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Charter schools big issue in school board race

Original post made on Oct 20, 2009

The candidates for the contentious race for two seats on the high school district board race show potential to reshape the district's policies on charter schools, budgets and teaching methods.
[Web Link ==B ■ Brief bios of high school district board candidates.==]

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, October 20, 2009, 12:02 AM

Comments (51)

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Posted by Harry Turner
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Oct 20, 2009 at 3:28 pm

The Sequoia Board has endorsed and is campaigning for the candidates it has selected to self-perpetuate itself. No meddling from the voters, thank you. The Board even sent these two anointed candidates to speak on its behalf before the State Board of Education.

Does this serve the voters' standards for the SUHSD? Has this Board earned trust and respect sufficient for us to submit to this flagrant attempt to control who its members should be?

I think not and here's why. The District has had long term, persistent mediocre outcomes. The dropout rates are much too high and the degree of college preparedness is much too low.

Specifically, out of every one hundred ninth graders entering SUHSD only 70 graduate. Of the original one hundred only 36 are University of California eligible. Of all the entering Latino students only an abysmal 13% (one in eight) is Cal eligible. While adjectives like dropout factory and uneducated graduates would be hyperbolic this is no time for the District to self-perpetuate the status quo.

I submit that an obsequious blessing of two anointed candidates to join this exclusive inward looking Board would be an extremely bad mistake.

What's a voter to do? I suggest that we look to the other six candidates and vote for the two that meet our requirements for creative, competent, and accountability demanding members of the Sequoia Union High School Board.

Harry Turner

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 20, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Nicely put, Harry. I agree completely.

The two candidates that enjoy the overt blessing of the current board and Superintendent are suspect. A board is intended to provide real oversight of management, not simply rubber stamp their activities.

We can do better.

I encourage people to support and vote for Bob Ferrando and Chris Thomsen. They are highly qualified, serious candidates of impeccable integrity.

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Posted by a taxpayer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 20, 2009 at 7:19 pm

And the two charter school candidates, Ferrando and Thomsen, will be unbiased? I plan to vote for Wallace Greene since she seems to be focusing on the needs of the students in the SUHSD and not those in charter schools. We need someone focusing on them! The two charter school advocates, Ferrando and Thomsen, are too focused on charter schools and what is good for them. And because of his involvement and volunteerism at Carlmont, I support Sarver. Actions speaks louder than words.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 20, 2009 at 8:22 pm


I appreciate your post but respectfully disagree.

Thomsen and Ferrando have stated that they will work on behalf of ALL students - in comprehensives and in charters. Remember, Mr. Thomsen has children in BOTH schools.

This is not an "either/or" issue - and that attitude is at the very heart of this issue. We can and should support both types of schools.

I do agree with you that actions speak louder than words. Mr. Sarver spoke AGAINST the Everest Charter School which the State Board of Education staff (career employees, not political appointees) said was one of the best petitions they have seen and was unanimously approved by the State Board. That is no small feat! I think Mr. Sarver is a decent man but his anti-charter position reflects his blind support for the current administration. I want real oversight from the SUHSD board.

No, charters are not the ultimate answer, but their success is undeniable and even district officials have agreed that they do have something to offer. Our status quo isn't so successful that we can afford to ignore new ideas.

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Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Woodside High School
on Oct 20, 2009 at 8:30 pm

The last two paragraphs of the original article quote a chilling glimpse into values: preserve unclear budgets to create flexibility by keeping the public out.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 20, 2009 at 8:57 pm

you make the fallacious assumption that having charter schools around and that having them succeed somehow hurts the district schools and their students. High expectations, individual educational support, and focus on college prep are incorporated in the Summit/Everest model. If there are any tricks the district could take to the comprehensive schools, that would be great. Having any decent school around as competition should spur the comprehensive schools to do better, hardly hurting them. How the district/charter interaction occurs is one that can have an adverse impact on students in both comprehensives and charter schools.
For example, can you honestly tell me that trying to force Everest to locate at a geographic extreme site helped any of the SUHSD students? It certainly hurt the Everest students. Which appears to have been the point.
Such behavior on the district's part is the product of a board serving the Superintendent rather than providing an oversight role. So having had a board frankly opposed to charter schools, it strikes me that having some people on the board that are open to a positive interaction with the charters is a good thing. The status quo (and more of it as represented by SUHSD annointed candidates) has resulted in quite a bit of angst and to read taxpayers post, waste for students both at charters and at comprehensives.
It's not clear to me why on this thread and others, there appears to be a zero-sum approach to education, i.e. if charters exist and succeed that the district is harmed. My impression is this is rheotoric put forth by the district and is very divisive. Hence my concern with putting more rubber stampers on the board. To have people who went to speak at the state level on behalf of the district in opposition to charters hardly strikes me as someone who will bring a win-win approach to the challenges the new BOT will face.
Taxpayer, perhaps you can articulate the concern in having someone on the BOT who does not think that Gemma and the status quo is good enough. Aiming higher and wanting to improve all schools doesn't automatically lead to special treatment for charters, nor does it mean charters are the solution for every educational issue. I've been trying to imagine the liklihood of having any BOT decision truly favoring charters as a result of having someone franky pro-charter on the Board (just to be clear I don't consider Thompsen strictly pro-charter as he also has a child at a comprehensive school. Somehow, I don't see it happening (e.g. moving some students at Sequoia around to allow for students from Everest)as opposed to treating them as second class students (does "separate but equal" sound good as an SUHSD policy?). Might there be a bit more balance in the interaction, less need to go to the state? I would think yes as the SUHSD would not be able to simply bully the charters to their heart's content until the result is a lawsuit.
To me it's unfortunate that SUHSD has chosen "their" candidates in the same entitled manner that they don't want charters to take "their" money. It might also be that if charter advocates are absorbed into the SUHSD process, there might be more understanding of the challenges, a de facto enactment of what Gemma claims he wants, in principle, just not totally under his thumb.

