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New Schools Chief Addresses District Issues


What will new Superintendent Bill Kowba bring to the San Diego Unified School District? We speak to Kowba about his background, and his goals for the district.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After leading San Diego Unified School District during two interim appointments as superintendent, former school Chief Financial Officer Bill Kowba has officially been named superintendent of the county's largest school district. Many are hoping his appointment will end the revolving door at the top of the district, after the brief tenures of superintendents Carl Cohn and Terry Grier. But the problems of shrinking school funds and budget cuts will not change with a new superintendent at the helm. Bill Kowba will have to grapple with a district facing the end of federal stimulus money next year and uncertain state funding. And now he’ll be working to convince voters to approve a new parcel tax for the district on the November ballot. I’d like to welcome San Diego Unified School Superintendent Bill Kowba. Bill, welcome to These Days.

BILL KOWBA (Superintendent, San Diego Unified School District): Thank you, Maureen. Pleasure to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we are inviting our listeners to join the conversation. If you have questions for Bill Kowba about his position at San Diego Unified, the school district’s direction, the recent cuts, or the new school year, give us a call with your questions and comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. My first questions are about the parcel tax. Last night the school board voted to place the measure on the ballot in November. If it were to pass, what would the parcel tax pay for?

KOWBA: We believe, Maureen, that the parcel tax will help us protect and continue some very core requirements for our organization for the school district. One is to provide $150.00 per pupil and it would be money that goes directly to a campus for the campus parent staff leadership to determine how best to use it. We’ve had a loss of over 14% per student of funding in the last several years. So that’s one of the items. Secondly, it would be money used to help protect class size. We’ve had to grow our K-3, our key, formative-year grades in the last couple of years because we just didn’t have enough funding to accommodate staffing workload ratios. So some of that money would go to maintain our class size, kindergarten to third grade, at about 24 to 1. It would also support and safeguard core subject areas, science, technology, engineering, math and languages, to make sure that we have enough of the program professional development, course materials to keep those core courses going forward. And then a fourth pillar of this parcel tax would be for classroom technology. We have embarked a year ago on a very ambitious effort to insert information technology into almost 7,000 classrooms over the next five years and the funding to maintain and sustain that capability for all of our kids is critical. So four key areas: per pupil allocation, class size, core courses and technology insertion.

CAVANAUGH: And how would a parcel tax work? I mean, who would be taxed and how would they be taxed?

KOWBA: Sure. That would be applied according to a domicile or a type of parcel and that’s why the term is such. We have almost 300,000 single family dwellings, domiciles, in the school boundary and that would be charged a $98.00 per parcel for those single family dwellings. There is also a rate for commercial or industrial properties and that would be at a charge of $450.00 per parcel. And then a third area is a multi-family, the apartment dwelling, and that would be at a $60.00 rate. If you added up all the parcels in each of those three categories, it would derive almost $50, $52 million dollars and we would apply that money over a five-year period to those four pillar areas I just mentioned.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now this – And just to be clear, this would go to San Diego Unified only. I mean, it wouldn’t necessarily – and none of it would go to the state for anything.

KOWBA: That’s correct. In fact, the whole reason for pursing a parcel tax that it’s one of the very few options that a school district or any local public sector entity has to generate revenue and to control it completely from within the locality.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you know, Bill, there are some people who don’t like this idea. And one of the criticisms is that this kind of a parcel tax is a regressive tax. It charges the same amount to homeowners in very affluent parts of the school district and non-affluent parts of the school district. How do you respond to that?

KOWBA: Well, I think the framework for a parcel tax is to keep it very straightforward, to keep it balanced. We can accommodate between a single family, multiple family and a business but beyond that there’s a degree of consistency and simplicity that must be presented to the voters as a whole, and to also be very sensitive to rates. We understand that this is an incredibly poor financial environment to be in. We recognize that everybody is sacrificing, and we’ve tried to accommodate to a dollar value here and we are telling the community as a whole that $98.00 per parcel for a single family dwelling, that accommodates to barely $8.00 a month, a few cents a day, and that’s the tradeoff to protecting the future of the kids and that’s where we’re at.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Bill Kowba. He is San Diego Unified School Superintendent. And we are taking your calls. If you’d like to join the conversation, call 1-888-895-5727. As you say, this is a difficult time financially for a lot of people and it’s been a difficult time financially for the San Diego Unified for quite some time. Why does the school district think it needs this parcel tax?

