Friday, September 22, 2023

Questions from the Press, Friday September 22, 2023.

Per my usual practice, I have answered questions from our local newspapers below in writing. The subject of this week's questions concerns attendance. To underscore the importance of physical presence, the theme that runs through this subject, I have included a photo collage of my daughter Siena, with me as we recently attending a Taylor Swift concert.


1. What was your overall impression of the content of the presentation?

Ironically for something that seems so simple, attendance is the source of the stream of benefits that flow from education. Empirical data on the point is beyond question. Further, school for our students is the place where they have permission to let what is within their nature be and allow it expression. In school, we affirm our students' struggles and encourage them to live rich, full lives. They learn every day that their lives are in their own hands, that each has a spiritual summons to be honored, and that when they miss days, they miss another opportunity to bring out their more developed selves to share. I hope every student feels that a day at school is an opportunity to be seized, not something given.

As a community-funded school district (so-called "basic aid"), Sonoma Valley's finances are largely unaffected by attendance. Our community is wealthy and successful, and our school district has been running surpluses for years and is solidly in the black. We care about attendance because it matters for our kids, not because it affects how much money is available. This common misconception should regularly be debunked, as it creates cynicism about why SVUSD cares so much about seeing our students every day.

2. In your opinion, what were some of the positive things in the report?

Our District is engaging in exactly the type of program I would hope it would implement to encourage attendance, and our very strong staff in this area, particularly Ms. Jillian Beall, has taken the academic research and translated it into a fun (indeed, sometimes hilarious) effort to encourage kids to be excited about coming to campus. Attendance Works' Attendance Awareness Campaign (which our staff has been implementing) underlines the need for a supportive and caring response with an emphasis on making students feel valued and establishing trust-based relationships. The campaign reiterates the importance of creating a secure, caring and engaging environment for learners.

Using a data-driven, solution-oriented approach is another essential aspect of this campaign. The welfare and health of students, families, and school staff is emphasized. Additionally, the campaign calls for a joint effort among the wider community, families, and schools to overcome entrenched obstacles to student attendance and engagement. 

Specifically, Sonoma Valley Unified employs a system called multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), which encompasses a variety of strategies aimed at promoting student attendance. The first level includes approaches such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), proactive communication through various channels, creating welcoming school environment, utilizing attendance data, conducting empathy interviews, and making phone calls home. 

The second tier consists of interventions that provide a more individualized approach, such as School Attendance Team Problem Solving Meetings (SART), forming belonging groups, promoting consistent two-way family communication, and regular monitoring of attendance. The third tier applies strategies for students with chronic absenteeism issues, which includes collaborative problem-solving, a program called Keeping Kids in School (KKIS), School Attendance Review Team Meetings (SARB), and conducting home visits.

At the core, though, our staff has managed to inject life into the program, by making it fun in the way experienced teachers know best. A small example was the theme days used to get kids excited and through the door in the morning. As a parent, I was particularly amused and gratified that they managed to do it without turning to "crazy hair day," which as the father of three daughters, has been something of an issue in the past. I include below the listing of the days, to illustrate exactly how our team is making this happen. 
3. What do you feel were some of the troubling things in the report?

What troubles me more is the information we received Saturday in our finances overview, rather than the information in the attendance presentation. There has been a significant deviation between enrollment and attendance for some time in SVUSD. 

Our attendance is, and has been for some time, about 2,800 students per day, as the below graph from Saturday's presentation showed. We have been narrowing the gap recently (to be expected with the transition from pandemic to endemic COVID), but the figures illustrate just how small the student population of our Valley has become. Sonoma Valley's enrollment peaked at 4,673 students in 2012, and attendance  at 4,022. The decline shows just how serious the issues are for our District in terms of realignment -- we are staffing a system designed for another era, and the entirely reasonble complaints from our teachers and staff regarding the waste that creates is a continuing issue I am committed to addressing for our community. 

4. Do you feel confident about the approach the district is taking to improve overall attendance and reduce the number of students who are chronically absent?

