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

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, December 19th, 2014 at 5:55 pm in Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Education

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

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

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, December 12th, 2014 at 3:45 pm in Education, 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?

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

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, December 5th, 2014 at 5:53 pm in Education, Mt. Diablo school district

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 (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 or visit or E-mail

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!”

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

By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 at 5:41 pm in Education, West Contra Costa school district

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:

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:

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: 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:

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?

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Eukel Teacher Trust Award winners talk about their passion for teaching

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, November 21st, 2014 at 6:49 pm in Education

Each year, the Warren W. Eukel Trust awards three outstanding educators $10,000 each in honor of their excellent teaching.

At the awards dinner Thursday, Campolindo High school social studies teacher Paul Verbanszky, Stanley Middle School science teacher Michael Meneghetti and St. Francis of Assisi School first grade teacher Karen Kreider inspired the audience with speeches that highlighted their dedication to their students.

Verbanszky said he wanted to recognize the amazing, hardworking and inspirational teachers who influenced him. He said he noticed that strong teachers share several traits, such as dedication to their jobs, flexibility in their teaching and empathy toward their students.

“Successful teachers are passionate — passionate about their students, passionate about their subject,” he said. “They are animated, energetic, and teach the material with enthusiasm. And this passion becomes contagious and students get excited about even the most mundane topics that need to be covered. And I know this well. I teach the potentially boring subjects of government and economics. But I always try to teach with passion and perhaps some humor, hoping to make the material interesting and relevant to their lives.”

Verbanszky said a previous award winner nominated him.

“He told me that when he received his award almost two decades ago, the colleague who had nominated him had asked him to pass on the honor and nominate someone in the future,” Verbanszky said. “Per the request of my colleague, I plan to again pass on the honor. I will keep in mind these traits I have outlined to you and I will nominate a colleague — or many colleagues — in the years to come, that I feel fit the description, because many times, teaching is a little thankless, but this award means so much.”

Meneghetti said he was also fortunate to have had teachers who inspired him. These included a middle school teacher who allowed him to teach a lesson about adverbs, a high school teacher who talked about the science behind ordinary things such as soap, and a community college teacher who told him his great ideas got lost in his writing due to spelling and grammatical errors.

“I still have that paper and I keep it as a reminder,” Meneghetti said. “I had never been told that my ideas were good or that they became lost because of my neglect.”

Meneghetti said he remembers all the lessons he learned when he approaches his own students.

“I love providing experiences that engage, promote deeper thinking and heighten curiosity,” he said. “I’m thrilled when I hear my students heading off to their next class still discussing the day’s activity or parents telling me that their frequent dinner conversation is what happens in science or robotics class.”

He also said he is forever learning with his students.

“Never, ever, leave hot glue guns unattended,” he quipped. “And, school smoke alarms are extremely sensitive. Even 13-year-olds, who try not to show any emotion, become animated and amazingly overjoyed when the LED lights in their soldering projects simply blink on and off.”

Kreider shared the secrets of bringing joy to first graders, explaining how she uses puppets and other visual aids to enrich her lessons. She said she encourage her students in a variety of ways.

“Children are very sensitive,” she said. “They know when they’re weak in certain areas, like academics, or social interaction or speaking in front of the class. I try to shore up these areas by tutoring, praising and a lot of responsibility.”

Kreider said she tells students she doesn’t care if they make mistakes. Instead, she asks them to do their best.

“You’d be amazed at what a confident and empowered first-grader can do,” she said.
After telling many anecdotes from her classroom, Kreider said: “What do I receive for all my efforts?”

“Something more valuable than rivers of gold and buckets of diamonds. I receive a child’s love and respect.”

Here are links to video of the introductions and speeches (unfortunately, I ran out of storage space on a few of the clips, so I wasn’t able to capture all the speeches in their entirety.)

Into to Verbansky speech:

Verbansky speech, part 1:

Verbansky speech, part 2:

Kreider intro:

Kreider speech, part 1:

Kreider speech, part 2:

Meneghetti intro and speech:

What do you think are the traits of a great teacher?

