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New Mt. Diablo trustees demand accountability

By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 at 8:03 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

By Theresa Harrington

After being sworn into their positions as Mt. Diablo school board members, newly elected trustees Cheryl Hansen and Lynne Dennler began asking tough questions about district consultant contracts.

Hansen came out swinging, when she pulled the consultant contract for Jack Schreder and Associates from the consent calendar and asked why the School Closure Committee consultant’s fees were jumping from $25,000 to $70,000.

The staff report, which didn’t name the consultant, stated: “The School Closure/Consolidation Committee has required additional support and consultation regarding the identification of various options for balancing enrollments at schools districtwide, assistance in the identification of sites for potential consolidation/closure based on District criteria and the identification of new boundaries based on District criteria.”

Hansen was not swayed.

“There was no additional justification,” she said. “I still think that deserves more explanation as to how that occurred.”

Chief financial officer Bryan Richards explained that the committee has met more frequently than originally anticipated, so the consultants continued to work at their hourly rate. Hansen held his feet to the fire, pointing out that the district already owes the company $43,000.

“What concerns me,” she said, “is planning ahead that this is the amount that we think we’ll need and not over-expending that.”

Eberhart, who ended up abstaining from the vote without explanation, suggested that staff investigate whether the district could use facilities money to pay the consultant, instead of general fund money.

Trustee Linda Mayo sang the praises of the company, saying the district had done business with it for many years. When the $25,000 contract was approved August 10, former trustee Paul Strange also lauded the firm, saying it had worked for the district during the past 15 years.

According to Richards, the district has spent $305,333 with the firm since 2001 for a variety of studies. Under its current contract, two consultants are paid $145 an hour including travel time to and from Sacramento.

Eberhart also abstained from the contract vote in August, saying he was currently working with a relative of the person the district was entering into contract with. Eberhart’s boss is Seward Schreder, Jack Schreder’s son.

Before hiring Eberhart, Seward L. Schrder Construction donated $25,000 to the Measure C campaign. Jack Schreder & Associates contributed $2,000.

At Monday’s board meeting, one parent whose daughter is on the waiting list to attend Monte Gardens Elementary accused the district of writing a “blank check” to Schreder and Associates, saying such practices have led to school closures. (Monte Gardens is being recommended for closure.)

Eberhart said the district is not writing blank checks. The public can request documentation regarding payments to Scheder and Associates from the superintendent, he added.

Dennler, who remained quiet during budget discussions, spoke up strongly along with Hansen, before trustees voted on a $92,000 consultant contract with Norm Gold Associates to audit the district’s English learner program.

There was no indication that a request for proposals was sought for this contract, which was recommended by Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support.

Dennler, a former teacher, asked why district staff couldn’t visit other schools that are having success with English language learners, instead of paying a consultant to make recommendations. Lock said Gold would do that.  (However, the contract doesn’t mention Gold spending any time visiting sites outside the district.)

“That’s not something we can do on our own?” Dennler persisted.

“We have done some,” Lock said, “but our program still isn’t working.”

Lock said staff has talked about “best practices,” but perhaps hasn’t implemented them with fidelity.

“We need to look at best practices to drive a strategic plan,” she said.

Gold will visit 15 district sites and try to determine whether Mt. Diablo’s problems stem from program issues, implementation issues, or a combination of the two, Lock said. He will then make recommendations based on state and national practices, she said.

“Obviously, we have to follow through on those recommendations,” Lock said. “This is an area we have struggled in as a district as long as I can remember.”

Hansen said she was concerned about the considerable number of outside contractors the district uses.

“At the end, we actually don’t have a comprehensive, compliant plan,” she said. “It seems like an awful lot of money to spend without that plan.”

Eberhart agreed, saying he has long been concerned that the district isn’t adequately educating English language learners.

“Our English language program continues to be an area where I believe we are failing our students in terms of how long it takes to get a student who doesn’t speak English proficiently to a student who does speak English proficiently,” he said.

Superintendent Steven Lawrence said he heard the board loud and clear and he assured trustees a plan would be developed.

