Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Do Bubbles Look Like, Pt. 2.

Today, I'm revisiting a post from last November. I had blogged about a property for sale on Austin Avenue, in the Prestwood neighborhood of Sonoma. The asking price was $2,295,000; the house was a little under 1,900 square feet. There was some disbelief at the listing, given the property had sold in November of 2010 for $407,500.

As was expected, the property didn't sell, and was reduced in price in January of 2015, but only to slightly less than $2 million. And that's where it sold, on March 12th of 2015, for $907 per square foot. That amounts to about a 200% return on the investment, given the 14 months and three weeks the property was held. The turn of events produced a certain amount of amazement and head shaking; talk of a bubble would frequently follow.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (US)
Multiple Series
retrieved from Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis [FRED]
August 11, 2015, available at 
I kind of fell into a trap of presuming that rapid appreciation automatically meant a bubble exists.  However, I wanted to get an idea of what asset prices in Sonoma look like contrasted with other assets.  And once again, I turned to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank's excellent data analysis tool, FRED, to give me some perspective. 

The electric blue line through the center of the graphic is the Case-Shiller Home Price Index for the San Francisco Bay Area. I indexed it on the trough of the last US recession, June of 2009.  I also put in the same index for Cleveland (the dark blue dashed line) and Las Vegas (light blue dashed line). 

I chose Cleveland as a comparison because its residential real property prices were basically increasing at a modest fixed rate for years, which is what you'd (more or less) expect of a heavily regulated market dominated by government lenders.  Las Vegas, in contrast, is one of the more heinous examples of the real estate bubble; the pronounced rapid rise around 2006 is clear.  Prices in Cleveland have now been declining-to-flat for nearly a decade, and while Las Vegas has seen a recent increase, the change is nothing like 2004-06. But in San Francisco prices have nearly returned to their peak.

There's something of an obvious culprit, of course.  While the increase in house prices is remarkable, the increase in stock market prices is even more striking.  White the sharp rise in gold-and-oil prices (the yellow and black lines, respectively) during Obama's first term are clear, those markets have gone through serious corrections in the last 24 months.  But the NASDAQ's rise (solid green line) continues unabated, and unlike the dot-com era, the broader markets have followed (the dashed green lines are the S&P 500 and the Wilshire 5000).  

Sticking the label "bubble" on this situation, though, requires clearing one more hurdle. Bubbles aren't just mispricing, where people think something's valuable and, after time, it becomes clear they were wrong. Instead, bubbles, as Noah Smith nicely explained in a column back in March, depend on greater fool speculation–that someone else will pay an even higher price for the same asset tomorrow.

When it comes to home prices in the San Francisco Bay Area real property market, no less an authority than Robert Shiller himself argues such extravagant expectations (and market inefficiencies) are indeed what's driving prices, creating the potential for a Minsky moment. His point (distilled) is that the lack of short selling and the difficulties associated with increasing supply are behind the problem:
"In San Francisco, for example, we found that while the median expectation for annual home price increases over the next 10 years was only 5 percent, a quarter of the respondents said they thought prices would increase each year by 10 percent or more. That would mean a net 150 percent increase in a decade. These people are apparently not thinking about the supply response that so big a price increase would generate. People like this could bid prices in some places so high that eventually the local market will collapse. Yet the smart money can’t find a profitable way to correct such errors today ... [t]he bottom line is that there is no reason to assume that the real estate market is even close to efficient. You may want to buy a house if you love it and can afford it. But remember that you cannot safely rely on 'comparable sales' to judge that the price is fair. The market isn’t efficient enough for that."
Presuming that we are in a bubble, the hard question is, when do we expect it to end? For a way to think about how to answer that question, I point to the Economist.  In an article from last year, the newspaper noted that this particular economic cycle is already running long at 74 months; if it continues through May 2017 it will pass the average of the last three. Prices may very well hold in Sonoma so long as the expansion continues. Thus we may see a seller's market in the Valley of the Moon for another summer, and perhaps even for two.

It always seems odd to me, however, that given the regularity of booms and busts, that we all still struggle to remind ourselves that this time isn't any different, and these conditions will end as all such expansions do.  It is a truth Stanford economist Bob Hall (chairman of the academic panel that dates American business cycles) reminds us of when he points out that, economic syncopation being what it is, “[t]he next recession will come out of the blue ... just like all of its predecessors.” Perhaps we can take some comfort from our pattern of failing to constrain our expectations, even after three and a half thousand years of this stuff, and recognize it as a part of the human condition.

Knowledge of the problem, though, doesn't mean we should be sanguine about the consequences for individuals exposed to the volatility.  The family home is the primary asset of the vast majority of households. It is worth remembering that during each of the last three recessions, as the graph above shows, prices for San Francisco residential real estate have fallen. Sometimes, the collapse has been rather spectacular. It's food for thought, I imagine, for those in the Bay Area who are expecting ten percent appreciation per year for the next decade or more ...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

About Arnold Field ...

On Tuesday, Sonoma Valley's school board heard from some City residents with concerns that construction at the combined SVHS/Adele Harrison/Prestwood Elementary campus would hurt their property values. This is (of course) a common situation whenever a school district builds the regular improvements and expansions that their educational mission requires.  I think most everyone has sympathy for the neighbors' concerns. But empirical research shows that their fears aren't backed by the facts. Chris Neilson and Seth Zimmerman demonstrated (in their increasingly-widely cited research) that neighborhood school construction actually improves property values. "[B]y six years after building occupancy, school construction increases reading scores by 0.15 standard deviations relative to the year before building occupancy ... school construction raised home prices in affected neighborhoods by roughly 10%, and led to increased public school enrollment."

The proposed sports complex, in particular, has alarmed some nearby homeowners, who focused their concerns on the stadium. But the research, again, supports the District. Larissa Davies, a United Kingdom based researcher into the subject, conducted a thorough review of the US and UK literature on the impact of football and soccer stadia. Her internationally recognized study found that "proposals to locate stadia in urban areas often prompt a negative reaction from local communities, fearing a decline in property prices ... in contrast to this widely held belief, sports stadia can actually enhance the value of residential property ... stadia also contribute indirectly to property value through the creation of pride, confidence and enhanced image of an area."

Arnold Field
180 1st St. West, Sonoma, CA 95476
Image courtesy Google Pedometer

service available at
The neighbors did have an alternative proposal.  In listening to the different speakers, I noted that they brought up more than once the argument that Arnold Field was a fine alternative to a high school stadium.  On the surface, that argument looks good, but as a person who's been involved with the nonprofit that administers the field, and having played on it quite a bit myself, I know that the (generally undiscussed) truth is that Arnold Field isn't long enough to play football on safely, and it isn't in compliance with the law. A football field must be 360 feet long, surrounded by a further safety buffer of 15 feet. As the attached picture (created using Google Pedometer) shows, the length from fence-to-fence at Arnold Field is 116.3 meters, which amounts to ten feet short of the required space for the safety buffer.  The cramped quarters leave no space for accessible routes alongside the playing surface, a DSA requirement for California school facilities.

Spaulding Field
309 Westwood Plaza, Los Angeles, CA 90095
Image courtesy Google Pedometer

service available at
The safe and legal way to deal with that situation is a non-regulation size field; UCLA's practice field is a good example.  Rather than unsafely stretch the playing surface to a fence, the UCLA Athletics Department shortened the football practice field adjacent to Pauley Pavilion by 20 yards (a careful observer of the Google Pedometer image on the right will note there are no 40 yard lines).  By doing so, the University preserved the buffers and accessible routes required by statute. It would be great if Sonoma had the kind of alternative UCLA has to playing on their practice field, but the Dragons can't simply decamp like the Bruins to the Rose Bowl on Game Day.

But length isn't the only problem posed by Arnold Field. The baseball locker rooms at Arnold are probably too small for baseball; they're clearly inadequate for football. The beautiful, pristine baseball outfield often gets churned into a mudscape during football season, and to be back at its best for spring, it needs rest from December until mid-March, preventing women's soccer from relying on it for winter practice. Arnold Field has no track, and doesn't have space for one to be installed. And the location itself, which might have been helpful in Sonoma's railroad days, when adjacency to a Depot could have aided traveling teams, is a hindrance today, when 1st St W jams with traffic after home football games, adding to the already-unmanageable traffic congestion around the Plaza.