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

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, November 14th, 2014 at 11:06 am in Education, West Contra Costa school district

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?

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Mounting legal fees for SEC investigation rile some WCCUSD residents

By Theresa Harrington
Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 at 4:49 pm in Education, West Contra Costa school district

As word of four contracts to be considered by the West Contra Costa school board tonight related to the SEC investigation into the district’s $1.6 billion bond program has spread, some residents are questioning why taxpayers should foot the bill for responses to subpoenas for Board President Charles Ramsey and Trustee Madeline Kronenberg.

In addition, I question why the district placed these contracts on its “consent calendar,” which is supposed to be used only for “routine” items with no discussion. I also question why the contracts themselves are not attached to the agenda packet.

When I spoke to Ramsey yesterday afternoon about these issues, I started off the conversation by saying there were some “controversial” things on the agenda (referring to these contracts).

“That’s not controversial,” Ramsey said. “I’ve not gotten one phone call. I haven’t gotten one email, so it’s not controversial.”

When I told him that I had received phone calls and e-mails about this, he responded: “Why would people call the media and not call me?”

Ramsey said that contracts have always been placed on the consent calendar, so he didn’t see any problem with that. Debbie Haynie, the superintendent’s executive secretary, said it’s not the district’s practice to actually attach the contracts to the agenda packets.

Even more surprising, the district doesn’t even list the contracts on the agenda. It merely lists the heading “contracts,” and states: “Permission is requested of the Board of Education to approve contracts as detailed, dated Nov. 12, 2014.”

The amounts are also not listed. Instead, under “Fiscal Impacts,” the agenda states: “As noted per contracts summary.”

This forces the public to then go online and scroll through the entire agenda packet to find a summary of contracts to be approved. The summary includes short descriptions and dollar amounts, but leaves out other important details. For example, it was unclear whether the dollar amounts listed for contract increases referred to new money or to the new total amount. It is also unclear whether Madeline Kronenberg received an individual subpoena or whether her representation is related to the district’s subpoena. Further, it is not clear why Associate Superintendent Sheri Gamba was being deposed or when the deposition was scheduled.

Trustee Todd Groves told me yesterday that he thought the additional amounts listed were cumulative, not incremental. But I found out today from the district’s Business Services Department that was not true. In fact, the amounts are IN ADDITION to the current contracts. It’s surprising that Groves didn’t know this.

The district’s failure to transparently reveal such information has prompted resident Charles Reichmann and others to ask the board to delay its vote on these contracts. With Reichmann’s permission, I am posting his “Open Letter on Ramsey, Kronenberg Legal Fees” below, which he sent to Trustee Todd Groves, along with copies to Trustees Randall Enos and Elaine Merriweather:

“Dear Todd,

I was distressed to read in the paper that the WCCUSD Board will soon vote on whether to allocate an additional $200k to pay Charles Ramsey’s brother’s law firm in connection with the SEC investigation. And another $100k in defense of the person you’ve described as your “close ally” on the Board, Madeline Kronenberg.

I hereby request that the Board delay its scheduled vote on this matter for one month to allow more opportunity for public discussion.

You have been quoted in the paper a couple of times saying that it is only right that the WCCUSD pay Charles Ramsey’s legal fees because the investigation arises out of work he did while on the Board. This proposition is not at all self-evident to your constituents. First, I don’t understand why this isn’t exactly the kind of matter that your insurer would pay for pursuant to the board’s D&O policy. Even if you ignore the rest of this email, can you please explain why the District’s insurer isn’t obligated to provide a defense? Second, it is unseemly that Charles Ramsey is taking this final opportunity to enrich one of his close associates, in this case his brother. (Ismail Ramsey and his firm are highly regarded and certainly are competent to handle investigations of this kind. That is not at issue.) Third, Ismail Ramsey’s firm has made it clear that their duties run entirely to Charles and not to the District so any argument that benefits from this engagement inure to the good of District taxpayers is unavailing. Charles Ramsey and his attorneys are pursuing one thing and one thing alone – the exoneration of Charles Ramsey. They are not at all concerned with the best interests of the WCCUSD, however they may understand them.