KOWBA: We have been in a spiraling downward budget deficit environment since 2007-08. Over the last four years, now coming right up to the school year we just began, 2010-11, we have cut almost $400 million from our budget. Our projection is that we are requiring ourselves, based on what we know today of the state budget crisis, to cut another $127 million in order to balance for 2011-12. So over a five-year period, that’s $500 million out of our budget. And I was going back in history. We turned 156 years old last week on the first of July.


KOWBA: And we have never in our entire history of the school district had this prolonged period of a funding crisis. It’s my belief that while I’ve just mentioned four years with a fifth year in front of us, unless we can come to grips at the state level with this $20 billion problem, we probably have five, six, seven years, who knows how many true years, before we’re out of this crisis.

CAVANAUGH: You know, historically, San Diego’s not been very supportive of taxes. What makes you think that the voters – that this parcel tax has a chance, that the voters will support it? It has to get a two-thirds majority to pass, is that right?

KOWBA: That’s correct. Our belief is that the community values its schools. Time and again, we have seen that when it counts the San Diego community will come together to support the schools. As recently as Proposition S, our construction bond for $2 billion back in 2008, we had an incredible supportive community come forward to back that, recognizing that we could not support ourselves on annualized general operating funds for maintenance of buildings and construction. And before that, we have had construction bonds and other ways that the community has signaled to support us and I think they will this time, too. They understand that our future is our kids and the well being of this county, of this city, of our district, revolves around schools.

CAVANAUGH: How do you plan to get businesses on board with that $450 flat rate that they’ll have to pay?

KOWBA: Well, I think that we have already made some adjustments to understand and appreciate the sensitivities and the difficulties of the business environment. We had been reassessing, reanalyzing numbers and we actually had, at one time, a complicated sliding rate for commercial properties. After much give and take and discussion with members of the community, we decided a simple, straightforward rate was the right way to go, that that could be accommodated by the business leadership.

CAVANAUGH: We are asking for you to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. My guest is Bill Kowba, San Diego Unified School Superintendent. And let’s take a call right now. Joel is calling us from Carmel Valley. Good morning, Joel. Welcome to These Days.

JOEL (Caller, Carmel Valley): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning.

JOEL: My question is, you rattle – you mentioned some statistics recently, just a few minutes ago, about the number of single family homes and commercial properties and apartment – multi-family homes. Does that apply only to the San Diego Unified School District or is that all of San Diego? I guess my question is, do – even though you’re a resident of San Diego, do you support the school district even though you’re not part of it?

KOWBA: The parcel information relates only to parcels inside the boundaries of San Diego Unified School District.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Okay, let’s take another call. Alex is calling us from Rancho Bernardo. Good morning, Alex. Welcome to These Days.

ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Yeah, I’m thinking of the old saying, you know, sucker me once, shame on you, sucker me twice, shame on me. And, you know, I remember I’m paying a lot of taxes as it is already and every three, four years, you know, the school board, you know, comes for a handout. And, I mean, has this been tried before? How much more money or taxes do you guys want to collect? That’s…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Alex. I understand the question. Alex is asking has a parcel tax been proposed before by the San Diego Unified School District?

KOWBA: No, it has not. To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never come forward. In fact, parcel taxes have been a rare entity in this part of the state and I believe this is the first time for San Diego Unified.

CAVANAUGH: Right, it’s my understanding that the only other large school district successful in approving a parcel tax was up in San Francisco and that was back in 2008?

KOWBA: I believe that was the last significant parcel tax.

CAVANAUGH: Now Mayor Sanders just withdrew an idea to increase the sales tax or at least he was just floating an idea to increase the sales tax. It came up against such opposition so quickly that that sales tax idea has been withdrawn. Why do you think that this parcel tax is going to be different when voters see that they’re going to have to be paying more money?

KOWBA: Well, I think that our message to the voters, our discussion with them, is that this district has reached a – the bottom of the spiral and without the community’s support, without them passing this parcel tax, our only alternative is tremendous layoffs, tremendous cuts to programs. In fact, when I talk about $127 million reduction next year, the rough calculation is about a 1,000 of our teaching staff, certificated staff, almost 400 of our classified staff, those folks on the business side, and a widespread reduction in program. And that’s just unconscionable. So our due diligence as a superintendent, as a board of trustees, is to look for every alternative and not to have considered a parcel tax would’ve been counter to due diligence for us.

CAVANAUGH: And why such a dramatic funding shortage next year? Why would the district be facing that kind of dramatic shortfall?

