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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 | 3 Comments »

West Contra Costa school district’s ‘data dashboard’ gives public details on demographics, test scores and more

In the world of education, data is all the rage.

Teachers talk about using “data-driven” strategies to educate their students by analyzing test results to pinpoint weaknesses, then focusing on them to ensure students “get it.”

And the state’s new funding formula requires school districts to compile data in accountability plans to show whether they are meeting goals in eight priority areas, including available courses and suspensions and expulsions.

But in many districts, it may be difficult for the public to see at a glance how their local schools are doing.

The West Contra Costa school district, however, is one of a few districts statewide that has created online interactive “data dashboards” to show the public the good, the bad and the ugly details about how its students are faring.

It’s a bold move for a district that has ranked near the bottom on test scores throughout California for years. But it’s also a refreshing turn of the tide for a district that has been known more for obfuscation than transparency, when asked for information by the public.

“This lifts the veil,” trustee Madeline Kronenberg said, after district Director of Accountability Nicole Joyner presented a PowerPoint to the board on Wednesday outlining the wealth of information available.

“Dashboards are visual displays that organize and present information in a way that is easy to read and interpret,” Joyner reported. “They are web-based and interactive, providing visibility into key measures through simple graphics such as charts and tables.”

The district’s dashboards include information on demographics, student achievement, student engagement, school climate, parent involvement, basic services, the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan and other measures. It will launch a pilot parent portal in 2015-16, Joyner said.

The district has networked with UC Berkeley and the Oakland school district to set up the dashboards, Joyner said. The Fresno district also produces these types of dashboards, she added.

West Contra Costa’s dashboards can be found at http://www.wccusd.net/dashboard. Visitors can see districtwide data, as well as information for individual schools, from 2010 through this school year.

The website includes links to a one-page Dashboard Quick Start Guide, a two-page brochure with more information, an e-brochure that allows viewers to read it as a slide show, a glossary of education terms used in school reports, and a two-page description of 28 data categories included, such as Advanced Placement courses, UC and CSU required course completion and school attendance rates. All of these documents are available in both English and Spanish.

The site also includes an update log that lists additions and revisions. The district launched the dashboard May 11 and has made 10 additions since then, including physical fitness test results.

Much of this information may be available in other places, such as the California Department of Education’s DataQuest website, but West Contra Costa’s dashboard makes it much easier for the public to easily access it in a reader-friendly way.

The demographics dashboard shows that the district’s 28,910 students are 51.6 percent Hispanic, 18.9 percent African-American, 11.4 percent Asian, 10.8 percent white, 6 percent Filipino and 0.4 percent American Indian. Nearly 72 percent of district students are low-income, 32.8 percent are English learners and 0.5 percent are foster youth. More than 13 percent of district students are in special education programs.

A map graphic on the site shows that 12,358 students live in Richmond, 6,992 are from San Pablo, 2,793 are Hercules residents, 2,149 reside in Pinole, 2,090 live in El Cerrito and 21 come from Vallejo.

The student achievement dashboard reveals that in 2013-14, less than one-third of students who took Advanced Placement exams passed, less than three-quarters of students who took the California High School Exams passed, and less than 60 percent of students in grades 5, 8 and 10 scored proficient or advanced on the state’s standardized science tests.”

How do you think the district and public could best utilize data dashboards?

Posted on Saturday, June 27th, 2015
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 2 Comments »

WCCUSD appointments

At its June 10 meeting, the West Contra Costa school board unanimously ratified the following administrative appointments approved in closed session:

Sonja Bell, Coordinator of State and Federal Programs

Allison Huie, Coordinator of English Learner Program

Janet Scott, Director of Educational Services

Pat Evans, Special Education Administrator

Wendy Gonzalez, Interim Principal of Lake Elementary

Mimi Melodia, Principal of Grant Elementary

Vince Rhea, Principal of the Greenwood Academy (formerly known as Gompers continuation high school)

Sylvia Greenwood, Interim Principal of Vista High School.

At tonight’s board meeting, trustees expect to appoint principals for a high school, a middle school and an elementary school. I will post those and other appointments as updates to this blog in the future.

Do you agree with the board’s practice of voting on appointments in closed session, before ratifying them in open session?

