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Archive for December, 2014

Longtime education advocate Rep. George Miller bids farewell as Congressman

Rep. George Miller sent out his final message to the community as a Congressman earlier this week, marking the end of his four decades of service representing Martinez, Concord and surrounding areas. Since he has been a stalwart proponent of education issues, I am reprinting his message below, along with a few of my own impressions of his work on behalf of students throughout the country, as well as here in Contra Costa County.

“Dear Friend,

It is with mixed emotions that I write this final e-mail as a Member of Congress. At the end of this month, I will officially retire after serving 40 years in the House of Representatives.

As I said in January when I announced my plan to retire, I am proud of what I have accomplished and what I have fought for but I am also clear that it is time for me to pursue my passions and interests in new venues. And that is what I will do.

More than anything, however, I will be forever grateful to the constituents of Contra Costa and Solano counties who have been so supportive and engaged in the issues that we have fought for together over the years to improve the lives of children and working families and to protect our environment and open spaces.

I will miss my work in the Congress, without a doubt. Despite the frustrations of a highly partisan institution, it is still a place where every now and then we can turn our values and our ideals into reality.

No issue is a better illustration of that than the passage of national health care legislation in 2010, an issue I fought for from the beginning to the end of my career and that is now improving the lives of millions of Americans and helping our economy.

I have considered it a privilege and an honor to serve you in Congress, whether it was to protect our precious fresh water resources, improve public schools for all kids and their teachers, increase the minimum wage, make our workplaces safer, or preserve our history and heritage through the expansion of national parks.

Thank you for your confidence in me, for your trust, and for your friendship over the years. If you live in the 11th district, I know that your new congressman, Member-elect Mark DeSaulnier, will be ready and able to assist you starting in 2015, just as my staff and I have done all these years.

Best wishes this holiday season and thank you for staying involved in the issues that matter most to you and to our country. Congress is at its best when our citizens are fully engaged.”

Miller has been fully engaged as a Congressman. When he returned home, he frequently visited schools and spoke about education at community gatherings.

I have appreciated his down-to-earth, no-nonsense communication style, tinged with quick wit. He’s approachable, doesn’t dodge questions and isn’t afraid to make bold statements that might not please all of his constituents.

In 2011, he expressed strong support for the controversial conversion of Clayton Valley High to a charter school, which the Mt. Diablo school district opposed.

“I believe that the proposal by the Clayton Valley Charter High School Steering Committee presents an important opportunity for the Mt. Diablo Unified School District to explore alternative educational forums and opportunities in your very diverse and dynamic district,” he wrote, adding that charters done right share feedback with districts that can be mutually beneficial.

“I believe that the Clayton Valley Charter High School Steering Committee proposal has the real potential to be one of the success stories of the public charter school efforts in California,” Miller wrote.

His endorsement gave the school powerful leverage when it sought and received permission from the Contra Costa County Board of Education to convert to independence.

Miller also defends No Child Left Behind, even though he says the law that aims to get every student in the country performing at grade is flawed and needs to be rewritten because of its harsh penalties for schools that fail to meet the strict federal goals.

What do think is Miller’s education legacy?

Posted on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014
Under: Education | No Comments »

How is the shift in state funding is affecting your local schools?

Do you know how the state’s new school funding formula is making a difference in your child’s school?

During the past year, every school district in California was required to create a Local Control Accountability Plan, or LCAP, showing how it planned to spend new money allocated for low-income students, English language learners and foster youth, along with overall funding for all students. School districts were supposed to involve parents, students, staff and community members in creating their plans.

Now that the plans have been completed, students, parents, staff and community members are expected to hold their school districts accountable for following through on the promises made. But some plans could make it difficult for communities to track how well school districts are meeting their goals, according to a report released earlier this week by the Education Trust-West student advocacy group.

The report describes how districts developed their plans and offers suggestions for improvement as those plans are updated next year, said Carrie Hahnel, director of research and policy analysis for the group.

The organization analyzed 40 plans from some of the largest districts in California, including the Berkeley, East Side Union High, Mt. Diablo, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and West Contra Costa districts in the Bay Area. It also reviewed 60 more plans including Antioch’s in Contra Costa County and Alameda and Emery’s in Alameda County.

