Board of Education candidate Trish Spencer

Board of Education candidate Trish Spencer

Alameda Elections '12
Trish Spencer

Trish Spencer

Parent, Attorney, Community Volunteer and Children's Advocate, currently serving as Alameda Unified School District Board Member

Relevant experience
• Alameda Unified School District Board Member (Jan. 2009 – present)
• Attorney by profession [B.A., U.C. Berkeley (Sociology); Paralegal Certificate, U.C. Irvine; law degree Juris Doctorate (J.D.), Western State University, Fullerton.
• California School Board Association’s Masters in Governance (2010)
• Educator. Substitute teacher in virtually all AUSD schools, including English Language Learners & Special Needs
• Raised four children in AUSD, attending: Woodstock Child Development, Head Start, Otis, Earhart, Lincoln, Alameda High, Encinal, ACLC & Arthur Anderson. Stephanie graduated from UCSC double major in Computer Science & English, minor in French; Sarah attends College of Alameda; and Elaine attends Harvard.
• For the past 14 years, I have served our students and community in numerous capacities:
o Alameda PTA Council President, overseeing all the PTAs in Alameda - 2 terms
o Co-Chair of Alameda Youth Collaborative, overseeing 35+ organizations
o AUSD Wellness Committee
o Encinal Athletic Boosters Co-President & "Snack Shack" volunteer
o ACLC Track Team Parent “Coach”
o Earhart School Site Council Chairperson
o Art Docent
o Foreign Exchange Student Host – Noémi, girl from France, attended AHS for one school year
o Noon Supervisor
o Volunteer at schools my children attended as well as those they did not attend [e.g., Woodstock Elementary, Longfellow, Miller, Ruby Bridges, Washington (now Maya Lin) and Wood Middle]
o Kids' Chalk Art Project Steering Committee
o Girl Scout Co-Leader
o Relay for Life Committee Member
o Let’s Move Alameda Committee Member
o “Save Our Music” effort fundraiser for Kindergarten music in all elementary schools
o Earhart Elementary 25th Anniversary Event Co-Chair
o Attend Project Youth View Film Festival, annual event by Alternatives in Action
o Attend the Asian Pacific-Island Heritage Festival at South Shore every year of event (only School Board member to do so)

If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
1. My top priority is quality education for every child. My focus is creating an environment where every child has the opportunity to succeed. This requires smaller classes, rich curriculum, diverse electives, and advanced placement, career-technical, and vocational courses. I strongly support the education of anti-bullying for all (differently-abled/special needs, ethnicities, gender, LGBTQ, race, religion) to ensure a safe learning environment. Providing quality education for all is a challenging goal and requires meaningful collaboration with all of our stakeholders/“partners”: parents, students, teachers, classified staff, maintenance staff, community members, etc. True collaboration includes real transparency, real treating each other respect, listening to concerns, valuing input, and trying seriously to resolve problems, concerns. I believe that we, as a community, can only achieve our goal of providing quality education for all of our children by truly working together. Unfortunately, I do not believe that this is currently happening and thus there is too much “noise,” for lack of a better word, and wasted energies and time on posturing, stonewalling, avoiding the reality that we’re not serving every student to the best of our ability, instead of spending our limited funds and time on working together to achieve our goal of serving every student to the best of our ability. With collaboration, we must begin with a new foundation including structures, common language and specific goals to achieve that will support student learning and achievement for all students.

2. My second priority is fiscal responsibility. During these tough economic times it critically important that every decision be fiscally responsible. We need to carefully spend the monies that our community has entrusted us with for the purpose of educating our children. I support fiscally responsible, joint use recreational facilities: sports fields, pools, and parks. Votes such as the generous compensation package for the Superintendent and the move of District Offices ($550,000/year for six years lease) are not fiscally responsible, thus I voted against both.

