Tuesday, February 27, 2024

AI use in California Education.

Karen M. Rezendes, Esq.
Managing Partner, Lozano Smith.
Lozano Smith, an education law firm, did a podcast today, regarding the use of AI in education in California, and I put some notes together when listening to it. The discussion concerns the impact and integration of generative AI technologies like ChatGPT, within public agencies and school districts. It was hosted by Karen Resendez, the managing partner at Lozano Smith, alongside Nick Clair, Rob Lomeli, and Karina Demirchian from the firm's artificial intelligence working group.

Generative AI, including systems capable of creating text, images, and videos, is spotlighted for its potential to mimic human reasoning and creativity. The conversation highlights the accessibility of AI tools, available in both free and paid versions, and stresses the crucial role of human oversight in ensuring the reliability and accuracy of AI-generated content. In practical applications, AI is being utilized in drafting ordinances and providing language translations for public meetings, as well as aiding educators and parents in developing Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals for students with disabilities. These examples underscore AI's utility in enhancing efficiency and inclusivity in educational and public services. However, the podcast also addresses significant concerns such as privacy, the risk of bias, and the phenomenon of AI "hallucinations," where the technology might produce inaccurate or fabricated information.

Legal considerations form a core part of the discussion, including the mention of a Biden Administration executive order aimed at regulating AI models and directing federal agencies, including the Department of Education, to develop regulations covering employment, bias, data privacy, and educational AI use within a year. Furthermore, about a dozen bills related to AI are being explored in the California legislature, indicating a proactive stance toward establishing guidelines on AI usage, its applications, and the types of AI systems that can be employed. The podcast reviews the potential legal risks and liabilities associated with AI use, including copyright issues and general liability for inaccuracies or harm resulting from AI-generated content. The panelists underscore the importance of public agencies maintaining a human in the loop for accountability and decision-making processes informed by AI.

Recommendations for public agencies include the establishment of policies and parameters for AI use, the importance of evaluating AI systems and use cases, and the necessity of hiring or consulting with experts to develop and adapt policies as AI technology evolves. Training for employees, staying abreast of developments in AI, and revising existing policies to address AI's impact are emphasized as critical steps for agencies. The concerns about privacy and bias are highlighted, advising against inputting personally identifiable information into AI systems, particularly free versions, and acknowledging the potential biases in AI responses due to the data on which they are trained.

The podcast is available at this link: Lozano Smith Podcast.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

The State of Sonoma Valley.

This past Friday, in the State of the Valley address, newly appointed Mayor John Gurney, Council Member Sandra Lowe, and First District Supervisor Susan Gorin each provided insights into their visions and reflections on their terms. Gurney spoke candidly about the city's challenges and opportunities, highlighting the need for community involvement and introducing fresh ideas on revenue and city services. Lowe emphasized the city's commitment to diversity and cultural engagement, while Gorin offered a retrospective of her tenure. Sonoma Valley Housing Group member Fred Allebach afterward provided a critical analysis, urging attention to systemic issues and advocating for a focus on socio-economic needs over new city departments. The speeches collectively painted a picture of Sonoma's past achievements and the road ahead, with a call for active community participation and inclusive growth.

Newly appointed Mayor John Gurney shared his perspectives on key city issues. He opened by acknowledging his recent marriage to Lita Davis, quickly transitioning to the challenges facing the city, including housing affordability and budgetary concerns. Gurney emphasized, "There is no simple answer," underlining the complexity of these issues.

Gurney highlighted the importance of community engagement, particularly involving the youth. He stated, "We need to start getting the younger generation in the community involved," stressing the necessity for their active participation in shaping Sonoma's future. On the topic of annexation, Gurney approached it as a necessary discussion for efficient service management, urging the community to openly consider it. "It's not to be feared," he said, addressing the common apprehensions around the subject.

Gurney also spoke about the city's staffing challenges, particularly in filling key positions, and the need for creating attractive job propositions. Additionally, he mentioned exploring new revenue measures to support enhanced city services, including parks and recreation. In conclusion, Gurney invited the community to actively participate in the upcoming council goal-setting session, emphasizing collaborative efforts. He thanked former Mayor Sandra Lowe for her leadership and expressed commitment to working with council members and the community for Sonoma's betterment.

Council Member Sandra Lowe also spoke, presenting her initiatives and experiences. She started by discussing the streamlining of business processes, mentioning, "We've cut red tape in Sacramento, making it easier for our local businesses." Lowe then talked about the role of arts in the community, citing her work with local art museum events. "Art brings us together, it speaks to our common experiences," she stated, highlighting the role of art in community cohesion.