While some districts are taking bold steps to create new programs, the report found that others provided little specific information about how goals would be met and that most did not clearly show how supplemental funding aimed at disadvantaged students was being spent.

“While LCFF has sparked a remarkable level of public engagement,” she said, “community stakeholders have been left with LCAPs that offer frustratingly little insight into how LCFF will be used to increase or improve services for high-need students,” Hahnel said.

The group’s recommendations include:

– County offices of education, the state Department of Education and the newly formed California Collaborative for Education Excellence should offer better support and resources to districts to update and implement plans;

– The state should revise its reporting requirements to make it easier for the public to see how much funding earmarked for disadvantaged students is being spent, and should report how much supplemental funding each district is receiving;

– The state should require review of plans by county offices of education to be rigorous and consistent with each other, and should consider local and informal processes for community members to elevate concerns to the county level if they can’t be resolved at the district level.

In the future, the state Board of Education will create evaluation criteria to help communities gauge whether districts are meeting their goals. The report urges the state to make these criteria clear and to make data by which districts will be measured easily accessible to the public.

It also pointed out some “best practices” that could be implemented by others to improve their plans. These include creating an executive summary, along with user-friendly presentations without jargon and acronyms that no one but educators would understand.

“A year into this bold reform,” said Ryan Smith, the organization’s executive director, “now is the time to pause and ask ourselves if we have made decisions that will raise the achievement of our low-income students, English learners, and foster youth.”

Most district plans, along with samples of executive summaries from the Berkeley and San Jose districts, and explanatory materials from the San Francisco district, are available on the Education Trust-West website at http://lcapwatch.org.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2014
Under: Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Education | 68 Comments »

What is Charles Ramsey’s legacy in the West Contra Costa school district?

At former West Contra Costa school Board President Charles Ramsey’s last meeting Dec. 3, more than two dozen residents, union representatives, architects, lawyers and former and current elected officials praised his 21 years of service. Many highlighted Ramsey’s work to help pass six construction bond measures to fund the district’s $1.6 billion bond program, while others commended him for founding the Ivy League Connection, which has helped place students in top-notch universities around the country. One parent thanked Ramsey for his accomplishments, along with his “guts.”

However, a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the district’s bond financing program, along with a subpoena to Ramsey that has triggered $350,000 in legal fees approved by the board for his brother’s law firm, have raised questions from some residents who don’t believe the district should fund those costs. Now that the FBI is also asking questions related to the bond program, it may be too soon to determine Ramsey’s legacy.

But Ramsey’s staunch supporters didn’t let those developments dampen their enthusiastic accolades. Architect Fred Powell joked that he had a gift for Ramsey, but he didn’t want to be investigated by the SEC or FBI, so he wondered if it was OK to give it to him. Here are excerpts of some other comments:

Former teachers’ union President Diane Brown: “You have made an incredible difference … It wasn’t always easy, but it was a hell of a journey.”

Parent Romy Douglas: “The thing that I learned about Charles Ramsey is that he is involved in everything.”

Former Trustee Karen Fenton: “You started off as a pretty ‘bad boy,’ but you’ve evolved into a major force … I’ve sometimes compared you to Daddy Warbucks (for fundraising). Your standards for yourself and your family are really high and I hope everyone else realizes it. How else could we have gotten all this money out of the poor taxpayers of Contra Costa? You are the West County Steve Jobs … You didn’t just tell people to do things. If they weren’t moving fast enough or hard enough, you stepped in and did it yourself. And we followed you. So, your leadership is one of bullying, but also leading the charge.”

Former Richmond City Councilwoman Donna Powers: “This legacy that you have, it gives me goose bumps. You can drive all around West County and you can point out all of these facilities and you can go, ‘I did that. I got that done.’ … It’s so nice to have people who actually get elected and get off their butt and they do something.”

Peter Hanley, San Mateo Union High School District Trustee: “We all kind of learn that it’s not about waiting for the storms to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain. And I think Charles has learned to do that very well, so I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.”

