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Reactions to Mt. Diablo school closure recommendations are heating up

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, January 14th, 2011 at 10:43 am in Education, Mt. Diablo school district, Theresa Harrington.

Monte Gardens Elementary students and parents rally to save school from closure.

Monte Gardens Elementary students and parents rally to save school from closure.

By Theresa Harrington

As the reality sinks in that seven schools in the Mt. Diablo district are being recommended for closure, reactions are varied from those targeted.

Some are fearful or angry. Some are writing letters to the editor, sending e-mails to board members, or posting comments on blogs.

A few have turned out to School Closure Committee meetings, the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council meeting or to board meetings, voicing concerns about the recommendations.

The board will hold a public study session to review the committee’s recommendations at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19 in the Little Theater at Northgate High School, 425 Castle Rock Road in Walnut Creek.

On Wednesday, about 100 parents and students from Monte Gardens Elementary rallied in front of their school and the district office, urging the district to keep their campus open.

They carried signs such as “Send more of our students to top-ranked schools” and chanted “We love our school! Save our school!”

Cassie Van Dyke, whose son is a kindergartner at Monte Vista, proudly told me she is a Monte Gardens alum herself. She started attending the school in fourth-grade, when the district instituted the “Back to Basics” program, she said.

“You can’t deny what comes out of this school,” she said, noting that test scores are among the highest in the district. “My son loves this school.”

She and many other parents said they chose Monte Gardens because they value the strong education their children receive and because they are unwilling to send them to their “home” schools. Van Dyke lives within the Wren Avenue Elementary boundaries (which is also targeted for closure). She said a friend of hers sent a child there and told her that only three parents showed up to the child’s classroom Back to School night.

“My class (at Monte Gardens) was so full,” she said, “we couldn’t even sit down!”

Monte Gardens parents said they wanted to stay positive and not suggest other schools for closure, to spare theirs. Instead, Carmela Hess noted that Monte Gardens has six empty classrooms and a waiting list of parents.

Hess, who lives within in the Ygnacio Valley Elementary School boundaries, said she wouldn’t send her daughter to that campus because it has low test scores (it is a Program Improvement school under No Child Left Behind).

“I want my daughter to have academic excellence and I want other children to have that same kind of experience as children here experience,” she said.

Instead of closing the school, she suggested expanding it by allowing more students in.

“We accept anyone,” Hess said. “We’re not exclusive.”

Although students at the school come from throughout the district, the campus still has a community feel, said Kathy Battaglia, whose daughter attends first-grade at Monte Gardens.

“This school is a ‘choice’ school,” she said. “Everyone has chosen it because they do not want their children attending their neighborhood school. So, if you close this school, these parents are not likely to send their children back to their home schools.”

Battaglia said she would consider home-schooling her daughter, attempting to transfer her to another district or even renting out her Concord house and renting a home in Walnut Creek so she could send her daughter to a high quality school.

“It makes absolutely no sense to me to close the highest ranking schools in the district,” she said. “They will lose revenues.”

Parents from Silverwood Elementary held a similar rally this morning (Friday).

Although parent  MaryJane Reyes invited me to attend, I was unable to make it, due to another commitment. Here’s what she wrote to me about the event:

“We hope you can join us to cover this important message we are delivering. Not just for Silverwood but for all those schools that are effected by this unwanted, uninvited and unfair decision that is being made due to budget cuts.”At Tuesday’s board meeting, some Silverwood parents told trustees they would rather see the board close Monte Gardens and other “choice schools” (Sequoia Elementary and Sequoia Middle School in Pleasant Hill), to keep “neighborhood schools” open.

 

The district’s “choice” schools allow students from anywhere in the district to attend. They require parents to sign contracts agreeing to discipline and parent involvement policies and offer a “Back to Basics” academic program.

Three out of four Silverwood parents who spoke Tuesday asked the board to close “choice schools,” saying their campus is the heart of their community.

“My neighbors encouraged me to sign up for a ‘choice’ school, but I didn’t think I needed to drive 20 minutes or sign a contract to be an involved parent in my child’s education,” said Yasman Oldham, adding that Silverwood doesn’t have a “fancy adult-only auction.”

Gavin O’Connor, whose son attends Silverwood, said the school’s location shouldn’t be the deciding factor in closing it (it’s geographically between Ayers, Mountain View and Highlands elementary schools in Concord).

“I think it’s going to be a big mistake,” he said, “because a lot of parents and students are going to be upset.”

