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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Research favors smaller schools

When the Best Uses of Schools Task Force issued their report, one of their key assumption and rationales for reduces the number of elementary schools to eight was falling enrollment. They used not only a fiscal argument about the cost of maintaining and operating a ninth elementary school but they also used an educational argument.

They made the argument that 420 students was the minimum size for a viable elementary school. This assumption was premised on the notion of differentiation and the amount of differentiation needed in order to have various features. However, as far as I can tell they cite no research to support their position.

A perusal of some of the research in a policy brief from WestEd, suggests a very different picture.

"No agreement exists on optimal school size, but research reviews suggest a maximum of 300-400 students for elementary schools..." A further note is that "researchers focusing on the interaction between poverty and enrollment size offer a rule of thumb: The poorer the school, the smaller its size should be." We have to be a bit careful because Valley Oak is by no means an impoverished school.

The review of studies goes on to suggest several major benefits from small schools.

First--students learn well and often better in small rather than large schools. In fact, "no study found large-school achievement superior."

Second--behavior problems diminish.

Third--attendance is higher.

Fourth--extracurricular participation increases.

Finally, poor and minority students benefit the most.

There are a number of key factors that suggest why smaller schools are better. First, smaller schools produce strong personal bonds to the school. Second, there is greater parental and community involvement in small versus large schools. In a large school individual parents would blend in to their surroundings more, while at smaller schools parents and teachers get to know each other and become allies in fostering student success. Third, it helps produce greater simplicity and focus which facilitates communication.

A big one that relates strong to the report offered by the task force is that "student achievement is influenced much more by caliber of instruction than by number of courses offered." This important because it strikes at the heart of the differentiation argument put up by the Task Force.

It seems likely there is other research that suggests that large schools may be better in some settings. However, I think the most important point here is that there is likely competing literature and competing ideas on what is the best school size. The problem with the Task Force is that they did not provide the school board with those alternatives and instead picked the argument that best fit their conclusion rather than presenting competing arguments and then proceeding to a conclusion. The size of schools is but one example exactly that.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Friday, March 09, 2007

Commentary: New Quota System for DA's Office

One of the most frequent complaints about the Yolo County District Attorney's Office under former District Attorney David Henderson had been the intractability of their prosecutions. Far too many minor cases were pursued well beyond the point that they should have. The District Attorney's office often failed to adequately use discretion in which cases to prosecute. And they would be extremely reticent to drop even cases that they either could not win or should not pursue. We can see those practices at work in three fairly high profile cases--the Buzayan case which was dismissed by a Judge, the Khalid Berney case which was dismissed after a judge forced the prosecutors to reintroduce their evidence, and the Bernita Toney case where the Jury acquitted the defendant.

A more reasonable prosecutor's office would not have pursued convictions in this questionable cases to begin with. In two of the cases, they were pursued because of orders from the command and leadership structure to the Deputy District Attorney that they must obtain a conviction and under no condition could they drop the charges.

This practice does not serve the public good from a fiscal or policy standpoint. The District Attorney's Office is to represent the interests of the state in pursuing criminal prosecutions. Often, they mistake that for being a prosecution machine where their job is solely to gain convictions rather than pursue actual justice. Sometime justice requires strong prosecutions to put dangerous criminals behind bars and protect society. However, at other times that means using discretion to realize when the public interest is better served by dropping poor cases against individuals who pose no threat or against whom the cases are weak and questionable to begin with.

It is within this framework that newly elected District Attorney Jeff Reisig enters the picture. Reisig of course came with the support of David Henderson as well as most of the deputy district attorneys in this county. That said there was some hope that policies would change. The evidence so far indicates that the policies have not changed.

One clear example is the establishment of a new bulletin board that tracks the progress of cases. Deputy District Attorney's get their names placed on the board as the case enters the system and they get their case tracked to an inevitable acquittal or prosecution. The implication is that those with the most prosecutions are doing the best job. In some ways that sounds like a good incentive.

However, the logical conclusion of this policy is the creation of a quota system. This leads to an inevitable continuation if not exacerbation of the current problems in the system.

First, those Deputy District Attorneys with many cases will be looked at more favorably than those with fewer cases. This means that there is an unstated incentive to get more cases onto the board by pursuing prosecutions rather than dropping charges.

Second, those Deputy District Attorneys with more convictions will look more favorably than those with fewer cases. This means again that there is an unstated incentive to obtain more prosecutions. Again this means that there is a disincentive to drop the charges or the case when it is clear like the cases mentioned above that there is a weak case or no strong compelling public interest to pursue charges.