Posted on Wednesday, June 24th, 2015
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | No Comments »

Three Contra Costa County districts struggle to prioritize construction projects

Three school boards in Contra Costa County are deciding how to prioritize construction projects to complete with remaining money from their districts’ voter-approved bond measures.

The Martinez school board’s discussion of about $17.3 million left from its $45 million Measure K bond passed in 2010 made the news last week when an edited video of Trustee Denise Elsken’s comments about air conditioning proposed at two schools went viral. Elsken said she supported air conditioning at John Swett Elementary, but not at Las Juntas Elementary, in part because she believed Las Juntas students are more “acclimated” to heat than students at John Swett.

Elsken based her conclusion on the assumption that about 95 percent of John Swett students have air conditioning at home, while about 95 percent of Las Juntas students do not. However, the video did not include Elsken’s further comments explaining her position.

Unfortunately, the Martinez district’s audio recording of the meeting is of such poor quality that Elsken’s comments about air conditioning cannot be clearly heard. It appears the district placed microphones in front of some trustees and public speakers — but not all — resulting in a recording that is not an accurate record of what happened.

However, based on another recording obtained by a colleague, Elsken reminisced about attending Las Juntas herself and sitting under shady trees on the “eight to ten hot days a year.” She also pointed out that Las Juntas did not rank air conditioning as a high priority.

Elsken said staffers instead preferred other upgrades, including “teaching walls.” The Martinez agenda report listed field renovation at Las Juntas as the only staff priority for the school, with a note from the principal stating: “Field/track has holes that are major tripping hazards.”

Besides discussing specific projects, the Martinez board spent considerable time discussing values, including safety, integrity, education and communication. Trustees plan to continue discussing “equity” on Monday, along with the projects they informally agreed to support March 30, including air conditioning at John Swett Elementary, which was listed as a staff priority.

Equity has also been a hot topic in the Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa school districts. The Mt. Diablo school board may vote April 20 on several different proposals for issuing $77 million in remaining Measure C bonds voters approved in 2010.

At two study sessions last month, several Mt. Diablo trustees who were not on the board in 2010 said they needed to see updated project lists before they would agree to spend the money. A consultant suggested the board might also want to consider issuing less than $77 million now and waiting until 2016 to ask voters to pass a new bond measure.

The Martinez and West Contra Costa school boards have also begun talking about asking voters to approve new bond measures to finish additional projects.

In an email to some community members after she was widely criticized for her comments, Elsken said that she believes Las Juntas should be torn down and rebuilt within the next 10 years, which would require a new bond measure.

Similarly, the West Contra Costa school district is planning to rebuild several schools, even though the remaining approximately $592 million from $1.6 billion approved by district voters in six bond measures will not be enough to complete them all. The school board recently agreed to update its Facilities Master Plan and to set up a committee to rank projects based on factors such as age, condition and enrollment.

Although the West Contra Costa district has told voters in the past that it wanted to pass new bond measures to provide equitable facilities for all students, it still has a long way to go to meet that goal after 16 years of construction. It has spent millions to provide top-notch facilities for some, while others are still waiting for their turns.

How do you think school boards should prioritize projects?

Posted on Friday, April 10th, 2015
Under: Education, Martinez school district, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 17 Comments »

Student protest at De Anza High stirs debate over West Contra Costa school board’s decision not to retain law academy teacher

"Law Academy students at De Anza High protest "

A protest last week at De Anza High in the West Contra Costa school district over the board’s decision not to renew Law Academy teacher Tahitia Dean’s contract prompted the following response from the district:

“WCCUSD is committed to recruiting and retaining the best teachers for our students. California law provides that new teachers have a two-year probationary period. During that time, teachers are evaluated and must meet the California Standards for the Teaching Profession, which include six dimensions of professional service. Teachers may excel at some components of professional practices while needing to develop in others. Students and parents may observe many, but not all, aspects of these professional standards whereas principals must evaluate all of them. The probationary period is designed to reinforce teachers in their areas of strengths and support teachers in areas where they fall short of the standards. If, however, they are not meeting all of the standards by March 15 of the second year of probation, the District, at the recommendation of the principal, issues a notice of non-re-election for the following year.