Finally, it is noteworthy that you seem entirely convinced that the SEC investigation will uncover no wrongdoing on the part of Ramsey or any others associated with the bond program. You have been a trustee for only a couple of years and recently wrote that you are still getting up to speed on the bond program, so you may lack a sound basis for having reached such a conclusion. The fact that the SEC opened an investigation is a pretty extraordinary thing in itself, and the fact that the Board apparently now feels compelled to spend in excess of $500k of District funds in response to what you call a “pretty deep examination” may end up meaning that we all will be unpleasantly surprised about what the investigation uncovers. As a District taxpayer I certainly do not want to be paying the attorneys’ fees of WCCUSD personnel whom the government elects to prosecute for malfeasance. Do you feel the same way, or will you continue to assert that since the conduct happened while they were in the District’s employ, it is only proper that we continue to pay for a first-class defense?

Very truly yours,

Charles Reichmann

I have also received the following comment from district resident Anton Jungherr:

“Note that all of the contracts are illegal as they all started before Board approval.

Kronenberg contract started October 1, 2014, prior to the election!

Why does Kronenberg need a criminal defense attorney to respond to records request?”

However, the original contracts for Ramsey and F1 Discovery were previously approved.

Do you think the board should delay its vote on the contracts for one month?

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MDUSD board election winners look toward the future

By Theresa Harrington
Friday, November 7th, 2014 at 6:43 pm in Education, Election, Mt. Diablo school district

Updated results from the Contra Costa County elections office released Friday, which included all timely vote by mail ballots, showed no change in the outcome of the Mt. Diablo school board race between six candidates for three seats. Incumbent Cheryl Hansen finished first with 23.4 percent of votes, followed by Bay Point parent Debra Mason with 19.6 percent and incumbent Linda Mayo with 19.1 percent.

However, the gap between fourth-place finisher Michael Langley and third-place finisher Linda Mayo dropped from 477 to 417 votes, with Langley garnering 18.7 percent. followed by Herbert Lee with 9.8 percent, James Ryan with 8.8 percent and write-ins getting nearly 0.5 percent.

Another 13,000 provisional ballots and 10,000 “exceptions” that could not be counted by machine are still to be counted. Officials expect to begin counting the outstanding ballots Monday and to release another update Nov. 14, with a final update Nov. 21. The certification deadline is Dec. 2.

After the initial results were released Tuesday, the three Mt. Diablo school district winners responded via e-mail to requests for comments.

Hansen said she was happy to receive a vote of confidence from the community and was glad for the opportunity to continue working toward changes, after accomplishing some goals during her first term. Foremost among those was the ouster of former Superintendent Steven Lawrence last year, who was replaced by current Superintendent Nellie Meyer.

“From my perspective, while positive progress has been made in the past year or two, there’s still more work to be done to correct the 2010-12 board majority and former superintendent’s poor judgment and ill-advised decision making,” said Hansen, who was elected to her first term in 2010.

The 2010-12 board majority included Mayo and former Trustees Gary Eberhart and Sherry Whitmarsh. Eberhart stepped down two years ago and Whitmarsh was unsuccessful in her 2012 re-election attempt. The pair was replaced by Trustee Brian Lawrence and Board President Barbara Oaks.

Hansen said she wants to continue to restore previously cut programs, enhance employee benefits, and build school support and community relationships.

“Also,” she said, “I’d still like to see all board members embrace the concept of public service and voluntarily forgo health benefits at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Oaks and Hansen tried to push through a board bylaw amendment in September that would have required board members to pay the full cost of their medical, dental and vision coverage. But the proposal was defeated by Mayo, Brian Lawrence and Trustee Lynne Dennler. Dennler did not seek re-election this year.