Last week, the Parent Advisory Council received an update on the school closure process from Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support and Superintendent Steven Lawrence. Lock pointed out that the minutes from committee meetings that took place Dec. 6 and Dec. 13 had been posted on the district’s website, revealing “pros and cons” for the recommended scenarios.

The committee rated each school in the district according to seven criteria: facility condition, capacity, operations and maintenance costs, available adjacent capacity, academic performance, geographic equity, and the possibility of sending students to improved facilities. Closure costs were also considered, with the committee seeking to recommend scenarios that would save $1.5 million a year.

Jack Schreder and Associates has spent numerous hours preparing various reports and presentations regarding many of these issues. District staff also contributed information about facilities.

“We basically had seven criteria,” Lawrence said. “They took every school in the district and rated it against that one criteria.”

The district hasn’t yet released these ratings. But, Lock told me the ratings will be presented to the board.

Here are the recommended scenarios:

Scenario 1: Glenbrook Mioddle School, Silverwood and Wren Avenue elementary schools.

Scenario 2: Glenbrook Middle School, Silverwood and Holbrook elementary schools.

Scenario 3: Sequoia Middle Schools, Sequoia and Monte Gardens elementary schools (“choice” schools)

Lock said the committee reached a strong consensus regarding the first two scenarios, but had a lot of discussion regarding the third, with a split vote to move it forward.

Committee member John Parker said members were objective and fair. In fact, Parker said he ended up recommending a school in his attendance area for closure, although it didn’t end up in the final three scenarios.

“There was no favoritsm and there were no vendettas or things like that that you might be hearing about,” he said. ”All the committee members moved around (to different groups).”

Lawrence said the board would deliberate with the committee and ask questions and give direction at the study session. The board expects to officially receive the recommendations Jan. 25 and to vote Feb. 8.

Lawrence stressed that the board is not limited to the committee’s recommendations and could choose any schools to close. He acknowledged that the Superintendent’s Council had created another recommendation that was rejected by the committee (To create 6-12 campuses at Ygnacio Valley High and Riverview Middle School, along with closing some elementary schools.)

After the board decides which campuses to close, a “Seven-11 committee” will be formed to recommend what to do with the excess property. It’s called a “Seven-11 committee” because it must be made up of seven to 11 community members, including a parent, tax group rep, school administrator, etc.

“Every member up to seven is described,” he said. “They go through an analysis of what you might be able to do with the property, such as lease or sell.”

A consultant would likely help the committee, but the board would make the final decision, Lawrence said. The money can’t go into the general fund, however, he added.

“It can be used toward any one-time expenditure,” he said. ”So, that is part of the whole confounding issue when you’re looking at selling off a piece of property.

The district will also have to redraw school boundaries. Lawrence said some schools ranked at the bottom according to criteria were not recommended for closure because they were projected to be “at enrollment capacity” in five to seven years. In that case, the district might change boundaries to ease overflows.

Lawrence pointed out that the district has already assumed the $1.5 million in savings in its budget starting in the fall.

“The election in June would prevent further cuts to our budget,” he said.

Parker noted that the district’s enrollment is declining, so it has excess facilities. Lawrence said this drop isn’t likely to turn around until homes are built on the Concord Naval Weapons Station property.

But, he said some schools, such as Meadow Homes Elementary in Concord,  have increased enrollment. With class size reduction, the school has room for 900 students, but 1,200 live within its boundaries.

“We are regularly overflowing 100 students out,” Lawrence said. “So the question is does that school make logical sense to redraw the boundary line, even though we know that community has a passion for their school?”

The commmittee used projections showing class size reduction coming back in 2012-13. But Governor Jerry Brown’s budget proposes to extend that two more years.

The cost of adding classrooms to accommodate students — such as those from Sequoia elementary and middle schools – was given to the committee, Lawrence said.  

“Let’s say we close Sequoia,” Lawrence said. ”They go back to a number of schools. The receiving schools would need to add additional classrooms.”

However, the costs to add classrooms were not included in the savings, since facilities are not paid for with general fund money, Lawrence said. He said the committee determined it would be too costly to build a high school in Bay Point.

Although the intradist transfer deadlines are this month, Lawrence said any parent whose child’s school is closed would have an additional 30 days to request a transfer to a school other than their new home school.

Lawrence said DVC may have an interest in buying or leasing Glenbrook Middle School as an auxilliary campus because of its access to Highway 4.