KOWBA: I think it’s part of the ongoing reduction of revenues from the state competing with fixed operating costs that are simply not going away. The fact that utilities and healthcare and the like are there as a challenge for us, a flat enrollment over the last several years. Without additional children coming to school, there’s an adjustment for revenue that would go up with that, so we’re in an environment, we have multiple forces and they’re all tend to be negative spiraling downward.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call right now. Let’s take Richard, calling from Pacific Beach. Good morning, Richard. Welcome to These Days.

RICHARD (Caller, Pacific Beach): Good morning, and thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say that in addition to being a regressive tax, this is also a tax that is – I consider it very unfair. It’s basically everyone in the city getting to vote on whether or not a particular group of people, i.e. property owners, are going to pay a tax for everyone else. I mean, if we’re going to isolate this to a specific group of people needing to pay for everything, I suppose the argument could be made, well, let’s target the people who actually have kids in the schools.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Richard. What about something like that, Bill?

KOWBA: Well, I think that schools and school districts are a key resource of the entire community, not of just one group of folks that’s parents with school age children. And because we value schools and become the center of neighborhoods, I think it is consistent with the application of a tax across the entire boundaries of the school district. And I think there are also some challenges with equity or argument, pro and con, have to do otherwise.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a short break, and when we return we’ll – I’ll continue my conversation with San Diego Unified School Superintendent Bill Kowba and talk about his appointment and his vision for the school district, and continue to take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guest is San Diego Unified School Superintendent Bill Kowba. And we’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You know, Bill, during your selection and the interview process, there was a lot made of the fact that it was different, it was a different kind of selection process. It was a grassroots, bottom up kind of a way to find the new superintendent for San Diego Unified. I’m wondering, with all the community input that you had during that selection process, what did you hear that made you – that you planned to include in your strategy for leading the district?

KOWBA: I think, first and foremost, it was a desire for stability for a opportunity to have a focus on key core missions, requirements of the school district and to engage the community, to make sure that the table was – and it was all-inclusive for folks coming from inside the organization, from the staff, from parents, from the campus as well as the central office, to all come together to share ideas, problem solve and collaborate on the solutions.

CAVANAUGH: Did anything surprise you in that process in the kinds of things you were hearing from the community?

KOWBA: I think that the community has been very consistent for quite a long time. They want to have a quality education for all of their children, they want to understand where we’re going, and they want to be a part of the journey. A year ago, the board came together to develop goals for student achievement to create a village – a vision for 2020, to adopt a coherent governance that allowed for this broad-based community engagement, and I think we’ve translated into a new management structure.

CAVANAUGH: You know, there’s been a lot made about the fact that you are very well liked by this school board and by members of the teaching community in San Diego Unified. And, of course, for a lot of reasons that’s very positive for you. But I’m also wondering if it makes it difficult for you to counter anything on the board, to stand up to the board, to take – to really take the reins of the district. Do you see any conflict there?

KOWBA: No, I don’t think so. The board appointed me. They did so with a recognition that I was accountable, I was in charge, and that I was to be my own person. And in the different management experiences I’ve had throughout my adult life, I’ve tried to be that in every case. The board recognizes that I have to lead and that I have to have the flexibility, the latitude to do so.

CAVANAUGH: As the different schools, as is the plan, come up with their own reforms and their own best ideas to improve performance, if you see something that’s working and you want to impose that on other schools and they don’t like the idea, do you feel you have the authority to be able to do that?

KOWBA: Yes, I do. I think what our challenge here in the near term is, we’re going to develop nine area superintendencies. That’s taking the San Diego Unified School District and aligning it by geographic neighborhoods and telling each of our clusters that there is an accountable senior educator overseeing K-to-12, or I should say preschool-to-12th grade activity across the campuses. And our key goal, and it’s going to be a tricky one, is balancing the customizing of delivery of education inside those neighborhoods and then elevating it to the point where we standardize where it has to be standardized across the district, problem-solving across clusters, sharing good ideas across clusters.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are inviting you to join the conversation. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Robin is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Robin. Welcome to These Days.

ROBIN (Caller, San Diego): Thank you for taking my call.

CAVANAUGH: You’re welcome.

ROBIN: I have two questions. The first one is that if the superintendent claims that there was cut all costs or as many costs as possible, why are they still running expensive athletic programs through the high schools all summer? And the next thing is why have they not looked at alternative public transportation or using public transportation to get the kids to school, rerouting buses or changing schedules if necessary instead of using the standard school bus system which, of course, is quite expensive. Thank you, and I’ll take your answer off the line.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Robin.