Yes. Staff are doing exactly what I would expect to narrow the enrollment/attendance gap and the objective data show that they are getting results.

5. How can the board help to improve overall attendance and reduce the number of students who are chronically absent?

We have made addressing this issue a priority for our staff, and in doing so, the board has exercised the leadership role the community expects of us. We, as board members, take attendance seriously. As a parent myself, I know just how hard it can be to encourage students to go to school sometimes. From a tired high-school-aged teenager to a stressed-out middle schooler, to a slightly-under-the-weather first grader, all of whom I support on a regular basis. In that capacity, we are doing what we have advocated. Finally, the most important thing we, as a board, can do, having set the direction and being in the process of ourselves following the advice, is to let our staff implement the program they have devised with fidelity -- which I think is happening.

6. Would you like to say anything else?

No, thank you. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Bus Driver Shortages and the Baumol Effect.

William Baumol
Namesake of Baumol Effect
In an August 17 article for The New York Times, Colbi Edmonds covered the critical shortage of bus drivers in the Jefferson County Public School District, in Louisville, Kentucky, that threw the first day of school into chaos. With the district encompassing around 100,000 students, this resulted in children mistakenly misplaced or stranded without transportation, creating near-panic levels of anxiety for parents. The Superintendent, Marty Pollio, acknowledged that bus driver scarcity is a nationwide issue, and pledged to work to resolve it, considering options such as a wage increase.

Edmonds is correct in pointing out that Louisville is not the sole sufferer of the bus driver crunch. Numerous school districts are grappling with similar predicaments due to reasons like insufficient pay, hard hours, and the after-effects of the pandemic. For instance, the Tampa, Florida, school district still has 203 driver vacancies even after the school year has begun. Other institutions have resorted to public transportation or last-minute hires, highlighting the intensity of the problem.

At the commencement of the 2023-2024 school year, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District (SVUSD)—where I serve as a trustee—has also faced a lack of bus drivers, as reported by Dan Johnson in the August 18 Sonoma Index-Tribune. This shortfall critically impacted high school students' transportation. Despite the district's advertising for four full-time openings with a fairly competitive hourly wage ranging from $22.51 to $24.83, recruitment efforts have been met with little success, as noted by Superintendent Dr. Jeanette Chien.

Compensation inadequacies and work-hour incompatibilities contribute to the driver shortages surfacing throughout the nation. SVUSD has sought assistance from Sonoma's city manager, David Guhin, in addition to reaching out to the Sonoma County Office of Education, neighboring districts, and private entities to help with staffing. Fellow trustee Celeste Winders encouraged applicants to explore the full-time openings, promising competitive wages and impactful roles in facilitating students' success.

Despite these efforts, as noted in the New York Times article, a comprehensive solution appears distant. The job's negative factors, including often low wages and occasional confrontations with parents or students, reduces its appeal. Erica Groshen from the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations suggests increasing pay as a direct solution. Jefferson County use of AlphaRoute, though, a routing software, actually made the impact of driver shortages worse. As those knowledgeable of the Baumol Effect are aware, there are few productivity gains available for jobs, like nurse, teacher, and school bus driver, that hinge on the quality of interpersonal connections, and the cost of such employees will continue to rise. These industries must compete for labor with those sectors that do see productivity gains, simply to continue to offer the same level of service.  Hence, for struggling families, the seemingly distant prospect of a return to regular transportation for schooling remains a continuing concern.

Monday, August 14, 2023

From Franklin to DeJoy: Navigating the Future of the USPS and the Potential of Postal Banking.

1st United States Postmaster General.

Today's post concerns The Economist's recent article on the United States Postal Service (USPS). The article begins with a wry allusion to Benjamin Franklin's role in starting the post office, but moves quickly to an evaluation of Louis DeJoy, the 75th Postmaster General. He has embarked on significant reforms for the financially troubled USPS. Upon taking office during a politically fraught period, he was faced with an institution projected to lose $160 billion by 2030, a problem exacerbated by declining first-class mail and burdensome regulations. DeJoy's efforts have resulted in efficiency improvements and bipartisan postal-reform legislation, though controversial measures such as consolidation and price increases lie ahead in his “Delivering for America” plan, while making sure we protect the letter carriers the United States had depended on since before the Revolution. 