Her speech also addressed the significance of diversity, particularly through LGBTQ events. "These events are not just about celebration; they're about recognition and inclusion," Lowe commented, pointing out the city's dedication to diversity. On city infrastructure, Lowe outlined improvements in public spaces and safety. "We've redesigned parks to be more family-friendly and boosted our public safety measures," she detailed. Concluding, Lowe focused on fiscal responsibility and city development. "It's not just about spending; it's about investing in our future," she noted.

Susan Gorin, the first district supervisor, took her opportunity to speak to highlight her tenure and significant community developments. She opened with a light-hearted remark about the attendance, "I was a little worried when I first came in... I think Chase [Hunter, a reporter] and I were the only people here." Reflecting on her service, Gorin stated, "It has been such an honor to represent you as the first district supervisor for a long time," and acknowledged her final term, "I'm in my last year of my third and final term."

Gorin proudly mentioned the transfer of undeveloped land to state parks, emphasizing its protection and future management, "It is a great day to know that that undeveloped land is protected, moving into state parks..." She also celebrated the opening of the East Sonoma County Services Center, a crucial step in improving community service accessibility. Highlighting the importance of teamwork, Gorin remarked, "It takes a village to support a supervisor." She concluded by emphasizing the need for collaborative efforts in community service, "It is time to talk about shared services for sure." 

In a detailed commentary on the State of the Valley address, Sonoma Valley Housing Group member Fred Allebach shared his pointed observations. He noted a lack of focus on "systemic poverty and segregation," indicative of a surface-level treatment of the Valley's state. Addressing housing issues, he highlighted the affordability crisis, and brought attention to the Latino community, a significant part of the Valley's demographic and economic fabric, suggesting that their struggles were overlooked at the event.

He scrutinized the city's budget allocation, contrasting the high percentages for police and fire services with the smaller slice for planning. On homelessness, he questioned the practicality of the strategic plan, asking, "How do homeless know when it has been 32 degrees for three days?" Suggesting new revenue streams should focus on socio-economic needs first, he challenged the creation of a Parks and Rec Department, emphasizing the urgency of addressing the needs of lower-income populations.

Regarding annexation, Allebach's views were clear. He urged for an inclusive approach, arguing that annexation should not just be about services but also about equal representation, potentially reshaping the Valley's political landscape to include underrepresented voices. His commentary called for robust leadership akin to the Roseland annexation in Santa Rosa, underscoring the need for a strong campaign to address local inequities.

In the midst of these speeches, annexation emerged as a topic of considerable importance and debate. Mayor John Gurney encouraged an open dialogue, stressing that annexation should not be feared, but rather explored as a means to efficiently manage services. Fred Allebach added depth to the discussion, emphasizing the potential of annexation to address not only service provision but also equal representation, potentially reshaping the Valley's political landscape. As the community reflects on the State of the Valley address, the question of annexation remains a critical issue, highlighting the need for thoughtful consideration and robust public engagement in the path forward.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Questions from the Press, Monday, December 18, 2023.

Starting last Wednesday evening through Saturday morning, I got a series of emails from the Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune with questions about the Sonoma Valley Unified budget, the Sonoma Splash Memorandum of Use, SVUSD’s Special Education Plan, and trustees seeking compensation from the District. Because the four are related, I have answered them in one consolidated post. Photo is of Margie, who for Christmas could really use two front teeth. 

The problems with the SVUSD budget are straightforward. Accompanying the budget report are the SACS printouts. "SACS" is shorthand for Standardized Account Code Structure (SACS) Web financial reporting system, which allows for the preparation of budget, interim, and unaudited actuals reporting period data and reports that are submitted to oversight agencies and the California Department of Education (CDE). While the District puts out PowerPoint presentations with processed information, examining SACS allows for the review of the actual data. The SACS report forced SVUSD to explain why there are such large changes, leading to a massive projected deficit. 

On page 366 of the agenda, SVUSD gave a succinct explanation of the very large changes in the budget that have effectively eliminated the District's unrestricted reserves and dropped Sonoma Valley Unified into qualified status. "Expenditures were not budgeted accurately during budget development and are being corrected at First Interim." That is an understated explanation for a budget that was riddled with errors when presented, as previously discussed here. The trustees must demand balanced budgets, as the lack of rigor in the SVUSD budgeting process continues to plague the District.

These errors have comprehensively undermined our District's reporting of its condition to the public. However, the errors are not limited to the $1.4 million dollar loss due to SVUSD failing to file its transportation plan by the April 1, 2023 deadline, or the nearly $2 million underestimation of benefits, or the improper entry of more than a million dollars of expenses as revenue items (a negative number being entered as an expenditure). Instead there are structural problems with our actual revenues and expenses, rather than merely a mess of a projected budget for SVUSD, that demand action. 