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Posted by Jamie Shepard, LWVSSMC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 21, 2009 at 8:41 am

Having conducted a candidates forum for these candidates with a fair number of residents in attendance and TV cameras rolling for rebroadcast on public access channels, I was impressed with all of the candidates. Most gratifying, however, is seeing the public's interest and willingness to engage in their local government, as evidenced by this forum. That's democracy at the grassroots at its best!

The League is non-partisan and does not support candidates nor political parties. For up-to-date ballots, polling informations and candidate profiles (submitted vy the candidates themselves), check www.SmartVoter.Org, the state League of Women Voters election website.

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Posted by Richard
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Oct 21, 2009 at 9:02 am

Jamie Shepherd: Thanks for your posts. I can't find the links to the streaming video/audio for the local election forums. Do you know where they are for the elections in the Sequoia Union High School District and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District?

I can't find them on or on Web Link

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Posted by M-A grad & M-A/Summit parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 21, 2009 at 12:36 pm

It is delightful to see that the Almanac really got this one right (ref. Almanac editorial endorsements: Thomsen, Ferrando for high school board). It's endorsement of Mr. Thomsen and Mr. Ferrando shows that our local paper — which has covered the SUHSD vs. Summit and Everest in a clear, concise and unbiased manner, for several years — has made a clear, educated decision to lend support to the only two qualified candidates who have not been tainted by the self-serving agenda lodged by Dr. Gemma. Way to go, Almanac!

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Posted by former Menlo-Atherton parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 21, 2009 at 7:05 pm

I can't understand why it is wrong and biased for the SUHSD to endorse candidates but it isn't wrong for the charter school supporters to do the same? Thomsen has a child at a charter school and his wife was on the board of Summit until recently. How can he not be biased? SUHSD knows who has had involvement in their schools, who have put in hours of volunteer work and who has an understanding of the needs of their students.

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Posted by Clarification needed
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 22, 2009 at 9:00 am

Menlo-Atheron parent, I don't understand the assumption of bias regarding Thomsen, who also has a child at M-A. He obviously gets it -- the fact, that is, that high school shouldn't have to be a one-size-fits all proposition.

Also, framing the issue in terms of "bias" is bizarre. Candidates who support the concept of charter schools in reality are candidates who support following state law, which ALLOWS the establishment of charter schools. It's the district that has engaged in (possibly illegal) adversarial actions to prevent the formation of charter schools because of administrators' and board members' bias against them. Even though they are LEGAL. Please clarify.

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Posted by anonynmous
a resident of Woodside High School
on Oct 22, 2009 at 9:59 am

M-A parent,
state law bars the district from engaging directly in elections. It's also wrong to have the board to pick its own insiders. It's a horrible breach of ethics to have the superintendent and staff hand pick the people who are supposed to provide oversight.

That oversight role is why it was alarming to have the two insider candidates (Sarver and Kiraly) say to the League of Women Voters viewers that they would have done nothing different in the last three major issues proposed by the superintendent and rubber-stamped by a compliant board:
1) a 88% cost overrun for the M-A theater which spent an extra $12.5 million after the contribution by Menlo Park.
2) an illegal veto of the Everest charter where the state finally needed to intervene in order to have state law be followed
3) an illegal (and ethically wrong) facilities proposal for the approved Everest charter. Even the district revamped their proposal in embarrassment when the details were aired.

The insiders' endorsement of oversight shortcomings underscores the danger in Sarver's comment on the attractiveness of opaque budgets.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 22, 2009 at 10:38 am

Most of us abhor those "insider" corporate boards that simply rubber stamp management's actions. So why are some voters so eagerly embracing the two insider candidates offered up by the SUHSD board and management?

Regardless of your position on charter schools, I just don't get it. There are more issues on the table than charter schools. As noted above, this district is way out of wack financially and it's getting worse.

I'd like to see some REAL oversight from the board of trustees - questioning management (the Superintendent) and providing a check and balance is the board's real job.

The Almanac got it right - Thomsen and Ferrando are the ones to do this.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 22, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Can someone explain to me what it would mean to have someone on the board with a bias for charter schools?
This has been raised as an issue by some on this thread.
It's pretty clear what results from having a board/Superintendent combination with a decidedly anti-charter bias.
-increased divisions within the district with villifying on both sides
-loss of productivity for administrators within both the charter and district,
-loss of opportunity to innovate in education on a small scale in a productive, cooperative environment,
-financial cost of wasted sites, and potential damages from lawsuit,
-loss of district reputation at state level as local decision is unanimously overturned,
and so on....

So what is the worst that could happen from having a few people on the board that aren't decidedly anti-charter?
Would it mean listening to the requests from such schools with an open mind?
Is there fear that somehow charters would get infinite funding? Despite Gemma's objections? Doubtful.
Is there fear that charters would expand? Possibly.
Is that good or bad? It depends on how the charters perform. Frankly, if the district as a whole did as well as most students at Summit, I suspect most people would be pleased. Is that possible on a large scale? We'll never know with the status quo.
So I guess, while I would not assume any bias on the part of Thompsen (either pro-comprehensive schools or pro-charter) as a result of having children in different schools, even if he did, I wouldn't look at it as a bad thing, but more as providing more viewpoints than the current stagnant board. It is a pretty safe assumption that if the current BOTs endorsees are elected, the stagnation will continue. Actually, having children in both types of high schools gives Thomsen a unique perspective and personal interest in assuring abalance between comprehensive and charter schools. Sounds like more of reason to vote for him than not.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 22, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Good point, Concerned Parent.

But you cannot "overfund" a charter school. The funds they receive are set by state law. Even if a district wanted to provide them more money (and they don't, of course...), they couldn't.

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Posted by David Boyce
Almanac staff writer
on Oct 23, 2009 at 9:18 am

David Boyce is a registered user.

