Safety, religion class, money on Modesto City Schools board agenda

naustin@modbee.comFebruary 2, 2014 

— Campus safety, the district’s course on world religions and money matters will be discussed at the Modesto City Schools board meeting tonight.

An overview of safety improvements made in 2013 outlines background work now in place in an agenda report. Updated school safety plans now use identical language and formats, with campus maps and building blueprints available on a secure website for emergency use.

Shelter-in-place scenarios join age-old fire drills as school practice runs. Classrooms have flip charts with emergency information and better locks. Parent cellphone information and a texting service can get critical information out faster.

Employees participated in an active-shooter exercise with law enforcement. Campus supervisors have gotten new focus as the front line of school defense, with 37 hours of training and easy-to-spot vests.

Day-to-day safety issues also got attention, with more security cameras and training on bullying for staff and students. A change in school discipline policies shifted priority to prevention and a quick, early response. More counseling is available.

A new District Emergency Operations Committee will keep an eye on safety issues going forward. The report notes campuses today have to be ready for lockdowns, evacuations, medical emergencies, weather events, earthquakes, intruder-hostage situations, bomb scares, aircraft or vehicle crashes, student unrest and neighborhood disruptions.

World course

From those grim realities, the agenda shifts to more cerebral matters with a review of the World Geography and World Religions course adopted as a high school graduation requirement by the district 14 years ago. In 2000, Modesto was the only California district requiring a course on comparative religions. The course drew national attention in the months following Sept. 11.

The course and Modesto’s Day of Respect grew out of a painful chapter in district history. In the mid-1990s, a policy by then-Superintendent Jim Enochs to protect gay students from harm and harassment drew fire from conservative Christians. A 115-member community Safe Schools Committee met for 14 months, presenting in 1998 a set of principles affirming respect for all and a compromise allowing gay and lesbian clubs on campus, but requiring parent permission to join.

Today, the one-semester course starts with geography, covering population shifts, trade, the spread of ideas and regional identity. The second quarter starts with the First Amendment and religious liberty, then examines origin, location, culture and history of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Confucianism.

Guidelines say the course must be taught “in an environment free of advocacy” for or against any religion.

Talking dollars

In money matters, the board will be asked to approve a spending plan for $6 million to implement Common Core State Standards over two years. Upgrading the technology infrastructure to meet online testing requirements tops the list, followed by buying more computers and software. Training teachers and buying materials round out the list.

An update on next year’s revenue projection shows the district expecting more than earlier projections, but an estimated total was not provided in agenda materials by Chief Budget Official Julie Chapin.

The item notes schools, which had nearly a quarter of their funding withheld during the state’s fiscal crisis, will start to recoup that long-awaited revenue. In addition, the plan projects timely payments instead of the lengthy delays common through the recession, Chapin reports.

Board members will also be advised of updates to this year’s budget. Among the changes is a small note to increase salary and benefit costs by $37,009 “due to paid leave of absence.” It does not note which paid leave caused the increase. A routine personnel actions list on the agenda for approval lists 15 teachers and specialists being granted paid leaves ranging from two to 34 weeks. Another 19 support staff paid leaves are up for approval as well. No reason for any of the leaves is noted and the district does not comment on them. Past recipients responding to a Modesto Bee investigation said their lengthy leaves were for medical issues, and not all were fully paid despite being listed as such.

The largest change in the updated budget is a federal grant for low-income and neglected students of $904,815.

The board will also vote on a number of approvals to go out to bid:

• Beyer, Davis, Johansen and Modesto high schools would get refurbished athletic tracks and fields at an estimated cost of $860,000.

• Roof fixes are proposed for nine elementary schools, three junior highs and the career courses center on Reno Avenue, at a cost of about $500,000.

• Blacktop areas would be replaced at Beard, John Muir and Tuolumne elementary schools and La Loma Junior High, a projected cost of $1.6 million.

The Modesto City Schools Board will meet at 6 p.m. tonight in the district staff development center, 425 Locust St. See the agenda at www.bit.ly/MCSmeetings.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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