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Archive for October, 2010

More about Mt. Diablo district board race

By Theresa Harrington

Due to limited space in the Contra Costa Times, I will provide additional information about the Mt. Diablo school board candidates in my blog in individual posts.

The candidates are incumbent Linda Mayo, attorney Jeff Adams, retired teacher Lynne Dennler, educator and former district administrator Cheryl Hansen, technology executive Brian Lawrence, retired CFO Roy Larkin and retired real estate appraiser Jan Trezise.

The posts will be based on a special education candidates’ forum I attended Oct. 4, the Pleasant Hill candidates’ forum on Oct. 20, ballot statements, phone interviews, e-mails and candidates’ promotional materials.

In addition, I will post links to other sites with candidate information.

A candidate forum videotaped at CCTV studios will be broadcast on Walnut Creek Comcast Channel 28, Rossmoor Channel 26, Astound Channel 29 and AT&T Channel 99 at 7:30 p.m. tonight and at 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Monday.
It is also posted here:

To see the candidate forum held Oct. 20 at Pleasant Hill City Hall, visit

Here is information the candidates provided to the district’s special education Community Advisory Committee blog:

“Smart Voter” information is here:

Who are you supporting and why?

Posted on Friday, October 29th, 2010
Under: Education, Election, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

El Monte twist on Red Ribbon week includes red tulips

El Monte Elementary students and volunteers plant red tulips during Red Ribbon Week.

El Monte Elementary students and volunteers plant red tulips during Red Ribbon Week.

By Theresa Harrington

Red Ribbon Week is in full swing in the Mt. Diablo school district, with students pledging to make healthy choices and reject drugs or alcohol.

At El Monte Elementary in Concord, PTA President Kim Lohse organized a different way to mark the week — by planting red tulips that will bloom in the spring, reminding children of their pledges.

Here’s how Lohse described the school’s planned activities in an e-mail on Monday, before the planting (excerpted):

“We are hosting an event called ‘Plant a Pledge’ in an effort to bring an educational and positive format back to the Red Ribbon Week celebrations – often this week goes the way of ribbons, stickers, erasers – things that are a distraction to classrooms instead of something educational. Many of our students weren’t totally sure about the origin of Red Ribbon Week, so we circulated an informational flier and decided to totally change up the week.

Each child at our school will be planting a red tulip while pledging to stay free of illegal drugs and unhealthy choices. The idea is that as the tulips bloom in spring, the children are once again reminded of the pledge!

I have invited numerous law enforcement personnel to help with our planting.

During the week, our students are also having a Red Ribbon Spirit Week – Monday, wear your shirt backwards to turn your back on illegal drugs/unhealthy choices; Tuesday wear boots to stomp out illegal drugs/unhealthy choices; Wednesday wear a hat to put a cap on illegal drugs and unhealthy choices; Thursday wear sunglasses because illegal drugs/unhealthy choices are shady; and Friday lower grades are wearing costumes to say ‘Boo’ to illegal drugs and unhealthy choices, upper grades have a free dress day (we wear uniforms daily) to stay free of illegal drugs/unhealthy choices.

Lastly, we are having each classroom create a chain of red ‘ribbons’ they have each signed while making the same pledge. Then we have representatives from each class walking with us to a neighboring classroom to link their chains together – the message being that we are all in this together, and together we can chain up illegal drugs and unhealthy choices.

It’s a whole new way of celebrating Red Ribbon Week! It’s my hope that the activities combined with the educational material we sent to classrooms, when we ask our students and teachers next year what this week is about, they will have positive, definitive answers… not to mention a day of a hands-on, one-on-one interaction with our community role models from law enforcement!”

I just spoke to Lohse on the phone and she said the students spent yesterday and today planting the tulips in five different areas of the campus. Three police officers from various jurisdictions pitched in to help, including her father, Cal Nutting, pictured above. Several parent volunteers also helped out, she said.

“It was awesome,” Lohse said. “It was so rewarding. Kids have been walking around saying, ‘This was so much fun!’ I’m so impatient. Now, I want to see all the flowers bloom.”

How is your school marking Red Ribbon Week?

Posted on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010
Under: Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 2 Comments »

Mt. Diablo school board appoints four administrators, reschedules next meeting

By Theresa Harrington

Besides approving a $65.6 million solar contract with SunPower at their Tuesday meeting, Mt. Diablo school district trustees also appointed four administrators.

Gretchen Jacobs will take the helm as Principal of Sun Terrace Elementary School in Concord. She said she is loooking forward to continuing the school’s Professional Learning Community focused on student learning.

Sheryl Sweeney, who previously worked as a a data and technical coach at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord, was appointed as a program specialist for the campus. She said she also looks forward to continuing work with the school’s Professional Learning Community, as well as data-driven decision-making on the campus.

In addition, trustees appointed Mitchell Stark and Timothy Cody as assistant project program managers for Measure C.

They didn’t appoint a personnel director, as planned. That item was removed from the agenda, to be returned at a later date.

Board President Paul Strange announced that the planned Nov. 9 board meeting will be rescheduled to Wednesday, Nov. 17. He didn’t give a reason for the change.

