January 11, 2002

San Diego School Board Members on the Same Channel?

By Yvette tenBerge

The San Diego school board rang in the new year with one obvious change. A lone television screen positioned outside of the auditorium and two cameramen filming the January 8 meeting served to remind community members that, for the next six months, they could now observe each biweekly meeting from the privacy of their own homes.

The way in which two topics listed on the agenda were handled, though, hinted that there is a chance that 2002 might bring more than just a cosmetic change in the way the school board meets. Rather than easing their television audience into the new year, the board chose to tackle two substantial issues head-on.

Before getting to them, though, board President Ron Ottinger offered up his summary of the past year. He referred to contention between board members during 2001 as "stormy seas" and stated that the "board has to work together like never before." After reading a list of 2001's "remarkable" district achievements, Mr. Ottinger stated that he believed that Americans are "fortunate to live in a democracy" and said that he believes that "all ideas should be heard."

The first big item on the agenda to be handled differently was the selection of an independent third party to review district student achievement data. The idea of doing so has been tossed around since the now infamous September 25 board meeting in which Trustee John de Beck and SDUSD teacher Frank Lucero presented the community with their analysis of the 2000 and 2001 data. 

The district had chosen to inform the community of the scores by mailing an expensive, brightly colored postcard that read, "San Diego City Schools: Steady Progress," and by focusing on comparisons of 1998 and 2001 data. By comparing the data from 1998 and 2001, and by ignoring the years 1999 and 2000, Mr. de Beck and Mr. Lucero felt that the district was camouflaging the drop in scores that had occurred since the full implementation of the Blueprint in 1999.

Although more than three months has passed since that meeting, the board has finally provided the name of the independent third party who will analyze this data and set the date that the analysis will be presented to the board. The board has hired Dr. Andrew Porter, Director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin, at the price of $2,000 per day not to exceed $15,000 total. He will determine: whether the ways in which the district typically reports and displays achievement data are appropriate, whether the process the district follows to "clean up" the data files is appropriate and whether the district achievement reports are correct. Dr. Porter will present this data at the next board meeting, January 22.

Not one of the five board members disputed the selection of Dr. Porter. According to his web page, Dr. Porter has worked since the mid-1960s "on a variety of topics in education statistics and measurement," and his continuing area of interest has been in "developing alternative models for measuring change in student achievement." As well as holding a number of positions and titles, he has published over 100 publications and technical reports. 

Trustee Frances O'Neill Zimmerman introduced the second of the meeting's
"hot potatoes." On December 12, Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, General Counsel for the district, sent a letter to the District Advisory Council (DAC), a volunteer group made up of parent representatives from the district's 96 compensatory education schools. These schools receive extra federal and state funding, mainly Title 1 funds, to help with large numbers of low income and /or low performing students. Although the letter does not list specific examples, the district stated that the DAC was guilty of a number of "violations" that "must stop immediately." At a December 19 DAC meeting, district staff declared the illegitimacy of the parent group and walked out of the meeting early.

The DAC, a group responsible for monitoring the use of Title 1 and other categorical monies, has been visibly at odds with Superintendent Bersin and the board majority's programs since it filed a Uniform Complaint against the district in March 2000. In order to fund Mr. Bersin's pricey "Blueprint for Student Success," over $60 million in Title 1 funds were funneled into the program without the DAC's consent.

In speeches given by members of the DAC and members of the community who have closely followed this issue, it was clear that all suspect the district's December 12 letter and the behavior of their staff at the December 19 meeting to be a way of "strong-arming" a group that dared to oppose the Superintendent's policies.

Ms. Zimmerman proposed that the board "affirm meaningful parent involvement" in public schools by ending the "unnecessarily adversarial status quo" and presented five suggestions to Superintendent Bersin and district staff. After Vice President Ed Lopez engaged in an uncharacteristically fiery line of questioning of Ms. Sawyer-Knoll, he asked both sides to "strip away emotions" and get to the facts surrounding the issue. The board agreed to address the topic in-depth on January 22.  By this time, Ms. SawyerKnoll will have presented the board with a detailed chronology of the events leading up to December, as well as a list of the DAC's specific violations. A video of the December 19 meeting that was taken by district staff will be shown, as well.

The uncharacteristically professional nature of the first meeting of the new year and the board's apparent focus on "getting to the bottom" of long-standing problems left many with the hope that 2002 just might bring a school board that not only gets along, but that also gets things done.

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