Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rezoning at the Flea Market

As everyone in Berryessa knows, BART is coming and will terminate (for now) next to the current Berryessa Flea Market. In order to take advantage of this transit hub, the Flea Market is being converted to new housing developments, starting at the north end of the parking lot.

When new housing developments are built, school districts are guaranteed a developer's fee to cover the cost of dealing with the impacts of the new neighborhoods. About 8 years ago, the district negotiated a deal with the Flea Market to take ownership of a parcel of land in lieu of the $6 million developer fees that would have otherwise been due. The land was to be used for a possible new school if demographics dictated the need. 

Recently, the district has concluded that the new housing is not generating the number of new students that had been anticipated. At the same time, the district is experiencing a rapid decline in the number of students living here. This is true across the entire county, due to the high cost of housing and a decline in the birth rates since the recession. The upshot for Berryessa is that our district, which had about 8300 students when I joined the board, is anticipated to serve just over 7000 students next year. As a result, there is plenty of capacity at our current school sites for the small number of new students that the housing at the Flea Market will generate.

Last year, the district entered into a new agreement to sell our land back to the developer so they can build additional housing units there. The land is valued at about $14 million. That money will help the district modernize our existing sites and make sure there is capacity at Vinci Park Elementary School for any new students that arrive due to the new housing developments west of 680.

In order for the deal to be finalized, the City of San Jose must rezone the parcel. There is a community meeting being held on the subject tonight (March 16) at 6:00 at Vinci Park Elementary School. The district and other interested parties will give testimony in order to convince the city to approve the rezoning.

Here are the main points:

1) Our demographer predicts that the Flea Market will only generate 6 students per 100 housing units. The overall district population is declining by over 100 students per year and is more than 1000 students below where it was a decade ago.

2) The property the district owns at the Flea Market is too small for a typical suburban school, which means a school built there would have to be multi-story. That would cost more money. The district currently has no money set aside to build a new school, which could cost $30 million or more.

3) Selling the land back to the Flea Market developers could net the district $14 million, which would allow for expansion at Vinci Park Elementary School if necessary to accommodate an influx of new students. Vinci Park could potentially be turned into a K-8 campus.

4) The school location at the Flea Market isn't an ideal place for a school, with traffic flow issues, close proximity to train tracks, and high density housing surrounding it. 

Please let our City Council member, Manh Nguyen, know that the land transfer is a good deal for Berryessa School District and our entire community, and ask him to support rezoning the property.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Common Core State Standards Initiative

On October 22, 2015, Trustee Thelma Boac gave an excellent presentation about the origins and goals of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Since there is much confusion about CCSS, I thought it would be great to reproduce the key points of her presentation here. Thanks Thelma!

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The common core  is a state-led initiative effort. It is not part of No Child Left Behind or any other federal initiative. The federal government played no role in the development of the initiative.
In fact, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Act forbids the federal government from intervening in school curriculum development.

State adoption of Common Core State Standards is in no way mandatory. States began the work to create clear consistent standards well before the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and even before the Elementary and Secondary Education Act blueprint was adopted.

In 2008-2010, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $35M to a consortium of two non-governmental associations - the National Governors Associations and Council of Chief State School Officers Associations - for the purpose of developing and implementing a new education system in the United States. They called this The Common Core State Standards Initiative and published the plan in December of 2009. State leaders including governors and state commissioners of education from 48 states and two territories and the District of Columbia came together and decided to develop common college and career ready standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy.

The process included defining expectations for what every child should know and be able to do when they graduate from high school. The group set to work creating content standards for grades K-12 aligned with these expectations. States relied on workgroups of educators, representatives of higher education, and other experts to write the standards with significant input from the public in 2009 and 2010.  After this process, states appointed a validation committee to review the final standards. Final standards were published in 2010 and available for each state to review, consider, and voluntarily adopt.

The Common Core State Standards are internationally benchmarked—meaning standards from top performing countries played a significant role in the development of the math and English Language arts/literacy standards.

The Common Core State Standards are important for the following reasons:
  • High Standards are consistent across states.
  • Standards are aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce, training programs and employers.
  • CCSS promotes equity by ensuring all students are well prepared to collaborate and compete with their peers in the U.S. and abroad.
  • Unlike the previous standards, which varied from state to state, this enables collaboration among states.
It is important to note that Common Core is not a curriculum—it is a clear set of shared goals and expectations for what knowledge and skills will help our students succeed.  Local teachers and administrators will decide how the standards are to be met.  Teachers will continue to devise lesson plans and tailor instructions to the individual needs of students.

