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San Diego Unified school board member Scott Barnett, I think, deserves a round of applause. Not necessarily because he proposed two tax increases but because he’s the first schools official I’ve seen to even try to conceive of a remotely realistic plan that would bring the district’s cash flow in line with its spending.
Someone like District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis can slam him all she wants. It’s very easy to say “Hell no!” to new taxes. The union can slam him all it wants, as well. It’s very easy to say teachers don’t want a pay cut.
What Barnett appears committed to is dealing with reality and confronting residents with the stark crisis at hand.
When he goes to residents asking for money, even if he can show that changes are taking place and others are sacrificing, he might meet with this response:
“No, Mr. Barnett. We are, actually, happy to pay more for our schools, which is why we are already paying more for schools.”
Across the district right now, schools are asking parents to donate a specific amount per student to keep their highly valued local schools afloat. This simultaneously makes them more willing to pay for schools and less likely to ever agree to increase their taxes.
A committee of parents at Bird Rock Elementary asked their peers for $1,000 per student per year. The money is going right to teachers to keep them on staff.
An email from the committee said it as succinctly as possible:
But simply put, an education of Bird Rock’s caliber is not at all “free.”
KPBS profiled Jerabek Elementary in Scripps Ranch, where parents were being asked to step up in much the same way.
In fact, schools had to scramble when the district laid off about 800 employees over the summer, many of the most well-off schools were able to hold on to their staff. Again, KPBS:
The number of full-time equivalent positions paid for with donations also rose at Bird Rock, EB Scripps, La Jolla, Loma Portal and Torrey Pines elementary schools and La Jolla High School.
I’ve often used the term “dissolving” to describe the city of San Diego. I mean it literally, as in a unit is disintegrating and dispersing because of a change in its environment.
In other words, if you care about a school, a park, a library, a lifeguard tower, a police patrol unit, and on and on, you have to find a way to raise money and pay for it yourself.
Across the wealthier areas of the district, parents are taking hold of what they care about. They’re forcing schools to appeal to them, to respond to them and to simply demonstrate they deserve more investment.
This may be heartwarming for those areas but it immediately raises concerns. Bernie Rhinerson, the district’s chief of staff, wrote off the most immediate concern of this: inequity. After all, what about the neighborhoods where handing over $1,000 per child is simply not fathomable to parents?
Rhinerson assured KPBS there was no inequity.
But inequity is just one concern. Rhinerson and the board have to realize they’re coming close to a point of no return. The more they let schools deteriorate, the more likely that engaged and affluent parents will take matters into their own hands.
The more they do this, the less receptive they’ll be to the need for a district-wide recovery.
The Bird Rock parents, for instance, would be a natural audience for the Scott Barnetts of the world pleading for more school funding. They’re obviously willing to pay more for education than just their property taxes.
But this willingness is being tapped by their local schools.
If they’re already insulating their own schools from the drastic cuts occurring and if Barnett can’t promise that they’ll get anything but the status quo from San Diego Unified even if they pay higher taxes, well, I can’t imagine they’ll give his idea much thought.
It’s not just wealthy donors either. San Diego Unified is watching a dramatic decrease in enrollment continue.
At the same time, enrollment in charter schools is up 141 percent since 2000. There’s at least some flight away from the centralized system occurring.
If anyone’s recovery plan or vision for the centralized school district includes simply demanding that residents pay more for public education, they’re going to run into those two problems.
First, the people most willing and able to pay more for education already are. They are donating more to keep their teachers in place. (Also, by the way, this would indicate that they don’t think that teachers get paid too much. They just want a quality school.)
Secondly, many of the parents most concerned about their neighborhood schools are seeking out charter schools instead. Why else is enrollment in them booming? Whatever they’re doing to communicate their attractiveness and benefits must be appreciated.
Barnett’s may not be the ideal recovery plan. And two tax increases that merely allow the district to tread water, does nothing to improve schools, provides few new facilities and leaves teachers feeling even more disrespect is not ideal.
But he rightly recognizes that something big needs to happen. Parents will need to be inspired by it, schools will need to improve because of it and the disintegration of San Diego Unified must be stopped. Otherwise, the chance at recovery will be lost entirely.
I’m Scott Lewis, the CEO of voiceofsandiego.org. Please contact me if you’d like at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!):
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