district’s students eligible for free or reduced lunch, and a minority population of 21 percent, the district has 100 percent of graduating students receiving a Regents diploma and 80 percent having a Regents degree with advanced designation.

“We level the field,” said Burris, who has a book coming out on de-tracking in math. “We closed the achievement gap in terms of earning a Regents diploma. “We’re in the process of leveling up, to give the best curriculum we can. The tone of the building improves when you’re not isolating lower performing students.”

“For me, the problem really lies in not stepping back and saying ‘what is ability?’” said Amy Stuart Wells, professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “With accountability and high stakes testing, the definition of ability has gotten more and more narrow. The return to ability grouping is so hierarchical because it’s competitive about very narrow measures. The perception of kids factors into the tracking process. We need to question what’s happening.”

For all the focus on data driven results, it’s unclear that ability grouping ultimately achieves its stated goals. “We don’t have good evidence that it helps or hurts kids, except for the highly advanced, high achiever, by giving them different curriculum,” said Loveless.

Despite questions about the value of ability grouping, Loveless expects to see more of it in elementary and middle schools as districts strive to improve results.

“It’s not going to go away,” he said. “It comes back under a different name.”

Joetta Sack-Min|September 13th, 2013|Categories: Curriculum, Data Driven Decision Making, Educational Research, Policy Formation, School District Reorganization, School Reform, State School Boards Associations, Student Achievement, Student Engagement, Teachers|Tags: , , , , |

COSA panel: Design school diversity policies to meet educational goals

School district policies to promote diversity are still viable, and recent Supreme Court rulings have bolstered existing laws that allow narrowly defined diversity policies. Districts must be careful, however, to design policies that meet these standards.

A panel of prominent education attorneys gave their advice on how build policies and programs that meet the current legal standard during a July 16 webinar organized by the National School Boards Association’s (NSBA) Council of School Attorneys (COSA).

A ruling last month in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin upheld a 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which permitted the use of race in university admissions if such policies were narrowly tailored. That decision, as well as a 2007 ruling in PICS v. Seattle School Dist., has made diversity a more complex—but not impossible–area for school districts to navigate.

“Diversity is still in place and still very much supported by the federal government,” Anurima Bhargava, Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section at the U.S. Department of Justice, told the audience of school attorneys.

NSBA was pleased with the Fisher ruling because schools are able to put into place diversity policies that advance students’ educations and did not erode the existing laws, said NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón, Jr.

The panelists offered advice to help clarify the new ruling and how to create policies that will support student learning in a diverse environment. The first step, all agreed, is clearly defining the desired outcomes.

“As school districts consider voluntary diversity policies, it’s important to articulate why you have an interest in diversity,” said Negrón, who added that research shows a diverse student body can improve student learning and test scores. NSBA and the College Board filed an amicus brief in the Fisher case that noted diversity could promote 21st century education goals and that policies considering many student characteristics, including race and diversity, are essential for achievement.

School leaders also need to shift their thinking and view diversity as a means to their educational goals, not the district’s demographics or quotas, panelists said.

And institutions must be prepared to show very clearly that they considered race-neutral alternatives before instituting a race-conscious policy—they have to be clear that none of the race-neutral alternatives would work as well, the panelists said.

School districts also must periodically review their policies, particularly considering changing demographics and enrollments, noted John W. Borkowski, a partner with the Hogan Lovells law firm in Washington, D.C.

“You can’t have a policy that is permanent,” he said.

But the Fisher case is not the end of the story. Diversity policies also will be impacted by the Supreme Court’s 2013-14 term through Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, a case from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that will determine the fate of a proposal to amend the Michigan constitution to prohibit discrimination in public agencies, including public schools and universities. NSBA will argue in an amicus brief that the measure would restrict a school district’s abilities to use race-conscious policies to achieve diversity.

