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Archive for September, 2010

Shedding more light on Mt. Diablo district solar plans

By Theresa Harrington

In an effort to get more information regarding the Mt. Diablo school district’s solar plans, I spoke to a SolarCity representative and the district’s solar consultant today. Representatives from the other three firms vying for the contract declined to comment.

I also e-mailed some questions to Superintendent Steven Lawrence and Trustee Gary Eberhart, at their request. Trustees Paul Strange, Dick Allen, Linda Mayo and Sherry Whitmarsh did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Erik Fogelberg, SolarCity’s diredtor of commercial sales, said his company submitted a revised proposal after the Sept. 16 board study session. But Russell Driver, the district’s solar consultant, said the additional information was not solicited and was not used by the committee when it developed its recommendations.

Although Driver said last month that the proposals were difficult to compare because the information submitted varied so widely, he told me today the committee reached a consensus and is confident in its selection. It will not reveal its recommendation until the meeting tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., however.

“In my mind, we’re trying to measure the proposals against each other to see which has the best value to the district,” Driver said.

He stressed that the district hasn’t yet begun negotiations and does not know what the final price will be.

“This isn’t a full blown project or project analysis,” he said, “this is a comparison of proposals.”

The district will present a PowerPoint presentation outlining the reasons for the committee’s recommendation, he said.

“I think it’s a pretty thorough evaluation,” he said. “There is ample justification in my mind for the selection that we’re recommending.”

At the study session, board President Paul Strange said he was very interested in looking at which company could save the district the most money over 25 years. But Fogelberg said the cost of construction is also an important factor to taxpayers, since they’ll be footing the bill.

“I think it’s very difficult for the district to do a true ‘apples to apples’ comparison, Fogelberg said. “We want to save the school district money, but we want to use less of the bond, if possible. I think they really do need to look at the cost per watt, the cost to install and the savings. From my perspective being a parent in a public school district, I would want them to take the cost of that bond into account.”

Here are the responses I received from Eberhart and Lawrence regarding the solar contract:

Q. What are the most important evaluative criteria to you?
[(1)Price (capital cost, cost per unit production,operation and maintenance costs and performance guarantee); 2)Experience (including K-12 experience); 3)Proven Performance; 4) Organizational Qualifications; 5)Technology; 6) Use of local labor; and 7) Overall quality of the RFP (including interview)].

Eberhart: Obviously price is of huge importance, but there are many other factors. We need a strong company that can provide assurances that they have the experience and technical ability to execute the project correctly, with care for our students and staff, and complete the system on time. We need to make sure that we receive a guaranty as to life expectancy of the system as well as performance of the system. We need a company that has a proven track record and hopefully a company that utilizes local tradespeople to accomplish the work. These are a number of the most important points of evaluation.

Lawrence: Price is a very important consideration; however, experience and proven performance our almost as important. Do you remember the Yugo? It was an extremely inexpensive car, but neither the car nor company manufacturing it had a track record. We want to ensure, as much as possible, that the product we install today is still producing at a high rate of reliability 25 to 30 years from now. We also want to work with a company that has a strong record of meeting timelines and putting solar shade structures in place while school is in session.

Q. Do you think the board will be able to finalize the contract Oct. 12?

Eberhart: The October 12 date is not the most important factor. Obviously we would like to finalize a contract as soon as possible. We have assembled an excellent team to accomplish the task of negotiating a contract, but the most important thing will be to get it done correctly. We will have a contract in place in plenty of time to get the system under construction in a timely manner.

Lawrence: We have an experienced team supporting the district and it is our goal to meet this date. However, what is most important is that we have a strong contract that protects the district during construction and through the performance guarantee period of 20 years.

Q: When does the district need to finalize the contract to retain the CSI credits?

Eberhart: Fortunately the CSI process allows for extensions if the project is not 100% complete. It is our goal to have all facets on the project completed prior to the end of the 2011-2012 school year, but that is not absolutely necessary.

Lawerence: We can receive several CSI tax credit extensions that provide us over two years to complete the projects. The date that was stated in the RFP was April 2012 which is well within the CSI time framework.