Fiscal responsibility requires true transparency. Important, controversial decisions being made in the summer is not true transparency. Two summers ago, on August 23, 2011, Members Ron Mooney, Niel Tam, and Margie Sherratt (Member McMahon & I opposed) approved a new four (4) year contract for the period of July 1, 2011 through June 30, 2015 for the Superintendent. This contract provides the Superintendent a salary of $204,225 per year, annual 3% increase, up to an additional $15,000 performance pay (for goals that would be achieved primarily by teachers and staff with no performance pay to them), “full premium rate for the medical plan and level of the Superintendent’s choice” (I tried unsuccessfully to at least “cap” the insurance expenditure, as no one knows what the cost will be for this in future years), and “necessary technology and communication equipment.”

This past summer, at a “Special” Friday meeting, July 27, 2012, Members Ron Mooney, Niel Tam and Mike McMahon (Member Sherratt & I opposed) approved a six (6) year lease for new District Offices, approx. 26,000 sq. ft, located at 2060 Challenger Drive, at a cost of $552,000/year ($3.3 Million), including expansion of a corner office for the Superintendent.

I am the only Board member that voted against both of these controversial decisions.

Transparency also includes posting publicly the Warrants (i.e., specific bills) that the Board approves at each regular Board meeting. After numerous attempts to have a majority of the current Board members (3) make the warrants available to the public for review, I now pull the Warrants at every meeting, and vote against approving them, as other Districts, such as Pleasanton post their warrants online for the public.

AUSD Warrants are only available to Board members in the Superintendent’s office for review.

The majority of this Board’s refusal to be fiscally responsible, including transparent, is a serious problem.

3. My third priority is “Kids First.” If every Board decision doesn’t go towards providing quality education for all children and isn’t fiscally responsible, then we’re not putting “Kids First.” Public education is critical to our children and our community. Alameda is an incredible city with incredible people that truly care about public education and want the best for every child. We can create an incredible public school system, second to none, when we move forward, working together, always putting “Kids First.”

What would you do to encourage harmony between the school board, school district administrators and teachers?
We have a serious problem. Too many people, whether it be teachers, parents, or community members, do not believe that the Board is doing its utmost to provide an environment for healthy discussion and input occurs before decisions are made. Too many times I hear from teachers, parents, and community members that they feel like their comments don’t matter because the Board’s decision has been made before the matter is decided publicly at a meeting.

I will continue to do what I am doing now:
• reach out to all community members and employees
• respond to their emails, phone calls, etc.
• encourage the community’s participation in School board meetings as well as at schools, fundraisers, etc.
• actively listen when members of our public come to our Board meetings
• ask clarifying questions during Board meetings so that everyone can understand what’s being discussed
• not “rubber stamp”
• request that matters be put on our agendas when members of the public bring areas of concern to my and/or the Board’s attention
• request that important, controversial decisions be made during regularly scheduled meetings during the school year, not during summer or “Special” Friday night meetings
• vote “no” when the letter and/or spirit of the Brown Act is not being followed

I also express support for and vote regularly to use simple language, clearly write documents, provide easily accessible documentation and comprehensive websites, have Board packets and documents posted online and shared with the community as early as possible to give them time to review them (when packets were posted on Friday’s for a Tuesday meeting, I advocated for more days between posting and meetings). I also advocate for public documents, especially those that pertain to votes, (such as the warrants) to be posted online with the agenda item so that the public can also review them, can be informed and express concerns.

Too many times it appears that Staff’s presentations to the Board are written to support or achieve a certain outcome, decision, and provide limited, biased information to the Board members and public, as opposed to educating the Board and public so that the Board, with input from the public, may make informed decision.

The Board hires the superintendent and she hires the rest of the employees. The Board approves the Superintendent’s proposed hires, but does not propose hires. The current Superintendent was initially hired, four years ago, on December 9, 2008, by the outgoing Board as a consent item on the same day that the current Board was sworn in. Board members Bill Schaff, David Forbes, Janet Gibson, Tracy Jensen and Mike McMahon approved the hiring of Kirsten Vital as a consent item before approving the first public item on the agenda to swear in three new Board members, Ron Mooney, Niel Tam and myself (replacing Bill Schaff, David Forbes, and Janet Gibson, who had either not run for re-election, or lost their bid for re-election). Thus, a majority of the Board was changing, and yet the Board at that time still proceeded with the hiring of a new Superintendent as a consent item. In my opinion, that was wrong and has contributed to the “disharmony” of the current relationship between the Board, the Superintendent, teachers, and other employee groups.

