Uploaded: Wed, May 23, 2012, 1:43 am
School board calls special meeting on Brown Act
May 31 study session follows allegations of possible violation of state's open meeting law
California's open meeting law will be the subject of a Board of Education study session following allegations that the board may have violated the statute.
A legal adviser will be on hand to answer questions at the Thursday, May 31 meeting, called in response to a letter from Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson stating that weekly confidential memos from Superintendent Kevin Skelly to board members may have led to a violation of the law, known as the Brown Act.
Skelly said Tuesday he does not believe the confidential updates -- which he said he has provided virtually every week in his five years as superintendent -- have led to any violation of the law.
Related story: Weekly calls for halt to confidential school board memos
In a four-page letter to the board May 14, Johnson said it was "clear that the very purpose of (the confidential memos) has been to exclude the public" and that an April 20 memo, which included Skelly's comments about the high school counseling system at Gunn High School, "conveys the thinking and potential actions of district administrators on a subject (counseling) on which you are in the midst of formulating policy."
In the memo Skelly invited trustees to discuss this "sensitive" issue with him further if they desired.
The Brown Act prohibits the majority of members of an elected body from using "a series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject jurisdiction of the legislative body."
Johnson's letter cited the California state Attorney General's Brown Act handbook, which strongly cautions against confidential communications.
Skelly said Tuesday the school district's legal counsel corroborated his view that the confidential updates are not a Brown Act violation.
"While I believe that there are solid, appropriate reasons for this type of communication, the board, district staff members and I have always known that the great majority of these weekly communications are public records and, as such, are fully open to public scrutiny should they be requested," Skelly said in a statement read aloud at a Board of Education meeting.
"At no time has there been any attempt to keep information from the public or prevent those who inquired about information from receiving it."
That view was disputed by several parent speakers at Tuesday's board meeting, who said an April 6 memo and the subsequent April 20 memo "made it clear the superintendent was going in a different direction" on the counseling issue than had been instructed by the board in a March 27 public meeting.
Parent Ken Dauber called on board members to "restate your commitment" for Gunn to move toward a counseling model similar to the "teacher advisory" model used at Paly a commitment Dauber said had been reflected in board comments at the March 27 meeting.
Dauber is cofounder of a parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has lobbied the board for more than a year to implement a Paly-style teacher advisory system at Gunn.
"We have a broken process in which the private process has diverged from the public process," Dauber told the board Tuesday.
Skelly said his staff is working to fulfill nine Public Records Act requests received since April 23 on issues related to confidential memos and high-school guidance counseling.
The requests have come from Dauber, Dauber's wife Michele Dauber, Johnson and Jen Nowell of the Palo Alto Daily Post.
"These documents and the requests are of interest to the larger community," Skelly said, adding that the district has posted them on its website.
The May 31 meeting on the Brown Act, which will be recorded, begins at 1 p.m. in Conference Room A of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.
Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 24, 2012 at 8:09 am
@ Tired of inaccurate claims of inequity
Thank you for your post, since it states clearly and calmly one of the most persistent myths around this issue and gives me the opportunity to respond to it. To restate, you are claiming that the difference in effectiveness of counseling services between the two schools is not due to a difference in delivery models (that is, teacher advisory at Paly and a traditional guidance model at Gunn), but to a choice at Gunn to spend less on counseling and more on classroom teacher, specifically on smaller class sizes. When we look at both counseling services and class sizes, we can see that there is no overall service gap between the two high schools. (For a quick picture of the service gap that we're talking about, see the counseling survey data at Web Link, and for more detail, see Web Link).
I'll briefly outline my response before going into detail. The class size argument is incorrect because (1) class sizes don't vary substantially between Gunn and Paly, and reflect curriculum decisions rather than funding differences (2) the difference in the cost of guidance between the two high schools is quite small, and shifting those funds to guidance at Gunn would not produce an equally effective guidance system, (3) the idea that there is a strict tradeoff between classroom teaching and guidance services in the budget misunderstands how budgeting works, and (4) teacher advisory results in a more efficient expenditure of guidance funds than a traditional counseling model. Overall, then, the important difference between Paly and Gunn isn't that Paly is buying more guidance services, it's that Paly is spending its guidance dollars on a more effective and efficient guidance model.
First, class sizes at Gunn and Paly differ by approximately 1 student, or around 3%. I looked at class sizes at Gunn and Paly using data available from the California Department of Education, at Web Link. For the 2010-2011 school year (the most recent available), the average class size at Gunn was 29 and at Paly was 30. (I eliminated classes with 10 or fewer students for this calculation to capture regular classroom periods. Relaxing the size assumption produces the same 1-student difference but slightly smaller average class sizes). Restricting the analysis only to classes with more than 10 students that are A-G certified (that is, that count towards UC/CSU entrance requirements), yields the same result. It's worth noting that there are 403 such class sections at Paly, and 407 at Gunn, a difference of four sections or less than 1 teacher.