However, the district must give workers a 45-day notice if they will be laid-off or have their hours reduced. Trustees were originally expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to lay off about 20 maintenance workers and reduce the hours of more than 40 clerical workers.

If trustees were to vote on layoffs Nov. 9, employees could be let go on Christmas Eve. Voting Nov. 17 would push a possible layoff date to Jan. 1.

UPDATE: Here’s the reason for the changed date, according to an e-mail from Superintendent Steven Lawrence:

“Because of how late the State adopted their budget, the fiscal department has not had adequate time to prepare our budget for the November 9th meeting,” he wrote. “Therefore, we are moving the meeting back one week.”

Also, I have learned from the district that the assistant project program managers for Measure C will each earn between $83,835 and $101,898.

Posted on Wednesday, October 27th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 5 Comments »

Founding principal of Olympic High School has died

John Joseph Donovan Jr. (1921-2010)

John Joseph Donovan Jr. (1921-2010)

By Theresa Harrington

Mt. Diablo school board President Paul Strange adjourned last night’s meeting in memory of John Joseph Donovan, Jr. and James Jones. Donovan was the founding principal of Olympic High School and Jones was a business agent for Local 1, representing the district’s Clerical, Secretarial and Technical unit.

I am working on a news obituary about Jones, who died Friday.

Here is a copy of the obituary for Donovan, which ran in the Contra Costa Times on Oct. 13:

“John Joseph Donovan Jr. (1921 – 2010)
John Joseph, Jr. Donovan (Jack) Oct. 26, 1921 ~ Sept. 28, 2010 Resident of Concord
Jack was born to John Joseph Donovan & Theresa McMahon, in Philadelphia, PA. His family moved to Oakland, CA. when he was 11 months old.
He graduated from Castlemont High in 1939 and joined the Marines at 18. He was a sea going Marine stationed on the battleships U.S.S. West Virginia and U.S.S. Maryland in four major battles in the Pacific, and a Pearl Harbor survivor. He was proud to be a Marine.
At the end of the war, Jack attended San Jose State, Stanford University and UC Berkeley.
He began teaching at Pacific High School where he organized a wrestling program that introduced wrestling to the Mt. Diablo School District.
He became a counselor at Clayton Valley High and later Dean of Boys at Ygnacio Valley High School.
His dedication to educational opportunity for all students led to Jack’s final position with the Mt. Diablo School District as the founding Principal of Olympic High School.
He had enthusiastic, innovative, caring teachers and staff who helped to make Olympic High a success, and he greatly appreciated their dedication to their students. Jack retired in 1981.
Reading was a pleasure for him. He enjoyed music, camping, traveling, cabinet making, and spending time in the mountains. Thoughtful, creative and dedicated, Jack always looked for ways to help his children and their families.
As a grandfather, Jack continually thought of how to enrich his grandchildren’s lives. A lover of history, nature, and geography, with a sharp intellect, exceptional memory and subtle humor we could always count on him to answer our questions.
Jack is the much loved husband of his wife of 63 years, Marjorie, treasured father of Nancy, Joan and Jim Donovan, devoted grandfather of Molly, Brian, Megan and John Donovan and favorite uncle of Judy Such. Strong, courageous, and a committed family man, he will be forever in our hearts.”

A Mass celebrating the life of Jack was held Oct. 16 at St. Agnes Catholic Church, 3966 Chestnut Ave. in Concord.

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

No layoffs in Mt. Diablo district til January

By Theresa Harrington

After my print publication deadline yesterday, the Mt. Diablo school district’s assistant superintendent for personnel told me the district will not bring any layoffs or other job reductions to the board before January. This is a departure from staff’s original recommendation to implement job cuts by Nov. 30.

“We’ve basically deferred taking any action at this time,” Julie Braun-Martin said. “We will be looking at the January budget status and seeing where we are at that point.”

She also cleared up some confusion about the health benefits cap that district managers have accepted.

“What’s been discussed is that people will be sustained at the Kaiser rate,” she said. “We haven’t talked about the term.”

Some blog posters have alleged that managers were under the impression their cap would last three years. Unions have been asked to accept a lifetime health benefits cap, which could be renegotiated.

I also noticed that the district only posted the top portion of Superintendent Steven Lawrence’s latest memo online — promoting the Fifth Annual Day at the Races — but left off the part about holding onto the federal jobs money and signing the solar contract (no longer shining the spotlight on solar?).

Union reps I spoke to yesterday said they think the district should use the federal jobs money for its intended purpose — saving jobs.

“We want to remain optimistic that we can get something done, but time will tell,” said Larry Edgington, Local 1 general manager, who represents many employees slated for layoffs and hours reductions. “The negotiations are difficult.”

The Maintenance and Operations unit is in mediation and the Clerical, Secretarial and Technical unit is still at the bargaining table, he said.

“They’ve gotten some additional monies,” Edgington said. “I think that on balance perhaps they fared a little better in the state budget than they thought they would.”