To anonymous: I don't have the citation of state law at hand, but I'm fairly sure that basic-aid school districts -- the ~60 districts that are relatively well off in property tax revenues compared to the other 940 districts -- have the option of funding charter schools at the same level as the students in the comprehensive schools.

For the Sequoia district -- using simple arithmetic and not accounting for the adult school funding and the Redwood continuation school -- a $103 million budget divided by 8,400 students is $12,200 per student.

I don't know what the precise figure is. It is likely less than that per student, but it would not be more.

The state requires that charter schools receive at least $6,700 per student.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2009 at 9:46 am

I recall reading that the minimum charter school funding is $6,700 and that funding cannot exceed the per student spending in the district.

The intent is that a district cannot "favor" a charter school by providing them more funds than other schools.

I'll try to find the citation. I think it was in one of the court filings for Summit.

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Posted by A concerned parent
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Oct 23, 2009 at 4:33 pm

David Boyce got the funding levels about right. SUHSD spends roughly $12,200 per student per year, and Summit Prep HS gets roughly $6700 per student per year. 12200/6700 = 182%. To make things worse, SUHSD takes some 3% "off the top" of the state provided student fee directed to Summit Prep HS, and keeps that 3% (or so) as a "management oversight fee". When one takes into account, the dropout rate differences, or the rate of "who passes the Calif. HS Exit Exam?" differences, SUSHD might be spending more than double per student per year than what Summit prep gets to spend.

As taxpayers, we should demand that the the SUHSD "learn" how to operate more economically. They've now got two charter schools in their district that would be happy to show them how, if anybody at the SUHSD cared to learn.

Harry Turner has the numbers about right, w.r.t. graduation/dropout rates, etc. One need only examine the SARC per school, to also see low rates of success passing the Ca HS Exit exam at the SUHSD comprehensive schools. The dropout rates, and the failure to pass the Ca HS Exit Exam, are disproportionately higher for Hispanic or Afro-American students in the SUHSD; also shown in the SARCs. Conversely, the graduation rates are very high, and all but one student (in some three/four? graduating classes now) have passed the Ca HS Exit exam at Summit Prep HS,with the Hispanics and Afro-American students performing as well as the white kids.

As responsible citizens, we should be deeply troubled by the consistently poor performance of the SUHSD schools. We should expect the new BOT members to also learn how the charters are doing so much better academically - for all the students, and to import helpful techniques and methods into the big schools, so that the other ~7800 kids can benefit from these highly successful experiments (i.e. the charter schools), not just the lucky few hundred who attend them.

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Posted by Menlo-Atherton parent
a resident of Atherton: other
on Oct 23, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Of course it going to be cheaper to operate at the charter schools when you make all the students study the same thing. How is that going to encourage achievement by the high achieving students at M-A who go on the top universities? I would estimate that about 10% of the class of 2010 are Commended or National Merit Semi-Finalists. That is the largest number in years. They must be something right. The lower end students need remedial programs as well. They need programs as well and that costs money. The all one size fits all that Summit and Everest are using will not fit the needs of all.

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Posted by Amused at All This
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Oct 23, 2009 at 7:04 pm

The League of Women VOter is unbiased and non-partisan? Say what?! Ha-ha-ha! That is the most consistently liberal group out there and one whose opinion I've long since learned to discount.

I'm delighted at the Almanac's opinion and that of a thinking majority of comments shown above. I've enjoyed reading them. And yes, I've had three children attend district public high schools.

Down with political correctness, typical academic nonsense and horse feathers! The proof is in the puddin'! I'm voting for Ferrando and Thomson for all the obvious reasons!

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Menlo-Atherton Parent:

Respectfully, you've turned the world on it's head.

The "one size fits all" philosophy is the clear philosophy of the SUHSD, not charters. Why else would they oppose programs that are different from theirs?

And that's why the SUHSD has resisted, deceived and even disobeyed state law in their efforts to thwart charter schools. They did it with Aurora - a school they refused to locate and then re-located every few months just to throw curves at parents. Then they did it with Summit and they're doing it with Everest.

Unfortunately for the district and for you, the charter school results are undeniably positive. And their demographics is just as diverse - perhaps even more so - than the district at large.

As far as determining success, the SUHSD officials need to take a math course. The district reports college entrance success based only on students who graduated that year (ie, X number of graduating students qualified or entered college). How about basing it on that class's entire experience during their three years at the district (ie, X number of students went to college out of total number of students who entered the district three years earlier as 10th graders). That would be a disasterous ratio. Compare that number to the charter's experience would be pretty revealing, wouldn't it?

Ironically, no one from the charter schools believes one size fits all. It is precisely their ability to offer smaller, more focused programs that makes charters successful. Not every child - especially those in the middle 80% who are not gifted or challenged - fits the one size fits all offered by the comprehensives!

But regardless of your position on charters, citizens must surely support real oversight from the board of trustees... not a rubber stamp board comprised of hand selected candidates from the district. There are more issues than charters. This district has no fiscal transparency and tax payers deserve to know where their dollars are being spent.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 26, 2009 at 7:29 am

M-A parent,

you might want to check out the accomplishments of some of the Summit graduates. Understanding that the number of students is small, the percentage of students going to college at all, and "top tier" colleges is quite good. There are a few other points to note, however. College prep is actually beneficial, even if a student doesn;t go on to college, hence the high expectations of Summit/Everest are something that should be incorporated more generally and I think that is something most candidates appeared to agree on.
On the topic of integration, I would submit that in terms of true integration, that the Summit/Everest campuses are more truly integrated than any of the comprehensives. The reason I say that, is the segregation by tracking that happens at M-A, Woodside, etc. It may be that the overall stas show a diverse population, but when it comes to actually interacting in a meaningful way with people different from yourself, I suspect it happens more at the small school environment at Summit/Everest than at the larger schools.
Finally, as far as the comment of studying the same thing, I would argue that the charters actually have more freedom in terms of curriculum than the comprehensives (that's sort of the point of charters being able to innovate and experiment). The fact that the major focus is on academics strikes me as a good thing rather than something to be critiqued. IF the major goal of our schools, preparing our children to be successful adults, relied primarily on academic preparation, that is where we should put the school's priorities, with all due respect to sports and performing arts.

