Hears from public on school violence, budget issues
By John Crowder
At the October 22 meeting of the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) Board of Trustees, board members heard from the public on issues of school violence and school finances.
As it has for months now, school violence remained a major focus of the meeting. The first person to address the issue at the board meeting was Superintendent Don Gill. During his regularly scheduled agenda item, entitled, ‘Superintendent’s Thoughts for the Evening,’ Gill took the opportunity to provide his perspective on the matter.
“We’re committed to student safety,” Gill said, “our highest priority has to be safety.”
Later in the evening, he added that the board would be asked to approve a new position, Supervisor – Site Safety and Emergency Preparedness. He said that the person in this position would provide oversight and support for all Antioch schools.
Gill also spoke about suspensions and expulsions as a means of dealing with unruly students. While AUSD leads other Contra Costa County school districts in suspensions and expulsions, according to Gill, “Suspending a child that doesn’t want to be in our schools isn’t effective.”
Gill later elaborated on his comments, explaining in more detail his thinking on school discipline.
“District administrators have been working with our school administrators on an ongoing basis to find ways to address discipline issues that will create lasting, meaningful results,” Gill said. “Despite these efforts, the number of suspensions and expulsions are up over the same time period from last year. The increase is of concern to both staff and district administrators, and we continue to monitor and examine this situation closely.”
“We have worked hard to build a discipline process that is effective, and that is fair and objective. Our discipline, and everything we do in our district, is built on the belief that no child, regardless of circumstances or background, is expendable in our community. I think educators recognize that all forms of discipline have limitations to their effectiveness, and that what works in one situation may not work in another. For example, suspending a child who doesn’t want to be in school in the first place – and who sees no consequences at home for the suspension – is not a lasting solution. Many expulsions, by law, are not permanent. So, while school site administrators certainly use suspensions and expulsions as a mean of discipline, they represent the top end of the discipline spectrum, and in some cases, neither may be truly a lasting solution.”
“The work of keeping our schools safe for our students and our staff is our highest priority, and it is a task that requires constant attention and focus. Meaningful, lasting solutions will require the participation of everyone involved, and we are pleased our community is engaging in the kind of dialogue that is necessary to find the answers to a complex problem.”
During public comments, several people spoke on safety-related matters, expressing a wide-range of views. Gil Murillo, for the second time in two board meetings, called for the removal of Principal Ken Gardner from Deer Valley High School (DVHS). Murillo said that many parents had, “lost confidence” in Gardner’s leadership, citing teachers, parents, and students speaking out repeatedly at school board meetings about violence at that school.
A student who said she attends Dallas Ranch Middle School expressed similar concerns. There is, “uncontrolled violence in our school,” she said. “Kids are terrified to come to school,” she continued, “the [incidents] get more violent all the time.” She also said, “The students do know the blind spots. We need more teachers and more site security.”
Another aspect of school discipline was addressed by Willie Mims, Education Chair of the NAACP. Speaking after a presentation by Principal John Jimno of Park Middle School, Mims said, “The African American subgroup had tremendously disproportionate suspensions last year” at that school. Mims asked, “What have you done to address this problem that you have here?”
Jimno asked for the opportunity to respond to the question posed by Mims, and the board granted his request. “It’s a fact, I agree, I don’t duck away from that,” said Jimno. “Students of color are suspended more than anyone else. We’ve had policies in place that unintentionally caused that. The answers will come from trying different things. I don’t have the answers for you yet.”
Another student, Alejandra Amigo, a junior at DVHS, and cofounder of a group called Students in Action (SIA), announced a meeting that her group was planning for 3:00 p.m. on Friday, October 31, at the DVHS amphitheater.
“We will be discussing the recent negative news about our school so that we can help the problems stop and also get the word out about a Peace Walk that the Student in Action program is planning,” she said in a subsequent statement. “This meeting will also express to the community that Deer Valley High School has many students that want to learn and are positive members of our community.” Amigo invited all present to attend the meeting.
Amigo’s mother, Candi, also spoke on the problems with some students. She said that it was the responsibility of the teachers to focus on education, “not to teach our children manners and respect…that is our job as parents.” She went on to say that parents should be held responsible for how their children behave in school.
DVHS Chemistry teacher Jeffery Swietlik offered yet another view. Focusing on what he considered a disproportionate amount of negative reporting, he said, “Stories about violence sell a lot more newspapers.” He said that, in his classroom, “In terms of behavior, there is basically no room for improvement. I never, ever, felt unsafe in my classroom.” One of Swietlik’s colleagues also spoke up, expressing his support for Principal Gardner.
Concerns regarding finances, and the oversight of district spending, were addressed by parent Julie Young when it came time for the board to approve the Consent Calendar. Young addressed three items, each of which was pulled from the Consent Calendar and discussed by the board and/or administrative staff.
The first item Young addressed was an amendment to an agreement with Comcast which would allow that firm to lease property at Antioch Middle School for only $1 per year. Staff said that Comcast was generous with help offered to AUSD schools, and this was a way the district could return the favor.
The second item Young addressed was an agreement with School Services of California, Inc. (SSC), for professional and consulting services. Young noted that this group had, at a previous board meeting, given a presentation regarding the LCAP, and wondered why, with the amount of deficit spending the district has been doing, we couldn’t find somebody on the AUSD staff to make such presentations. Young was particularly concerned that the firm would be paid, “hundreds of dollars per hour” for such mundane tasks as, “making copies.” She also noted that the contract was for three years and had no cap on expenditures.
In response to Young’s comments, Tim Forrester, Associate Superintendent – Business & Operations, said that he didn’t think the district would spend more than $30,000 on services provided by SSC and, in any event, he and Dr. Gill had authority to spend up to $50,000. With respect to the group advising on the LCAP, Forrester went on to say, “They’re the leading experts, because they’re writing the legislation.”
Board Member Claire Smith, however, did not appear satisfied with the explanation, or the contract in general. “A lot of under $50,000 purchase orders are being signed for,” she said, “but cumulatively they could go over $50,000.”
Board Member Diane Gibson-Gray also spoke out against the contract. “We’re relying on consultants, over and over again,” she said, “and we have highly paid experts here.”
The final item Young spoke about from the Consent Calendar was the aforementioned Supervisor for Site Safety position. Noting the cost of the position ($109,598 for salary and benefits), Young said the position amounted to extra spending for more bureaucrats.
Two board members, Claire Smith and Diane Gibson-Gray, expressed concerns with the item. Smith said that the proposal submitted by staff was not only costly, but, “void of any kind of qualifications.” Smith and Gibson-Gray both also stated that the board should have more input for such hiring decisions.
But two board members disagreed with Smith and Gibson-Gray on delaying the hiring. “I’ll trust you,” Board President Joy Motts told staff, “there is an urgency here.” Board Vice President Gary Hack echoed her comments, telling staff, “I have faith and trust in you.”
Following the discussion on the items, each was ultimately passed by the board. The Comcast contract was approved 5-0, the SSC agreement was approved 4-1 (Smith dissenting) and the Supervisor position was approved 3-2 (Smith and Gibson-Gray dissenting).
The next school board meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, November 12, at the AUSD office at 510 G Street. Meetings begin at 7:00 p.m.