Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Citizen groups, Antioch school district, reach understanding on accountability plan

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

By John Crowder

At the September 24 meeting of the Antioch School Board, the trustees and the public heard a report on changes made to the Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) before voting, 5-0, to approve the revised LCAP budget.

Michael Ricketts, Associate Vice President of School Services of California, Inc., a private company providing, among other things, consulting and legislative advocacy services to California school agencies, presented the LCAP report to the board.

Ricketts began his presentation by emphasizing the changes that the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) had made with respect to the spending distribution of Supplemental Funds, funds provided by the state to local school districts that are designated for providing help to high needs students, such as English Language Learners, low-income students, and foster children.

Three changes to the LCAP were noted. First, the raise that AUSD employees received for the current fiscal year was shifted to Base Funds (funds provided to local school districts for all students). As Ricketts explained, the money for raises had been moved because, including it in Supplemental Funds had become a divisive issue with community groups.

The second change noted was the addition of “more than $1 million,” described as “new money,” realized when AUSD recently completed their analysis of actual revenues and expenditures, and found that income was greater than anticipated, and expenses were less. Ricketts said that this money would all be “earmarked for services directed toward the goals of students with the greatest need for support.”

The third change was the identification of actions being taken by AUSD, “supporting goals for English learners, students eligible for the meals program, and foster youth.”

With these changes, Ricketts’ presentation showed, the $9 million AUSD expects to receive in Supplemental and Concentration Grants for the 2014-2015 school year will be designated for: Economic Impact Aid ($2.3 million), technology upgrades ($1.4 million), counseling services ($1.3 million), special education ($1.1 million), vice principals ($751,000), and new services ($1.67 million). About $581,000 is set aside for security services, summer schools and programs, and an English/Spanish translator position.

Following the presentation by Ricketts, two speakers who had been involved with community groups advocating for changes to the LCAP, addressed the board.

Yuritzy Gomez, Community Organizer with the Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization (CCISCO) said she was, “very excited” about the changes. She said that she was thankful that AUSD had been open to collaborating with her group, and that she was looking forward to continuing her work with AUSD in the future.

Angelica Jongco, Senior Staff Attorney with Public Advocates, Inc., a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that, in part, seeks to “strengthen community voices in public policy” and achieve “tangible legal victories advancing education,” also spoke. In her statement, she recognized the progress that had been made.

In a statement released by Jongco, she commented further on the talks between AUSD and the community organizations, such as CCISCO.

Persistence paid off,” she said. “Because community members stood up on this issue, Antioch Unified has a much improved local spending plan.”

The district is no longer seeking to fund last year’s across-the-board salary increase with money that is supposed to serve high-need students,” Jongco continued. “This really shows the power of community collaboration. Together we were able to win significant changes in the LCAP. We commend the district for having the flexibility to listen to community concerns and generate a better LCAP as a result.”

We expect the district to follow through on its commitment to work closely with parents and students in planning for the future years. A hallmark of the Local Control Funding Formula is increased transparency around spending and programs. The district must do a better job going forward of making sure that community members can understand and meaningfully participate in discussions around how future money should be spent to best serve the kids.”

School board President Joy Motts responded to comments at the board meeting, thanking the community groups for collaborating with AUSD on improving the LCAP.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for October 8. Meetings are held at the AUSD School Services Building, located at 510 G Street. Meetings begin at 7:00 p.m.

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Community College Board invites community for State of the District meetings this week, next

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Governing Board meetings Community College Board invites community for State of the District meetings this week, next

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Home of Dozier-Libbey teacher, leader in independent charter effort, attacked by gunfire

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

By John Crowder

At approximately 12:30 a.m. on September 11, the home of a Dozier-Libbey Medical High School teacher came under attack as, according to the victim, a lone gunman, standing in the street, fired 20 rounds at her house. Police picked up casings from a .45 caliber firearm.

The bullets penetrated the ground floor of the home and the garage, leaving large holes on the inside walls with some exiting an interior window. Several bullet holes can clearly be seen on both the outside and inside of the residence.