While we value and respect the opinions of our students and parents, the ultimate responsibility for evaluating teachers lies with the principal and the District. The District does not and cannot legally review staff performance in public or share the specific reasons that particular teachers are not recommended for tenure, which is awarded at the end of the second year. The process is thorough, comprehensive and aligned with all of the California teaching standards. The District requires principals to non-re-elect teachers when, in the judgment of the principal, teachers do not meet all components of those six standards. Throughout the District, 16 teachers from various schools have received notice of non-re-election for the 2015-16 school year. While the timing, coming so early in the year, is unfortunate, it is essential that the District hold high standards for professional practice in all six areas before conferring tenured status to teachers.”

Here is a link to more information about the teaching standards: http://www.ctc.ca.gov/educator-prep/standards/CSTP-2009.pdf

But some students and parents question whether there may be other factors contributing to the principal’s decision not to recommend Dean for tenure.

Here is a letter to the school board from one De Anza HS parent outlining her concerns about the process for dismissing Dean, which I am posting below, with her permission

“Sent: Sunday, March 15, 2015 8:02 PM
Subject: Issues at DeAnza High School

Dear Board Members,

I am writing you based on the assumption that you have never been fully informed on events pertinent to the renewal of Miss Dean’s contract at De Anza High School. I have to believe this to be true as it is the only viable explanation as to why you did not at the very least review Miss Dean’s case before rubber stamping Principal Evan’s recommendation. I will keep this email as brief as possible. Please give me the benefit of the doubt as I am giving you the benefit of the doubt, read this entire email and trust that any details given are pertinent.

Also, please know that although I am writing to you as a singular person, my views are shared by many parents and students at De Anza, as witnessed by our protest last Monday. Also know that the events I am going to detail for you regarding Miss Dean have moved this from a plea to renew one exceptional teachers contract, to a movement to change what we have found as a system that allows for an abuse of power with no accountability for those who are making recommendations to the board regarding probationary teachers employment.

In order to paint the entire picture I need to go back to April of last year. Miss Dean and Miss Rivera accompanied 8 children on a trip to Washington DC and New York during spring break. My daughter Madelyn, a junior at the time, was the only child to participate who was not in the law academy. As such, I did not know anything about Miss Dean. When I picked up Madelyn and another child from the airport they informed me that two girls on the trip were rude and disrespectful most of the trip. Miss Dean and Miss Rivera disciplined these children who then called their parents to complain about it. Those parents in turn sent threatening texts to the two teachers. They then went to the district, fabricated stories about Miss Dean and began a campaign of lies with the express intent of getting her fired. I was informed by my daughter that Miss Dean was escorted off of campus the Monday after school resumed. Tuesday, I had a meeting with Mr. Evans. He told me that the matter was completely out of his hands and in those of the district. He assured me that he was interviewing all 8 children. When I asked if he would be giving my statement and theirs to the district he assured me he would. After a week or so of hearing nothing form Mr Evans or the district, I began soliciting the district for answers but getting none. I and a few others continued to put pressure on the district. A month or so after Miss Dean was escorted off the school grounds she returned to class. I assumed everyone had come to their senses, but learned she was back only until the end of the school year as her contract had not been renewed. I believed the district knew we would assume she was going to be back the following year and never imagined that we would find out otherwise.

Mr. Evans continued to assert he had no influence on the decision not to bring Miss Dean back. So we had a meeting with Adam Taylor. Mr. Evans chose not to attend. After about a half hour expressing our very strong opinions about the situation, Mr Taylor informed us that in fact, it was not the district, but the sight managers decision. Mr. Evans decision. He was brought in and asked why he lied to us for nearly two months about his role in Miss Deans employment. We were never answered. As disturbing as that was, it was equally disturbing that Mr. Taylor claimed that the allegations against Miss Dean by these two sets of parents were being investigated. However the district never reached out to any of the other parents or the students that were on the trip. Nor did they reach out to Miss Rivera. Mr. Taylor was suppose to get back to us on how that could be so, but never did so. Miss Dean was offered her job back about a half an hour after that meeting ended. Never imagining in my wildest dreams that less than a year later, I would once again be forced to fight for her job, which in essence is our children’s access to one of the best teachers at De Anza, I let both Mr. Evans and Mr. Taylor off the hook and went on with my life.

So less than a year later we find ourselves here. I am assuming you do know the details surrounding controversy of the children’s emails to Nancy Schiff the director of The Center for Youth Development. You do know that many parents and students believe Mr. Evans decision not to renew her contract is retaliation for those emails. I am not going to assume that you know about a meeting that parents, students and Miss Dean held Friday night February 27th which about 100 people attended including and unexpectedly Mr. Evans and Mr. Taylor. Parents spoke about Miss Deans positive effect on their children. The children spoke about the impact Miss Dean has had on their lives. Some crying and bringing parents to tears in the process.

