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Monday, March 26, 2007

Guest Commentary: Open Letter to Valley Oak Colleagues and Community Members

Dear Valley Oak Colleagues and Community Members,

When Rodney King was beaten nearly to death and his civil rights were violated, the African-American people waited for justice. They trusted our “system” to find the officers guilty. This was a long and difficult wait. When the unsatisfactory verdict came in, violence erupted. The people were enforcing their own form of justice: retaliation.

I have spent the last several months in a state of guarded optimism. I waited, hoping that someone would see all of the issues surrounding the closure of our school, and a just decision would be made. In my opinion, the only just decision is to keep our school open. While our situation is by no means of the magnitude of Mr. King’s, it is parallel. Our children are being denied their civil rights. I also believe that the ignorance and indifference of the privileged allowed them to make the decision they have made. While violence is never the answer, it is time to take matters into our own hands, so that justice is served. We must follow the examples of Gandhi, Martin L. King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and others, to shed light on this injustice and change the decision. This is not a time to be quiet.

Our children are being denied their right to a free education at their neighborhood school. The financial problems of this district are not the children’s fault, nor are they their problem. Davis Joint Unified School District (downtown) administrators are to blame. Admittedly, I am not privy to the discussions that occur behind closed doors. However, I understand that a district official missed an application deadline for matching funds for Montgomery Elementary. Apparently this mistake cost us over four million dollars.

This is the largest example of irresponsible leadership, but not the only one. Our district has been throwing money at their problems for a few years. Instead of being proactive in solving district issues, our administrators have been reactionary. When our first and only African-American principal faced racism and eventually left the district, questions were raised about how the district addresses diversity and supports the underrepresented. The district hired consultants to help recruit administrative candidates, because they can’t retain those they hire. This cost money.

I personally was invited to go on an all expense paid trip (plus the cost of my substitute teacher) to Carolina. The purpose of the trip was to recruit teachers of color. I declined the offer, but Steve Horowitz, Mel Lewis, and I believe someone who took my place did go. They came back with no candidates. We live in a university town with candidates of color. CSUS is 30 minutes away, and they have a multi-cultural teaching credential program. We could have set up a partnership with them at no cost.

The district made a brief attempt to be proactive when they provided substitutes for a few of our “minority” employees to attend a meeting on how we might recruit and retain candidates of color and improve the climate for existing employees. This was to be an ongoing discussion. After the first meeting we never met again. The money they did spend was wasted when they didn’t follow through.

We asked task force to analyze data, and then paid more consultants to analyze the data in the data. The district is again paying for consultants to help them find a new superintendent. In the meantime, they are paying TWO superintendents. (I am not a mathematician, but those two salaries combined probably JUST fall short of what we need to keep the school open.)

By now, I am sure the pattern is evident. Money has been wasted. The district can not retain qualified employees, nor does it attract administrators from underrepresented groups. Let’s call a spade a spade.

We have been working in privileged community and a poorly managed district where racism and discrimination are prevalent. The word NIGGER appeared on the high school wall and nothing was done. Children with two mothers or two fathers don’t feel safe at school. We have an achievement gap that the district admitted is not due to language or education level of the parents. A Latino custodian at Montgomery was harassed by police one night when his car wouldn’t start and he was in the parking lot after hours. Our own Mel Lewis has been harassed by police. A Davis committee that was supposed to be dedicated to creating an atmosphere of equality and acceptance was disbanded.

Valley Oak was an easy target. The initial announcement was made during the summer, while the school had no principal. I am convinced that every step has been carefully calculated. We have a large number of community members who speak other languages, and don’t have the same ability to be heard. They took advantage. The district has a money problem that they want to solve by closing the school with the most children of color and the strongest programs to support the underrepresented and struggling children.

This is the truth as I see it. This is not about teachers, and where we may end up in 2008. This is about children who have been asked to foot the bill for an expense that is not theirs. When I asked district administrators at yesterday’s meeting what would be done to ease the transition for these “babies,” especially incoming kindergarteners who would have to leave after one year, I was told that the families would be given maps. Those of you who were there know that I walked out.

I am now calling for all of us to be the voice of the children. We have perfectly legal courses of action. Post your thoughts on Bill Storm’s blog. Write letters. Tell your truth. We can march. We can have sick-outs. We can work to contract. We can write editorials and send them to the Davis Enterprise. I believe we even have grounds for a civil suit. How can you close one school with 500 students from diverse backgrounds in favor of an affluent school with half that number of students? How is that “as good as or better?” (Words of a task force member during the initial data gathering phase)

I can no longer be quiet. Let’s organize ourselves in support of our neighborhood children and in honor of those who fought so hard for equality. I do believe we can make a difference.

I know that this is a long message, but it is almost a year’s worth of thoughts.

---Nicole Smith

Nicole Smith is a Fourth Grade teacher at Valley Oak Elementary School