The teacher was the only one home at the time, but was not injured during the incident.

Antioch police are investigating the matter. No arrests have yet been made.

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Antioch School Board hears report of improvements at Black Diamond Middle School

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

By John Crowder

A presentation made by the principal, staff members, parents, volunteers, and students from Black Diamond Middle School (BDMS) at the September 10 meeting of the Antioch School Board, painted a picture of the school that was significantly different from what these same groups had been saying last year. Unlike prior meetings, when complaints of out-of-control violence dominated board sessions, the message this time was one of support for the new leadership on the campus and optimism for the future.

This year a new administrative team took over at BDMS. Phyllis James has come on board from Vallejo as the new principal. Vice principals are Ken Daniels and Denise Pesmark.

New Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO) Chairwoman Francis Spijker and Vice Chairman Frank DeLuna were among those who spoke about the positive changes seen on the campus. They said that the PTSO already had 150 members, and they invited the board members to join as well. They mentioned several programs being implemented by their group, including family movie nights, a science fair, and a uniform closet, where those parents who considered buying uniforms a financial burden, could stop by and pick up a starter set of uniforms at no cost.

At a two-hour visit to the school last week, many of the positive sentiments expressed by those attending the board meeting were borne out. Representing the Antioch Herald, I was given complete access to the school on Monday morning, September 15, from 8:30 a.m. until 10:30.

Accompanied by Leif Utler, a young, 8th grade English teacher with boundless enthusiasm for the work he is doing, I saw how the school handled the morning uniform inspection, was able to see office staff interacting with students and parents, observed class changes and security staff, and visited three classrooms, the cafeteria, the library, and the ‘opportunity school.’

One of the first things you notice is that most, but not all, of the students on the campus of over 600 were in school uniforms. To date, 84 students have had their parents submit requests to opt out of wearing the uniform. Of those, two were approved by James, and the rest forwarded to the district’s administration for appeal. Two of those appeals have so far been granted, and the other 80 are awaiting decision.

Another thing that stands out is the cleanliness of the campus. Last year, an independent consultant, Dr. John Bernard, had specifically cited the deteriorated condition of the physical site as a problem. This year, there is no trash to be seen. One of the reasons for this, according to James, is that students are no longer permitted to take food from the cafeteria.

The three classes visited were Algebra I, English, and physical science. In each of the classes, students were, for the most part, listening to the instructor and following directions. While in two of the classes, a few of the students were interacting with each other and otherwise distracted, overall, the classes were well-controlled, and the minor distractions were no more than one would anticipate, indeed probably less than one would anticipate, from a large group of middle school students.

Although some staff members that I talked with expressed nervousness about speaking their minds, all ultimately did so, at the encouragement of Utler. All of them were supportive of the new on-site administration, but some expressed worry that “downtown” would not support the efforts that were being made to improve the learning environment.

Of particular concern was whether or not AUSD officials would support the uniform policy and support efforts underway to ensure that disrespect toward teachers and staff was stopped. Specific problems cited included some students pushing past the lone cafeteria lady trying to prevent them from walking out with food after breakfast when, apparently, there is no security or other staff available to assist them.

That being said, the overall view of the school from staff and the PTSO leadership remains positive. In a subsequent interview, Spijker said, “I appreciate the school board for giving us this great new administration. I call them our ‘dream team.’ I’d like to see the board back the decisions, the changes that our administration is making, including the uniform policy. And, support disciplinary actions that the school administration should take with some troubled kids. Parents want to see more expulsions [for chronic bad behavior.] According to James, a half dozen fights have occurred on the campus this year so far, only two of which she characterized as “serious.”

The next meeting of the school board takes place on Wednesday, September 24, at the School Services Building, 510 G Street. Meetings begin at 7:00 p.m.

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Brutal fight part of history of violence at Dallas Ranch Middle School

Monday, September 15th, 2014

By John Crowder

A brutal fight at Dallas Ranch Middle School last week between two 8th grade girls was caught on a student’s cell phone and the video made its way to the internet and to Bay Area news station KRON, channel 4, which has run several segments on the story.