This newspaper’s public employees’ salary and benefits database shows Hansen and Oaks received no health benefits as board members in 2013. Brian Lawrence received $1,458 in district-paid benefits, Dennler received $12,781 and Mayo received $14,371 for herself and her husband. Mayo said during the campaign that it’s important for the district to provide benefits to trustees so that those who may not be able to afford them would not be discouraged from serving.

Regarding the new makeup of the board, Hansen said she is excited that Mason was elected.
“She is a dedicated, experienced educator and community member who will be another important voice of common sense on the board,” Hansen said.

Mason said some voters may have chosen her over Mayo because of her fresh outlook.

“Linda has been on the board for 17 years,” Mason said, “so people may feel she has already made her contribution to the leadership of the district.”

Mayo said she was pleased that voters weighed in on the board election during a low turnout year.

“Public education should be the important first consideration for our youth,” she said. “I look forward to working with Debra Mason, Cheryl Hansen, Brian Lawrence, Barbara Oaks and Dr. Nellie Meyer during the next four years. Together, with our parents, staff and community, we have great work to accomplish.”

How do you think the loss of Dennler and the addition of Mason will affect the board?

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WCCUSD Trustee Elaine Merriweather comments on her loss in Tuesday’s election

By Theresa Harrington
Thursday, November 6th, 2014 at 11:56 am in Education, Election, Walnut Creek School District

I received the following statement to the public from West Contra Costa school board Trustee Elaine Merriweather, in response to her unsuccessful re-election attempt Tuesday. I am posting the statement below, since I did not receive it in time for inclusion in my post-election story.

Merriweather was one of two incumbents seeking re-election during a race between 10 candidates for three seats. Board President Charles Ramsey is stepping down, after an unsuccessful run for Richmond City Council.

According to unofficial results from the County Elections office (with thousands of mail in and provisional ballots still to be counted), Merriweather finished sixth, with 9 percent of votes. Elizabeth Block finished first with 19.5 percent, followed by incumbent Madeline Kronenberg with 15.4 percent and Valerie Cuevas with 13.2 percent, Mister Phillips with 11.8 percent and Raquel Donoso with 9.6 percent. The top three finishers are the unofficial winners of the election until all votes are counted. Mister Phillips, who received 944 votes fewer than Cuevas, could have a chance to overtake her if there are enough mail in and provisional ballots outstanding that are cast for him.

Merriweather finished ahead of Peter Nicholas Chau, who received 7.9 percent of votes, Chester Stevens with 4.6 percent, Ayana Kirkland Young with 4.4 percent, Otheree Christian with 4 percent and write-in candidates, who received 0.4 percent. So far, 64,305 votes have been counted in the race.

Here is Merriweather’s statement:

“I wish I had better news for you. Unfortunately, our campaign fell short of our goal Tuesday night. Coming into this election, I knew that it would be an uphill battle because of the opposition from nine other candidates but I am so proud of the hard work and dedication our team put into this race.

To my supporters: I don’t know where to begin to express my sincere gratitude and appreciation for all the support, well wishes, financial contributions and love that you’ve given me these last four years. The phone banking, precinct walking and helping to raise fund kept us in the race. Your encouragement meant so much to me in this election. You need to know that your support gave me the strength and courage to push forward our platform.

To my team: Everything in our campaign was built from the ground up, grassroots effort. As a candidate and a board member, I woke up every day determined to work harder for children of this district. I wanted to vindicate all the support and dedication that you had invested in me. To my treasurer who helped fundraise and keep the finances in order. To my campaign manager who worked tirelessly, without preservation, I thank you both from the bottom of my heart and I could not have had better leaders advising me.

This election season is a reminder that there is a lot of work that needs to be done to move our district forward. Despite these challenges, I am as optimistic as ever. We made tremendous strides in the community and we have made progress in our district. I will continue to work and advocate for students at the national and state level. My commitment to quality education has only grown stronger because I was given the opportunity to serve in West Contra Costa Unified School District.

