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Dilemma For Alameda Schools

by Dennis Green

Current Superintendent of the Alameda Unified School District, Kirsten Vital, is energetic, engaging, bright and very articulate. But she also faces an almost impossible situation.

She has inherited a district plagued by declining enrollment, at least one underperforming school which may go charter, a teaching staff with iron-clad job security, a recent parcel tax (Measure H) challenged in the courts, and state takeaways of funding. What is a superintendent to do?

Well, a new ballot measure is in the early planning stages, one which will ask Alameda property owners to assess themselves a new school parcel tax substantially higher than school tax Measures A & H combined, perhaps as much as $1,000 per property per year, (and if it passes, replacing them), and one that might also be in place much longer, perhaps in near-perpetuity. It will likely exempt seniors, (using a short, unpublicized window for opt-out), but may include landlords, so that renters will also help support the local schools.

Following Base Closure and the refurbishment of the Harbor Island Apartment complex, AUSD enrollment declined between 1996-2006 by nearly 900 students, which would ordinarily mean layoffs of 30-45 teachers. Projections show that until the completion and sale of substantial new housing at Alameda Point, now quite uncertain, enrollment will continue to decline.

Ordinarily, some attrition in the teaching ranks would help soften the resulting funding losses, but many Alameda teachers are younger, the Boomer Generation over 60 in a minority. AUSD has 554.5 teachers / counselors, with 15 first year teachers and 68 (8%) at the top of the salary scale with 27 years. Only 28% have 21-27 years of experience.

Moreover, teachers hired into the district from elsewhere, who would in many districts be set back in the pay scale to a cap equivalent of eight-ten years experience, are in Alameda instead given full credit for years taught. A teacher coming here, say, from San Leandro with 18 years experience is given credit on the pay scale for all 18 years, at a much higher pay rate than transfers into many California school districts.

Class size is also a thorny issue. For example, in the AEA contract, class size reduction legislation allows for an average district-wide class size in K-3 of 20.1. Changing these class sizes has to be negotiated with the teachers’ union.

Some cynics say that such legislation is a strategy by teachers unions to counter declining enrollment, and there is little evidence that such reductions improve outcomes.

So declining enrollments do not equal teaching vacancies.

Superintendent Vital is pursuing many economies, paring down non-teaching staff and looking at various partnerships with Alameda City departments, such as innovative uses of city parks. But such economies don’t begin to make up for funding shortfalls.

Closing or consolidating schools is not necessarily a wise option, because closing a school can result in enrollment flight to private schools, canceling out any cost savings in the process.

The necessity of new funding for AUSD is apparent, but the terms of that new funding are still under consideration. What exactly, in other words, will earn voters’ approval?

For the coming parcel tax proposal, timing and strategy are critical. It may go before the voters as early as June, 2010, or as late as November, 2011. It will almost certainly present a “Heads I win, Tails you lose” strategy, whereby failure of the new parcel tax will keep Measures A & H in place.

And while the campaign for Measure H threatened the loss of music and sports programs and featured glossy mailers and lawn signs displaying trash cans and the motto, “Don’t throw our Schoolchildren in the trash!” the next campaign will likely be more substantive and less gut-wrenching. More sober and economically difficult times call for a different approach.

3 comments to Dilemma For Alameda Schools

  • A Property Owner

    Better start looking for other ways to fund school districts such as closing schools, closing “optional” programs such as ROP, JROTC, sports, music, salary cuts for ALL employees from the Superintendent down…… not put the burden of your financial woes on property owners.

  • Concerned

    I agree with the above comments. In these tough economic times, everybody has to tighten their belts. For example, music is a “luxury” item that can be taught to children privately. All salaries and benefits of district personell should be reviewed and cuts made across the board. This would provide the revenue that you say you so desperately need. Please do not use “the children” as a shield for your agenda.

  • Write your state assembly/senate members and tell them to push back on the California Redevelopment Agency and their lawsuits to stop the state legislature from redirecting redevelopment agency money – which is used to subsidize land development – back to the schools. There’s a lot of money available – around $10 billion of property taxes per year in California goes to redevelopment agencies – it’s just in the wrong hands.

    The Honorable Loni Hancock
    Senator, 9th District
    Term Expires: 12/2012
    State Capitol, Room 4061
    Sacramento, CA 95814
    Office: (916) 651-4009
    Fax: (916) 327-1997

    District Office:
    1515 Clay St., Suite 2202
    Oakland, CA 94612
    (510) 286-1333
    FAX (510) 286 3885

    Sandre Swanson
    State of California, 16th District
    Term Expires: 12/2010
    State Capitol, Room 4098
    Sacramento, CA 95814
    Office: (916)319-2016
    Fax: (916) 319-2116

    Oakland/Alameda/Piedmont Office
    1515 Clay St., Suite 2204
    Oakland, CA 94612
    (510) 286-1670
    FAX (510) 286-1888