This weekend, the West Contra Costa Unified School District held the first of a series of public meetings to encourage residents to discuss how the next five years might look for public schools.
On Saturday, about 130 people arrived at Ford Elementary School to participate in the first of six town hall meetings organized by the school district and Capitol Impact, the consulting company hired to develop the district’s five-year strategic plan. Jay Schenirer, the founder of Capitol Impact, who also serves on the Sacramento City Council, said this kind of community engagement is rare. “We’re going above and beyond what most people do in collecting input,” he said.
On handouts given during the meeting, the passage of Proposition 30, a sales and income tax increase, and Measure G, a parcel tax extension, were listed as two recent funding increases that will help the nearly 30,000-student district adjust its plan and stop the district’s revolving budget cuts. The district’s current operating budget is about $175 million.
Chevron is funding the $200,000 grant that pays for eight people from Capitol Impact to develop the plan. After the town hall meetings have been completed, a draft of the plan will be sent to a steering committee composed of the consulting firm’s employees, district officials, leaders from local non-profits, and a Chevron representative.
The draft will then go through another round of town hall meetings before being passed on to the school district for approval in September. If passed, the plan would go into effect for the 2013-2014 school year.
The last strategic plan was adopted by the district in 2006, and included six goals, as well as indicators to show how well the district was achieving those goals. The six goals were student achievement, accountability for all, equity, safety, community engagement, and financial stewardship.
The town hall meeting on Saturday touched on several of these topics by asking residents a series of yes or no questions, which the audience members used a remote clicker to answer. Slides with the questions were shown in English and Spanish, and an interpreter was also available.
Then the audience was then divided into groups and asked to discuss answers to questions posed on the screen, like, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of the school district?”
Toward the end of the meeting, several parents raised their hands and said they couldn’t answer one question: “Which of the following goals or programs should be the highest priority?” The slide listed ten choices, including “embrace technology” and “high salaries and better benefits for teachers.”
“It’s not going to work to choose one of them,” said parent Monica Cervantes. Her comment was met with applause by the audience.
“It’s not about not doing all these things,” Schenirer replied. “It’s about what order to do them in.”
Schenirer said after the meeting that he was pleased to see how many people showed up—he and his employees weren’t even sure their audience would total more than 25, he said. But nearly every table was full, and many of them were occupied by parents with children in the district.
But after the meeting, Cervantes said she didn’t feel the meeting was successful. Visibly upset and close to tears, she described a problem her second-grade daughter is facing in a bilingual class. Cervantes said the teacher hasn’t been teaching the children in Spanish, which is a requirement of the class.
She said that she’s had to make a formal complaint, but other parents aren’t as educated and might not advocate for themselves. “We don’t know how to help our children,” Cervantes said of parents with minimal education in communities like Richmond and San Pablo. “Sometimes a good teacher isn’t enough.”
Celia Canelo nodded along as she listened to Cervantes speak. Her youngest daughter is in first grade at Ford Elementary. “I worry about the situation in San Pablo and Richmond,” Canelo said, referring to the violence in the area.
Five more town hall meetings will be held and are open to the public. Schenirer said a draft strategic plan should be created by August and sent to the steering committee for review.