By Brian Lawrence
On Feb. 23, the Mt. Diablo School Board voted unanimously to refrain from closing any additional schools at this time. School closure is unfortunate and it has certainly been a painful process here in MDUSD. We do, however, have the opportunity to consider and remedy the cause of school closures- a steady decline in student enrollment. If we don’t deal with this problem, we will inevitably be faced with closing even more schools in the future.
The District states that declining enrollment in MDUSD has not resulted in an increase in private school enrollment over the same period. It has been argued that declining enrollment is merely reflective of a low birth rate. This neglects the fact that in adjacent school districts, such as San Ramon, they are actually seeing an increase in student enrollment.
Parents of school age children are voting with their wallets and their feet—they are moving out of MDUSD. Many parents calculate the cost of private school tuition and decide the money would be better spent on a mortgage in a different school district. The number-one factor in purchasing a home for most parents of school-aged kids is the school system—the negative perception of MDUSD has a huge impact on every homeowner in the area. In aggregate, it is tens of millions of dollars in lost home value.
So how do we solve this problem? There have been past attempts to pass a parcel tax to provide more funds for the district. A parcel tax requires 2/3 approval in order to pass. There is zero chance that will happen without the District doing a better job of articulating how the money will be spent and restoring trust in the District.
Several people have offered a strategic plan as a first step towards a solution, but there has not been very much discussion about what that plan might actually look like. A strategic plan is only as good as the people who create and implement it.
In order for a strategic plan to be successful, people have to buy in to it. All of the different stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, staff, business leaders, etc.) need to have a voice in the process. It needs to be something that drives all of the decisions made by the District. It cannot merely become a forgotten document in a dusty binder that sits on a desk.
If we had a strategic plan tomorrow, would it eliminate the need for school closures? No. If we had a strategic plan a year ago, would it have changed the need for school closures? I have no idea, but it is a waste of time to point fingers and rehash the past.
We can, however, avoid closing schools in the future. Mt. Diablo can become a district that families are running towards, not running from. We need to have a clear, common vision of how we get there and the strategic plan can play a vital role in that.
The strategic plan must address questions such as:
- How do we best measure student achievement?
- How do we attract and retain top teachers?
- What role, if any, do choice schools play in the district? Charter schools?
- What infrastructure is needed to execute the strategic plan?
- How can we best serve the needs of Special Education students?
- What percentage of graduates are expected to go to a four- year college? How do we best prepare them for that?
- What role does technology play in the District?
- Is vocational training needed for students who may not go on to college?
- How long will it take for English Language learning students to become fluent?
- What consultants are needed for the district to succeed? What should we expect of full-time employees?
These are just a few of the types of questions that a strategic plan will address. Part of the process of strategic planning is to actually decide on the questions that need to be answered.
Some people say that strategic planning is expensive and will require high-paid consultants. I disagree.
The best example of a strategic plan is the Constitution of the United States. It has been a framework for our government for over 220 years. It did not require high-priced consultants—no one from Bain or McKinsey was needed to facilitate the discussion. All that was needed was a group of concerned, passionate citizens to come together and develop a shared vision.
Brian Lawrence, a Concord resident and father of three, ran for MDUSD School Board in 2010.