Edgington said he was aware of Lawrence’s memo detailing the district’s intention to hold onto the federal jobs money until next year.

“There’s nothing that precludes them from spending that money to help people through a time of great challenge,” he said. “We think that they ought to take a second look at their position on that.”

Annie Nolen, who represents instructional assistants and other district staff in the California School Employees Association, agreed. Her union members rejected a proposal that would have required most of them to pay hundreds more a month for medical benefits.

Board President Paul Strange said the district would likely have to cut some of their staff, in light of their decision to reject the benefits cap. But Nolen said no new proposal has surfaced and the union won’t meet with a mediator again until Nov. 10 — the day after the only board meeting scheduled next month.

Part of the reason the district may not be moving quickly to cut jobs or hours is that they can’t fill the positions they have now, Nolen said.

“Last week, they still had about 40 jobs to fill,” Nolen said. “I think very few people have taken the 3-hour ones and they’re trying to get the subs to take jobs. I have no idea what their plan is.”

Nolen also said many special education assistants with 15 to 25 years of experience are retiring because they won’t be able to afford benefits hikes.

“One thing that worries me is that my assistants are just flooding out of here and I just hate to see that,” Nolen said. “They definitely couldn’t afford this last proposal.”

She said some child care assistant make $10 per hour, six hours a day. Some would be required to pay $300 – $400 a month under the district’s proposal.

“What just breaks my heart the most is all these ladies that don’t want to retire,” Nolen said. “These are your veteran, seasoned assistants. They’ve been around and work well with the kids and the teachers. I would have thought the district might want to keep these folks. Maybe they think people are desperate enough to come down here and take these 3-hour jobs.”

Nolen said she has encouraged some of her union members to tell the board their personal stories tonight.

“These people aren’t just my members, a lot of thse people are my friends and it realy bums me out, because I’m the one that hears their stories,” Nolen said. “I guess I’m just really worried about these folks, to tell you the honest truth. Some say, ‘I’m losing my home, my husband’s lost his job.’ After a while it’s just like, ‘Oh, mercy, what can I do for these folks?'”

Although Nolen admitted she was feeling a bit disillusioned, she said she’s not ready to give up.

“Are we going to quit fighting? Absolutely not,” she said. “I just wish I could see a little bit of light on their end.”

Judy Armstrong, president of the CST unit, told me she called a meeting off all the union reps last Thursday, including the teachers’ union (MDEA), CSEA, and Local 1 M&O and CST units.

“We are uniting together,” Armstrong said. “We have nothing to hide. We want this district to know that we’re not going against each other. We’re togeher because this is not fair, what they’re doing.”

Armstrong said she believes the board will vote on layoffs next month — to take effect in January. She, too, said the $6.5 million in federal jobs money should be used to soften the blow to employees.

About 43 secretaries would be affected by the proposal to reduce hours to 3.5 and wipe out benefits coverage: 29 at elementary schools, six student resource techs at the high schools, 10 middle school secretaries and two senior secretaries in the dist office, Armstrong said.

“They haven’t taken any work away, but they give raises to upper management,” Armstrong said, referring to raises doled out last year to four administrators, including nearly $30,000 for the general counsel. “That’s what kills me.”

Armstrong said some schools have tried to bring in volunteers to handle the extra work that isn’t being done because of hours cut.

“I’m saying, ‘No,’ you can’t put people out of work and then bring volunteers in,” Armstrong said. “It has just gotten to be ridiculous.”

Although the teachers’ union has opted not to endorse any candidate in the upcoming board election, Armstrong said her unit is endorsing only Cheryl Hansen, a Contra Costa County Office of Education administrator and former Mt. Diablo district principal. Three seats are open and seven candidates are running.

“We think we need new blood,” Armstrong said. “She used to work for the district for 24 years, so that’s who we are suporting. Nobody else.”

Armstrong said she likes incumbent Linda Mayo personally, but she fears Mayo is more aligned with administrators and teachers than with classified employees.

“She is strictly for management and the classroom,” Armstrong said. “Well, that’s fine, but the classroom also has to have help from classified people, starting with bus drivers, custodians and the secretaries.”

Armstrong said her union is also wary of candidate Jeff Adams because he is an attorney in the Walnut Creek office of Littler Mendelson, which represents employers in disputes with labor unions.

“He’s a shareholder for a law firm that is completely against unions,” Armstrong said. “So, why would we endorse him?”

If the board votes on layoffs Nov. 9, Armstrong said, the district would have to give employees 45 days notice before they could be let go. By my calculations, that would mean they could be terminated on Christmas Eve.

“It’s rough out here,” Armstrong said. “It is really rough and it’s going to get rougher. We’re at impasse now.”

Adding to the union’s sense of personal dismay, Armstrong told me that longtime Local 1 rep James Jones died recently. Jones was a fervent fighter for the union, who was not afraid to speak his mind.

Jones once compared raises given to administrators at the County Office of Education to the AIG scandal. He regularly attended Mt. Diablo school board meetings and will be greatly missed.

Do you agree with the district’s proposal to cap health care benefits at Kaiser rates for all employees and to pro-rate the district’s portion based on a seven-hour work day?

Posted on Tuesday, October 26th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Mt. Diablo district holds onto federal jobs money

By Theresa Harrington

Mt. Diablo district Superintendent Steven Lawrence revealed in his most recent memo to parents that he won’t use $6.5 million in federal jobs money approved by Congress to help prevent layoffs until next year.

Although the district indicated earlier this month that trustees would vote on layoffs and reduced hours for secretaries and other employees on Tuesday, those items don’t appear on the Oct. 26 agenda. Instead, trustees expect to approve a $65.6 milllion contract with SunPower for what may be the largest K-12 project in the nation. They will also appoint some administrators.

Here is Lawrence’s complete memo, with details about the district’s decision to hang onto the money from Congress without allocating it for anything until January, when the new governor will release a revised budget. This memo will likely be posted on the district’s website sometime next week.

“October 22, 2010
Mt. Diablo USD News Update
Where Kids Come First

Fifth Annual Day at the Races for Literacy
Raising Funds to Raise Readers — On Saturday, October 30, 2010 the Central Contra Costa Literacy Coalition and The Rotary Club of Concord are working together to benefit the literacy programs in Central Contra Costa County. The event, scheduled from 8:30 a.m to 2:00 p.m., is being hosted by the Hilton Concord and 100 percent of the $20 entry fee will be donated to fund literacy projects. The entry fee provides an opportunity to participate in a 1K, 5K or 10K race, and enjoy a spaghetti and meatballs lunch and free concert. School teams are encouraged to enter to raise funds for their school’s literacy program. For information about the event call 925-349-2654 or register online at

Budget Update
Although the State budget restored the $275 per-student reduction from the Governor’s May budget proposal, and we will receive $6 million in new one-time Federal dollars, we are being very cautious about the District’s budget. In a Los Angeles Times article dated October 10, 2010, by Evan Halper, Mr. Halper asserts that come January, a new governor and a new crop of lawmakers will have to confront the $19 billion deficit that the current governor and legislature failed to address. Quoting the Los Angeles Times:
‘The most optimistic projections show that the spending plan Schwarzenegger signed will produce a shortfall of at least $10 billion – more than 11% of state spending – in the next fiscal year. Many experts predict it will be billions more. The leaders mostly papered over this year’s gap, punting many tough decisions forward.’
We have read many analyses of the State budget that reach similar conclusions. A commensurate 11% reduction to California’s education budget would be approximately $5.5 billion. This would translate into an additional $20 million reduction to our District budget! Consequently, there is a high probability of mid-year cuts. Therefore, it is imprudent to allocate or spend the $6 million in one-time Federal dollars until the new governor’s January budget is released. We want to ensure that the District has adequate funding in place to prevent mid-year reductions in programs and personnel.

Shining the Light on Solar
Solar Update — This Tuesday, October 26, 2010 the Board of Education will consider approving the contract with SunPower. Once the contract is approved, the design and State approval process begins. Our goal is to break ground in early spring 2011 and have the solar project completed by mid spring 2012. Once the installation of solar shade projects begins, we will post updates and pictures on the District webpage.”

On the consent calendar, trustees plan to approve two Measure C assistant program project managers, but there’s no mention of how much they’ll be paid. The staff report shows no fiscal impact, but indicates funds will come from Measure C.

Also on the consent calendar, the district is trying to disclose how much it spent selling its $110 million in Measure C bonds. The staff report states that the cost was $1,781,5811.06. Obviously, this doesn’t make sense. Either it’s $1.8 million (rounded up) and they put too many numbers before the decimal point, or it’s really $17.8 million and the commas are in the wrong place. Unfortunately, I can’t view the attachment from my home computer (it says it’s damaged and can’t be retrieved), so I’m not sure.

The board also expects to appoint a new personnel director, but doesn’t say how much the new person will earn in the staff report. However, a district job posting shows the person will earn $90,722 – $110,262 if he or she works 248 days, or $87,429 – $106,259 for working 239 days, with furloughs. In addition, the district will pay a stipend of $1,000 for a master’s degree or $2,000 for a doctorate degree. The posting also states: “District paid medical, dental & vision benefits,” with no mention of a cap.

Trustees also plan to appoint an elementary school principal and a program specialist for categorical programs. The specialist will earn $66,916, but the staff report doesn’t say how much the principal will earn. However, the district’s 2009-10 certificated salary schedule shows elementary principals make $75,752-$92,072.

The board also plans to approve a $70,000 post-retirement contract with retired administrator Carol Snow, who will provide “coaching and mentoring support for teachers” at Oak Grove Middle School in Concord.

In other business, trustees expect to proclaim November “Native American Heritage Month”  and to discuss the idea of naming the Olympic High School softball field “The Ron Redding Softball Field,” in honor of a much-beloved retired teacher.

Do you agree with the district’s decision to hold off on deciding how to spend the federal jobs money until next year?