Then to compound the problem, a majority of the current Board (Members Ron Mooney, Niel Tam, and Margie Sherratt approving) entered into a new four year contract with the Superintendent, including a generous compensation package with approximately a 12% pay increase, including full health at the level and plan of her choice, during the summer of 2011.

These types of decisions by the majority of the Board (i.e., three members not including myself), encourage the community, including teachers, to feel excluded from the process and to generally view the Board and the Superintendent in poor light.

It is imperative that an organization such as AUSD, that has many employees at schools with daily hands-on contact with our students, few employees at the “top” (i.e., paid the most and have the least daily hands-on contact with our students) and has such a significant cause (i.e., the education of all our children) operate under a collaborative structure, a “team based model,” as opposed to a “top-down, dictatorial model.” Unfortunately, my requests for employee input (i.e., teacher, classified staff, etc.) in decisions, such as professional development, which input I now request be anonymous so that it’s more likely to be genuine, are summarily dismissed by the Superintendent and/or the majority of the Board (i.e., three members of the Board). The District spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on program and professional development with very little, if any, anonymous feedback from teachers, staff, parents, and students.

Unfortunately, too many employees, including teachers and others, do not feel as though they may speak freely and participate in Board meetings or otherwise express their concerns to the Board, in fear that they may jeopardize their position in AUSD.

The district recently released a facilities report that outlined $92 million in needed facility fixes. How would you address these needs?
Unfortunately, the majority of the Board (Members Ron Mooney, Niel Tam, and Mike McMahon; Member Sherratt & I opposing) recently voted to approve a six (6) year, $3.3 Million lease for new District offices, including expanding an office for the Superintendent, on the heels of an approximately $1 Million 4 year contract for the Superintendent approved by a majority of the Board (Members Ron Mooney, Niel Tam and Margie Sherratt; Member McMahon & I opposing), after going to the community in 2011 for a generous seven (7) year, approximately $12 Million/year parcel tax ($84 Million total). Also, too many consultants have been hired by this Board, without adequate input from the teachers, classified staff, maintenance staff, etc., and the community, so that the Board could hire as few expensive consultants as possible. The Board continually hires consultants from outside the area, where the District pays for transportation, accommodations, meals, coffee, etc.

I have asked Staff publicly where what monies are available for these repairs (which are primarily at our schools, where our children are), and Staff’s responses include that not all the repairs have to be done now, there’s monies (but no specificity of what monies), etc. I have responded publicly that I’m concerned that there’s a plan, not shared yet with the public, to float another bond, which will require 55% to pass.

Do you believe Alameda’s schools are underfunded? If so, where would you find the revenue to address this problem? And if not, what do you believe the district’s priorities should be and how would you shift funds in order to address them?
Of course, it would be much easier to have more funds for our schools. Unfortunately, that’s unrealistic. At this point we’re waiting to see if the Governor’s initiative, Prop. 30, and Molly Munger/PTA’s initiative, Prop. 38, on the November ballot will pass. The latest poll data I’ve seen shows Prop. 30 ahead at 56% and Prop. 38 behind at 35-40%.

I voted against the Superintendent’s significant increase in compensation and new District Offices with expansion of an office for herself. Those decisions only work against any attempt by the Board to demonstrate that “we’re all in this together.” Under the current Board, I do not foresee any change in direction, which means the majority of the Board will be back asking the public for more money soon, whether it be a bond for facility improvements or another parcel tax for programs, salaries, everything else, or it will continue to cut programs to our children (i.e., increase class sizes, eliminate sections at middle and high schools) and watch net salaries to all other employees decrease (who don’t have “full health at the level and plan of their choice,” like the Superintendent was just given; for other employees their net income has decreased as their health insurance costs increase; unless they reach a “step and column” increase due to more years on the job, increase in education, etc.). It also means that AUSD will continue to have employee groups unhappy because “we’re not all in this together,” and parents trying to figure out what to do.