“I’ve had preliminary conversations,” Lawrence said. ”DVC is at 110 percent of their capacity.”

Lawrence stressed that the board can opt to close any schools in the district and is not limited by the committee’s recommendations.

“The board wants to honor the work of the committee,” he said. ”But the board is ultimately the group of people held responsible.”

Julie Braun-Martin said teachers in closed schools would be transferred based on seniority.

She said the district will still need the same number of teachers, but would likely lay off custodians, clerical staff and administrators, due to the closures.

“Maybe through retirements and attrition it would work out that we woudln’’t have to lay off that many people,” Braun-Martin said.

Trustee Sherry Whitmarsh said principals would not be laid-off according to seniority, since they are not represented by a union.

Lawrence said principals from closed schools could replace ”a principal at another school that we feel isn’t doing the job we feel they should be doing,” or maybe replace principals who retire.

“That process happens every year,” Braun-Martin said. “There’ s voluntary process for administrators, where they can indicate they would like an opportunity to move to a new school. So this could be a really positive thing where you’d get a great person.”

Lawrence said it would be up to the board to decide whether to give special priority to transfer requests from students in closed schools.

Transfer guidelines vary according to whether the home school is designated as low-performing according to No Child Left Behind.

Lawrence said some neighboring districts may not accept transfers, if they are also cutting their budgets.

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  • MDUSDParents

    Theresa, quick note, typo :) You noted a child attended Monte Vista (I think you mean Monte Gardens). Secondly, it’s astonishing that parents think that there school is absolutely, positively the only school their child can succeed in! Monte Gardens or I move? A bit extreme. My family has attended 2 district elementary schools. Both EXCELLENT. Neither a “choice” school, and I’d do it all over again. There are many excellent schools in our district, and an API score is only one of the several issues involved when evaluating a school for your family. Parental involvement, a safe nurturing proactive community, high expectations, community, good teachers, effective administration – all the things I look for – oh , and API is one thing I look at , but not the first.

  • Alma (MGParent)

    Well I can’t wait to hear more about the data at the Jan 19th meeting so we can understant better what the process was. I agree that closing schools should get priority for transfers (not to home schools as we would do inter or intradistrict transfer)….It would be great for students not to lose their spot each year considering their school closed. While we all are aware that we love our schools, we know that does not make the Board think any differently as this is a business decision and we are all fully aware of that.But if we must go, we wont’ go quietly. In our support,I will say we have empty classrooms and it seems it would cost more for MG to close since they would need to build more classrooms.I also noticed on MDUSD school closure page of pro’s and cons’, the pro’s they noted were not all about money…so I hope they are keeping their word in their decision because according one of the pro’s it would “show schools are equal” that does not save the district any money. And there is no way MG parents agree or WILL FIND OUT that our students will bring up test scores at lower performing schools since it takes more than students..its the parents, the teachers, environment AND the student. Lastly, WHY CLOSE A SCHOOL THAT WORKS!! Use it as a model and study the school AND FIND OUT WHY IT WORKS!! Just my opinion….Good luck to all the schools involved.

  • MDUSD Mom

    I do not understand the idea of building new classrooms under ANY scenario. If we have declining enrollment and need to close schools then we have plenty of room for students throughout the district. If we don’t then don’t close schools.

    I hope our district leadership does not approach this in a piece meal fashion. If we need to close 6 schools, close six schools. If we need to accommodate students, move school site boundaries until there is room for every student. If we have a school overflowing right now and is not part of the school closure “plan” then fix it now when everything is disrupted.

    To use the excuse that Measure C money is accounted for differently as a reason the cost is not considered is just foolish and another indication of a total disregard for our money and our kids.

    Use that “extra” measure c money to improve our school sites and really improve technology not just some token gesture. Do not use that money because you are afraid to do what really needs to be done.

  • Joe Smith

    What is truly disturbing is how long our board has let the “they might close choice schools rumor go on”. The fact that they could even consider it shows the lack of integrity and ethics that are part of the SCC.

    That the board will not come out and make a statement agaisnt closing choice schools shows how much they really care about your children’s education versus their own political careers.

  • Tired Parent

    Or maybe the Board is wise enough to consider every possibility, and not annointing any schools with special dispensation? Maybe they are wise enough to consider what is good for EVERY child and not just the biggest whiners? Maybe the Board will look at all the data and do what is fiscally sound?