Posted on Saturday, October 23rd, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Vandals strike Pittsburg school board candidate signs

By Theresa Harrington

Pittsburg teachers union members who posted campaign signs last week for school board candidates were unpleasantly surprised Saturday night when about 20 of them were sliced up, apparently with a boxcutter.

The signs were in support of candidates George Miller, Duane Smith, Vince Ferrante and William Wong. Teachers and two candidates filed police reports, but they’re unsure whether officers are investigating the incidents, said Steve Longley, co-chair of the Pittsburg Education Association political action committee (PAC).

“The signs came out of the PAC,” Longley said. “Teachers donate a dollar from their paycheck if they choose to, so this is all money out of teachers’ pockets.”

Longley said no other signs were targeted.

“We feel that somone out there is interfering wih the democratic process,” he said. “No one else’s sign was touched. It was just our candidates.”

The three candidates not endorsed by teachers are Pergy McGee Jr., Joseph Arenivar and Robert Bellici.

Longley said teachers plan to put up more signs before the election, but they may leave up a few of the vandalized signs as a symbol of the apparent animosity involved.

“We don’t intend to be intimidated,” he said. “We have about three activities a week planned. We’ll continue to go door to door and phone bank and put signs up till Nov. 2.”

Anyone with information about the vandalism can call the Pittsburg police or county sheriff’s department at 646-6441.

Posted on Tuesday, October 19th, 2010
Under: Education, Election, Pittsburg, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Project Lead the Way academies point students toward college and careers

Omar Pacheco, 17, of Pittsburg, left, and Laura Flores, 17, of Bay Point work together as they design a beverage container at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord on Oct. 5.

Omar Pacheco, 17, of Pittsburg, left, and Laura Flores, 17, of Bay Point work together as they design a beverage container at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord on Oct. 5.

By Theresa Harrington

Through career-oriented classes created by the nonprofit “Project Lead the Way” program, thousands of students throughout the country are acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to go onto college and land high-tech jobs after they graduate.

Here’s what’s going on nationally, as well as locally, according to Project Lead the Way:

There are approximately 3,500 schools and 500,000 students enrolled in various PLTW Engineering and Biotechnology programs in the United States.
o In California, more than 230 schools are participating in the program this year, up from 165 in 2009.
o The program also has university partners:
– Cal Poly Pomona, the first regional site, does outreach in the LA area and has offered summer training institutes for the last two years.
– San Jose State University, the second regional site in California, has chosen Project Lead the Way for its engineering curriculum.
– The national affiliate university for California is San Diego State University.

In the Mt. Diablo school district, Mt. Diablo and Clayton Valley high schools in Concord have added Project Lead The Way engineering courses this fall.

Antioch High School in East Contra Costa County has also launched the program, along with Richmond High in West Contra Costa County and California High in the San Ramon Valley district.

In addition, Oakland High and Dublin High in Alameda County are also integrating the project’s curriculum into their career academies.

John Korzick, the San Ramon Valley district’s Teacher of the Year, is the lead teacher in the PLTW academy.

“We do engineering and robots here,” said Korzick, a second-career teacher who previously worked as an engineer. “I’m passionate about finding kids who want to be engineers, but I know that every person that walks in here won’t beome an engineer because the education is rigorous. Students learn how to work as a team. It’s all project-based.”

At Mt. Diablo High, teachers have integrated the PLTW curriculum into the existing Architcture, Manufacturing, Construction and Engineering Academy (ACME). When I visited the class earlier this month, teachers and students were excited about the new curriculum, but frustrated that budget cuts had slowed their access to computers.

Statewide, Chevron has contributed $1.2 million to fund the program in 15 schools, said Janet Auer, the company’s community engagement specialist. The funding has helped pay April Treece, of the Contra Costa Economic Partnership, to build a network of PLTW schools in the East Bay. Treece is a former Mt. Diablo school board trustee who is passionate about creating career education programs in the county by building partnerships with local businesses.

Duane Crum, who coordinates PLTW in California, said during a PLTW meeting at Mt. Diablo High School that he was impressed by the 20-1 student-teacher ratio. The school has smaller class sizes than most others in the district because it receives funding from the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), which assists low-performing schools.

Academies are catching on in high schools because they give students a sense of belonging and direction. Teachers collaborate with each other and really get to know the students, which helps to prevent them from falling through the cracks.

Principal Kate McClatchy said the district wants to “scale up” career academies so they will be available to more students. Teacher Steve Seaman was excited about expanding the academy, but said he worried that he may not get to know every student personally.

He also expressed frustration about difficulties getting computers up and running for the program.

“It’s hard to get things rolling at this school,” he said.

Crum was also adamant that the school couldn’t meet the program’s objectives if it didn’t get the computers hooked up quickly.

“It’s critical,” he said emphatically.

McClatchy said district budget cuts slashed computer techs.

“Sometimes they’ll pay a weekend crew,” she said. “It’s not a matter of money, it’s a matter of personnel. We don’t want to pit one group against another.”

English teacher Stephanie Sliwinski and history teacher Jenna Diestler were both incredibly enthusiastic about the program. Diestler said students are much more engaged in her academy classes compared to nonacademy classes.

