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Archive for July, 2015

Reporter ‘farewell’ to Contra Costa Times/Bay Area News Group

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It is with mixed feelings that I say “goodbye” to the Contra Costa Times and Bay Area News Group as I move on to a position as a reporter for EdSource.

I have enjoyed my 15 years with the company, where I have had the privilege of covering the cities of Benicia, Concord, Clayton, Martinez, Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek, along with the Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa school districts. Contra Costa County is filled with interesting people and places.

I will miss the watchdog reporting I have done in the Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa districts, as well as the interviews and features I’ve written about Hometown Heroes and interesting programs.

However, I am excited by the opportunity to cover the Common Core standards as a reporter for EdSource Today, an online publication operated by the nonprofit education information organization EdSource. I hope to continue covering people and schools in Contra Costa and the East Bay, as well as Northern California, focusing on this new beat.

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said in a recent news release that more than 3 million students in California have been tested under the state’s new online California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, or CAASPP, computer-adaptive system.

“Along with new rigorous state academic standards, improved school funding, and more local control, CAASPP is helping us transform education and better prepare California students for college and careers in the 21st century,” he said in a prepared statement. “As this year’s assessment season draws to a close, I am pleased that overall it has gone very smoothly.”

The state piloted the tests last year and gave school districts extra money for technology and training to help transition to the “real deal” this spring. Although the state intends to release scores to parents and districts in the next few months, it does not plan to use them to create the familiar Academic Performance Index, or API scores, which the public has relied on in the past to compare schools.

Instead, the state has suspended these accountability ratings while a new accountability system is created.

Torlakson and school district leaders throughout the state have warned that the new scores will likely be lower than results seen in the past because the tests are more rigorous and assess critical thinking, analytical writing and problem-solving skills.

“Many, if not most, students will need to make significant progress to reach the standards set for math and literacy that accompany college and career readiness,” according to the news release.

Districts expect to receive Student Score Reports eight weeks after their testing windows closed at the end of this past school year. Within 20 days of receiving the scores, districts are expected to mail the reports to students’ homes.

School, district and state test results will also be posted on the state Department of Education’s website by late summer or early fall.

“No one should be discouraged by the scores,” Torlakson said. “They can help guide discussions among parents and teachers and help schools adjust instruction to meet student needs.”

Student scores will range from 1,000 to 3,000, corresponding to the achievement levels: standard exceeded, standard met, standard nearly met, and standard not met.

Since the computer-adaptive technology adjusts questions based on each student’s answer, parents will not be given the number of questions asked or the number that were answered correctly or incorrectly. They will also not be given a percentile ranking showing how their students’ scores compare to the scores of other students at the same grade level statewide.

More information about the new tests is at

You can follow my future coverage of the Common Core at

This newspaper plans to assign another reporter to take over the education beat. In the meantime, contact editor Cecily Burt at with education tips and questions.

Thanks for 15 great years!

Posted on Friday, July 17th, 2015
Under: Education | 74 Comments »

Do you think the state Legislature should repeal the cap on school district reserves?

When voters approved the Gov. Jerry Brown-backed Proposition 2 state rainy day fund measure last November, only one group opposed it — the grass roots Educate Our State student advocacy group.

The Oakland-based organization consists mainly of parents throughout the state who want to give a voice to students who don’t get to vote on initiatives that affect them, said Katherine Welch, a board member of the group and Piedmont parent.

“When you’re parents and you’re kids, you have no power or money,” she said. “It’s just sad. We spent $8,000 to oppose Proposition 2 and the other side spent $12 million.”

At the time, Educate Our State was trying to sound the alarm about a trailer bill linked to the measure that could trigger a cap on the amount of money school districts can keep in reserve. But while some school district officials were also worried about it, Welch said few were willing to publicly oppose the popular measure.

“We had people calling us, saying, ‘Don’t do this,’” Welch recalled. “It was a rude awakening. There’s just so much intimidation in politics.”

Instead, others who were concerned about the cap said it could be fixed later, via legislative action. Even state Superintendent Tom Torlakson told me during his re-election campaign that he opposed the cap, but he believed the best strategy for dealing with it would be to try to get it changed after the measure passed.

But expectations that the Legislature would repeal the cap have not come true. Instead, a Senate Bill aimed at repealing the cap was withdrawn and a similar bill by Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin, was shot down in the Assembly Education Committee.