The implication of this is that those Deputy District Attorneys who pursue more cases and obtain more convictions will be promoted, awarded, acknowledged and that those with fewer will not. Thus an unstated quota system emerges from this practice.

Why is this a bad idea? Statistics can be a measure of good performance on the part of prosecutors, however, they can always indicate dogmatism that serves neither the defendant nor the public interest.

We can use a clear example of police quotas for speeding tickets. Is the officer with more speeding tickets issued doing a better job or is he simply pursuing a greater frequency of marginal cases in order to increase his statistics?

The use of such incentives structures moves us in the wrong direction. It is clear that Jeff Reisig is continuing his predecessor's questionable prosecutorial discretion and in some ways even outdoing it. Yolo County needs to rethink its policies in this area because a lot of people are unfortunately getting caught in the crossfire and most do not have the resources to fight it.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Thursday Afternoon Briefs

David Murphy's Settlement Announcement

The Davis Enterprise reported last night that "recently resigned" Superintendent David Murphy will continue to receive his salary until mid 2008 (when his contract would have expired). The district would pay Murphy approximately $225,000.

A week ago, Superintendent David Murphy surprised many in the community by announcing his retirement. Already the Davis Enterprise is calling it a "resignation."

This represents mounting evidence however that Murphy was in fact involuntarily terminated. One would not receive a settlement package for merely retiring or even resigning. This arrangement pretty much confirms our suggestion last Sunday that Murphy was in fact fired.

According to the Davis Enterprise:
"Over the coming three months, ending May 31, Murphy will “focus his efforts on mutually agreed-upon duties,” including completion of a reference manual outlining the superintendent’s duties and responsibilties (sic). Murphy also will use accrued vacation time."
A couple of points that need to clarified. First, the District is paying David Murphy $225,000 of taxpayer money not to work. That is a pretty strong statement there.

Second, we need to remind the public that it was the outgoing school board with BJ Kline, Joan Sallee, and Marty West that as one of their last acts, decided to extend the contract of David Murphy and made it extremely difficult for the incoming school board to terminate an employee that they believed was doing a poor job. Those members cost the Davis taxpayers and perhaps the students a tremendous amount.

Yolo "COPS" Reality Show Canceled

According to a good source, the proposal for the Yolo County "COPS" reality show has been canceled by District Attorney Jeff Reisig and Sheriff Ed Prieto. Apparently the chief reason cited was liability.

The liability issue seems suspicious since numerous shows of this sort work with law enforcement in other jurisdictions.

10th Annual Dotties Awards Show Tonight

The 2007 Dottie Awards marks the 10th year of recognizing Northern California’s best Web sites with winners in 16 different categories, Top Dot and Peoples Choice Award. Take this opportunity to preview the best Web sites Northern California has to offer, and network with other business professionals while being thoroughly entertained at one of Sacramento’s premiere awards shows.

One of the presenters will be myself this evening. Jason Frankel, CEO of Coversant Inc. and I will be awarding the Blogs & Online communities Dottie.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

City Moves Forward Water Plans

The city is moving forward with an upgrade to its wastewater treatment. This massive project is currently estimated to cost $140 million. The average customer will see their sewer rates increase gradually over the next ten years by an amount of around 7 percent or just over double the rate projected rate of inflation.

The current proposal is for a flat rate in which all customers would pay the same sewer rates regardless of usage. However, the staff suggested that the costs are the same for both, the allocation of the spending may change if they go to a volume based system.

All involved acknowledged that given restriction on waste water outflow, that there is no scenario without waste water improvement--that is not feasible, we cannot simply do nothing.

Elaine Roberts Musser, Chair of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission raised a couple of concerns. She pointed out that a consumption based method would be best for seniors, since seniors have small households and thus will most likely consume less water on average than the average resident. However, these increases will still hit seniors and very income people very hard and some will lose their homes. Also concerned that multi-dwelling households will have the costs passed on to tenants and that seniors will end up hurt because of their fixed income.

Mayor Sue Greenwald's approach was that clearly this project was needed however, she wants to look into the feasibility of paying off the wastewater improvement system first before taking on the surface water project. She suggested that some outside experts agree with this approach and that not everyone has the sense of urgency for surface water that some have expressed. She suggested handling the sewer project first and trying to defray the costs on the other as long as possible.

The city has certainly not looked seriously into this possibility of delaying the surface water importation project, but I think they are going to need to. Ms. Musser's comments are very pertinent because they reflect concerns just about the impact of higher sewer rates on people of either low or fixed income. If you hit them with higher water rates in addition to higher sewer rates, you are hitting them with a double whammy from which they might not recover.

The arguments for doing it now are that construction costs have skyrocketed recently and some have suggested that they will continue to raise making it necessary to build sooner rather than later. There is also the first come, most served argument that those who do not stake their claim to water now will get less or none in the future.

