By Kish Rajan
On November 8, the Mount Diablo School Board intends to make its decision on whether to grant final approval to the Clayton Valley charter application. The decision they make, and how they make it, has enormous implications to our District that is at a critical crossroads.
It has been well chronicled, perhaps at times overly so, that our District suffers from a myriad of challenges. Persistent state budget cuts have been particularly damaging to large unified school districts like ours that are mandated to serve a large and diverse range of educational needs. Though our district leadership has done their best under increasingly difficult circumstances, to be sure, over the years they have made some errors of commission and omission. Together, these factors have caused frustration among the widely disparate communities tied together by district boundaries drawn decades ago.
Despite this frustration, I believe that the large majority of parents in our District are driven by a yearning to see things improve for our District in general, and certainly for their children in particular. The recent effort by some Northgate parents to explore a transfer of that feeder pattern into a different district was one expression of that. And now, of course, the Clayton Valley charter petition. In each instance, the primary motivation is sincere and understandable. Undeniably, for the MDUSD, some things must change. Indeed I believe the district leadership wants positive change.
The question therefore should turn from whether our district should be reformed, to how. Where can we make fundamental improvements in the education program, curriculum, structure, district operations, and district culture? How can we leverage the talented and committed people who abound in our community to participate in that effort, both to create near-term reforms and to engage the broader community in supporting our schools for the long term?
But in order to get to that important discussion, we first need a thoughtful, constructive resolution to the Clayton Valley charter application that gets us beyond the vitriolic tone that has defined it to date. To this point, the process has unfolded as a battle between one community and our District (literally described at one point as “war”). The matter is also provoking a conflict pitting individual feeder patterns against one another. Should it conclude as such, this will result as a battle in which all sides lose.
The charter proponents (driven by parents, teachers, and community leaders) are raising serious concerns about the state of their campus, e.g. safety, campus conditions and the overall quality of education. They believe strongly that under a new operating structure, with localized leadership, accountability, and flexibility to innovate, they can make substantial improvements. Their community has spoken out with passion and conviction about their commitment to supporting the school, and in so doing is demonstrating the kind of community engagement and commitment we need district wide. The Clayton Valley charter should be used as an opportunity to experiment and evaluate how we can improve all of our high schools (and all schools for that matter).
The problem with the approval is the potential negative budget impact on the balance of our District. Under the state law that defines this process, it appears that the new charter school would be funded at a higher rate than the other high schools in our district, and that difference must come from our District budget. However, also per the state law, this broader financial impact is not one of the approval criteria the School Board may use in making their decision on the application. Nevertheless, it would be unconscionable to take resources away from the balance of our kids to support one school, particularly amidst these brutal economic times.
The solution and the opportunity are clear. There should be an agreement to approve the charter application with an understanding that the new charter school would be funded at the same rate as all other high schools in our district. This would grant the Clayton Valley community what they seek: a new way forward for their school with the local control, flexibility and accountability that they covet. Yet this would be accomplished in a way that is financially responsible, fair and reasonable toward the balance of our District.
Should all the parties involved join in this solution, they would transcend conflict, embrace positive change, and set an example of collaboration. This could also commence a new chapter for our District: one of reform, innovation, and planning that welcomes change while reaffirming our commitment to serving our entire community and all of our kids.
Let’s use this moment to do what is smart, fair and right. And let’s remember our kids are watching.
MDUSD Parent and Walnut Creek City Council Member