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Challenging Year Ahead For San Diego Unified

Challenging Year Ahead For San Diego Unified
Tuesday marked the first day of school for students in the San Diego Unified School District. We discuss the financial challenges the district faces this year, and the school board's latest efforts to improve local schools.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): I’m Alison St John sitting in for Gloria Penner, and I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable on KPBS here in San Diego. Just as teachers at San Diego city schools start to feel they’re back in the driver’s seat of educational reforms, a new group of business and community leaders is exploring ways to reform the governance structure. Is it all politics or could it affect the quality of our children’s education? The cost of everything is going up but our water bills seem to be rising faster than is justifiable. The debate over water rates seems to be intersecting with the debate over public employee pensions, and every San Diego city resident will get to vote on whether to let the City raise the sales tax in return for cost-cutting reforms but how’s a voter to make sense of all the competing economic analyses? The editors joining me at the roundtable this week are Andrew Donohue, editor of Great to have you here, Andrew.

ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, Always good to see you, Alison.

ST JOHN: And JW August, managing editor for 10News. JW, good to see you.

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, 10News): Good morning, Alison.

ST JOHN: Bob Kittle is also here, director of New Planning and Content for KUSI. We’re happy to see you, Bob.

BOB KITTLE (Director, News Planning and Content, KUSI): Good morning, Alison. Thank you.

ST JOHN: Just like old times. So, let’s get started with education because what’s happening in city schools right now is fascinating at the beginning of this new year. The city school district is huge, it’s got an operating budget of about the same size as the City of San Diego’s genera fund. It has more employees than the City. And with education now an essential ingredient for any child’s success, its responsibilities are formidable. So, you know, educational reforms are always in the air, Andrew, and we have a new superintendent. Tell us a little bit about the current flavor of reforms in San Diego city schools.

DONAHUE: Sure. Well, we have sort of – kind of setting the table almost for what could be a battle for the soul of the school district again. And I would sort of look at it in sort of two different ways. First of all is the reform track. There’s sort of this constant and ongoing debate on what actually school reform means and whether you should be reforming from the outside, which a lot of people who are putting pressure on the school district say you should be doing. And then the school district’s coming back with a very specific or not very specific but sort of the outlines of a plan that would actually do that reform from the inside, sort of a grassroots from the classroom on up. And then sort of the second branch is this battle over the actual governance structure. There’s a new group called San Diegans for Great Schools that has come out of the sort of all the turbulence that we’ve had at the top with the many different superintendents leaving the school district and they’re coming out saying basically we need to have some stability and we need to look at actually how we put people on our school board and perhaps we need to actually start appointing people so we can have a bigger school board and we can have a school board that’s sort of less – less volatile, less susceptible to all these sort of instabilities.

ST JOHN: And all this is sort of coming in the wake of the fact that everyone still remembers the time of Alan Bersin and the top down reforms and then since then we’ve had a series of superintendents but right now we’re looking at a situation where reforms are coming more from the grassroots and the teachers. What actually are the teachers and the community suggesting as reforms coming from the bottom?

DONAHUE: Sure, well, like I said, the plan is still vague. I think in many ways the school district is putting it out there and unveiling it as sort of a response to these criticisms that they’re getting for the outside, so there’s still a lot of questions on what we’re actually going to see and how this is actually going to play out in the classroom. But the basic idea is, you know, people within the school district are saying, you know, reform – there’s this reform buzzword out there and it can mean a million different things but we don’t need all this outside help. What we need to do is empower teachers to make up their own plans in the school – in actually the classroom. And then what they want to do is have these feeder schools, the elementary schools, the middle schools and the high schools in each neighborhood actually work together to have a very cohesive plan that you’re giving to kids all the way through from K-thru-12.

ST JOHN: So, JW, what chance do you think the school district has of – and the teachers and the community, this bottom up reform, do you think that’s a good way to be approaching reform in city schools?

AUGUST: Well, maybe it sounds good but I’m not so sure kumbaya education works. I think this is all in part to do with the Bersin years and the bounce-back from that.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

AUGUST: Which, by the way, were recently deemed effective by the California Public Policy Institute after he’s been gone a number of years, and they issued a report where they deemed his time in office as a – as he did an effective job. So that must’ve made everybody a little bit nervous.

ST JOHN: Although there were some different interpretations of that.

AUGUST: Oh, yes.

ST JOHN: Some of the reforms were effective and some were not.

AUGUST: Right. Right.

ST JOHN: And it…

AUGUST: Absolutely. And the idea that they’re going to watch this with 9 superintendents and divide everything up into little fiefdoms and, you know, that predisposes that all the teachers have equal skill levels, all the teachers are similarly motivated. I think it’s a little more of the teacher – the unions calling the shots in the school district right now.

ST JOHN: Okay, so, Bob, there’s this group, San Diego for Great Schools.

KITTLE: Right.

ST JOHN: And I believe you’ve had quite a bit to do with them. Tell us a little bit about what they bring to the table.