 

 

 

Joetta Sack-Min|July 17th, 2013|Categories: Conferences and Events, Council of School Attorneys, Diversity, Governance, School Boards, School Climate, School District Reorganization, School Law|

NSBA board members find lessons in Finland’s schools

Three members of the National School Boards Association’s board of directors saw the well-regarded education system in Finland on a recent academic trip. And while the two countries have major differences, there are some important lessons school boards can take away from the Scandanavian schools, said NSBA President C. Ed Massey.

Massey joined a group of researchers and educators from Northern Kentucky University for a guided tour of Finnish schools, where they saw classrooms from early education to postsecondary and career training. He invited fellow NSBA board members David A. Pickler, NSBA’s President-Elect and a school board member from the Shelby County School Board in Memphis, and Kevin E. Ciak, a school board member from the Saylorsville School District in New Jersey, to join the tour.

Massey noted that the country emphasizes the importance of education by giving all children access to high-quality schools from age one through college—and the government pays for it all.

“The biggest thing that struck me was that they only hire the best teachers,” said Massey, a member of the Boone County, Ky., school district’s board of education. “A teacher cannot be hired unless they have a master’s degree, and then they are treated as consummate professionals, on the same rank as a doctor or lawyer.”

Members of NSBA's Board of Directors pose with Bruce J. Oreck, U.S. Ambassador to Finland, on their recent trip. From left, NSBA President-Elect David A. Pickler, Oreck, NBSA President C. Ed Massey, and Kevin E. Ciak.

Students in Finland also learn three languages through immersion by the time they leave elementary school. One thing that schools do not have is sports teams—popular pastimes such as hockey take place in clubs after school. And the schools provide a free lunch for all students, regardless of their families’ income level.

Each school is run by a “counsel” made up of administrators, teachers, and parents, Massey said. A school district is governed by a municipal education board, where members are appointed by the country’s Ministry of Education.

There are some important differences between Finland and the United States that make any comparisons unfair, Massey noted. For one, the country only has about 5.5 million people and 540,000 students—much smaller than even Kentucky, which has more than 670,000 students. The population is largely homogeneous with very little immigration, Massey said, noting that there are 59 different languages spoken within Boone County’s student population.

And—perhaps the most significant difference–Finland pays for all its educational services by taxing its residents at much higher rates than U.S. governments, he added.

 

Joetta Sack-Min|April 4th, 2013|Categories: 21st Century Skills, Board governance, Educational Research, Governance, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, Preschool Education, School District Reorganization, School Reform, Student Achievement, Teachers|Tags: , , , , , |

New guides help districts navigate diversity issues

It’s well documented that student diversity enhances educational experiences while racial isolation can hinder academic achievement. But recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have complicated matters for school districts seeking to create or to maintain diverse environments.

On December 2, the Departments of Education and Justice issued  new documents to shows ways school officials can promote  diversity and reduce racial isolation within the confines of the court decisions and other laws. In September, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) released its own report with the College Board and EducationCounsel, LLC, Achieving Educational Excellence for All, which discusses diversity policies, legal issues, and community engagement.

The federal documents interpret three recent Supreme Court rulings that have addressed the consideration of race in K-12 assignments and higher education admissions: Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. The new federal guidance, which replaces guidance issued by the Bush administration,  gives examples of ways school districts can promote diversity or reduce racial isolation, such as the location of a school or program, drawing school attendance boundaries, grade realignment and restructuring feeder patterns. The federal agencies also issued a separate document for postsecondary institutions that describes how race could be used as a factor in admissions, recruiting, and other activities.

NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón, Jr. noted that, in addition to the legal issues, school board members should engage their communities to determine their needs and priorities when considering any policy to promote diversity in their schools. Achieving Educational Excellence for All includes a chapter on how to do so, as well as chapters on legal and policy implications, particularly on the importance of focusing on the educational benefits of diversity. Negrón added that voluntary migration patterns and economic conditions in many places have led to increased segregation even as our country becomes more diverse, making practical guidance tohelp school leaders navigate those challenges even more critical.

Representatives from the two agencies said in a recent conference call that they will offer technical assistance and other tools to assist school districts.


