Public schools are facing enormous challenges. More kids than ever come to school from low-income homes. More kids want and need help learning English. Common Core is tougher, but for kids without a computer, or who haven’t mastered English, the testing is downright punitive. There’s a nationwide teacher shortage, fueled by near-constant criticism of their work.
Modesto City Schools and its 30,000 students face extra burdens. A report has identified some of them: enormous upgrades needed for the district’s 37 buildings; acrimonious relations between the district’s 1,600 teachers and its administration; disappointing test results; the fact that at least 70 percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Many people believe it’s the superintendent’s job to lead schools through such tremulous times. We think it’s the duty of the school board.
The Bee endorses Amy Neumann, Chad Brown and Steve Grenbeaux for Modesto City Schools Board of Trustees. They offer steady hands, excellent expertise and strong recognition of the most confounding issues. The elections are at-large, but Measure F, if it passes, would set in motion a shift to district elections.
Experience swayed us. Grenbeaux and Neumann are incumbents; Brown served on the Sylvan Union board. John P. Walker offered some insightful observations, but lacks the experience of other candidates. All four candidates said the right things; the key will be how much they can put into action.
Outdated facilities: Neumann said she “pushed hard” for the district to set aside $5 million a year for facilities improvements – which, after last week’s facilities review, looks like a drop in the proverbial bucket. What she termed a “monster list” includes $1 billion in facility upgrades and repairs. The report is too fresh to set priorities, said Grenbeaux and Brown, but it’s not too soon to suggest some radical rethinking of how the district uses and maintains its facilities.
All of the candidates noted stark disparities in facilities. For example, several generations separate the district’s newest high schools (Enochs and Gregori) from Modesto High. More important than making facilities equal, said Grenbeaux, is “the quality of the teachers and principals; that is what makes the quality of the school.” But Brown pointed out that the district’s facilities cannot “get in the way of learning.” Both are right.
Teaching English: MCS consolidated its English-immersion program to a single campus this year. Neumann defended the move, but Grenbeaux expressed reservations. He wants to see additional classes “where we have kids learning English.” Brown said he knows families who send their Spanish-speaking children to Riverbank schools because they prefer the programs there. We also worry that the award-winning Language Institute at Grace Davis High is not getting the support needed to carry out its mission. Neumann noted that MCS gets extra money from the state because of the high concentration of English learners, but worried about disappointing test results. “The numbers are the numbers, and they’re not OK,” she said. The first step in fixing something is recognizing the problem. She recommended developing personal education plans for English learners and suggested the board should push for such commitments; we agree.
School safety: Neumann decried too many cars moving too fast through school zones, endangering students of all ages; she said it was a communitywide issue. Grenbeaux said the concept of safety should be expanded to include health by increasing access to school nurses. Neumann spoke eloquently about understanding what it means to teach children who live in poverty, providing after-school programs and being able to “meet those kids where they’re at.”
Finances: Fitch Ratings gave MCS a positive AA bond rating, noting total reserves of $76 million and $56 million in unrestricted reserves. That’s a lot. The district also has had an operating surplus of roughly $1.4 million for four years in a row. All the candidates stressed the importance of strong reserves for keeping interest rates low when borrowing money – perhaps signaling an intent to float a bond measure. But parents might wonder why students haven’t been provided greater access to computers when all Common Core testing is done on them. Teachers will wonder why the district offers only a 4 percent raise when other districts are providing 6 percent or more. And voters might wonder if the buildings would need so much repair if more had been put into maintenance. Grenbeaux, a former teacher, said the district needs better pay packages to attract and retain all of its good employees – not just teachers.
Other topics came up, but one comment stood out: “You’ll never be good at anything if you don’t enjoy it,” said Walker, arguing that instruction needs to be more engaging and teaching more satisfying.
Schools are facing enormous challenges and difficult transitions over the next few years. Whoever is elected will need enthusiasm, dedication and fortitude to confront those problems and help overcome. They’re going to have to enjoy the work. We think Brown, Grenbeaux and Neumann have what it takes.