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Thursday, July 16, 2009 | David Page says the problem is that parents are on their own. Teachers have a union. So do principals. School board members get to vote plans up or down and top administrators make decisions in the salmon-pink offices of San Diego Unified.
But parents are often too intimidated to speak up or too star-struck with school staffers to question them, Page said. Education is a world loaded with its own numbing lingo — categorical funding, supplement not supplant, program improvement — and it seems overwhelming to understand it, let alone to fight it.
Yet Page has done just that. If parents at the poorer schools in San Diego Unified did have a union, he might be their leader, with all the fans and foes that entails. Seventeen years after the father of six first walked into a parents’ meeting at Ross Elementary in Kearny Mesa, unsure of his rights and unfamiliar with the jargon, Page has become a human encyclopedia on the rules that govern funds for disadvantaged kids and a dogged fighter for parents in communities sometimes left out of decisions.
He is one of the few parents across the state that jets to Sacramento for meetings of the state Board of Education, pores over complex regulations on education spending, and explains it all to befuddled parents at the school district committee that oversees funds for children in poverty, which he has led for more than seven years. Page also leads the nonprofit California Association of Compensatory Education and sits on the board of the Family Area Network, which advises the state on parent involvement.
“He is the poster child for parent involvement. You couldn’t ask for more,” said Rae Belisle, a member of the state Board of Education. “And I know his school district may or may not agree — being held accountable is not a pleasant thing.”
Page frequently is at odds with the school district over how it spends money for disadvantaged children and has locked horns with all three of the last superintendents. He clearly has opinions of his own — Page has a libertarian streak and a deep suspicion of power, from unions to corporate leaders getting involved in schools — but he doesn’t readily give his take on the most explosive questions for his committee, such as how the money should be divided up among schools. Instead he focuses on the rules and the basic question: Were parents properly involved?
Some of his battles have stretched for years. One of his complaints about using federal money on a golden handshake given to workers six years ago just forced the school district to repay its own federal funds $700,000 for the mistake. Other complaints died on the vine or are still grinding their way through the system. But while superintendents come and go, Page has waited out his battles, logging hour after unpaid hour.
Between raising his kids, running a daycare with his wife and directing a Christian Ashram, Page devotes three to four hours a day to firing off e-mails and surfing the web for updates from both the state and national departments of education, the school district and the state groups he belongs to. He combs through the school board meeting agendas on his computer under the solemn gaze of a painting of Jesus in his living room.
His files include electronic copies of the Brown Act that requires open meetings and federal regulations with alphabet-soup names. Page is the kind of opponent that you might dread, but not dislike, if you disagree with him: organized, informed and insistent.
“His level of knowledge, coupled with the time he spends as a volunteer, is really unmatched,” said Assistant General Counsel Art Palkowitz, who has often been at the opposite side of debates with Page.
Page is a stickler for the rules. He knows them well, although not everyone agrees with his conclusions. And perhaps more potently, he can explain them to other parents in everyday language. He once compared the different strands of state funding to the different credit cards in his wallet. When wonks or bureaucrats come to see his committee armed with handouts and slideshows, Page stops them after each acronym and makes them explain it to the moms and dads who sit in a former elementary school auditorium sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups. Palkowitz called him “very influential.”
His role is even more important now, as money is poured into those federal funds through the stimulus bill, a rare influx of dollars as San Diego Unified faces state budget cuts. One principal compared it a single slice of pumpkin pie to split at a Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone wants a piece, and Page fears that when that happens, the rules tend to slide. Already he worries that the push for “flexibility” in state funding will mean that meaningful regulations go out the window.
“He’s a thorough, dedicated, relentless leader,” said Frank Engle who represents Franklin Elementary on Page’s parent committee leads. “There are people in the district being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars that don’t know as much as he knows as a volunteer.”
Not bad for a father who never completed college himself. The Army veteran with a salt-and-pepper beard doesn’t match the stereotype of the involved parent — the peppy mom with time and money to spare.
Page is serious. As a student he gravitated toward accounting and computers but disliked the idea of ending up in a cubicle, away from people. He changed his mind too often to finish up his degree, despite having taken plenty of classes while stationed in Arizona, Texas and Germany, where he took classes at a satellite campus of the University of Maryland.
His first job was to help gas stations in Texas add the now-ubiquitous convenience stores where drivers stock up on sodas and gum. Now he makes a living running a daycare with his wife in their Serra Mesa home loaded with stuffed animals and children’s videos, where toddlers clamor for trips to the park and teens are restricted to using the very large, very public computer in the living room.
With six children in tow, Page quickly became familiar with the schools. When one of his sons was entangled in a fight, Page said he became a fan of school choice, which allows parents to find the school their kids like best instead of simply going to the nearest school. He can rattle off the names of the myriad schools they attended: El Toyon Elementary in National City, Mann Middle, Marston Middle, Ross Elementary, Cubberley Elementary, Taft Middle, Charter School of San Diego, Madison High, the Preuss School and two of the schools-within-a-school at Kearny High.
His five sons have graduated. They’ve gone on to work as a foreman at a nuclear power plant, a pastor, and electrician; one is going back to college after trying his hand as a laborer and another is about to start at San Diego State. His youngest child Amanda — “the princess” — is his only daughter, now in high school.
Page said he was first recruited to lead the parent committee by then-Superintendent Alan Bersin, who was in hot water with parents after redirecting federal money to the controversial Blueprint reforms. Its leader Theresa Creber filed a legal complaint with a long list of concerns, including that Bersin had not properly consulted parents on the plans. As Page describes it, Bersin turned to him and urged him to run for the spot that Creber held. He was an unassuming dad with a diplomatic manner, a seeming ally amid the shouting matches.
“He thought I would work to support his efforts,” Page said. “Which was never something I agreed to.”
Instead Page continued their fight, following up on Creber’s complaint. He boned up on the law at trainings in Sacramento, shook hands and traded phone numbers with bureaucrats and members of the state Board of Education. Former school board member Mitz Lee, a Bersin critic, joked that she and Page practically became paralegals as the debates over the Blueprint raged on, poring over the legal documents that Page was supposed to sign ensuring that the federal rules were properly followed.
“Do I necessarily agree with everything he said? No,” said Tom Mitchell, the former director of parent and community involvement for the district. “But he was professional. He was rational. He was not radical. He just said, ‘These are the rules. You’ve got to follow them.’”
He hasn’t stopped touting the rules to the superintendents who followed. Under Carl Cohn, Page questioned why a top administrator had reserved some of the federal money for special projects, dubbing it “a slush fund.” Under Terry Grier, he has been critical of the way the school district is planning for the stimulus dollars earmarked for disadvantaged kids, especially an early effort to develop plans by “clusters,” as haphazard and lacking real input from parents.
Some of his complaints ultimately fizzled; others have made waves. Creber’s complaint eventually pushed San Diego Unified to involve parents more, but the federal government ultimately gave Bersin the green light. Despite the praise he gets, Page often feels that even their victories are too little, too late. The golden handshake snafu involved $3 million, but only $700,000 will be repaid.
“The sad thing is there’s nothing out there that I can say is a large victory,” Page said. “We’re outnumbered. I’m not an $125,000 attorney. No wonder we only got $700,000.”
Yet he continues trekking to Sacramento, filing complaints, and typing up e-mails in his busy living room.
“It’s a calling,” said Carol Dickson, an education programs consultant with the state. “You only give that much effort to something if you feel it’s your purpose.”
Update: The original version of this story stated that Page had led his committee for six years. It’s hard to remember after a while: Page later realized it had been more than seven years.