The article alludes to one notable potential reform for the USPS, the introduction of postal banking. This concept has proven successful in places like Japan, where post offices offer routine check clearing and banking services. The existing infrastructure of the USPS provides an opportunity to extend essential banking functions to underserved communities, without the volatility often associated with the traditional banking industry. By offering a stable and accessible alternative, postal banking could present significant benefits to the American public.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Questions from the Press, Thursday, June 29, 2023.

Margaux Kelly.

The Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune asked questions today about the Supreme Court's rejection of race-conscious college admissions, and the impact on Sonoma Valley Unified's students. Answers are below. Photo is Margie, clowning around with her sisters at the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


1. What do you think about the Supreme Court's Decision?

62% of Americans now lack confidence in the Supreme Court, with only 37% expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution. Decisions like the one today, and the increasingly common revelations of corruption amongst the conservative justices, continue to destroy the bench's hard-earned reputation. Undisclosed gifts from wealthy right-wing donors who have business before the court are anathema to the maintenance of the public's trust. When coupled with further anti-democratic policymaking from the court, the justices are continuing to act in a fashion inconsistent with Americans' belief in due process. The justices should have left the matter to the President and to the Congress, rather than reigniting yet another culture war. I expect there will be little of benefit to show for their most recent detour into legislating from the bench. 

2. How will it affect Sonoma Valley students who are planning to attend colleges and universities?

The long-term impact is probably greater than the short-term one. Racism is real in American society, and, as Barack Obama has noted, generations of students have been systematically excluded from most of America’s key institutions. Students will continue to be discriminated against in their efforts to get the seats at the table they deserve. As a country and as a society, we must work to end the horrible effects of prejudice on the basis of race, sex, or ethnicity.

In the short term, it is important to note that the vast majority of Sonoma Valley's high school students attend California's public institutions of higher education. California's voters have prohibited state governmental institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in the areas of public employment, public contracting, and public education since Proposition 209 was passed in 1996. That policy was for practical purposes reaffirmed with the defeat of Proposition 16 in November 2020, 57%-43%, despite the Proposition enjoying near-universal support from a wide range of educators, civil rights leaders, and California businesses.

Initially, there were stark consequences for California's flagship public universities from the end of affirmative action. However, those institutions have worked hard to restore diversity to their campuses. In 2021, for example, UCLA's in-state first-year class included more Black students — 346, or 7.6 % — than their 1995 numbers of 259, or 7.3%. The same is true for Latino students, whose numbers grew to 1,185, or 26%, from 790, or 22.4%, during that same period. This is generally attributed to recruiting diverse students, and working relentlessly to persuade those students to accept admission offers. 

The California State University system, with 23 campuses, never experienced the same dramatic drop in Black and Latino students after Proposition 209. Indeed, CSU currently closely mirrors the state's diversity. As of fall 2021, 47% of its 422,391 undergraduates are Latino, 21% are white, 16% are Asian, and 4% are Black, which aligns closely with the demographic breakdown of California high school students who met UC and CSU eligibility standards in 2020-21.

My sense is that the hard work done in California since Proposition 209 will protect this year's class from the destabilizing and destructive consequences of a Supreme Court that has decided to impose its policy preferences on the country at large. Again, California is at the forefront of ensuring all of our citizens' civil rights are protected, regardless of the continuing ridiculous behavior in Washington. 

3. How will this affect their pursuit of careers?

The long-term consequences of the destructive and backward imposition of conservative policy preferences via unelected judges should alarm all Americans. As we have seen over the past few years, civil rights long protected under Federal law, rights recognized and supported by the majority of Americans, are susceptible to reversal by an institution that continues to be plagued by crass corruption that is unacceptable and illegal at virtually every other level of government. 

