Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pacific Sun reports on our struggle to stop the charter

Education: A tale of two charters: In exploring new education, Marin parents navigate unchartered waters

Is it the best of times or the worst of times for charter schools in Marin?

Well, it certainly hasn't been the best of times in the Lagunitas School District for the past few months. In fact, it seemed to be "deja vu all over again." Forty years ago a group of parents and educators fought hard to bring the child-centric Open Classroom emphasizing individual learning styles to the small district—a program that continues to flourish.

In addition to the Open Classroom and a Montessori program, the district offers the Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program (LWIP), based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. It is one of very few public school Waldorf programs in the state or country. (The Novato Charter School is also a Waldorf-inspired model.)

The LWIP has support not only from the families within it, but the school district and board of trustees as well. It has co-existed with the other programs since its humble beginnings with a kindergarten class in 2004. (It now serves close to 50 children from kindergarten through fifth-grade.) As the newest of the district's offerings, parents feared that current and future cuts, especially the loss of a teaching position, would erode the program, so the Administrative Council (elected by LWIP parents) explored different options and decided that a charter school was the best choice.

Although, according to the Administrative Council, "99 percent of the parents" backed the idea, the proposal was fraught with problems from the start. While the accusations and allegations flew in the San Geronimo Valley, a group in Novato formed the North Bay Education Foundation with the intent of starting a second charter school—to open in August 2013—in the Novato Unified School District.

This group's approach is quite different—for a number of reasons. The Lagunitas program is established and sought charter status based on known and expected financial issues facing the district and program. The process didn't really get under way in earnest until last spring. The charter petition was submitted in April this year with the goal of starting as a charter school this month. NBEF, on the other hand, is allowing much more time

NBEF board member MJ Lonson says the charter petition is complete and currently being reviewed; it will be submitted to the Novato Unified School District by early October. The enrollment process for students is now open, and, as of press time, it appears that approximately 600 students have shown intent to enroll. There is no school site (the closed Hill Middle School has been mentioned) or staff yet.

A group of parents, unhappy when Rancho Elementary converted from a magnet school with a back-to-basics emphasis and high test scores to a neighborhood school, morphed into the NBEF, which plans to implement the Core Knowledge curriculum—currently used in close to 800 schools nationwide, including charter, public and private.

Lonson says, "The tremendous level of parent interest...reveals a desire in Novato for a progressive educational alternative. Education reform is a nationwide conversation, and NBEF believes the proven success of the research-based Core Knowledge curriculum and methodology provides a unique approach to academic excellence for all students."

Marin currently has three charter schools: Phoenix Academy in San Rafael, this past year serving 13 students in grades 9-12, opened in the fall of 1995; the Novato Charter School, a K-8 program with about 250 students opened in August 1996; and Willow Creek Academy in Sausalito, also K-8 with about 250 students, opened in the fall of 2001. Marin School of the Arts in Novato and the Ross Valley School District's Multi-age Program at Manor School are not charters, in spite of many referring to them as such.

The California Charter Schools Association states that the Charter Schools Act, signed into law 20 years ago, allows "parents, organizations or community groups to restore, reinvent and reenergize the public school system." The schools, which are tuition-free (though many charters do request hefty "donations" from parents) and open to all students, are designed and governed by a local community rather than a central bureaucracy.

What some parents see as reorganizing and reenergizing a school, others perceive to be an attempt to run an elite, taxpayer-funded private school that drains resources from established programs. And right now, almost every school district in the state is struggling to provide for its students, including both Lagunitas and Novato. A Novato parent, who requested that her name not be used, feels quite passionately about what she considers the privatization of public schools. She says that charter schools, organized and run by a self-selected group of well-educated parents, eventually will devastate neighborhood schools and cause more "white flight" in her relatively diverse community. And, as she researches the law governing charters, she becomes more disillusioned.

Robert Ovetz, whose daughter is in the third grade at the LWIP, says the process that led to the charter petition was not democratic. Beyond his concern regarding the lack of transparency, Ovetz says the petition itself was "highly flawed." He cites a number of issues that could have long-term negative effects, ultimately putting the program at risk. Primarily, though, it was not feasible financially. 
According to parent Mia Terziev, the charter committee formulated budget numbers with the help of a financial consultant—and it seemed viable. The district's initial analysis showed that as presented, the charter would cause larger deficits in the district. Though the board of trustees and district staff were supportive, the initial analysis stated, "The Petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition." The petition was missing other key elements as well.
The possible negative fiscal impact on the district along with the divisiveness in the community led the LWIP Parent Council to withdraw the charter petition. For this school year, the Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program continues as part of the school district—with two new teachers on board.