Common Core is and will remain a state-led effort and individual states will drive its implementation. There are no data collection requirements for states adopting the standards.  Any data collected as a result of assessments are up to the discretion of each state. The standards are designed to build upon the most advanced current thinking about preparing all students for success in college, career and life.

Common core standards recognize that both content and skills are important. 

Berryessa School District is committed to the complete implementation of Common Core State Standards and heavily focused on professional development required to ensure that teachers have the tools they need to apply these standards in their classrooms.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Give budgetary control back to school boards

One of Governor Brown's main philosophies related to school funding is giving control and accountability to local school boards when it comes to budgetary decisions.  That is why last year's action to potentially cap local district reserves was so surprising. There is a bill in the legislature to modify the reserve limit. In the Aug. 27 Mercury News, I encouraged the state legislature to pass the legislation:
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As a school board member for nine years, I have pushed hard to spend every available resource on services for students. That includes fairly compensating our employees for the tremendous work they do every day.

We have an obligation to make sure that our spending is sustainable beyond the current year. Using one-time money, as Jan Frydendahl (Letter, Aug. 25) suggests, to provide employee salaries can put districts in a bind in future years. Negotiations and spending plans are driven by three-year budgets in order to guarantee a healthy reserve is maintained three years into the future.
Many school districts only survived the last recession by spending down reserves that were responsibly saved during stable times. The state must return budgetary control to local school boards by passing SB 799, which will allow school districts to do long-term planning as they prepare their budgets.
David Cohen
Trustee, Berryessa Union School District

Monday, August 10, 2015

Optimism Abounds as New School Year Approaches

Too many times in the past, I had written blog posts decrying the poor state of school funding in California, which required that we make tough choices as a school district and cut crucial programs. Fortunately, the economy has been improving for the past few years. Governor Brown and the legislature have shown a strong commitment to investing in public education. So I am optimistic that funding for schools will continue to grow as long as the economy remains healthy. (It is important to keep in mind that another recession could occur and that Prop. 30 is expiring over the next two years, so the state's continued general fund growth is not certain.)

California was 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding just a couple of years ago. It looks like we have moved up closer to the average. Average shouldn't be good enough - as the home of the 7th largest economy in the world, we should be in the top ranks of funding for schools. And while funding has grown significantly since the nadir of the Great Recession, being back at 2007 funding levels means that we haven't seen any growth in nearly a decade. The Governor's Local Control Funding Formula set a target for school funding that won't be reached until after 2020, even at projected funding growth rates.

Having said all that, this past year has finally put us in a position to invest in Berryessa Schools again. We are strategically adding services and restoring cuts, and there have been some exciting changes put in place for the upcoming school year. 

I am very pleased that we have made social emotional well being of our students a key element of our Strategic Plan. Last year, we invested in having a full time social worker at each of our middle schools. But success in this area starts with our elementary school students. So this year, we are funding 3 full time social workers for our elementary schools, which means that the baseline level of support at each of our 10 elementary schools is 1 1/2 days per week. We are also adding two part time English Language teachers to enhance service to our EL students.

As we add more and more technology at our school sites, there is a greater need for somebody at each site to manage and maintain the computers that our students use. We have added funding this year so that each site will have a Technology Champion on the staff. 

It has been nearly two decades since we have invested district money in new materials for our school libraries. This year, we have set aside $5000 for each school to buy new books and other instructional materials.

Other cuts that have stretched our staff are being reversed. All school clerks are now back to the number of hours they had before the recession. And this year, we are adding a new custodian, although we are still several positions below where we were in 2008.

Finally, I am very pleased that our growing resources have allowed us to provide financial rewards to our dedicated employees. They sacrificed so much during the difficult years. Over the past two school years, we have negotiated increase an increase in total compensation for each employee of about 12%. We are not yet where we want to be in terms of paying our employees, but we are closer to the target than we have been in a long time.

The district is working hard to be ready for the start of the school year. We look forward to seeing all the students back on campus on Monday, August 24.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Common Core Integrated Math

This year the Berryessa School District completes our transition to Common Core instructional standards.  I have previously written about these new standards and the new tests that come along with it.  However, this is the year that middle school math takes the plunge.

Common Core standards rely less on students memorizing math facts and more on gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts behind formulas and calculations.  In the traditional mathematics model, students might have done well on tests because they learned the mechanics of math, but they didn't build a strong foundation for applying math to real life problems in the future.  This is the reason that many students, even those who do well in math class, claim to "hate math" and are less likely to pursue careers in science and technology.

Common core math will build that foundational understanding of mathematical concepts.  At the middle and high school level, this means going away from the traditional sequence of math instruction.  No longer will students take algebra, followed by geometry and algebra II.  All of these subjects will be covered at various levels of complexity each year.  And the curriculum is taught in a more interactive way.  Students learn better when they learn in groups, do more hands-on projects, and teach each other.  That is the way Common Core math will be taught in our middle schools.