I idealized our Supreme Court as a student in school, and the belief that justice under our Constitution was available for all Americans was amongst the strongest of reasons that motivated me to study law at the highest level, despite the hardship incident to that effort. To see those principles undermined for mere political advantage despite the empirical evidence in support of their continuance, and in the face of the overwhelming support of those policies by leaders from across our society, strikes at the same idealism that motivates our students today. There is nothing so valuable to the future of our country as the belief of our students that the values America is founded upon will be supported and fought for by those in positions of power. I can only imagine the discouragement and cynicism that today's decision will foster. 

We increasingly seem to live in a country that believes the strong should be allowed to do what they will, and the weak deserve to suffer what they must. That ancient maxim has led to the destruction of civil society wherever it has been instituted. The hope of all Americans is that this madness can end, and that our enduring belief in justice, due process, and democratic self-governance, government that is of, by, and for the people, will again find its rightful place at the center of our civil discourse. 

4. Would you like to say anything else? 

No, thank you.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Questions from the Press, Tuesday, June 20, 2023.

Margaux Kelly, 2022.

I received questions from Dan Johnson of the Sonoma Index-Tribune about the Sonoma Valley Unified LCAP, which is our Local Control and Accountability Plan. The answers, in writing, are below. The photo is of my daughter Margaux, at the start of school this past year, as a contrast to the previous photo. It's amazing how fast they grow up. 


1. The board approved the LCAP, 5-0, correct?


Yes, that is my recollection.


2. Why is the LCAP report important?


The Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) requirement was created during Jerry Brown's governorship as a part of a reform of school finances in 2013–14. Required by law to be approved prior to the school district's budget, and perhaps originally intended as a planning document, the LCAP now resembles more of a compliance instrument. However, with its objective metrics over a three-year window, the LCAP contains valuable information regarding the performance of a district that is often hard to find in one place elsewhere. It is a significant piece of work for our staff, and I commend the SVUSD employees who worked hard to ensure fidelity to the facts in this year's LCAP.


3. Trustees expressed concerns about the LCAP, though. What do you feel were the main concerns expressed?


I hesitate to speak regarding the concerns of other trustees. I feel I need to let their comments speak for themselves.


4. What are your main concerns with the LCAP?


The demographic characteristics of the District drew my attention to begin. The 2021 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau showed 68% of SVUSD's 38,732 residents identify as White, while 25% identify as Hispanic/Latinx, roughly a 3:1 ratio. However, the demographics within our schools presents a contrasting picture. SVUSD schools have 1,156 White students and 2,305 Hispanic/Latinx students, nearly a 1:2 ratio in the opposite direction.  This translates to roughly 22 White residents for every White student, and about 3 Hispanic/Latinx residents for each Hispanic/Latinx student. The significant difference between the composition of our electorate and our student body is an important point to keep in mind to understand SVUSD.


Moving on to measures of performance, our LCAP reveals several key issues that need immediate attention. First, we are faced with significant staffing shortages. The district is managing with only 1.4 full-time equivalent English Learner Support Teachers. This shortfall, in addition to the statewide teacher shortage, particularly impacts our special education department, requiring us to resort to virtual instruction in some cases.


Second, we are witnessing an alarming trend in chronic absenteeism. During the 2021-22 academic year, there has been a notable increase in this concern, especially among our English Learner and Low Income students. In fact, our overall attendance rate has slipped from 94% in 2020-21 to 88% in 2021-22. This trend is evident in our target schools too, with Dunbar experiencing the most significant drop in attendance. 


Third, our student performance in key areas is declining. In the 2021-22 academic year, only 21% of 11th-grade students met or exceeded the math standards, down from 24% in the previous year. We've also noted a drop in our English Learner reclassification rates, from 15% to 12% over the same period.


Fourth, our Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) analysis has revealed a significant discrepancy between our local data and state testing data. This gap is particularly pronounced for our English Learner and Socioeconomically Disadvantaged students in state tests. Furthermore, a decrease in the percentage of students in grades 3-8 and 11 meeting or exceeding standards in English Language Arts and Math, as per the 2021 CAASPP data, compounds this concern.


