School funding

California consistently and drastically underfunds public education. There is really no excuse for it considering we are the 5th largest economy in the world and one of the most highly taxed states (the rare trifecta of having income, property and sales tax). Until just a couple of years ago, California ranked in the lowest of 20% of state funding on a per pupil basis. Recent funding increases helped with that some, but those increases have been negated by higher costs (especially in mandated contributions to shore up underfunded employee retirement programs) and the higher cost of living- a $70k salary goes a lot further in Arkansas than it does in the Bay Area.

Mt. Diablo has additional challenges based on being squarely in the middle- just below the threshold of low-income students to receive additional funding as part of the state’s Local Control Funding Formula and lacking a parcel tax that nearby districts (San Ramon, Acalanes, etc.) have in place. If you’d like a deeper dive and pretty graphs on CA education funding, I recommend this article.

You may have heard that MDUSD had a $90 million reserve but now the District is in financial trouble- let’s explore that. When I joined the Board in 2012, MDUSD teachers were second to last in the county in compensation. Even worse, teachers did not have medical benefits- their own union (MDEA) had negotiated that away in a previous contract. The result was that it was incredibly difficult for MDUSD to attract or retain teachers…. and nothing is more important to a great education than having great teachers.

Our Board prioritized raising compensation for all employees and restoring medical benefits for teachers. These were the same employees who had been hit with furloughs, layoffs, pay cuts and reduced hours during the budget crisis of 2008-2009. While the bargaining teams negotiated on the contracts, the budget reserve built up. The resulting multi-year agreements in 2014 were both retroactive and added new costs each year.

As a Board, we knew that the reserve would go down as we invested in our own employees. We had approximately 1,500 teachers at the time- increasing their compensation by an average of $10,000 (combination of salary and benefits) meant $15 million dollars annually. We catapulted teacher compensation from being second to last in the county to being in the top 5. Agreements with the other employee groups (bus drivers, custodians, office managers, etc.) resulted in equivalent yearly costs. That $30 million represents about 10% of MDUSD’s budget (using round numbers for simplicity).

In addition to employee benefits, the Board made investments in other areas to support students. These included reduced class sizes, the return of instrumental music, school counselors, support for high school and middle athletics, support for English Language Learners, reopening of Holbrook Elementary, creation of College Now and many more. A District receives funds to educate students, not to build a huge reserve while needs go unmet. I stand behind these decisions because I know they positively impacted the students of MDUSD.

In the Spring of 2019, then-Superintendent Nellie Meyer recommended $8.5 million in cuts for the Board to approve. These cuts were in response to a decline in enrollment (happy to discuss that in a future post)- when you have fewer students, you should have fewer staff. The Board approved the cuts that Dr. Meyer wisely recommended shortly before her departure from MDUSD.

While the Board votes on the budget, it relies upon the Superintendent and staff to implement it. In late 2019/early 2020, the Board and the public learned that the cuts that had been approved were not put in place. I wish I had a clear answer as to what happened, but I do not. The people who were responsible for this process are now no longer part of MDUSD. I take my share of responsibility for this and took action to help remedy the situation.

Because the $8.5 million in cuts did not occur, the Board essentially needed to double the size of the cuts for the following year. In our last in-person meeting before Covid hit, the Board stayed until almost 3 AM to make the needed $15 million in cuts. The public had the opportunity to weigh in on the reductions and that influenced where the cuts were made. It was a painful process, but it was necessary and it was completed.

In early March of 2020, MDUSD had a balanced budget and was in a position to ratify a new agreement with the teachers in addition to other employee groups. There were going to potentially be more cuts needed in future years, but the work had already begun to identify those.

Then came the pandemic. Covid and the resulting massive projected cuts to the state education budget were not something anyone had foreseen. But it was really the culmination of decades of neglect for the funding of education in California.

If you want MDUSD to pay teachers more, have smaller class sizes, provide more enrichment programs like instrumental music and a multitude of other things, the District requires additional funds. There is no bucket of untapped money or some magical solution- it is a simple question of math.

What we know about MDUSD reopening

We know that millions of US school children, from Alaska to Florida, from Hawaii to Maine, have returned to the classroom.

We know that there is overwhelming support from medical officials and organizations for returning to children to the classroom.

We know that there is now a vast amount of scientific data suggesting that reopening school campuses can be done very safely.

We know that not a single person under the age of 18 has died from Covid in Contra Costa County (over one million people).

We know that every employee of MDUSD has had the opportunity to receive at least the first dose of the vaccine.

We know that with the first shot of the vaccine there is a high degree of efficacy almost immediately.

We know that MDUSD has spent millions of dollars on acquiring PPE, upgrading ventilation and improving facilities.

We know that waiting for the eradication of Covid or waiting for every piece of equipment in the MDUSD to be upgraded would be measured in years.

We know that thousands of employees and families are prepared to do everything possible to make sure that teachers, staff and students are safe when they return.

We know that California has been one of the slowest states to return students to the classroom.

We know that MDUSD has proposed an incredibly conservative (and too conservative for many of us) plan that has a small number of students alternating days for two hours per day. That is literally the most conservative reopening plan that can be found in California and probably the nation.

We know that many teachers have been working harder than ever and have done every thing they could to make Zoom learning work. A large number of those teachers want to be back in the classroom with their students.

We know that MDUSD students have been out of their classrooms for one year and that it is negatively impacting many of them.

We know the mission of public education is to do what is best for students.

We know that it is time to get them safely back in the classrooms.

Swing and a miss by the teachers union

After viewing the recent video (viewable here) by MDEA President Anita Johnson, there are a few things that jump out. She uses words such as immoral, illegal and hazardous to describe the District’s efforts to return students to campus but other words are missing from her video- students, education and families to name a few. Now the teachers union is not tasked with representing students or families- they represent teachers. But without students, you have no need for teachers or a teachers union.

This community has consistently and vigorously supported teachers and public education. Thousands of parents are standing by to assist teachers in safely returning to the classroom. Families are purchasing equipment for classrooms, finding vaccination times for employees and doing anything else they can to help with the return. If MDEA has reasonable requests that need support in order to reach an agreement with the District, now would be the time to share them with the public. The demands that MDEA has shared to date have been extreme and do not seem to be supported by any medical authority or organization.

Nobody thinks that reopening is easy and without challenges. Many of us pushed to get teachers and other school staff prioritized for vaccinations precisely because we want to keep them safe. There are very real disparities in school facilities that need to be addressed- we cannot just have the affluent schools be ready to open. Every classroom needs to have proper sanitation and safety equipment. MDUSD needs to prove that it has a comprehensive plan to protect everyone who returns to campus. These are items that the District, the unions and the community should be rallying around and working on together.

Instead it appears that MDEA is ignoring the opportunity to garner community support for a safe reopening and choosing to appear intractable and unreasonable. When I read the talking points memo that MDEA has distributed to teachers as a guideline for public comment at the Board meeting, it seems incredibly out of touch with the very real concerns of so many families in this area. There is zero indication of a commitment to reach a MOU in the near future. It also fails to acknowledge the teachers who are eager to return to the classroom and want to do their part in a safe reopening.

This sure seems to be a massive miscalculation on the part of MDEA and it could have very negative consequences for MDUSD.

How Martinez USD got kids back in the classroom

Board Member Courtney Masella-O’Brien rejoins me to discuss how Martinez reached agreement with their unions and will be returning students to the classroom this week. Martinez is a smaller (4k students) District, but with demographics similar to MDUSD. The first school districts to return to the classroom in California were the whiter and more affluent ones, but we are now seeing a broader array reach agreements to go back.

Check out the podcast.

Don’t trip

I support our wonderful teachers in MDUSD. I support unions. I don’t support the teachers union when they make a ridiculous demand.

Since the spring, my mission has been to safely return students to the classroom at the appropriate time, guided by science and medical experts. Check out the archives here and on my MDUSD Facebook page. I’ve got receipts.

Stay safe. Be kind. Wear a mask. Focus on helping kids.

Open letter to MDEA

Dear Anita, Dan and Linda,

Thank you for your efforts on behalf of the teachers of MDUSD. I’m sure that you are as delighted as I am to see so many of our wonderful teachers and school staff receiving the Covid vaccine in recent days. 

My hope and optimism is muted by the fact that MDEA appears to have taken an uncompromising position around the health metrics required to return students to the classroom. MDEA’s seeming intransigence on this issue would make it impossible for students to return to MDUSD classrooms this calendar year and perhaps not until 2023 or 2024. 

In particular, it is item #3 in MDEA’s Resolution on a Path to Reopening that I am struggling to comprehend: Fewer than seven new cases per day per 100,000 people for 21 consecutive days in each of the following communities: Bay Point, Clayton, Concord, Martinez, Pacheco, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, and Walnut Creek.

Seemingly this would mean that if a single resident of a city with a population below 14,000 residents (such as Pachecho or Clayton) tested positive for Covid during a 21 day period, then all MDUSD campuses would remain closed to students.

This leads me to several questions.

1.  Am I understanding this correctly?

2. If I am correct, why is MDEA negotiating with the District about students returning when there is no conceivable way that this requirement would allow them to return? 

3. How did MDEA develop this criteria? 

4.  Which medical experts or organizations did MDEA rely upon to create the proposed criteria?

5. If MDUSD teachers will not be back in the classroom in 2021, what is the rationale for prioritizing them for vaccination? 

I thank you in advance for consideration of my questions. Since these are questions that many families are asking, please consider your response to be for public consumption.

Best regards,

Brian Lawrence

MDUSD Parent and former MDUSD Board President

Women of color

I’m fortunate to have had an array of intelligent, charismatic guests join me on the NoJibberJabber podcast. I’ve learned something in every single one of the conversations and I’m grateful that my guests have taken the time to talk with me. I’m certainly not a trained journalist and my goal is not to blindside people with belligerent questions. I attempt to find common ground with people even when we have broader ideological disagreements. Generally the response from listeners and viewers is appreciative and understanding of my approach.

Except when it comes to women of color.

The response to them has been different. It has been appalling. It has been eye-opening.

MDUSD Board Member Keisha Nzewi and SFUSD Board President Gabriela Lopez in particular stirred up some disgusting reactions. I’ve never met either of them in person, but they were both warm, charming, thoughtful and confident.

They both made me think deeper about issues and challenge my own assumptions. President Lopez and I talked about the SF renaming their schools. I don’t think the timing is great and maybe naming them after people in general is a bad idea. I do think Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents…but I’m open to hearing a different perspective about his legacy.

Trustee Nzewi has major concerns about returning students of color to campus. I think it is really important to get those kids back in school because of the learning loss that they have suffered. But I live in an affluent, largely white suburban neighborhood and have a lot of affluent, white male friends. Seems like a good idea for me to consider different perspectives.

Here we are in 2021 and strong women of color sure do seem to scare a few people. That says a lot more about the people who are scared then it does about the women who scare them.

Will the teachers union allow kids back in school this year?

In MDUSD, the return to the classroom has boiled down to one question- will the teachers union allow kids back in school this year? Superintendent Dr. Clark clearly stated his determination to have a hybrid agreement in place by March 15th. MDEA President Anita Johnson has just as clearly stated that MDEA is not working under any particular timeline. She also indicates that even though the negotiated MOU has already reached 50 pages (compared to 15 pages or less for many districts that have already reached agreements), there is no end in sight. MDEA has publicly stated that hundreds of protocols must be negotiated before an agreement will be reached. Furthermore, MDEA has a proposed threshold for reopening that would mean kids will not be back in the classroom this school year, this calendar year and very possibly until 2023 or beyond. To me, that is unfathomable and unacceptable.

If MDEA is truly committed to a near-term return of students to the classroom, then they should clearly state that. They could certainly agree to the March 15th date as well and identify that additional negotiation days are needed to make that happen.

I don’t take the return to campus lightly- and I certainly never did as the President of the MDUSD Board. On March 10th of last year, I informed our then Superintendent that he needed to have a plan to shut down our schools to keep our students and staff safe. When he failed to act, I let him know on March 12th that I was calling a Special meeting to close schools.