Meanwhile, SVUSD has specific requirements for a variety of sports that are consistent with its mission to ensure healthy minds in healthy bodies. California (and the nation) faces a physical education crisis.  Sonoma High's track is in such dilapidated condition that home meets had to be held at away locations this past spring. Women's soccer, whose schedule is planned to be moved to winter, will require a lighted field for play purposes, one that, practically, must be field turf given the sloppy, unplayable condition of grass fields in January and February.  Sonoma High's football team, meanwhile, still needs a safe and statutorily-compliant home field.

There have been some suggestions that SVUSD could "take over" Arnold Field and improve the facilities. That presents a lot of problems.  California educational facilities have higher than normal construction standards, just like hospitals and police stations.  State regulations prescribe that particular elements (things as mundane as the layout and size of walkways) conform to those standards. Bringing the facility into compliance would be far more expensive than moving a fence or building locker rooms, even if the baseball constituency would agree to replace the grass field with turf. And all that presupposes the property could be taken into trust as an educational facility in cooperation with the County.

The truth is that Arnold Field is a great baseball field. Mario Alioto, and all of the baseball supporters and boosters, have maintained it as a labor of love. Their hard work has caused the community to over-rely on the facility, and sometimes to over-use it. Arnold Field should be dedicated to baseball–a move that would be in keeping with the long term trend away from multipurpose civic stadiums to those dedicated to a specific use, from the San Jose Earthquakes amazing new Avaya Stadium, to the jewel that AT&T Park has become along the waterfront in San Francisco.

Arnold Field is a historical facility, steeped in the memories made there.  But physically, it is a product of another time. Easing the pressure on the facility will allow site-specific baseball improvements to be made, enhancing the experience for Sonoma's high school baseball team, as well as the Little League, Babe Ruth, and now the Stompers that call it home.  It will avoid the potentially serious legal liability the District, the County, and even the City could all face by allowing use to continue at a field we know doesn't meet contemporary safety guidelines.  It will mitigate traffic on and around the Square, and will ensure the women's soccer team will play in the appropriate facilities our Lady Dragons deserve.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Restorative Justice, and the Sonoma County Teen Court.

It must have been the fall of 1992.  There was an article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, talking about Sonoma County's new diversion program for the juvenile courts. They were looking for teenage volunteers, to serve as attorneys.  The cases would be real, referred by different local police departments. A meeting was set a few weeks out, and there was a phone number for more information.

About 30 high school students showed up. We heard from a panel of court officials and criminal defense attorneys. All of the accused were misdemeanor defendants, and they had to admit guilt to participate in the program in the first place. The goal was to attempt to reintegrate them into the community, while sending a message about unacceptable behavior. Our job would be to explain, to the jury of teenagers, what had happened, after piecing together a police report and hearing from the client.

I was a typical over-scheduled accelerated student in high school, with honors and AP courses, football practices, and play rehearsals, so the time commitment mattered.  But the program held my attention.  The teen court illuminated the fabric of the lives of the families working their way through the system, for the parents would usually come to court, too. So many of the situations I encountered cried out for more effective social services and, above all else, for empowering schools so that the courts wouldn't be called in so often to pick up the pieces.

Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility
Photo available at
The hearings were in a courtroom at Sonoma County's Main Adult Detention Facility (jail). I must have handled at least 50 cases before heading to college. Most ended with the defendant making restitution and doing some community service, including sitting on a later-convened teen court jury. The program successfully reduced recidivism–the data I've seen indicated the rate was substantially lower than normal.  Further, the impact on the lives of the volunteer teenagers is revealing; a number of them (I think, actually, all) went on to complete law school and become attorneys.

The program went on for some time after I graduated from high school. About a decade later it became a victim of budget cuts, back when things were so bad Santa Rosa had to turn off streetlights to save money. But the restorative justice principles that the system embodied have only become more relevant in education and in juvenile justice since.  Teen courts like Sonoma County's promote accountability and community protection, but they also foster the development of competency in the defendants, a point that deserves special attention.

