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School board talks plan, tax

Submitted by on 1, February 10, 2010 – 6:00 amNo Comment

Tuesday’s Board of Education discussion about a proposed master plan that would guide the district’s priorities through 2015 erupted into a firefight over class sizes and school closures – and whether voters will be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain local schools.

Board President Ron Mooney and Vice President Mike McMahon backed the plan and said a new tax is necessary to preserve Alameda’s schools as state funding evaporates. But Trustee Trish Spencer said that in these tough economic times, she doesn’t think people will be willing to pay.

“It’s clear to me that in order for us to maintain any semblance of education that the residents of the city of Alameda want, we need to go ahead and ask for a new parcel tax,” McMahon said.

Spencer said she doesn’t think the district should spend money to start a K-8 magnet program that is envisioned in the plan, and she called specialized programs that would contained at specific school sites would not be “fiscally responsible.” Instead, she said the board should consider closing some of its smaller schools – which she accused of draining the district’s coffers for a privileged few – and consolidate the students at larger schools, in an effort to protect smaller class sizes.

The district’s smallest elementary schools by population are Washington and Franklin, followed by Paden, enrollment statistics cited in a draft demographic study presented to the board in November show. Its largest is Amelia Earhart on Bay Farm Island.

“We have to realistically look at that and say, ‘Can we, as a community, pass a parcel tax that’s twice what we have now, and not have another lawsuit.’ I’m very concerned about the economics of this plan,” Spencer said.

But Mooney said that closing smaller schools may not save the district money because parents whose students attended those schools may choose to go to non-district schools, which would result in a loss of state funds to the district. And Superintendent Kirsten Vital said that if the district did close three elementary schools as contemplated under a plan scenario where there parcel tax doesn’t pass and put the students in other schools, the district would not be able to maintain small class sizes.

McMahon said the district could expand on a model piloted at Franklin. That school’s principal gets 60 percent of her pay for running the school, and the remaining 40 percent for handling duties at the district office.

Two parents, Tom Lynch and Terri Hansen, presented hundreds of signatures from people who oppose efforts to increase class sizes, and Lynch said the board should consider closing schools instead.

Brad Cook and Earhart parent and a member of the group Alameda Concerned Parents, said the district should focus on core academics instead of “recent distractions” he didn’t specify, though he has been an outspoken lesson of the district’s anti-gay bullying Lesson 9. Cook said he doesn’t support new programs like the proposed magnet school and that he doesn’t support neighborhood schools or increased class sizes. And he said he opposed the parcel tax and the district seeking out money from philanthropic organizations, who he said would try to push their “agendas” on students. The parents group has accused the district of rushing to pass the plan.

The master plan process began in March 2009 and included a series of public meetings and online polls designed to give the district a feel for what kind of education parents want. Neighborhood elementary schools rose high on parents’ priority list, so the school board directed Vital to work to preserve those.

Scenarios for a replacement parcel tax designed to raise as much as $16 million a year could triple the amount that homeowners currently pay and add new charges for apartment dwellers. The money would be used to preserve programs in the face of sharply declining state funding. State funds cover more than three-quarters of the district’s budget.

The board will consider adoption of the plan and parcel tax recommendations at its February 23 meeting.

Separately, the board heard a presentation on renewing the Alameda Community Learning Center’s charter. The board will need to make a determination about whether to extend the charter at its March 9 meeting.

Also, an attorney who has represented parents opposed to the Lesson 9 curriculum threatened to sue the board for an alleged Brown Act violation, saying a December vote to keep Lesson 9 in elementary classrooms was not properly noticed. He asked the board to hold a special meeting next week to rescind the motion.

Supporting materials for all these items, by the way, can be found here.

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