Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Loss Of School Crossing Guards: A Failure To Prioritize Student Safety

In April, I wrote a letter to the San Leandro Times stating that our schools and city were facing an unprecedented budget crisis and they should work together to address their fiscal challenges. I asked that the city not make any budget cuts that would hurt our schools. In particular, I called for the mayor and city council to reject the city manager’s proposal to terminate all school crossing guards.

As we know, the mayor and city council proceeded to end the program. Why would the mayor and city council risk the safety of children and their parents? Why is there not a true partnership between our city and schools?

City officials claim the cuts were necessary because the city has a large deficit. That is essentially what San Leandro City Manager Steve Hollister stated to CBS 5 local news when questioned on the elimination of the program. Likewise, the San Leandro Times reported that Mayor Tony Santos says that there simply is no room in the budget for the crossing guard program: "We just don’t have the money to fund it."

It's true that the city budget is seriously out of balance. City officials are amassing millions in red ink, burning through reserves, and placing the fiscal solvency of the city in jeopardy. Yet, remarkably, despite eliminating crossing guards, cutting six police officer positions, and reducing funding for senior services, libraries and pools, the city is spending more this fiscal year than last year.

Yes, you read that right. Last year the city spent $77 million. This year’s budget calls for $78 million in spending. There is no fiscal discipline at city hall.

The adoption of the city budget is the result of series of political decisions by the mayor and city council based upon the priorities and values held by our elected officials. If the mayor and city council prioritized the safety of children, they could have kept school crossing guards. The program represented only 1/8th of one percent of the city’s general fund.

Other cuts could have made. Cancelling free health club memberships for city managers would have been a good place to have started. The mayor and city council should promptly bring back the crossing guards.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

2009 API Scores for San Leandro Schools

Based on the release of the 2009 STAR test results by the state, last month I predicted that the San Leandro Unified School District would fail to meet the proficiency standards set by the state under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute. As a result, the school district would be placed in the Program Improvement program.

Unfortunately, this has occurred. Yesterday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell released California's 2008-09 Accountability Progress Report (APR), which provides results from the state accountability system as well as under NCLB. Among the new school districts in California placed within Program Improvement is San Leandro. No district wishes to be labeled a Program Improvement district as the program consists of a series of escalating sanctions for each year the district remains within the program.

San Leandro will not be leaving the program, absent a repeal or substantial revision of NCLB. In time, almost every school district in California will be in the program. This is because NLCB requires districts to obtain the unattainable by 2014 - 100% proficiency for all students in multiple subjects.

What is extremely confusing concerning test scores in California is that we have two school accountability systems, the state system which uses the Academic Performance Index (API) and the federal NCLB system. The systems are different:
The state accountability system is an index model that measures improvement in student achievement from one year to the next. Under the API system, schools are given credit for improving the overall performance of their students. School growth targets are set based upon the starting point of the school and are re-set each year depending on the level of growth each school site shows. The federal . . . system is often referred to as a "status" model because it rewards schools for the percent of students the school has scoring at the proficient or above level on state assessments. No matter where a school began, all schools are expected to meet the same target at the same time.

Many elementary schools in San Leandro showed great progress in their 2009 API scores, led by James Madison Elementary school which hit a record for San Leandro - an 854 API score. However, the high school API score fell by 10 points and Bancroft Middle School, after sharp progress last year, also dropped. As a result, the district's API growth in 2009 was only 2 points. This matched Hayward for the lowest growth by a district in the county (and one district, Newark, declined).

After strong API growth in 2007, San Leandro's API growth has been tepid. The 2008 gain was only 1 point. San Leandro's two year API growth of 3 points is the lowest of all unified school districts in Alameda County.

API Growth in Points for School Years 2007-08 and 2008-09:

Alameda City --- 20
Albany -------- 21
Berkeley ------- 24
Castro Valley --- 17
Dublin -------- 24
Emery -------- 49
Fremont ------ 26
Hayward ------ 16
Livermore ----- 27
New Haven ---- 19
Newark ------- 8
Oakland ------ 36
Piedmont ----- 10
Pleasanton ---- 12
San Leandro --- 3
San Lorenzo --- 25

Since the first release of STAR test results in 1999, San Leandro has compared itself to neighboring district San Lorenzo, and always scored above San Lorenzo. With San Lorenzo's strong growth over the past two years that is no longer the case. For 2009, San Lorenzo's overall API score is 724 compared to 717 for San Leandro.