KITTLE: Well, you know, I think what’s really happening here, Alison, is the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme from the Bersin years when it was top down, excuse me, a top down reform program to basically the teachers union being back in charge and saying, well, the reform is bubbling up from the teachers. The teachers are always the key. And this group has stepped in and basically offered to change, as Andrew said, the governance structure of the school board, and their prime motivation there is to break the control of the teachers union over the school board. The school board really is controlled by the teachers union, that is at least three of the five members. So this group, which, by the way, has the backing of the business community, including someone like Irwin Jacobs, the founder of Qualcomm, and the backing of Jerry Sanders. They proposed a plan where the mayor or some other entity would appoint members so that instead of having a five-member school board, you’d have a nine-member school board. And the idea there is with the appointed members, the appointed members would not be beholden to the teachers union because elected school board members are because of the enormous help that the school – that the teachers union can provide at election time.

ST JOHN: So a pretty radical proposal for governance structure changes. If you have any comments or questions, we would love to hear from you. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. So the person who’s sort of behind this new business-backed group is a gentleman by the name of Scott Himelstein.

KITTLE: Correct.

ST JOHN: Do you want to tell us a bit about him, Bob?

KITTLE: Well, he’s an experienced educator. He’s now at USD. He’s an academician. But he’s also served in the school district under Bersin. He’s been an administrator there, and he has a very broad knowledge of education and he is a reformer. The school board and the school administration have really done their best to keep him at arm’s length and I suppose that’s understandable because, to my mind, there’s nothing more hidebound in our society than the education establishment. It is just very resistant to change.

ST JOHN: Well, I guess it’s understandable. After all, the feelings that are left behind from Alan Bersin that they might be keeping him at arms length. Is that your understanding, Andrew, that there really isn’t any discussion going on at the moment between the schools and…

DONAHUE: No, I think it’s funny, Alan Bersin’s name has dominated this conversation and it tends to dominate every conversation in San Diego. Here we are five, five and a half, six years after he left. The former superintendent Terry Grier said something to the effect of I’ve never actually met the man but I feel like I’ve been – or I feel like he lives in my desk or in my closet or something like that. A lot of this is a reaction to that instability we’ve had since Bersin left. If you look at it, we had, like I said, I think it was five and a half, six years ago, Bersin leaves, we have Carl Cohn. He brings in his own people. He sets up his own plan, he sets it in motion, and he leaves. And then we bring in a new guy, Terry Grier. He brings in all his new people, they set in all their new plans and then he leaves immediately. So here we are five years down the road, we’re on our fourth different superintendent. So every time we’ve started to climb up that hill and started to put a plan into effect, we’ve sort of just fallen – sort of fallen to the bottom of that hill and had to start new with new, different people. So I think the – I think all of that weighs really heavily over everything we’re watching right now.

ST JOHN: Is there any evidence that the reforms that were – here we go again with Alan Bersin, with the reforms put into place with that Blueprint for Student Success are still present in the schools. Are some of the methods that were found to be successful being accepted.

DONAHUE: Yeah, I think with the study that JW was referring to really found that the literacy programs were a great success, and I think what you’ll hear from people is that the programs themselves were a great success. How they were actually enacted and how they were sort of pushed upon people is really what we’re dealing with still to this day, it was more sort of the style than the actual substance of it. But there are still plenty of teachers in the school district, plenty of educators, that were trained in those methods and that are still putting them to use.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm. Well, JW, what would you say to the argument that, you know, morale in the classroom is kind of a number one thing about…


ST JOHN: …having success in the classroom and affecting the kids and raising the scores. And so that allowing a more bottom up reform strategy might benefit the classroom.

AUGUST: It might. Sure, it might. But let’s see how it all plays out. I think it’s a little early to say whether everybody dancing around in circles and singing and much love and joy in the classroom is good education.

ST JOHN: 888-895-5727 is the number to join the conversation here at the Editors Roundtable. So, Bob, you’ve done a lot more work, I think, or talked a lot more to Scott Himelstein and this group. What right – You know, for people who are like parents in thinking this is the business community coming in here with great ideas for the schools. What right does the business community have to have a, you know, a say on what happens in the academic world?

KITTLE: Well, I guess the answer to that, Alison, is that the business community relies on an educated work force more than anyone else.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

KITTLE: The product of our schools determines to a large extent whether businesses in San Diego can succeed and grow and be innovative, etcetera. So the business community has a real stake and I think it’s very encouraging that they are involved. I know that in the political culture of San Diego, there has been enormous resentment at a few occasions in the past when the business community got into school board races, raised money, endorsed candidates. There was a backlash against that. But to my mind, it’s entirely appropriate for the business community to say, look, we have a stake in our schools and we want to change things. They may be right or wrong about the changes they propose but I think it’s good that they do have a – that they feel they have a stake in and are getting involved.

DONAHUE: And I think it’s important to note, too, this isn’t just the business community in this group. There are philanthropists, there are other educators, Dee Dee Alpert, a former state senator, who’s been very involved in education is in there. I think they have an important – they can learn an important lesson from the Bersin years, though, and that is it’s not always actually what you’re proposing but it’s how you’re interacting with people and it’s how you’re bringing those proposals out so far. And so we’re – we’ve been talking about this idea of sort of changing the structure but they haven’t actually formally proposed that. It’s been sort of, you know, some – it’s been talked about in meetings but there is a definite disconnect right now in sort of the communications that are being made of what this group’s intentions are and what they’re actually going to do. And so I think if they’re going to be successful, they’re going to really learn from that Bersin model.

ST JOHN: And one of the things they’re really proposing, one of the most sort of clearly graspable ideas, is to increase the number of people on the board from five to nine, and have four people appointed. You know, JW, as someone I know you very much support sort of democratic processes.


ST JOHN: I mean, is there something to be said about…

AUGUST: Who’s picking them?

ST JOHN: …who’s picking them.


ST JOHN: What’s the effectiveness of the current board? And who would pick the appointees?

AUGUST: Well, I don’t think the current board would pick them. I think that’s yet to be determined who will do that and what’s the process for it. It’ll probably come. If it does come to pass, I imagine it’s going to come out of the political structure from city hall. I don’t know, maybe the mayor picks them. I’m not sure.


KITTLE: Well, having the mayor pick one or more of these four would be a logical thing to do. However, I think this runs so counter to the political culture of San Diego. We have seen – I mean, we feel – San Diegans generally feel the schools are separate from our – from city hall, and they don’t like mixing the two, voters don’t, I don’t believe.

AUGUST: Yeah, I think you’re right.

KITTLE: This was tried in Oakland when Jerry Brown was mayor there. He wanted to do something about failing schools. He proposed a charter change which is – would be required in this instance, too, and the voters approved allowing the mayor to appoint some members of the school board. And he did that. The results were not very encouraging. It mixed the political culture. I think San Diegans would reject a proposed charter change that allowed the mayor to appoint members of the school board.

ST JOHN: It’s…

AUGUST: Could I just say one – At the very least, change how you elect the board members, because they elect them like we used to do the city council here in town, in the city where you’d elect by district and not citywide. And they have to win twice to become a board member, so that gives people that don’t have a huge bankroll or people that may have a different voice than others, don’t really have an opportunity to sit on the board. I think that that part of the system is flawed. Let’s change that.

ST JOHN: Okay. Good. Well, let’s just take a call here from Bethany in San Diego. Bethany, thanks for calling. What’s your comment?

BETHANY (Caller, San Diego): …question. I’m hearing a lot of negative connotation, not anything really outright said about what the problem is from a bottom up perspective. Assuming that teachers are actually out there in the every day, working with students, so they’re probably going to have a good idea how things work. But I’m not hearing the reason why that he doesn’t think it doesn’t work. I’m just hearing, ah, I don’t know. And I’d like to know what is it about that that makes you nervous or whatever.

ST JOHN: Okay, good question, Bethany. So what is it then about bottom up reform that you are not convinced about, JW?

AUGUST: Human nature and given we’re all individuals, we all think differently. We all think we do a great job but when, in fact, we may not all be doing a great job.

ST JOHN: So, and I know, Andrew, you were saying that in some ways it may not be actually the content of the reform as the way that it’s done. So the problem was that morale in the classroom was really affected, I think, by some of those reforms but they may have been good reforms.

DONAHUE: Yeah, and I think the – I think one of the main concerns that people have with that current plan, sort of two concerns. One is that it’s still very vague. We don’t know how success is measured. We don’t know what you do with people who don’t have success. And then secondly, it’s sort of a bigger picture of accountability. Like I said, you don’t – you really don’t know – we don’t know what’s going to happen to the teachers that actually fail or the teachers whose – who try things that don’t have success.

ST JOHN: Let’s hear from Jeff, who’s calling in from Point Loma. Welcome to the Editors Roundtable, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller, Point Loma): Thanks. It’s – I’ve taught for 20 years and it’s kind of funny to hear people, you know, say how they’re going to change things. But when a teacher gets in his classroom, or her in her classroom, and they close the door, that’s it. It doesn’t matter if you add more people to the school board or anything like that. It’s about the teacher and it’s about people. So we need to get the right teachers in the classroom and probably make it smaller like charter schools. In LA, they broke up the districts and now they’re making charter schools. But there’s no economy of scale for large school districts. It’s actually – it’s negative. We have the third biggest, I think, in the country and we’re not that big of a city.

ST JOHN: Thank you for those comments, Jeff. Very good. Any comments from those of you around the table here before we break?

DONAHUE: Yeah, I think he brings up a great point. We get – You know, we always are talking about studies or proposals, this, that and everything. But all of that is really geared towards finding the best way to deal with teachers, right. And so the people who are sort of the outside reformers are the people that say we need to start using metrics that somehow measure success, and reward the good teachers and penalize the bad ones. And I think in a lot of ways that’s what this whole conversation is boiling down to.

ST JOHN: Okay, great. Thank you, Andrew for that final comment. And we’re going to break and come back and talk about something that we all care about, we all use: water.