    I think it is highly ethical of them to consider all the information. I am proud of the Board members keeping all options open, despite the mud people like you have been slinging.

    I’ll be there on the 19th, with bells on.

  • Sassy

    This article fails to note that out of the 3 scenarios only 10 of the 24 board members voted to recommend the 3rd scenario (Monte Gardens, Sequoia & Sequoia Middle) and indicated they wanted that noted to the Board.

  • Sassy

    Oops, I meant only 14 of the 24 committee members voted to recommmend the 3rd scenario to the board. 10 committee members voted against it.

  • Alma(MGParent)

    It would be great if kids whose school closed would have priority since obviously its not our choice. Also would be great if students who did inter or intradistrict transfers didn’t have the chance to be displaced each yearM its enough their school is closing…because these transfer request will take place sonce most of us WILL NOT got to our home schools.
    We are aware this is a business decision but we will comtinue to support our school, if we must go we will not go quietly. Let’s just hope the board sticks to their word and makes their decision based on MONEY since according to the “prosL for closing MG and Sequoias is “to show schools are equal-no choice neededL…what does that have to do with money? Not a fair “pro” to close the school. Seems to me all their “cons” are about money which is obvious what their choice should be! None of the pro’s truly suppprt a money based business decision. Why close down a school that works?! Study it, observe it and see WHY it works. Its not just the students but the committed parents and teacchers.Make your own school better and leave the schools that do great alone! Bring them to our school and then maybe you will see a difference.Good luck to all schoolsM

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    The idea that this district, which has done so little to promote school choice, and more than a little to oppose it, would actually consider closing a successful choice school, is truly disheartening. One can only hope that the closed campuses will be made available to charters that can operate independently of MDUSD. The new Flex Academy approved by the CC County Office of Education (after rejection by MDUSD) will be looking for space to open this fall. We should remind MDUSD that these school facilities belong to the citizens who paid for them, and make sure that they are made available to charters that respond to community needs.

  • Joe Smith

    Jim,

    You are 100% correct. The board would never allow this to happen though, allowing charters to use old school facilities would help expose the board for how incompetent they truly are.

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    I have looked at other districts that have failed to make empty school campuses available to charters, and I addressed the topic in my school choice blog:
    http://k12reboot.com/2011/01/06/when-schools-close-can-choice-schools-move-in/
    In some cases, state legislatures are considering forcing districts to make empty facilities available, but that is possible only when the legislature is sympathetic to school choice.

    Also, related to this topic of closing schools and moving students, it is important to note how seldom failing schools are ever turned around. According to a recent study by the Thomas Fordham Institute, the national rate of failing schools ever showing significant improvements was so small as to be “almost statistically insignificant”. In other words, if students from the closed schools are sent to a low-performing school, they will in all probability be stuck in a low-performing environment. The odds are overwhelmingly against those schools ever getting better:
    http://k12reboot.com/forum/performance/why-dont-failing-schools-close/#p4

    Finally, there has also been very good research on what happens to the quality of instruction when teachers are laid off on the basis of seniority, as is likely to happen as MDUSD shrinks. (They have told us that seniority is a key criterion.) The data show that kids suffer when decisions on teacher lay-offs are made based on seniority:
    http://k12reboot.com/2010/12/28/the-cost-of-seniority-in-teacher-layoffs/

    So the issues here are a lot bigger than closing a few schools. The problems of a “shrinking district” strike right at the heart of the way MDUSD is run.

  • Linda

    Jim is right the community should have more choices not less.
    The new charter high school that has been approved in the MDUSD attendance area, and open to students throughout the county, is having two informational meetings this month.
    January 24 at Skipolinis in Concord 7pm
    January 26 at Roccos in Walnut Creek 7pm
    For more information and to rsvp go to: http://www.k12.com/flex

  • Teacher K

    Boy when I want to hear about cutting edge programs in education, Pizza joints are the first places I head to!

  • jane

    How about NOT CLOSING ANY SCHOOLS!?!?!?!?!

    Our kids need these schools. ALL OF THEM. And they need MORE TEACHERS.

    Budget cuts are a bitch, but there has to be another way to work things out. Maybe the board needs to spend a little more time thinking on it. Like any governing office, they need to be thinking less about themselves and more about those whom they serve.