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Posted by PTA mom
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Oct 27, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Charter schools are a great idea, but it is a very self selecting population. M-A and the other big Sequoia high schools have to educate a very diverse and sometimes difficult group of kids. I am curious if the charter schools would be as popular if kids were randomly assigned to them.

I have heard fear/trepidation about MA from parents that live in Menlo Park/Ladera for many years. That is one of the reasons why these charter schools exist in our school district. Paly and Gunn are just as large as MA, but because of the homogenous student body there is no talk of charter schools. That is just the way things are, I understand that parents of young children drive by MA and are concerned. Both my kids went there, though, and I feel like we gave them a gift of seeing a little bit of the real world and the struggles of kids not as fortunate as my own.

I understand the upside of charter schools and I would love to see every kid from EPA in a situation that gives them such wonderful small school benefits. Unfortunately, the charter schools will probably only be able to educate a small percentage of the entire school population.

I applaud the hard work of the administrators at all the schools and the superintendent. They are all trying to find a way to educate a very diverse and challenging student body. I hope that the discussions around these issues can be done without name calling and with respect. I think we all deserve that.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 27, 2009 at 4:08 pm

PTA Mom -

You seem to ignore the facts that have appeared in The Almanac, the links that have been posted on this forum and the data that is easily available from the SUHSD.

Charter school students are selected by lottery. That means that names are put into a hat and picked at random. A student from Atherton has the same chance of being selected as a student from East Palo Alto. No priority is given to any student.

Did you know that there are already two charter schools in East Palo Alto? That's more than any other city in the district! They have both East Palo Alto Academy (run by Stanford University) and East Palo Alto Charter School. If an EPA family wants a small school environment that close to home, both schools are excellent and have available spots.

The choice of Redwood City for Everest was based on the school organizer's decision to locate centrally and be equidistant to all parts of the district and near transportation corridors. State law gives the organizers - not the district - the right to choose their location. The reason is that districts have been a little too clever in locating charters. The sad truth is that they often put them in basements and at the fartherest corner of the district to make them as inconvenient as possible.

You should do your homework before making accusations about diversity. Both Everest and Summit are just as diverse than the district at large by racial, ethnic and economic metrics. In fact, by some parameters, they are a bit more diverse. That may be a reflection of the lottery.

Finally, be mindful that full 25% of the entering class applied to Everest and Summit. That one out of four tenth graders wanted to go this route should tell you how many families feel about charters!

You can keep echo the falsehoods from the SUHSD as much as you want, but that won't make them true.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm

My apologies for some of the typos above.

I should proof-read more carefully!

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Posted by Prefer facts to fantasy
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 27, 2009 at 4:14 pm

Sigh. How many more times will people continue to ignore THE ACTUAL DATA which show that Summit and Everest student demographics mirror the district overall? I am so sick of people WHO DON'T KNOW what they are talking about to keep portraying charters as white flight vehicles. I don't, and won't, have children at the charters because my kids are lucky enough to be high achieving and wouldn't want to lose the benefits of being in a comprehensive program. But I certainly don't begrudge my friends with kids who would have a hard time suceeding at MA from having some other options that might work better for their kids. e
Every single kid that I personally know of from Menlo Park who went on to Summit was a struggling student. It is SO ignorant and unfair of people WHO DON'T KNOW THE FACTS to be effectively accusing these parents of racism. I think these people should walk a mile in the shoes of my friends who are so desperate to help their struggling kids that they are willing to give up all the benefits of a comprehensive school. I just wish the district would stop spending money on an I'll-advised legal battle, and focus on trying to meet the needs of ALL kids.

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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 27, 2009 at 5:27 pm

You don't want to start randomly assigning kids to school. That kind of big-brotherish tactic is exactly what we don't need! One great aspect of the charters is that they give our district families a choice between a traditional comprehensive and a more intimate academic setting.

Although my own kids have (so far) chosen comprehensives, I know a lot of kids at Summit, including some alums. The kids I know were not struggling in middle school, and would probably do okay at M-A -- but they would not be blossoming as they have at Summit.

As others have said, Summit (and Everest) truly are integrated schools. M-A is not. My kids attend classes with the same kids they have always known from Hillview and La Entrada. They take AP classes that are about as homogeneous as you can get. And then you look at the stats for M-A and the other comprehensives and you have to wonder what is happening to the kids, mostly Latinos and blacks, who are vanishing from those schools.

The district should end its legal action against the Summit Institute and start looking seriously into what it can do to replicate the charters' success with underachievers in the comprehensives. Every child should be encouraged to aim high and get a real education, and that is not what the SUHSD is doing now.

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Posted by Concerned PArent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm

It's nice to hear some input on this board from parents who have kids in comprehensives, yet understand the benefits of having charters too. Just as a clarification for mom X4, I believe the legal action was taken by Summit/Everest against the district, hence the district can't undo it. Now they could acknowledge their continued bad faith dealings in all aspects of Everest's existence and make a settlement offer, but that would require some money as well as acknowledging wrong on their part. At every step of the way, the district has only done the right thing when forced, independent of the financial cost. Hence the reason to bring in more independent trustees to provide real oversight.

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Posted by Woodside Parent
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Oct 27, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Our children went to Woodside Elementary and had wonderful teachers. However we did not feel that they would fit the large school model at Woodside High so they went to Crystal Springs Uplands. I truly feel that if Summit/Everest had been an option at the time, our kids would have gone there.

