Tony Thurmond

State superintendent Tony Thurmond addressed a gathering of local superintendents to discuss disaster preparation and recovery, funding issues and the future of schools.

Discusses disasters, funding and the future with superintendents 

Editor’s note: This article will run in two parts, in order to give a full picture of the topics discussed at the meeting. This week we look at concerns about power shutoffs, lost instructional time and impacts on enrollment and funding. Look for part two next week.

On Nov. 8 State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond sat down with superintendents from all over Sonoma County to discuss the recent disasters, including the 2017 fires, the 2018 floods and the recent Kincade Fire, as well as what other things would help in the mission of educating California’s children.

“I have to start by saying just how impressed I am by your resilience. When you describe the loss of lives, the loss of homes, educating students and supporting families is difficult enough and exacerbated by these conditions there’s no playbook for that,” Thurmond said by way of introduction. “And, I suspect that you all had to make a lot of it up on the fly so to speak so I applaud you all for your creativity, your resilience and your commitment.”

Thurmond said his only agenda item for the hour-long meeting was to listen.

“I want to hear from you and hear what you need and also what wasn’t helpful during this time,” Thurmond said. “I’m saddened that you’ve experienced what you’ve experienced, but I’m hopeful that you will use your experience to prepare other Californians for what I think is going to be more, whether its weather related or power safety shutoffs.”

Lost time

With significant instructional time lost in the last month due to public safety power shutoffs (PSPS) and then the Kincade Fire, a primary topic of the conversation was how to make up for lost classroom time in the short term and how to preload the school calendar to prepare for it in the long term.

Prior to the meeting, Sonoma County educators had sent Thurmond a letter detailing an idea for a “disaster summer program,” but there were a variety of ideas brought up during the meeting.

Tracy Smith from the Rincon Valley School District was looking for a mandate on adding disaster makeup days to the calendar.

“I don’t know that everybody agrees with that, so I don’t want to speak for everybody in the room but ... the kids in these communities have lost 22 days of school in the last two years,” Smith said.

Bruce Harter, deputy state superintendent of operations, was also in attendance with Thurmond.

“We have to think about calendars differently because what I know ... is that a day made up in June is not the same as a day lost in October,” said Harter, with lots of heads nodding around the room. and we think about budgeting extra time.”

One idea mentioned by Harter was to potentially make winter break a week longer, and then use that week if needed for instruction. In a disaster free year the week would be extra vacation time. Sonoma County Superintendent Steve Herrington mentioned the possibility of the so-called “45/15” calendar, also known as year-round school, wherein students attend for nine weeks, then get three weeks off. Though “summer vacation” no longer exists, other holiday breaks like Thanksgiving and Christmas are still built into the calendar.

“If we looked at a 45/15 calendar we would have been off for most of October and that would have made things a little easier,” he said.

However, some superintendents mentioned concerns about equity.

“I think the piece we have to look at with all that lost instruction time is what do we do for social justice and equity,” said Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura. “In other words, I have a real concern when I close schools that 54% of my students have nowhere to go. They don’t get to fly off and have a vacation (they count on school) for their meals and air quality.”

Bennet Valley’s Sue Daly Field wanted there to be flexibility for districts to pick a “fix” that would work best for them, including possibly making school days longer and considering instructional minutes rather than days as the benchmark.

“It’s important to have the flexibility of looking at it in a number ways including looking at a total number of instructional minutes, regardless of the number of days could be one good way to go forward,” Field said. “Different districts will have issues with any number of these (proposals) so it’s important to have a menu of options.”

Part of the instructional time conversation also relates to the amount of time it takes to take the state tests. Kitamura pointed out that after the Tubbs Fire, she declined to have her district take part in that year’s testing, which she says she doesn’t regret but did significantly impact their rating on the state’s data dashboard.

“Ask me if I care because I don’t, that’s what our community needed at that time and I stand by that decision. I have colleagues now in the same position and thinking ‘Do I really want to spend three or four weeks of instructional time to take a test when I just lost all this other instructional time,’” she said. “When you talk about Maslow and the hierarchy of needs and safety, I just don’t think a test falls within that.”

Power shutoffs

While the fires may not have directly affected every district, the shutoffs certainly do.