The Administrative Council is hoping to work out "longstanding differences and points of contention within the district at large." Members are particularly concerned that the program's parents and teachers are seen as elitist and selfish. Some tough lessons were learned—by the adults. And in Novato? The NBEF is taking it slowly and carefully. Supporters—and opponents as well—should be mindful of what happened in the Lagunitas district. But when it comes to what's best for our children, many of us need a refresher course in rational thinking.

Find this article at:

Monday, July 2, 2012

SF forum on the privatization of public education, July 29th

This event is part of the annual LaborFest. It may be a good place for fellow parents, teachers and staff who just successful repelled the charter proposal to share our story.

July 29 (Sunday) 10:00 AM (Free) 518 Valencia  - near 16th St., SF
Who is Behind Privatization of Public Education?
Education, Privatization, Bill Gates, Broad, KIPP, Pearson And The Gulen Schools
A massive national and international organized plan to privatize education has been implemented over several decades. Billionaires, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and the Pearson corporation among others, have infiltrated hundreds of governmental bodies including school boards, city councils and our local, state and regional governments. They seek to turn our education system into a profit center worth tens of billions of dollars. This also includes the Gulen Islamic cult led by Imam Fethullah Gulen, which runs the largest chain of charters in the United States funded by public money.  We will also look at the criminal conflicts that have allowed politicians to personally benefit from using their public positions to profit from their votes and actions. This forum will look at how this has come about, who did it, how it is affecting us and who is profiting from it at the cost of public education and finally how to stop this attack on our public education system.
Madeline Mueller, Professor SF City College, AFT2121
Susan Miesenhouse, CFA CSU Longbeach
Kathleen Carroll, Lawyer and Whistleblower At Commission On Teacher Credentialing
Bruce Neuberger, AFT 4681 San Mateo Adult School
Sharon Higgins, Researcher and Blogger On Charters, Parents Across America
Sponsored By United Public Workers For Action

Friday, June 29, 2012

ALERT: LWIP pro-charter clique trying to fire beloved kindergarden teacher

The Administrative Council (AC) running our Waldorf Inspired Program (LWIP) have unilaterally decided to fire Krista Augustaitus the kindergarden teacher who has been in the program longer than many of our children. In fact, Krista has effectively been serving as the primary kindergarden teacher for as long as I've been here, two years, with far less than full-time pay. In the email attached below sent to us LWIP parents on June 16th the AC unilaterally announced its decision to fire Krista without any discussion among the parents and teaching staff. Sound familiar? This same clique also made the expensive and ultimately defeated decision to try to ramrod through a charter petition to turn our program into their own private school. They are still at it.

The problem is that the AC doesn't have any power to hire and fire despite what they claim in the email. According to what I was told by Principal Laura Shain one of the reasons the AC is exempt from the California Brown Act which mandates strict rules about transparency in government is that the AC cannot hire and fire. Someone needs to inform the AC. 

We hear a lot of jargon about "heart center" education from some of the LWIP parents, especially those on the AC. Even in this email we are told that "it is in the best interest of the LWIP children and for the longer-term viability of our program." Krista is a single parent with 3 children, one of whom is in the program. How is firing her in the best interest of her son or her family? How "heart centered" is it to give her no warning that she would be out of a job. Isn't it hypocritical to protest our dear Mr. Kobabe's being laid off without any explanation but then a few weeks later also fire Krista without cause? 

The way the AC is treating Krista is a foreshadowing of how they would be treating the rest of the teaching staff had the charter petition not been utterly defeated. The teaching staff would have been totally at their mercy without tenure, seniority, and collective bargaining rights.

Power has corrupted those on the AC and they should resign immediately. We are still waiting for them to issue personal apologies to the entire District community for their charter folly that is estimated to cost the District about $59,000 in excess legal expenses and stirred up a hornets nest of animosity within and towards our program. Now they think they are the District upon themselves. Time for them to go.

The Board of Trustees will be voting whether to lay off Krista this Monday morning, July 2 at 8 am. Help us stand up for our teachers and be there to say No.

-------- Original Message --------
Sat, 16 Jun 2012 10:57:49 -0700
Greg Brown/Jen Rousseau <>

Dear Parents, 
The LWIP Administrative Council, Faculty and the Lagunitas School District Administration have been reviewing configurations for our program for next year. Currently our configuration plan is: a full time Kindergarten teacher (Kindergarten teachers cannot be hired as part-time teachers.  Our full time K teacher will support the grades in the afternoons), Dorothy in class 1/2 and a .6 teacher for class 3/4/5.

