A Fresh Start for Vallejo Schools
The flurry of protests and accusations following the termination of the Vallejo School District Superintendent highlights the difficulties facing our community in getting the system back on track.  The problems didn’t begin with Ms. Bishop and they won’t be leaving with her - but the recent election results tell us that the voters lost confidence in the oversight of the previous Board and the ability of the administration to turn things around.  The manner of the dismissal in closed session with little warning or public discussion has served to deepen the rift between the former administrator’s supporters and critics.  

The cloud of dust kicked up in the aftermath of the decision threatens to obscure the real obstacles to progress and cause us to stumble and lose our way once again.  We have a very long way to go to create a climate in our schools that promotes educational excellence, and we as a community need to find the right path to reach that goal.  The first steps must begin with a frank evaluation of where we went wrong in the last attempt.   

Supporters of the previous administration want to argue that lower expulsion rates and higher graduation rates point to real progress.  Those are not meaningful measures of academic performance.  We don’t do our kids any favors by tolerating socially unacceptable behavior or graduating them without the skills or knowledge they need to succeed in college or hold down a job.  Poor performance on standardized test scores and dropping enrollment numbers tell us that we have been failing our children.  Others want to argue that it’s the fault of parents for not instilling proper values, as though that somehow absolves us of our collective responsibility to establish and maintain a set of norms and standards in our public education system.  It doesn’t.
The new School Board has come under fire for a lack of transparency or somehow violating the Brown Act in making the decision to buy out the remainder of Ms. Bishop’s contract.  Those are unfair allegations given that the Board is strictly limited in what they can say in public about these kinds of personnel decisions.  While we are not privy to all the information now becoming available to the Board, it isn’t hard to see where the last administration went wrong.  Under the former Superintendent’s leadership the public school system was being run as a crony network.  No-one suggests that she brought this style of politics to Vallejo, but for whatever reason she decided it was in her interest to join in.  

Wikipedia defines cronyism as “the practice of partiality in awarding jobs and other advantages to friends or trusted colleagues."  The flip side is using positions of power to target and punish those perceived as threats to network control.  Both have been commonplace in our public school system, as evidenced by two recent examples.  A junket to a conference of an Association of African-American Superintendents and Administrators in San Diego included fourteen staff members and four friendly parents with six students.  It cost the District more than $43,000, and yet somehow we can’t afford a fifth grade teacher for Federal Terrace Elementary.  Ms. Bishop authorized a $75,000 investigation of teachers for ‘sabotaging’ the accreditation review that put the high school on probation - an investigation that came up empty.  Retaliation against students and teachers who criticized the administration has been a chronic complaint, and a practice guaranteed to stifle real progress.
In our discussion at Voices it’s been pointed out that this is really a case of the pendulum swinging from control by one crony network to another group historically on the outside, and there is merit in that perspective.  When we look back at the political history of the District, it was the black community who felt under-served during what many others now regard as the good old days of public education in Vallejo.  But crony networks act against the public interest, and we will oppose them regardless of the culture or ethnicity of the members.  It’s time to throw away the pendulum and figure out how to work together for the common good.

Some things should be clear to all of us.  You don’t have to be black to care about black kids.  You don’t have to be a parent of a school age child to have a stake in the health of our public school system.  They are all our kids - we live here with them and they are the future of our community.   The quality of our public school system impacts local economic development and property values.  We are all stakeholders here.
Finland earned a number of mentions on social media following the Board’s action as the country that routinely leads the world in academic proficiency.  One of the well-known standout features of the Finnish education system is the excellence of their teachers.  Their Minister of Education recently explained: “ In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it’s a very important profession - and that’s why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers.  All of the teacher-training is run by universities in Finland and all students do a five-year master’s degree.  Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development.  We trust the teachers.”

By contrast, our teachers too often feel a lack of support from the administration, disrespect from students, and blame from the community at large for poor academic outcomes.  Vallejo teachers are not compensated as well as surrounding districts, and the unions have come under fire as obstacles to reform.  When asked about the role of unions in Finland, the Minister replied: “For me, as Minister of Education, our teachers’ union has been one of the main partners because we have the same goal: we all want to ensure that the quality of education is good and we are working very much together with the union.  Nearly every week we are in discussions with them.  They are very powerful in Finland. Nearly all of the teachers are members.  I think we don’t have big differences in our thinking.  They are very good partners for us.”

Concerns expressed by Vallejo teachers during recent visits echo a number of recurring themes.  They want to feel safe on campus, and students held accountable for disruption and disrespect.  Restorative justice is a great concept, but requires sufficient resources to make it work properly.  They want stability in their positions instead of getting shuffled around to teach outside their areas of expertise.  They don’t want to be told they need to give passing grades to students who don’t show up for class or do the work.  They want to work in a clean environment conducive to teaching and learning.  These are minimal standards that should be taken for granted.
Federal Terrace Elementary has no teacher for the Fifth Grade class
The Board’s selection of Stephen Goldstone as interim Superintendent should offer some reassurance to the community.  He was widely credited with improving relations with teachers during his five years as Vallejo Superintendent following a bitter strike, and was instrumental in passing the last successful school bond measure in 1997.  We will need another bond measure to reverse a downward spiral of deteriorating facilities and funding decreases from dropping enrollment.  A first order of business must be to put the District’s fiscal house in order.  The public is not going to vote for the necessary funding if they think their hard-earned money will be wasted on crony contracts and conference junkets instead of investing in teachers and buildings.

This will be a bitter pill to swallow for those who felt the old status quo was working for them and suffered a political reversal.  It wasn’t working for far too many students, as our performance in standardized testing demonstrates.  Those are the statistics we need to be concerned with, and they are alarming.  Attempts to portray the Board decision as racially motivated, or even bizarrely as somehow drug-induced, are sadly misguided.  Hopefully those who feel newly disenfranchised will come to understand that this upheaval offers an opportunity to unify the community behind a renewed effort to provide a quality education for all our students.