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Posted by PTA Mom
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Oct 27, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Completely agree that having different options is a good idea. Just not sure how the charter school people want to deal with the other 90% of kids that will remain in large schools. Do they want all the schools broken up into small schools? I really am interested in what their solution is...I am interested in hearing from people who are obviously very passionate about their kids and their schools. Just want to make sure that they understand that there is a big picture beyond charter school solutions.

Also, there is a lottery, but it is a lottery for people that have applied to the charter school, thus a self selecting population of kids and parents that are involved and tuned in (which is 90% of the battle that teachers in large schools deal with). Also, I understand that population reflects larger schools and graduates of Summit have done well. And again, I ask, why is there no need for charter schools in Palo Alto with the same big schools?

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 28, 2009 at 8:04 am

Gee, maybe after our country's 50+ year experiment with larger and larger comprehensive high schools, more and more spending and less and less success, district officials might just want to take a look at the reasons behind the success and relatively lower costs at charter schools. It reminds me a little of Detroit ignoring the Japanese automakers back in the 1980's. Sometimes, the new guys can have a good idea.

My complaint with the SUHSD (from the Superintendent to the Board of Trustees) is that they do not appear to have any interest in learning from other programs, they only seem to want to squash them. I abhor close mindedness and I expect more from our supposedly "progressive" educational leaders.

PTA Mom: You make a good point about the lottery being self selecting (ie, you actually have to enter to win...). But a full one-fourth of this year's entering class chose to enter and that is, by itself, a stunning number and quite a commentary on overall dissatisfaction with the district. And that lottery resulted in a very diverse group of students - a philosophy the charters seem to embrace. If only rich white families applied to the lottery, they would far more represented in the charter's student body. They are not.

I think comprehensives do a very good job at either end of the capability spectrum. The gifted seem to thrive in the AP classes and the challenged seem to benefit from the intensive support they receive from one-on-one attention. The real tragedy, however, is that we sacrifice the other 80% of students in the middle of that bell shaped curve by not providing them with innovative, interesting programs. Their drop rate, poor skills and inability to graduate is the real scandal.

Why is there no need for charters in Palo Alto? I think there are three reasons, but I am admittedly speculating. First, I believe Palo Alto has a more homogenous population - they do not have the racial, ethnic or economic diversity of the Sequoia District. The only reason I point this out is due to my second and third reasons. Second, the feeder middle schools in Palo Alto do a better job preparing their students for Paly and Gunn (which allows them to have even greater success) and this is probably because those middle schools spend less time having to remediate non-English speakers and other students needing more intense remediation, something we see in the Sequoia's feeder schools. Finally, and most importantly, I think the success of Gunn and Palo Alto High has reduced "dissatisfaction" from parents of their students.

It would be nice to see the SUHSD take a more positive and supportive position on the only schools in their district that seem to be thriving.

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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 28, 2009 at 8:48 am

Palo Alto is a unified district, K-12. We don't have that in our part of the county, so the students arrive at M-A with very different backgrounds. The stance of the SUHSD admin is that you cannot mix those kids because some are prepared for HS and some are not. A lot of the issues we have with the SUHSD have their origins in the elementary schools.

That said, I think a charter school could be very attractive to students in Palo Alto, but no one with Dianne Tavenner's passion has opted to start one.

@PTA Mom: yes, the lottery is for those who are interested in the charter school. Should my kids, who are not interested, be forced to apply? I disagree that the kids who go to the charters are those of the involved parents. That is not my observation. Some are, some aren't, and there are plenty of parent volunteers remaining at M-A. In fact, I'd guess that the parents who are into being PTA big shots are likely to encourage their kids to stay in the comprehensives so that they (the parents) can remain bigger fish in the biggest ponds.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 28, 2009 at 9:32 am

Thanks to posters for an interesting discussion. I do think that there is a real benefit for districts being comprehensive (K-12), rather than the unfortunate split that we have in San Mateo County. I don't see that changing any time soon and studies from Chicago argue that the break in systems at the transition from Junior to Senior High School is a real potential problem.
As far as the issue of comparative outcomes, it is a real challenge to look at the charter population vs. non-charter since there is a confounding self-selection that occurs. Nonetheless, there is a study from the Boston school system where they actually looked at the entire group of students who applied to a charter school (admission by lottery) and followed those that got in and those that didn't, presumably parents and students in both groups were plugged in and valued education enough to enter a lottery. The charter school students did better in that study. However, given the difference between different charter schools, it is very difficult to extrapolate.
As far as how to "industrialize" the results of a school like Summit/Everest... this is a challenge. To date, the district's apporach has been to deny that there is any success there, nor any reason to replicate it. It would be nice to see more cooperation between the district. It might be there are certain approaches the charters use that could be applicable in the comprehensive schools, some might not. Some might not be feasible. One could imagine (I say imagine because it would take a major shift from the current district mindset) that anecdotal vignettes of success are presented in both settings. The whole point of charters is to allow innovation and try new things to see if they work. The natural next step if something looks promising, is to move it into a broader setting. With cooperation, this could b e done to the benefit of all. It may also be that there are resources the district has which could be beneficially used by Summit/Everest. Imagine the win-win if there were cooperation.

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Posted by PTA mom
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Oct 28, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Concerned Parent, thanks for your thoughtful responses and some of the information about charters. I don't think the big high schools are going to go away and I would love to find a way to educate the many kids who fall through the cracks. Charter schools or places like Eastside Prep are doing a great job. When I volunteered at MA I met lots of great kids who had some really tough problems to overcome--living in tiny apts with many other people, kids whose parents needed them to leave school junior year so they could start working and contributing financially to the family. MA is trying to work with those kids and does have smaller programs within the larger school population. I met very dedicated teachers and administrators. That was my point in getting involved in this discussion (which I am leaving after this post) just wanting people to understand that both sides want what is best for the kids and need to educate a very large group that includes the charters and the 4 large high schools. Both my kids were in "middle" track classes at MA (math and science) and they did all right. It wasn't always perfect, but such is life. Just hope that the conversations can remain civil, but maybe not possible in this day of anonymous blogging and comments. Kind of like this comment that was directed towards me...guess working for the MA PTA was a grab for unlimited power (huh?).