 

 

Joetta Sack-Min|December 12th, 2011|Categories: Board governance, Diversity, Policy Formation, School District Reorganization, School Law|

Seeking closure: Planning is crucial in debates on closing schools

(republished with permission from California School Boards Association)

When rumors began circulating last year that the Vacaville Unified School District might be considering closing schools to deal with drastic state budget cuts, school board candidates David McCallum and Harold “Whit” Whitman made a campaign promise to increase parental and community involvement in key budget decisions.

“District staff was warning that there might be closures, and the school board hadn’t even had the opportunity to respond,” McCallum says. “Shock waves were rocking the community. From then on, we were playing catch-up.”

Soon after they were elected and took their seats on the board, the district’s newest trustees made a successful case for the appointment of a School Closure Committee made up of district employees, teachers, parents, administrators and businesses representatives.

After campaigning as he did for improving community involvement in district decision-making, McCallum was not prepared for the level of mistrust and suspicion that greeted the board’s decision.

“Some people believed the committee was designed to give the board political cover—that we were just trying to validate a decision that had already been made,” McCallum says. “I was shocked at the initial reaction.”

After all, it wasn’t as if anyone on the school board was eager to close schools.

“I am a strong believer in neighborhood schools, and I wouldn’t close any schools if I could avoid it,” McCallum adds. “But we needed to establish some objective criteria and take a hard look at all the data.”

McCallum had discovered for himself what increasing numbers of school board members and administrators know all too well: Even the mention of the possibility that schools might have to be closed—whether because of falling enrollments, budget shortfalls or federal reform fiats for “persistently underperforming schools”—invariably sparks strong emotional responses.

After some jockeying over appointments, Vacaville’s committee began its work. Not playing any favorites, it spent five weeks analyzing the potential impacts of closing each of the district’s 10 elementary schools—and recommending what order to close them in, if it came to that. The committee’s sometimes emotional weekly public sessions often dragged long into the night.

Acting under instructions from the committee, district staff compiled voluminous reports on each campus. The detailed statistical analyses are posted on the district website. It was up to the school board, of course, to make any final determinations about closures—and, as it turns out, Vacaville probably will not have to close any schools this year.
Closing trend

But many other districts and county offices of education haven’t been so lucky. School closures are on the rise throughout California and the rest of the nation for a variety of reasons, including unprecedented cuts in state public school funding, declining enrollment, the rise of charter schools and those recent federal reform mandates targeting “persistently failing” schools.

Precise figures about exactly how many public schools have closed in recent years are difficult to come by. According to the latest state count, 171 public schools closed in 2009—the largest annual total in 20 years. This year’s numbers promise to be even larger.

A recent national survey of the cumulative impacts of the economic downturn on public schools and communities across the nation by the American Association of School Administrators found that the percentage of districts closing or consolidating schools doubled from 3 percent in 2008–09 to 6 percent in 2009–10. An additional 11 percent of those surveyed said they will consider similar moves in 2010–11.

One thing is certain: The ongoing fiscal crisis spells more trauma for communities and more difficult decisions for local school boards.

School: ‘The soul of the district’

Even when school boards and administrators plan for school closings carefully and handle the process with sensitivity and tact, deliberations over school closings are invariably emotional, difficult and divisive.

CSBA governance consultant Babs Kavanaugh helped the Vacaville board regroup after McCallum and Whitman’s election last fall. She says it would be difficult to consider school closures without some trauma. “In some ways, closing a school is like cutting into the soul of the district,” says Kavanaugh.

“A community may complain and moan and groan about its schools, but the minute you tell them you’re going to close them, you’re committing a major sin,” says Robert D. Gonzales, director of student assignment and assessment in the San Jose Unified School District, which recently had to close six elementary schools and one middle school over a two-year period.

District and county office governing boards that are considering closing schools don’t have to go it alone. The California Department of Education has posted a detailed “Closing a School Best Practices Guide” on its website that’s designed to make the “anguishing” decision to close schools less difficult.