Six years ago, San Leandro's API Growth score was 684, and San Lorenzo's score was 677. Thus, while both districts have made progress, San Lorenzo has had sharper gains. San Leandro improved by 33 points; San Lorenzo saw a 47 point gain. Or viewed differently, since 2003, San Leandro has gone from an 7 point advantage to a 7 point deficit compared to San Lorenzo, a 14 point change.

How did San Lorenzo do this? Both districts have highly qualified teachers who teach the same state approved curriculum. The demographics of both districts are similar. Looking at the performance of students by ethnic and racial group one sees this is where San Lorenzo has outperformed San Leandro:

API Growth in Points from 2003 to 2009
----------------- San Leandro -- San Lorenzo
African American ----- 34 ---------- 59
Asian ---------------- 40 ---------- 74
Latino ---------------- 42 ---------- 57
White ---------------- 46 ---------- 41

In particular, the largest ethnic group by far in both districts, Latinos, test at a higher level in San Lorenzo (690 API for 2009) than in San Leandro (667 API for 2009). The overall scores of African American students in both districts are almost the same, 660 in San Lorenzo and 661 in San Leandro for 2009.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

City Council Workshop on Major Building Projects Including Use of Measure WW Funds

Next Monday night, September 14th at 7 p.m., the City Council is hosting a work session on capitol improvement projects. The location is the Helen Lawrence South Offices Conference Room near the police department office.

Among the topics will be a review of the recommendations by the ad hoc Measure WW committee comprised of council members Joyce Starosciak, Michael Gregory and Diana Souza. They recommended that, of the $3.7 million San Leandro will receive under Measure WW, $2.4 million be used to help build a competitive pool at San Leandro 's Family Aquatic Center on Zelma Street in Washington Manor. The committee also recommeded that another $988,000 should go for picnic area renovations at Marina Park at the San Leandro Marina, and the remaining $250,000 be used for improving park pathways throughout San Leandro

Measure WW was a bond passed last November. Each city in Alameda County gets a slice of the money which can go for parks and recreational facilities. All San Leandrans are paying through their local property taxes the cost of WW projects.

The ad hoc committee of Starosciak, Gregory and Souza met behind closed doors with no input from the public. The city parks and recreation commission was not asked to offer its recommendations on the use of these funds.

Now is the time for the community to voice its views on how San Leandro's Measure WW funds should be spent.

My view is that if the city council decides to invest Measure WW funds in swimming pools in San Leandro, instead of building a new pool, the city should partner with the San Leandro Unified School District and jointly operate the competitive swimming pool at San Leandro High School.

The high school pool is in need of renovation. Money from Measure WW could be used and the cost would be substantially less than building a new pool. This would allow the city to stretch the dollars from Measure WW wider and undertake needed renovation work at many city parks.

Furthermore, the city has $4 to $6 million annual deficits for the next six years and is depleting all of its reserves. Our schools are facing another year of brutal cutbacks from the state. Earlier this year, the city council eliminated funding for school crossing guards and two of the three police officers assigned for the safety of our schools.

Now is not the time for the city to authorize new construction projects that will result in increased operating costs for the city. Any and all means the city and schools can partner together to reduce operating expenditures each would bare if they acted alone should be undertaken.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

San Leandro's Unsustainable City Budget

Yesterday, I attended a meeting of the San Leandro City Council Finance Committee. The committee consists of Mayor Santos and Councilmembers Prola and Gregory. Gregory was absent.

In short, if significant action is not taken, the city will burn through all of its reserves, including eventually reserves for natural disasters and other emergencies. By 2015, San Leandro could join the City of Vallejo in declaring bankruptcy.

Summary of Finance Committee Presentation

Perry Carter, the Interim Finance Director, gave an update on the budget. In analyzing a budget, you need to examine at least three years of data - the previous, current and next fiscal years. Carter first reported on the "preliminary actual" numbers for the fiscal year which just ended on June 30, 2009.