Fifth, we are grappling with legal compliance issues in our special education department, specifically concerning Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for our English Learner special education students. Coupled with this, our students with disabilities are not meeting the proficiency goals in STAR Reading and Math.


Finally, our attempts at professional development have encountered challenges. For instance, our Orton-Gillingham training program had no participants in Fall 2022, indicating a need to reassess our approach and make professional development more accessible and engaging for our staff.


The array of issues identified above illuminates the necessity for a comprehensive, targeted approach to surmount these challenges while keeping in mind the welfare of our diligent staff and students. They bear the real brunt of these issues, and their resilience in the face of such obstacles inspires our persistent efforts to enhance SVUSD's performance. However, the enduring inaccuracies in our budget have unfortunately sown seeds of mistrust in the data reported about educational outcomes. Critics have a valid point in their concerns that if our budget regularly underestimates revenues, could it be possible that our student performance metrics are similarly discounting student performance? This lack of trust only magnifies the complexities of the educational reform work we strive to undertake for our Valley. I think the Board understands the emotional toll this can take on our community, students, and staff, making our mission to restore trust even more urgent. This is especially poignant given a historical pattern of misinformation and distrust which has not only increased polarization but has also undercut accountability and degraded the quality of our public discourse. The impact of this on our students and staff is not lost, and I think reinforces our Board's commitment to transparency and accuracy.


5. Melanie Blake said that it is important to view the LCAP as one part of the district’s strategic plan. Do you agree? What are the other important components of the plan?


I leave Melanie Blake's public comments to her, which I think speak for themselves.


6. When was the district’s last strategic plan created? What is its purpose and how often are they created?


My recollection is that the last two strategic plans were created in 2005 and 2013, and that SVUSD began the creation of a new strategic plan in 2018. The board received updates on the strategic planning process based on listening circles and other information solicited in February of 2019. On April 27, 2019, the Board held a study session on this subject. In the fall of 2019, the process was continuing, when it became clear at the resignation of Nicole Abate Ducarroz, that the trustee areas were out of compliance with California law, and that redistricting had not occurred after the 2010 census. At that time, Sonoma Valley Unified engaged Davis Demographics to complete a demographic study to allow redistricting, which did, in fact, occur in 2020. My recollection is that the board thought an accurate demographic study was also a prerequisite to completing a new strategic plan. 


The onset of the pandemic in February and March of 2020 interfered with the continuation of the strategic planning process, as District resources were shifted to handling the transition to distance learning. The District investigated restarting the process in the fall of 2022. There was disagreement between the then-sitting trustees about the nature and scope of that work. Further, as no facilities master plan had yet been completed, and because SVUSD was again considering realignment in the context of that facilities master plan, the District chose to focus on its facilities plan. 


That facilities master planning process in many respects came to reflect a hard-nosed recognition that waste on so many underutilized sites required attention prior to implementing new programs across a portfolio of campuses constructed for a different student population, residing in different places, in different times. The facilities master plan should be complete this fall and that, along with our demographic data, will likely supply the necessary supporting materials for SVUSD to again conduct listening circles and surveys regarding the strategic plan. 


The strategic plan can be thought of as a process of documenting and establishing the direction of our District by assessing where we are, and envisioning where we want to be. I have compared the process at times to painting the Golden Gate Bridge, a continuing task that is never completed, but which is essential to serving our community. Ten years is a bit long between plans, but given the serious problems with redistricting and facilities, and the changing demographics of the District, coupled with the impact of the pandemic, I think the time frame since the last strategic plan is understandable. 


7. Do you think it is time to create a new strategic plan? Why or why not?


With the completion of the facilities master plan in the fall, yes, I believe we are in a position to undertake this work. 


