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Mt. Diablo district seeks forgiveness from state for failure to comply with grant requirements

By Theresa Harrington
Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012 at 8:20 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district.

The Mt. Diablo school district is hoping the state Board of Education will forgive it for failing to keep core class sizes below 27 students at Mt. Diablo High, as required to continue receiving about $1.8 million a year in state funding through the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA).

The district submitted a waiver application to the California Department of Education last month, asking to waive the maximum class size requirement retroactively to July 2010 through the end of this school year. Here is a link to the complete 20-page waiver application:

The Mt. Diablo school board plans to hold a public hearing regarding the application on Monday, before trustees vote on it. If the board approves the application, the state Board of Education may decide on the request in March or May.

As of today, the state Department of Education had not decided if it would consider the application complete, since the public hearing was not held before the Dec. 23 application deadline. If it is deemed incomplete, the state board wouldn’t vote on it until May — when the school is likely to be in the midst of master scheduling for next year (and after the March deadline for preliminary layoff notifications).

According to the application, the school stands to lose about $1.8 million a year if the waiver request is denied, starting in the fall. If the waiver is approved, the school could continue receiving the money for three more years, totaling about $5.4 million that pays for approximately 22 teaching positions, 3.5 administrators and clerical staff.

The reasons the district cited for the school’s failure to comply with the request included:

– Staff turnover including teaching staff, three different principals since 2008-09 and new administrators. The application states that the last two principals were spending their first year as principals at a large comprehensive high school with under-served populations. (NOTE: These were board-approved appointments, based on recommendations made by the superintendent.)

When Principal Kate McClatchy arrived, the previous principal and vice-principal had already completed the master schedule, “neither of whom had significant experience nor training preparing the master schedule for a school of comparable size,” according to the application. “In some cases, prior administrators left scheduling responsibilities to staff who had more experience at the site but who were either new administrators and/or lacked sufficient knowledge to do scheduling,” the application states.

– The application also points to turnover and restructuring at the district office among staff responsible for QEIA compliance. “Therefore current district-level staff is also new to QEIA mandates and calculations,” it says.

School and district staff made calculation errors and filled six core AP classes with more than 27 students due to scheduling constraints and a prior practice of “over loading” rigorous courses with the expectation that some students would end up dropping them, the application states.

The school and district promised to try to ensure that they would meet class size requirements in the future through closer compliance monitoring and making needed adjustments at the semester change, according to the application. The school also plans to hire a student services coordinator to fill a vacancy.

It notes that the school is compliant with all other requirements and that the loss of funding would “have a significant negative impact (on) the momentum for positive progress the school has made closing the achievement gap for all, but most specifically for their under-served student populations.”

I just got off the phone with Rose Lock, assistant superintendent for Student Achievement and School Support, who further clarified the district’s position regarding the QEIA waiver application.

When I asked about Vice Principal Gary Peterson’s assertion that the school didn’t comply because the district couldn’t afford to hire more teachers, Lock said Peterson is a new vice principal this year and that all staffing requests come through McClatchy.

“When it comes to staffing needs, Kate McClatchy makes a request if she needs additional FTEs (full-time equivalent positions),” Lock said. “I know we have given her additional FTEs this year.”

Lock said that Lorie O’Brien, assistant director of categoricals and school support, presented the waiver application to the site council. O’Brien worked with Julie Parks, the school’s recently appointed vice principal, to prepare the waiver, Lock said.

“So, they were both new,” Lock said, “yet they found mistakes.”

The district did not intentionally violate the grant requirements, she said.

“You try to follow the rules,” Lock said. “It’s not like you break rules and then try to get out of it. We certainly weren’t expecting to be forgiven. We do this in good faith. It’s not like we’re trying to hide anything.”

McClatchy and district administrators didn’t inform the school staff or publicly let the board know sooner about the possible loss of funding because they wanted to be absolutely sure, Lock said.

“This was new to many of us,” Lock said. “There are so many people working on these reports and trying to meet the requirements and there were some things that we didn’t understand.”

The school and district basically did the calculations themselves, she explained.

“We found out we made a mistake on the self-reporting of the data,” Lock said.

Lock also said she believed a new rule regarding the noncore class size requirement kicked in this year.

When I asked why the SASS Department didn’t do a better job of training and monitoring Mt. Diablo High staff, Lock said: “This is not exactly supporting principals as far as their leadership. This is about having technicial knowledge around QEIA.”

I also asked why district officials didn’t realize sooner that they could apply for a waiver. Many other districts submitted waiver applications in October — in time for the Jan. 11 state Board of Education meeting. But, Lock said she hadn’t received any information about waivers from the state’s QEIA office.

“It’s not a secret,” she said, “but there was no invitation.”

I pointed out that administrators could have informed the board at its Dec. 13 meeting about the possible QEIA funding loss, since Superintendent Steven Lawrence and CFO Bryan Richards discussed the budget and possible upcoming cuts.

