Middle school math teachers say it over and over again to their students: check your work, make sure it’s right before you turn it in. Perhaps that’s what Mt. Diablo Unified School District Superintendent Steven Lawrence had in mind when he commissioned a study from the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assessment Team (FCMAT) to double-check his work with respect to how much of a financial whammy the district would suffer if Clayton Valley High School’s charter petition was approved.
The report, issued in final form in January and published on the public FCMAT website in February, said nothing the district hadn’t asserted previously: that the cost to the district of Clayton Valley High’s going charter could be as high as $3.3 million. Those costs could be found in everything from central administration to school site maintenance expenses.
Unfortunately, Lawrence forgot another useful school adage, that a result can only be as good as the information used. Working with MDUSD board members Sherry Whitmarsh and Linda Mayo last fall, he ordered the report without knowledge or input from the public or even other board members, using only the district numbers.
The report’s final sentence pinpoints the problem, however. “The calculation follows generally accepted accounting principles applied consistent with client supplied information,” it says.
County officials upset.
The report refuels the controversy surrounding the charter, namely that it would negatively impact other schools in the district. This angered not only Clayton officials, who called the report one-sided, but the handling of the report upset members of the County Board of Education as well. Dr. Joseph Ovick, Superintendent of the Contra Costa County Office of Education sent a sharply worded letter to MDUSD Superintendent Lawrence once he was sent a copy of the report by charter officials.
“I had requested and hoped to provide input into this latest FCMAT report …” he wrote. “My request was ignored. This unnecessary tension has distracted from our efforts to provide a quality education to our students regardless of whether they belong to the district or the newly formed charter.”
CVCHS Executive Director Dave Linzey expressed a lack of surprise that, if the district didn’t make what he feels are common-sense changes following the charter’s approval, money would be lost.
“The math is clear,” he said. “They certainly should have been able to make cuts to balance out their books. They’ve lost the $1.5 million in costs to run the school, we’ve inherited those costs.”
He took on the report’s special education numbers as well. The high school has maintained about the same number of special education students as prior to going charter, and increased the hours of the school psychologist and speech/language pathologist who work alongside instructional aides and special education teachers to serve those students.
“When MDUSD talks about they had to prepare or plan in their budget for our special education kids, that’s nonsense,” Linzey said. “We take care of our own special ed kids.”
Ovick agreed. With the combined savings from special education costs the district need no longer shoulder, and a reduction in central administration needed to run the now 6 percent smaller district, he wrote, “the NET impact of the conversion … might be closer to a break even.”
MDUSD Board member Brian Lawrence is concerned over the impact of the district’s handling of the no-longer-secret report. In the 2012 election, he ran — and won — on a platform advocating greater transparency to the public by MDUSD officials.
“I appreciated Dr. Ovick’s letter, and I think he raised some pertinent points,” he said. “I would say that the public should be asking, are there other reports? We’re going to be reviewing this again at the next board meeting. “
He too sees the issue as going farther than this single document.
“If people don’t have faith in our numbers and don’t believe we’re being transparent with them, when we ask for things like bond measures, we’re not going to have that public support,” he said.
In the meantime, charter officials are pleased to see community support grow as more families learn what they have to offer.
“If there’s one test of how are you doing, it’s who wants to go next year,” said Linzey. The school seems to be passing that test with flying colors. Five hundred and fifty new students are set to start Clayton Valley in the fall, and another 130 waitlisted, some ready to come from as far away as Oakland and Orinda.