Q. What is the main reason the district is pursuing this solar project at this time?

Eberhart: I don’t know if there is a single main reason, but rather a combined benefit to the students and community that dictates that the District should move forward. In part the the reasons that make up the combined benefit are: tens of millions of dollars that can directly improve student programs, the huge environmental benefit to the community that we all live in, the educational advantage that will be provided to our students in terms of experiential learning opportunities that will exist with solar systems installed at each school site, and the upgrade of our electrical systems that will occur when energy is produced at the location it is used.

Lawrence: Several reasons:
1. We want to model good environmental stewardship
2. We want to provide 21st century learning opportunities for our students
3. We want to create long-term savings to the general fund that allows us to move funds currently used for operational costs (PG&E electrical costs) to focus on funding educational programs.”

Here’s a rundown of the responses to the district’s RFP:

Team: Emard Electric
Proposed system: 12.8 MW
Construction cost: $56.4 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $121.4 million
Number of solar panels: 55,576
Experience: ?
Local office: El Dorado Hills

Team: Helix Electric, 450 Architects
Proposed system: 11.2 MW
Construction cost: $52.2 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $118.7 million
Number of solar panels: 47,694
Experience: Installed 17MW solar
Local office: Berkeley

Team: Taber Construction, Del Monte Electric
Proposed system: 11.2 MW
Construction cost: $60.1 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $124.3 million
Number of solar panels: 35,166 (high efficiency)
Experience: 450 MW (20 MW schools)
Local office: Richmond

Team: Solar Power Inc., Rosendin Electric
Proposed system: 12.6 MW
Construction cost: $63.3 million
25-year net savings without capital costs: $125.4 million
Number of solar panels: ?
Experience: ?
Local office: Sacramento

Question marks indicate clear information was not presented.

What are the most important evaluative criteria to you?

Posted on Monday, September 27th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Mt. Diablo district offers to pay secretaries for extra week

By Theresa Harrington

Today, the Mt. Diablo school district offered to pay some school secretaries now for an extra week of work in August that wasn’t paid to them when they expected it, according to Bryan Richards, the district’s chief financial officer.

In an e-mail, Richards defended the district’s original pay schedule, but said a new schedule was proposed due to the misunderstanding created when some 10.5 month employees reported back to work Aug. 9.

“Under the proposal, the district will pay an additional quarter month to the employees who reported back on Aug. 9 rather than Aug. 16 and will adjust the calculations for PERS to 3/4 month for August, whole months for September through May and 3/4 month for June,” Richards wrote. “The district submitted this proposal to the union today and they have taken it under advisement and will respond within the week.”

Richards also added his own knowledge to some of the questions previously answered by Julie Braun-Martin, assistant superintendent of personnel, regarding the pay mixup. Here are the answers he provided to my questions:

Q. Are you in fact waiting until August to pay the secretaries for the extra week?

A. No.  The pay cycles are as follows: The first ½ month of work is paid on August 31, 2010.  The next full month is paid on September 30, 2010, etc. through June 30, 2010.  This is no different than for any other bargaining unit on the 10.5 pay cycle.

Q. Are you doing this with all 10.5 hour employees?

A. All 10.5 month employees whose calendars do not report back on the first workday of a month are in the same pay cycle with the following exception:  Employees who were new to the 10.5 month pay class who had previously been in the 11 month pay class had their pay spread across 11 months for the transition year only.  This meant their monthly rate of pay is lower than for the other employees in the 10.5 month pay class as they are receiving 11 equal checks, per their request when the change of schedule was initiated. 

What made this year different for 32 of the employees already in the pay classification (not all of the 10.5 month employees) was that their report back date was changed from August 16 to August 9 and their last day of work was changed from June 30 to June 22. 

Q. Did you inform the secretaries you were doing this? If so, were they given the opportunity to opt out? 

A. Yes, information went out as to the change in reporting back day from summer vacation.  It was mistakenly assumed by some that this meant their pay cycle was changing.  However, it was never negotiated between the union and the District to do so.

Q. Does PERS approve of this idea?

A. Yes, PERS expects us to report in months or portions thereof, with a month consisting of 21.6667 days.  We spread pay out across 9 ½, 10, 10 ½, 11, 11 ½ or 12 months according to the number of days worked spread across the nearest number of months or half months for the number of days in their annual pay.  Employees working a full month on their first month back and ending their year in mid June are reported as full months through May and a half month in June.  Employees reporting back in the middle of a month are reported and paid as half month in their first month and full months through June 30th.