"@PTA Mom: yes, the lottery is for those who are interested in the charter school. Should my kids, who are not interested, be forced to apply? I disagree that the kids who go to the charters are those of the involved parents. That is not my observation. Some are, some aren't, and there are plenty of parent volunteers remaining at M-A. In fact, I'd guess that the parents who are into being PTA big shots are likely to encourage their kids to stay in the comprehensives so that they (the parents) can remain bigger fish in the biggest ponds"

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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 28, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Two points I was trying to make re the jabs at the charters:

* Only 1/4 of SUHSD students applied for charter schools. Charter opponents use this fact as proof that the charters are elitist and suggest that all students should be included in the lottery. However, many students choose not to participate in the lottery, and no child should be forced to attend a charter!

* Charter detractors claim that the charters siphon off the most involved parents. My anecdotal observation is that the children of the most involved parents tend to remain at the comprehensives. The children get a great education while their parents volunteer to help the schools -- a win-win all around. Far be it from me to criticize their motives or the results; as a PTA volunteer myself, I was just pointing out the fallacy of that particular complaint.

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Posted by PTA mom
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Oct 28, 2009 at 3:40 pm

When I said "involved parents" I wasn't referring to PTA/school volunteers, I was meaning parents that have the time, energy and interest to be involved in their kids academic process, nothing to do with volunteer hours. IF you re read my posts you will see that I am pro-charter especially for at risk kids, just want both sides of the issue to be discussed fairly.

One last point and then I will gracefully exit--
"It would be nice to see the SUHSD take a more positive and supportive position on the only schools in their district that seem to be thriving."

This was stated by a previous poster and I respectfully disagree and feel like statements such as these really do not forward the debate in a positive way. The 4 large schools have wildly successful students and great reputations on the peninsula. I just received an email from a teacher from the Academy at MA (a small school within the school for at risk kids) looking for mentors--a very successful program at MA.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 28, 2009 at 4:06 pm

I just have to say at this point in the discussion that the argument against charters seems to embody the notion that there are winners, there are categories of middling success, and there are losers in the American way of education, and that we should celebrate this because it's always been that way and because it's ours. Hurray for our freedom!

The charters are saying that losing or finding middling success is not acceptable, that they are there for every student and every family willing to dream and to try hard.

Maybe such an approach is unAmerican (if what I laid out above has validity), but the charter approach is a damn site better than what we've got now for the students caught in the middle and being tracked away from demanding courses in traditional large schools because the mentoring and attention is just not there for them.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Oct 28, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Excuse me. ... damn sight better than what we've got now.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 28, 2009 at 4:16 pm

PTA Mom,

thanks for your input. Despite my frequent criticisms of the district, I wouldn't say charter schools are the only schools that are thriving. There are children doing well in the comprehensives and there are programs that serve many students. It turns out that the programs and approaches in the comprehensives may not be best (in the opinions of their parents) for all children. Having charter schools as alternative choices for such students/parents is a good thing in my mind. The fact that there are charter schools thriving does not necessarily mean that there aren't good things happening in the comprehensives. It should also be noted that as there are students thriving in the comprehensive schools, there are issues with graduation rates in some of the schools. I don't know if the charters can help with this or add some additional tools, but I do know that in taking such an adversarial approach to the very existence of charter schools at all, the SUHSD has not demonstrated exemplary behavior or educational leadership and that is a shame.

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Posted by jim watson
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 28, 2009 at 11:54 pm

Enough about the Charter schools, its obvious they are out performing the big schools even though SUHD continues to make things difficult while at the same time wasting our tax dollars. The point I want to make is that clearly Chris Thomsen and Bob Ferrando are the only two who are prepared and ready to manage the SUHD budget. They have the experience and desire to spend our tax money well. They are not afraid of change and more importantly transparency. We need their experience and common sense, not more of the same old business or worse yet another puppet for the SUHD. Be smart and save our Chris Thomsen and Bob Ferrando.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 29, 2009 at 8:54 am

PTA Mom:

I made the post that you referenced. I said: "It would be nice to see the SUHSD take a more positive and supportive position on the only schools in their district that seem to be thriving."

You responded by saying "statements such as these really do not forward the debate in a positive way. The 4 large schools have wildly successful students and great reputations on the peninsula."

I never said that a school didn't have wildly successful STUDENTS. In fact, I noted the great success at either end of the capability spectrum with gifted and challenged students. But they absolutely stink for the 80% in the middle.

My personal observation is that gifted kids will usually find a way to succeed... they seem to be able to study in the middle of a riot. But I do worry about the middle 80%, because those kids are so easily discouraged. These are students that district has failed.

And that is precisely where the charters seem to thrive. If you include the drop out rate in 10th and 11th grade - which the district conveniently ignores when it publishes their graduation rates (after about a third of their students have already dropped out!) - the charters simply blow the comprehensives away.

Yes, every school has wildly successful students as well as it's miserable failures. I judge the district's management by overall performance, not just if a few students graduate and go to Harvard. And by those global measures - drop out rates, exit exam success, graduation rates, college entrance rates - the SUHSD comprehensives are hardly thriving.

We cannot continue to accept this performance from our district.

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Posted by mom x 4
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Oct 29, 2009 at 9:55 am

Well said, anon.

Although none of my children (so far) have attended a charter, I have visited Summit. It's not the most beautiful facility in the world, but it's very clear that the students feel comfortable there: the prevailing atmosphere is friendly, happy, collegial vs angst-ridden and competitive. Notably, there's a big display near the entrance with individual portraits of all the teachers and the principal. Each photo is captioned "I love Summit because..." and the teacher states her/his passion for the school and the students.