District officials were silent about the possible loss of $1.8 million in QEIA funding, yet the public has been given many updates by the district about the possible loss of $1.8 million a year due to the conversion of Clayton Valley High to a charter, I said.

“I can’t explain to you on that,” Lock said.

When I asked if Mt. Diablo High’s QEIA funding is included in the district’s three-year budget, Lock said: “I can’t tell you that” and suggested that I speak to Richards. I left a message for him today, but did not get a response.

I also pointed out that the loss of 22 teachers if the QEIA funding is revoked would have a greater “bumping” impact than the teacher bumping anticipated due to the Clayton Valley High charter conversion. Lock replied: “That’s true.”

Do you think the state should approve the waiver?

JAN. 4 UPDATE (3:50 p.m.): Although Mt. Diablo High teachers were told by McClatchy that the Vote of No Confidence would be addressed during their faculty meeting today, teacher Dan Reynolds said McClatchy failed to allow teachers to discuss the issue during a meeting that is still going on.

I just spoke to him by cell phone (he stepped out of the meeting to talk to me).

“There was absolutely no discussion,” he said. “Kate would not hear it.”

Instead, Reynolds said McClatchy read a prepared statement and then Doris Avalos and and Lorie O’Brien began discussing the QEIA waiver.

“I attempted to ask for a conversation about the vote of no confidence and Lorie and Julie said, ‘We need to move forward on the agenda,'” Reynolds said. “So, I have still not heard one thing from the district.”

Apparently, Superintendent Steven Lawrence is not attending the faculty meeting.

Do you believe the district should give the MDHS teachers some sort of response to their Vote of No Confidence?

JAN. 4 UPDATE (5:20 p.m): Here is a link to audio of the Dec. 13 board meeting:

JAN. 4 UPDATE (11:50 p.m.): Teacher Dan Reynolds sent me a copy of the public meeting notice from the Dec. 31 Contra Costa Times. It was written exactly like the notice on the district’s website and did not invite public comment:

JAN. 5 UPDATE: Here is a link to a copy of the district’s public notice published Dec. 31 in the Contra Costa Times:

JAN. 6 UPDATE: I just returned from a meeting with Peggy Marshburn at the CCCOE. She gave me a copy of a letter sent to Lawrence on Oct. 27, 2010, which said MDHS was failing to meet QEIA requirements and needed to reduce its class sizes.

Although McClatchy told teachers on Wednesday that the district maintained a master schedule to meet QEIA targets, that is clearly not true. The Rule of 27, which kicked in this year, is very clear, Marshburn said. It works just like K-3 class size reduction, which requires no more than 20 students per class. If one class has 21 students under K-3 CSR, the school needs to hire another teacher and divide the classes to retain funding, Marshburn said.

Trustee Sherry Whitmarsh told me that with the Rule of 27, if one class has 28 students or more, the district would need to either hire another teacher and divide the classes or deny the overflow students the chance to take the class.

“From the district’s standpoint,” she told me, “we don’t fund 12 to 14 kids in a class.”

So, it looks like Vice Principal Gary Peterson may have been right all along. The school did not hire enough teachers to be able to accommodate students’ schedules and to also meet the maximum class size requirement of 27 students.

The only question that now remains is: Did McClatchy fail to request the teachers or did the district tell her she couldn’t have them? Either way, both McClatchy and the district have known for more than a year that the school was failing to meet QEIA requirements.

JAN. 6 UPDATE, 7:21 p.m.: I have just spoken to Lorie O’Brien, who said the school’s failure to meet the Rule of 27 class size requirement had nothing to do with an unwillingness to hire more teachers. It was because the school staff thought Advanced Placement courses didn’t count as “core classes,” she said. She said she did not know why staff was under that impression.

“People are trying to do this as honestly and above-board as possible,” she said.

In looking more closely at the waiver application and speaking to O’Brien about it, it appears that she and Julie Parks completely recreated the 2010-11 compliance report from scratch, instead of merely tweaking the previous one. O’Brien and Parks found that some classes originally considered “core” did not really fit into that category, while others that the school staff considered “non-core” actually were “core. Also, some classes had not been counted at all in the first report, O’Brien said.

The original report shows 309 core classes/sections and 101 noncore classes, for a total of 410 classes. The revised report shows 306 core classes/sections and 250 noncore classes for a total of 556 classes. It’s unclear why there is such a huge discrepancy in these totals.

In trying to retrace the work that McClatchy and her staff did last June, O’Brien said she and Parks were unable to figure out which 11 classes were designated as over 27. The original report showed six 10th-grade classes and five 11th grade classes over 27.

The new report shows the six AP classes O’Brien said weren’t originally counted as core, including four 11th grade classes and two 12th grade classes. It’s unknown why the 11 classes originally designated as “core” no longer show up on the report.

“We don’t know what those other classes were,” O’Brien said. “There’s no paper trail that helps us understand where those classes are.”