Nevertheless, due to the misunderstanding created with the change of date to report back from summer on their work calendar, today we offered to the bargaining unit an alternate solution that we hope will address everyone’s concerns and satisfy those who felt they were shortchanged with the altered report back day. 

Q. I have also been told the district wants to cut the hours of secretaries and instructional assistants to 3 hours with no benefits and that the board may vote on this proposal Tuesday. Is this true? What is the rationale for this? 

A. Due to the recently reported deal the legislature may have reached with the governor’s office on a State budget, we have pulled this item from the agenda pending our review of what the State budget holds for the District.  Once we have completed that assessment, we will determine whether or not we need to bring additional cuts to the Board.  You will recall that during budget adoption, we needed $9 million in additional cuts subject to negotiations.  We have not yet been able to implement these cuts and if we are not able to get them negotiated very soon, we will be required to implement alternative cuts that are not subject to negotiations.

Q. How does the district intend to spend the federal jobs money ($6.5 million)? Might the district consider using it to pay for employee health costs and/or return hours that have been cut for some employees?

A. Until the State budget is adopted, we are making no firm commitments on the use of these funds as one of the proposals last touted in the legislature included the suspension of Proposition 98.  We will address use of these funds after we know our State funding levels.  That said, it is highly unlikely the District would use one-time funds to cover ongoing costs as we would have no mechanism for sustaining the payments once the one-time Federal funding was depleted.

I apologize for not being able to get back to you earlier.  Our external auditors have been here all last week and their needs had to take priority over all others so that we can finish the audit on time.”

Do you think the district’s proposal is fair?

Posted on Monday, September 27th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 2 Comments »

Mt. Diablo school district explains secretary pay mix-up

Valley View Middle School secretary Paula Walton.

Valley View Middle School secretary Paula Walton.

By Theresa Harrington

I reported in today’s newspaper that several secretaries in the Mt. Diablo school district were upset that they were underpaid in August by about one week. They said the district wanted to withhold pay for about one out of three weeks worked until June 2011 — or about 10 months after they did the work.

Valley View Middle School secretary Paula Walton was particularly concerned about this because the delayed payment will adversely affect her pension, she said.

Unfortunately, district representatives were unable to get back to me in time for my print deadline with their side of the story.

However, I received an e-mail last night and spoke today to Julie Braun-Martin, assistant superintendent for personnel, regarding the dispute.

Braun-Martin said the district thought it had notified employees of its intention to pay employees in that “pay class” for two weeks in August (even though they were required to work three weeks), then pay them for the extra week in June 2011 (even though they will stop working June 22).

The district set the payments up this way to make payroll more even over the 10-and-a-half month period, she said.

“First of all, we are in the process of working with the leadership of CST (Clerical, Secretarial, Technical bargaining unit) to address the concerns raised regarding the August payroll schedule and respond to their grievance and find a way to work this out,” she wrote in her e-mail. “We have received an e-mail from Ms. Walton and we will provide Ms. Walton with information regarding her specific situation.”

Braun-Martin said uneven payments from month to month complicate reporting to PERS (the Public Employees Retirement System).

“We divide the employees’ work year into even months for pay and PERS reporting, so that their earnings are consistent from month to month and the employees’ base pay is not continually fluctuating,” she wrote. “If we simply pay people for the hours they work each month, they would have a different paycheck each month. We try to set up a system that gives them a consistent paycheck from month to month, because the PERS system is designed around having an equal number of days of month.”

The problem is: some secretaries say they were not told about this plan and they never agreed to it.

“They’ll pay us, but it’s not going to be with interest,” said Margaret Buresh, a Northgate High secretary in Walnut Creek. “And they already got the work out of us. That’s outrageous. If I’d known I wasn’t going to get paid til next June, I certainly wouldn’t have come back (one week early).”

Adding insult to injury, the district may propose cutting the hours of secretaries and other employees even more, to balance the budget. Unions are wondering why the district doesn’t just use the $6.5 million it will get from the federal jobs bill to close budget gaps.

Braun-Martin said the district hasn’t decided how that money will be spent.