I cannot imagine M-A teachers doing the same. Although most of the teachers are terrific (at least those who teach the honors/AP classes) I have rarely glimpsed the joy of teaching and connecting with students that is palpable at Summit. Wow.

The students at Summit (and, I assume, Everest) know that the teachers care about them and believe in them. Students are expected to set their sights high. Every single student prepares for attendance at a 4-year college -- that alone is a huge point of differentiation from the comprehensives.

To be fair to Gemma and the SUHSD administration, I realize that M-A (and, as I recall, some or maybe all the other comprehensives) was in PI status for years thanks to NCLB, and was in danger of being taken over by the state. There was a huge amount of focus on getting the numbers up, and the district took steps that may have seemed expedient at the time but were not oriented to the best interests of the struggling students. But that danger seems to have passed, and it is time to figure out what to do for the dozens and dozens of students who never even make it to senior year? That is the real challenge and the current practice of encouraging those kids to drop out is not the answer.

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Posted by SUHSD Parent
a resident of another community
on Oct 30, 2009 at 10:31 am

The District has a lawsuit pending that they are prepared to fight tooth and nail, regardless of cost. There is a lot of ego involved and they have hand-picked their candidates who will not reverse a "Custer" decision. It is the District that has made this a war. Charters are NOT better than Comprehensives. But Charters definitely have a place and they should be celebrated, not castigated by the District. We need candidates who will build bridges.

Here is my personal experience and observations as a SUHSD Parent and SUHSD Grad with our four children. All four children were in the GATE program (either in San Mateo or Redwood City). All four received equivalent school and parental support during their elementary and middle school years. Here are the results and explanation. We are mixed Hispanic, Pacific Islander, White family or lower-mid middle class economic status:

Child #1 - Went to Sequoia. Adopted the attitude that it was easier to play dumb and the teachers would be grateful for whatever he did. Dropped out of Sequoia Senior year. Got his GED at age 23.

Child #2 - Went to Sequoia. Did well enough to place in AP classes, but graduated with a sub-2.0 GPA. Figured out quickly that doing homework was purely optional because as long as her test scores were high on the standardized tests, she could get by not turning in homework and just showing up for tests. Ultimately, got her act together in Community College and went on to graduate from a U.C.

Child #3 - A Senior at Summit. Worked his butt off and has a 4.05 GPA. He is no smarter than the others and was not as much of standout student as Child #1,2 were in middle school. Summit teachers are committed to making sure he succeeds and provide plenty of opportunity to get explanation during office hours. Has a rich social life at Summit and loves the school. Is at school from 7:45 AM - 5 PM everyday.

Child #4 - A Freshman at Everest. Has never had to work so hard in his life and is probably the laziest student of the four. He is struggling right now but loves the school, the teachers and his classmates.

Personal experience says that Summit/Everest provided a positive and consistent experience that the larger Sequoia lacked. We liked Sequoia and thought the teachers were great. However, the administration expects a percentage of students not to make it. It is factored in and an expected outcome for an established institution that has not significantly evolved since before WWII. Superintendent Gemma, the current Board and the Teachers Union are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo and fighting Charters at all points.

I don't know about you, but I have had to make many changes over past the 30 years that I have been an adult. Many of the ideas I had about work and security in my 20s have not panned out now that I am in my late 40s. So you refocus, make changes and continue on an evolved course. The District is fighting the tide and desperately wants the Charters to go away or at least be quarantined in EPA. The current progressive educational community (from President Obama on down) is supporting Charter education as an alternative and complimentary education program where best practices are created. Locally, it is the opposite.

I will vote for Thomsen and Ferrando with the hope that they can settle this stupid litigation and refocus the District on providing educational benefits to all students in District (comprehensives and Charters). This fight is ridiculous.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 30, 2009 at 11:01 am

SUHSD Parent:

Wow! Your experience seems to demonstrate how kids in the middle can be so easily discouraged - especially when teachers demand so little and openly show that they don't expect much. In the smaller, more intimate setting, these same kids seem to thrive with the more intensive attention (and who wouldn't!). I'm very, very happy for your family!

Yes, I agree that this lawsuit - which Everest was forced to file and will almost certainly win - is going to be a very expensive lesson for the district. They're going to get totally spanked by the court.

What are the trustees thinking - let's go after the only two schools that seem to be doing well? The trustees should be ashamed of themselves for allowing this to get to this point.

I agree that change and REAL oversight is long overdue and will also be voting for Thomsen and Ferrando.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Oct 30, 2009 at 11:30 am

SUSHD Parent,

thanks for your internal family "study" on different schools. While it's impossible to know how your older students would have done in the Summit/Everest program, but it's nice that you and your chidrent have that option. My concern is that the current SUHSD regime will continue to make costly decisions using district resources that might be better spent elsewhere to wear down Summit/Everest resulting in the eventual loss of these schools. Having some representation that is not frankly anti-charter on the SUHSD BOT would be a good start. I don't see that there is an awful lot to lose, whereas voting for the insider slate would virtually guarantee a continuation of what can only be described as suboptimal policies. Frankly, the less friendly description would be to call Gemma and his cronies as unethical, petty, and small minded with regard to their interactions with charters.
Just as a contrast, take a look at the way the district in LA describes charter schools.
Web Link

They are described as laboratories for innovation and there is an entire part of the web system providing information. Kind of refreshing to see a more collaborative approach.

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Posted by SUHSD Parent
a resident of another community
on Oct 30, 2009 at 12:38 pm

Concerned Parent, you are correct. There is no way we would know whether the first two would have done any better at Summit. However, we have been in the District for over 12 years as semi-active parents and have had an opportunity to observe both sides of this issue. I can assure you the degree of engagement that Child #3-4 have in school is the polar opposite that Child #1-2 had. It is common for Child #3-4 to be up to 11pm/12am doing homework (they are not too efficient- I blame Facebook) and they have homework every weekend. They work hard and there is an expectation that they must and their workload steadily increases. I seldom saw any homework being done by their elder siblings past 8th grade. Just showing up was satisfactory.