As with the sewer argument, Mayor Greenwald disagreed and argued that talking to other experts that the water rights issue has been overstated. Cities that obtained water in the sixties have the same rights and access as people who have obtained water rights now.

The sewer rate increase passed unanimously but the water supply project was approved by a 3-2 vote.

The interesting subtext is that this is merely moving along the process of securing the rights to extract the water rather than dealing with the costs and engineering of moving that water to Davis.

The council majority argued that this part needs to move forward and that this approval is not tantamount to an overall approval that will happen at a later date.

However, Mayor Greenwald strongly disagreed and I agree with her. If you look at this history of this project it is a history full of small decisions like this that eventually and inevitably lead to the belief in fait accompli. This is just the same as the council claim that approving a Request for Proposal (RFP) is not the same as approving the project. But in fact, it may as well be for practical intents and purposes. There is considerable bureaucratic creep in these projects that means that as they move along, each small step makes it increasingly likely that the final project will end up being approved and that the council will never actually face the big issue of whether or not to approve the project.

It seems to me that serious questions remain about both sewer and water supply that simply have not been addressed. One of those issues is cost for people who cannot afford rate hikes. Remember a lot of fixed income people do not even have cost of living adjustments built in, so an increase at inflation would be troublesome, an increase at 2.3 times inflation could be deadly. An increase of that magnitude for both sewer and water supply could be catastrophic.

In the end, the answer may be that we do need to get a new water supply source and that it must be done now, but significantly more study would seem appropriate. While they have not approved of the final project as of yet, they could mandate further study even as they move forward to obtain the rights to extract the water.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Two columns on Schools in the Enterprise Miss the Mark

Dunning yesterday in his column suggested that the "town owes Murphy a standing ovation."

He suggests first:
"like most superintendents, David Murphy had his supporters and his detractors … it comes with the territory … it would be impossible to be a superintendent of schools in Davis and make hard decisions without someone taking a shot at you, including the local daily columnist …"
That is true--he has both his supporters and his detractors and it is also true that any superintendent would probably create some animosity. That however should not wipe out an assessment of his performance that I think will inevitably show that Davis is fortunate that they have an opportunity for fresh leadership in the school district.
"Yes, I've had a few disagreements with David Murphy during his tenure here, but none that made me question his integrity, his dedication or his desire to make the Davis district the best it could be "
Here is where I strongly disagree with Mr. Dunning. I have strong questions about his integrity and his performance. We perhaps can accept that he probably did have dedication and desire to make the Davis district the best it could be, but that does not mean he did a good job of doing that.

He leaves behind a legacy that has severe blemishes on it. His tenure as Principal at Davis High School was stained with the blood of Thong Hy Huynh and perhaps we could let it go, but his tenure as Superintendent often exacerbated that error. He was oblivious to the problem of bullying and blindsided by the intensity of emotions at a public meeting in 2003 where hundreds of parents and students came up, often drenched in tears, to complain about the situation. That forced his hand, but even in forcing his hand, the victory was incomplete and the scenario had to repeat yet again this school year with young Zach Fischer. It took Board President Jim Provenza and fellow board member Keltie Jones considerable effort to finally pin David Murphy down to strong language to fix the problems that had existed for years in terms of the discrepancies in the discipline code.

Moreover as I have cited throughout this past week there are multiple examples of financial misconduct, errors, malfeasance, and misfeasance. The King high school situation is just but one public example of the ongoing problems under David Murphy's tenure.

This town most certainly does not owe any Superintendent who makes over six figures a year in compensation a standing ovation. He was WELL compensated for his duties. But David Murphy's legacy is a tarnished one and hopefully the school board has hired the right person to set things in the Davis Joint Unified School District right again.

Meanwhile Richard Harris wrote a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed piece on Valley Oak.

There are strong reasons to keep Valley Oak open without opening up the development can of worms.

Harris uttered these words:
"Should the voters be asked to approve flexibility to Measure J to allow the City Council to approve annexations for a specified time period without projects going back out to voters?"
Supporters of Valley Oak should shutter, because the last thing that they want to is destroy the emerging consensus and support for keeping Valley Oak and the other eight elementary schools open by needless invocation that will scare literally half the voters.

Keep the growth issue separate from the Valley Oak issue. The enrollment figures by themselves do not justify closing the school even in the worst case scenario. Mixing issues can be fatal and Harris, who should know better, did not help the Valley Oak cause by needlessly alarming any self-respecting progressive or slow-growther or other supporter of Measure J.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Interim Superintendent Hired

The Davis Joint Unified School District moved very quickly to replace the “retiring” Superintendent David Murphy. The school board hired J. Richard Whitmore of Lafeyette, California as interim superintendent.

