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.