Almanac

Schools - March 24, 2010

Charter schools get significant support in online survey

by Dave Boyce

Charter school advocates turned out in force to respond to a recent online survey asking the Sequoia Union High School District community for criteria in hiring a replacement for Superintendent Patrick Gemma, who has announced plans to retire in June.

In the 17-item survey, of the 80 responses to item 16, "Additional criteria important to you," 37 argued for support of charter schools. Mr. Gemma had been relentless in speaking out against Everest Public High School, a sister school to Summit Prep that opened in August in Redwood City.

The results may or may not be meaningful. Web surveys can be skewed by groups making a concerted effort on one issue. Just one respondent to the "additional criteria" item expressed opposition to charters.

The Sequoia district ran the survey on its Web site for 12 days, from Feb. 22 to March 5, and gathered 95 respondents, 59 percent of whom identified themselves as parents of current, former or future students, according to a compilation provided to The Almanac by the district. Another 29 percent claimed to be district employees.

The district employs about 1,000 people, enrolls about 9,000 students, serves some 96,000 households and receives about 20,000 unique visits to its Web site every month, spokeswoman Bettylu Smith said in a letter.

Of the survey participants, 26 percent said they live in Menlo Park, another 26 percent said they live in Redwood City, with "other" and San Carlos next in line.

The bulk of the survey was 13 multiple-choice criteria. Respondents were asked to rate a candidate's view of priorities as either very important, somewhat important, or not too important.

The results showed 12 of the 13 items as "very important," including:

• "Sustain and improve the performance of ALL students while closing the gap between higher and poorer achieving students." Very-important rating: 83 percent.

• "Value and capitalize upon diversity in the schools and community as s/he addresses the unique needs of an ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse student body." Very-important rating: 53 percent.

• "Address the multi-faceted issues associated with charter schools in an objective manner." Very-important rating: 68 percent.

Some respondents found this tedious, with one person writing: "All the questions are leading — 'How important is it for the (superintendent) to do a good job on everything within their job description?'"

Said another: "I don't get it. How will this line of questioning be useful?"

That line of questioning is balanced by items asking for open-ended responses, Sequoia board President Olivia Martinez said in an interview. One part is quantitative and the other qualitative and, lacking a better method, the board uses the results as it may, she said.

The multiple choice items "reaffirm that there a consensus in the community as to the importance of what these things are," she said. "In a democracy, nothing is perfect."

Ms. Martinez recently announced that the board decided, in a 4-1 vote in closed session, to limit the search for a new superintendent to district employees only.

Atherton resident Peter Carpenter said he plans to challenge that decision in court because it should have been made in open session.

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