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Monday, February 18, 2008

Commentary: DJUSD Cut of Climate Position Threatens To Set Back Efforts by Two Decades

Within the course of cutting $4 to $4.5 million from the school district's budget, you know that the cuts are going to - for the most part -be deep and painful. In fact, that is one reason I have mostly avoided hitting this topic head-on. I have a full understanding that there are going to be painful cuts for all.

That being said, with proposals now on the table, I think we also have to think about the bigger picture and along those lines I have some concerns about some of the cuts.

However, I will start with perhaps some good news, without being too flippant or speaking too far out of school. On the other hand, this is the Vanguard and people have perhaps come to expect a bit of irreverence and even honesty that you will not find elsewhere.

Personnel matters are tricky, in fact, as I would suggest, I think state law goes too far to protect the privacy of top level employees. It is one thing to protect the private records of assistants and custodians and other classified employees. It is another thing not to disclose that a top level public official such as a Superintendent or City Manager has been fired and not explain why that occurred. When you have huge amount of responsibility and large salary, I do not think you have the same privacy rights as those making $30,000 per year.

Yesterday's Davis Enterprise reveals that Ginni Davis, the associate superintendent for educational services is leaving the school district.

In a somewhat contradictory release at first it says
"she decided last month not to renew her contract when it expires in June. Her decision is becoming public now, as part of the district's plans to reduce staffing in many areas to correct a growing budget deficit."
She's quoted as saying:
"I'm part of that proposed $200,000 in reductions among district office administrators."
As is often the case there is something happening between those lines.

While I cannot say for certain what happened, I do know some board members have had deep concerns about her for a good deal of time. At the end of the day however the Superintendent was going to be allowed to make his own personnel decisions. I have no direct knowledge of what happened here, but I suspect that this was not merely a budget move.

I first became aware of Ms. Davis during the case of the junior high school student who was bullied on the Harper Junior High campus largely, because he has two gay fathers. It was Ms. Davis, who became so intransigent during talks with the family that it turned from simply a complaint to a lawsuit. This was in late 2006 and early 2007.

More recently word has it that the truancy issue became a far bigger problem with the school district last fall due to decisions made from her office not to fully disclose to the school board what was occurring. Indeed, Pam Mari who was newly appointed as Director of Student Services, was hung out to dry in that meeting, believing that the board knew of this policy and she was merely providing an update for them. The board had no idea what was going on and Ms. Mari was left in a very bad position.

Finally, it was Ginni Davis who authored the resolution that opposed the Valley Oak Charter School. This resolution in December was very antagonistic and set the stage for what would happen in January. At that time, the Superintendent had to step in and put forth a large amount of work to reconcile the district's position with those of the Charter Petitioners. Prior to that point the district was very reluctant to meet or help out with the charter petition and it seems that Ms. Davis played a large role in that as well.

At the end of the day, Board President Sheila Allen issued a statement:
"We want to thank Ginni for her leadership during these difficult times, and we wish her luck in [her] next endeavors. I think she knows a lot about the educational process; that's a strength she brought to the position."
I am hopeful that when this budget emergency passes, the school district will find a new associate superintendent of educational services that will work well with the new superintendent to serve all of Davis' students.

I am less hopeful about the cut of the School Climate Coordinator position.

This position arose out of very serious concerns in this community about the "climate" on campus especially with regards to race relations and bullying. Indeed in 2004, 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 to district policy on bullying and racism.

One of the outcomes of the changes was the creation of the then part-time School Climate Coordinator position which is now held by Mel Lewis.

In the fall of 2006, in the wake of events that centered on the anti-gay harassment of a junior high school student, one of the proposals put forth was to expand the climate coordinator position to full-time.

The Vanguard wrote on November 21, 2006:
"During the meeting last week, the school board asked Mel Lewis, now the district's School Climate Coordinator, to draw up an action plan designed to reduce or eliminate harassment not just at Harper but at all Davis schools.

Lewis at the meeting pointed out he was doing a 1.5 time job on a half-time salary. The school board seemed to agree that the Mr. Lewis needs to be better sourced as did the father of the student, Guy Fischer. Fischer said "this is a full-time problem. There are a lot of things that could be done."
What followed in 2007 was a series of events on the Davis High School Campus and in the community that underscore the need for a continuation of that program.

Instead what we see is that as soon as the budget gets tight, this will be one of the first things that go. Nevermind the recommendations that have come from a whole variety of studies that the district has invested time and money into. Nevermind the continuing complaints about disparate treatment for students of different races with regards to discipline policy. Nevermind the stark findings of the Achievement Gap Task Force or the DHS Catalysts for Social Justice Student report. Nevermind that last year Tansey Thomas stood up and told the school board that in 1990 they had done a "Racial Climate Assessment Report" and at that time the district struggled with the same problems that they are currently struggling with. Those recommendations were put on a shelf and never acted upon. Let us shelve promising new programs such as the school ambassador program, because we simply are out of money.

I understand that we need to cut money. I also understand that we cannot cut money from core programs if possible, and that these cuts will be painful to all. But if we set ourselves back we are literally setting ourselves back another 18 years, because these programs will not come back until the next incident occurs. And, we will once again wonder why it is that we never acted upon the recommendations of the 2007 Achievement Gap Task Force just as we never acted upon the recommendations of the "Racial Climate Assessment Report."

When we cut programs for the most vulnerable students, the students who we have long since determined are at-risk, we risk truly damaging the students.

For all of the people who have said that this school district is irresponsible and we should not approve a parcel tax until they demonstrate they have their house in order, I disagreed. I disagreed because these are students, they are kids, and I do not believe we can play politics with the education of students.

At the same time, we cannot merely cut programs for at-risk kids, because we have a budget crunch and it is "easy" (and I know it is not easy) money to cut. Too much work went into establishing this program and this position in the first place to merely throw it out the door.

We need to have the same commitment to school climate and helping at-risk kids as we have for core curriculum because for some kids, without this work and these programs, there is no core curriculum. The achievement gap will grow. Students who are at-risk will not graduate, they will not go to college, they will not succeed in life. That sounds harsh, perhaps too harsh, but in my mind that is what we are facing here.

I'm sorry, but I think we have to find a better way than to balance our budget on the backs of the most vulnerable in our schools just as at the state and federal level we cannot merely balance our budget on the backs of the poor and the working class.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting