Education

Monday Q&A: Stanislaus County Office of Education tackles toughest school problems

Deputy Superintendent Don Gatti, who runs the business side of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, checks figures in a memo in his Modesto office last month.
Deputy Superintendent Don Gatti, who runs the business side of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, checks figures in a memo in his Modesto office last month. naustin@modbee.com

School district budgets and reserves. Payroll deductions. Teacher credentials. Test data analysis. Fiber-optic trunk lines. Expelled students. Jailed students. Truants. Kids with severe disabilities.

Still reading? Give yourself a pat on the back. These are not popular topics.

They are, however, the underpinnings of running schools, the background hum that keeps classroom lights on, the lessons on track and the decks cleared after a storm. These services fall to county offices of education, created to provide school administrative expertise and oversight, and special focus for intractable problems.

County offices serve as the state’s boots on the ground, collecting reports, watching finances, stepping in to help districts with low test scores, assess beginning teachers and get chronically absent students to school. If districts consolidate, split into election districts or swap territory, the county office provides the process to make that happen.

They also provide interim schooling, focused on a fresh start, for kids kicked out of their neighborhood school or staying in juvenile hall.

The county superintendent sits at the helm and in the spotlight. Tom Changnon is the elected head of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, with its 950 employees. But behind the scenes, in this largely behind-the-scenes agency, toils the business office: part state watchtower over school district finances, part bill minder over county office divisions.

Head of the business office here is Deputy Superintendent Don Gatti. The Modesto Bee caught up with him during schools’ winter break, asking him to give a thumbnail sketch of what the county office does.

Gatti started out as a Bay Area banker, moving to the business side of education at the urging of his father, then a school district superintendent. He worked his way up through the ranks at several Bay Area districts before coming to Stanislaus County 12 years ago. That background in finance and as a school district chief business official serves him well in this job, Gatti said. “I understand CBOs. I get what they’re up against and the obstacles they face, and a lot of times we can help with that,” he said.

Q: Every California county has an office of education. Why are they needed and what do they do?

A: County offices are a conduit to the state for the districts and our county schools. We interact with the Department of Education and meet on a monthly basis with state leaders in finance, curriculum and instruction, human resources, all those things.

Each division of SCOE holds meetings with district counterparts, talking about the hot topics they need to be aware of and be reacting to. I meet with the CBOs and their higher-level accounting folks. Then I take what I hear from the field and share that with the staff and policymakers (at the state level) so they understand the impact of policies they make.

Our special education classes serve those students whose needs are more than most districts can provide. We have special programs for the severely emotionally disturbed, deaf and hard of hearing, multiply handicapped. Going back decades, we have served those students.

Then we have our court and community schools. We serve kids incarcerated in juvenile hall, and our community school students are referred to us because are expelled or are going to be expelled. We have created some really cool schools, the Stanislaus Military Academy, the culinary school in Oakdale. We’re positioned to create those programs that help kids who are struggling at their home campus.

Q: Every county offers its own mix of services. What does Stanislaus County do differently?

A: We really accentuate the positive and go out of our way to recognize our staff, even through the lean times. We met with (California Legislative Analyst) Mac Taylor this fall and during a debriefing session he told us, “We’ve traveled to a lot of county offices, and while they all do a lot of the same things, you guys seem to do more.” I think we are unique in the way we do things.

We have our outdoor education facility where kids go to sixth-grade science camp, Foothill Horizons. We also administer a large Head Start program. We serve about 6,500 kids and operate in seven counties. At one point, we were the second-largest provider west of the Mississippi.

Teachers can get special education credentials through us. We also have charter schools: Valley Charter High, where kids have the chance to take college courses while in high school, and Come Back Kids, which is just exploding, our second-chance school (for dropouts to get a diploma).

Our sub service finds substitutes; we do that for districts throughout the county. We oversee and audit all of payroll for all of the districts, making sure they pay the taxes and retirement, the benefits.

We connect districts to the Internet through fiber-optic lines. We do the filtering. We maintain the computers for many districts. The other thing we’re very involved with is school safety. We certainly understand after the Sandy Hooks (school shootings) we are in a different world and we need to prepare for that.

Q: Common Core and budget reform have made this a huge transition year for schools. What help has the county office offered in both areas?

A: Hundreds of teachers are getting professional development and help with converting lesson plans to Common Core. We’ve worked hard to bring in content experts who are really engaging.

We’re in year two of LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula), which is the single-biggest reform effort to school finance in 40 years. This ties development of budgets to development of the educational plan. It’s creating long-term plans that make systemic change.

This is our second year, and we’re going to get better at doing it and in our role as a county office. But we will have a bigger role on the instructional side of the house. As we begin to see increased student achievement through the Smarter Balanced (Assessment Consortium) test, where there are districts that are not seeing that increase, there will be interventions.

Q: Denair Unified’s brush with insolvency put your office’s fiscal oversight duties in the headlines. How did your office work with the district to get it back on its budgetary feet?

A: We do review and comment on district budgets. That all started in the 1980s and ’90s, when the Richmond School District went bankrupt. That led to AB 1200 and all the budget oversight.

Denair is our latest success story. We helped Salida and Riverbank when they had their troubles, and then Denair. We work collegially with boards and staff of those districts. We don’t come in heavy-handed. We leave them to be on their own. But when they can’t get it done on their own, we’re there.

Q: Stanislaus County has 26 school districts, ranging from nearly 30,000 students to less than 100. Some are so tiny they have only one administrator. How does the county office help out its smaller districts?

A: Our larger districts in the county, who have staff with experience in their areas, work independently. For six districts, we do administrative services – we provide their accounting, payroll and HR services.

Q: What are three key things the community should know about county offices of education?

A: I think first is all the support we give to the districts. One aspect of that is having key people in Sacramento meeting with policy leaders.

Second is all the specialized programs we run. We’re not competing with districts, but serving populations of students who have unique needs.

Third are the initiatives that the county superintendent runs that tackle the wider problems. We had Every Day Counts for attendance. There was Choose Civility, Fit for the Future. Now we’re doing Destination Graduation to raise graduation rates. Tom’s a positive guy, and it makes a huge difference.”

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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