“There isn’t a plan yet,” she said. “We’re still waiting for the guidelines and regulations, so we know what we can do.”

Would you agree to work a week in August if you knew you wouldn’t get paid for that week until June 2011, with no interest for the 10-month delay?

Posted on Friday, September 24th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 7 Comments »

DonorsChoose helps make teachers’ dreams come true

By Theresa Harrington

Ever wanted to help local schoolchildren, but didn’t know how?

DonorsChoose.Org takes the guesswork out of contributing to schools by giving teachers the opportunity to list projects they’d love to do in their classrooms, if only they had the money.

The website lets potential donors read about the school, class and project, then decide how much to contribute. It keeps track of how much has been collected and how much more is needed to make the teachers’ (and students’) dreams come true.

For example, Mrs. F. at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord is trying to raise about $186 to buy six videos for her class to help make history come alive for her students. She wants to purchase: “Inside 9/11,” “Schindler’s List,” “America: The Story of Us,” “Slavery and the Making of America,” “Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad,” and “Murder in Mississippi.”

Here’s her project description:

“These videos will help to capture my students’ passion and curiosity about the topics we study. Coupled with our textbook and other primary and secondary texts, they will help build interest and understanding of U.S. History. And ultimately, they will be the jumping off point for further assignments incorporating writing and artwork about the topics.

My students rarely have the chance to travel to historical places or go to museums. Your help to provide these videos for my classroom will allow me to bring the world to them. In addition, these videos will be shared among several teachers to reach as many students as possible.”

So far, she has received about $60 from seven donors.

You can search the project database by state, county, district, city or school. In West Contra Costa County, Mrs. Q. at Riverside Elementary in San Pablo is hoping community members will donate a little more than $900 to purchase writing journals, puzzles and other hands-on activities to make learning fun for her students.

“By providing writing journals and mail boxes, students will be able to write in a variety of meaningful ways,” she wrote. “While using the phonemic awareness, sight words and CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) word games and puzzles, my students will be learning these important skills and concepts while working in small groups. The patterning and simple addition activities will help improve my students’ understanding of basic math concepts. These games and puzzles help make learning kindergarten skills more interesting, fun and accessible to all learners.

Young children learn best by doing. With your support, my classroom will be filled with many different activities that allow my students to learn a variety of skills and concepts by playing games, working puzzles, writing stories and having fun.”

Unfortunately, no donors have contributed to this project since it was submitted Sept. 6.

Chevron is sponsoring a “Fuel Your School” program this month that could help fund these and other projects. Every time a consumer in Alameda or Contra Costa counties puts at least 8 gallons of gas from a Chevron station into his or her car, the company will donate $1 to DonorsChoose.Org projects in those two counties, up to $1 million.

You can see how much has been raised in your city at As of September 19, Chevron was over halfway to the total $1 million and had funded 291 projects expected to help 33,902 students in the two counties.

In addition, the company is sponsoring a “Chevron Classroom Challenge” by offering an additional $25,000 to 10 different public schools with the “most innovative” Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) projects, as determined by a team of judges.

To be eligible, projects must be submitted and entered in the “Chevron Classroom Challenge” on during the Fuel Your School promotion through Sept. 30. Details are at

Matt Lonner, who oversees Chevron’s partnership with and the Chevron Classroom Challenge, told me the company is proud to help support education in the community.

“One thing that we’ve come to realize is that there’s no shortage of great ideas to engage students,” he said. “But teachers require resources to bring those ideas to life.”

The company employs many engineers and is encouraging STEM projects in part because it wants to make sure tomorrow’s workforce is well-prepared by local schools, he said.

“Chevron is, at its core, a company of engineers and scientists,” Lonner said. “And so, STEM education in particular is not only vital to the long-term success of Chevron, but it’s also critically important to the long-term health and competitiveness of the state.”

Another Chevron-sponsored engineering program, called “Project Lead the Way,” introduces high school students to STEM curriculum.

“STEM programs provide the problem-solving and technical skills necessary not only to succeed in college,” Lonner said, “but in life.”

Other companies and foundations also help support DonorsChoose.Org programs. Recently, the Claire Giannini Fund donated over $1.3 million to fund every DonorsChoose.Org school project in California that had been posted by the time the donation was made (around Aug. 30).