Illustrating how quickly the city finances collapsed last year, the original city budget for fiscal year 2008-09 assumed $76.2 million (hereafter simply "M") in revenues and $81.6 M in expenditures. The city began fiscal year 2008-09 with $19.2 M in reserves. Thus, it planned to use $5 M of its reserves to cover the deficit.

In April 2009, the city revised its budget - lowering revenues to $70.1 M and expenditures to $79.0 M.

As it turned out, based on the "preliminary actual" numbers, the city took in $71.0 M in revenue last fiscal year, and spent $77.6 M, a deficit of $6.5 M. The city loss for 2008-09 was less than what was projected in April 2009, but still higher than the deficit projected in the budget adopted in June 2008.

The city received an unexpected loan repayment of $1.5 M from Alameda County Industries in June 2009. This was a one time payment.

The ending balance for fiscal year 2008-09 is $15.1 M, of which $5 M has been locked away in a fund for natural disasters and other emergencies. That leaves a net ending fund balance of $10.1 M, which is $3.8 M higher than what Carter projected this amount would be in April 2009.

That is the good news. As I noted in June 2009,

The budget planned for next fiscal year 2009-10 is seriously flawed. It continues to draw on reserves and relies on unrealistic projections that tax receipts will increase. In the midst of the worse recession post World War II, the city is planning on a 4% gain in sales taxes and 3% growth in property taxes.

My criticism of the overly optimistic revenue increases in the city budget quickly proved accurate. The city is now projecting a 3% decrease in the sales tax revenue and a 2.5% decrease in the property tax revenue for the current fiscal year. Revenues are projected to come in at $74.0 M and expenditures will be $78.1 M, resulting in a $4.1 M deficit.

Carter provided a multi-year budget projection through 2014-15. The projections showed the city running a $4 M to $6 M deficit each year, with a $5.9 M deficit in 2014-15. The projected revenues in 2014-15 are $80.9 M and the expenditures are $86.9 M.

From July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2015, the cumulative total deficit is $35.6 M. Taking into account the city's ending fund balance of $10.1 M on June 30, 2009, the net deficit over the six years is $21.5 M.

The city council has taken limited steps to correct the imbalance, including the "golden handshake" to city employees to encourage their retirement. In July, staff reported that 14-16 eligible employees have accepted the "golden handshake." There will need to be more employees to retire for the program to have a significant impact on the budget. Plus, there are long term costs to providing retirement incentives to employees today.

The two primary sources of revenue for the city are the sales and property taxes. The multi-year budget projections assume the economy will turnaround in 2010-11 and start to grow strongly thereafter. From July 1, 2010 through June 30, 2015, the city is projecting the sales tax will grow by 18.5% and the property tax by 8%. If this strong rebound does not occur, the city structural deficit will expand.

The projections also assume salaries and employee benefits will grow from $39.8 M in 2009-10 to $45.7 M in 2014-15. The overall increase is $5.9 M or 14.8%.

The $5.9 M increase reflects a further escalation in the costs of employee benefits, including for health care and the pension plan (CalPERS). The projections also assume, starting in fiscal year 2013-14 and continuing in 2014-15, that employees will receive 3% annual increases in salaries. This fiscal year the police officers received a 4% raise (on top of a 4% pay raise last year). All other city employees received no salary increase in 2008-09.

In fiscal year 2011-12, due to the heavy losses by CalPERS in the stock market last year, the city's contributions to CalPERS will increase. By fiscal year 2014-15 the bill from CalPERS is projected to reach $11.2 M, or close to 15% of the general fund. The multi-year budget projections assume the city will continue to pay both the city's required contribution and the employees' contribution to CalPERS.

How is the city going to avoid financial disaster?

There was talk of mandatory furloughs for all employees. However, City Manager Steve Hollister did not present any plan. Any effort to address the budget crisis through furloughs, pay reductions, or changes to benefits appears to be moving forward, if at all, in slow motion.

There was considerable discussion of new tax measures. The city commissioned a poll of residents to gauge their support of a 1/4 cent sales tax hike or a landscape and lighting improvement district for the city. Hollister stated based on a preliminary review of the polling data that both options were "achievable." He added he plans on presenting the poll results at a city council meeting at the end of the month.

Comments on the Budget Presentation

1) Regardless of actions by the state and even if the economy turns around within two years and grows strongly thereafter, the city's budget will be in red by millions of dollars. The city council has adopted a series of budgets which have set the city on the path to bankruptcy unless significant corrective action is promptly taken.