Robert Studdiford, former bond oversight committee member: “I feel like you’re one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met in my life. ”

Former Trustee Karen Pfeifer: “Without you, we wouldn’t have gotten out of bankruptcy. We wouldn’t have (Superintendent) Dr. Harter sitting up there. … You’re a cherished member of this district. I’m certain that the district will miss your hands-on participation.”

Architect Wally Gordon: “It’s just been an incredible ride to know that excellence happens everywhere in this world, even in places where people don’t expect it.”

Architect Douglas Davis: “You are truly the Robert Moses (New York City master builder) of the school district.”

Former Richmond City Councilman Jim Rogers: “He is the Energizer Bunny. He’s going: ‘Talk, talk, talk. Think think, think.’ Very bright. Very shrewd. Very committed. And, you know, a few rough edges, yeah. But the proof’s in the pudding. He’s gotten the job done.”

Even resident Mike Ali Kinney, who opposed Ramsey, found something to compliment: “You’re one of the best damned hell-raisers I know.”

What do you think is Ramsey’s legacy?

Posted on Friday, December 12th, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 5 Comments »

Mt. Diablo school district is collecting donations for homeless and foster youth

For the past three years, the Mt. Diablo school district has collected donations during the holiday season for its homeless and foster youth. Last year, the district served 190 homeless students and 224 foster youth through its holiday donation drive, said James Wogan, program administrator. This year, the district is collecting donations for 128 foster youth and 226 homeless students through Dec. 17.

Some homeless families have lost their homes and have moved in with other family or friends, he said. Others have lived in vehicles, tents, homeless shelters or on-and-off in hotels.

Over half of the foster youth live in group homes, Wogan said.

“It’s those kids who we prioritize for the holidays,” he said, adding that it’s hard for them to wake up Christmas morning wondering where their biological parents are. “Just growing up in a group home is very difficult. At least, homeless families have each other, whereas for foster youth, they’re with staff members.”

Wogan and other district staff members and social workers distribute gift cards, hoodies and other donations, he said.

“We brighten their holiday season,” he said, “because we’re able to grant some of their wishes.”

Here is the group’s donation request:

“Dear Mt. Diablo Unified Community,

In the spirit of the holiday season, we are writing to ask for your consideration to contribute to a local foster youth or homeless child. There are children who attend our schools who do not have enough to eat, stable housing, or parents in their lives. Life is a struggle and they are doing their best to overcome trauma, stress and hardships. We do all that we can to support homeless students and foster youth, and we need your help. You do so much already, we can’t thank you enough. If your family and friends are looking for additional ways to make a real and lasting impact in kids’ lives this holiday season, please consider contributing to Mt. Diablo HOPE and Foster Youth Services.

Below are ways that you can help:

1. Donations of gift cards are greatly appreciated. Gift cards enable caregivers and youth to pick out and buy their own items, a luxury that many families live without. Department store (Target, Kohl’s, etc.) and grocery store (Safeway, Albertson’s, Raley’s) gift cards can be dropped off at the front desk of the Mt. Diablo Unified District Office, 1936 Carlotta Drive, Concord; mailed or dropped off to Mt. Diablo HOPE at 2730 Salvio St., Concord, CA (94519); or dropped off with the principal at all Mt. Diablo Unified schools in care of Mt. Diablo HOPE.

2. Donations by check can be made payable to ‘Mt. Diablo HOPE.’ We will send you a receipt for tax purposes. Please drop off or send contributions to:

Elsa Dalpiaz and James Wogan
Mt. Diablo Homeless Outreach Program for Education (MDUSD HOPE)
2730 Salvio St., Concord, CA (94519)

Checks can also be dropped off at the front desk of the Mt. Diablo Unified District Office, 1936 Carlotta Drive, Concord; or dropped off to the principal at all Mt. Diablo Unified schools in care of Mt. Diablo HOPE.

3. Donations can also be made by PayPal via www.mdusd.org. (Click on Holiday Donation Drive — Mt Diablo Homeless and Foster Youth.)

4. If you would like to ‘sponsor’ an individual foster youth or homeless child for the holidays, please e-mail your name and contact information to hope@mdusd.org or visit https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/16KJTWxVw89lDuJdWJ2uzAevGdYBr0v_lqOraE-Ed3Vw/edit?usp=sharing or E-mail hope@mdusd.org.