With humility and thankfulness,

Hon. Elaine Merriweather
Board of Education Trustee
West Contra Costa Unified School District”

What impact do you think the loss of Merriweather on the board will have on the district?

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Some West Contra Costa residents, charter supporters and a candidate sound off about funding fears in school board race

By Theresa Harrington
Monday, November 3rd, 2014 at 7:44 pm in Election, West Contra Costa school district

After my first story about campaign spending in the West Contra Costa school board race was published in the Contra Costa Times, I received an e-mail string that included a letter from 29 West Contra Costa district residents to their “friends and neighbors” expressing concerns about the large amount of funding from charter supporters in the race.

I also received a letter to the editor from the California Charter Schools Association Advocates in response to the story, as well as a letter to “friends and neighbors” from developer Stephen Chamberlin and his wife, Susan, explaining why they have invested money in the race both individually and as funders of the Education Matters Independent Expenditure Committee.

A follow-up story that mentioned both letters to “friends and neighbors” and included a quote from incumbent Madeline Kronenberg about her concerns was published Friday in the Contra Costa Times.

After I wrote that story, I received a call from candidate Peter Chau informing me that that California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee had paid for a “hit piece” attacking his candidacy. Since I had been unaware that the charter advocates were also funding opposition to Chau’s campaign when I wrote my story, I offered to post a short statement from Chau in response on my blog.

I am posting all four of these separate communications on my blog so that readers can see in one place some of the arguments being made by some residents, charter advocates and candidates. Please note that I have not fact-checked the letters and that they reflect the opinions of those who wrote them.

I have also received a call from Elizabeth Block’s son expressing concerns about other media reports that have focused solely on the charter funding, without also mentioning the large amount of funding from contractors, architects and labor unions received by Kronenberg and Chau. It is not possible for me to write another story about this issue before the election tomorrow.

However, I will provide links to the campaign contributions for the candidates and list some of the largest contributors to Kronenberg and Chau’s campaign below, so readers can see that charter advocates are not the only ones pouring money into this race.

Here is the letter from 29 West Contra Costa school district residents:

“Our Schools Are Not For Sale

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

We are WCCUSD parents concerned about the infusion into our school board election of campaign money from deep-pocketed charter school supporters.

We live and send our kids to school in our diverse, complex, and challenging community. We send our kids to public school because we believe in neighborhood schools and the communities they foster. We can tell you that no magic bullet is going to solve the challenges of public education. Rather, creating success in public schools means rolling up your sleeves and working with your child’s teachers, administrators, and district staff on behalf of all students. We urge you to vote for school board candidates who know that our schools must serve ALL students, not just the selected children of engaged parents.

Charter schools concern us because they siphon off students and money from the other schools in
the district, without sharing the challenges of educating ALL students.

Inflammatory campaign ads, flyers, and phone calls want you to believe that the district has wasted money meant for kids and refurbished facilities. In fact, bond money has been well spent. More than 35 schools have been replaced or refurbished through the bond program since 2000, and the district’s general obligation bonds received A+ ratings earlier this year.

Who is funding this campaign of deception? Charter Schools PAC of Sacramento and Education Matters, an organization funded by developer Steve Chamberlin, founder of the Chamberlin Foundation, have pumped over $260,000 into the campaigns of school board candidates Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas and the associated smear campaign against current Board member Madeline Kronenberg. The Chamberlin Foundation acquired the former Windrush School in El Cerrito and leases the facility to Summit Charter School.

We urge you to vote for candidates who know our district, have attended school in our district and have sent their kids to schools in our district, and understand that our schools must educate ALL students. Finally, we urge you to vote for neighborhood schools and the candidates who have not taken money from charter school funders. Vote for Chau, Kronenberg, and Phillips for West Contra Costa Unified School District Governing Board.