Teachers and donors can communicate online regarding the contributions.

“I gave to this project because I believe in the benefit of using media to help students learn,” wrote Jenni B. in Walnut Creek, after contributing to the Oak Grove Middle School project. “History sets the precedent for our future!”

“Thank you Jenni!” responded Mrs. F. “Your donation is greatly appreciated.”

Posted on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | No Comments »

Congrats to local National Merit scholar semifinalists

By Theresa Harrington

Congratulations to the many East Bay high school students who have been named as semifinalists in the 2011 National Merit Scholarship program!

About 16,000 semifinalists nationwide are eligible to compete for 8,400 National Merit Scholarships worth more than $36 million, which will be awarded in the spring.

The results are based the 2009 Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT). To become a finalist, students must maintain an outstanding academic record, receive a principal recommendation and earn SAT scores that confirm their preliminary results.

Merit scholars will be chosen based on their skills, accomplishments and potential for success in rigorous college studies, according to a news release.

Here are the Contra Costa County semifinalists:

Haffner, Camille J.
Hunt, Connor F.
Jankowski, Joseph A.
Spangenberg, Stephan H.

Cloud, Kirkwood A.
O’Dorney, Evan M.
Chambers, Zachary
DeBoni, Alexander
Kim, Jason P.
Latner, Joshua P.
Li, Louis R.
Lu, Kevin
Dickson, Caitlin R.
Friedler, Jake D.
Guan, Kevin
Wraith, Stephanie E.

Pines, Jamison

Baker, Trent W.
Barton, Katherine M.
Ellsworth, Emily E.
Frank, Rebecca S.
Lee, Nicole M.
Marciarille, Gianna D.
Michels, Alec W.
Takahashi, Junya
Zelin, Matthew S.

Hickey, Alan P.
Hsu, Lynn
Ludwig, Connor H.
Meng, Cynthia S.
Min, Jung-Gi
Perez, Sophia
Sanders, Clay M.
Svedberg, Erik R.
Willmore, Lindsay C.

Abramson, Rose A.
Beal, David O.
Bluford, Zachary S.
Boyd, Margo E.
Breen, Benjamin I.
Chang, Philip
Chiu, Jerlon
Hass, Eric M.
Klingman, Catherine A.
Liu, Eric V.
Shamash, Philip N.
Vazquez, Olivia I.
Yao, Jessica L.

Phair, Jordan D.

Tilley, Roxanne D.

He, Brian R.
Ho, Joshua I.
Huang, David T.
Kim, Hamin
Kumar, Shyam
Puri, Kanika S.
Vemula, Ridhima
Boardman, Laura E.
Chen, Rona L.
Chou, Zane
Gomes, Ivan A.
Guo, Tracy
Han, Yumeng
Hong, Linda B.
Hsiao, Jason
Hu, Naifang
Kim, Jennifer J.
Kim, Kyungeun
Ku, Gloria
Kutzler, Brandon E.
Kwon, Jaimie H.
Liou, Megan J.
Ma, Yujia
Ren, Rosanna
Velasquez, Johnny P.
Wang, Michelle B.
Wibowo, Melissa
Wu, George Q.
Zheng-Xie, Alton
Zhong, Sharon

Asher, Luke
Erickson, Emelyn C.
Henri, Pearson J.
Kuzovleva, Tanya M.
Matson, Taylor H.
Tripier, Felix T.
Cook, Juliana M.
Endick, Michael J.
Moss, Joshua A.
Nollsch, Derek W.
Sahi, Samantha S.

More information about the National Merit Scholarship program is at

Posted on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010
Under: Contra Costa County, Education, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Pleasant Hill police warn of strangers approaching students

By Theresa Harrington

The Pleasant Hill police are warning children to beware of strangers, after two incidents involving adults offering rides in their cars to students.

Principals of Pleasant Hill schools in the Mt. Diablo district also alerted parents today, said Connie Connie Cirimeli, principal of Sequoia Middle School.

The police released the following statement:

“CRIME/INCIDENT: Annoying a Minor 647.6 PC

DATE/TIME REPORTED: 09/15/10 0852 hours

LOCATION: Cleaveland Rd. near Mozden Ln.

