By Jeff Weber
The ongoing effort to convert Dozier-Libbey Medical High School, a high-performing pathway school in the Antioch Unified School District (AUSD), to a public charter school has swelled into a highly publicized, and at times ugly, battle in the court of public opinion. Emotions are running high on both sides. If there is a positive side to this political fight, it may be that the people of Antioch now have a much better understanding of their school district and of the wider charter schools movement in America. Yet many are still asking, why is this all necessary? Is this really in the best interest of our kids? The answer is, it could be, if given the chance. This article will attempt to explain in a rational way how Antioch could be better served by independent charter schools, and how we could get there with minimal disruption to our students.
Today more people in Antioch understand that an independent charter school is still a public school. The general community will really see little change after a school converts from a district school to a charter. The school will continue to serve the same students and meet the same state standards. What will change is the governing board of the school. A true charter school is independent and governed by a dedicated board of parents and community members that serve only that school. A charter school’s board will not be distracted by the plethora of issues that the AUSD board of trustees must deal with in its 25-school district.
It is also clear to most Antioch residents now that Dozier-Libbey teachers are not “stealing” their school. In fact, the teachers are exercising their rights granted by the California legislature to convert a school to a charter if they feel doing so would better serve the students of that school.
So why did the teachers of Dozier-Libbey take on this fight? It was clearly going to be a David versus Goliath match-up from the start, with the district using its vast resources of public money and public employees, while Dozier-Libbey teachers worked extra nights and weekends and paid expenses out of pocket. It was most certainly not so that teachers could stop giving ‘D’ grades to their students—a suggestion that has been highly publicized, but in fact does not exist in the charter petition objectives.
The truth is, Dozier-Libbey teachers are risking a lot. Most have decades of service behind them, and some are well within reach of a comfortable retirement. They are giving up district tenure and seniority for an uncertain future and salaries that will stay on par with their previous district amounts, at best. It would be impossible to argue that teachers are pushing the charter conversion for any reason other than the benefit of their students.
And their students do stand to gain a great deal from a charter conversion. Here are some hard facts and numbers that show where Dozier-Libbey sits as a district school, and where it could be as an independent charter. These are small examples among many that together represent a current system of educational management that is simply broken.
Early last year Dozier-Libbey teachers used grant money to purchase 15 new laptop computers to serve economically disadvantaged students. Because of bureaucratic bumbling (an adequate cart could not be found), these brand new computers sat in a school district storeroom for over five months, despite repeated pleas from teachers, and have yet to reach the students who need them. If Dozier-Libbey were a charter, this educational time would not have been lost.
This year, 20 students at Dozier-Libbey lost their job-shadowing opportunities with Sutter Delta Hospital because insurance forms were inexplicably held then mismanaged by the district bureaucracy, despite repeated calls from the Dozier-Libbey coordinator. These valuable educational experiences would not have been lost if the necessary paperwork could have been handled in-house by a charter school.
Untold other educational opportunities have been lost to Dozier-Libbey, including real-time interactions with working doctors and nurses around the world, because district-wide policies could not be tailored to fit the needs of this unique school. By their very nature, school districts like AUSD must operate on a “one size fits all” mentality in order to control such vast numbers of students and schools. Dozier-Libbey was never designed to be a cookie-cutter high school. It was created to be innovative. Dozier-Libbey has numerous new programs ready to be implemented that address mastery learning of core subjects and credit recovery for struggling students, however these programs are not possible under AUSD, either because the other two high schools are not willing to embrace them (one size must fit all), or there is simply no funding to do so at Dozier-Libbey.
The state funding of public schools is based on the daily attendance at that school (known as “ADA”). Schools like Dozier-Libbey with large percentages of economically disadvantaged students also receive additional federal funding, commonly referred to as “Title 1.” All of this is taxpayer money that has been earmarked for educating our children. However, school districts as large as AUSD have many layers of expensive bureaucracy that siphon off much of that student funding. The combined salaries of the AUSD administrators (Don Gill, Tim Forrester, Stephanie Anello, Mike Santos, Louis Rocha, and Kenneth Gardner), who have spent so much of the past few months fighting the conversion charter, total over a million dollars. That’s enough money to hire more than 20 librarians (DLMHS currently has one part-time librarian). And there are literally scores of other administrators in Antioch being paid six-figure salaries who rarely venture near a classroom. The more that schools operate independently, the less these central administration positions can be justified to the public—and that’s a very scary prospect for those individuals who enjoy them.
Dozier-Libbey receives from the district only a fraction of its ADA entitlements and none of its Title 1 monies. The school site principal was given control of only $29,000 last school year, and of that funding amount $5,000 went toward paying a district-negotiated lease for the school’s copy machine. Another $8,000 went toward paying the school’s librarian to stay an extra hour each day beyond the four hours for which she is contracted by the district. Fortunately, many Dozier-Libbey teachers have been prolific in writing grant requests for their special projects. Yet, even such grant money directed to Dozier-Libbey is occasionally siphoned off by the district for other uses. And Dozier-Libbey suffers because of its own highly efficient fiscal management. Antioch High School, a school only three times the size of Dozier-Libbey, receives eight times the operating budget from the district! As a charter school, far more funding allocated by the state and federal government for Dozier-Libbey students would benefit Dozier-Libbey students.
So how does the charter conversion all turn out, and more importantly, what does it do for the kids? At this point, there are two possible paths that the school district could take.
The first is for AUSD to continue with their current strategy. The counter petition the district filed to make Dozier-Libbey a “dependent charter” stands on only the shakiest of legal ground, but it will serve to drag the conversion into the courts for possibly months or years—a stated objective made by the district at the school board hearing on their proposal. They will spend untold thousands from public funds on litigation—money desperately needed by their own students. (Dozier-Libbey charter petitioners are now receiving legal support from numerous pro-education organizations throughout the state.) The district will undoubtedly also use this time to make staffing changes at the school, hamstringing a dedicated and highly professional team that has been years in development.
However, another course of action could be for the leaders of AUSD to put the needs of the students of Antioch ahead of their own egos. Allow the teachers of Dozier-Libbey, whom they’ve recognized as highly competent professionals, to run with their grand experiment unfettered and unchallenged. If the charter succeeds, it will benefit not only the students at Dozier-Libbey, but will bring forth innovations and new ideas that can be shared with the entire district (as has been seen in numerous other charter-to-school district relationships). But if Dozier-Libbey fails to meet its ambitious objectives as a charter, then the charter is simply revoked and the school returns to AUSD management. These conversions, in either direction, do not need to be messy or expensive. It is the district that is choosing to make it so.
And so one can only wonder, what is the district really afraid of?
Jeff Weber is an 18-year veteran of AUSD, and currently teaches world history at Dozier-Libbey Medical High School and one of the organizers of the charter petition.