2) I'm glad that the city is now using realistic sales and property tax revenue projections for this fiscal year. However, the reversal in revenue projections for this fiscal year makes me question the likelihood of strong revenue growth planned in the coming years.

3) Why is the city planning on a 6% pay increase (over two years) to all employees in the last two fiscal years of the multi-year budget projections when the city will still be in the red? That is like planning to buy a car on credit when you are already at the maximum on your credit cards and can not afford to make the minimum monthly payments. These pay increases expand the annual deficit from $4.6 M in fiscal year to 2012-13 to nearly $6 M in each of fiscal years 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Obviously the cost of living will not decrease over the next six years. Without a pay increase employees will suffer a real loss in income. Yet that then begs the question of why the city is not now imposing furlough days, opening up contracts and seeking give backs or reducing positions.

4) The mayor and city council's solution for the budget crisis appears to be new taxes. They are placing the solvency of the city in success at the ballot box. Their track record is decidedly mixed. City-sponsored parcel taxes to pay for emergency services failed in 2004 and 2008.

I appreciate that important services come at a price. I voted for the three city tax measures last November. But I will not support any new city taxes next year. I want value for my tax dollars and first a demonstration of fiscal discipline at city hall.

Despite the recession, the number of city employees earning over $100,000 annually keeps increasing. The city is spending $13 million more on the police department than in 2000, and we passed a tax measure last November for emergency services. Yet, we have less police officers protecting San Leandro today than nine years ago. We are down to only 88 police officers for a city of 85,000.

The solutions are not complicated. The city council should take a pay cut. Free health club memberships and other perks for managers need to be eliminated. To resolve the budget deficit, all city employees will have to make sacrifices. That will not occur if those at the top fail to lead by example.

Next, the city council needs to start asking questions it has ignored. For example, this year the city is paying over $10 million to CalPERS, the employee pension plan. Of that amount, $2.8 M is for contributions owed by employees. The city payments to CalPERS will escalate in the coming years.

I appreciate that offering pensions to employees helps attract and retain quality workers. Our city employees provide vital services and deserve good pensions. But in this economy and with $36.5 M in deficit spending over the next six years, it is time for city employees to start contributing to the cost of their pensions. If they do, they would still get a great deal. The city would be picking up over 70% of the bill from CalPERS. However, ending the city's payment of the employee contribution would have a tremendous positive impact on the city deficit, cutting it by more than 50%.

Finally, the mayor and city council must recognize that their primary duty is to the best interests of all San Leandrans and the community should be brought actively into the budget decision making process. Civic engagement is a two-way street. The city council should conduct community forums on the budget where the public can ask questions, offer input and receive answers from city staff.

That is what good government is all about - providing the means and opportunity for the public to have a say in critical decisions affecting the community.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

2009 San Leandro High School Exit Exam Test Results Released

The California High School Exit Exam is first given to students in 10th grade and covers two subjects: English language arts and math. The test is based on the California state standards, which define what students should be learning each year.

Students must pass the CAHSEE to graduate from high school. The goal is for all students to pass the test. The results below are for 10th grade students at San Leandro High Schoola nd nearby schools taking the test the first time.

The state average for English Language Arts was 79% in 2009, and it was 80% for Math.

---------------

San Leandro High School:

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
78% (2009)
75% (2008)
78% (2007)
71% (2006)

Math
76% (2009)
79% (2008)
79% (2007)
78% (2006)

---------------

Arroyo High School

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
84% (2009)
83% (2008)
83% (2007)
84% (2006)

Math
86% (2009)
79% (2008)
82% (2007)
83% (2006)

-------------------

San Lorenzo High School

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
73% (2009)
69% (2008)
70% (2007)
70% (2006)

Math
71% (2009)
68% (2008)
66% (2007)
74% (2006)

-------------------

Castro Valley High School

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
94% (2009)
95% (2008)
92% (2007)
94% (2006)

Math
94% (2009)
93% (2008)
90% (2007)
94% (2006)

--------------------

Mount Eden High School

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
76% (2009)
77% (2008)
76% (2007)
72% (2006)

Math
77% (2009)
76% (2008)
71% (2007)
76% (2006)