    I’m not going to argue “choice” vs. “neighborhood” here; but, frankly, if my daughter’s neighborhood school closes, I will not be able to get her to another very easily. I have no car. The district is not going to provide busses, or so I’ve been told. The CCCT does not stop close enough to either school that she would be transferred to. So what then? Closing ANY school undermines and collapses the neighborhood. Overcrowding classrooms lowers teacher/student interactions and reduces the teacher’s ability to provide the one-on-one assistance that so many students need to facilitate their success. Come on MDUSD! Don’t be STUPID!!! Keep ALL of our schools open! Cut your own paychecks! Reduce sports funding! There are better ways to do this!!!

  • tharrington

    MDUSD Parents: Yes, you’re right, I meant Monte Gardens. Sorry about that. Monte Vista is a high school in Danville.

  • tharrington

    Sassy: This article does point out that there was not a committee consensus regarding the third recommendation: “Lock said the committee reached a strong consensus regarding the first two scenarios, but had a lot of discussion regarding the third, with a split vote to move it forward.”

  • tharrington

    I have received an e-mail from a Sequoia Middle School teacher informing me that there will be a demonstration there before and after classes Tuesday, Jan. 18. Parents and students are planning to participate.

  • Jules

    Jane,

    All sports funding was cut beginning with the 2009/10 school year ($1.2 million a year cut) and administrators already have taken pay cuts via furlough days last school year and this year too. The BOE also agreed to the medical cap and cuts in pay too. Admin has also had an almost 35% reduction in employees and they agreed to a cap on medical. The real problem is MDEA who still has not agreed to anything and I heard had the guts to ask for a 1% pay increase. They have not agreed to furlough days yet, which had they taken last school year would have really helped. The other bargaining units are at the table too. It is sounding like these Unions would rather see massive layoffs then concessions. I hope I am wrong.

    So what other ways can this be done? Have you looked at the MDUSD budget? You can also attend the PAC meetings which are the 1st Wed. of each month at 7 PM in the Dent Center.

    Closing any schools will be hard on someone. There is no perfect scenerio but it has to be done. I read at one time MDUSD had 50,000 students, it is now around 34,000 and we have the same number of schools. This does not make fiscal sense at all.

  • AnotherMom

    To MDUSDParents

    Some parents think “Monte Gardens or I move:? That may be because their kids are zoned to attend a program improvement school or a school with known issues (possibly gang) or a school with very low parent involvement or all of the above. For those parents, the options may be limited and moving might be what works for them. Who wants to stay in a district where schools that work are closed and schools that don’t work well are the ones the remain?

  • http://www.k12reboot.com Jim

    Teacher K: So if you wouldn’t want to “head to a pizza joint to learn about cutting edge programs in education”, where would you go? Someplace in MDUSD? Uh…probably not. If you are a teacher who is seriously interested in the topic, rather than make fun of the outreach efforts undertaken by Flex Academy, you might consider actually visiting their school in SF. I did, and I saw more innovation going on in one room there than I have seen in all of my 15-year relationship with MDUSD. And while I’m on, I’d like to give a shout-out to the “pizza joints” that are hosting these events. Since MDUSD opposes school choice at almost every opportunity, and would never allow a school choice information meeting to take place on taxpayer-funded MDUSD property, these two businesses are allowing their premises to be used so that local residents can learn about the OTHER public school options open to them. I’m sure that these locally-owned businesses hope people will buy some food while they are there — and I do too. I’m not as familiar with what Skipolinis has done, but Roccos I know has done far more than most businesses to support their local schools — a lot more, even, than a few of the MDUSD teachers I’ve had to deal with over the years :)

  • mdusd mom

    It’s shocking that MDUSD does not have a strategic plan to guide these decisions. It’s sad that MDUSD has not discussed bringing Monte Gardens’ “Diablo Basics” program to ALL district schools, and improving two-way communication between teachers and parents in ALL district schools, strategies that have shown at Monte Gardens to improve the school community and API scores.

  • Teacher K

    Thanks Jim, and pass the parmasean. I’ve spent thousands on my classroom and programs over the years–I wish Flex well, and anyone else that tries to help out free education.

  • supermanwaiter

    I cannot believe the board would consider closing the “choice” schools as opposed to schools that are not performing well. Perhaps they should look at why those schools are succeeding as opposed to the others. In those schools there is a mixture of language and socio-economic factors, and they are still succeeding. They don’t get any extra money or consideration, yet they still perform higher. Instead of letting people whine because their kids didn’t get in to a “choice” school, let’s raise the bar for everyone so there are more “choices” and every child can succeed.