About a year ago I taught a class with one of the Sonoma County Superior Court judges at our Juvenile Hall, for the toughest kids in the system.  The last question of the 90 minute session was the most poignant.  The guy looked like he might have been 16, and he was clearly bright as hell.  He was very specific with us. He wanted to know if a felony conviction as a juvenile would, when he became an adult, prevent him from becoming an attorney.

For that young man understanding and mastering the principles of justice represented something special.  It was power, but also it seemed to signify achievement. The aspirational element that is so often the motivating spark to commence a legal education was clearly there. The emphatic reply he received from us was that it was wide open for him.

And that is the final element I choose to illustrate what the Sonoma County Teen Court was all about. For teen courts are special because they require the defendants to then participate in the system as jurors. It causes them to witness the functioning of the court as a person responsible for the wielding of power, rather than just as a defendant, feeling confused and helpless when subject to it.

Dyan Foster
Photo available at
This is at the core of restorative justice-that the system should help reweave the fabric of the community torn by the transgression, rather than focus only on punitive retaliation. In a smaller way, when those defendants served, they took a certain amount of ownership of the system. Like the young man in juvenile hall, they developed an understanding of the importance of justice, something particularly clear to those who have once been judged themselves.

I hear that, possibly, the program may be restored by the County. On the merits, I'm in favor. But quite apart from whether that decision is made one way or the other, as readers of this blog are doubtless aware, as a lawyer, education sits at the center of my practice. The kernel of that comes from the Sonoma County Teen Court, and a 17-year old version of me, who as a teen attorney was trying to understand how people's lives had caused them to bump into the police, and how more effective education could have helped so many avoid such problems in the first place. And for that, I owe a continuing debt of thanks to  Dyan Foster and Routes for Youth, who made the program possible.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

@SVUSD1 @svhsdragons 2015-16 Budget "Best 3 Year Projection in Years."

The Sonoma Valley Unified School District had the first read of its 2015-16 budget on Tuesday night, presented by John Bartolome, the District's Chief Business Official.  John, for those of you who don't know him, is a graduate of Purdue University, helps out faithfully with the Sonoma Valley High School Wrestling Team, and apparently is one hell of a golfer.  He also had the chance, with this budget, to give Sonoma Valley Unified some of the best budget news it has ever had. I got the video courtesy of SVTV, which is very much appreciated. The video runs about 20 minutes, but I recommend it to anyone interested in a succinct picture of how things now look after the past half-decade of cuts.
John does a very nice job of explaining what's taking place; there's some terminology that can be confusing. To make sure nobody gets lost, LCFF stands for "Local Control Funding Formula," which is the new (reformed) method of financing public schools in California.  It was supposed to be phased in to its planned level through 2021–that is, schools weren't planned to be fully funded in California for another half a decade.  But, given the improvement in California's budget, school funding under LCFF has reached 70% of the 2021 figure. 

There's some discussion of deficit spending.  The district "planned" to run a deficit in the last year, and has done so for several years; that was due probably to the conservative projections made on funding.  When the local economy takes it in the teeth, that's what reserves are, of course, for, and the level of State funding has gotten to the point where the budget is essentially balanced as of 2017-18, which is a very significant change from years past.

There's also some discussion in the presentation of the concept of "Basic Aid," which is a special system under the line of legislative responses to Serrano v. Priest that allows some Districts to receive more funding than others due to their very high levels of property tax received.  During the most recent economic mess, State funding fell so low that Sonoma Valley actually became a Basic Aid district–which is expected to end in the next year.  Not a bad thing, as John points out, but instead more of a sign of the consequences of an economic recovery (... or of another speculative bubble). 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Fall of Measure A, and Roadway Congestion Pricing.

In the wake of the defeat of Sonoma County's Measure A yesterday, I started thinking about what other alternatives are available to mitigate Sonoma County's roadway issues.  As many of the readers of this blog are aware, Measure A was a quarter-cent sales tax in Sonoma County intended to fund pavement improvements.  The stories in the press before the election focused on the low quality of Sonoma County's roads, and indeed there's ample evidence of the problem. Sonoma County is generally considered to have the worst Pavement Condition Index of any county in the San Francisco Bay Area. That's saying something, as the region isn't known for the quality of its roadways.

However, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors' proposed solution, a sales tax, always seemed strange to me from a policy standpoint. Sales taxes are regressive, and aren't closely tied to the use of the roadways. Gas taxes have historically been used to fund maintenance (let alone improvement) because the use of the roads was (loosely) tied to the amount of tax paid. Of course, that system in the United States has been failing for decades. Improved fuel economy has delinked miles travelled from the amount of tax paid. But there's also another problem with fuel taxes. 

That problem turns on the primary complaint of voters when it comes to matters such as these.  It isn't actually the quality of the roadways. Instead, it's typically roadway congestion. For, as no less an authority than Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert has noted, "[d]riving in traffic is a different kind of hell every day."  So, while charging users for miles driven isn't a bad solution, charging them for driving those miles at the most congested times in the highest traffic areas is generally best. It provides revenue to improve the roads not based on the damage done to the road, but instead on the inconvenience imposed on all the other voters for inefficient timing of one's travel of the right-of-way. 

I concede, without argument, that, for the moment, for Sonoma County, trying to introduce a comprehensive system of congestion charges is asking too much. While Sonoma Valley's per-square-foot real estate prices may be approaching those of London or Singapore, that doesn't means the voters are yet ready for Zurich or Stockholm style road pricing. But there is lower hanging fruit whose benefits could be substantial.

 Highway 37/121 Juncture
Heavy Traffic in dark black
Take, for instance, the junction of Highways 37 and 121 in the southeastern corner of Sonoma County. As many are aware, the traffic in the afternoon heading from Sonoma County into Solano County, where 37 shrinks from two lanes to one, produces epic traffic jams. The problem isn't inter-Sonoma County traffic– instead it's the commuters trying to reach Solano County. For residents of Sonoma Valley returning home from San Francisco, it's a regular annoyance. For a tourist destination like the City of Sonoma, it's a foot on their economic windpipe. The Press Democrat has reported on the problem before, and motorists have even started petitions asking for help with the situation.

The nasty congestion at 37 is a classic example of the overuse of a public good (a free highway). Since each driver need not pay any fee to use the roadway, commuters over-exploit Highway 37. Each motorist gets a small benefit from traveling the road, and many are motivated to maximize their use by traveling it every workday, becoming reliant on it. Yet the costs of their use are imposed on the residents of Sonoma County, whose use (and the use of their tourists) is less (often, much less) intense.  Pretty frequently, the problem snowballs around 3 PM, until the resource collapses, in the form of a traffic nightmare. 

The irony of all this is that the builders of the roadway were well aware of these kinds of problems.  Indeed, Highway 37 was originally built as the "Sears Point Toll Road," managed by the Golden Gate Ferry. The imposition of tolls is an obvious solution to the tragedy of the commons–frequent users pay a higher price.  But when the State of California purchased the roadway in 1938, the tolls were eliminated. 

Now, that was probably a decent idea during the Great Depression. Collecting tolls in that era was much more disruptive than billing the FasTrak equipped cars of today, and spending on roads to improve the general welfare was politically uncontroversial. But the technical problems of toll billing have long been resolved, as the improvement in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge heading into San Francisco since mandatory electronic toll collection began in March of 2013 illustrates. And the overall impact of congestion charges worldwide has been positive, from London to Singapore.
Toll Monitoring Station, Singapore. 
Photo Courtesy Michele Simoni

User fees imposed on Highway 37 from Sonoma to Vallejo (a step toll is preferred) would improve the ability of tourists to reach upvalley destinations in a timely fashion. Such a solution is consistent with the history of the roadway. It helps resolve the primary concern of the voters, congestion, while avoiding politically impractical roadway expansion.  It provides revenue to resolve the pressing policy problem, roadway maintenance. And it promotes efficient use of a public good. At a stroke, it uses technology to help resolve a series of different thorny problems. 

This kind of a solution isn't limited to the junction of 37 and 121. The politics of such a solution at  San Antonio Creek are somewhat different (the commuters causing congestion there are residents of the County, those at 37/121 generally are not).  But if the remedy proves practical at Sears Point, there are other locations where such congestion pricing would make a great deal of sense (for instance, upon entering Sonoma Valley ...).  