First, the District is finally coming clean about its actual attendance. On page 357 of the agenda, SVUSD admitted that its actual attendance (ADA) for 2023-24 is 2,957, and not the 3,202 earlier reported. Attendance continues to drop exactly as projected by Davis Demographics, as discussed hereWe have, as trustees, been notified of continuing serious problems with the financial and demographic data provided by our District, and SVUSD is now acknowledging its errors, which at a minimum is necessary before we begin to address the District's issues. 

Moving to further actual issues, after years of underpaying teachers, SVUSD finally has a contract in place that compensates educators appropriately, and due to "me too" clauses our classified staff and some administrators are now being paid in a manner reflective of their contributions to our community. However, this means that SVUSD needs to staff appropriately, as the consequences of overspending now become serious faster. This means that right-sizing the District promptly via realignment and school consolidation is ever more important, to cut waste. The District had an opportunity to do so this past March, and largely fumbled the chance to do so, although the end of enrollment at Dunbar and the consolidation of that site, essentially, into El Verano has provided some of the $3.2 million in savings that could have been achieved by moving to a 3 elementary-1 middle school-1 high school configuration (as has been recommended by staff). 

Make no mistake, both educational effectiveness, in terms of the special education plan, and addressing the financial problems in the District, depend upon reducing our footprint and maximizing administrative effectiveness as a consequence. Turning to our new special education plan, which I thank our educators for developing, I remain cognizant of the fact that our century-old District footprint disperses services, impacting the identification and support of special education students during elementary and middle school years. To effectively implement these new strategies, we must accelerate consolidation and realignment to apply our administrative resources effectively, otherwise we can only expect more of the same.

Similarly, the District must make sure it partners effectively with the community when District operations are obviously of dual use to Sonoma Valley at large, as SVUSD's unrestricted revenues need to be dedicated to educational purposes. The relationship with Sonoma Splash has, since its inception, been intended to ensure the cost of operating a community pool does not reduce the compensation of our teachers and staff. I commend Sonoma Splash for all their hard work. Splash specifically requested a modification of their MOU to allow them to expand their hours in furtherance of that mission, which they received on Thursday. However, Sonoma Splash is currently running at an untenable monthly deficit of tens of thousands of dollars, and given the District's own mismanaged finances, SVUSD cannot afford to operate the pool directly, meaning it is almost inevitable that the aquatic center's situation will be back before the Board for urgent discussions in the near future.

The process of drawing attention to the problems of waste and educational ineffectiveness in SVUSD has not been an easy one, as demonstrated here and here. During the realignment conversations this past March and April, a staff member of the District made public comments, specifically concerning me, that I brought directly, confidentially, to the attention of the superintendent. The comments from the staff member referenced the Board and the actions of certain Board members. That is precisely how a trustee should handle the improper conduct of a staff member. Make no mistake, the realignment process was deliberately brought to the attention of the board and the public because of the inevitable budget problems that would be created should nothing be done. 

The complaint was handled improperly, in violation of explicit District policies. I brought a closed session item in November to address the breach, which has led to the ending of the District's relationship with its former coordinator of investigations. The substance of those conversations cannot be disclosed by a trustee, and the board has not waived its right to those closed session protections. However, two of the trustees who are named, but were not the focus, have sought to make the process about them, and those trustees claimed that the board should waive the attorney client privilege regarding the report, so that they could review the matter privately, assuring that the report would not be published. 

However, the true motive for asking the board to waive the privilege was to cause a heavily redacted version of the investigation to be made public, and then seek money from SVUSD based upon the false light those trustees themselves sought to create. This was unprofessional, and has further undermined the integrity of our investigatory process. The report should not have been released in a fashion that would further intra-board conflict, and I am disappointed this was done. However, I am not surprised that the investigatory process is being weaponized, as it has happened before.

We as a District need our investigatory processes to function properly, as our students themselves depend on the integrity of those procedures when wronged. The defects with SVUSD's investigatory processes have been made clear in the context of this matter, and related litigation SVUSD has been engaged in recently. Further, the publication of some, but not all of the report by SVUSD, including covering up both the central part of the conduct that led to the process, and failing to disclose the improper behavior of the investigation coordinator, makes it unlikely that the procedure will help address wrongs in the future, and necessarily increasing polarization in our community and leading to a further lack of accountability. This is all to the detriment of our students. 

The board must get its budget under control. Balanced budgets should be required in the future, and deficit spending should only be allowed on a 4/5ths vote, as we cannot break this cycle of behavior without it. We must consolidate our schools to reflect the actual student population of our valley, rather than fitting our instructional program to an inherited set of real properties. The same set of trustees responsible for our fiscal fiasco must stop weaponizing the investigatory process to distract attention from the District's real problems. Only then can we continue to ensure our teachers and educators will receive the compensation they deserve.

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Questions from the Press, November 27, 2023.