KOWBA: Good questions. In terms of the athletic programs, we have made some adjustments downward in cost and in the ability to operate the schedules. However, this is one of those last safeguards of the full or total education for a student. It’s about the classroom, it’s about the athletic field, it’s about the club, about fine arts, practical arts, and push comes to shove, that’s – that could be one of the next cuts we have to make. But right now we’re still trying to make it as complete and an as enriched setting as we can for a student. With regards to the transportation, we have, in fact, over the last number of years, moved from a operating budget for transportation of around $50 million down to $40 million. We are not a home-to-school transportation district. By that, we do not move all of our children, regardless of neighborhood, to and from school. But we are mandated by law to require transportation for certain types of student, for special education children, those with disabilities, those with individual education plans that call for transportation, we are required to do so. For program improvement children, we are required to do so. Now, the issue of public transportation is a very good one. We have been in some conversation with MTS. We are seeking and will continue the conversation to reduce costs to children. A case in point is San Diego High School, center of our district, high density area, lots of kids need public transportation. Many of them cannot afford the public transportation so we’re trying to work with MTS and we’ll continue this discussion with them. Another point to be made about public transportation, we are spread across 200 square miles, over 200 properties, and we don’t align perfectly with public transportation, and we do know that MTS and other transportation providers are in the same boat we’re in: funding issues. How much can they accommodate? How much can they adjust their schedules?

CAVANAUGH: So the – It’s not a question of them adjusting their schedules to pick up school kids because they just can’t do it.

KOWBA: I think it’s a combination of what their resources are and what our needs are and how do we accommodate.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Christine is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Christine. Welcome to These Days.

CHRISTINE (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you. I just wanted to ask why the district is willing to ask for a tax increase on the parcels when they were unwilling to sign up for the Race to the Top competition for federal funds. It seems like the district is willing to make extreme compromises because of budget deficiencies but unwilling to make small changes or compromises to compete for these federal funds that could’ve alleviated some of that problem.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the question, Christine.

KOWBA: I think Race to the Top has proven to be very controversial not just in San Diego County but across the state. In fact, twice, the governor and the California Department of Education has gone after for districts to sign up and I think the results are that well over half the districts and a significant number of the students have not signed up. And I think it’s because we don’t believe that the requirements levied by us are well in tune with what we want to do at the local level. And there’s a lot of discussion right now in Washington about making adjustments to Race to the Top and actually moving money around to provide for a education jobs bill because of the pushback coming from not only California but from other states with regards to Race to the Top. There – It’s problematic.

CAVANAUGH: And yet, you know, there is this argument that you’re leaving money on the table and asking taxpayers to pick up the slack. That’s probably something you’re going to hear a lot…

KOWBA: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …between now and November.

KOWBA: I would say if we have deferred Race to the Top for many important reasons we have also explored, pursued, applied for a multitude of other grants, school improvement grants, all types of funding for special education, for DOD defense – Department of Defense dependent children, we just received a multi-million dollar award coming from Department of Defense for that. So we are taking a look across the board at a variety of state, federal and private foundation grants.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Denise is calling us from Lemon Grove. Good morning, Denise. Welcome to These Days.

DENISE (Caller, Lemon Grove): Good morning. Thanks for taking my call. When you discussed the cuts, you said something about classes size, certificated, and how huge that cut was going to be. I didn’t hear you mention administrative.

CAVANAUGH: Any administration cuts?

KOWBA: I think that’s – Yes. I only called out the two largest entities we have in terms of our workforce. We are down – Even though we are a large complex organization of 15,000 personnel, we only have about 400 individuals in the management category and we have been cutting them in proportion to the workforce at large. So it’s a given that if our workforce is going down, and we’re making those downward adjustments for our management staff as well.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Bill Kowba and he is San Diego Unified School Superintendent. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. I wonder, Bill, what changes will you be making?

KOWBA: I think the first and foremost is applying the cluster model and that’s getting the area superintendents up and running. I’ve asked them all to come up with an entry plan by the middle of August about how they’re going to engage in the next year. The second part is we are in the process of appointing a deputy superintendent for academics and one for business so that we have a very focused senior leader operating on both sides of our house. And most school districts are built around a business side and an academic side. I think another part beyond the management is implementation. What are we implementing? We have adopted a A-to-G curriculum in high school, that’s meaning aligning our course offerings and our staffing to basic core requirements for high school kids in order to be competitive for second – I should say higher education, whether it be the state school or the UC system. We are rolling out a five-year I-21 information technology plan that’s back to those 7,000 classrooms so that all of our kids, K-thru-12th grade, have a smart classroom with all of the WiFi capability. I talked about our goals for student achievement. We have four critical ones. We want to increase the rigor and relevance for kids. That’s part of the A-to-G high school experience but it goes well down from kindergarten on up. We want to ensure that there’s character and good citizenship. We want tech savvy individuals. We want children that have a support for both the practical and fine arts. We want core math and science. And we want to focus on dropout prevention. All that integrates across the entire preschool to 12th grade experience.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I read that you – some people have said that you have no experience teaching in the classroom, and they question how you relate to the needs of teachers.