The District’s (i.e., the Board’s) priority has to be first and foremost to resolve this volatile situation created by the Superintendent’s raise and new District Offices coupled with reductions for everyone else (students and employees). Then the Board needs to focus on working towards a healthy, constructive relationship with all employees, including the Superintendent, parents, and community members, and prioritizing the District’s limited funds to “Kids First,” thus working together to provide quality education for all our children.

What services should Alameda’s schools provide, and what services do you believe every Alameda student is entitled to?
As stated above, my top priority is quality education for every child. My focus is creating an environment where every child has the opportunity to succeed. This requires smaller classes, rich curriculum, diverse electives, and advanced placement, career-technical, and vocational courses. I strongly support the education of anti-bullying for all (differently-abled/special needs, ethnicities, gender, LGBTQ, race, religion) to ensure a safe learning environment.

How do you view the challenges and/or opportunities posed by charter schools?
This is an interesting question. Charter schools are public schools provided by CA law.

The Charter Schools Act of 1992, which made CA the second state in the country to pass charter school legislation, provides:

It is the intent of the provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, as a method to accomplish all of the following:
(a) Improve pupil learning.
(b) Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving.
(c) Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods.
(d) Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site.
(e) Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system.
(f) Hold the schools established under this part accountable for meeting measurable pupil outcomes, and provide the schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems.
(g) Provide vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in all public schools. Ed. Code §47601(a)-(g).

Even though part of the rationale of the CA Legislature to approve charter schools, as set forth above, is to improve pupil learning, data has been mixed in regards to charter school performance. Some charters do well, others don’t. See Stanford University Report (2009)

Parents consider charters for different reasons. Sometimes, because it’s closer to home (e.g., there is not a non-charter middle school choice on the West End of Alameda), other times because they think it could be a better fit for their child. Personally, in my family, we started all of our four children in traditional public schools. Along the way, two of our children transferred to charter schools (one to Arthur Anderson in middle school and the other to ACLC in 11th grade). Both had experienced bullying, were floundering, and not reaching their potential and they turned out to be a good fit for them. However, my other two children graduated from Alameda High and Encinal and were very happy.

When there are more choices to parents, there’s more competition between schools for students. Also, AUSD now provides schools of choice within AUSD. Our teachers, parents, and staff have worked the last several years to create more “choices” within AUSD for families. Hence, the new arts magnet school (aka Maya Lin which was formerly Washington Elementary), the new “21st Century Learning” innovative program, including a 6th grade program) and the new “Math, Science, Technology with the Integration of Music aka M(STM)” innovative program at Earhart Elementary.

Would you propose to compete with charters and private schools in order to retain students, and if so, how?
AUSD does compete to retain students. The District (and the majority of the Board) supported centralized enrollment; this is great from a business perspective of having more control over documentation, etc., but I’ve also heard that it’s not as “friendly, welcoming” to families as going to their neighborhood school, walking onto the school, picturing your child going to that school, meeting the staff, etc. AUSD should always do its best customer service, being welcoming, utilizing the latest strategies and teaching techniques, and offering unique learning opportunities. To do that, we all have to be working together. We need staff (teachers, classified, maintenance, everyone interacting with our students and families) happy, feeling supported, energetic, etc., so that they can do their best at educating our children.

However, some parents return to AUSD after going to a charter, either at another grade level, or also because of an issue. Parents don’t always realize that the charter model is different than traditional public schools in that charters are outside of the umbrella of AUSD District Offices if you have concerns at your school site.

There is a wide disparity among PTA organizations’ ability to support their individual schools in terms of the amount of money each can raise. How would you address this disparity?
Some of this is offset by District expenditures, some by the Alameda Education Foundation (AEF), grants and other organizations. While I was PTA Council President (2006-08), overseeing all the PTAs in Alameda, we continued the “Sister-School” model that I believe was started by David Forbes, while he was PTA Council President. Under that model, schools are matched up to work together, sometimes fundraising together, sharing proceeds, sometimes wealthier schools donating to other schools. We also held a District-wide event, “Save Our Music,” to fund kindergarten music at all our schools, as well as applied for CA State Garden Grants for all our schools. We had teachers and PTAs that would donate significant book credits from their Book drives to their sister schools. We also organized used book “trades” between students at different schools.