According to the announcement,
Interim Superintendent Whitmore served as Chief Deputy Superintendent at the California Department of Education under State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin. In that capacity, he was the chief operating officer of the agency responsible for California's public education system. During his tenure there, he oversaw fiscal and academic accountability for school districts throughout California.

He became a recognized voice on school finance policy in California, and has provided advice and counsel to a variety of constituents over the past decade. He also led the state department's efforts to develop accountability systems. He led a strategic planning effort that resulted in the creation of the Superintendent's "Challenge Standards," which became the foundation for California's new standards-based curriculum adopted by the Standards Commission.

Interim Superintendent Whitmore is also a long-time leader in his local school community in Lafayette, serving on the Governing Board of the Acalanes Union High School District, and participating in the Lafayette School District's recent strategic planning process. He spent four years working in higher education, at Stanford University, where he staffed the President's strategic planning effort and managed the University's real estate and faculty housing programs.
When Superintendent Murphy announced he was stepping down, the plan seemed to be that Superintendent Murphy would step down immediately as Superintendent, the board would hire an interim Superintendent, and Murphy would work behind the scenes to facilitate the transition while the school board appointed a search committee to conduct outreach to find a permanent replacement.

However, according to some sources, that plan has changed. Superintendent Murphy is instead stepping down almost immediately with his final day being a week from Friday. This rather sudden departure fuels the continued speculation that rather than retiring, Mr. Murphy has indeed been terminated by the school board. Since this is a personnel matter and the board cannot comment on such matters, this remains only speculation at this point—but speculation fueled by a number of strong pieces of evidence.

Former school board member Joan Sallee was quoted last week as saying:
“I was deeply saddened to hear of Murphy’s retirement. ... I am very sorry that the current school board did not see fit to retain his services. The district has suffered a grievous loss, at a time when we can least afford it.”
Furthermore, given Mr. Whitmore’s very strong background there is speculation that Mr. Whitmore himself will eventually become the permanent Superintendent.

Board President Jim Provenza called Whitmore, “a leader who excels in managing both the education of children and business and financial operations that are so crucial to school districts.”

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin speaks very highly of Mr. Whitmore. According to The Davis Enterprise:
During his years with the state, Whitmore worked closely with then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, a Davis resident who attended Monday night’s meeting of the Davis school board. Eastin called Whitmore “an inspired choice for interim superintendent” in Davis, and added, “I can think of no finer education leader.”

“His extraordinary intelligence, integrity and administrative skills will serve this great district very well indeed,” Eastin said. “Richard will work closely with his board and his staff, keeping them engaged and well-informed.”
Whether or not Interim Superintendent Whitmore ends up being the permanent Superintendent, the district is in desperate need of fresh and strong new leadership to face a broad array of challenges. One of those challenges is with declining enrollment. This has led to a task force recommendation to close Valley Oak Elementary School. This recommendation has led to a firestorm of controversy.

In addition there has been several recent financial irregularities particularly involving King High and also concerning the former deputy superintendent for business Tahir Ahad who founded an educational consulting firm while employed with the DJUSD. He in turn recruited many fellow district employees to join him at the firm all the while everyone of them continued their full time employment with the district. This "moonlighting" by senior and middle management district employees resulted in them not doing their district jobs full time yet they received full time pay.

Furthermore, the former deputy superintendent for business Tahir Ahad was allowed to do much of his district work from his home office where he actually focused most of his time on his start-up business resulting in shoddy work product for the district and causing it to lose grant monies in the millions of dollars. The new school board put an end to this and has pushed for a new and comprehensive conflict of interest code to prevent this type of conduct from ever occurring again.

Finally, the harassment of a junior high school student has led to lawsuits and a renewed call for tougher standards against bullying and harassment which the new school board has taken to heart forcing the school administration to write a tough new harassment policy. Superintendent Murphy allowed all of this malfeasance to occur on his watch and this eventually led to his "forced" departure by the new school board.

If indeed Mr. Whitmore ends up the new superintendent, it is our hope that he will act quickly to help clean house and make changes that are desperately needed in terms of new blood and ideas in the administration.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tuesday Briefs

ACLU Becomes Involved in Valley Oak Closure Controversy

In a letter to the Davis Unified School Board on March 1, 2007, the ACLU Northern California Division expressed concern about the impact of the closure of Valley Oak Elementary School on the rights and welfare of the predominantly minority student population at Valley Oak.