Questions today from the Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune for Sonoma Valley Unified concern the District's basic aid status, which touches on a lot of other issues. Picture is of Siena and Ally, and me and my mom, from Thanksgiving weekend this year.

[Combined 1-2.How much money does SVUSD receive annually from local property taxes? How much money does SVUSD receive from the constitutionally guaranteed basic aid funding?

In 2022-23, Sonoma Valley Unified had $78,070,268.21 in actual revenues. When asked, experts will say that is approximately $11 million more than SVUSD would have received if, like roughly 90% of California's school districts, it was funded based on average daily attendance ("ADA") under the State's LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula). 

Article IX, Section 6 of the California Constitution guarantees every school district in the state $120 per student (which is the "basic aid" so frequently referenced). There are no CALPADS reports (the State's official data system for students per District) on ADA for 2022-23 for SVUSD and there will not be any until the Spring of 2024. In 2021-22, the last year for which we have reported data, SVUSD's ADA was 3,001. Therefore, the basic aid for SVUSD, presuming that ADA held steady into 2022-23 (a big if) was $360,120 (that figure is not a mistake). 

The call of the question, though is what would the LCFF base grant be for SVUSD presuming those numbers. In 2022-23, the LCFF base grant per student (which is probably what you're getting at) varied between $9,166 per ADA (what we would think of as a "student") in TK-3 to $11,102 for grades 9-12. There are a series of additional adjustments upward for some of these numbers. Again, using the 2021-22 ADA numbers, we would have expected LCFF base grant funding of about $33,011,000 in 2022-23. The presentation reported that SVUSD's funding per student (characterized as "Funding Per ADAin the presentation) in 2022-23 was $14,563.31. That would amount to $43,704,493.31 in revenues for SVUSD. These numbers are clearly nowhere near the actual revenues of the District. 

Deciphering these numbers demonstrates exactly why California school finance is so difficult for the voters to analyze. Based on my experience over the past decade with the school district, I don't believe these numbers illustrate in any meaningful way how a reasonable person should think about the budget. Instead, I think you have to start with actual revenues and the actual number of students meeting the standard for attendance (which is ADA). For SVUSD, for the last year we have full data, 2021-22, the total, audited, actual revenues were $71,619,903. The total, actual average daily attendance was 3,001.  That translates into $23,865.35 per ADA. If we presume that ADA for 2022-23 just holds steady at 3,001, and with unaudited actuals of $78,070,268.21, that amounts to $26,014.75 per student in attendance. 

[Combined 3-5.] Why are SVUSD’s 2023 student achievement scores in ELA and math lower than all the other districts that were included in the presentation (except for Plumas Unified in ELA)? What are the main reasons why SVUSD’s scores are low? Have you heard complaints from the greater SVUSD community about the district’s low scores, despite the additional property tax money it receives?

The school board is accountable for student performance, and it has inadequately employed the resources at its disposal, thereby fostering wastefulness. Additionally, the board's approval, on a 3-2 vote, of further deficit spending has severely compromised the budget's central role in sound fiscal planning. A rigorous approach is needed to create a balanced budget that accurately mirrors our revenue and expenditure forecasts. Such a budget serves as a dependable base for making strategic choices, allocating resources methodically, and planning for prospective growth, which is the cornerstone of the educational reform SVUSD so urgently needs to improve student performance. 

Critically, I wish to stress that the board must avoid the misguided and antiquated tendency of laying blame on teachers for student performance. Incompetent architects blame their carpenters. We have outstanding teachers and we compensate them accordingly -- our teachers have, per the comments of Bernadette Weissmann (the union's negotiator) at the Fairmont UNITE HERE! rally on November 10, the best contract in Sonoma County. We have the talent necessary to achieve the results the community expects. 

Yet spreading those terrific teachers out to sustain a physical footprint inherited from another century has undermined educational effectiveness. Realignment is urgently needed to focus resources on our at-need students. Spreading out Tier 1 implementation across too many sites, while not effectively supporting any of them, robs Tier 2 and Tier 3 of the resources to identify and serve students, and prevents us from fully implementing Universal Design for Learning ("UDL") strategies. These form the cornerstone of our multi-tiered systems of support ("MTSS"). Indeed, given the demographic projections for our District, even a 3-1-1 footprint may not be sustainable in the near future, which is exactly why our District needed to take prompt action this past March.

However, the June approval of millions of dollars in additional deficit expenditures for the current fiscal year, on the votes of trustees Ching, Knox, and Landry, has intensified the fiscal mismanagement. The precarious position a three-member majority has placed the District in has resulted from failing to make the hard choices regarding reducing our footprint to match our student population and improve student performance -- the board has refused to complete the realignment necessary to make the compensation for our teachers sustainable and implement educational reform. Indeed, the argument of Trustee Anne Ching precisely illustrates the point as documented in the Sonoma Sun on March 15 of this year, as "Ching believes the current financial scenarios allow the District to continue to operate as is, drawing down reserves which could last for five years." The District never could do anything of the sort.

Further, the inability to achieve a balanced budget led to a series of multimillion-dollar blunders in the Business Office when assembling the 2023-24 budget. The severity of these errors could exceed the District's unrestricted reserves and is expected to come fully to light at the First Interim in December. The existence of such chaos during a period of unprecedented revenue that has been on an upward trend for the last thirteen years is wholly unacceptable. SVUSD now finds itself in precisely the crisis that could have been avoided had realignment decisions been made in March, and had a balanced budget been passed in June, rather than the obviously inaccurate mess that was ultimately approved. Low student performance, a continued source of distress for our parents and community, meanwhile remains unaddressed.

6. SVUSD’s scores fared better in terms of change from 2022 to 2023. SVUSD showed more improvement or less of a decline than three of the nine school districts listed in ELA and five of the districts listed in math. What are your thoughts about this? 

The decline in ELA performance was larger than the increase in Math. SVUSD's performance remains lower than the comparable basic aid Districts, and merely to equal the Math level of the District most similar to SVUSD (which notably has significantly more disadvantaged students than SVUSD), it would take approximately 15 years at the current rate. The low absolute level of performance means that fractional gains are far too slow (and that says nothing of the continued declines in ELA). This can't continue.

[Combined 7-8.What is being done or can be done to improve SVUSD’s scores? Are you optimistic that they can be improved?

Realignment is critical to ensure that educational resources are no longer wasted. The board's refusal to make the tough calls necessary to balance the budget and match our schools to our students means SVUSD's finances are in disarray. The squandering of capital improvement dollars (including the failure to reserve funds necessary to retrofit Altimira Middle School and instead spend them on the SVHS science building on a 3-2 vote) has exacerbated these problems. The board must act in a unified fashion to address these concerns, but instead, a group of three trustees, specifically trustees Ching, Knox, and Landry, has saddled SVUSD with a set of decisions that make progress harder. This was done in the face of well-articulated reasons that none of those 3-2 votes should have been made. This has to end if we're going to make any meaningful progress on student performance.

9. Would you like to say anything else?

No, thank you. 

Monday, November 27, 2023

Questions from the Press re Arts Education, November 20, 2023.

Catching up today, with some questions from last week regarding Arts Education from the Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune for Sonoma Valley UnifiedPhoto is Margie with the giant inflatable Snowman in our front yard. 


1. How and when did Creative Bridges begin working with SVUSD on establishing a five-year Strategic Arts Education Plan?

Creative Bridges officially partnered with SVUSD to work on the Strategic Arts Education Plan as part of a collaboration involving 45 nonprofits aiming to improve and expand arts education for all students​. Creative Bridges' partnership with SVUSD is an excellent example of collaboration and thorough preparation. This successful collaboration model, where stakeholders engage in prebriefing and one-on-one discussions with trustees, sets a standard for how proposals should be presented to the board.

2. Why is it important for Sonoma Valley Unified School District to have a strong arts education program?

A strong arts education program is vital for SVUSD to provide every student with a vibrant, culturally relevant, and sequential standards-based arts education. It supports skills like curiosity, empathy, communication, collaboration, engagement, initiative, and critical thinking, which are essential for 21st-century careers. Arts have played a vital role in my life and the lives of students like my daughter, Siena. Teachers like Amee Alioto at Adele Harrison and Jane Martin at the high school, who have significantly impacted students, exemplify the transformative power of arts education. Our students learn valuable life lessons in the process, underscoring the essence of arts education in fostering resilience and creativity.

3. What are some of the main qualities that distinguish Creative Bridges from other efforts to boost arts education in schools?

Creative Bridges stands out due to its collaborative approach, involving a wide range of community stakeholders, including nonprofits, community members, parents, students, teachers, and government officials. This broad alliance advocates for equitably improving visual and performing arts education across all TK-12 students in SVUSD. The manner in which Creative Bridges has approached this project, especially their effective communication, serves as a model for others, and should be emulated by anyone presenting to the board.

4. In what ways will Creative Bridges continue to be involved in planning and helping to implement SVUSD’s Strategic Arts Education Plan?

Creative Bridges will continue to be involved in the planning and implementation of SVUSD’s Strategic Arts Education Plan through advocacy and partnership expansion. They will likely play a key role in creating a hub of community arts education advocates and contributing to the strategic direction of the program. 

5. What does the district hope to achieve through the plan?

SVUSD aims to equitably improve TK-12 arts education by building a sustainable, standards-based visual and performing arts system. The plan also seeks to maximize district and community resources, including Proposition 28 funding, for the benefit of all TK-12 students​. Personally, I think the district’s goals acknowledge the role of the arts as a pivotal aspect of life. The district hopes to inspire similar passion and motivation in students through this comprehensive plan.

6. An emphasis is being placed on providing equal access to the arts for all students. Tell me about this.

The plan emphasizes providing all students with equal access to arts education, which involves developing a sequential, culturally relevant curriculum and ensuring that resources are allocated equitably. This approach aims to ensure that all students, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to engage with and benefit from arts education​. This commitment to inclusivity ensures that every student, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to benefit from arts education.

7. How will this plan boost arts education in SVUSD?

The plan will boost arts education in SVUSD by developing a comprehensive curriculum, recruiting and retaining specialized teaching staff, improving facilities, and utilizing data collection systems to measure the impact of arts instruction. It will also involve community partnerships and sustainable funding, including Proposition 28 funds​. The plan's approach to enhancing arts education in SVUSD mirrors what I believe are the virtues of education generally. It aims to cultivate resilience, creativity, and passion in students that are part of everyone's personal journey with the arts.

8. Would you like to say anything else?

This Strategic Arts Education Plan represents a significant commitment by SVUSD and Creative Bridges to enhance arts education, recognizing its crucial role in overall student development and preparing students for diverse and creative career paths in the future. The collaborative and comprehensive approach of the plan reflects an understanding that arts education is not just an enrichment activity, but a fundamental component of a well-rounded education. I personally appreciate the work of Connie Schlelein, Cheryl Coldiron, and others involved. I believe that a life well-lived is a work of art itself, and that this plan, reflecting the dedication and collaborative effort of all involved, promises to enrich the lives of every SVUSD student.

Friday, November 17, 2023

Questions from the Press re Attendance and Absenteeism, Friday, November 17, 2023.

Questions today from the Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune concern attendance and absenteeism for Sonoma Valley Unified. Here, also, is a link to my video comments on this subject, which I haven't done in the past, but I think people might be interested in viewing the meeting, too. Photo is of my sister, Heather, and my nieces Clara and Ruby, who I recently visited in Houston. 


1. Why is it important for SVUSD to decrease chronic absenteeism?

Decreasing chronic absenteeism is critical to our post-pandemic recovery as a school district. Like a car rejoining a freeway, it's time to accelerate and make up for lost time. The efforts from staff, teachers, and administrators in SVUSD mirror this sentiment, showing us getting back up to speed. While we're not all the way back to the low levels of absenteeism of 2018-2019, it's clear that the hard work and 'renorming' of behavior among students is paying off, especially considering the collective challenge we've overcome in handling the pandemic. There's more work to do, but I congratulate our teachers, staff, and admin for what they've accomplished so far. 

2. What is your main take-away from the chronic absenteeism data SVUSD?

The chronic absenteeism data from SVUSD is heartening, showing a rebound after the pandemic. The district's dedicated response, like a driver punching the gas to rejoin traffic, demonstrates a commitment to swiftly addressing and overcoming challenges posed by absenteeism.

3. Did anything about the statistics surprise you?

The doubling of chronic absenteeism rates during and after the pandemic is a stark reminder of the impact of extraordinary events. However, the responsive actions of SVUSD show a remarkable recovery process, reflective of our resilience in getting through the pandemic. For a government agency, that kind of focused, direct application of effort shows the strength of our local democratic institutions. I don't think it "surprised" me so much as encouraged me.

4. What accounts for the significant reductions in chronic absenteeism from 2021-22 to 2022-23?

The significant reductions in absenteeism can be attributed to the hard work and dedication of staff, teachers, and administrators. When it comes to attendance, they said "let's hit it," they put the pedal to the metal. The results speak for themselves. This effort shows SVUSD rapidly getting back up to speed.

5. Do you expect SVUSD’s overall chronic absenteeism percentage to continue to decrease, and eventually reach or be lower than the prepandemic level?

With the concerted efforts seen in SVUSD, mirroring the economic rebound analogy, there's a strong expectation that chronic absenteeism rates will continue to decrease. The district's rapid response and adaptive strategies suggest a return to, or surpassing of, pre-pandemic attendance levels is within reach.

6. Jillian Beall mentioned four areas of continued focus to reduce chronic absenteeism. Please tell me your thoughts about each one, starting with addressing the causes of absenteeism.

A. Addressing the Causes of Absenteeism: Addressing causes requires a sensitive approach, especially considering our collective experience with the pandemic and understanding for those who may engage in 'school avoidance', particularly students with disabilities.
B. Fostering Positive and Inclusive School Climates: Efforts to create welcoming environments in schools are akin to the supportive atmosphere we've all needed post-pandemic, helping students adjust back to a more normal context.
C. Lowering Absenteeism Rates for Specific Student Groups: Targeted support for groups like students with disabilities is essential, as the causes of 'school avoidance' are often driven by students failing to receive essential services that would provide them with a foundation for success.
D. Building Trust and Transparent Communications: The pandemic taught us the value of joint exercises and collaboration. Building trust through clear communication is central in continuing that team effort.

7. Tell me about efforts to foster positive and inclusive school climates.

SVUSD's efforts are reflective of the broader social effort in renorming behavior post-pandemic, creating environments where students feel supported and motivated to attend, just as we collectively adapted as a society to the continuing challenges of endemic COVID-19.

8. Tell me about efforts to continue to lower absenteeism rates for student groups (students with disabilities, EL, SED, etc.).

Addressing absenteeism in specific groups, especially students with disabilities, is critical. Our own experiences with 'school avoidance' lend empathy to these efforts, acknowledging the unique challenges these students face.

9. Tell me about efforts to continue to build trust and transparent communications.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of joint exercises and collective resilience. SVUSD's commitment to open communication is key in maintaining this spirit of unity and understanding.

10. Would you like to say anything else?

Reflecting on the progress made, it's clear that SVUSD's approach is similar to how our economy recovered post-pandemic. Abseentism is being reduced by rapid, determined, and effective action. The collective hard work and adaptability shown by everyone, from staff to students, should keep driving us in the right direction.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Questions from the Press, November 10, 2023.

I received questions from today from the Press Democrat/Sonoma Index-Tribune regarding the school board meeting for Sonoma Valley Unified on Thursday, November 9. This, perhaps expectedly, also addresses the threatened attack on our school campuses that same day. Per past practice, questions and answers are below.


1. Why did the board approve the purchase of the cloud-based security cameras?
I had successfully moved at the beginning of the meeting for us only to proceed with the bare minimum of items on Thursday. Handling the security situation and threatened shooting at the Broadway campuses of SVUSD, in partnership with the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office and various other local government agencies, had probably been the most challenging day for our teachers, classified staff, and administrators since the onset of the fires on October 9, 2017. They were physically and emotionally exhausted, and we wanted to send them home to recover.
Oz Robledo, our IT Manager, specifically requested though that we address agenda item 14-7 regarding the purchase of Cloud Based Security Cameras from Verkada, Inc. Approval of this item was initially scheduled for the consent agenda. Negotiation related to this contract has been in progress since occurrences at the most recent 'Fugitive Night' in May. Based on his request, I proposed an amendment to the agenda to address the cloud-based security cameras, leading to the Board's consideration of it.
By way of background, the existing cameras at Sonoma Valley High did not have the necessary resolution and detail to allow the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office to establish probable cause to permit enforcement action concerning those responsible for property damage to the school campus this past May. This led the Board to discuss restricting access to Chet Sharek Plaza (the location of the Dragon Statute at SVHS) by installing access controls similar to Midgley Field in the center of the campus.
Working in conjunction with Sonoma Police Chief Brandon Cutting, Mr. Robledo was able to identify a technical solution that, in the future, will permit the police to establish probable cause should events similar to Fugitive Night recur, without the need to alter the physical environment of the campus. This solution is generally favored by administrators, law enforcement, and, after the vote, I presume the Board as well, for a variety of reasons. Mr. Robledo was further aware that executing that contract would allow the cameras to become operational by the start of the 2024 calendar year. Even a week's delay could have potentially pushed the installation into the second quarter of 2024, which might mean the cameras would not be ready in the event of another 'Fugitive Night' incident. It was his deft thinking that directly led to me advancing the matter at the Board on Thursday night.
Please note that we, as a Board, were not informed that these cameras would have had a material impact on the handling of Thursday’s events in any specific way. However, I believe, as do my fellow Board members, that implementing the recommended security equipment will only enhance future responses to similar situations. Consequently, I believe it was both right and proper to act promptly on the advice from our staff.
2. What cameras have been used on the campuses and why do they need to be replaced?
The existing scope and capabilities of SVUSD's security and monitoring systems remain necessarily confidential. Such technologies are intentionally installed to guarantee the safety and protection of all our children, along with our teachers and staff. Whereas some details of existing infrastructure were discussed during Thursday's meeting, the Board usually only contemplates these details in a closed session. In the past, when we have done so, we have requested the Chief of Police to report specifically on the benefits of newer methods and the reasons they will enable a more robust law enforcement response in the future. Consequently, I respectfully decline to further discuss this question.
3. How will these cloud-based security cameras improve security on the campuses?
Our team relies upon the information provided by our classified staff and law enforcement when making decisions regarding the acquisition of security technology. They have endorsed this equipment installation, which provides them with the necessary tools to assure our community's protection. I am convinced that we, as a Board, need to ensure that our staff are equipped with the appropriate resources to perform their roles effectively, prioritizing safety across all campuses. I believe the rest of the Board concurs. Further, considering that this equipment's installation will enable us to avoid erecting additional fences, gates, walls, and access controls on our campuses, it's clear we're opting for a more effective solution that aligns with our staff’s advice.
4. When will installation begin and when will it be completed?
My understanding from Mr. Robeldo is that due to the prompt action of the Board on Thursday, November 9 the equipment will be installed and functioning as of January 2024.
5. Has the need for tightened security become an issue on SVUSD campuses?
This issue has been gaining importance for nearly a decade. The historical, legacy-based design of several Sonoma Valley campuses does not correlate with today's school design and construction best practices. For instance, no modern high school design would include a public footpath running through the center of the campus. Similarly, locations such as Sassarini Elementary were, before recent upgrades, almost completely open and accessible from nearly every direction. Consistent vandalism at Flowery Elementary used to be a regular issue for Sonoma Valley Unified before upgrades. None of these sites had incorporated additional security features in their designs, which would come as standard today. Although the District should probably have gradually invested over the decades to mitigate the situation, that did not occur. This, coupled with concerns about inefficient and ineffective sprawl brought about by many underutilized campuses, means there is a backlog of work needed to meet current requirements. The Board has marked a series of security measures as a priority in recent approval of the use of bond funds. However, there is still more work needed to elevate our schools to modern standards. This was highlighted by the facilities master plan, included in Thursday night's agenda, documenting approximately $181 million worth of essential work District-wide.
6. How will the cameras help school and law enforcement personnel in situations such as the one at Sonoma Valley High School yesterday?
As the chief of police has previously informed us, the quality of the systems being installed will allow for sufficient detail to establish probable cause, and to allow remote monitoring that will prevent SVUSD from needing to install comprehensive access controls on SVHS and other sites akin to those at Midgley Field. The precise details of the capabilities of these systems are confidential. I have confidence in the recommendation of staff regarding these systems, and I imagine the other board members do, too. 
7. School district and law enforcement personnel were deservedly praised for their efficiency yesterday. But it also seems important to look at what could have been done better. For one thing, a student at Sonoma Valley High School said that the food students were given in her class was “ inedible, moldy and expired.” Other students said they didn’t receive food. Will the district take steps to address this problem? What else could have been done better, either by the school district or law enforcement?
It has been approximately 24 hours since the initial alert regarding the situation at SVHS was broadcasted. A number of things went right. The trustees were appropriately informed by professional staff, including the Superintendent, as events unfolded. The operational security of the Sheriff's work in supporting the safety of all students, teachers, and staff, necessarily limited the amount of information that could be provided to the public during the initial stages of the emergency. This is primarily because a potential threat might exploit any information gleaned from such reports about the methods and techniques that law enforcement is utilizing to protect us all. On balance, I believe our government agencies, including Sonoma Police, the Sheriff's Office, the California Highway Patrol, California State Parks, Sonoma Valley Fire Rescue, the City of Sonoma, and SVUSD, struck the right balance. However, I will need to review the reports we receive over time to further evaluate this.
In general, as Chief Cutting pointed out, in nearly every single case, the students conducted themselves in an exemplary fashion handling the exigencies of the situation. Similarly, the teachers of VMTA worked to protect the students under their charge with exactly the type of professionalism we have come to appreciate over the years. The classified staff of CSEA similarly worked tirelessly to protect all our students, and I directed special thanks to our school office staff, our maintenance and grounds team, our information technology and transportation departments, and so many more of the unsung heroes of our District who made the comprehensive response possible on Thursday. The law enforcement officers and other first responders demonstrated exactly why we as a public are getting our money's worth from so much preparation and expense, that makes certain those who put themselves in danger for the benefit of us all are equipped to handle potentially the worst of situations.
Those of us who experienced the early, dark hours on campus on October 9, 2017, know all too well that access to emergency supplies is a recurring issue in the initial phases of an emergency. hear the concerns voiced by our students regarding our ability to sustain them during an extended lockdown. It's encouraging that the situation is an improvement over what we faced in October of 2017. However, the continuing safety risks associated with gun violence indicate that future planning may necessitate extra logistical backing. The most common scenario imagined previously I think concerned addressing a specific indivual or individuals rather than a sweeping search of the entire facility for a rifle - the reality on Thursday. These two situations have different timelines, and I expect that future planning will continue to hold the needs of both scenarios in mind. 
8. Would you like to say anything else?
The scourge of gun violence linked to our mental health crisis continues to afflict our country, and our inability to address this leads to continuing deaths of innocents on a scale unmatched by any other major industrialized nation on Earth. Our first task as parents is caring for our children. We are not as a society meeting that obligation. To end them, we must change. There is nothing playful or fun about guns. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, we must. From law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators, we know we have the power to address this, that the politics are never "too hard" when lives are at risk.