State of Confusion
Trustees take over troubled schools despite concerns over local control.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Beginning this week, elected school boards and their appointed superintendents in the Alisal and Greenfield school districts will be sidelined as the State Board of Education meets to appoint outside overseers to manage the districts.
County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Kotowski is already serving as interim trustee of the Alisal district. The state board appointed her in March after the conflict-plagued school board suddenly ousted its superintendent, Esperanza Zendejas, even though under Zendejas’ contract, she must continue to be paid. The Board then equally precipitously hired current superintendent John Ramirez to replace her, obligating the district to pay two top administrators.
The state is navigating uncharted waters with the Alisal and Greenfield takeovers. While it has taken over a number of districts in financial trouble, including King City, Oakland and Compton, this is the first time trustees will step in because local schools have failed academically.
“State control tends to be effective in getting a district’s finances back in order,” says David Plank of Policy Analysis for California Education, an education think tank run jointly by UC Berkeley, Stanford and the University of Southern California. “There is less evidence that it’s effective in improving academic performance.”
It isn’t clear exactly how much power state-appointed trustees will wield, how long the state takeovers will last, and how the state-appointed trustee will interact with school boards and superintendents.
The State Board of Education is currently proposing that the trustee exercise veto power over all board decisions. It is not recommending the firing of superintendents, as is customary when the state takes over districts in financial trouble, but board members will have the final word on those issues at their May 5-7 meetings in Sacramento.
Last month, the state board invited parents, teachers and school officials to weigh in at a mass meeting at Alisal’s Jesse Sanchez School. The board also held a similar gathering in Greenfield.
“We’re here to turn a page and make a fresh start,” Board President Ted Mitchell said. “We’re not interested in running the district. The state is interested in building capacity. Our goal is local control.”
Mitchell told the crowd of several hundred that he wanted to know what qualities they sought in a trustee, and asked for their recommendations on the scope of his or her authority and the length of the trusteeship.
Dozens of speakers – parents, teachers, students and administrators – gave Mitchell an earful about alleged favoritism, nepotism and mismanagement in the district. Like parent Lorena Silva, whose two children attend Cesar Chavez School, most said they wanted an impartial trustee unrelated to anyone on the local school board.
Silva said the district needed “an individual with a deep understanding of bilingual education, a person who’s been a teacher and administrator.”
“Don’t wait ‘til May,” Silva said. “We need a trustee now.”
The board will select the two trustees from a pool of some 25 candidates, according to Board of Education spokeswoman Regina Brown Wilson. It is not releasing the names of the finalists.
Whoever gets the nod faces an uphill climb, Plank says: “To think they can do a better job than local schools is a leap of faith.”