“It’s like night and day in terms of their attendance, attention and speed — how fast I can cover material,” she said.

Sliwinski agreed.

“There’s so much less accountability and so much less responsibility in non-ACME classes,” she said, noting that academy students are thinking about getting into college. “The academy kids feel that they’re part of something. I wish the other kids had something like that to plug into.”

Engineering academy teacher Ryan Leuschen said the PLTW program gives students a sense of urgency to learn the material.

“If you don’t have a sense of urgency, it sometimes seems like it doesn’t apply to you,” he said. “The urgency is to acquire the skills that are presented — to acquire engineering skills so that you can make yourself more valuable in society. You’re going to want a good job and getting these skills is going to get you ahead.”

For more information about Project Lead the Way, visit

Do you think the district should expand its academies?

Posted on Monday, October 18th, 2010
Under: Concord, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | No Comments »

Charter school wants to open in Mt. Diablo district

By Theresa Harrington

If the Contra Costa County Board of Education gives the green light on Wednesday, a new charter school could open in the Mt. Diablo school district, offering high school students the chance to work at their own pace using online educational programs, while on campus or at home.

“If denied, we will of course appeal, but we hope to work with the Contra Costa County Board of Education on this charter, if possible,” said Executive Director Mark Kushner in a voicemail message this afternoon. “Also, Daniel Borsuk, the board president, visited today. I think he was impressed, although, of course, he isn’t ready to indicate which way he’s going to vote until he hears all the information.”

Borsuk didn’t respond to an e-mail interview request. However, trustees Daniel Gomes and Pam Mirabella said they were inclined to agree with staff’s recommendation to deny the K12 Flex Academy’s appeal of a unanimous denial by the Mt. Diablo school board in February.

Both trustees were skeptical of the school’s budget, which relies on money from the state for each student, as well as a possible loan from the California Department of Education.

“I was very concerned about special education and also explusions, but those are minor compared to looking at the unrealistic financial plan,” Mirabella told me early this evening. “Deferring invoices and depending on the state’s revolving loan program that is almost depleted this year — those are indications to me that it is really premature to sanction this charter.”

Gomes admitted he relied more on staff to determine whether the education program was sound.

“I don’t know how to judge those things exactly,” he said.

Mirabella said she plans to visit the school Tuesday to see first-hand how students learn through online courses and how teachers and academic “coaches” fit into the picture.

“I think by visiting the program, it will give me an idea how the online lessons address the needs of the diverse population we have,” she said. “Not all kids can work independently on a computer.”

Mirabella said she is sensitive to the desire of some Mt. Diablo parents for more alternatives.

“They definitely want more choices and they want some more curriculum options for their children,” she said. “One reason I’m going is because maybe the K12 online program itself might supplement the district’s programs, which have really been slashed.”

County trustees heard from several speakers in favor of allowing the charter at their Oct. 6 meeting. Here’s an excerpt of the public comments from the board minutes, starting with Kushner’s presentation:

“As a way of introduction, Mr. Kushner mentioned that he serves as a state charter commissioner and teaches at Stanford University on the topic of charter schools. He then discussed two of the five criteria: that the charter school has a sound educational program and that the team is likely to implement the program. He explained that the program is research based, it is a small and personalized learning model, it provides self-paced instruction, the charter school’s graduation requirements meet the California “a-g” requirements, the curriculum is broad (130 courses), K12 Flex Academy is accredited by a number of trans-regional accrediting organizations, it is not an experimental curriculum; but rather, it is a worldwide curriculum currently used by 70,000 full-time students and 50,000 part-time students in all 50 states and in 50 countries. He further explained that the program combines the best of traditional education (e.g., a small school, personalized relationships, sports, counseling, and activities) with the best online instruction; the traditional part provides the support, and the online part provides the instructional power along with the teachers, and he informed the Board that this type of program is generally called a full-time hybrid. He stated that Harvard University and Stanford University predict that 50% of student learning will be through online instruction in 10-20 years. With regard to the criterion that his team is likely to implement the program, Mr. Kushner pointed out that the board members, partners, advisers, and school team have experience in education, law, finance, facilities, charter schools, marketing, enrollment, leadership, assessment, and fundraising and have more than enough expertise among them to implement the charter school. He then addressed the objections from MDUSD for denying the charter, which he claimed were without merit, and he offered to address these objections if the Board so wished to discuss them beyond the 34-page detailed response that he had already provided. He asked that the Board approve the appeal because it meets the criteria for approval, because it would be a wonderful option for parents in MDUSD and in the county, it is an innovative research-and-development model for children who do not always benefit from attending large high schools. He noted that the Santa Clara County Board of Education unanimously approved three K12 Flex Academies in their county, that the State Board of Education unanimously approved the K12 Flex Academy in San Francisco, and that the ultimate point is that this charter school is simply good for children.
No representatives from MDUSD spoke on this matter.
Mr. Borsuk then invited comments from the public, calling forward K12 Flex Academy Board Member Catherine Walcott, who spoke of how K12 Flex Academy offers a public school option that expands the number of courses to which students have access and that offers technology combined with a personal touch; she noted that the school board in San Francisco expressed a desire to head in the direction of online instruction and spoke of a strong interest in learning from the experience of having K12 Flex Academy in their district, and she stated that the school is prepared to examine data on a regular basis and work with school leaders to continually improve the program; she urged the Board to approve the charter petition.
Dr. Carlota del Portillo, a K12 Flex Academy board member, then addressed the Board and described her educational background and experience; she stated that her main concern has always been for educationally disadvantaged youth and that she joined the K12 Flex Academy’s board because she feels that the future of this nation must be based on educating the young; and she described the ways in which the K12 Flex Academy can help students become successful and emphasized how one of her missions is to ensure that all students at the school are able to write English well.
Gary Veasey then addressed the Board and spoke in support of the K12 Flex Academy; he described how is daughter is using the program’s online program and how extremely impressed he has been with their curriculum and organization.
Joann Jacobs then addressed the Board, introduced her eighth grade daughter, and spoke in favor of the K12 Flex Academy; she described her search for an educational program that would not require her daughter to sit for six hours at a time in a classroom where she might not be able to ask questions or participate in her own learning; her search for an alternative educational program led to a charter school in MDUSD; and she has become a believer in charter schools because they give parents an opportunity to enroll their children in a program that fits their children’s learning needs best, and she feels that the K12 Flex Academy sounds like an excellent program and is one that should be offered as an option to all children in the county.
(Northgate High School parent) Linda Loza then addressed the Board, explaining that two years ago she was frustrated when she learned that AP French would not be offered at her child’s high school in MDUSD, which led to her researching and identifying the K12 Flex program as a solution to this problem; the MDUSD administration set up a committee and studied the curriculum at length; the MDUSD board approved the curriculum unanimously, and AP French has been offered at Northgate High School through Flex Public Schools since that time; however, when she and a group of parents explored enrolling their children full time in Flex Public Schools’ online program, they spoke of their interest in having this online program taught in a school setting, and she enumerated the benefits of this type of combined instructional program; and she urged the Board to approve the charter petition so that parents would have an educational choice for their children.
J. Mills then addressed the Board as a concerned parent and citizen regarding the current public schools system; he stated that public schools are losing their legitimacy, which may not be deserved, but now that fewer households in MDUSD have school-age children, fewer people feel invested in the local public schools; there are concerns that public schools are not evolving at the same rate as the rest of life is evolving; he stated that he believes that K12 Flex Academy will bring both innovation and accountability to education; he described how all other organizations have had to change and be flexible, and schools should, too; he sees tremendous desire in teachers he knows to serve students better but that the mechanisms are not always in place; however, from his review of the K12 Flex Academy model and his discussion with Mr. Kushner, he noted real problem-solving innovations, more individualized attention to students, a wider variety of academic topics being offered, and better utilization of time; he alleged the present educational system is broken because there are too many students, not enough teachers to teach every topic, and not enough space in which to teach a large number of subjects; therefore, this is an opportunity to be explored, and if the academy is successful, it could serve as a model for other schools and districts; lastly, he stated that accountability is of utmost importance and that without choice, there cannot be accountability.
Lisa Corr, who is a partner in the legal firm that provides legal representation to Flex Public Schools and helped them draft their charter school petition, offered to answer any questions about the petition either during the meeting or with the Board’s legal counsel at a later time.
The last speaker, Tikiya Hassan, a junior student at K12 Flex Academy in San Francisco, then addressed the Board to describe her positive experiences in the learning environment at the Academy (e.g., individualized learning pace, classrooms to receive extra help from teachers, 130 classes are offered).
At this juncture, Mr. Borsuk again invited any representatives from MDUSD to present comments, but no one stepped forward. Legal counsel Mary Ann Mason then confirmed with the clerk to the board that a notice of the meeting was sent to MDUSD, and she also confirmed with the Board members that they had received copies of the petition and copies of the petitioner’s responses to the district’s findings of fact.”

After the meeting, I spoke to Tikiya, 17, who commutes from Vallejo to the Flex Academy in San Francisco. She and her mother plan to move to the city soon, she said.

“I needed a school where I could go at my own pace,” she said. “It’s a whole different environment. Flex Academy is a good school for anybody.”

She said it reminds her of college because she uses a laptop and can ask her teachers for help, if she needs it. Her mother, Mia Jackson, said she felt Tikiya’s previous schools had failed her and she had been prepared to home school her daughter.

Jackson said she likes the Flex Academy because her daughter goes to a school campus where teachers give her individualized instruction.

“They have a credit recovery program so she can take classes she didn’t do so well in before at her own pace,” Jackson said. “One thing that really caught my attention was that the principal said you can do four years in two years, depending on your motivation.”

Julie Ewing, whose children attend the Eagle Peak Montessori charter school in Walnut Creek and Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill, said she’s not comfortable sending her children to her neighborhood schools in the Monument Corridor of Concord because the campuses are low-performing and are focused on narrowing the achievement gap for Spanish-speaking children.