In the video, (which can be viewed by clicking here) one of the girls gets the other down to the ground, and then uses her boot to smash her head into the concrete walkway. Other students can be seen on the video near the two fighters, using their cell phones to film the scuffle.

Since the story first aired, more parents have come forward complaining of fights occurring “every day” on the campus.

Dallas Ranch has a long history of violent incidents occurring on the campus. Last year, as reported in the Herald on different occasions, parents, students, and teachers addressed the Antioch School Board about violence at the school.

At the March 26th school board meeting, student Taylor Donaldson spoke about three P.E. teachers no longer teaching because of violent incidents.

I’m afraid our school is turning into a disaster,” he said.

At the January 22nd school board meeting, several staff members from DRMS addressed the board with concerns about student violence. At that time, two P.E. teachers vowed not to return to the school as long as a student who had physically attacked one of them was allowed to remain on campus. Following this most recent incident, teachers at the school are once again speaking up, saying they are afraid to go to work, and that they are continuing to be physically attacked by students.

A former teacher’s assistant, Kathy Arroyo, was featured on one of the Channel 4 segments discussing a two-year old incident at the school where she says she tried to intervene in a fight between students. She ended up in the hospital with her back having to be fused together. In the news segment she laments, “nothing’s changed.” Speaking to parents, she said, “There is violence at that school, and they have a right to be concerned.”

In response to this most recent incident, DRMS Principal Ed Dacus states that the two students involved in the incident were disciplined, and that, due to the nature of the matter, the Antioch Police Department was involved.

We were able to grab as many of the kid’s cell phones, and, trying to prevent this type of video getting out, because it does lead to cyberbullying,” he added.

Bob Sanchez, the school district’s Director of Student Support Services, also weighed in on the matter. He is quoted as saying that, in spite of the fight, Dallas Ranch is one of the best schools in the district. He also talked about steps being taken by the district to address the problem.

We are in the process of getting people to come and train us on certain issues like this,” he said.

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Registration is now underway for the 2014 Free BART Rides for School Field Trips program

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

BART FieldTrip 2 Registration is now underway for the 2014 Free BART Rides for School Field Trips program

Approximately 40,000 Bay Area students (up to age 18), teachers and chaperones will have the opportunity to ride BART free for educational field trips thanks to a partnership with Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is funding the program.

Bay Area schools may now apply for free BART rides for educational field trips online on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration ends December 31, 2014 or sooner if the program reaches 40,000 riders.

Enrolled students of elementary, middle, and high schools located in the Bay Area on school-sponsored field trips for educational purposes are eligible.

To better serve more students throughout the Bay Area, each school is limited to six field trips. This will allow more schools to participate in the program. To register, go to www.bart.gov/fieldtrips

Partnering on ‘Free BART Rides for School Field Trips’ is a natural extension of our commitment to a making sure children in the region have a rich educational experience,” said Mimi Hahn, vice president of marketing and communications for the nonprofit aquarium.

Here is a list of some BARTable cultural and educational destinations:

See more by clicking here.

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Analysis – County Office of Education addressed Assadoorian recusal question

Thursday, August 14th, 2014

By John Crowder

A review of emails obtained through a California Public Records Act request reveals that the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE) considered the issue of a possible conflict of interest for board member Richard Asadoorian in the Dozier-Libbey Medical High School (DLMHS) conversion charter school petition appeal. Asadoorian is married to Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) Board Member Barbara Cowan, who voted against the DLMHS conversion petition. There had been some discussion that he should recuse himself from the appeal process.

Emails reveal that county staff were considering how to advise Asadoorian on this matter by mid-April. In an April 11 email from CCCOE Controller Jane Shamieh to Associate Superintendent Bill Clark, she relates a discussion she had with attorney Adam Ferber, from whom she had been seeking advice on the charter question. She says, “He (Ferber) asked if the board member (Asadoorian) with the conflict is going to recuse himself.” She continues, “When I told him I wasn’t sure he said that he absolutely should.” She goes on to say that this opinion is based on community property law, and that his wife has a financial interest because she is paid by Antioch.”

