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GOLIS: For schools, hard times continue

By PETE GOLIS

As summer winds down, 71,000 local students are returning to the classroom. If you don’t care about their success, you should. As legions of local baby boomers count the days until retirement, the success of these kids will go a long way toward determining the quality of life in Sonoma County.

So, how are we doing?

“Our public education program is crippled,” Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steven Herrington told a radio interviewer in July. “…What we’re doing now is just keeping it on life support for the next couple of years.”

I asked Herrington last week whether he wished he had been less direct. “I meant financially crippled, and we’re just keeping it on financial life support,” he corrected.

Herrington has a tough job. By his own account, “my job is to sell public schools,” but he also must be an advocate for education — which means warning about the dangers posed by the relentless erosion of school resources.

In our conversation, he was quick to add: “Sonoma County has some of the best schools in California.” Seventy-five local schools have won the Distinguished School award, he noted, and 33 of those schools have won it more than once.

As students return to school, we are reminded of the damage being inflicted on what was once the finest system of public education in the world.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, a student group protested a state budget that translates into higher fees and fewer class choices at the same time. At Sonoma State University, President Ruben Armiñana told a campus convocation the school receives the same amount of state support it received a decade ago, while enrollment has grown by a thousand students.

By the numbers, things don’t look so different from a year ago in the county’s K-12 schools: 71,000 students, 200 elementary schools, 18 high schools, 35 charter schools, 40 districts. (Yes, Sonoma County still has 40 — count them, 40 — school districts.)

What’s different, Herrington said, is there are fewer teachers, librarians, school nurses, administrators, after-school programs, and reading and math tutors — “and not enough resources to keep the safety net in place.” This comes after years of spending cuts, affecting classroom size, adult education, libraries, counseling, transportation, supplies, maintenance and more. Schools continue to be hammered by declining state support, falling property tax revenues, and in many Sonoma County districts, shrinking enrollments that translate into even less state support.

And December could bring more bad news. If state revenues fail to keep pace with 2011-12 state budget forecasts, additional state cuts will affect every public school student from kindergarten to graduate school. The statewide community college system could lose another $30 million. Sonoma State alone could lose $2.3 million.

Meanwhile, K-12 schools would be compelled — again — to reduce the number of days children are engaged in learning.

Note what has happened here: When it was discovered that American kids weren’t matching the academic success of their counterparts in other nations, blue-ribbon commissions noted that students in other countries spend more time in the classroom. Trying to help California kids compete, the state mandated that students attend school 180 days a year.

Now all that is being thrown away. If the December budget trigger kicks in, many schools will be down to 167 instruction days, Herrington said. The state is also abandoning programs to reduce class size, another key indicator of student success.

Schools alone do not determine whether a youngster is successful. Success emerges from a combination of circumstances, including a stable family life, good nutrition, a safe and healthy neighborhood, health care, effective mentors and more.

If additional revenues were not one of the choices, I asked Herrington what is the one thing he would change about education today.

He thought a second and replied, “I would make sure every parent provided quality parent time with their child so they would all be readers by third grade . . . (the kids who are readers) will be successful in school.”

Third grade readers and drop-out rates are among the indicators used by Upstreams Investments, a countywide collaboration of public and private agencies that recognizes student success is everybody’s business. The latest figures from the Sonoma County Office of Education show that about 77 percent of Sonoma County students (and only 67 percent of Latino students) finish high school.

This is not good enough.

At the same time, we know that there will be no bursts of new money in the foreseeable future.

This is the hard part, isn’t it? Students, families, teachers, all of us are left to choose between resentment and moving forward as best we can.
If you’re a baby boomer, you might think about who’s going to pay for your Social Security, teach your grandkids, police your neighborhood and tend to your medical needs. We want these kids to grow up, get an education and find a job. We want these kids to be successful.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.





5 Responses to “GOLIS: For schools, hard times continue”

  1. Some Never Hear the Word says:

    The promise of the public schools in California and in Sonoma County has been squandered by schools boards and the teachers unions who politizing the education of our kids and spent our tax money on high salaries for administrators and teachers.

    What happened to the lottery monies? what happened to the all of the tax monies spent in the public schools while test scores fall and dropout rates continue to soar?

    Why do the public school teachers oppose charter schools? Why do teachers oppose all efforts to hold them accountable for teaching results?

    It is not hard to find the reasons for the failure of our public school system. The voters and taxpayers are not stupid. They understand what is happening and many are taking action to save the education of their children.

    They move, they transfer their kids to private schools and home schooling grows.

    Until major reform is completed with the bargaining power of the teachers unions removed, progress will not occur.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  2. Commonsense says:

    Mr. Golis,
    I have a question, in reviewing the past budgets for the state of California, the top three expenditures (by a fairly substantial amount) are Education (K-12 and Higher) and Health and Human Services. Education is about half of the budgeted expenditures (46,906 million) and Health and Human Services is itself almost the same amount (37,074 million). Together those two services make up far more then half of the state’s expenditures (83,980 million). How is spending even more in these two categories going to improve the educational system in this state?
    Why does an area the size of Sonoma County require 40 districts? How many administrators, teachers, others do those 40 districts employ?
    According to the 2010 california census, Sonoma County has about 106,471 people below the age of 18 (of which 28,199 are below the age of 5), which leaves around 78,272 between the ages of 5 and 18. That works out to about 1,956 students per district. Which works out to about 163 students per grade level for each class in each district. I’m well aware that number is quite fluid given the varience of age and location, but overall, it begs the question of how effectively is the money being spent? Given the amounts of money, number of students, number of districts and the general drop out rate and overall poor testing scores, it’s not being spent at effectively, yet the general tone of your article seems to be that we should throw even more money at it???? Really??? No thanks, money isn’t the answer here. A compete audit and revisions of the system is..

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 4

  3. joe right says:

    i always wonder why the schools getting about 43% of California’s revenue is not enough.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 6

  4. Money Grubber says:

    Yes, the school kids get the shaft with shorter class days, fewer supplies, restricted learning opportunities, and shorter school years.

    There is a concept in our world called “priority” and schools are a huge priority because the lay the basic foundation for all lives that pass through their doors.

    Now, on the other hand, there are luxuries. And although everyone likes a local park, parks are government luxuries.

    Given a choice of the two, the kids should be fully funded and the parks closed for a year or two or three. Park staff should be let go.

    Taxpayers don’t pay taxes just to support the local government lawn mower and bush trimmer when the kids are getting shortchanged.

    What about higher taxes? Nope. The government has proven it cannot handle the money they already get.

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  5. J.R. Wirth says:

    The problem is not how we fund public schools. The problem is that they’re public. You may as well be sending your kids to the DMV for an education. And they both smell the same, like urine and french fries.

    Nothing good in life has the word “public” in front of it….public restroom….public golf course….public transportation…public housing….

    The word “public” should be replaced with “mediocre at best and usually filthy.”

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