8. What do you feel were the most encouraging and most disappointing findings in the LCAP report?


The LCAP data paints a sobering picture, a reflection of the challenges our school community is navigating. There are both inspiring and disheartening elements. On a positive note, it is heartening to acknowledge the dedication and professional integrity of our staff in ensuring the accuracy of the information. They have not shied away from presenting unvarnished facts, a testament to their commitment to our students' education and well-being.


However, it is deeply concerning that enduring distrust over budget misinformation and consequent polarization in our community threatens to overshadow these efforts. Such a climate does not just cast doubt on the credibility of our reports, but it also hampers accountability and efforts to create a higher-performing institution. It's distressing to consider that this mistrust could adversely affect the morale of our hardworking staff and the educational experiences of our students.


It's vital that we work to resolve the trust issues stemming from underestimated revenues. We need to create a shared understanding that our commitment to transparency and accuracy extends equally to our financial and student performance metrics. By doing so, we can foster a more supportive and trusting environment for all members of our community, especially our students, who deserve nothing less than our best efforts.


9. Would you like to say anything else?

No, thank-you.  

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Questions from the Press, Friday, June 16, 2023.

Margaux Kelly and John Kelly.
2023, at Kindergarten Flyaway (Graduation).

As usual, I have answered questions I received from the Sonoma Index-Tribune about this week's Sonoma Valley Unified budget, and post the same here for the public. 


1. The board approved the budget by a 3-2 vote, with you and Celeste Winders dissenting. Why did you vote against it?

My decision was based on a thorough analysis of the district's historical budget data. It is rooted in long-standing discrepancies that I believe we need to address.

Since 2010, a persistent issue has been the consistent underestimation of actual revenues versus our budgeted predictions, exceeding the generally accepted 5% margin of error, averaging 10.5% error up until the pandemic, and now approaching nearly 20% for several years since then. Our staff have presented a variety of arguments ranging from changes in revenue streams to federal funding reductions and projected decreases in future revenue to explain this discrepancy. However, after closely examining these arguments, I found that they do not address the core issue at hand.

Specifically, arguments relating to stable federal and state program revenues, projected revenue decrease for 2023-24, enrollment decline, and federal funding reductions do not clarify the root cause of the repeated underestimation. In fact, logically, some of these factors should lead to overestimations, which is not the case. While the shift in revenue streams following the Local Control Funding Formula implementation and the increase in property tax revenue could potentially explain underestimations for a year or two, these points also do not adequately explain the persistent underestimation of revenues for more than a decade.

These discrepancies not only undermine the trust and reliability in our budgeting practices, but also have tangible impacts on our district. They exacerbate our staffing challenges, particularly in supporting English Learner students and the special education department, as the distrust of our finances deters good employees from joining our District. Furthermore, they create misleading narratives of deficit spending through documents like the Budget Adoption Letter and First and Second Interim Letters from the Sonoma County Office of Education, further eroding staff and community trust.

The continuous underestimations underscore the urgent need for a balanced budget that accurately reflects our district's revenue predictions. This is why I voted against the budget: to draw attention to these issues and to insist that we address them. I believe we need to adjust our budgeting practices to better reflect the true financial status of the district.

By doing so, we can better align our resources, improve our staff recruitment efforts, enhance our professional development programs, and restore the trust of our staff and community. In short, we need to ensure the accuracy of our budget to support the effective fiscal planning of Sonoma Valley Unified.

2. You made a strong appeal for the board to approve only balanced budgets. Why is that important?

The significance of a balanced budget lies in its fundamental role in effective fiscal planning and overall district operations. A balanced budget properly represents our revenue and expenditure projections. It provides a reliable foundation from which we can make strategic decisions, allocate resources efficiently, and plan for future development. This helps in maintaining a healthy fiscal environment, which is essential for the smooth operation of our educational services.

When the budget is not balanced, or in our case, when revenues are consistently underestimated, it creates a skewed picture of our financial situation. This can lead to misconceptions about our district's fiscal health, such as misleading narratives of deficit spending. These misconceptions can impact our district's operations, decisions, and overall reputation. This inaccuracy can also result in eroding the trust of our staff, parents, and the broader community, as they may not have confidence in our financial planning capabilities. Such misinformation undermines accountability and only serves to polarize opinions, rather than allowing the creation of mutual understanding.

