Neighborhood schools: Safe!
School board trustees offered their take on the direction Alameda Unified should go in the third and final public workshop of their master plan development process Tuesday night. (Hint: your neighborhood elementary school is not going to close … though some trustees said they’d consider turning Washington or Paden into a magnet.)
School Board President Mike McMahon and Vice President Ron Mooney said they don’t want to close neighborhood schools (though they’d consider turning Washington or Paden, both schools that have been less-than-full, into magnets). Trustee Tracy Jensen also said she also favors neighborhood schools.
McMahon and Mooney also said Alameda schools should be willing to fill empty seats with students transferring from other districts. Many locals oppose that idea, though McMahon said bringing students in to fill seats could help the district pay its bills.
Their comments came during a workshop to outline educational priorities for the schools and how to pay for them in the face of continuing state budget cuts. More than three-quarters of the money to cover the district’s $80 million budget comes from the state, and Alameda Unified is facing $5 million in state cuts this year.
Superintendent Kirsten Vital said that parents here want neighborhood schools, small class sizes, transparency and accountability, specialized programs, flexible spaces for different learning activities (instead of, say, cafeterias that double as after-school care) and priority consideration for local students’ educational needs.
She said the district could help pay for that by restructuring the district office and by asking voters for a new parcel tax to help cover the costs of programs we feel are essential. The district has two temporary parcel taxes that are due to sunset in 2012; a settlement agreement with one of the litigants in the Measure H cases would have a committee working toward putting a new tax to supersede both the existing ones on the ballot as soon as June 2010.
Still, Vital said the district – which is facing the ongoing loss of up to $14 million a year after the parcel taxes lapse – will also need to cut costs in order to deal with the loss of state funds. She said district staff is working on a detailed rundown of how the district’s money is spent that the school board could see at the end of September.
Another option Vital mentioned was creating charter or magnet programs. Chipman Middle School could become a charter next year as part of a restructuring effort mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law (the school hasn’t met all its testing goals for a few years running). And Phil Dauber, chair of Alameda High School’s science department, suggested the district go after federal dollars to fund a magnet focused on science, technology and/or math.
McMahon said one of the cuts the board could be forced to consider is class size reduction, something other districts have already done. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it doesn’t sound like he is a huge fan of charter schools.)
Trustee Nielsen Tam said the factors that make a school successful go beyond the policies the school board will make. “It all depends on how staff and administrators build the community,” Tam said. “A school is only as good as its teachers and administrators and the support of its community.”
Trustee Trish Spencer missed the meeting due to a long-scheduled family vacation.
Many of the six dozen or so parents, teachers and district staff who attended the workshop had questions about charter schools. Others said the district needs to do a better job of letting parents know what they have to offer.
State funding and charters were the topics of two earlier workshops. District officials determined that trying to survive on state money alone would cause a steep decline in educational quality and that making all the district’s schools charters wouldn’t work out.
The district is planning an outreach campaign over the next few months to talk to parents and others about their planning efforts. In fact, they’re looking for volunteers to host house parties and other events (if they talked about how to volunteer I missed it, but the district office number is 337-7060).
They’re hoping to have a complete draft of the master plan by November 3 and a final vote on December 8.