At the June 12th board meeting, the board voted unanimously to allow our program to have the flexibility to use program-raised funds to augment the .6 certificated teacher position to a full-time position for one year.   This means that our program will use parent-raised funds to supplement .4 of the salary for that teacher. We are very pleased with this decision, which will enable greater enrollment and further stabilization of our program.
We feel very strongly that next year's 3/4/5 class needs a full-time teacher in order to have a successful educational experience.  It is also more likely that we will attract a quality teacher by offering that person a full-time position.
We have been looking at the budget and the fundraising we have been able to achieve and what this .4 will cost our program. The cost to our program is nearly the same as what we pay to support the current Kindergarten aide (Krista's) position.  We have just been approved to hire an amazing, experienced full-time Kindergarten teacher for next year and will therefore no longer need the same level of aide support in the Kindergarten.  We now need to use those funds to ensure that the 3/4/5 is supported with a full-time teacher.
We do not have enough in our parent fundraising to support both the .4 and the current Kindergarten aide position.  We are sad to have to make this decision, but we believe, considering the circumstances,  it is in the best interest of the LWIP children and for the longer-term viability of our program.
We have spoken with Krista about this and will continue to have conversations about how she might still be involved in our program.  No matter what decisions are made about this difficult situation, we will be sure to honor Krista’s amazing dedication to our program and love for our children.
We want the parents to be informed of these latest developments.  Please contact us with any questions or comments.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

Charter school petition cost the District about $59k in legal fees

At the June 20th Board of Trustees meeting the administration reported an updated figure for legal expenses to the District that totals a whopping $71,219.24. $59,349.22 of that total was attributed just to legal expenses related to the charter school petition. A small unspecified part of that is attributed to my still incomplete California Public Records Act (PRA) request. I have not yet received any emails from Trustee Richard Sloan who, as I reported in an earlier posting, has refused to turn over his email communications about the charter petition. PRA's are part of our state Right to Know laws. Compliance with the law can get expensive when Trustees refuse to cooperate and when there is a large volume of communications, notes, memos, and reports that must be reviewed by legal counsel before they are released.

At the meeting Trustee Santa Cruz Bohman warned anyone who is considering making a PRA to think about the costs. Perhaps that was for my benefit since I was present in the room. Nevertheless, this was a curious statement from an elected official who turned in only a single email. It's hard to believe that was the extent of her email communications about the charter petition especially when she was CC'ed on numerous other emails that her fellow Trustees turned over from their own District and personal email accounts. One can only hope that Ms. Bohman is complying with the PRA. After all, I confronted this same issue last summer when she neglected to turn over emails I already had in my possession.  

The take home lesson here is that the LWIP charter petitioners must acknowledge the huge financial and non-monetary expense they have caused to the District from their flawed and ultimately defeated charter school plan. Their folly has essentially cost the District the equivalent of a full-time teacher's salary.

Unfortunately, no one is acknowledging responsibility. Nothing has changed in LWIP since the same clique is still running the Administrative Council and even just hired our two new teachers. Not only did they neglect to announce that the hiring committee was forming to solicit volunteers but to add insult to injury even announced one of the hires to the entire Valley on the SGV email list a few days ago before they bothered to inform us LWIP parents. The AC is running our program as if it were their own private school. Democracy is still hollow shell in LWIP and things must change soon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Board votes down bond measure and approves pay raises

This morning the Board of Trustees voted 4-1 against putting an unpolished bond measure on the November ballot. Thankfully, they also gave final approval to the first teacher and staff salary increase in several years.

With the mid-1990s bond measure still unpaid the Board shifted it position after the staff admitted that, due to the huge expensive time suck that was the defeated charter school petition, they had not had the time to do the necessary background work to adequately prepare the Board to move forward with the $5 million bond. It showed. The Board didn't have an analysis of how well the money from the current bond measure has been spent, how much the District taxpayers still owe, and even how much the $5 million measure being considered would cost over the projected 25-30 years it would take to be repaid.

Trustee Santa Cruz-Bohman went from being in the minority to the majority with a well articulated critique of the bond measure. One of the issues she noted is that the consultants advising the District only make money from the bond measure being approved. Amy Prescott pointed out that they stand to make about $60,000 for each bond sale. It should also be asked if they will also finance the campaign to pass the bond and recruit campaign donations from Wall Street bond investors who stand to profit from their sale as well. A recent investigation by the Denver Post found widespread corruption in school bond sales in Colorado in which consultants were doing just that. If we do put this measure on the ballot the District should prohibit such donations from interest parties.

