The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rumors About Emerson Continue, Irrational as They May Be

No, it is not just on this blog. I hear and get asked about whether Emerson is going to close wherever I go. There is a persistent rumor that the closure of Emerson is fait accompli regardless of the outcome of Measure W.

As I have argued this is completely illogical. I will break down that illogic shortly. I would submit to the readers of this, that if you want Emerson to close, then you should vote against Measure W, because voting against Measure W will almost surely lead to the closure of the school. If you want to strongly increase the likelihood of Emerson remaining open, and these are the words of Superintendent James Hammond whom I will quote fully below, then you should vote for the Parcel Tax.

I will get to those words of the Superintendent in a moment. First we need to logic through this argument.

Why Emerson Closes if Measure W Fails

The school district last spring estimated that the closure of Measure W would save the district roughly $600,000 in site specific operating expenses. That is largely without the lay off of teachers.

That is the biggest single chunk of money that can be saved with terminating or eliminating teacher positions. In fact, that represents around a quarter of the money that they would need to cut if Measure W fails.

If given the choice between teachers and a facility, they are going to pick the facility every time. (I will get to why they eliminated Emerson for this list last spring below).

The problem that you face when you have a number like $2.4 million is that you really cannot nickel and dime your way to budget cuts. They have already trimmed two major positions from the district's administration including an Assistant Superintendent whose contract was not renewed and whose position was not replaced.

The good news for the district is that 82% of the district's discretionary general fund budget goes directly to the classroom, but the bad news is the same. It means to get meaningful cuts, you have to cut from the classroom. Of the remaining 18% of the budget that does not directly go to the classroom, 9% of the budget goes to ground operations such as custodians and only 7% of the budget goes to administration.

That means you are either cutting teachers or you cutting facilities. Again, that means if you have to cut $2.4 million and can get a quarter of that without laying off a single teacher, guess what they do?

So by all means, if you want to have Emerson close, vote no on W. The illogic of people who say because they won't guarantee Emerson stays open if W passes, they will therefore vote against W and ensure that Emerson closes, is mindboggling.

Why Emerson Stays Open if Measure W Passes

There are issues of the facility that will prevent the guarantee of Emerson staying open. But, most available rationale indicates that it most likely has to stay open if the general fund is not in deficit.

People try to link Emerson and Valley Oak. But Emerson has advantages (many of them) that Valley Oak never had.

As Superintendent James Hammond said on the Vanguard Radio show in mid-October:
"It's not like the closure of an elementary school where you have eight or nine sites, you have three junior high sites spread across town, so you have logistical concerns to evaluate."
This is not a defense of closing Valley Oak, but when they had to close Valley Oak, you have at least three schools within close proximity to Valley Oak. North Davis Elementary and Birch Lane are both within nine-tenths of a mile and Korematsu is just one and a half miles. That means that you are generally redirecting students within a relative close proximity. Now as we know from the Valley Oak issue that arose last year, you are still putting a burden on parents and making it more difficult for young children to walk and bike to school. Nevertheless, it is not a logistical nightmare for the district.

On the other hand, the Junior High scenario is much more tricky. You have Holmes Junior High a full 3.3 miles from Emerson. That is a logistical nightmare in a school district that does not have district busing transportation. That reason alone is why the district held off on closing Emerson as a possibility last spring and why it will likely not close it in the future if there are funds.

And remember they cannot simply move all of the Emerson students to Holmes, they would have to move a good portion of Holmes students to Harper, another two miles away.

So unlike having a simple situation where a few relatively close elementary schools can absorb additional students, you have a tough scenario where you are moving a large amount of students a good distance away.

These logistical problems relegate Emerson to a worst-case scenario closure rather than a likely closure if the general fund is in relatively good condition.

I pressed Superintendent Hammond on this issue during the October 15 radio show. Here's what he told me.
"The status on Emerson, to be quite honest, right now there is no decision. I mean we are status quo. There has been no formal discussion about Emerson between the staff and the board since last spring... Emerson has challenges but it doesn't mean there's an imminent closure waiting for it. There's facility concerns. It's not like the closure of an elementary school where you have eight or nine sites, you have three junior high sites spread across town, so you have logistical concerns to evaluate, facility concerns to evaluate. But by no means is there any type of hidden agenda to close the school. I think that that is one of the things even after passing the budget that we still deal with today."
Thus he completely denies that there is any kind of hidden agenda. On the other hand he cannot make promises.
"I can't make any promises as a superintendent particularly when it comes to the instability of the state budget and the inadequacy of how schools are funded."
He lays it out pretty clearly here, he believes that if we get the funding, the "likelihood" of Emerson staying open increases. And if we do not get the funding, the "likelihood" of closure increases.
"I would like to think, and what I say with my own words without representing anyone else, that with additional revenue in this case from Measure W, probably increases, and I use this word intentionally, the likelihood, the likelihood of things staying status quo, the lack of funds that we get if we're not successful with the parcel tax or we have to re-run a parcel in '09 at a lesser amount and we get a very bad January revise like we're expecting, the likelihood of being back where we were last spring increases. And as you know David, everything is back on the table and being evaluated and discussed. And that is my fear, that being in a place early in our school year where our fiscal indicates that we have to make some cuts and that's where I don't want to be."
Again, Measure W's passage will not guarantee that Emerson stays open. It will not. What Measure W does is take all of the position that Measure W funds, all of the teaching positions and it guarantees them for the next three years. Those positions by law cannot be eliminated. That frees up other money to go to keep Emerson open.

If the district does not have that money from Measure W then they have a choice, they can either terminate the positions that W would have funded or they can try to save money by closing schools. My guess is that they are going to close at least one school if they do not get Measure W or if they have to pass a smaller parcel tax in the spring.

Again, if you want to insure that Emerson closes, vote against the parcel tax. Because if the parcel tax fails and they have to come with a smaller amount in the spring, Emerson is likely gone. If you want Emerson to have a possibility to remain open, you have to vote for Measure W.

With $2.4 million, you are not going to nickel and dime your way to a balanced budget. If it were $0.24 million you might have a chance to. But with it at $2.4 million you have to cut from that 82% of the budget, and that is classroom money.

Again, the illogic of the position, they won't guarantee Emerson so I'll vote against Measure W is breathtaking. The reverse is most likely true.

---David M. Greenwald reporting