Tuesday, 21 May 2024

Konocti Unified hears from parents, teachers; moves closer to budget decision

LOWER LAKE – Konocti Unified School District's Board of Trustees came another step closer to the point of making a decision on how to cut the district's budget for the coming fiscal year.

Parents, teachers, administrators and community members offered pleas for their schools as well as ideas about how to save money at a board meeting in Lower Lake on Wednesday night.

About 80 people attended the meeting at Lower Lake High School's new gym. Seventeen of them spoke to the board over about a two-hour period. Board member Hank Montgomery was out of town and unable to attend the meeting.

The district is looking at options including possible school closures or school curriculum realignments in an effort to cut $1.2 million out of its 2009-10 budget. The board has hosted a series of meetings around the district to receive community response to the district's budget proposals. Board members said they intend to look at making a final decision at a meeting set for March 11.

By the end of the evening, Superintendent Dr. Bill MacDougall offered his own suggestion to the board.

He said it was his belief that the best course was for the board to close Oak Hill Middle School. That will give them the savings they need to get through the coming fiscal year, he said.

The audience members offered very different viewpoints on what was best for the district.

Carl Stewart, himself a middle school teacher at one time, said he believed the middle school model is a bad one. “I just don't think it works.”

While he taught at a middle school in Southern California, his daughter attended a K-8 school, and he said the difference was “phenomenal.” At a K-8 school, a beloved kindergarten teacher would still be available to older pupils, and the children weren't as likely to misbehave in front of such a teacher.

At the middle school, “Kids had been yanked out at the most fragile point in their lives, been lumped together, and the behavior was atrocious,” he said.

Gina Fortino Dickson, who serves on the Clearlake Planning Commission, suggested moving the Lower Lake Elementary campus to Oak Hill Middle School and utilizing it as a K-8 school. That would allow the elementary campus to be absorbed by Lower Lake High next door, which she said was landlocked and bursting at the seams.

MacDougall asked her for her thoughts on how the move would save the district money. She said it was more an issue of giving them more access to resources now and allowing them space options later.

Some of the evening's most powerful testimony came from parent Jennifer Rodgers, whose children are at Oak Hill.

Rodgers, who had attended a previous community meeting held to take community input on the school closure proposals, said she's heard a lot of bashing of Oak Hill Middle school, and she wanted to share her experience with the staff, who she praised for their compassion, understanding and for “getting” the specific needs of middle schoolers.

She said her children would be considered “problems” by some, as her son has two disorders and her daughter is dyslexic. He son's behavior was so bad at one point that she had to homeschool him.

He's now at Oak Hill. “Many changes are happening in my son's life,” she said.

The boy is mentoring other students, and rather than drawing demons he's drawing hearts. “There's been a total 180.”

Rodgers added, “I believe with all of my heart that it has everything to to do with the staff at Oak Hill Middle School.”

A lot of bad things happen at schools, and Rodgers said she believed the ultimate responsibility lies at home with parents.

She said her daughter also is passing regular classes. Rodgers said she feels like she's in a partnership with teachers, and she wanted to thank them for helping her son reach his full potential.

“I know that a decision has to be made but I just hope that stories like that get heard, too, that Oak Hill makes a difference,” said Rodgers, adding she hoped they would find a different option than closing the schools.

During the hearing, Board Clerk Anita Gordon told the audience that they wouldn't be having the hearings about closing schools if it weren't for the decisions being made by legislators in Sacramento.

She asked people to write legislators to let them know what they're doing to communities. “At some point in time they'll have to listen to us,” said Gordon. “We're mad as heck and we're not going to take it anymore, but they don't know that.”

Johnnie Hathcock suggested cutting the district's nine principals – which she said cost the district $950,000 a year – down to five in order to save $400,000 annually. She also suggested they look at encouraging early retirements.

“The district has a reserve and we should use these monies before closing the schools,” she said.

Lower Lake Elementary teacher Peggy Ustick was concerned that by closing Oak Hill the other schools would be overcrowded, and portable buildings would be necessary. She said pushing so many additional students into current schools would cause issues both for discipline and safety.

Parent Cindy Crandell, who also attended a previous meeting at Pomo, said her daughter attends Pomo Elementary, which she wants to stay as a K-8 school, and not see it go to grades fourth through eighth.

She said he was glad to hear Rodgers' story about Oak Hill. “I wish we heard more heroic stories about Oak Hill, because we know there are some phenomenal teachers at Oak Hill.”

Parent Cheryl Barnes said her son is an interdistrict transfer, and she asked if the changes in the district could affect him. MacDougall said it could, that interdistrict transfers might not get priority when it comes to school placement.