Concerned WCCUSD parents,

Joanna Pace, David Miller, Eric Miller, Patty Enrado, David Rossi, Leslie Weir, Bobbie Dowling, Kelli Barram, Evangeline Ireland, Kathy Guarneri, Pamela Gilbert-Snyder, Heidi Bartsch, Sharon Johnson, Paul Gilbert-Snyder, Catherine Collen, Nancy Donovan, Becky Jonas, Alonn Ilan, Lisa Tsering, Kerry Radcliffe, Camille Mulligan, Franco Corvasce, Nerissa Wu, Mark DeVito, David Whitenack, Jen Komaromi, JJ Thorp, Kim Walker and Monet Zulpo-Dane”

Please note that I received several calls and e-mails from other district residents who said they disagreed with the views of the parents in the above letter.

Here is the letter to the editor from the California Charter Schools Association Advocates:

“Contra Costa County has some very important elections this November 4. Perhaps the most important are those at the bottom of the ballot – the local school board races. These elections are high stakes for children and families, especially moderate and low-income families who rely on public schools for their future.

The upcoming elections hold the promise for real progress in public schools. West Contra Costa schools, for example, have amazing teachers and staff doing great things for children. Things everyone should be proud of. Yet, the district’s elected leaders have failed students. Some have even used the district’s construction program for their own political gain, sticking taxpayers with high taxes, lawsuits, and even a federal investigation, while construction companies fund their political futures.

We support two strong candidates for West Contra Costa school board, Valerie Cuevas and Elizabeth Block. While we work with charter schools, we are supporting these candidates, who don’t have any direct charter school connection, because they represent the promise of progress and leadership for all of west county’s public school children.

Gary Borden
Executive Director, California Charter Schools Association Advocates”

Here is the letter from the Chamnberlins:

“To: Our Friends and Neighbors
From: Susan and Steve Chamberlin, Richmond Residents

There is much discussion surrounding this year’s elections, including the school board races. Honest debate is healthy, and we want to be clear about our involvement. We have nothing to hide.

We think school board leadership is incredibly important, as do many others in our community: parents, teachers, community leaders and organizations, and other residents. Many people before us vetted the candidates and, in solidarity, decided to support strong, ethical leaders. We are standing alongside these individuals, and donating significantly to give voice to the group.

In hopes of honoring the current healthy debate, we also wanted to address a few statements made by Madeline Kronenberg and Peter Chau.

THE STATEMENT: ‘Corporate outsiders (are) trying to destroy our public schools….and BUY the school board.’ – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her website

THE FACTS: For more than a decade, construction companies across the state have funneled over $2.5 million into the West Contra Costa bond measures and school board races. Madeline Kronenberg and Peter Chau have been the recipients of their largess. In fact, this election season, Madeline has reported about $100,000, primarily from big outside construction companies. All of these firms directly or indirectly do business with the district. Most people consider this to be “pay for play.”

Let’s be clear: Madeline opposed campaign finance reform for WCCUSD in 2010 that would have limited campaign contributions. So who exactly are the corporate outsiders, and who exactly has been trying to buy the elections? You decide.

THE STATEMENT: The Chamberlins are trying to “unseat me and put in a team that will work to change everything we’ve been building in the district over the past eight years.” – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her Facebook page

THE FACTS: We have to concede, in some ways, that this is true. We would like to improve a few things:

· Our children’s academic performance: Our schools and students used to out-perform Oakland (an admittedly low bar), yet the Oakland schools leapfrogged our overall academic performance in 2010. This is not progress.

· Our children’s college readiness: More than HALF of our high school graduates don’t meet the basic admissions requirements to even apply to the Cal State or University of California systems, as reported by the California Department of Education. This is unacceptable.

· Our prioritization of facility improvements: Yes, our new school buildings are beautiful. But the current board leadership has prioritized extravagant facilities (like the $21 million football stadium for El Cerrito High School) while students in Richmond still learn in windowless classrooms. Our bond program is over 15 years old. How did this happen under our school board’s watch?