After our task forces developed plans over the summer to return to campus, we saw Covid cases begin to rise. I came out early and said we would most likely need to start the year in complete Distance Learning- this was shortly before the Governor mandated that just about every District in the state do so.

Once Districts had the ability to reopen in the fall, MDUSD took a deliberate approach. Dr. Clark, with the full support of the entire Board, recommended a plan that would start hybrid learning in January, after the holidays to make sure there was not a community surge. When there was a spike in December, MDUSD again pushed back the reopening date. Certainly there were people who wanted the reopening to happen much faster, but it seems impossible to argue that MDUSD took anything other than a safety first approach.

We are now in a much different place than we were just a couple of months ago. Highly effective vaccines are now available- teachers and staff are being vaccinated as I write this. The CDC has come out with clear guidelines for how schools can safely reopen. Other Districts are in the process of returning to campus in the Bay Area. I am not aware of a single prominent medical authority in the United States (Dr. Fauci, Dr. Ghaly, Contra Costa’s Dr. Farnitano, the CDC, the AMA, the AAP, etc.) that is recommending against the reopening of schools. In fact, they all seem to be proponents of a thoughtful, careful reopening of school campuses.

You often hear about decision making being guided by science. I’m not a scientist. Dr. Clark is not a scientist. None of the current Board members are scientists. We relied upon the guidance of federal, state and county guidelines. I do not know where MDEA came up with their guidelines or if they have cited any science official or organization that they are relying upon. To me, the idea that one person testing positive in a city in MDUSD could then prevent all MDUSD schools to be closed to in-person learning strikes me as absurd.

We should also be guided by the fact that in the year that we have been battling Covid, thankfully not a single person under the age of 18 in Contra Costa County (population over a million) has died from it. This does not mean we discount the potential long-term impacts of the disease, but it is certainly reassuring compared to our fears when the outbreak began.

Dozens of teachers and staff members have shared with me that they want to be back in the classroom with their students. They recognize that there are risks but I believe they are making an informed and educated decision. Nobody is talking about doing this in reckless or haphazard way.

This is a complex situation and it is an arduous process. In just the last few weeks, I’ve had conversations with MDUSD Superintendent Clark, MDUSD Board member Keisha Nzewi, CTA rep Dan Reynolds, SFUSD President Gabriela Lopez and Contra Costa Costa Supervisor Karen Mitchoff and published them on my NoJibberJabber website. They all had a different perspective and I learned something in each conversation.

There is zero dispute that Covid has impacted parts of our community differently. Families of color and lower income families have seen more economic hardship while also having higher rates of infection and death from Covid. That is awful, it is something we must acknowledge and it is something we must work to remedy. Many children in those families, however, are the ones who are suffering the most with distance learning due to lack of structure, support and equipment. For many of those children, school is the safest and most nurturing place they can be right now.

This isn’t about helping parents who want babysitters for their kids so they can go to yoga class and smoke weed. The comments to that effect by the Board Members in Oakley were disgusting and they were also flat out untrue for many of the families I know who are looking to return their children to a classroom.

If MDUSD and MDEA cannot reach an agreement in time to get kids back in the classroom soon (or, in the case of middle and high school- when it is permitted with the county’s move to the red tier), thousands of students are going to permanently leave this District. That should be a giant concern to everyone who is a supporter of public education. The loss of those students will mean massive layoffs of teachers and staff, slashing of programs and the closing of neighborhood schools.

The job of the teachers’ union is to represent teachers, not children. But it is the job of every single person employed by the school District to do what is best for students. And right now, MDEA and MDUSD need to make that happen.

SFUSD President Gabriela Lopez and Contra Costa Supervisor Karen Mitchoff

San Francisco schools have it all going on right now- trying to get kids back in the classroom, being sued by the City Attorney, an antagonistic relationship with Mayor London Breed, renaming schools- the list goes on. Gabriela Lopez became President of the Board last month and she is not backing down at all.

Here in the East Bay, Contra Costa is working to get people vaccinated and reopen businesses. Supervisor Karen Mitchoff shared some unfiltered opinions on Governor Newsom, Mayor Breed and Contra Costa’s own District Attorney Diane Becton.

You can check out the podcast here.