"The ACLUNC is deeply concerned that a decision to close VOES [Valley Oak Elementary School will violate the constitutional rights of its students." Furthermore they suggest "Because VOES is the only elementary school in the Davis Unified School District where students of color represent a majority of the student body, we believe that a decision to close VOES would have a racially disparate impact on students of color."
"It is also our understanding that closing Valley Oak School will seriously disadvantage those students who would otherwise have attended VOES. Such a closure will deny its students equal access to education in at least two ways. First, the lack of transportation to different schools will result in many children missing early morning classes because of their long walk, thus significantly limiting their class time and increasing their truancy. Second, there is no guarantee that English Language Learner programs will be provided for students who need them at their new schools. English language teachers assert that even an interruption in class time, let alone depriving students of the class altogether, will result in a harmful impact, which will obviously be aggravated if the students are sent to a school without an ELL program."
Finally, they make the point that "the Valley Oak community was not represented on the Task Force making the recommendation to close its school."

City Council To Review the Performance of the City Manager

Tomorrow evening at a special meeting, the Davis City Council will meet behind close doors to perform their annual performance evaluation of the city manager. As a personnel matter such evaluations are of course confidential.

However, as I suggested on Sunday with regards to Superintendent David Murphy, it seems one thing to keep personnel records of rank and file employees confidential, however, when dealing with public records of employees who are high profile and very public such as the city manager such a rule makes much less sense. It seems to me that laws protecting City Managers, Superintendents, Police Chiefs and the like do not serve the best interest of the public by keeping highly paid public employees accountable for their actions by the public.

This is of course an issue not within the control of the city council, but it is something that I would like to see gain more attention--transparency in government does not work well when unelected employees who are in public leadership positions that affect the entire community are exempt from having public input and public scrutiny.

HRC Seeks Nominations for Thong Hy Huynh Memorial Awards

"The City of Davis Human Relations Commission is seeking nominations for this year's Thong Hy Huynh Memorial Awards. The Commission will honor individuals and community organizations that have made significant contributions in resolving or improving civil and human rights issues in the City of Davis. The Commission encourages groups and individuals to submit award nominations prior to the deadline of Friday, April 6, 2007 at 4:00 p.m."

For further information and for nomination forms please click here.

Homeless Awareness Day at UC Davis

Dear Doug Paul Davis,

I am writing to inform readers of the Davis Vanguard about the outcome of the Homeless Awareness Day at UC Davis sponsored by The Associated Students at UC Davis (ASUCD). The event took place on the 27th of Feb. at the Memorial Union at the University of California, Davis campus. A little background behind the event is needed.

The Homeless Awareness Day at UC Davis was inspired by the death of Jesse Newberry, a 24 year old youth who died by being hit by an Amtrak train around Freeborn Hall near the UC Davis campus. Activists took the idea of a homeless awareness day to the Associated Students at UC Davis and the Associated Students went to work on a senate resolution.The senate resolution designated a Homeless Awareness Week at the UC Davis campus and it called on other bodies of local government to pass resolutions that observed the homeless awareness week at UC Davis. With the passing of the resolution, we were able to finalize the logistics for a Homeless Awareness Day event at UC Davis.

The kick off of the event was a clothing drive where we were able to collect numerous clothing donations from students at the campus as well as from concerned community members. Besides the clothing drive that we had for the homeless, we planned a resource fair and invited the attendance of social service agencies from the community that provide service to the poor and the homeless of our community. Having the organizations at the fair served two functions. The first function for the resource fair was so that the homeless and other disenfranchised groups attending the rally would become more aware of resources that are available to them in the community. The second function of the resource fair was to give students interested in social issues an avenue to volunteer for a social service agency. We also invited several speakers to the event.

We invited Steve Jerome Wyatt, an ex-homeless individual and current community college student and homeless activist to read from a pre-written script authored by Jesse Newberry's mother. Jesse's mother was very happy to have the community recognize the life of her son. We invited Lawson Snipes, a homeless man and Editor-in-Chief of the homeless publication and journal - The Spare Changer. Lawson spoke about his experience of being homeless at UC Davis in the early 1970's as a UC Davis student.

We had two UC Davis students present poetry on homelessness and poverty.

Another speaker at the event was Davis City Council member Lamar Heystek.

At the event were representatives from California Assembly Woman Lois Wolk's office and from the Yolo County Board of Supervisor Helen Thompson's office.

The student senate resolution that designated the Homelessness Awareness Day at UC Davis was presented as well as a mayoral proclamation which was authored by Sue Greenwald that established a sister homeless awareness week in the city of Davis Feb 27th through the 2nd of March. Also presented was a similar resolution that Assembly woman Lois Wolk introduced in the California Assembly.