5. We are collecting new hoodies and sweatshirts for our homeless students and foster youth. New hoodies and sweatshirts can be dropped off at three locations:

– Mt. Diablo Unified District Office, 1936 Carlotta Drive, Concord.
– Willow Creek Education Center, 1026 Mohr Lane, Concord.
– Mt. Diablo Homeless Outreach Program for Education (Mt. Diablo HOPE) 2730 Salvio St., Concord.

Please feel free to forward this. Thank you for helping to spread the word.
On behalf of our homeless children and foster youth, we THANK YOU!

Happy Holidays!”

Posted on Friday, December 5th, 2014
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district | No Comments »

New information regarding West Contra Costa school district’s WLC Pinole Valley contract, Nixon Peabody contract and district insurance

Tonight’s West Contra Costa school board meeting will include a vote on a $7.5 million increase to the WLC Architects’ contract for Pinole Valley High’s design, as well as several contract increases related to the SEC investigation.

However, as usual, the district has not attached all of the relevant back-up documents to the agenda. In an attempt to get more information for the public, I requested the original WLC contract for Pinole Valley High, along with the first five Additional Services Authorizations (or ASAs) and the original Nixon Peabody contract.

Marcus Walton, communications director for the district, provided me with ASA 5, along with 10 attachments that shed light on the proposal to be considered tonight. ASA 5 was similar, and would have bumped the total contract up to $17.4 million. Of special note is attachment 3, which spells out the $134.4 million in construction costs on which WLC is basing its 12 percent fee. Here is a link to ASA 5 and its attachments: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6mS2O1_NKceY3Jqc2tlLThsOE0/view?usp=sharing.

Also, although there appear to be TWO separate contracts for Nixon Peabody on tonight’s agenda, Walton told me that he has been told they are both increases to an existing contract. Here is the contract he sent me: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6mS2O1_NKceZ0lteW1nckhuY1E/view?usp=sharing

However, this contract does not say anything about the SEC investigation, Bond MCDC or IRS audit. Instead, it was approved as a “continuation of services” Engagement for Disclosure Counsel Services on June 25, 2014 in the amount of $50,000. When I pointed out that the agenda for tonight says the Nixon Peabody contract is an increase to an existing $30,000 contract, Walton said that was a typo. He didn’t have an explanation for why the other Nixon Peabody contract is not listed as an addition to an existing contract.

Also, some members of the public have been questioning why the district’s insurance doesn’t cover these contracts. Also on June 25, 2014, the district approved two continuing services contracts for risk management-liability totaling more than $2 million with Northern California Relief and Keenan and Associates: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B6mS2O1_NKceMzVfWG5GeFZEMUU/view?usp=sharing. It’s unclear why these policies do not cover the types of services being funded by the district for the SEC investigation.

Finally, one member of the public questions why the board has proposed a bylaw amendment that would provide the board with specific authority to hire outside legal counsel. In an email to the board and superintendent today, Charley Cowens wrote:

“Dear Board Members and Superintendent:

From reading the board policies for BB 9310 Board Bylaws there is a provision that says:

‘Board Bylaws

The Board shall prescribe and enforce rules for its own government consistent with state law and regulations. (Education Code 35010)

Bylaws governing Board operations may be developed, adopted, and amended following the same procedures as those used for the adoption or amendment of Board policy.’

In this section before this passage, it says board policies require a first reading before action can be taken, so that would apply to any bylaw changes.

Here’s the link to the section: http://www.gamutonline.net/district/wccsd/DisplayPolicy/436948/9

I hope you realize this can only be the first reading of this bylaw change.

I have a few more questions for this first reading:

1. Why is this on a special meeting agenda at all? The only items that need to be dealt with are the charter school apps that are overdue because of WCCUSD.

2. Why is this bylaw change being made at all? People may feel your current arrangement for the fees to be unheard of, unwise, extravagant, contemptuous, or ridiculous, but the legal authority of the Board to do this is not in question. Adding these words or not — after the fact, especially — has no effect on the legal authority to do this or the overwhelmingly negative public opinion about it.”

Do you think the board should approve the proposed bylaw change, WLC contract increase and SEC contracts?

Posted on Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 89 Comments »