THE STATEMENT: “They (California Charter School Association) are targeting races across the state to make sure we have charter-friendly school boards.” – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her Facebook page

THE FACTS: This too is partly true, except in this race, the charter association does not have ‘pro-charter’ candidates. Yes, Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas appear to be open to parents having quality educational options, but above all, they’re focused on district schools, ensuring instruction – not construction – is the number one priority. Both have deep experience in improving district schools and that’s why the leaders of the BlackBoard are supporting them, along with teachers and families who want something better for their kids. It’s also why the Contra Costa Times called Liz Block, Valerie Cuevas and Raquel Donoso (another great candidate), ‘a trio that deserves your votes….Indeed, it’s been a long time since the district has had trustees of their caliber. Residents deserve a better school board.’

THE STATEMENT: ‘For-Profit Charter Schools…’ – Peter Chau, a reference made repeatedly at candidate forums

THE FACTS: This is just flat wrong. There are eight public charter schools in the district boundaries. All eight are run by education not-for-profits.

THE STATEMENT: ‘Charters are not required to hold public board meetings…so there is no possibility of transparency…’ – Madeline Kronenberg at the Contra Costa Times endorsement interview

THE FACTS: Surely, after eight years on the school board, Madeline must know this is patently false. The California Education Code is clear on this matter. Directly from the state website, “Although charter schools are exempt from most laws applicable to school districts, they are not exempt from laws that generally apply to public agencies, including the legal requirement to hold open meetings.” California Government Code Section 54950 et. seq.

THE STATEMENT: Public charter schools “leave a concentration of our most disadvantaged and challenged families in our neighborhood schools … [but] 83% [of charter schools perform] the same or below the traditional schools – only 17% are better…” – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her website

THE FACTS: Let’s talk about the charter schools in our district. Families here are choosing among five charter schools that have been around long enough to have state test results.

· The state standard for schools is an 800 in the Academic Performance Index

· Of ALL the middle and high schools in the district, only five schools reached the state goal of 800; four are charter schools and one is the selective Middle College High

· The charter schools here are required by state law to be non-selective and have open enrollment via a public lottery; these schools work hard to recruit those students that most rely on a transformational educational experience

· The local charter schools also, in total, have higher shares of disadvantaged students and students of color than the district

So, yes, the charter schools here are performing well. It’s no surprise that every charter school in the district currently has a waitlist. And for those charter schools that are not performing well, the district and the county can close them, and they should. All kids deserve a great school.

Let’s remember, the charter-district debate is a diversion. Parents just want their children to have access to an excellent education. There are some great district schools with tremendous leaders and teachers doing amazing things; we should celebrate these schools and honor these educators. In addition, there are great charter schools with an impressive track record. All our kids deserve to have access to schools like these.

We will continue to support what works for kids. We’re a retired couple who has been fortunate late in life, and we’ve committed to try to support positive change for kids in our own community. Some people may not like every donation or investment we make on behalf of kids, but we’ll continue to listen and learn.

The best interest of students will always be our North Star.

Thank you for reading.”

Here is Chau’s response to a mailer funded by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee, which questions his qualifications to run for school board:

“As a homegrown product of this school district, I know what works and what doesn’t work in our school district. In 2004, I served as student board member. I voted against devastating budget cuts, bringing national media attention to West Contra Costa schools. I worked (and found!) local solutions to save sports, libraries, counselors, and 10% of jobs. In 2008, I came back to organize grass-roots support for Measure D, another local measure to support our schools – without increasing taxes.

My only ambition has been clear: to ensure a fair shake for every West County student, the same fair shake I received. I grew up broke in tough Richmond neighborhoods with a single mom. Instead of becoming another statistic, I chose success. Thanks to great neighborhood schools, I graduated from Dartmouth College in 2008 and UC Hastings College of the Law in 2014.