I think a very big thanks has to go to The Associated Students at UC Davis as well as the students of the UC Davis California Public Interest Research Group. Without their assistance, this event would not have been possible at all. Putting this event together was truly team work.

The event was a success for many reasons. The first reason is that the event allowed students on campus to learn about social service agencies that serve the impoverished. The organizations present were able to at least get some students interested in what it is that they do. The event had good press coverage. Many community members in Davis and in other parts of Yolo County seen that it was truly possible for different groups of people including community members and homeless people to get together and learn about homelessness.

Now that homelessness has been officially recognized in the community, homeless activists will now set out on the path to push for more educational events specifically around the topic of homelessness and hunger in the city of Davis. We would like to try to look at the feasibility of partnering up the homeless with specific employers in the downtown Davis area.

Untreated medical illness is prevalent in the Davis homeless population. A idea we like to try to push for is the feasibility of getting family practice doctors in the community to agree to see homeless people once a week. Homeless people have access to Y-CHIP which is a very basic form of medical insurance that is for the homeless of the community. Hopefully more medical access for the homeless will increase the number of medical problems that are treated in the homeless population.

We would like to start the discussion of getting marriage and family therapists in the community to volunteer some of their time to provide counseling for the homeless in the community. Counseling is a very big need for the homeless in Davis. It it is reality that once a person is homeless, it is very difficult to get out of homelessness.

If a person is going to be homeless for a long period of time, there should not be a reason why they cannot have a medical or mental health issue treated at a early stage.

Government works very hard to address the needs of the homeless and the impoverished. There is much that the private sector and the community can do to improve the quality of life for our homeless. I and other activists hope to at least stimulate discussion around how we can improve the quality of life of our homeless for the long term via contributions from the community.

For information about the Homelessness Awareness Day at UC Davis, please visit the California Aggie website.

Thank You very much for your support,

Richard Cipian

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Should Davis fear a collaborative process with the county?

In 2005, County Supervisor Mariko Yamada suggested a need for "a more structured communication mechanism between the County and our four city partners in Davis, West Sacramento, Winters, and Woodland on issues of mutual concern."

The logic of this approach is simple and straight forward. Shouldn't the governing bodies communicate as they update their respective general plans? It seems like such a basic and obvious concept.

As Yamada cited back in 2005, there is already an established county-city 2 by 2 process through which Supervisors meet with their respective District’s Mayors and City Council members. This would merely be an expansion into a large and broader Yolo County "council of governments."

Davis City Councilmember Stephen Souza has latched onto this idea and placed it on the City Council agenda for this evening.

His proposal is for a joint meeting--just as the city has with its commission to "enhance a culture of cooperation and improve the ability of both our governmental bodies to serve our respective constituents."

There seems to be a fear however that this type of joint meetings will be used to re-write the pass-through agreement to force the city to grow at a set rate on the periphery.

That is a legitimate concern. However, there are a couple of points that should be made in response to this legitimate concern.

First, if the council majority wants to impose a growth rate of one percent or even higher on the Davis periphery, they are going to need to get it through the Measure J vote. That gives Davis voters a strong mechanism by which to control peripheral growth.

Second, while it is true Measure J expires in 2010, it is also true that there will be two council elections between now and then. If peripheral growth becomes a threat from this council majority, it can be used as a weapon against them in the next two elections. The public will have to make a decision as to whether or not they want to grow on the periphery.

Third, if the current council majority wants to grow on the periphery, having talks or not having talks will not have any effect on that desire. The current council has the votes to do this with or without collaboration from the County Supervisors. The County Board of Supervisors is not going to give greater legitimacy at least for the majority of citizens of Davis who opposed peripheral development projects such as Covell Village.

Talks can never hurt--particularly if you are in a minority position. We need decisions that occur in the light where we can scrutinize them and take them to the public if need be. Talks place issues on the public record. If the County Supervisors and the Council Majority indeed attempt to use this process to force growth on Davis--that attempt will be on a public record at a public meeting and the progressives on the city council can then take this to the voters in 2008.

As I said, I understand completely the concern about forced peripheral growth on Davis. But if that is to happen--I want it to occur in an open and public process where statements are on the record and where we can then take it to the voters in 2008 to see if they indeed approve of such actions. If they do, there is nothing we can do to stop it. However, at least by having a public process, the public will be aware.

Moreover, there is another reason to have talks that has nothing to do with peripheral growth and everything to do with having a formal process whereby each group can meet and discuss concerns. Communication is the best way to resolve differences and work toward shared goals. Both the city and county take into this process their own concerns and objectives about the next 10 to 20 years of planning and it only makes sense to at least communicate about each other's intentions.