There are different models of how to bring more parity to voluntary donations to schools. For example in Oregon:

Portland Public Schools: One-third of all parent donations are pooled into an "equity fund" run by a foundation, which distributes the money to schools that can't raise their own funds.

Eugene (Ore.) School District: Five percent of all parent donations are pooled into an "equity fund" that is divvied up essentially equally among all schools. Parents are also allowed to donate directly to the equity fund.

In Palo Alto, their education foundation, Partners in Education (PiE), raised $3.4 million, the “funds are raised district-wide and allocated on a per-student basis to all elementary, middle and high schools in the district.”

Pleasanton’s education foundation encourages that families donate “$350 per elementary student and $200 per middle and high student, can be designated towards specific levels including elementary, middle, and / or high school levels,” and claim that “surrounding Bay Area education foundations request an average of $570 per student.” Also, “The School Advisory Board, consisting of 2-3 representatives from each school site, began to meet in June to identify district wide programs that are threatened to be eliminated next school year 2013 – 2014.”

I have heard of PTAs that organize events but not fundraising, that goes through their foundation.

So, Alameda has several models they can consider. This is a conversation that could be a “workshop” for the School Board, including AEF, and PTA representatives. However, I recently attended a recent AUSD training for organizations that raise monies for our schools. The District shared new guidelines for these organizations, that make it more difficult to fundraise for our schools, and gave notice to the schools that the money ultimately belongs to the District, not the individual schools and not for their individual programs. Several participants expressed concerns and for any fundraising efforts to be successful, especially on a large scale, I believe the Board/the District must assure parents/community members that the funds will not go to the District. Again, unfortunately, until the Board/AUSD reassures the community that it is wisely using all funds that have already been given to the District, I believe this will be a contentious issue. It is incumbent upon the Board/Superintendent to truly demonstrate that it is wisely using the community’s hard earned resources.

How would you improve the way the school district does business?
These past four (4) years have been some of the most rewarding but also some of the most challenging of my professional life. As an attorney, there is oversight. As a Board member, I regularly pull the Minutes that do not accurately reflect what happened in meetings. Unfortunately, on more than one occasion significant items have been added or reduced as line items on budgets, that were not voted on as separate items with dedicated conversations [i.e., the reduction of funding of Woodstock Child Development Center (2009?) when Member Jensen and I tried to get a third member to restore the funding, and most recently $180,000 for moving District Offices to its new location]. Significant decisions (the Superintendent’s raise and the 6 year long term lease) have been made during summer, and even most recently at a “Special” Friday night meeting; Members Ron Mooney and Niel Tam were part of the majority that approved these; I opposed. Warrants are posted online in other Districts, but in Alameda are only available to Board members in the Superintendent’s office. As long as the current Board members continue to serve on the Board, I do not expect any changes. The votes are usually 4:1, sometimes 3:2, (usually with me opposing, and sometimes Member Sherratt or McMahon joining me) when it comes to these items, but the majority “rubber stamps” the Superintendent’s recommendation. Recently, a group of parents with special needs children took the bold step of coming to a Board meeting to share that their children ride a bus to Oakland Unified or Berkeley Unified for life skills afterschool enrichment programs (or do without, which some do) and they’ve been trying to bring the regionally funded program to Alameda Unified for six (6) years, but are told by the District that they can’t find space for them; as a Board member I would still not know this if those parents hadn’t come to our meeting. I’m doing my utmost to help them now that I know of the problem, but without support from the majority of the Board and the Superintendent, we don’t know how many more years they’ll have to wait. Some AUSD schools share multi-purpose rooms and classrooms to offer after school enrichment programs to non-disabled students, but AUSD hasn’t offered such accommodations to these families so they continue their search for accommodations in Alameda as their children get older and older.

So, how would I improve the way the school district does business? I would encourage the public to carefully read what I and other candidates have written, reach out to the candidates, and make an informed vote on November 6, 2012. I appreciate your time and would greatly appreciate your support.