“The utilities have said that this could be 10 years (of PSPS),” Thurmond said. “I think the governor and others have said, ‘Look, this can’t be our new normal, we’ve got figure out a way to manage this situation better.’ I’ve reached out to those utilities to say we need more support from you as far as preparation and how to endure.”

Smith, from Rincon Valley, detailed that in her district half of her schools get shutoff during a PSPS and the others do not, leaving her to figure out how and what to shut down. She requested that Thurmond help schools investigate technology like a Tesla Wall or other battery backup for solar systems to allow districts to have access to critical infrastructure to keep schools open. She estimated the cost to her district would be around $100,000.

Thurmond wasn’t familiar with the technology but was intrigued and hinted that the utilities could have some responsibility to help provide them.

“When I reached out to the head of PG&E I said many schools need things like generators,” he said. “(They) have a responsibility to help us prepare our schools.”

Matthew Reno, Superintendent of the Alexander Valley school district said getting power returned to his campus was far more difficult than it should have been, and that ultimately he had to rely on a higher power, namely State Sen. Mike McGuire.

“We were continually going on the website with PG&E — and I know they’re revamping things — but, we were projected as power wouldn’t be on until today,” Reno said. “We put a call out to Sen. McGuire and within six hours they had power back to us so something is going on. They are not making schools a priority to get power. There are things that have to happen before we can open the doors, so if there’s anything you can do to advocate for power restoration for schools on phase one of implementation, regardless of the pockets or zones that we’re in, that’s super critical for us.”

“We need better accountability because you’re right, it shouldn’t take a senator making that kind of call. You all need good information,” Thurmond said.

Twin Hills Superintendent Barbara Bickford also made a plea for the significant impacts on small districts.

“In Sonoma County, we have a number of mid-to-small size districts and fortunately in the western part of the county we haven’t had the fire damage that many districts have had in such great ways (but) even though we’re in the west part of the county we missed school last year. So our maintenance guys had to buy air purifiers and now we have to buy a generator for the well pump and so there’s now these other expenses that we can’t go to insurance for, because we’re way below the threshold for the deductible. There’s a lot of stress on funding for districts and now we’re stressing our staff and trying to provide personal safety, (and then) one maintenance project doesn’t get done so we can buy air purifiers and were really stretching our budgets,” she said.

Another idea relates to a floated idea of created microgrids for “critical” buildings like city halls, and it was suggested that schools be considered a similarly critical piece of infrastructure when those microgrids are discussed. 

“You are absolutely right about the school being the most important facility in times of crisis, during all the fires and PSPS,” Thurmond said. “The (state office of emergency services) was calling us and saying, ‘Can you find me this many schools to be our temporary shelters and a safe space?’”

Enrollment impacts

Since schools are funded by both local property taxes and by the number of students, disasters like these fires can have a double whammy of impact on school budgets. While there is a built in statute of freezing enrollment numbers and funding for one year post-disaster, its application has often been uneven, including the fact that it didn’t cover charter schools post-Tubbs (something that was rectified for the Camp fire in 2018) and doesn’t always take into account how widespread an impact may be in a given area.

Alexander Valley is a community-funded district that saw 95% of its value-contributing land burned in the Kincade Fire, according to Reno.

“The Tubbs Fire really impacted the more urban areas in our county and there were held harmless agreements where attendance was held at two years or three years, but with property assessed values, and we’re one of a handful of districts in the county that will definitely see and impact,” Reno said. “I’m wondering if there is any thing for us being held harmless so that we don’t have this big hit 18 months from now with the property values in our budget?”

But, you don’t have to be directly burned, to have your budgets impacted by disasters.

“I know that for (Geyserville and Alexander Valley) there’s an obvious issue of lost attendance, but I anticipate a lot of us are going to see lost attendance, because people are going to move,” said Jeremy Decker of Cloverdale Unified. “I’m in Cloverdale and we weren’t affected directly by the Tubbs Fire, but we lost 65 kids and in a 1,400 student district that’s immense in one year. I don’t know if there’s anyway to hold, well you can’t hold all of us harmless, that’s not possible, but at least to have consideration that we’re going to lose kids, it’s going to affect budgets and it’s either going create layoffs or something else.”

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