KOWBA: I have in the last nine, ten months tried to become my own student of school district. And some of it’s practical, just reading and collecting material, some of it’s on the job training. I try to get out to schools all the time to understand what’s going on the campus, to appreciate what the principal and teaching staff and the support team are doing on that campus. As recently as Tuesday, I was at Cadman Elementary talking with the principal about both general and special education. I think walking, talking and observing along with the reading and catch-up with issues discussed is a way of getting the right kind of training.

CAVANAUGH: As you were Chief Financial Officer and, twice, interim superintendent for the San Diego Unified, and you saw the short tenures of our last two superintendents, I wonder, what were you thinking? Were you thinking I have some ideas that I can bring to this situation? I can see where we could manage things better? Was that going through your mind during that time? Were you developing a rationale and a whole concept of where San Diego Unified needed to go?

KOWBA: I think it’s a combination of things. The longer I was here, the more I understood what we were trying to do. I understood the moving pieces that make us a efficient or inefficient machine, as the case may be. I developed a liking and a love for the school district and for what we’re doing for kids, and I felt that I’ve been here through some of the toughest times with more to follow. I’ve come to appreciate all the different people, whether it be administrators, teachers, community folks, and I feel like I can make a difference, I can make a contribution, so that’s why I’ve stuck it out.

CAVANAUGH: What’s your approach on making tough choices on behalf of so many students and educators?

KOWBA: I think, first and foremost, getting the facts. We want them to have a data-driven decision. We need to understand what are the tradeoffs, the positives and the negatives, and earlier when I said, Maureen, about bringing everybody to the table, we have to hear all of the folks. You know, what are the perspectives coming from the campus, from the central office, from the outside community, from within the district? Weigh all of the facts and all those voices, and then make the choices and make a recommendation to the board.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have – You were telling us about the clusters. Do you have – do you see the idea of having these clusters, of having these ideas come bubbling up from the bottom of the school districts and do you see them actually resulting in closing achievement gaps or raising student achievement in math and reading? It sounds like to – some critics would say the teachers will be happier but will the students actually be performing at a higher level?

KOWBA: I think there’s great potential. When you ask more than one stakeholder group for input, for their perspective, that you’re going to get some number of good ideas. And if you mesh them all together, I think you turn out excellence in that regard.

CAVANAUGH: And what have you done to educate yourself on the total needs of the district from the budget on down?

KOWBA: Well, I want to meet with the senior educators on a regular basis. We just began the new area superintendent structure last week on the first of July. I’ve already met twice with them as groups, and with a number of them individually. I try to sound out our curriculum people. I talk to the standards and accountability folks about testing and benchmarks. So I have established a routine of getting out and talking to folks about academic necessity, academic programs and the way we want to apply them in an integrated fashion.

CAVANAUGH: You know, getting all that information, though, it must be terribly confusing. When do you get to the point where you say, okay, this is what we’re going to do and that’s – these ideas are fine but this is actually what we’re going to do.

KOWBA: Yeah, well, I think that reaching that point is a combination of a sense of urgency, a timeline, a commitment that we need to deal with. A case in point right now is we’re less than sixty days from opening schools. This may be mid-summer but we’re already looking at what we need to do. So sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s a commitment to other stakeholder groups, but we have to, in the coming year, try to be more planful, planning and thoughtful. This past year was more of a crisis mode and a reactive rather than a proactive sense of where we were going.

CAVANAUGH: And, Bill, how engaged are you going to be in the effort to convince voters or persuade voters that this parcel tax is something they should vote for?

KOWBA: Well, clearly I’d be willing to share information, to go to forums, talk to folks, provide information, and as would my staff. We do have to be very, very careful about whether it’s sharing information or providing for advocacy. As part of a public sector agency, it is not ours on district time or business time to be advocating for various initiatives going before the electoral. But to talk about them in terms of information or perspective is certainly appropriate and something we need to do. We need to inform and educate the community as a whole.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for speaking with us today. Thank you.

KOWBA: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Bill Kowba, San Diego Unified School Superintendent. And if you’d like to comment, please go online, Coming up, a big win for the Sunrise Powerlink. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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