CASE NUMBER: 10-3906

CONTACT: Investigations Division, 925 288-4630

SUSPECT(S): A white male adult, unknown age, tan skin, grey crew cut hair, speaks English with a heavy accent (unknown language).

SUSPECT VEHICLE: Blue or Turquoise Toyota Prius (unknown license plate), possibly with a white Taxi sign on top.

On 09-15-10 at around 0730 hours, an 11 yr. old boy was waiting for his school bus. At that time, he was approached by a car occupied by a male driver. The man asked the boy for his name repeatedly and asked if he wanted a ride. The boy refused and ran home. The suspect left the area in an unknown direction.”

A separate press release said the vehicle was “a blue or turquoise Toyota Prius occupied by a white male driver, unknown age, tan shirt, grey crew cut hair, speaks English with a heavy unknown type of accent.” It also said the man asked the boy if he would like to go to Paris.

Police also warned of “an unrelated incident, on 09-13-10 at around 1530 hours, two 13 yr. old boys were approached near the Pleasant Hill Middle School by four strangers in a vehicle. The back seat passenger of the vehicle asked the boys twice if they wanted a ride. The boys declined and the vehicle left the area. The involved subjects during that incident were four white males, all mid-40s and all with beards, driving in a green Jeep Cherokee (unknown license plate).

During both incidents, the suspects remained inside the vehicles.

There is no indication at this time that either incident involved attempted kidnapping.

This information is provided to raise public awareness and if anyone has information related to either incident they are encouraged to contact the Pleasant Hill Police Department Investigations Division 925-288-4630.”

Posted on Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Pleasant Hill | 2 Comments »

Special education fundraiser today at Rocco’s

By Theresa Harrington

Rocco’s Ristorante and Pizzeria will donate a portion of its proceeds all day today to Special Olympics of Northern California to help pay for special equipment that allows children to bowl using switches.

To participate, mention the “Switch bowling” Special Olympics fundraiser when you order to dine in or take out.

Rocco’s is at 2909 Ygnacio Valley Road in Walnut Creek. Phone: 925-947-6105. Website:

The Special Olympics will host free practice training for interested children every Saturday in September at Diablo Lanes, culminating with a tournament.

Here’s the schedule:
September 11: 1:30 pm practice
September 18: 1:30 pm practice
September 25: 1:30 pm practice
October 2: 1:30 pm tournament

A “Poss-i-bowl” device and ramp will be used. Children should bring their own switches to Diablo Lanes at 1500 Monument Blvd. in Concord.

To register, call Laura Cartwright, VP Regional Sports
Special Olympics No. California, at 925-944-8801 ext.211

Posted on Wednesday, September 15th, 2010
Under: Concord, Education, Special Olympics, Theresa Harrington, Walnut Creek | No Comments »

Testing in the Mt. Diablo school district

By Theresa Harrington

The Mt. Diablo school district has recently created a Student Achievement and School Support division that is pushing for increased testing, as part of eight new goals trustees expect to review Tuesday.

The goals are for students to master California curriculm standards at their grade levels, read by the end of third grade, be fluent in academic English, show proficiency in mathematics, pass the California High School Exit Exam, attend school regularly, graduate, and pass courses that provide the knowledge and skill necessary “to be successful in their future endeavors.”

According to a memo to parents last month, Superintendent Steven Lawrence hopes that teachers will adjust their lessons based on how students are learning. Frequent testing, Lawrence wrote, will give educators feedback about their teaching and help them track student progress.

“Periodic district benchmarks and other common assessments measure the effectiveness of initial instruction and provide important information about where instruction needs to be changed to improve results,” he wrote.

Although teachers won’t be evaluated based on these results, Lawrence intends to evaluate administrators in the new division according to test scores, graduation rates and data related to Advanced Placement coursework and career “pathways” at schools, as well as on annual principal surveys regarding district support for school improvement.

Mike Langley, president of the teachers’ union, said test scores don’t give an accurate picture of a educator’s ability to teache.

 “I firmly believe that the best way to evaluate a teacher is for a trained administrator to observe the teaching going on and see how well a teacher is teaching,” Langley said.

Testing doesn’t take into account variables that include children’s lives outside the classroom, he said. In addition, he said, testing focuses mainly on English and math, while giving short shrift to other subjects, such as P.E. or ceramics, for which it would be nearly impossible to evaluate teaching based on standardized scores.