Before yesterday's vote, congestion pricing in Sonoma County was largely a mere gedankenexperiment.   But after the failure of Measure A, it's another matter entirely.  As Ernest Rutherford was fond of saying, "[w]e've got no money, so we've got to think." In that vein, I suggest it is going to have to be creativity, then, rather than higher taxes, that Sonoma County will have to rely upon to resolve its long term traffic problems.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

@svhsdragons @svusd1 47.7% of Seniors on Path to Complete UC/CSU A-G, well done.

Data courtesy Sonoma Valley Unified School District &
California Department of Education
available online at
The Freshman Teams data discussed here before, and some newer data on Sonoma Valley High's A-G Completion Rate, were both on the Sonoma Valley Unified Board of Trustees agenda on May 12. The Freshman Teams handout that was discussed is here; there was an additional handout regarding the A-G completion rate, which is here. The main table from the second handout is on the right, and the video of the presentation (~29 minutes) is below.

The findings discussed were relatively straightforward. As of the end of the 1st Semester of 2014-15, 136 Sonoma Valley High School seniors are on track to complete the A-G requirements, with a C- or better. With the 
exception of St. Helena,
 whose per-pupil 
expenditures are
 approximately $17,590 
per students versus the
~$9,389 spent in Sonoma
 Valley, SVUSD 
consistently rates as the
 highest performing
 District in the area amongst those with 100 graduates per year or more.

Further, since creating Freshman Teams, Sonoma Valley Unified has moved the majority of its students into the college-potential category as of the end of freshman year, nearly doubling the number in the top tier.  The change in performance is not attributable to either grade inflation or weighting, although there has been a recent substantial increase in students taking advanced coursework.  Should the general performance of the 2010-2011 freshmen (~90% of 3.5 A-G complete three years later, ~50% of 3.0+ A-G complete three years later) be replicated amongst the 2013-14 freshmen when they are seniors, SVUSD’s A-G rate in 2016-2017 would be expected to demonstrate further growth to the neighborhood of 51.9%.

It's kind of dry to read on a page. Seeing it discussed amongst the Trustees, the Superintendent, Sonoma Valley High's Principal, the Student Trustee, and our County Office of Education Representative is another matter entirely.  The video is about 29 minutes long, but if you're interested in education in general, I recommend it to you. And yes, that's me you see speaking from the podium.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Freshman Teams, Student Performance, and the Case For SVUSD's Master Plan.

So, it's my birthday today, and those of you that know me will be unsurprised that my gift to myself was speaking at "Career Day" at Adele Harrison Middle School in Sonoma. I always find it rewarding to talk with students about their plans for the future. But this year, and in this instance, I had just that little extra bit of a reason to be positive. Because I've been spending some time reviewing the consistently increasing performances delivered by students just like those I spoke to today when they reach Sonoma Valley High.


Data courtesy Sonoma Valley Unified School District.
Framework from Elaine M. Allensworth,
Julia A. Gwynne, Paul Moore, and
Marisa de la Torre, "Middle Grade Indicators of
Readiness in Chicago Public Schools.”
available online at
On the right is a graph tabulated from freshman grade information at Sonoma Valley High since 2006. But first, a bit of background.

Recent research shows that middle school attendance and GPA, when combined, are the single best predictor of high school GPA. Qualitatively, most (public) high schools grade students similarly; however, similar students perform differently depending on school, with some schools improving performance up to .5 of a grade point – and with most of those benefits received by the students between a 1.0 and a 3.0. Those student who manage to reach or exceed a 3.0 in high school increase both their chances of attending college, and graduating from college, the higher their GPA moves.

The study really caught my eye because, beginning in 2011, Sonoma Valley High School created their Freshman Teams, small communities of incoming students with shared schedules. To the extent that the context students enter high school can affect performance, should the Freshman Teams have been functioning positively, an improvement of approximately .5 of a GPA would be expected, with the primary benefits impacting students who would have earned between a 1.0 and a 3.0.