By my preliminary calculations, it would have been costly. Over 25 years at a 5% interest rate it would have cost the District an extra $1.25 million and at 8% it would be an extra $5 million. As Superintendent Larry Enos noted this morning, local governments are borrowing more to fill in the gaps from state cuts. But the big picture is that it costs far more to borrow in future dollars than it does to tax in today's dollars because taxes are interest free. It is much cheaper and more effective for the District to find a way to generate local tax and fee revenue that would restore the inequity in the share of our local tax burden. This is much preferred over saddling us with repaying Wall Street for loaning us money at exorbitant interest for another generation. Last Fall I wrote on this blog about several ways to do just that and how much we could expect to raise here and here. Some of my ideas would allow us to shift the burden to tourists and those buying homes and property in the Valley rather than existing taxpayers.

The good news is that the most critical repairs to the roof of the Montessori classrooms and the walkway coverings can be funded by existing money the District already has for deferred maintenance. By January 2012 this reserve fund amount is expected to be about $560,000 and is available for just this purpose. Note that this money comes from taxes not borrowing.

The Board also gave its final approval to new contracts for staff, teachers and administrators which includes a tiny but much appreciated raise. Teachers and staff have gone several years without any pay increases which means that with inflation they have seen a pay cut. They will both receive a retroactive 2.35% pay increase for 2011-12 and a 1% increase for the following year and keep their current health benefits.

For those of you who followed the Board election last November you might recall that I made these two issues and teacher and staff lay-offs central to my campaign. Sometimes you can win by losing. I may have lost the election but we've had more success by putting the issues of the bond measure and staff and teacher pay front and center. It should also be noted that no teachers were pink slipped this year. This is another lesson in the power of an organized and articulate community to reverse lay-offs and cutbacks in critical public services.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Crucial questions about the proposed bond issue

Last night the Board of Trustees asked the administration to return at a soon to be announced special board meeting to consider a prioritized list of projects to be funded by the proposed 25-30 year $5 million bond measure. The measure is slated for the November 2012 ballot. The board was definitely split last night and after a lengthy discussion asked to continue the discussion.

There is no doubt that many of these projects are extremely worthy and a few need to be done soon. However, there are several questions that still need to be closely considered before taking such an expensive step to put this issue before the voters with the November election coming up fast.

First, what happened with the still ongoing bond measure? The District still has 3 more years to pay off its current 20 year bond passed in 1995. It is unclear how much the District taxpayers still owe for that one. The District has not prepared an analysis of how much that bond measure raised, spent and cost with interest. What happened with the money? How was it used? Were the projects completed satisfactorily? Did the projects that taxpayers were told needed to be done actually got done?

In order to successfully sell another bond measure the District needs to demonstrate that it successfully and effectively used the money from the last one.

Second, how much will this $5 million bond actually cost over the 25-30 year period? Even though interest rates and construction costs are very low right now is borrowing the money going to end up costing taxpayers even more than raising it in today's dollars from tax and fee revenues? When the consultant presented the results of his poll several months ago he said that he didn't ask any questions about whether voters would support other sources of funding for these projects. Shouldn't the District be asking this question before proceeding to put a bond on the ballot?

What is the most financially prudent way to raise the money for these much needed projects?

Finally, with Governor Brown's critically needed tax measure (and a less effective competing measure) on the ballot in November are we risking voter backlash by also asking them to improve another bond measure? The consultant didn't ask this question in his poll either.

There is no disputing how critically important these projects are and that they would bring much needed employment to the Valley but the District still needs to address these issues before it proceeds with another bond measure.

Afterall, if the bond measure fails to get its 55% threshold to pass it will blow an opportunity to raise this money for a time to come. It shouldn't rush its decision. There will be a governor's race on the 2014 ballot that will have a high turnout making passage also more likely. And in the meantime, maybe it can begin to find the funds to fix the most urgent problems.

Update on the parent's fight to save their schools in Oakland

Yesterday I wrote about how 5 Oakland public elementary schools are slated to be closed and hat parents and students will be engaging in a sit-in at one to save it. Today KALW's incredible Cross Currents program documented that these same public schools are being closed after more than a decade of  record number of charter schools being opened thereby draining the Oakland Unified School District of critical funds. In fact, OUSD now has 34 charter schools (thanks to then Mayor Jerry Brown's pro-charter agenda and the state take-over of the district between 2003-09) out of 135 total schools. At last, OUSD is finally starting to reject resource draining charter petitions. The tide is starting to turn against charter schools and we are, once again, out in front in our widespread rejection of the hopefully dead and buried charter petition.