Furthermore, persistent budget underestimations have had tangible impacts on our district. They have exacerbated staffing challenges, particularly for supporting English Learner students and the special education department. These errors have also hampered our recruitment efforts due to perceived instability, further straining our resources.

By insisting on a balanced budget, we aim to rectify these issues. A budget that accurately mirrors our financial reality can eliminate false narratives of deficit spending, restore trust within our community, and better inform our strategic planning. Moreover, it can provide a more stable foundation for staff recruitment and resource allocation, thereby improving the overall quality of our educational services.

In short, approving only balanced budgets is an essential step towards transparent and effective fiscal planning, thereby fostering a stronger and more trustworthy Sonoma Valley Unified.

3. Both you and Winders referred to VMTA’s complaints during negotiations last year that the district’s projected revenues were inaccurately low. Do you think that the projections, which indeed turned out to be low, influenced the negotiations?

The unreliability of the District's financial documents was a frequent topic during our negotiations with VMTA, and at the same time with SCOE. On October 31, 2022, following the start of Adrian Palazuelos extended absence, the District acknowledged an additional $7 million in revenue and promptly resolved its contract with the teachers' union. If the June budget had accurately projected our revenue trends, we could have avoided that protracted dispute leading to an impasse and factfinding.

Furthermore, due to the imbalanced budget, the District provided inaccurate information to SCOE. This led to a series of automatically generated letters from SCOE to SVUSD suggesting the District might receive a "qualified" or "negative" status. That is simply ridiculous for a District like Sonoma Valley that has robust revenue growth and reserves that have been growing at an average pace of over a million dollars a year for the past five years. These SCOE letters, which created an impression of financial mismanagement amongst our constituents, were based entirely on SVUSD's estimates, not an independent analysis by SCOE.

Throughout the process, I consistently raised concerns about the inaccuracies in our financial documents. Indeed, I regularly pointed out that at least four million, and probably seven million dollars were missing from our financial statements. Notwithstanding that accurate criticism, we still received a proposed budget this year that, again, given the assumptions with which it was built, requires deficit spending.

4. Do you feel that the board and school district administration make decisions based on a budget with revenues projected to be significantly lower than they turn out to be? If so, can you cite some examples of important decisions in which this is the case and how they negatively affected the district?

Our labor relations have been strained for over a decade due to this consistent under-projection of our revenues. The proposals extended to our teachers and staff often draw understandable disbelief from our union partners, who, at this point, are fully cognizant of the recurring underestimation of revenues. The credibility of our District Office, our Board, and the institution itself is justifiably questioned due to budgets that serve more to misinform than enlighten.

The repercussions of such consistent misinformation have led to divisiveness within the educational community, diminished accountability, and eroded trust in our schools. Consequently, talented teachers, staff, and administrators, frustrated with the routinely dysfunctional financial statements that glaringly do not reflect reality, leave the District. Furthermore, once the trustworthiness of the documents detailing revenues is undermined, the essential trust for implementing educational reform suffers an immediate blow, hampering the enhancement of outcomes for our students.

5. As I understand him, Josh Braff feels that even though after the budget is approved, the district receives additional funding during the course of the year, he can’t put that into the budget because he doesn’t know how much the money will be and what category it will fall under. Is that your understanding of his position? If so, what is your response to his position?

The issues we are facing significantly predate Mr. Braff's tenure with the District. It's unjust to lay the blame on an individual who appropriately recognized additional revenue after changes within the Superintendent's office last year. In fact, the comprehensive analysis I carried out over the past two weeks, which I shared with Mr. Braff, provides data that he acknowledged could be used to construct a budget addressing these concerns in the future.