“Actually,” Hansen said knowingly, “Dr. Gold works with boiler plate templates, so you can do it yourself.”

Lock said Gold’s contract includes a final report and a community briefing regarding his findings. The report will include recommendations for “improvements in structure and instruction” for English language learners. 

“We will be getting a report and he’s going to be providing us with 30 copies of it,” Lock said.

“He better,” Hansen replied. “Expensive paper.”

Here is a rundown of contract expenses:
$15,000: Plan and complete 10 interviews
$50,000: Conduct remaining interviews and site visits
$15,000: Review preliminary findings with audit advisory group
$12,060: Submit final report (PDFs and 30 copies)
$92,060: TOTAL
 
The final report won’t identify any individual teachers or schools. Instead, it will summarize data at the district level.

“We do need to bring in teachers and our parents,” Lawrence said. “And we will create a thorough process, where at the end of this, we will have a strategic plan.”

Trustees unanimously approved the contract.

At the beginning of the meeting, trustees elected Eberhart as president and Whitmarsh as vice president. They may hold a retreat in February to get to know each other better and study major district issues.

How well do you think the new board will work together?

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  • D

    Hello and welcome aboard Cheryl & Lynne!!!! Off to a good start, Thank You

  • Delmo

    The report will include recommendations for “improvements in structure and instruction” for English language learners.

    Ridiculous! They would do more to improve structure and instruction by spending that $92,000 on an additional 2 teachers.

  • The Gov

    Excellent article, these questions need to be asked.
    There has to be another way to do this. Why not create a working group of ESL teachers to discuss what works and what doesn’t for the ESL issues? Also review best practices and what are the problems they see.

    Bring in subs to cover the hours for a day a month. They could meet every other month and use the other days to create reports or conduct site visits/interviews. Then make the report public. I know teachers are taxed quite a bit but I am suggesting to use school time, not much though. Then you would have a group with a vested interest in correcting the problem.

  • tharrington

    Do you agree with the idea of making the report a very general districtwide summary, instead of giving information about what’s going on at the 15 sites Gold will visit?
    I can understand not wanting to single out individual teachers. But this district operates 10 Program Improvement schools, including six of the lowest-performing in the state. In addition, seven campuses have been earmarked for closure (including Glenbrook, one of the lowest-performing schools). It might be beneficial to get school level information in the report to gain insights into what’s working and what’s not, so that campuses that are having success can be models for those that aren’t.

  • The Gov

    In my opinion the report should be very specific and as you suggest we may be able to see insight into what works and what doesn’t. It’s also possible that one solution for one campus may not work for another as they may have different issues. Unless of course the general district summary is a lot cheaper, then that would be cause for contemplation.

    For any issue you need to get down to the details and find the root cause.

    I don’t know if you could get two teachers for 92K. Is that the main problem? I’d like to hear what the teachers and parents have to say that are in these programs.

  • Doctor J

    Why hasn’t the person in charge of ESL program at the District level figured out what is working and what is not working — isn’t that their job ? How many years has he/she been at the job ? If he/she hasn’t figured it out by now, why is he/she still around ? Is Lawrence running a retirement center or a school district ? Tough questions by Hansen and Dennler — but then why vote for it. $92,000 for a boilerplate report ? Someone ought to compare the report he prepares for MDUSD with other reports he has prepared. Generalities will only perpetrate mediocrity. I thought if someone had a conflict of interest, doesn’t the Brown Act require him to leave the room ?

  • tharrington

    When I covered the city of Walnut Creek, council members and commissioners always left the room for items on which they abstained due to a conflict of interest. That hasn’t been the practice of Mt. Diablo district trustees.
    However, most trustees have announced the reason for their absention and have not participated in discussions or helped craft the motions.
    General Counsel Greg Rolen told me he was surprised Eberhart didn’t state a reason for his abstention. Rolen also said he didn’t think anything in the Brown Act of Roberts Rules of Order prevented Eberhart from participating in the discussion.
    Yet, it was Eberhart who suggested that the motion be amended to direct staff to investigate whether the district could use facilities-related funding instead of general fund money. Mayo agreed to this amendment.
    Rolen pointed out that Eberhart did not actually make the motion, however.
    Rolen also said the agenda report should have named the vendor. During the discussion, Rolen asked Richards to state the name of the vendor.

  • truthbetold

    OK, why are the lower performing schools underperforming? Are we ready to hear the real, politically incorrect reason? Teachers at these schools are working their asses off. They are as good, if not better than the teachers at the high performing schools, because they have to do more with less. Less money, no volunteers, non-existent parental help, no teacher’s aides, etc.) Folks, like it or not, the real reason why these schools aren’t doing well is the population. Where are these underperforming schools located? Plain and simple….Monument corridor, Bay Point, anywhere there is a high population of Hispanic, African American, welfare recipients, gang activity, etc. etc. Is having an English Language program the answer? Possibly, but teaching these kids English Language Development for 20-30 mins per day then have them return to their homes where their parents only speak Spanish to them, and who live and shop in predominantly Spanish speaking communities does nothing to help their children learn English and assimilate. What these schools do not have is: parents involved in their children’s education, parents learning how to speak English, parents disciplining their children, parents giving a damn about the school. This makes one hell of a difference. The District’s decision to put Sequoia El, Sequoia Middle, and Monte Gardens El on the list of closures is ridiculous. MDUSD needs more schools of this type in the district, not less. Close the underperforming schools. Sorry for the rant.

  • Doctor J

    My quick google search identified Government Code Section 18702.5. Public Identification of a Conflict of Interest for Section 87200 Filers. You would have to ask a lawyer if this applies. You can read it at http://www.fppc.ca.gov/legal/regs/current/18702.5.pdf
    This section does require identification of the conflict of interest and for the person to leave the room.

  • docter t

    These are “boom” years expenses in a bust economy.

  • The Gov

    truthbetold – I see some sanity in what you are saying. I think the only thing I disagree with is the conclusion you draw, namely which schools to close.

    From what you’re saying it sounds like we have some good teachers doing a difficult job, I think we should retain them somehow. Do you think Sequoia El, Sequoia Middle, and Monte Gardens El would do a better job of teaching the kids that are struggling?

    I see a huge level of sanity in the comments in general. “Generalities will only perpetrate mediocrity” – excellent point. We need real solutions for specific problems.

  • truthbetold

    The Gov: I apologize for the rant. I am just tired of the District wasting money on programs that don’t do diddly. So much of our money is spent on providing specialized programs (ELD), free meals, free clothing, free this and that. Then the District talks about BEST practices…more b.s. like 6 Sigma in the private sector. Teachers will tell you that whenever a new administrator takes over a department in the District, they institute a new, expensive program in order to justify their position. (Carousel, Susanna Dutro, Board Language, Best Practices, etc., etc.) Have a teacher tell you about the Edusoft fiasco, the millions spent on it and now the District is thinking of scrapping it. Some of the programs work, but lets stick to one, get everybody on board, and make it mandatory throughout the District. The District taxes homeowners in order to put up solar panels, they increase class size, shutter schools that just had new classrooms and improvments done to them. The District’s priorities are all f-ed up!

    In regards to your question about whether Seq. El/Mid and Monte Gardens would do a better job in teaching struggling kids. I think you could put the teachers at lower performing schools at Sequois/Monte Gardens and they would do a good job. It’s all about the population, the dedication of the parents to make the school a better learning environment, and the no nonsense policy. If you take kids from lower performing schools and shove them into Sequoia, I’m sure scores would go down. It’s the total package there.