Including all A-G certified classes, including very small classes with 10 or fewer students, does result in a class size difference between Gunn and Paly of 2 students (25 students per class at Gunn, 27 at Paly). There are 60 sections at Paly of A-G certified courses with 10 or fewer students, and 68 at Gunn. However, the average class size in those small classes at Paly is 2 students and at Gunn is 4 students. That suggests that both schools are probably overinvesting in very small classes, that Gunn is investing more in these classes, and that Paly in particular could reduce its overall class size by shifting teaching resources from underutilized classes to oversubscribed ones.
In short, class sizes and teacher FTEs applied to teaching don't differ substantially between the two high schools, and the evidence suggests that the differences in class size that do exist could probably be addressed most directly by curriculum adjustments to allocate teachers to classes with more demand.
Second, the difference in the cost of guidance between the two high schools is quite small, according to PAUSD data. The consultant's report on counseling (available at Web Link). That report, which draws on detailed financial data from district staff and which was reviewed by the district before its release, finds a total guidance cost for Paly of $1,522,536, and for Gunn of $1,213,086, for a difference of $309,450 (see p. 16 of the report). However, in conversation with Gunn staff Katya Villalobos and Tom Jacoubowsky at the Board meeting where the consultant's report was discussed, I learned that the Gunn figure doesn't include at least one guidance item, the stipends for teachers participating in the Titan 101 advisory program for freshman, so the actual difference is smaller by around $30,000, producing an overall difference of approximately $280,000. Even that difference includes a new guidance counselor hired this year at Paly with PiE money, yielding a difference in district funds between the two schools of approximately $200,000. Applying that sum to the counseling model in use at Gunn would increase the number of guidance counselors from 6 to 8. There is no reason to believe that that modest a change would erase the differences between the two schools, when Paly is able to deploy more than 50 adults in guidance roles. (Superintendent Skelly's confidential April 20 memo to the Board advocated exactly this change, adding two counselors at Gunn. Ironically, if the guidance/class-size tradeoff argument were correct Skelly's suggestion would trigger all of the bad consequences for class sizes that using a traditional guidance model is supposed to avoid).
Third, the idea that there is a strict tradeoff between classroom teaching and guidance services in the budget misunderstands how budgeting works. If Gunn chose to spend more on guidance services, we would have to believe that the lowest priority expenditure that could be cut would be classroom teaching. The fact that teachers would fill guidance roles doesn't preclude shifting funds from some other expenditure category to teaching to compensate for the time those teachers would spend on being teacher advisors. In a $160 million district budget, it's impossible to believe that the lowest priority expenditure is classroom teaching at Gunn. Pretending that the only place to cut funds is a popular program is a classic tactic -- you can have prenatal care, but you'll have to lose Meals on Wheels for grandma. Do you want to starve grandma? But we don't have to starve grandma. In fact, the Board at its meeting on Tuesday night explicitly told district staff not to consider any incremental cost because they will be able to find funds elsewhere in the budget from lower priority items to meet any funding needs arising out of a shift to teacher advisory at Gunn.
Fourth, teacher advisory results in a more efficient expenditure of guidance funds than a traditional counseling model. The use of stipends rather than release periods for freshman teacher advisors at Paly results in a lower per-FTE cost at Paly of approximately $13,000, which means that Paly provides 6.5 more FTEs of guidance services for an additional investment of approximately $280,000, as noted above (see also the consultant's report, at p. 16).
As this analysis demonstrates, the counseling service gap between Paly and Gunn is due to the use of a teacher advisory model at Paly and a traditional advisory model at Gunn, not to a funding allocation decision. That's because a teacher advisory model isn't about spending more dollars on guidance, it's about spending those dollars more wisely -- in a way that puts multiple adults in guidance roles with students, that produces many more touchpoints between the guidance system and students, and that uses a division of labor among teachers, guidance counselors, and college counselors to increase their individual effectiveness. The idea that we need to have a less effective guidance system at Gunn in order to support smaller class sizes isn't true. The funding difference between the two guidance models is small, class sizes at the high schools are not substantially different, and in any case could be more directly and profitably addressed by adjusting the curriculum to better meet student demand for courses.
Given the foregoing, it's truly unfortunate that this supposed tradeoff is so often repeated by district staff, including by Superintendent Skelly and Katya Villalobos in an email to the entire Gunn parent community on May 5.