“If you can’t evaluate all teachers using the system, then the system has to be flawed,” Langley said. “We want to quantity everything in our culture and there are some things, unfortunately, that are not quantifiable. And that makes people angry.”

In the Mt. Diablo district, administrators meet with teachers at the beginning of the school year to review the six California Standards for the Teaching Profession, then choose two to focus on for the year, he said. The standards are: engaging and supporting all students, creating and maintaning effective environments, understanding and organizing subject matter, planning instruction and designing learning experiences, assessing student learning and developing as a professional educator.

“The teacher puts together a plan and works with the administrator to improve in two areas,” Langley said. “At the end of the year, they’re evaluated on that.”

Good teachers, he said, constantly assess students both informally and formally. With the district’s limited resources, Langley said he would like to see the district spend less time and money on formal tests and more on training teachers to improve their skills.

Today, the state released Academic Performance Index and Adequate Yearly Progress scores for all districts and schools. Lawrence sent out a memo praising the district’s overall improvement, rising 11 points from 773 to 784.

Yet, the district failed to achieve the statewide proficiency goal of 800. It also failed to meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress targets for student proficiency in math and English-language arts. 

This means the entire district could be placed into Program Improvement, a status intended to force reforms. Already, ten district schools are in Program Improvement, including six of the lowest-achieving schools in the state.

Here’s how those half-dozen schools fared:

Bel Air Elem. in Bay Point: Dropped 14 points from 660 to 646.

Meadow Homes Elem. in Concord: Dropped 7 points from 655 to 648. 

Rio Vista Elem. in Bay Point: Dropped 2 points from 671 to 669

Shore Acres Elem. in Bay Point: Increased 39 points from 620 to 659.

Glenbrook Middle School in Concord: Increased 17 points from 643 to 660.

Oak Grove Middle School in Concord: Increased 19 points from 627 to 646.

In a voicemail message, Lawrence touted the fact that 37 schools met their API growth targets. This is different from the statewide API target of 800.

Growth targets are incremental increases the state requires to show that schools are making progress. For example, Ayers Elementary in Concord was required to increase its score by 5 points, based on its 2009 API score of 777. Instead, Ayers far surpassed that goal, earning the highest gain of any regular school in the district by shooting up 57 points to 834.

Lawrence also highlighted the success of Cambridge Elementary in Concord, which jumped 41 points, from 686 to 727, even though it’s in Year 5 of Program Improvement.

Lawrence attributed growth to the hard work of teachers and site administrators, working collaboratively and looking at data to inform their teaching practices.

“And,” Lawrence said, “if a student isn’t getting it initially, reteaching the unit.”

To remedy problems at the three low-achieving schools where scores dropped, the district has created reform plans that it expects to fund with federal School Improvement Grants, he said. Jack O’Connell, state Superintendent of Public Instruction, told reporters in a phone conference today that these grants should be distributed to districts in about two weeks. 

“So, overall, very positive,” Lawrence said, “but we do still have areas of growth.”

He pointed out that the new Student Achievement and School Support division is working with schools to help them improve achievement. Susan Petersen, the former principal of Delta View Elementary in Pittsburg, is helping to spearhead this effort as the recently-appointed Director of Elementary Support.

Petersen said in a voicemail message that she is working with Bel Air, Rio Vista and Meadow Homes elementary schools to help them adopt some of her former staff’s successful practices.

“We’re doing some pretty exciting stuff districtwide, which replicates a lot of the work we did at Delta View,” she said.

Do you agree with Lawrence’s plan to increase student testing?