In summary, if this becomes an issue about forced growth on Davis--I think a number of people would like to know about it and will fight against it. However, I see no reason to fear talks and I see many reasons to prefer that these talks occur in an open and public meeting with Brown act requirements that will force members to talk about it in the open.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Monday, March 05, 2007

Criticism of the "Best Uses" Report

Last week, the "Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force" delivered its final report that recommended the closing of Valley Oak Elementary School.

While the group spent an admirable amount of time and energy working on its report over the last two years, the group has nevertheless produced a product that in the end falls well short of what both the school board and the district needed. The chief complaint is that this report reads like a lawyer's brief arguing for one viewpoint rather than presenting the school board with an array of options and evidence on which they could make an informed decision.

One of the first things that struck me about the presentation last week and the report as a whole was its format. The report and the presentation made an argument. Those things that fit into that argument were presented. Those things that did not fit into that argument were not presented. That may be helpful for a lawyer's brief, however, the purpose of this task force should have been to provide the school board itself with options, not to advocate one position or another. As such, the best format may have been to present fully all reasonable alternatives and then perhaps make a recommendation based on those alternatives. However, that is not what this report did.

That is not what the school board wanted. The school board is now stuck in a very difficult position of either accepting findings that they may or may not agree with, or going against the work of a volunteer group that has spent two years working on this. If they choose the latter, they fall prey to the question--why did they create the task force in the first place if they were merely to do what they wanted to do anyway.

However, this is not an accurate assessment for two reasons. First, the task force was created in March of 2005 under the previous board and second, what few may remember is that the original focus of the task force was not the closing of a school. That developed over time. The original purpose of the task force was to "create a plan to guide the district's use of its schools, given the capacity that has been increased with the construction of the new elementary school in Mace Ranch." They were going to look at relocation of existing programs in the school district.

I have heard a number of criticisms of the report and their methods. I was appalled last week as to how defensive Mr. Kirk Trost became at times during the meeting. I thought some of his behavior was extremely inappropriate. Did he not expect that he was going to be criticized? Did he not expect that the report would anger many parents in the Valley Oak Elementary School area?

Volunteering for something does not immunize one from criticism. Indeed the entire school board does not receive compensation for their services.

There are two key criticisms I have substantively about this report. First, they make an assumption about 420 students being a minimum size for an elementary school and second their use of a one-mile distance to demonstrate the lack of changes in distance from school for elementary school children.

The task force argues that "the most effective enrollment in a Neighborhood Program is 420 students with precisely 60 students at each grade level." The key to this argument they claim is to have "differentiation" that "will become increasingly difficult as enrollment drops below 420."

They make this assertion with no citation whatsoever for any kind of research. There is a wealth of educational research in the field that would probably support their contention. But they do not cite it. Moreover, there is probably a wealth of educational research that probably would oppose their contention. This is a prime example of the need to have alternative viewpoints that are fully fleshed out in both research and argumentation. To me it is simply inexcusable to make these kinds of assumptions with no citation or research to back it up.

The differentiation argument needs to be backed up with research and research in these fields is almost never undisputed and so there needs to be both sides presented and while the task force can make a recommendation, the school board should have the ultimate say over this philosophy.

My second contention is with their presentation of transportation and walking distance from 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 a 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.

The problem is that they used as their metric--1 mile and 1.5 miles as their examined distanced. The school board in the past had specifically requested to see half-mile distances and whether students were having to walk further using that figure as a guide.

The problem with a mile is that most young children will not walk a mile. They may walk half a mile to school, but who is going to let a six year old walk a mile to school? Virtually no one. So that is not a meaningful measure. If you have taken a bunch of kids who were within half a mile and are now making them walk one mile, that is a disadvantage to them.

Again these data were requested by school board members, Board President Jim Provenza asked again at this meeting, 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--a point that is immaterial to the current discussion at hand which involves the displacement of some students not all students.

This argument does not work for young elementary school kids. I can tell you that growing up, I lived a mile from school and that I almost never walked to school. It was a long way and took 20 minutes to walk home. I would bike to school but almost never walk. And it is considerably less safe for kids to walk now than when I grew up. So one mile, might as well be five miles for younger children at the very least.

The suspicion here is that the half-mile data would show that there was a considerable difference for having Valley Oak open versus not having Valley Oak open. That is just a guess, but given that the data were requested but not provided, not an unreasonable one. And if it that turns out to be untrue and that closing Valley Oak makes no difference in this area as well, we need to know that as well.