Though it is not customary for a trustee to dedicate such a significant amount of time to perform this type of work, my decade-long experience with these issues meant I knew where to go to find the necessary data. I cannot see how this persistent underestimation, which has happened for more than a decade and has veered toward double or even triple the acceptable level of error in recent years, can continue. I do not foresee future budgets being presented to the board that rely on inaccurate assumptions.

As a trustee, I plan to propose changes to our board bylaws as a trustee agenda item. This would require deficit spending to be approved by a four-fifths vote in the future and require that the permitted level of expenditure align with accurate revenue projections. Consequently, this would necessitate a balanced budget, unless a supermajority is willing to continue to deficit spend

6. Do you feel that the trustees will do anything to resolve this situation in the future?

The finance office now has the historical data clearly presented to illustrate the issue. After comprehensive discussions among the trustees, who largely recognized the problem, it would be surprising to see a readiness to approve further deficit spending in the future. All the trustees understand that our constituents expect us to approve a balanced budget, particularly given our significant revenue growth and steadily increasing reserves. I can't envision them being willing to vote for such a budget again.

As for my part, I plan to propose changes to our board bylaws as a trustee agenda item. This would require deficit spending to be approved by a four-fifths vote in the future and require that the permitted level of expenditure align with accurate revenue projections. Consequently, this would necessitate a balanced budget, unless a supermajority is willing to continue to deficit spend.

7. What do you feel should be done?

For now, the issue is settled; the unbalanced budget with deficit spending has been approved. 

Our Board of Trustees plays a critical role in our District, serving as the center of financial decision-making. The Board is structured to foster communication between the government and its citizens, conveying public opinions, desires, and complaints to our staff, and justifying the actions taken and decisions made by the same to the public. Our voters have clearly communicated to us as a board, that they expect responsible financial management and balanced budgets, particularly given our strong growth in revenues and steadily increasing reserves, and our Valley deserves nothing less.

We must break the cycle of repeated misinformation and deception that our budgeting process has placed at the heart of our relationships with our teachers, staff, and community. Only then can we rebuild the trust necessary for effective educational reform, reform that our Valley deserves.

8. Would you like to say anything else?

No, thank you.

Saturday, June 10, 2023

From the Courtroom to the Newsroom: The Polarization of Perception.

"Truth and fairness are tested, as old sturdy pillars strain under new pressure."
© 2023, CC-BY-SA 3.0.

The American justice system, a cornerstone of our democracy, is being tested in light of the ongoing federal criminal case against former President Donald J. Trump. Peter Baker's article in The New York Times brings to light the challenge that Trump's attempts to discredit the charges pose to the public's perception of justice. This is reminiscent of the decline in the perceived credibility of news outlets, further reflecting the ways in which our democratic institutions are grappling with challenges of legitimacy and trust.

The erosion of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 has contributed significantly to the polarization of American media and the general public's discourse. As partisan voices like Rush Limbaugh dominated the airwaves without presenting balanced viewpoints, we have witnessed a similar trend in political communication, with accusations of bias and corruption becoming more prevalent.

This context is critical in understanding Trump's current strategy. Facing multiple felony counts, Trump's response has not been limited to defending himself but includes an active attempt to portray the justice system as partisan and corrupt. This narrative echoes his past efforts to discredit news outlets by labeling them "fake news," a strategy that resonates with a considerable portion of the public in a politically polarized landscape.

The parallels between the public's perception of the media and the justice system are striking. In both cases, the integrity of the institution is questioned, contributing to an environment of skepticism and polarization. Just as the case of Fox News' settlement with Dominion Voting Systems highlighted the dangers of unbalanced reporting, Trump's attempts to delegitimize the justice system underscore the risks associated with the loss of public trust in democratic institutions.

The key challenge now is to restore trust in these institutions by promoting transparency, accountability, and balanced perspectives. These principles, central to both journalism and justice, are fundamental to the functioning of our democracy. We must not only recognize the parallels between the challenges faced by our democratic institutions but also learn from each other in our efforts to address these issues. Ultimately, the survival and integrity of our democracy depend on our ability to trust these institutions to uphold truth, justice, and fairness.