  • teacher

    I agree with all that Truthbetold stated about the primary factors in the underperforming schools. What I find silly is the thought of “shuttering” (nice use of PC speak for “closing”) schools that are performing. Those students will have to go somewhere. I’m sure you’ll find some “experts” that will say that moving productive kids to underperforming locations might help bring up those students at the schools they will be moving to. Bull. Those comments are from people who haven’t been in a classroom for I don’t know how many years. By the way, how many total years (and how recent are those years) of experience is there on the school board? I’ve been teaching for almost 20 years and I’ve heard that crap about how the good kids will influence the “bad” kids. Not gonna happen. If anything, I’ve seen more “good” kids that try to emulate the “bad” kids because they think it’s cool. If the good kids can really change things, we should be “shuttering” northgate and sending those kids to Mt. Diablo and YV, or maybe we should “shutter” Mt. Diablo and YV and send those kids to the Northgate, CP, and CV. Yeah, I’m sure that will change them around. I don’t know the answers to all the ills that have befallen our school system, but I would say the value of education that comes from the home has declined, and that when you try to instill rigor and discipline into school people come out of the woodwork to explain why that is wrong for that to be done. If we have that many underperforming kids, I think we need to establish more classes for them to be moved into so their underperforming can be dealt with. (This could be difficult to do because those types of classes don’t help schools get their API scores up- the golden calf of today’s education.) Ok, I’ve said enough.

  • tharrington

    The Fair Political Practices Commission document states that public officials must leave the room if they have a financial interest in the item being discussed. Eberhart did not disclose whether or not he has a financial interest in Schreder and Associates, so it is unclear if he was required to leave the room. He works for Jack Schreder’s son, Seward Schreder. I don’t know if Seward Schreder has a financial interest in his father’s company.
    However, based on the FPPC document, it does appear that a public official should announce his or her intention to abstain before the discussion begins and should not participate in the discussion. Based on this, it also appears that an elected official who will abstain from the vote should not suggest amendments to the motion.
    Here is the information from the FPPC (excerpted):
    Public Identification of a Conflict of Interest for Section 87200 Filers.
    (a) Government Code section 87105 and this regulation apply when a public official who holds an office specified in Government Code section 87200 has a financial interest in a decision within the meaning of Government Code section 87100, and the governmental decision relates to an agenda item which is noticed for a meeting subject to the provisions of the Bagley-Keene Act (Government Code section 11120 et seq.) or the Brown Act (Government Code section 54950 et seq.).
    (b) Content & Timing of Identification: The public official shall, following the announcement of the agenda item to be discussed or voted upon but before either the discussion or vote commences, do all of the following:
    (1) The public official shall publicly identify: (A) Each type of economic interest held by the public official which is involved in the decision and gives rise to the conflict of interest (i.e. investment, business position, interest in real property, personal financial effect, or the receipt or promise of income or gifts), and (B) The following details identifying the economic interest(s): (i) if an investment, the name of the business entity in which each investment is held; (ii) if a business position, a general description of the business activity in which the business entity is engaged as well as the name of the business entity; …
    (2) Form of Identification: If the governmental decision is to be made during an open session of a public meeting, the public identification shall be made orally and shall be made part of the official public record.
    (3) Recusal/Leaving the Room: The public official must recuse himself or herself and leave the room after the identification required by subdivisions (b)(1) and (b)(2) of this regulation is made. He or she shall not be counted toward achieving a quorum while the item is discussed.”
    Eberhart did not orally disclose that he intended to abstain from the vote. His abstention was not apparent until his vote showed up on the screen, with no explanation entered into the record.

  • Doctor J

    I wonder if the other trustees knew of the relationship between Eberhart and the Schreders ? If they didn’t, and now do, would that have affected their votes ? Wow, perhaps the First Amendment Coalition will be interested in attacking the vote.

  • tharrington

    It’s possible that trustees Linda Mayo and Sherry Whitmarsh might have recalled that Eberhart abstained from voting on the Schreder contract in August, but I don’t know if they knew the complete reason for that abstention.
    It’s highly unlikely that Cheryl Hansen or Lynne Dennler knew, since they weren’t on the board in August and the firm wasn’t named on the agenda.
    However, it’s more likely that Lawrence and general counsel Greg Rolen knew. The board relies on Lawrence and Rolen to guide them regarding such issues.