It was after this meeting that Adam Taylor told us we needed to attend the school board meeting on 3/4. He also informed the parents that what we thought really did not matter and we should have the kids speak. Many of us are very curious as to whether or not it is a district policy that our voices do not matter, or just his policy. The children expressed fear of retaliation if they were to speak at this meeting. Mr. Taylor then turned to Mr. Evans and instructed him not to retaliate. A directive that certainly adds credibility to the belief that there was in fact retaliation to the letters written to Ms. Schiff.

Now here is what I believe based on the incidents that occurred last year in conjunction with those that occurred this year. In addition to some political power plays, I believe there is a personality conflict between Mr. Evans and Miss Dean. I believe that Mr. Evans has decided to put his own self interests ahead of the students of De Anza and get rid of what he perceives as a thorn in his side. I believe he never intended to bring her back. I believe that anyone in the district who knows or suspects this to be true is derelict in their obligations to the students and parents of De Anza and are complicit in letting this happen. I believe Adam Taylor is one of those persons, and if he is not giving you the entire story, his continued employment at the district should be questioned.

Furthermore, it seems the criteria for evaluating whether or not a teachers contract is renewed is subjective. So maybe that criteria should be reevaluated. Or better yet, how about reevaluating whether or not the person interpreting criteria is capable of putting aside his personal aspirations and feelings and is capable of doing what is best for the children. If any teacher present or future is able to increase their students grades from D’s and F’s to A’s and B’s and has community support but still do not have their contract renewed by the principal and the district, then I can only conclude that there is a systemic problem within the district.

Here is what I want to see happen. I believe I am speaking for many of us involved:

Revisit the renewal of Miss Deans contract.
Find out why the allegations against last year were never investigated.
Form a committee of parents and district representatives to come up with a procedure where parents and students voices will be heard before important decisions that effect their children’s education will be made, and where teachers can come without fear of retaliation.
Investigate whether or not there were other instances of the pushing out of good teachers at all WCCS high schools.

In closing I will tell you that as a tax payer and a parent, I expect to be taken seriously. When I went to bat for Miss Dean last year, I had no skin in this game. My daughter was not in the law academy and her eduction was not going to be effected personally. But I knew what was happening was wrong. Mr. Evans and Mr. Taylor can attest to the fact that I am tenacious when I perceive that there is a wrong to be righted. I will inform you now that I do have skin in this game. My son will be attending De Anza next year as a freshman. Before hearing those students speak at the meeting I was going to let him decide what academy he would be in. Now I have made the decision that it will be the law academy if Miss Dean is teaching. So I am not about to let this go. I am hopeful that now that you have the facts, you will attempt to regain our trust.

Thank you,
Pamela Fields”

It’s my understanding that Fields, other parents and some students may speak during public comment about this at Wednesday’s board meeting.

How do you think the school district should respond to the concerns being raised by students and parents?

Posted on Monday, March 16th, 2015
Under: Education, Richmond, West Contra Costa school district | 3 Comments »

West Contra Costa: Nystrom Elementary teachers air frustrations with principal

Several teachers at Nystrom Elementary in Richmond are hoping the district will act quickly to resolve a Uniform Complaint and 10 grievances they have filed related to their dissatisfaction with Principal LaDonna Williams.

Teachers Jocelyn Rohan, Kristiana Schmidt, Jacqueline Tank, Abbie Schultz and Mary Flanagan spoke to the board Wednesday night, sharing concerns about safety, responsiveness, respect, support and student services.

“We are currently in discussions with the district regarding many grievances we have against our principal,” Rohan said. “We’re hoping that the board will help expedite and prioritize our concerns.”

Rohan said Williams failed to proactively plan for emergencies. Broken walkie-talkies make it difficult to evacuate the school during fire drills, she said.

When staff has asked to order first-aid kits and emergency backpacks, Rohan said they have been told, “We can’t get that” or “We won’t get that.”

Standing side by side, the other teachers followed Rohan’s lead.

“This is a very difficult issue for us to talk about,” Schmidt said, “which is why we’re all here together standing in unity.”