One could argue that Child#3-4 maybe higher achievers. I doubt it, and I seriously doubt that they would be International Baccalaureate material (probably only child #2 would have been). So I think that the argument of "what is the District doing with the middle 80%?" is a very valid concern.

I have seen first-hand a very clear "Charters are the enemy" attitude from Superintendent Gemma and staff from direct conversation and dealing with the District. I worry about the values they are modeling and am so tired of their "not made here" stand.

Agree of Disagree -- but please Vote Nov 3rd. This is your chance to tell the District to move forward or backward.

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Posted by A concerned parent
a resident of Woodside: other
on Oct 30, 2009 at 12:56 pm

A concerned parent/MP/Willows used this language:

"Frankly, the less friendly description would be to call Gemma and his cronies as unethical, petty, and small minded with regard to their interactions with charters."

I've watched Gemma interact for years, he hasn't changed and he appears to never learn. He loses nearly all the lawsuits he initiates/causes, but still repeats the same mistakes that lead to what seem to be several annual, costly, unnecessary and wasteful lawsuits.

I hope that the new BOT looks closely at Gemma's job performance, and thinks hard about the kind of SUHSD they want in the future. Status quo is unacceptable. He has a PhD; he might be capable of growing into a great leader of a distinguished public school district. But he hasn't shown it yet, and unless the BOT demands change from him, it certainly won't come from within.

Da Vinci had a great observation about people:
" there are three types of people in the world. Those who "see". Those who "see when they are shown". And those who "never see"."

Gemma and his cronies consistently earn placement in bucket #3. Depressing, that with all the resources and opportunities in this district, that's the best that we can do? His arrogance reminds me of Dick Cheney, absolutely convinced of his personal superior judgement, in spite of massive evidence to the contrary. Unwilling or unable to comprehend anything outside his pre-determined path. Ignoring the advice of stakeholders. (Recall the suit that the Town of Atherton had to threaten, in order to get the SUHSD to pay attention to the local town issues with the MA performing arts center? That hostility and those legal bills could have all been avoided by just sitting down, talking with others, and working things out. Just like most of these repeated and excessive legal bills could be avoided, by just following the law first, common sense second, then sitting down and working things out in one of many possible win-win scenarios. Most of us do this in our business, and in our personal lives. Gemma seems never to even try to work things out, prior to declaring war and hiring lawyers to sue. Because like Cheney, he's always right - in his mind, and if he doesn't get his way, uses force not logic.)

I, for one, am pretty fed up with such unprofessional (at best) behavior. I hope the new BOT will accept the responsibility that change starts at the top, and will make necessary changes. Either in behavior, or in personnel. It'll be hard, but if you're not up for it, don't run for the BOT. BOT is not the most glamorous job around, and it's not like people shower you with rose petals and big bonus checks. BOT candidates: gut check time. Good luck in the election, and especially in the job that you seek to perform.

May the new BOT, be wise, humble, thoughtful, visionary, and tough when needed.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of another community
on Oct 30, 2009 at 4:46 pm

Gemma looks like he came straight from "central casting." He's good looking, well educated, well spoken and has that aire of quiet self-confidence.

But as you have pointed out, he has been on the wrong side of A LOT of litigation. Expensive, yes; but even worse, he has been insanely divisive.

But he fights with the district's money, not his own. So these lawsuits are free... at least for him. And for that reason, I think his arrogance can no longer be tolerated.

I honestly don't understand this board of trustees. They seem even keeled, reasonable, smart and dedicated officials. But they obviously have a quite a blind spot when it comes to their Superintendent.

Hopefully some new blood on the board of trustees will infuse a new sense of oversight. It's really long overdue.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Woodside High School
on Oct 31, 2009 at 11:07 am

> But he fights with the district's money, not his own

which is to say, that he fights with our local tax dollars. The only exception comes when he is named personally in the suit - then he uses our local tax dollars to exempt himself from the fight.

That legal ruling is quite important for the Board of Trustees -- it visibly reminds the current board and candidates that the baord is responsible. As the district's attorney's reminded everyone (at an unlisted hourly billable rate) the superintendent is "not the decision-maker," said Deputy County Counsel David Levy, one of the attorneys representing the district. "The five members of the board are the decision-makers."

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Posted by SUHSD Resident and Grateful Everest Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Nov 3, 2009 at 9:37 am

As an Everest parent and resident of the Sequoia Union High School district I am saddened by all the discussion of SUHSD schools vs. Charter schools. You can enable charter schools, but its difficult to have a bias towards them. If charter schools cannot generate enough demand for attendance, or if they cannot operate on the very regulated funds they get per student, they close up shop. Charter schools are about educational options for our kids. My daughter's charter school, Everest, provides her with what she needs and she is thriving there. Different children have different needs. Some thrive at a big school, some thrive at a smaller one with personalized attention. Isn't that what our educational system should be about? Our kids? And I have one extremely successful kid right now who adores her school, is extremely motivated and is turning into a pretty stellar adult thanks to an educational option being available that suits her needs. I have faith that Thompsen and Ferrando will work to improve education for all our students, both at traditional SUHSD schools and to not waste money on trying to harm charter schools that have a great amount of demand within our community and whose charter was approved. There is too much "group think" on the SUHSD currently, it is dividing our community in ridiculous ways, distracting us from the main goal of our education system, which is to generate educated, responsible, thinking adults - and I for one welcome new opinions.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 4, 2009 at 10:04 am

So it appears that Thompson and Sarver are the new members of the BOT for the SUHSD. I would hope that all the passion and concern expressed on this thread will translate into discussions with the new and returning BOT members and further a spirit of collaboration and tranparency in the interest of best educating the children of SUHSD. Please stay engaged, whatever your opinion might be. To Messrs. Thompson and Sarver, Congratulations on your election and may you serve wisely and face the challenges ahead with an open mind.

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