According to Asadoorian, he was approached by county staff with a recommendation that he recuse himself. “Staff presented cases based on common law. My own attorney looked at it, and (rejected their analysis). My own legal counsel saw no case study substantiating the idea that I should recuse myself, and I know other spouses have been in similar situations.”

Indeed, conflicts of interest are extremely common, in government and otherwise. The existence of a conflict of interest is not, in and of itself, an indication of unethical behavior or wrongdoing. Conflicts can exist whenever a situation occurs in which a person has more than one interest at stake in a decision. Concern arises when the possibility exists that a secondary interest might overshadow a primary interest. In this case, the questions raised were twofold. One was whether or not Asadoorian would be able to vote differently than his wife simply because of their relationship. The second, and the one being addressed by the CCCOE, was whether the stipend she received as an AUSD board member might influence his vote.

With respect to laws concerning conflict of interest, the husband/wife relationship is not even a consideration. Examples abound of relatives holding government offices (even the same offices held by Asadoorian and Cowan, as Walter and Cynthia Ruehlig were similarly situated in the not-so-distant past) and, while there exists the possibility of someone wanting to do a favor for a relative, conflict of interest laws do not generally focus on this relationship because it is so difficult to quantify the effect. Therefore, such laws focus on financial interest, because they are easier to quantify and are more objective.

In this case, Cowan is not employed by AUSD, but she does receive a stipend of $400 per month for her service on the board, along with another, smaller payment she receives in lieu of insurance offered to board members. It was argued that Asadoorian has a financial interest because of community property laws.

Public officials are expected to put their duty to the public (their primary duty) ahead of any secondary interest (such as an interest Asadoorian might have in the stipend received by Cowan). Conflict of interest laws are supposed to prevent decisions that could reasonably be perceived as being unduly influenced. Ultimately, it was up to Asadoorian to make the decision as to whether or not he might be influenced by the stipend his wife receives. It is hard to imagine that this small stipend could exert that level of influence. This is especially true when you consider that some, if not all of it, must be expended by her in the performance of her duties, i.e., local travel and other necessary expenses associated with serving on the board, for which she is not reimbursed.

Asadoorian ultimately determined, after consultation with county staff, and with his own attorney, that it was not appropriate to recuse himself. After a thoughtful consideration of the matter, it is hard to understand how he could reasonably have been expected to do otherwise.

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Alleged Brown Act violation by County Board of Education during Dozier-Libbey charter issue

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

By John Crowder

A closed session meeting of the Contra Costa County Board of Education on May 7 resulted in an alleged violation of the Brown Act, according to attendees.

The Brown Act is California’s open meeting law that is meant to ensure that public business is, with specified exceptions, conducted openly. In accordance with the act, items discussed by public bodies, such as boards of education, even in closed session, must be properly noticed on the agenda for a meeting and a report must be made following the session stating what decisions were made.

Emails obtained from the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE) through a California Public Records Act request reveal that, during the May 7 closed session meeting of the board, attorney Adam Ferber appeared and spoke with those present about the Dozier Libbey Medical High School (DLMHS) conversion charter petition.

The meeting in question came two days after a letter was sent to Bill Clark, Associate Superintendent of the CCCOE, from Scott Holbrook, which stated that his firm, “serves as legal counsel to the Antioch Unified School District. In the letter, Holbrook states, “This controversy (the DLMHS charter petition) has resulted in several streams of litigation which the Contra Costa County Board of Education and Contra Costa County Office of Education will very likely be pulled into if the conversion petition is approved on appeal.”

After listing the potential litigation, Holbrook’s letter concludes, “In light of the foregoing, I strongly urge the Contra Costa County Board of Education and Contra Costa County Office of Education to avoid this controversy in it entirety. My advice to the county boards of education and county offices of education that I regularly counsel under these circumstances would be, at a minimum, to take ‘no action’ and punt this matter to the State Board of Education.”

