2/13/08 School Board Meeting - BUDGET UPDATE

Here are a few highlights from tonight's school board meeting (agenda and background packet). The board considered several items tonight including the high school course catalog, summer school, and technology-related items, but by far the most important was the 2007-08 and 2008-09 Budget Report.

2007-08 and 2008-09 Budget Report
Assistant Superintendent of Business Bill Stephens in the board agenda item states, "It is the worse budget [the California] education [community] can recall being presented." That summarizes this dire situation well.

There are two aspects.
  1. The governor has declared a financial emergency and called for mid-year budget cuts (including $400 million in statewide education cuts. In the worst case that could mean a $1.3 million cut in Fremont. However, the state analyst believes there are enough categorical funds at the state level to cover these cuts.
  2. Next year's budget -- (2008-09): The state has a deficit of $14.5 billion or more. The cuts proposed to education are enormous -- over $4 billion. Preliminary figures suggest cuts of almost $7 million to Fremont's budget. More details can be found in Mr. Stephens' agenda item which I have attached with my notes from the meeting.

In preparation for this, FUSD has identified $1.6 million dollars that can be saved now mostly from not filling vacant positions. While that is by far the least painful way to save money, it still means there are important services are students aren't getting.

A more detailed list of budget impacts will be presented at the next school board meeting. The Argus also provides a good summary of the steps Fremont and other local school districts are taking to prepare for budget cuts at Inside Bay Area - Fremont schools brace for cuts.

Superintendent Doug Gephart urged everyone to reach out to their legislators now. "Right now it is quiet on this topic in Sacarmento... We can not wait until May. We have to assume the worst case scenario now and get the word out to our legislators." I agree. It is likely that the legislature won't cut education as severely as the governor proposes but it will be a difficult fight in Sacramento. Without a doubt education will be impacted like many programs, but the more we can educate our legislators the better decisions they can make. Instead of a blunt across the board cut in budgets they can be more targeted.

Are these real cuts?
Many parts of the state budget grow each your by a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), which is a figure that accounts for the increase in costs (e.g. rising health insurance, employee salaries, rising energy costs, etc.). So while we call these cuts many are really just a slowing of how much the budget will grow over last year. But the impact of this is still there. If revenues don't keep up with the increase in costs, then valuable programs and services get cut.

However, the governor's education proposal is more than just a slowing; it is a real cut. From the California School Board Association: "Since the Proposition 98 guarantee will grow by less than $4 billion next year, there will be an actual year to year reduction of $865 million."

On the personal side...

Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience dealing with tough school budgets. This is the third time I've seen severe cuts in Fremont education.
  • 1991-92 - As a student board member I had to accept the elimination of counselors among other serious cuts. Some of these cuts have never been restored.
  • 2002-03 and 2003-04 - As a member of the Financial Advisory Committee I helped the district and board evaluate over $7 million in cuts. Much of this was never returned to our district when the CTA and governor settled on a deal that provided that to low performing schools. (I have no problem supporting low performing students and feel the money should have gone to the students not the schools. Our low performing students are left out of this source of funding.)
  • 2007-08 and 2008-09 - We don't know how bad it will be this time, but the district is right to prepare as best as we can. I will be doing everything I can to help our district this time too.

So where's the hope?
As grim as this seems, I know we will find a solution. If we can confront the brutal facts without losing sight of the students and staying positive I believe we will survive this and even thrive. This is one of the key tricks to building a great organization.

The excellent book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't which was recommended to me by Trustee Lara York talks about this as the Stockdale Paradox.

The Stockdale Paradox:

Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.
AND at the same timeConfront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

This applies just as much to school districts as it does corporations.

Other places to find budget information

1/23/08 School Board Meeting

Here are a few highlights from tonight's school board meeting (agenda and background packet).
  • Progress Report on Preparation for Closed Campus - I support the goal of closing our high school closed campuses, but it's clear from this report that it's more expensive than the district can afford at this point.
  • Secondary Passing Times - This was in response to a request from a parent who was concerned there was not enough time for restroom use and breaks during the day for our secondary students. While I don't disagree it is an important issue, I believe this is not a great use of board time. This is better left to the sites and staff to solve with students and parents. The board should focus on higher level policy issues with its precious time.
And just such an important issue was on the agenda.

Science Course Sequence Options
The science curriculum in our 5 high schools are similar, but not the same. One of the key differences is that American high school has in recent years has made Biology a 9th grade class, while in other high schools Biology is normally a 10th grade course and integrated or earth science is a 9th grade course. (I am oversimplifying this a little, so please review to the board item for more details.)

This is an important item from both a philosophical and policy level. The board and district have to balance several difficult concerns.
  • Equity - Is it equitable that one high school offers a 9th grade Biology and others do not? Yes and no. We need to provide the best mix of classes we can for each high school student population, but we also need to not leave any students out.
  • Student choice - This is closely related to equity. We want to provide students with as many choices as they can and as many ways as possible to meet the standards we've set for them.
  • Teacher freedom - Teachers should have the freedom to teach the best way they can - to apply their expertise. We should set clear goals and desired outcomes and let teachers figure out the best way to get there with their students.
  • Staffing - Credentialed science teachers are difficult to find. Additionally starting in 2006 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires all teachers to be Highly Qualified (credentialed) in the subject they teach.

The district science curriculum committee recommended standardizing on Integrated science courses as the 9th grade class. I understand why they came to this pragmatic solution. However the board did not go with that exact recommendation. They voted to:
  • Offer at 9th grade 3 options: Integrated science, Biology, and Honors Biology,
  • Change the 8th grade honors science class to Integrated science, and
  • Ensure that 9th graders in Integrated science can have the option to apply for Honors Biology in 10th grade.

I agree with the thinking that the board went through to come to this decision. I think Peggy Herndon summed it up best in saying, "I think we need to offer our students more not less." Student choice and the equity of that choice are the prime concerns. Only slightly behind that in my mind is academic freedom. We must provide as much freedom as possible to allow our teachers to reach our goals using a variety of methods, and we must measure the results of these offerings. Are they effective? Would there be better options? Setting and measuring goals is crucial here. Freedom to do your job how you see fit only works when there is accountability.

So as a policy decision, the board, in my opinion, made the right call. Restricting equity, choice, or freedom because you can not find the teachers would be the "easy" way out. There were also concerns about the rigor of the curriculum, having enough lab facilities, and impact to test scores as a result of offering more choice. I believe there are solutions to each of these like the ones we will have to find for staffing. If these challenges prove too difficult we may end up having to go with the science committee's recommendation, but we have to at least try.

I am glad the board set the bar higher, and asked our district, "What more can we do for our students?"
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