And lo and behold the graph shows exactly what I'd hoped when I started looking at this data. Since the program was instituted in the 2011-2012 school year, Sonoma Valley Unified has moved the majority of its students into the college-potential category as of the end of freshman year, nearly doubling the number in the top tier. Attendance improvements were positively correlated with GPA improvements. Further, as would be expected, the biggest GPA change impacted students between a 1.0 and a 3.0, with essentially a third of the students expected to fall into the range moving into the college potential or college probable tiers.

That wasn't all -- at the same time this was going on, the number of students taking accelerated coursework (math & language) nearly doubled.  Sonoma Valley High gives the students no break on grading for their initiative in choosing a harder schedule – there is no bonus weight assigned to their GPAs for this effort.  So not only are the students earning better grades, but they've been doing it taking harder classes at the same time.  

The students I saw at Adele will now more likely than not be in a position to pursue college when they attend Sonoma Valley High in the years to come. The full handout (with the citations and backup) is here.  And the question this data makes me ask myself is: will we give these students the schools and the facilities that their performance deserves?

Can we execute on our school district's Master Plan?


Poll, Sonoma Index-Tribune
screenshot taken February 12, 2015.
The voters of Sonoma have long been the heroes of their own community's schools, not leaving that role to the State of California.  The electors of the Valley, time and again, have fully committed to public stewardship of our educational infrastructure. As parents (and grandparents), our lived experience shows the enormous benefits to health, safety and education that have always accrued from carefully spending the money necessary to develop the structures, fields and facilities worthy of a Valley as successful as Sonoma.

The men and women of our community have always counted on their educators and trustees to manage — cautiously — the development of our school campuses.  We want our District to be neither the family shopping only for the day's needs at 7-11, nor the one gone Costco crazy.  Instead, we hope they'll be like a mom and dad sitting around the kitchen table, carefully deciding on the nutritious groceries they'll buy for the week ahead, before they go to the store.  For like that family, we as a community know we'll face expenses to maintain our District, and we'll have to frugally weigh options, one against the other.

I think this is the moment that we find ourselves at that table. For notwithstanding the emergence of a second dot-com bubble to our south, interest rates remain at historic lows because investment and demand in America remains depressed.  These conditions were not seen for seventy years, and it is quite possible they will not be seen again for another seventy.   As prudent shoppers, now is the time to write our list of the purchases we know we're going to need — the framework for accelerating our students into the balance of the 21st century that lies ahead.

The green eye shade of the accountant, and the graphs of the economist make the dry case for improving our schools — that action now can reap outsized dividends, consequences we will see in the improved living standards and enhanced productivity of our entire community. But it is our concern for justice that should ultimately resolve questions in favor of an investment in our shared future.  It is no accident that I started this section with a rewrite of the first sentence of David Copperfield, Dickens' story of individual perseverance despite an undisciplined heart. Our shared belief is that America is defined by the notion that the condition of your birth does not determine the outcome of your life, a truth voiced by both Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren. Whether Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, our covenant with our future selves is that education will remain the key to unlocking the American Dream.

However, it is our common fear that each element that leads to such success is eroding before our eyes. We find ourselves in a time where educational opportunity in the United States has become inverted. We are one of only two members of the G20 that spends more on richer students than poorer (the other is Turkey). We cannot rely on the State of California to resolve these issues for us. Our Governor is backing away from California's School Facilities Program.  The State is essentially leaving Districts like ours on their own in providing for future school facilities and modernization.

This is where the case for implementing the District's master plans, now,  for all of the campuses, finds real traction. As Winston Churchill said, "we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us."  The voters of Sonoma have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the future of the Valley for decades to come — and there is no one else ready, willing, and capable of doing so. We can put in place the scaffolding our students, the voters of tomorrow, will need to succeed.  

We have an opportunity to make educational equality more than a dream.  We have a chance to make it a reality.  


So despite being another year older, I found in the faces of our students reason for optimism.  But I also found a challenge and a call to action.  Rare indeed are opportunities such as the one available to the voters of Sonoma today. It is my hope, and indeed I believe we can make it our shared goal as a community, for us all to pull together to create the infrastructure to match the performances being delivered by our teachers and students.

And so I say to the students who gave me a resounding cheer today when their principal told them all it was my birthday, that we can see that they are doing their part.  And that I hope that, as voters, that we will now be able to do ours.