Ferber’s statement during the board meeting which, according to participants, also recommended that no action be taken on the DLMHS petition, caused some of the board members considerable distress. CCCOE board Vice President Dan Gomes, said, “I think that, in a way, that attorney was working for the district. I was taken aback by the letter from AUSD. This fellow (Ferber) that came in and recommended we do nothing was along the same lines as the AUSD lawyer.” He went on to say, “Ferber went over a script, we ignore, just skip over (approving the petition). I thought to myself, ‘I’ve heard this before (from the AUSD letter)’.”

According to board member Pamela Mirabella, “I was confused about why we were talking about Dozier Libbey in closed session. There were four things on the agenda…not included was Dozier Libbey.”

Board Member Cynthia Ruehlig was even more concerned with Ferber’s presentation. “I think there was an intent to influence the board,” she said. She also stated, “To correct a Brown Act violation, you must report what was said, put it in the minutes, and, if grievous enough, you must report it to the District Attorney.”

Board member Richard Asadoorian stated, “What concerned me was that we were advised to let this attorney speak, and we couldn’t really extend the closed session, and had no real time to respond to this presentation. The only Brown Act issue was that it wasn’t properly put on the agenda.”

Nonetheless, over the next several days, both Mirabella and Ruehlig followed up on their concerns in emails and letters to Dr. Joseph Ovick, Superintendent of Schools for Contra Costa County.

In an email sent on May 12, Mirabella states, “I didn’t agree with the ADUSD lawyer to ‘not take action.’” She goes on to say, “Legal Counsel (Name? Not Cynthia discussed with the County Board anticipated litigation regarding Dozier-libbey and the board took no action. Do we have a brown act problem by not reporting out correctly to the public?” In another email sent by Mirabella to Ovick on May 20, one day after a second closed session meeting which, according to Clark, was held in order to cure any Brown Act problem, she says, “Closed session—after I asked you to remind Dan G. to report out to the public that in closed session the board took no action, he did so. This is against the Brown act and very serious.”

On May 8, the day after the closed session meeting at which Ferber spoke, Ruehlig sent a letter to Ovick, and, in an indication of the seriousness with which she viewed the matter, sent a copy to the Contra Costa County district attorney. In it, she begins by stating, “This letter documents the violations which occurred during closed session of May 7, 2014.”

The letter states, “At this meeting, Atty. Ferber (who was not invited and was, in fact, unknown to all Board Member) discussed an item which was not on the agenda; specifically a threat of a lawsuit from the Antioch Unified School District. This is a violation of the Brown Act that ‘no action or discussion shall be undertaken on any item not appearing on the posted agenda’.”

In addition, Atty. Ferber provided every Board Member with a copy of a letter threatening the Office of Education with a lawsuit from the Antioch Unified School District.”

Contact with Atty. Ferber was evident by the District lawyer’s public comment urging the Board to listen to staff and ‘our counsel.’”

Ruehlig describes the presentation by Ferber as a “prohibited ex parte communication,” and urges that several steps be taken to correct the situation, including publishing the comments he made.

Associate Superintendent Clark, in an interview conducted last week, acknowledged a possible Brown Act problem with the meeting, but said he believed it had to do with the technicalities of the agenda and reporting requirements, and not with the discussion of the Dozier-Libbey matter.

Exposure to legal risk was heightened by this case,” Clark explained. “Enrollment, assumptions with revenue, and the independent charter’s right to occupy the building could be found faulty, and might make us subject to a lawsuit from AUSD. We had every right to discuss this in closed session,.”

He also shared Ferber had been hired to help county staff understand the legal nuances of this particular petition. Clark also noted that, on advice from County Counsel, he believed any Brown Act problem had been cured by the closed session meeting held on May 19, at which the agenda and reporting requirements were met.

The district attorney’s office was contacted, last week, but it was not yet confirmed whether the office was investigating this matter.

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