Posted on Monday, September 13th, 2010
Under: Bay Point, Concord, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 3 Comments »

MDUSD interviews four solar bidders

By Theresa Harrington
At the invitation of Superintendent Steven Lawrence, I sat in on one of four interviews of solar companies conducted by the Mt. Diablo school district, in its quest to build one of the largest K-12 solar projects in the country.
The interviews took place Thursday and included all of the companies that responded to the district’s Request for Proposals: SolarCity, Vanir/Parsons, Roebbelen and Sunpower.
The interview panel included Pete Pedersen (former assistant superintendent for administrative services, who is now working as a consultant on the project), general counsel Greg Rolen, three members of the district’s Measure C bond oversight committee (John Parker, Marc Willis and Rick Callaway), and four “solar experts” (Russell Driver of Newcomb Anderson McCormick, who is helping to facilitate the district’s California Solar Initiative evaluation program; Kathleen McKee, a partner at Fagan, Freidman & Fulfrost and a member of the Green Technology Advisory Board; Bruce Kerns, managing director in public finance for Stone & Youngberg, one of the district’s bond underwriters; and Anna Van Degna, vice president in Stone and Youngberg’s public finance department).
The panel expects to present its informal recommendations to the board during a special study session from 6-9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16. It will finalize its recommendations Sept. 28.
Trustees expect to approve the solar contract Oct. 12, according to a memo Lawrence sent to parents. In the memo, Lawrence apologized to the community for any “misunderstanding or misperception” his meetings (reported in the Times) with Chevron solar executives may have caused.
“I am committed to keep every step of this solar project transparent and accessible to the public,” he wrote. “In order to ensure transparency, we will post all meetings and decisions on the district’s website.”
Pedersen has promised to provide me with the executive summaries from each of the firms. Without that information, it was a bit difficult to follow the interview of SolarCity, which I attended.
The firm proposed a system slightly smaller than what the district requested, in part because of site constraints and in part because SolarCity executives said the district might not need to build such a large system, since it cannot be compensated for over-production.
The firm promised to offset current PG&E use by an average of 95 percent and suggested building the projects in three phases, to be completed by mid-April, 2012. The solar panels would be installed on carports instead of on school roofs, according to the proposal.
SolarCity didn’t include projections for increased energy demands after the district installs air conditioning at several sites. The company also hadn’t estimated energy savings over 25-years, but promised to get such an estimate to the district.
If SolarCity’s project doesn’t produce the savings estimated, the company agreed to pay the difference between projections and actuals at 14-cents per kilowatt hour.
Unfortunately, I was unable to sit in on the other three interviews, because of time constraints.
Are you satisfied with the district’s process for choosing its solar vendor?

Posted on Friday, September 10th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 5 Comments »

All but seven Contra Costa superintendents endorse Aceves

By Theresa Harrington

Thirteen of 20 Contra Costa County school superintendents have endorsed Larry Aceves in the race for state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

This is a bit surprising, since his opponent is state Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, a Contra Costa County legislator and Mt. Diablo school district teacher on leave.

“Education leaders agree—it is time that we had an experienced superintendent running our schools,” said Larry Aceves in a news release. “I’m honored that so many local leaders are supporting my campaign.”

Here are the county superintendents backing Aceves:
John Stockton, Acalanes Union High School District
Merrill Grant, Brentwood Union School District
Ken Jacopetti, Byron Union School District
Mike McLaughlin, John Swett Unified School District
Fred Brill, Lafayette School District
Jerry Glenn, Liberty Union High School District
Rami Muth, Martinez Unified School District
Bruce Burns, Moraga School District
Rick Rogers, Oakley Elementary Union School District
Joe Jaconette, Orinda Union School District
Steve Enoch, San Ramon Unified School District
Patty Wool, Walnut Creek School District
Joe Ovick, Contra Costa County Superintendent of Schools

Superintendents not listed are:
Donald Gill, Antioch
David Doty, Canyon
Theresa Estrada, Knightsen
Steven Lawrence, Mt. Diablo
Linda Rondeaux, Pittsburg
Bruce Harter, West Contra Costa
Helen Benjamin, Contra Costa Community College District

Aceves began his education career in 1974 as a kindergarten teacher at Bayside Elementary School in San Diego. He later went on to serve as a principal at Imperial Beach Elementary School in San Diego and as a superintendent Alum Rock and Franklin-McKinley school districts in San Jose.

Torlakson has received endorsements from several organizations including the California Democratic Party, California Federation of Teachers, California Teachers Association, California School Employees Association, California Faculty Association, California Association of Bilingual Educators PAC and the California Community College Independents.

He began his political career on the Antioch City Council, then was elected to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, and the California State Senate and State Assembly.

Posted on Thursday, September 9th, 2010
Under: Education, Election | 11 Comments »