------------------------

Hayward High School

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
67% (2009)
75% (2008)
70% (2007)
66% (2006)

Math
66% (2009)
73% (2008)
65% (2007)
67% (2006)

-----------------------

Tennyson High School

Scale: % passing
Grade 10
English Language Arts
65% (2009)
68% (2008)
59% (2007)
64% (2006)

Math
63% (2009)
65% (2008)
62% (2007)
58% (2006)

What does passing the high school exit really mean and why is there such a disparity in schools within a few miles of San Leandro High School, even though all schools use the same curriculum approved by the state? Dan Martin, a veteran teacher at San Leandro High School, recently observed:

The great majority of the students who don’t pass the CAHSEE, especially in time for graduation, are more recently arrived English Learners and Special Education students. English Learners (ELs) are still in the process of acquiring sufficient English to pass the HSEE, especially the English section. While many of these ELs haven’t passed in English portion, many of them do pass the math section of the HSEE, so it isn’t that they aren’t trying, they just don’t have sufficient English vocabulary and comprehension to make sense of the extensive English section.

That said, it is important when looking at HSEE scores, and the political rhetoric about how wonderful the passage rates are, that “passing” requires getting an overall average score of 60%, or a D-, if this were a typical score in a high school classroom. That said, I’m happy that many 10th graders pass it the first time and get this graduation requirement completed, and most students pass it in time for graduation, but it’s not a measure of high academic achievement, which is lost in the local, statewide, and national political hoopla.

The one thing about these standardized testing regimens is that there is rarely any cost-benefit analysis conducted. Statewide and locally, there is a significant amount of time and money expended to get these results, money for support and intervention programs, time for repeated planning and administration of these tests throughout 10-12th grades, money to the testing companies for everything they produce and the scoring of the tests and distributing the results to districts and parents, and in the impact on student schedules of those who have to repeatedly take these tests.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Hayashi's Bill Passes - A Defeat for Consumer Rights

Unfortunate news - the auto insurance industry was able to pick up a few more votes from Democrats in the State Senate to join with the Republicans and pass Hayashi's bill. Below is a message today from the Consumer Attorneys of California.
We go up against the insurance industry’s lobby every day. In the face of the industry’s seemingly limitless money and influence, we hold our own and then some most of the time. Despite our best efforts, the Senate on Friday narrowly approved legislation by East Bay Democrat Mary Hayashi that takes the side of the auto insurance industry against the consumer.

Hayashi’s bill would gut a consumer protection measure by Rep. Jackie Speier that was signed into law only a few years ago when Speier was in the state senate. Opposed by virtually every consumer group, including Consumer Attorneys of California, Hayashi’s AB 1200 would water down a prohibition barring insurers from “steering” consumers to the insurance company’s preferred auto body shops — shops that cut costs by installing knock-off and ill-fitting parts.

The bill had stalled two votes short of the majority earlier this week. But the insurance industry is powerful and its team of lobbyists managed to convince three more Democrats to take their side — Sen. Negrete McLeod, Sen. Curren Price and Sen. Rod Wright. To get an idea of what we’re up against, just two of the insurance companies backing the bill and their trade group, the Personal Insurance Federation of California, spent more than $812,000 on campaign donations and another $650,000 on lobbying in the first half of the year. We lost this vote. But we were proud to stand up for consumers and against the insurance industry — and we’d do it all over again.

The source of Hayashi's bill as noted in the legislative analyst's report is the Personal Insurance Federation of California.

What is the PIFC? It is the political lobby of the California insurance industry:
In 1989, two leading insurers in the state, Farmers Insurance Group and State Farm Mutual, formed the Personal Insurance Federation of California (PIFC) to serve as the principal advocate for the property-casualty insurance industry before the California Legislature. Today PIFC represents six insurance company groups and one national trade association which collectively provide more than half of the personal lines property and casualty insurance written in California.

These are the same folks that have fought every industry reform, including Prop. 103. They also have a PAC and Hayashi has taken $2,600 in contributions from it this year. Other insurance companies Hayashi has taken funds from this year include Allstate, Farmers Insurance Group, Liberty Mutual, and Mercury Insurance.

Update

Here is a link to a Los Angeles Times article on the bill and vote in State Senate.