I’ve had to overcome significant adversity – the same adversity our kids face – to achieve success. I am a fresh, independent voice that our school board needs. For instance, I believe that our school district should targeting student loan debt as a recruitment tool for teachers. I know that Millennials like me prioritize student loan debt repayment programs when making career choices. Look at my Facebook page for more information:

I’ll never be able to match Wall Street or millioniaire spending. However, I know that voters want the very best for students. I know what works and what doesn’t work. That’s why I ask for your vote. #votechau”

Here’s where you can see a breakdown of all the money being spent on behalf of each of the 10 candidates in the race:

Elizabeth Block:

Peter Chau:

Otheree Christian:

Valerie Cuevas:

Raquel Donoso:

Madeline Kronenberg:

Elaine Merriweather:

Mister Phillips:

Chester Stevens:

Ayana Kirkland Young:

Although my stories have already detailed expenditures by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee, Education Matters and the Chamberlins, I am posting an updated list below, reflecting information filed as of Oct. 31, along with a short list of major contributors to Block, Chau, Cuevas, Donoso, Kronenberg and Merriweather.

California Charter Schools Association Advocates: $83,030.55 in support of Block; $59,445.97 in support of Cuevas; $22,335.16 to oppose Chau; $113,502.31 to oppose Kronenberg.

Education Matters: $87,337.96 in support of Block; $61,871.35 in support of Cuevas; $5,271.17 to oppose Chau; $30,448.21 to oppose Kronenberg.

Students for Education Reform: $1,340.16 in support of Block; $1,340.16 in support of Cuevas

Elizabeth Block direct contributions: $44,470 (including $15,000 from John Scully of the Making Waves charter and $5,000 from the Chamberlins)

Valerie Cuevas direct contributions: $16,595 (including $2,500 from the Chamberlins, $2,464 in non-monetary contributions and a $900 loan to herself)

Peter Chau direct contributions: $39,850. (Chau did not fill in the occupations of most of his donors, so it is difficult to discern who his contributors are. However, when comparing his contributors to Kronenberg’s, it is easier to see that his contributions include: $5,000 from Powell and Partners Architects; $5,000 from architect Wallace Boyd Gordon; $3,000 from AEKO technology consulting; $3,000 from Sheet Metal Workers International Assoc. PAC; $2,500 from Amanco contractor Herman Blackmon and his wife; $2,500 from Davillier-Sloan labor management consultant; $2,500 from Interactive Resources Architects and Engineers (Tom Butt); $2,500 from Plumbers, Steamfitters, Refrigeration and Pipline Local Union; $2,500 from IBEW PAC, $2,000 from Architects Chad Hamilton and Susan Aitken; $1,500 from Operating Engineers Local PAC; $1,500 from the Plumbing Industry Consumer Protection Fund; $1,500 from architect Douglas Davis; $1,000 from IBEW PAC; $1,000 from Employers Advocate consultant; $1,000 from WLC architect Kevin Macquarrie and his wife; $500 from Hibser Yamauchi Architects; $500 from school facilities consultants Matthew and Janelle Pettler; $500 from Jay and Karen Leong Fenton of Rubicon; $250 from Sally Swanson Architects; and $100 from the Teamsters Union.)

Raquel Donoso direct contributions: $26,920 (including a $5,000 loan to herself, $2,000 from the Chamberlins, $1,500 from Plumbing Industry Consumer Protection Fund, $1,000 from an IBEW PAC, $1,000 from Public Employees Local 1 and $1,050 from Carlos Donoso in Torrance, CA.)

Elaine Merriweather direct contributions: $5,590 (including $1,500 from the Seville Group; $1,500 from Stephen Chamberlin; and $1,000 from Public Employees Union Local 1.)

Madeline Kronenberg direct contributions: $102,323 (including $7,500 from the Seville Group; $7,500 from Powell & Partners Architects; $7,500 from Architect Wallace Boyd Gordon; $6,000 from WLC Architects, $3,500 from Hibser-Yamauchi Architects; $2,500 from Local 342 PAC; $2,000 from AEKO technology consultants; $1,000 from H&M Mechanical Group; $1,000 from Alliance Engineering Consultants; and $1,000 from architect Douglas Davis.

Are you concerned about the amount of money spent in this race?

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