New Bell Schedule at Gunn, Homework, and Transparency on Legal Fees

A Gunn Bell Schedule that Puts Students First

The school board agenda for Tuesday, May 12, includes an item that is truly great news for our students at Gunn: a proposed new "block" schedule with fewer, longer classes each day; more time built into the schedule for teacher collaboration; and two periods each week dedicated to tutorial and counseling time for students. Behind this proposal is a process led by Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann that has been a model of community participation and research-guided policy development. We all owe the Creative Bell Schedule Committee thanks for their dedication and commitment. It is terrific that our Gunn students will now also enjoy the benefits of a block schedule, as our Paly students have for the last several years.

The details of the proposal can be found in the board agenda item. When I attended a community information night about the block schedule, I heard a presentation from Denise Clark Pope of Challenge Success that emphasized some of the benefits of a block schedule: fewer transitions during the day, reduced homework load as fewer classes meet each day, and longer class periods to allow for a greater variety of teaching strategies and learning activities. Taken together, this will be an effective change for reducing student stress and improving student wellbeing. It illustrates the power of looking for positive improvements that affect the day-to-day life of students in school.

Also on the agenda for Tuesday is more information in relation to Superintendent McGee's decision to eliminate academic classes during zero period. As the bell schedule committee wrote in its report,  "Several articles on the topic of sleep emphasized the connection between lack of sleep and health impairments, both mental and physical. These articles recommended a later start time for schools, specifically any start time after 8 am, but preferably 8:30am." Dr. McGee's decision wisely and prudently reflects the scientific literature and the unanimous consensus of the medical establishment.

Homework Reform

The Creative Bell Schedule Committee also recommended that the district "take all necessary and appropriate measures to effectively enforce existing homework policy, adjust it as necessary under the new schedule, and adopt and enforce an appropriate homework policy as soon as possible for all AP and Honors courses." I agree. In fact the Board Policy Review Committee, is discussing this question. The omission of AP and honors courses was unfinished business from the 2011-12 homework committee. It is important to provide guidance to teachers and students about how much homework is appropriate for these courses.

Legal Fees and Transparency

You may recall that during the school board election campaign the district’s high legal fees were an issue. One firm in particular, Fagen, Friedman, and Fulfrost (FFF), which handles OCR and special ed cases, has seen an enormous increase in fees. In 2009, FFF billed the district just under $30,000, from 2012-2014, PAUSD paid FFF a total of $780,000. This is not a trivial amount of money. The annual billings of FFF alone would be sufficient to restore our summer school program or to fund the new mental health counselors for our high schools.

ken_weekly_forum.jpgSeveral candidates, including myself, advocated for reducing these fees and returning funds to classrooms. You can watch a video of me speaking about this issue in a candidate forum on September 11, 2014.

Taxpayers and parents need assurances that those expenses represent a wise expenditure of resources, and that they are being spent in a way that puts students first.

In fact, our school board is required to annually evaluate the work of the district's law firms under Board Bylaw 9124 "in such areas as efficiency and adequacy of advice; results obtained for the district; reasonableness of fees; and responsiveness to and interactions with the Board, administration, and community."

In order to prepare for this evaluation, which should occur in June, nearly 2 months ago I asked that all board members have the opportunity to review FFF's correspondence with the district over the past 2 years. This correspondence was quickly gathered by staff and could have been made available for review by board members in late March. Unfortunately, due to what I understand are objections from at least one longer-serving board member, the board has not been provided with the materials for review.

Much of this material has already been provided to longer-serving board members, but not to Terry Godfrey and myself. Yet at this point new board members have only given access to a fraction of what longer-serving board members have already seen. 

I don’t see how there can be any valid objection to providing all board members with equal access to information. Equally important, however, is the request that all board members have the opportunity to review the work of our outside law firms to ensure that they are serving the policy and budgetary interests of our community.

Board members have a fiduciary duty to provide oversight with respect to the district’s policy and budget. Under our Bylaws, board members are entrusted with ensuring that the legal fees that the district pays are reasonable and that district’s use of outside counsel serves the best interests of all the students of the district. Without transparency to all board members, it is impossible to fulfill those responsibilities. I am hopeful that all board members will soon be given access to the material that will allow us to do that important work.

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