He added, “I can't tell you it would happen for certain.”

Barnes suggested fundraising ideas and having people pay for more of the components of their child's education, or at least donate time to help the schools.

MacDougall noted during the public comment period that the reasons the board was there asking for public input was the $1.2 million cut looming in the fiscal year ahead. Keeping the status quo wouldn't help the district make that big cut.

“It always comes down to reduction in staff,” he said. “That's the hardest part of the decision ahead of us.”

Lacy Christensen, whose daughter is in the eighth grade at East Lake Elementary, thanked the board for being fiscally responsible.

She said the plan she could support was closing Oak Hill and making the rest of the elementary schools K-8. Christensen said it was the best plan from a business perspective. She added that Oak Hill is in a bad location and has structural problems, and that the district could sell the facility.

Assistant Prinicipal Gavin Huffmaster said if they close a school, other schools will be very full. Considering the community's growth, Huffmaster guessed that would only be a stopgap measure, and that schools eventually would need to expand.

Carle High School teacher Angela Siegel, also a former middle school teacher, suggested various ways to save money – about $500,000 in all.

She was concerned that the proposal to close at least one school wasn't about the budget.

“This is about a complete reconfiguration of the school district, and we're doing it on a very, very tight deadline,” she said.

She questioned closing Oak Hill Middle School just to reopen it elsewhere or in some other form. If the closure is programmatic, not fiscal, the district needs to say so, she said. They need to make cuts that won't directly affect the classroom, Siegel added.

“This is going so fast and it's going to have such a scattershot effect on every school in the district,” she said.

John Roddy suggested that the district needed to seek the advice of Lake County's chief administrative officer, Kelly Cox, who he said has worked to keep the county in the black for 27 years. MacDougall said Cox was on a consolidation committee.

Roddy went on to suggest that MacDougall should be the first one to take a pay cut.

MacDougall told Roddy that the Konocti Unified School District has always stayed in the black, and as long as he's superintendent it will stay that way.

Kristyn Leigh-Freeman, co-principal of Oak Hill Middle School, said she needed to start thinking about the changes to programs that would come from the board's ultimate decision. She urged them to keep to a timeline in order for changes to be made, including the logistics of moving school facilities.

Superintendent offers his perspective

Following the close of public comment, MacDougall recounted the months of meetings – beginning last September – that he and other administrators have taken part in as they've looked for solutions to meet the coming budget cuts.

He said he'd given the topic his best thinking and a lot of time.

“Financially, we only have one option,” he said, estimating it will take three to five years for the budget picture to recover.

While he agreed that Oak Hill has great teachers, he felt closing the school was the district's best option.

The district has estimated that closing Oak Hill Middle School and changing Pomo, Burns Valley and Lower Lake Elementary schools into K-8 would save between $400,000 to $968,000, while closing Oak Hill and establishing grade separation in two schools would save between $540,000 and $1 million.

MacDougall encouraged the board to keep class size reduction measures in place, which is a priority for schools and administrators. He added, “The parents want it and I desperately want it.”

Keeping class size reductions in place, which MacDougall told Lake County News on Tuesday that the state is financially supporting for this year and the next, will save the jobs of 15 teachers.

Board Chair Mary Silva thanked the public for taking part in the process.

“It was clear to me at all these meetings that people love their schools,” she said, recounting offers of parents to help and noting that many district staff members are doing additional work for free.

“We're all trying to pull together for our kids,” she said. Silva said she was proud to be part of such a community.

“We're all hurting in this,” Silva added. “Nobody wants to see a school close.”

Later in the meeting, the board voted to hand out 52 layoff notices to teachers, a large number that is meant to cover all budget options at this point. The district plans to rehire many of those teachers.

Because of the uncertainty of the situation ahead, the board also voted to give notices to several administrators that they may be released at the end of the school year from any position requiring an administrative or supervisory credential.

Those named were Oak Hill co-principals Maria de los Angeles Friedrich and Kristyn Leigh-Freeman; Ed Zander, Carle High School's new principal; Burns Valley Elementary Principal Troy Sherman; Pomo Elementary Principal April Leiferman; and Debra Sorenson Malley, principal of East Lake Elementary.

“We have some of the finest administrators in California,” said MacDougall, emphasizing the action was a formality, similar to that taken to lay off teachers.

He said the district's administrators give a lot, from their hearts to their Saturdays, to work in the best interests of children. “They love children all the way down to their toes.”

He added, “We will rectify this situation as soon as we possibly can,” and said he hoped they would remain with the district until it can ensure the action isn't needed.

At the end of the meeting, all of the named administrators came forward to receive their notices and sign for them. MacDougall and board members told the administrators they regretted having to take the action.

E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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