She said their remarks were not a personal attack on Williams, but she may not be a good fit for the school. Schmidt said teachers feel unheard, and complained that $50,000 was not spent from the school’s budget last year, even though teachers have expressed many needs.

This year, she said, the school received a fairly large donation to pay for three kindergarten aides. Although the jobs were posted in September, she said applicants waited for months and that two of the positions were only recently filled, while one position is still vacant.

Schmidt also said teachers feel their judgment is undermined because they are forced to assess all students using a single assessment, even though they know their students best and know that they learn and test differently. Because of this, Schmidt said teachers would prefer to be able to assess their students using multiple testing methods.

Based on the one single test allowed, Schmidt said some students are placed in learning groups that don’t accurately reflect their academic levels, in part because some of them don’t speak English fluently.

Tank said she has felt personally attacked and affronted by the principal on multiple occasions. She said she was originally hired to teach third grade at Stege Elementary and didn’t learn she would actually be teaching at Nystrom until someone from the school called her and asked when she would pick up her keys.

She said she often has more than 40 children in her classroom, accommodating students from other classes where substitute teachers don’t show up. She said she does not feel safe, supported or respected.

She said the principal communicates negative messages by leaving notes instead of speaking to her in person.

“This is not a professional form of communication,” she said. “It has put a huge stress on my teaching as well as on the education of our students. No one can work or learn in an environment such as Nystrom.”

Schultz said she was a little too exhausted to add much, but was there to give moral support to her colleagues.

Flanagan said the teachers care deeply about their students, but that 19 out of 24 who were there three years ago when Williams came to the school have left, leaving only five from the original staff.

She cited lack of discipline as “a huge issue,” saying students leave class and roam around the campus without supervision. Flanagan also said many students are not tested for disabilities when teachers request such tests, preventing them from potentially receiving needed services for years. In addition, Flanagan said teachers must buy school supplies for their classes because the principal delayed ordering some until December.

The board did not respond during the meeting, but Trustee Val Cuevas said Friday that without taking sides, the comments she heard lead her to believe there’s something wrong at Nystrom.

“I think that’s evidence that something warrants our attention,” she said, “when five teachers come and are shaking in their boots to tell us minimally what their experience is.”

How do you think the district should resolve these complaints?

Posted on Saturday, February 14th, 2015
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 5 Comments »

A look back at some significant state and local education stories in 2014

Here’s a sampling of some significant education stories that appeared in this newspaper in 2014.

1. New school funding, curriculum and testing

– The California Board of Education adopted regulations to help districts implement the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which changed the ways schools were funded and required districts to create plans showing how they would spend money, especially for English language learners, low-income students and foster youth.

– Districts implemented new Common Core standards for education, focusing less on memorization and more on critical thinking.

– Students piloted new computer-based tests aimed at gauging how well they were learning with the new standards.

2. School child abuse cases

– The Brentwood school district agreed to pay $8 million to settle a lawsuit with the families of eight special needs children over its handling of a special-education teacher who was convicted of child abuse, yet allowed to remain in the classroom.

– An Antioch district teacher charged with abusing special-education students pleaded guilty to one felony count of child abuse and two misdemeanor charges.

n The Moraga school district agreed to pay $14 million to two women who sued over sex abuse by a former teacher, in what was believed to be the nation’s largest molestation settlement per student.

n Former Woodside Elementary teacher Joseph Martin was charged with 150 counts of child molestation involving 14 students. The District Attorney later dismissed 34 charges, a jury acquitted Martin of 21 more and failed to reach consensus on 95 charges. The District Attorney is retrying the former Mt. Diablo school district teacher on 24 felony molestation counts involving nine students.

3. Charter schools

n The Contra Costa County Board of Education approved an agreement paving the way for the Summit K2 Charter School to open in El Cerrito in the fall, after the West Contra Costa school board rejected the charter petition.

n The Antioch school district reached an agreement with Dozier-Libbey High teachers to keep the site under its authority, after a months-long campaign to convert the school into an independent charter. The Antioch school board and Contra Costa County Board of Education denied the charter petition and teachers dropped their appeal to the state Board of Education.

n Although the Contra Costa County Board of Education renewed the charter for Clayton Valley Charter High for five years, tensions built throughout the year between some staff members and the school’s governing board. An original petitioner for the school was fired, the board president resigned and a teacher board member was asked to resign, but refused. Teachers voted no confidence in Executive Director Dave Linzey and the board dismissed the school’s coordinator of technology after he was accused of breaching Linzey’s confidence.

n The West Contra Costa school board approved three charter petitions in December, after initially proposing to seeking a waiver from its responsibility to vote on charters, saying the independent schools negatively impact the district.

n The Knightsen school board rejected a charter proposed by ChartHouse Public Schools, which also seeks to operate a countywide Performing Arts charter.

4. West Contra Costa bond program

n Voters rejected a $270 million bond measure in June.

n The Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenaed the district, board president, county, and district financial advisers and consultants in an inquiry into the district’s bond financing. The school board approved hundreds of thousands in contracts for legal representation related to the SEC inquiry, along with representation related to separate questions from the FBI.

What do you think were the most significant education stories in 2014?

Posted on Friday, January 2nd, 2015
Under: Antioch school district, Brentwood school district, California Department of Education, Clayton Valley Charter High, Contra Costa County, Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Knightsen school district, Moraga school district, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 7 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 »

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 »

How do you think the West Contra Costa district could be more transparent?

A few years ago, many residents and employees in the Mt. Diablo school district complained about a lack of transparency and accountability in decision-making. Today, things have improved under new leadership.

For example, contracts are listed separately on agendas and the documents are attached to agenda packets, so the public can see what is being decided. When the board recently extended Superintendent Nellie Meyer’s contract, it was listed on the public agenda with the contract attached.

Now, the Mt. Diablo district looks like a poster child for transparency compared to the West Contra Costa district. A case in point was the chaotic West Contra Costa board meeting Wednesday, where the board agreed to extend Superintendent Bruce Harter’s contract under the vague heading of “performance evaluation” on a closed session agenda (Item 8). The contract was not attached and there was no mention that the “one year extension” would actually last through June 30, 2018.

District residents say this is business as usual in West Contra Costa, where the public is left in the dark, while the board wonders why trust is deteriorating.

“Still, no one knows what the arrangement is with the superintendent at all,” said resident Charley Cowens. “That was not real sufficient notice of what’s going on. They should have a hearing. They should allow the public to have a meaningful opportunity to give them feedback. Who wouldn’t be interested in getting feedback on their job from the people they’re trying to serve?”

Cowens suggests that the district make the superintendent’s goals and objectives public so that everyone knows what he’s striving to achieve. This is an idea that has already been implemented in the Mt. Diablo district.

Resident Linda Ruiz-Lozito said the West Contra Costa district should look for new leadership.

“WCCUSD is one of the lowest performing districts in California,” she said. “This school board has voted to keep the same (administrative) leadership in place for four more years, right before new school board members come on the board.”

Resident Scottie Smith said the board is not good at making things clear to the public.

“In all my years of being in this district,” she said, “I have found this board to be the worst in terms of clarity.”

Smith and several other district residents were incensed when the district placed four controversial contracts for nearly $500,000 related to a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation on the “consent” portion of the agenda (Item C. 4), which is normally reserved for routine items that don’t need to be discussed.

“It should have never been on the consent calendar from the beginning,” Smith said. “The way they did that was underhanded and very deceptive.”

But both Board President Charles Ramsey and Trustee Madeline Kronenberg defended the agenda placement, saying this is the way the board always handles contracts. When I told Kronenberg about the way Mt. Diablo lists contracts separately and attaches them to agendas, she said she would suggest this idea at her board’s January retreat.

“That’s the kind of practical suggestion that I think is actually useful to us,” she said. “I get told a lot that we need to be more transparent. I have no problem supporting any suggestion.”

Hercules City Councilman Dan Romero said the West Contra Costa school board needs to change the way it does things if it wants to regain public trust. For example, Romero said he believes board members who recuse themselves must step out of the room before discussion begins, instead of participating as Ramsey did.

Romero also said he was surprised that neither the district’s attorney nor Harter stepped in to correct Ramsey when he made a parliamentary mistake by trying to amend a motion made by Trustee Todd Groves related to Kronenberg’s legal representation, before seeking a second. Instead, Sheri Gamba, associate superintendent for business services, told Ramsey there was already a motion on the floor.

“I’m glad somebody knew the rules,” Romero said.

How do you think the board could be more transparent?

Posted on Friday, November 14th, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 54 Comments »