When I pointed out that the County Office of Education has a thick binder that shows every class in the master schedule as backup for the summary report, O’Brien said she didn’t think it would be cost-effective to pore over that data to try to find out what the originally listed classes were.

“If we recrunch last year’s paperwork, where is the benefit in that?” she said. “What are we trying to accomplish? Are we wanting to punish somebody for a mistake — and you’re taking limited man hours to do that? I think we’ve identified the big things that went wrong. There could have been a myriad of tiny other things that went wrong. We’ve got the big picture. The most important thing we know from this is we’ve got to do really, really robust training and really, really careful monitoring of all these pieces as we move forward.”

Whitmarsh told me the superintendent is looking at creating a “Lessons Learned” type of document so this doesn’t happen again. It is especially important, Whitmarsh said, to be sure that more than one person is trained in QEIA compliance.

I have also learned that the $1.8 million listed in MDUSD’s waiver application does not correspond to the amount awarded to the district this year. The school is anticipated to receive $1,529,000 this year, according to this chart:

When I asked O’Brien about this, she said the number in the waiver application was from the district’s fiscal department.

“It could have included carryover or a soft number,” she said.

JAN. 9 UPDATE: Mt. Diablo High is one of eight schools in Contra Costa County in danger of losing QEIA funding. As previously noted, the Pittsburg school board approved a waiver application in December for Rancho Medanos Junior High, on which the state Board of Education expects to rule in March.

Other campuses in danger of losing the funding are Antioch Middle School in the Antioch district and Kennedy High, Nystrom Elementary, Stege Elementary, Helms Middle School and Richmond alternative high school in the West Contra Costa district.

Nia Rashidchi, assistant superintendent of the West Contra Costa district, said the school board plans to hold a public hearing Jan. 18 regarding a waiver application for Helms Middle School, which didn’t meet its class size requirement for noncore classes. The district met all of its other goals and simply couldn’t afford to hire enough teachers to meet the noncore requirement, she said.

“State funding has not been what it had been when QEIA was first implemented,” she said. “Districts are working to make the targets, but a dollar goes so far. It comes down to money.”

Like Mt. Diablo, West Contra Costa expects that the loss of QEIA funding will prompt layoffs, but Rashidchi said the district hasn’t yet determined how many teachers or other staff members would be affected.

“We are working on that — the educational side of the house, H.R. (human resources) and fiscal — to really calculate to make sure that as many positions we can save, we will do so,” she said. “But without the funding, it will be difficult to do that.”

Rashidchi said she will be watching other waiver applications closely, to see if anyone seeks a waiver for not meeting API growth, which was the goal not met by Antioch Middle School, as well as Nystrom Elementary.

Rashidchi said she believed the state board should take into consideration the progress that Helms Middle School has made with the funding. She appeared to be suggesting that the West Contra Costa district deemed meeting noncore class size requirements as being less important than meeting core class size requirements, teacher experience, counselor ratios and academic progress requirements.

Do you think the state Board of Education should consider some requirements to be more important than others?

JAN. 10 UPDATE: Although O’Brien claimed there was “no paper trail” to show what 11 core classes were originally listed as over 27, the district actually submitted a thick binder of backup materials to the County Office of Education that contained that information.

Peggy Marshburn sent me the following information in an email this morning, based on those backup materials:

“Here are the core classes over 27 from the initial data sent by Mt. Diablo High School in June 2011:
English II 30.61
English II 29.26
English II 29.33
English III 27.95
English III 29.88
English III 27.36
English III H 27.35
English IV 27.07
World His (10th grade) 29.78
World His (10th grade) 27.22
US His (11th grade) 27.24

Here are the core classes (that) are (over) 27 from the revised data submitted December 23, 2011.
AP Calculus 27.99 (12th grade)
AP Env. Sci. 29.58 (11th grade)
Eng III Honors 27.51 (11th grade)
Pre-Calc Honors 34.15 (11th grade)
Pre-Calc Honors 34.74 (11th grade)
Pre-Calc Honors 27.3 (12th grade)

Again, what the core classes are over 27 is not the key point. The key point is that the requirement for 2010-2011 is that no core classes had more than 27 students.

Another point is that the original data for CSR (Class Size Reduction) was determined using Method A, which had data pulled through April 15. The new data used Method B which encompassed the entire school year. Either method is approved.”

So, it appears that it was not as hard to figure out what was included in the original data as O’Brien had suggested. Also, based on Marshburn’s information, it appears that approximately 22 students dropped out of the 11 courses orginally listed in the last two months of school.

JAN. 10 UPDATE, 2:30 p.m.: Peggy Marshburn has just sent me another email saying the county is unable to determine if the district included the QEIA funding for MDHS in its first interim budget multi-year projections.

“The interim reports do not include enough detail to determine the MDHS QEIA assumptions used in the multi-year projection,” she wrote. “You need to get the information directly from the district.”

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