Now, the California School Boards Association, or CSBA, is sounding the alarm. The organization made up of elected trustees throughout the state is gathering its members for news conferences and launching a media campaign aimed at building public pressure to remove the cap, which they fear could prevent districts from saving enough money to stave off cuts in the future, when another recession hits.

While Welch is glad others are finally jumping on the anti-cap bandwagon, she said she wonders why they weren’t so vocal back in November.

“We wished people would have pushed when it was on the ballot,” she said, “so we wouldn’t have to waste so much political energy.”

Lafayette school district Trustee Suzy Pak, who is also on the Educate Our State board, expressed similar views.

“We pounded the pavement trying to get the word out about what Proposition 2 was going to do,” she said. “It’s frustrating that we were saying pretty much the same thing all along. There were a couple of other groups that knew the implications of passing (it). It’s just demoralizing that now that a statewide organization like CSBA is campaigning to try to repeal a part of it. I wonder what was happening pre-election — why we couldn’t work together toward that.”

San Ramon Valley schools Trustee Denise Jennison said she and others in her district have been speaking out about the cap for a long time. Last month, she tweeted to the state Department of Education and Torlakson: “If you are committed to #localcontrol you should have done something about caps on district reserves.”

Do you think the Legislature should repeal the cap?

Posted on Friday, July 10th, 2015
Under: Education | 2 Comments »

West Contra Costa district resident raises questions about use of parcel tax money

West Contra Costa resident Fatima Alleyne, a member of the Budget Advisory Committee, is raising questions about how the school district is spending its Measure G parcel tax money.

She wonders why money earmarked for “after-school programs” has been spent on athletics and why the district paid for custodians with dollars promised to retain teachers and keep campuses safe. Alleyne has sent several e-mails to Superintendent Bruce Harter and others asking for clarification and has been “bemused” by their responses.

Although the district changed the language in its most recent Measure G ballot initiative, district officials insist on characterizing it as an “extension” of the previous Measure D, as though it were worded exactly the same.

Measure D, approved in 2008, stated that money received would be used to: “improve education, including reading, writing, math and science; retain quality teachers and counselors; support libraries, computer training, and athletic programs; prepare students for college and the workforce; maintain reduced class sizes; maintain school cleanliness; and protect against state budget cuts.”

The district’s 2012 Measure G language, which appeared on the ballot, asked voters to approve the parcel tax for: “protecting core academics — reading, writing, math, science, attracting and retaining quality teachers, providing lower class sizes for the youngest children, preparing students for college and the workforce, and improving safety on and around school campuses.”

Noticeably absent was any reference to athletic programs and maintaining school cleanliness. However, the full text of the ballot measure in the voter pamphlet also listed additional possible uses for the money, including “supporting after-school programs to keep kids away from gangs and drugs.” Even in this expanded version of the measure’s text, athletics and school cleanliness were removed.

This prompted Alleyne to ask why the district spent more than $1 million in Measure G money on athletics, classifying it as an “after-school program.” She also asked why $472,930 was allocated for clean facilities “when the measure does not support funding for clean facilities.”

Harter responded in a May 5 letter that athletics had been funded through the parcel tax since 2004 and that the sports programs qualified for funding under “after-school programs.” Regarding the cleaning expenses, Harter wrote: “Clean and well-kept facilities are an important part of retaining qualified teachers and keeping campuses safe for employees and students.”

He said spending priorities “were set in place in 2004 when the district was adopting program and service cuts in the categories that are now supported through the local parcel tax.”

He did not acknowledge or explain why the district changed the ballot language in 2012 for Measure G.

Alleyne questions why the change in ballot language did not change the way the district spent the money.

“If it was the board’s intention to use ‘after-school’ program funding only for high school athletics,” she wrote in a June 17 e-mail to Harter, “why did they change the language of the text? This approach appears deceitful and misleading to voters.”

She also said she has spoken to several teachers and “none of them agreed that hiring custodians is the best manner to retain and attract quality teachers.”

Alleyne suggested that the district should evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy.

“When I think of safe conditions, I do not immediately think of custodians — rather security,” she said. “And many of my colleagues believe the same.”

Yet, the Budget Advisory Committee approved the expenditures, saying the money was spent according to the ballot measure.

Do you agree that money approved for after-school programs should be spent on athletics and that money for teacher retention and school safety should be spent on custodians?

Posted on Thursday, July 2nd, 2015
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 4 Comments »