So much of what the hopes to achieve is based on financial support from Sacramento, a fact that frustrates the daylights out of many education advocates, including five people running for seats on the NUSD board of trustees.
At a Monday candidate forum hosted by the MarinKids campaign and the League of Women Voters, incumbents Debbie Butler, Cindi Clinton, Tom Cooper and Ross Millerick and challenger Jeffrey Vaillant were asked by emcee Dana King of CBS 5 TV about ways the district can operate well under budgetary restrictions and find ways to increase funding. The district has been shortchanged upwards of $20 million because of decisions made in the Capitol, several candidates said.
Vaillant, a three-year Novato resident who has experience in the corporate world, said there’s no reason why pressure shouldn’t be directed toward the state Department of Education and laws that lead to school funding.
“We have to go after the law, go after the legislators, and change the structure,” he said. “We have to address the fact that we’re a limited-revenue district. There has to be a better way to fund things.”
Vaillant, a vocal observer at NUSD board meetings the past few years, said examining the use of reserve accounts and looking deeper into charter school structures should be on the table as well.
Cooper, the current board president, said the focus ought to be on finding ongoing funds rather than one-time funds. Increasing efficiencies and reducing electricity bills — possibly by adding more solar panels on school buildings — could result in cash flow directly to the general fund and lead to better teacher salaries.
Butler and Clinton both said the district has to work harder to boost average daily attendance, work to retain kids whose parents might opt to send them to private schools and develop more effective marketing and promotional campaigns. Millerick said there are ways to seek outside contributions via grant requests and that shifting funds to lower-performing schools deserves a closer look.
Each candidate shared views about closing the achievement gap, based on an imbalance of academic results on a socioeconomic and racial scale. Fairness across the board and assessment of each student’s needs is critical to making progress in that area, the candidates said. Once again, Vaillant provided a creative answer.
“As is said in the corporate world, polices are really the scar tissue of past mistakes,” he said. “If you have too many policies, you’re forgetting that these are people we are measuring, not just data.”
Millerick said the key is to create an individual plan for every child in the district, and Butler said it’s about teaching to the child, not to the class. Cooper said furnishing resources at the school site level is important to close the gap. Clinton added that allowing fewer electives and requiring more core classes for high schoolers who are not meeting standards makes sense.
One set of answers focused on the so-called A-G requirements for high schoolers to qualify for acceptance the California State University system or the UC system. NUSD standards are lower than the A-G requirements, such as the minimum amount of units in math, science and English. When asked about preparing kids for the working world, attention turned the definition of “achievement.”
Butler said it’s important for the district to place every child on a patch for reaching A-G reports even though not every student will attend college. “We need to take another look at graduation requirements,” she said. “I would like to look and see if we can make (A-G) a default.”
Clinton said it should be a goal to have each student achieve the A-G standards but not a requirement and that the focus should be on achievement at a younger age. Cooper was open to the idea of making A-G standards a requirement but that the district’s main job is to prepare the students for college but “they can make the decision for themselves.”
Millerick said he was pleased the debate was turning back to how universities define achievement rather than how politicians define it. However, he advocated for career-track curriculum choices rather than just A-G standards. Vaillant added that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates didn’t obtain college degrees, although students and parents out to be directed toward college-level achievement.