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Friday, March 02, 2007

Superintendent Murphy To Retire/ School Board Receives Best Uses of School Task Force Report

Longtime Superintendent David Murphy of the Davis Joint Unified School District stole the show last night with a surprise announcement that he was stepping down effective July. Citing family needs and personal changes, Superintendent Murphy said that the District would immediately appoint an acting Superintendent to aid in the transition and he would work with that individual as the Board sought a new full-time Superintendent.

While Murphy was heavily praised at this meeting, he has long been a source of great controversy both within the school district and in the community as a whole. It is no secret that the majority of school board members were not happy with his performance, however their hands were largely tied by an extension granted by a previous board on their way out.

Meantime the bulk of the school board meeting took up the issue of Valley Oak Elementary school, its proposed closure, and the report by the Best Use of Schools Task Force.

Chair Kirk Trost presented the Task Force’s methodology and findings for nearly an hour and a half Thursday night. He expressed deep sorrow to have to report their recommendation for closing Valley Oak Elementary School.

The Davis Joint Unified School District contracted with Davis Demographics and Planning, Inc. (DDP) to update and analyze demographic data and make projections as to future population. The assumptions and methodology were sources of great controversy within the community—especially those in relation to scope and magnitude of future development. However, their findings suggested that over the course of the next 10-15 years, the district enrollment would fall by 400 students and that nearly 250 of those would be in elementary schools.

That would leave the optimal number of elementary schools at around 7 to 7.5. They quickly settled on the eight schools as the optimal strategy.

One of the key issues that they addressed was transportation and how far students would have to walk to school. Their statistics and projections suggested that closing down Valley Oak Elementary school would have virtually no impact on the number of Valley Oak students who would be within one mile walking distance and the number of students within one and a half mile walking distance from their school. That means that for current Valley Oak Students, on average, the walking distance using those two metrics would be virtually unchanged.

Board President Jim Provenza asked about looking at half a mile distance, and Trost suggested that they had not looked at that and suggested that this was a distance standard used by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Center for Disease Control, and various walk-to-school organizations. He also pointed out that if they used a tougher standard it would not be uniform throughout the district.

The Task Force also strongly suggested the need for schools in the 420 range in order to have full facilities and program options that they considered optimal.

Finally, they made the argument that if Valley Oak remained open a very large percentage of students attending Valley Oak would be Title I students—between 60 and 70 percent. Whereas the Valley Oak Closed Option would result in the greatest amount of socioeconomic diversity and balance across the District with only around 30 percent of any school being Title I.

All in all it was a very strong presentation by the Task Force and Mr. Trost. The Task Force now wishes to be relieved of their duty, although the school board still has remaining questions of them. And it appears that may happen as soon as Saturday during a special meeting.

The Community then came out to speak and the vast majority were parents in the Valley Oak area. In fact, only one community member was in favor of the eight-school option and that was Michelle Reardon, a former school board candidate and current member of the Social Services Commission for the City of Davis. She actually recommended North Davis elementary close. She argued that getting a little extra funding from a bond measure would only be putting a band aid on the problem and that the community is not going to grow rapidly.

A number of representatives from the organization Davis Open were in attendance and spoke at length on their concerns. One clear disadvantage that this group had was that they were individually only able to speak for three minutes, whereas not only did the Chair Kurt Trost speak for nearly an hour but each of the members of the committee were able to speak as well. There was no symmetry in the speech allowance, it would have been more reasonable if a spokesperson from Davis Open were permitted a chunk of time to do a more full response.

Nevertheless, I think the opponents were able to get their point across. Rick Gonzales, Jr, a long time teacher and educator in this community who works for the Concilio, an organization devoted to getting Latino and low income students to college by awarding scholarships spoke about the prowess of the ELL program at Valley Oak and argued that it is the best in the district and for that reason alone, Valley Oak needs to stay open.

Another member of Davis Open, Fred Buderi said “I "do not think it is in the best interest of the community to close an elementary school." He remarked that one of the biggest challenges is finding affordable housing for people with children and that the Valley Oak area is one of most affordable for people with children. He suggested that the General Plan process is just beginning and he identifies dozens of sites within the valley oak area for growth.

Baki Tezcan argued that enrollment has not declined yet. He cites the 1999 election that authorized the building of two new schools to bring a total of nine schools to the school district. Closing Valley Oak, he argued would be "dismissing democratic input of davis who approved nine schools." He said this was a question of "whether elders are entitled to overturn will of the people especially if they are from white upper classes." Finally he questioned both the assumptions and the validity of the projections. "Beyond three to five years, projections never certain and should not be characterized as such." Differences in projections were described by the task force as simply a technical adjustment and those assumptions may simply be incorrect.

The basic argument put forth by Davis Open was that they did not believe that school should be pitted against school or neighborhood against neighborhood. Mr. Trost told the board that great pains were taken to avoid that as well. Davis Open argued that the strength of Valley Oak was the diversity and richness of its programs. The strength of its GATE program, of ELL, and the strong neighborhood program made it unique and worth preserving.

One of the big assumptions made by the Task Force was the strength of big schools. However, it seems to me and it was argued by members of the public that there are advantages to small schools as well. And this needs to explored as a possibility.

School Board member Keltie Jones apologized to the Task Force for any abuse they suffered from the community in response to the work that they had done. Mr. Trost took offense to the suggestion that they did not solicit information from any specific community—he said that could not be further from the truth. He concluded by saying he personally thinks this is the right thing to do, although painful and a decision that bring him great sorrow, but he wouldn’t have made the recommendation if he did not believe it was in the best interest of all involved including the students at Valley Oak Elementary school.

In a future meeting the board will ask further questions and take a vote on it. At this point, it is hard to know what will happen. I know of at least two board members who will oppose closing down Valley Oak Elementary School. Will there be a third to join them? That I just cannot predict. The Task Force really pushed for them to make an immediate decision and not put it off for a year as three school board members recently indicated a preference for.

While I found the task force recommendations compelling, I think a creative policy and program revision can be found to keep nine schools open in the short-term and I think in the long term, there is going to be a measure of growth and a need for additional schools.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting