By Theresa Harrington
When Milton Lambertson served on the Mt. Diablo school board decades ago, the district was facing deep budget cuts and closing schools. Lambertson was known as a “peacemaker” on a divided board, which was grappling with falling credibility in the eyes of the public.
As I did research for a recent obituary about Lambertson, who died Feb. 2 in Brentwood, I was struck by some similarities between events then and now. Some things were better — such as test scores — and some were worse.
In a three-year period between 1977 and 1980, the district went through a teacher strike and employee sickout, a recall election, lawsuits, student and parent boycotts and demonstrations, as well as the turnover of 13 trustees on the five-member board.
Lambertson was elected in 1978, when three incumbents were swept out of office.
Here are some excerpts from Times articles back then.
Aug. 8, 1980
“Students returning to Mt. Diablo schools this fall can expect:
– larger classes on more crowded campuses, with as many as 37 students per teacher at the high school level.
– Few — if any — young or new teachers, and diminishing enthusiasm among many of those remaining.
— A pretty gloomy picture that goes on and on for the 36,000 students….And one painted even gloomier by board president Milt Lambertson, who believes, ‘We’re taking a high quality education system and dismantling it. We’ve stopped developing the quality programs our technicians were trained to put together, and every year we’re reducing programs bit by bit. I don’t know that there are very many more little bits we can take…This year, we had to let teachers go who had been with the district seven years. If we have to cut again next year, it will be eight and nine…’
As a result of the layoffs, through a seniority ‘bumping’ process required by their contract, some teachers have been assigned subjects they hold credentials for but haven’t taught in many years, if at all….
All this plus the layoffs has resulted in a ‘tremendous decline in morale,’ says Lambertson.
‘Creating new attitudes and enthusiasm is difficult,’ he adds. Controversial board actions — such as the decisions earlier this year to close schools and replace teachers with elementary vice principals — haven’t helped the district’s declining public image,’ Lambertson concedes.
‘We’re continuing the battle to achieve credibility…but until our decisions prove in the future to be the right ones, our credibility will stay right where it is,’ he adds.
Previous boards of education have ‘spent more time defending the system than trying to find ways to improve,’ Lambertson believes.
And during the highly publicized and often discordant labor negotiations, parents ‘begin to see the conflict and they side with one or the other. Or sometimes they just stay outside and throw harpoons…’
Many of Mt. Diablo’s monetary woes….can be laid to radical changes this past decade (1970-1980) in how public education is financed.
In 1972 state legislation limited how much revenue a school district could collect through local property taxes. In 1976, the landmark Serrano vs. Priest Supreme Court ruling forced the state to begin recycling funds from wealthier districts into poorer ones in an effort to ‘equalize’ statewide the amount of funding districts spend to educate their students.
And in 1978, passage of Proposition 13 nearly wiped out property taxes as a funding source for schools and government agencies, cutting by one-half the revenues Mt. Diablo collected through local taxation….”
Then-Superintendent James Slezak inherited a budget deficit and declining enrollment when he came on board in 1976.
“The administrator also inherited an administrative hierarchy ‘that was pretty well established,’ according to Lambertson.
‘People here now are those who were here when he arrived and not really his selection…his choice is to work with the people he has available and try to develop them into capable administrators.’
Lambertson concedes that Slezak’s decision to ‘develop and train from within’ may have ‘stifled new ideas.’
Administrative job promotions and the inherent ‘office politics’ also may have heightened the tension that pervades district headquarters at 1936 Carlotta Drive….
“It’s important in my mind that the superintendent be visible…he needs to be visible in schools and out actively observing,’ says Lambertson.”
He noted that it could be difficult to replace the superintendent, even if the board wanted to.
“Who would come to the district with all the confrontations we have? Who’s gonna be crazy enough to come and accept this?”
Current Superintendent Steven Lawrence came to the district about a year ago, Feb. 1, 2010. He has also dealt with budget cuts, difficult union negotiations and enrollment that has dwindled to about 33,430 in 2010-11. Officials still cite the 1972 and 1978 funding changes as reasons for inequity in districts throughout the state.
Lawrence has kept most of the administrators who were here when he arrived, although he has reshuffled some in a controversial restructuring by moving a few successful principals into the district office and several curriculum administrators into schools as principals.
In a Feb. 8 memo to parents, Lawrence pointed out that the district has “eliminated approximately 20 percent of non-school based positions.”