Overall, I would suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of fundamental criticisms. I know a number of the families in the Valley Oak area were unhappy with the amount of time spent studying the ELL program which they argue is exemplary and the lack of contact made on that front. They were also very disturbed by the patriarchal attitude of several members on the Task Force. I did not witness this personally, but in talking with members of the public these were concerns that they raised. And a big problem is that projections are at best a rough guess and long range projections are very difficult to make with any degree of certainty and they are very susceptible to the assumptions that go into the development of the model.

The biggest criticism remains that this report does not present options. They do not present a lot of research and counter-research to support key contentions and also oppose their contentions. One of the questions I would have asked the members of the Task Force on several of their points is what is their best argument against their report. Every argument has strengths and weaknesses and to present a case like this that is at best nuanced as though it were black and white does a disservice to this community, to the school board and especially to the parents that this decisions will personally effect.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Was Superintendent David Murphy Fired?

On Thursday evening, Davis Joint Unified School District Superintendent David Murphy announced his retirement.

Reading from a prepared statement:
“Since February 1, when I turned 60, my wife Robbie and I have been discussing what would be best for our family and with our life... It is now an appropriate time for me to conclude a wonderful era of 35 years of public service and spend more time with my family while we are all healthy and happy.”
While he intends to retire on July 31, 2007, he announced that the Board of Education would appoint an interim superintendent now and he would immediately hand over all his responsibilities.

The speculation is now flying around the community that Murphy was forced out rather than voluntarily retiring.

Said former school board member Joan Sallee in the Davis Enterprise:
“I was deeply saddened to hear of Murphy’s retirement. ... I am very sorry that the current school board did not see fit to retain his services. The district has suffered a grievous loss, at a time when we can least afford it.”
That is very indicative that in fact this was not a voluntary retirement.

This has been a tumultuous year for the school district with a number of different financial scandals. In November of 2006, the board halted construction on a new King High School building. Allegations were made at that time by Board Member Jim Provenza that "shoddy practices in the business office have cost us" money on the project. He further said, "I'm happy we have a new chief budget officer (Colby) and (we're) cleaning up the mess we've had in the past.

Earlier this month the project was re-approved with money from redevelopment funds. Board member Tim Taylor cast the lone, "no" vote and he too made allegations about irregularities in board money use. "For me, the issue is some financially funky stuff that's gone on to get us to this point. It has absolutely nothing to do with King High."

Another scandal in the last year was the Total School Solutions scandal which led to the resignation of a number of administrators. Total Schools Solutions is a Fairfield-based firm run by Tahir Ahad, who served as deputy superintendent for business services for the Davis School District from 1999 through May. Employees who worked at Total School Solutions while at the same time working for the school district were perceived to have a conflict of interest and this led to new conflict of interest regulations within the school district requiring disclosure of other employers that school district employees work for. At one point, the employees at Total School Solutions were largely made up of administrators from Davis Joint Unified who were simultaneously on the both payrolls.

These are some of a long list of problems including the reemergence of the bullying and harassment issue nearly three years after a long and heated community meeting in 2004 where several hundred parents and students came forward at a Davis Human Relations Commission meeting held at the Veteran's Memorial Center, to press for changes in district policy on bullying and racism. Those incidents led to the creation of a part-time School Climate Coordinator position now held by Mel Lewis. Since then the district has come under fire in the Fischer anti-gay harassment case and another similar case that has resulted in two law suits against the school. The district has now tightened up its disciplinary code.

Most recently we have the controversy involved with the potential closing of Valley Oak Elementary school and the recommendations handed down on Thursday by the Best Uses of Schools Task Force. That task force was appointed by the previous board. This is going to be another heated and tumultuous issue as the board now has to deal with that report and its fallout.

The previous board was fiercely loyal to Superintendent Murphy and his staff. In fact, on their way out, one of their last actions before new members Gina Daleiden, Tim Taylor, and Sheila Allen took over was to extend Murphy's contract until July 31, 2008, which had for all intents and purposes tied the hands of the new school board. Something that deeply upset several of the members of the current board.

However it now appears that they were able to find a way to get rid of Murphy. Joan Sallee's comment is informative because she was among the outgoing members that voted to extend his contract back in 2005.

The District has a tough task ahead. They need to hire a strong and competent new Superintendent who can effectively clean house of many of the other administrators who have become serious impediments toward furthering the educational system in Davis.

The public will unfortunately never know for sure why Superintendent Murphy has "retired," just as they will never know for sure why Jim Antonen was fired or Jim Hyde was fired. This is unfortunate. The laws protecting personnel confidentiality make sense when we are dealing with rank and file employees. When we are dealing with individuals in the command structure such as Police Chief, Superintendent, or City Manager, those laws make less sense. There is a strong and compelling public interest to know why such high ranking and highly paid public officials have lost their jobs. Transparency in government demands it.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting