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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Reply to School Board Member Affeldt's Letter

Op/Ed Contributor Brian Carver

Brian Carver’s Reply to EUSD Board Member John Affeldt

I was pleased to receive John Affeldt’s response to my letter to the Tattler because after several years of asking questions and expressing concerns, I felt this was my first experience of an honest effort by a School District Trustee to engage publicly on the issues. A few thoughts in response:

Breaking the Promise about our Tax Bills
John points out that a reasonable growth estimate of Emeryville’s assessed valuation should take into account inflation, re-assessment after sales, and the average growth rate over the last 30 years. I agree. 

However, we should also take into account that a significant part of Emeryville’s past growth has been the work of our former Redevelopment Agency, now abolished by the state. What new mechanisms cities will use given the dissolution of Redevelopment Agencies remains to be seen, but until that time, extra caution about growth assumptions seems prudent. 

In recent years Emeryville has also learned first-hand that a property’s valuation can go both up and down after re-assessment as several of the largest property owners in Emeryville successfully appealed their valuations to the County, wiping millions of dollars of valuation off Emeryville’s books. Now that these property owners have proven a method for lowering taxes, we should expect that others may follow suit, again encouraging us toward cautious growth assumptions.

But our agreement on what a holistic approach to choosing a growth assumption would look like misses the point. The latest bond issued by the School District pushes our community right up to the $60/$100k limit that the District promised not to exceed (and that is dictated by state law). There is no buffer. Since you [Mr Affeldt] acknowledge that there may be additional downturns in the future, as there have been in the past, it is this aspect of the latest bond that is troubling. We’ve spent right up to the limit and now when those downturns come, we are virtually certain to see the District’s promise broken. But, as you say, no one has a crystal ball, so we need not argue about it. I predict the Trustees’ actions have already placed us on a course that guarantees that they will break their promise. Time will tell if I am right.

Long-Lasting Facilities
You note that the current plan is for the Center of Community Life (ECCL) to have a useful life longer than the 32 year 8 month series D bond. This is good news, but overlooks two key points that I believe are more important. 

First, as I have said more than once at public meetings, Emery Unified School District Trustees are trustees in the literal sense because you [and your Board colleagues] hold public property on behalf of the people of Emeryville. By spending our entire bonding capacity on one site, while tying up our ability to issue further bonds for decades, while presenting no long-term plans for the improvement or maintenance of the other two public properties entrusted to you, the Board has behaved irresponsibly. I have been on tours and heard District Staff point out the problems with the facilities at Anna Yates and Ralph Hawley, but because of this Board’s actions we are left with no bonding capacity for decades and therefore little chance of making necessary improvements to these sites. In the future when the Board solemnly announces that it has “no choice” but to sell these properties or hand them over to competing charter schools that would further our District’s enrollment problems, it will be because of the poor choices made by the Board since the passage of Measure J, not because of circumstances beyond their control.

Second, due to one of many compromises caused by our lack of funds for this Board’s vision, the ECCL design has been scaled down to serve at most 800 students, which we nearly enroll now. That number will not remain stagnant for the next 30 to 40 years. We have instead heard Staff and past Boards insist that only with enrollment growth can we reach a size that is fiscally sustainable from an operational perspective. Greater enrollment numbers, we were told, would allow efficiencies necessary to operate, but now we are spending all of our money on facilities for one site that will barely house the current students, while investing nothing in our other properties that could have been turned to for overflow purposes. This is not an irresponsible plan; it is no plan at all.

Buildings Do Not Educate Our Children
You write about ensuring a high quality educational experience and improving the quality of our schools. I share those goals. However, I am continually disheartened by the focus on these new buildings as the key to that quality experience. Teachers teach, and sometimes good facilities can help teachers teach, but the buildings are not going to do it alone.

 "Teachers teach, and sometimes 
good facilities can help teachers teach,
 but the buildings are not going to do it alone."
This is why I am exasperated: over eight months ago the teachers presented a resolution of "No Confidence" in Superintendent Lindo, which had the support of over 90% of teachers in an anonymous vote, and yet the only public action the District has taken in response has been to praise the Superintendent. In the teachers’ statement they wrote that the Superintendent had “created an unprecedented all-time low in staff morale leaving teachers feeling unwanted, devalued, and disrespected” and that the Superintendent had “not authentically involved teachers by systematically and consistently seeking teacher's input.” This was a glaring indicator of an incredibly serious problem with the District’s ability to deliver a quality educational experience, and as a parent, I expected to see and hear about a decisive and swift response from our Trustees. This never happened.

I believe this Board, distracted by this building project, has lost sight of the things that can really make a difference to a child’s education. Yes, our facilities need to be improved, but the number of missed opportunities on the programmatic front and the number of downright backwards things I have observed are too numerous to recount here, but they mostly come down to an over-reliance on these buildings as the answers to our prayers. 

I Never Meet Anyone That Likes Co-Location
My own reasons for preferring that the elementary students remain at the Anna Yates site go well beyond safety concerns with the San Pablo Avenue site. When I speak to parents of future kindergarteners, again and again, they are absolutely aghast when they hear that the District plans to create a K-12 on San Pablo Ave. It’s often not even about safety. Rather, I believe that most parents recognize that children of different ages have different needs, and those needs can often be best addressed in a setting designed especially for them.

"Most parents recognize that children of
 different ages have different needs,
 and those needs can often be best 
addressed in a setting designed 
especially for them."

A recent overheard conversation among parents of some 7th and 8th graders focused on how poorly the needs of their middle-schoolers were being met by moving them to the Anna Yates site. After being promised specialized programming appropriate to their ages and needs, these parents felt the District had failed to deliver and they despaired at their need to find a new school for their children. The District is already doing a poor job at “shared space” and yet we are asked to place faith in its potential at the new site.

“Prudent and Measured” Bonds
You say that the Series D bond, which requires taxpayers to pay $70 million in order to receive $17 million, is “prudent and measured.” We will simply have to disagree about this. I will never be able to see this capital appreciation bond (CAB) as anything other than what California State Treasurer Lockyer called it: a payday loan. There is good reason that the State Superintendent of Schools called for a moratorium on this kind of financing and why the state legislature is considering banning this sort of CAB outright: they are absolutely terrible deals.

Imprudent Actions Can Have Collateral Consequences
You mention that you’d be willing to pay your property taxes even if they went up to $90/$100k of assessed valuation. I would too and my family’s house is probably worth about $400k, just like yours. But what two attorneys would be glad to pay is not the point. The Trustees should abide by the law, which dictates no more than $60/$100k, and the Trustees should keep their promises to Emeryville voters. When public officials betray the voters’ trust, it can cause collateral damage. This District has great challenges on the operational side of its budget and will need the parcel tax renewed in a few years. Many voters may not understand that building and operating funds are totally separate and may instead simply remember that this is the Board that makes poor financial choices. That would be truly devastating for our schools: we’d have expensive buildings that we couldn’t afford to operate. And many voters may blame all of Emeryville’s public officials, so that if the City Council decides it needs to put forward a bond measure for a bike/ped bridge or for other public projects that Redevelopment can no longer fund, they too may face voter skepticism due to the School Board’s actions.

A Way Forward
While some Board decisions cannot be undone, I do not believe our District is without hope. If this Board would change course, or if a new Board were in place, there is much that could still be done to strengthen our schools. The District should revise its plans and explore dividing the available bond funds across at least two school sites. The District should make clear that supporting teachers is a top priority and ensure that it consistently seeks teacher input and improves morale. Community engagement events should change from opportunities for the District to explain its plans to a time to listen to the concerns and ideas of all stakeholders, especially parents whose schedules don’t always allow for in-person attendance at meetings. In general, the entire focus of this District should shift from one in which we are engaged in a great building project to one in which we are engaged in a critical educational effort. Too often it seems like education is taking a back seat to the buildings.

----

Brian Carver is a parent of a child in the Emery Unified School
District, was the Chair of the Measure J Citizens' Oversight Committee from March 2011-2012, and has been critical of the School Board's insistence on moving the elementary students from Anna Yates to the Center of Community Life site on San Pablo Avenue.  An attorney and Assistant Professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information, Mr Carver is an occasional contributor to the Tattler.

8 comments:

  1. i wholeheartedly agree with brian carver. let's not forget measure a, the school parcel tax, approved by voters in 2003 and extended to the year 2019. this measure is now being assessed at $.15 per sq. foot to "strengthen and improve academic curriculum and educational programs in the following essential areas: mathematics, science, literacy, music and visual and performing arts."

    further, it is supposed to "strengthen and improve programs and services in the following areas which contribute to student academic success: school libraries, wellness initiative,counseling, tutoring and mentoring, school site technology support, english language development."

    aren't these the very same goals that measure j was intended to do? apparently not, when the school board approves a $17 million capital appreciation bond without voter approval.

    and although brian carver states that the assessed valuation cannot exceed $60.00 per $100,000 assessed value mandated by state law, every document i have read concerning measure j states "ESTIMATED at $60.00 per $100,000."

    i want to thank brian for writing his opinion in a manner that non attorneys and non financiers can understand.

    by the way, where are the annual reports that the measure a oversight committee issues?

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  2. Is it too late to stop the tear down of our High School, which is bought and paid for? The destruction should be stopped. We gotta be "nuts" to go through with it. Why can't we just accept the fact that we are just members of a small, but proud, Community? And, we already possess all the Basics.

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    1. Yes, it is too late to stop the tearing down of the high school. Mr Carver suggests that it may not be too late to save the elementary school, Anna Yates. I personally think the only way that could happen is by quickly replacing the School Board with a more reasonable one.
      Incidentally, not many residents have called on the Board to save the high school. I agree it is prudent to replace that school with a new one for about $50 million (plus financing). It's the $70 million to rebuild Anna Yates added onto that cost is what I think is unnecessary and irresponsible. We could rebuild the high school and not have to use a CAB to do it...the loan could be paid off in less than 25 years. It would be affordable, prudent and legal...unlike the CAB they're selling.

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  3. The collateral damage has already occured in our household. We are tapped in both the financial and holistic sense. I feel this conversation is a little late and $70 million short. The focus in our household has moved to working towards things that directly affect our children and their immediate classroom. The ECCL community philosophy was lost in the lack of the kind of community engagement Brian writes about; where they listened to the concerns and ideas of all stakeholders instead of carfeully guiding us through explainations of the Nexus Plan. But here we are with the High school closed, the middle school kids languishing in an Elementary school facility and the high school kids in a rented facility. The time for this conversation is over.

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    Replies
    1. In one sense your right that the time for this conversation has passed. The Board refused to have this conversation before they voted to sell the Series D CAB and abandon Anna Yates. Now when it's too late they're willing (at least John Affeldt is).
      Still, I say there's nothing like government accountability. It's better for the people to know about this after it's too late than to never know about it at all. For if the people can see how thier government is broken, then they can move to fix it in the future. Perhaps heads may someday roll and even though it would be too late for Anna Yates, there would be a cleansing effect for the people...that would help our school district.

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  4. And don't even get me started on the fact that due to all of this the pool will be closed for the next 2 summers. That has hit my kids the hardest.
    I think all the speculation about why Cheryl Webb abruptly left board can now be put to rest. There were many unpopular decisions that were coming down the road that she clearly wanted separation from...I can't blame her.
    So when are we going to start talking about the upcoming teacher layoffs that EUSD CBO Mark Bonnett warned were coming this year at the first PTO meeting in August? There are still some whales to fry here people.

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  5. Only the Emeryville School Board could call a bond "prudent and measured" that leaves no room for error, no "buffer" as Brian Carver puts it. He's right people: they're going to break their promise...their hand will be forced by inevitable events. Then they'll claim that it was due to those forces beyond their control.
    And Mr Carver's observation about how the current Board's action will force the future Board to say they have "no choice" and how they must sell Anna Yates or hand it over to a competing charter school is ominous and likely real.

    Hats off to Brian Carver for an excellent original letter and response.

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  6. Brian Carver, PLEASE run for the BOARD. We have people who need to go.

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