“To provide more perspective on the extent of these reductions,” he wrote, “in the 2000-2001 school year the district had 5.19 administrators per 100 teachers. In the 2009-2010 school year, we had 4.12 administrators per 100 teachers. This puts us almost 50 percent below the state approved rate of eight administrators per 100 teachers.”
Similarly, in an Oct. 4, 1992 op ed piece in the Times, Lambertson defended Mt. Diablo’s 1990-91 teacher-administrator ratio, saying the district had 15.5 teachers per administrator.
“During the 1991-92 school year, we had 18.2 teachers per administrator, compared to the 12.5 teachers per administrator allowed by the state,” Lambertson wrote. “This means we had 38 fewer administrators than the law allows.”
By then, the district was run by Superintendent Bob Baum.
“These tight financial times have taken a tremendous toll,” Lambertson wrote. “Everyone — teachers, classified staff, and administrators — is working harder, often at great personal sacrifice, to cushion the impact of our spending cuts on students and to keep our schools safe….We no longer have counselors at our intermediate-middle and high schools. We no longer have guidance advisers at our elementary schools. We’ve had to reduce elementary school administrative help, cut back the instrumental music program, ask parents to raise money for the sports program, and cut instructional budgets. The list goes on and on…Our school community works as a team to provide 33,000 Mt. Diablo students with strong education programs, despite inadequate funding.”
In the last two years, the current Mt. Diablo board has also voted to eliminate elementary instrumental music programs and vice principal positions, require parents to fund after-school sports and cut instructional programs.
Finally, when Lambertson retired in November 1993, he looked back at his 15 years on the board.
“Lambertson, 62, has been known over the years for his gentle demeanor, thoughtfulness and willingness to compromise,” wrote staff writer Catherine Hedgecock, in an article titled: “School board is losing a voice of conciliation.”
Here’s an excerpt of her Questions and Answers:
“Q: Why are you retiring from the board?
A: “…It’s not as much fun as it used to be. I ran for the board with the concept that I wanted to do something about credibility with the district, with the community. That was very important to me. I think we improved our credibility. It’s started to slide and that’s discouraging.
Q: What do you think caused that?
A: There’s a split on the board. I think it’s the reaction of the staff and the community.
Q: What do you think ought to be done to repair that rift?
A: …I’ve tried to use my personal influence to try and get them to remember that we’re working on behalf of students and we should be working in a cooperative manner even if we disagree. There’s room for us to disagree and still get along…
Q: Was there a time when the board was more cohesive?
A: …We’ve had years where we disagreed. But after our disagreement we’d get along together. And we’d get along with staff. It’s just the last couple of years have been kind of rocky.
Q: Do you think it’s because there are harder times now?
A: No….one of the objectives we had was involving the community in our decisions. That was important in the credibility issue. By involving the community and having them serve on committees they became part of the decision….
Q: You seem to value personal relationships.
A: I do. Any time I make a decision that hurts people, that always strikes a deep chord with me. It was hard to cancel our counselor program….To reduce our library program…It saved us money, that was the reason we did it. But the people I know that are teachers and the value of the library program to our educational program, our children, strikes deep feelings in an individual, and I felt that.”
During his tenure and on his retirement, Lamberston was honored with the following awards:
– California Legislation Resolution 11/17/93 (recognizing his service and retirement);
– Office of the Mayor City of Concord Proclamation 11/15/93;
– Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors 11/23/93 (Milton Lambertson Day);
– City of Pleasant Hill 11/23/93 (Milton Lambertson Day);
– Public School Service Award 1/26/89;
– Black Family Association Dedication of work 1988
– UOP Recognition: Medallion of Distinction for University of the Pacific School of Dentistry (where he worked).
Now, the board is embroiled in controversial school closure decisions again. With two new trustees — Cheryl Hansen and Lynne Dennler — it remains to be seen how well the board will work together.
Trustees will hold a retreat at 9 a.m. Sunday at the San Ramon Marriott Hotel to discuss board team building and district priority setting. The public may attend.
FEB. 11 UPDATE: The location of the retreat has been changed to the district office. It won’t be held at the San Ramon Marriott Hotel after all. Here’s the updated agenda link: http://bit.ly/fWUAHu
Do you think the current board has or needs a “voice of conciliation?”