The guide recommends that school boards appoint district advisory committees to gather facts about the potential benefits and shortfalls of school closures and review relevant facilities master plans to determine whether proposed closures are aligned with plan priorities. The Education Code does not require local educational agencies to involve advisory committees when discussing whether to close schools, but it does declare that it’s the state Legislature’s “intent” that boards involve communities before decisions are made about school closures.

Community involvement

Both state education officials and local governance teams who have been through the school closure process agree that advisory committees can be extremely helpful—both to gather facts and to ensure community involvement.

“At 29 members, our advisory committee was probably too large, but we did have very broad representation,” says Leigh Coop, Vacaville Unified’s facilities director. “It was bumpy at times, but the deliberations were all out in the open. Transparency was our watch word.”

School closure veterans say it’s crucial that trustees give themselves plenty of time to consider the issue—and that they give the community plenty of warning that such discussions are under way. It’s also important to develop sound data about all the potential impacts of closing a given campus, including the effect on neighboring schools and the possible loss of students to private schools or charters.

Those who have made the painful decision to close schools say it’s critical to communicate frequently with members of the community, parents and school staff about what options are being debated and why.

The board’s role

CSBA governance consultant Kavanaugh says the board plays a key leadership role.

“Board members can create clarity around what they have to do and facilitate calm discussions of demographics, budgets and other key indicators that help determine whether school closings are warranted,” she says. “Board members need to respect the community, respect each other and ensure they make the best decision they possibly can. It’s a complex, convoluted process.”

CDE’s best practices guide suggests objective criteria that can help LEAs quantify the potential impacts of school closings. It recommends that districts appoint advisory committees and assign LEA support staff to provide professional assistance, including with the actual gathering of data the committee decides it needs; the committee can also identify options for alternatives to closing schools.

“The decision to close a school must be based on hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusion—the district cannot afford to keep a particular school(s) open without cuts elsewhere (budget, staffing, etc.),” the guide says. “The job of the superintendent and board members is to evaluate facts, not gather them. And the process of gathering the facts must be as credible, transparent and non-political as possible.”

Once a school board decides to sell or lease a school site, state law requires appointment of an advisory committee to recommend priorities for the best use of the surplus facilities. These “7–11″ committees (so named because the law calls for these committees to have at least seven members, but no more than 11) can be invaluable in cases where boards are confronted with conflicting facilities requests—including requests from charter school operators.

San Jose Unified Superintendent Don Iglesias told an overflow crowd at CSBA’s 2009 Annual Education Conference and Trade Show that his district’s 7–11 Committee devised a list of best uses for surplus property. Charters were included, but providing space for them was not the district’s top priority. This approach helped San Jose ensure that requests for facilities from charter schools did not negatively impact services for the vast majority of district students who attend regular public schools. The board decided to lease most vacant facilities to generate the maximum revenue possible.

It’s important for boards to agree on good uses for closed schools immediately and not leave campuses “vacant and vulnerable,” Iglesias told his Annual Conference audience.

He also recommended that LEAs resist the temptation to raise some quick money by selling facilities. Predicting demographics and future student enrollment is an imprecise science; there’s no telling when changes in birth rates and housing patterns may transform a declining enrollment district into one that needs to open new schools.

Hans Johnson, education analyst and demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California, says districts need to keep their options open. “A district does not want to be in a position of closing a school and having to turn around a few years later and open a new one because there’s been an unexpected boom in school-age population,” he says.

Charter conversions

Some districts have found it impossible to maintain district priorities when confronted with parents intent on “saving” a school on the closure list by converting it to a charter school. The rules governing conversion charters give petitioners broad rights to occupy a campus that’s due to be closed—even if establishment of the charter will have a negative impact on the LEA’s overall budget and education services for noncharter students.

“A self-appointed group, representing a small number of students, can use charter school law to overrule a board that was elected by an entire community to represent thousands of students and protect the fiscal solvency and educational programs it provides for all students in the district, including those tied to the charter,” says Conejo Valley Unified School District Superintendent Mario Contini, who has handled a number of charter facilities requests that proved problematic for the district.