“We don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “Living in a neighborhood with No Child Left Behind schools, I didn’t feel like those were the best choices for my children. But I do not want to have to move to find an education that would serve my children well.”

Since Eagle Peak only serves children through fifth grade, Ewing said she would like to see a charter for middle and high school students.

“I love the student-directed curriculum,” she said of Eagle Peak. “My daughter works at an accelerated pace. But you can get help in areas where you need it.”

Kushner said he’s confident he can argue persuasively about Flex Academy’s ability to overcome the budget and curriculum questions raised by the County Office of Education.

If the charter appeal is denied, the school can appeal to the State Board of Education.

Do you think the County Board of Education should allow the school to open?

Posted on Monday, October 18th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 3 Comments »

Mt. Diablo district secretaries and instructional assistants speak out

By Theresa Harrington

OCT. 13:

At the Mt. Diablo school board meeting last night, several secretaries and instructional and special education assistants spoke out about how a plan to cap the district’s contributions to their benefits would affect them. I videotaped a few of them, which I’ve embedded below.

Here’s special education assistant Patricia Gardiner, who asks trustees to spend a day in her shoes. “I know my value,” she said. “It’s a shame the board doesn’t.”

Here is CSEA union rep and member Kim Montaro telling trustees her bargaining unit rejected a tentative agreement that would require employees to pay higher health benefit contributions. She threatens to strike if a deal can’t be reached.

Here is board President Paul Strange explaining the district’s position.

Here’s what Superintendent Steven Lawrence told me about the proposal in an e-mail:

“The cap on benefits is based on the following for 10 month employees for Kaiser:

Employee Only:
District pays $6508.30 annually or ($650.83 per month for 10 months) Employee will pay $319.60 annually or $31.96 per month for 10 months

Employee +1:
District pays $13,016.60 annually or $1,301.66 per month for 10 months
Employee will pay $639.10 annually of $63.91 per month for 10 months

Employee +2 or more:
District pays $16,921.70 annually or $1,692.17 per month for 10 months
Employee will be $830.80 annually or $83.80 per month for 10 months

The dollar amount that the district pays would be the hard caps moving forward. The annual hard cap amount will be the same and will be divided by 10, 11 or 12 depending upon how many months an employee works. So the annual amounts will be the same, but the monthly amounts will be different because of how many times people make a payment during the school year. Any increase would need to be negotiated. Just as an FYI we also provide vision and dental for classified employees and are not asking to cap these benefits. The amount for dental and vision is approximately $1603 annually.”

The district is in jeopardy of state takeover, according to a Sept. 28 letter sent by the County Office of Education to the district, “Unfortunately, district approved and/or implemented cost reductions to date have not been sufficient to maintain the state required minimum reserve. Based on our review and analysis, we have concluded that the district does not meet the state required standards for fiscal solvency. Accordingly, the county superintendent hereby conditionally approves the district’s 2010-11 adopted budget.”

Bill Clarke, associate superintendent of business services for the County Office of Education, wrote: “The required reserve will continue to fall short of the minimum requirement by approximately $18.7 million in 2011-12 and $29.7 million in 2012-13. The 2011-12 and 2012-13 reserve amount is negative $(5.3 million) and $(23.9 million) respectively, indicating fiscal insolvency and the need for a state loan to meet district operating expenditures. Some or all of the district governance will be assumed by the state should a loan be required. The district must continue to take corrective actions to restore its fiscal health.”

District officials say the proposed cuts to benefits, along with furlough days (outlined in Plan B) would help them to make $9.8 million in ongoing cuts starting this year and solve their budget problems. They haven’t yet decided how they’ll spend the $6.5 million in federal jobs funds they expect to receive, which Congress approved to help prevent layoffs.

How do you think the district should solve its fiscal troubles?

After reading the above message from Lawrence, union rep Annie Nolen sent me the complete district proposal (embedded below), which shows that employees who work less than seven hours a day would pay substantially more, as well as those who choose Blue Shield coverage.

For 7-hour workers, Blue Shield coverage would cost $160 per month for the employee only, $320 a month including one dependent and $415 monthly with two or more dependents.

Six-hour employees would pay $125-$325 per month for Kaiser coverage or $253-$657 monthly for Blue Shield. Five-hour employees would pay $218-$567 a month for Kaiser or $346-$899 for Blue Shield, while four-hour workers would pay $311-$808 per month for Kaiser or $439-$1,141 monthly for Blue Shield.

“I want people to realize we’re not trying to be greedy,” Nolen said. “We’re trying to hold our heads above water. I had a lady crying to me, saying she thinks she has to quit her job because she can’t afford to pay this. I’ve had that from more than one, saying they don’t want to go. They love their jobs.”

In another e-mail, Lawrence wrote that the board gave themselves the same cap as the administrators, “which is actually slightly below the cap that was going forward on the CSEA proposal. In other words, they will pay slightly more money out of pocket on a monthly basis.”

This means trustees would pay the same rates as full-time administrative employees.

Do you think the district’s proposal is fair?

Health Plan Premiums

Posted on Friday, October 15th, 2010
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington | 35 Comments »