Our district, in conjunction with the East Side Alliance, is transitioning to this new math approach.  This is the final year during which some 8th grade students will have the option to take geometry so that they can complete pre-calculus courses by the end of 10th grade.  The East Side Union High School District will be offering Algebra II next year to incoming 9th graders who take geometry this year.  Starting next year, students will be able to accelerate in the Common Core Curriculum so that those who are eligible can take High School Integrated Math II (10th grade level) in 9th grade.

Common Core integrated math is an exciting new approach to math instruction and will provide students with a strong foundation for 21st century careers.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Our Local Control Accountability Plan

For the 2013-2014 school year, California took bold action to change the way funds are allocated to school districts.  The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) provides a baseline level of funding and allocates additional money above baseline for targeted disadvantaged students.  

In addition to changing the formula for funding, the new model provides flexibility to local school boards to tailor services to the local needs of students in their districts.  Rather than proscribe the way the supplemental money is spent, as traditionally done through categorical programs, districts are to develop programs that work best for their students' needs. 

In order to remain accountable to the local needs of students and the community, all California school districts are required to develop a Local Control Accountability Plan, which must be adopted by the Board of Trustees by July 1.  As part of the process, districts are required to seek community input into their accountability plans.  The Berryessa School District has been soliciting input from stakeholders over the past few months.  Meetings have been held with community groups, parents, teachers, classified staff, students, and the Board of Trustees.  In addition, over 700 surveys were collected both online and on paper forms.

The LCAP will be finalized using a template developed by the State Board of Education.  The draft plan will be presented at a public hearing on Tuesday, June 3.  Members of the community are invited to come at 7:00 to hear about the draft plan and provide input.  After this final round of public comment is incorporated into the plan, the Board of Trustees will approve the final LCAP at the June 17 Board meeting and the plan will be submitted to the County Office of Education.

Key themes that emerged from the stakeholder engagement period include the importance of thoughtful implementation of Common Core Standards, a focus on social emotional skills and mental health, expanded science education, parent education and involvement, expanded electives and enrichment programs, increased access to technology, and professional development for staff and parents.  As a result, the district, during the 2014-15 school year, intends to invest in school social workers, instructional coaches focused on science, technology, and English learners, a new math initiative, additional special education classes, anti-bullying programs, advanced learner programs, professional development for all staff, and a Parent University.


Please join us on Tuesday, June 3 to learn more about the district's LCAP and to provide your input.  The plan draft can be viewed here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Importance of Transparency

Politics is about the free and open discussion of ideas.  While much of the focus is often on disagreement, a healthy community should welcome varying views about the best path to get to our shared common goals.  But when there are disagreements over process or even the end point, it is particularly important that ideas are shared openly and fairly.

In the 2012 election cycle, there was a shadow group from Arizona that dumped millions of dollars into California's political cycle in order to defeat Proposition 30 and support Proposition 32.  They created the group in order to hide who was really funding their political activities.  California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) stepped up and sued them for not publicly disclosing their funding sources and filing the appropriate reports.  Fortunately, California law is clear and the group was found in violation. 

Currently in Berryessa, there is a small group of people who are intent on undermining the district's attempt to raise revenue the Board and District believe is desperately needed to bring our facilities up to 21st century standards, ensure a safe and secure learning environment, and offer modern technology to our students.  There is nothing wrong with legitimate debate about whether or not the district needs the community to provide this investment and the best way to structure any bonds.  However, this group of individuals began leaving leaflets on cars in front of schools and placing ads in local newspapers without any identifying information.

The materials contain unknown group names such as "Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education" and "Coalition Advisory Committee on Fiscal Reform."  State campaign law says that such groups must file paperwork with the state so that interested parties can find out who is funding them, if they are advocating for or against ballot measures or candidates.  

When no such paperwork was found, I filed a private complaint with the FPPC to try to shed light on these groups.  The FPPC has informed me that the anonymous nature of these groups' activities would be a violation of California election law once there is an actual ballot measure placed on the ballot.  Since the Board has not yet decided whether to place a bond measure on the ballot, there is no transparency required by any groups campaigning against the district.  They encouraged me to refile my complaint once the district takes action to place a bond on the ballot, if anonymous political activity continues.

While there may not yet be any violation of the letter of the law, there is no question that the spirit of the law has not been met in this case.  I will continue to advocate for transparency in all political activity in our community.  I welcome all public discussion of the issues surrounding the district's need for a bond measure, but the public should know who is behind all sides of the debate.