Proposition 39 sets broad requirements for handling charter school facilities requests. Among other things, the law has been interpreted by recent court decisions to require districts to treat charter school and regular public school students equally. Critics say this makes it difficult for LEAs to consider the needs of the district as a whole when confronted with certain charter requests.

In Conejo Valley Unified, for example, school board members—working closely with a citizens’ advisory committee—reluctantly made the difficult decision to close two Blue Ribbon elementary schools for the greater good of the district’s overall education programs. But the move backfired. Parents were unwilling to accept a plan that would transfer their children from a high-achieving school in an upper-middle class neighborhood to a school with lower test scores and a higher percentage of disadvantaged students. They successfully petitioned the county office of education for the right to convert their children’s school into a charter over the district’s vehement objections.

The district had hoped to lease the campus to a private school, generating valuable revenue. Instead, Conejo Valley lost more than 100 students and failed to realize either the hoped-for lease revenues or operational savings.

“We believed we had been very thoughtful,” says Conejo Valley board president Tim Stephens, a longtime school board member and former principal at one of the schools on the closure list. “We had a committee that looked at all the numbers and considered a long list of impacts. I would recommend that if you do go down the closure road, you talk to others who have done it to avoid the pitfalls and potholes.”

The district is now negotiating with another charter school that’s waging an aggressive public relations campaign for rights to another campus—a lobbying effort that critics say portrays the district in an unflattering and unfair light.

District Superintendent Contini echoes his board president’s advice.

“Talk to other districts and find out what parts of their processes went well and what they would do differently,” Contini says. “When you become aware of a charter movement in your district, be proactive in determining what the charter group is dissatisfied with. Communicate, communicate, communicate!”

-Carol Brydolf, staff writer for California Schools.

Erin Walsh|July 7th, 2010|Categories: Governance, School Board News, School District Reorganization|

Getcha news here! Twin Rivers is almost two months old

Last week Board Buzz told you about a new project that NSBA has undertaken to help districts understand and navigate through the consolidation/unification process. And it seems that the Sacramento Bee has been following the story too. The paper wondered why the American School Board Journal (ASBJ) and NSBA’s National Affiliate program were so involved in the process. NSBA’s Gene Broderson, director, National Affiliate Services and Technology Programs helped uncover the reasons.

The National Affiliate program advocates on behalf of local school districts from across the country, said Gene Broderson, who heads affiliate services and technology programs for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

Unification, he said, is a hot topic in many states. The Twin Rivers experience will provide a road map for other districts attempting unification.

“This is a good case study. It is very timely,” Broderson said. “The goal is to provide tools and resources other districts can use.”

Broderson pointed out that one of the feature stories in this month’s ASBJ examines the process that help create the district and the challenges they now face. In addition to the ASBJ article, the NSBA’s National Affiliate program has a website dedicated to the projectthat includes interviews with all of the key players. Broderson told BoardBuzz that, “We want to make sure everybody’s voice is heard.” The site will be updated as new information becomes available and more interviews conducted.

A series of webinars and vodcasts will soon be available to help tell the story of the Twin Rivers project. More information about the Twin Rivers project can be found on the National Affiliate website at www.nsba.org/natwinrivers.

Erin Walsh|August 26th, 2008|Categories: Announcements, NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Boards, School District Reorganization|

Come together

How can four become one? It’s called consolidation, unification or reorganization and its happening all over the country. In March, NSBA’s National Affiliate Program and the American School Board Journal learned about a school district in California where four districts had voted to join together to make a new district. On July 1, the Twin Rivers Unified School District became California’s newest district and the beginning of a year-long project.

You can listen as interviews of the participants tell their story. Twin Rivers is only one example and learning what others have done will add to the depth of information. Visit the Twin Rivers project at <a href=”http://www.nsba.org/natwinrivers“>www.nsba.org/natwinrivers or www.asbj.com . Is your district going through a consolidation or unification project? Leave us a comment and tell us about it.

Erin Walsh|August 22nd, 2008|Categories: NSBA Opinions and Analysis, School Boards, School District Reorganization|
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