January 18, 2002

Outspoken SDUSD Parent Group Told to "Clean House"

By Yvette tenBerge

The San Diego Unified School District is in the spotlight again, but this time it has nothing to do with death threats or test scores and everything to do with its relationship with its parents.

In a December 12 letter, the district legal office notified the District Advisory Council (DAC), of "violations" in its membership rules and called into question the eligibility of its chairperson and three members of its executive board ­ some of whom have been among the District's most vocal critics.

Brenda Lesane, DAC Parliamentarian, is one of the parents whose membership is being called into question.

The DAC is a volunteer group made up of parent representatives from the District's 96 compensatory education schools. These schools receive extra federal and state funding, mainly Title 1 monies, to help with large numbers of low income or low performing students.

According to the District's administrative procedures, the DAC's purpose and responsibility is to "meaningfully consult" with the district and to "facilitate coordination and cooperation" of parents, staff and community for the "benefit of compensatory education program participants."

In keeping with these responsibilities, the DAC filed a uniform complaint against the district in March 2000 regarding the SDUSD's reallocation of state and federal monies to fund the literacy-based "Blueprint for Student Success."

William Pennick, 62, is a retired military Senior Chief Petty Officer, parent of two and one of the DAC members whose eligibility is being called into question. He weighs his words carefully before diving into what he believes to be the root of the District's sudden interest in the DAC bylaws.

"My feeling is that this is about intimidation. Since I have been with the DAC, there has not been any open and above-board dialogue," says Mr. Pennick. Although he was elected as a representative of Freese Elementary for a two-year term, he may have to relinquish his position because he now home school's his children. "My hope is that the district will meet us at least half way."

From the look of the District's attendance at a January 16 DAC meeting, where communications directors, community relations personnel, legal counsel and even a current and an ex-board member were in attendance, the district is intent in nipping this potential public relations disaster in the bud.

Sharon Powell, DAC representative for Montgomery Academy, chairs the January 16 meeting.

Jo Anne SawyerKnoll, Legal Counsel for the district, states that the SDUSD's reason for demanding that the DAC straighten its bylaws is not to harass an outspoken parent group, but to follow orders handed down to the District by the state. After sifting through the 53 page, May 25, 2001 Department of Education report, though, she was unable to locate this mandate.

She does reference the education procedure on membership of advisory committees, which states that the DAC should "require that the parent representatives be elected by the parents of pupils participating in a program of compensatory education residing in the district." It is this procedure that has the SDUSD taking a detailed inventory of the DAC's membership.

"Look at the spirit of what this committee is and who these people are. They need to have a vested interest in what is happening in their school," says Ms. SawyerKnoll, who explains why the District feels that voting members of the DAC, especially those holding office, must have children who attend one of these 96 schools. "If you were to look at surrounding legislation, it's very evident that they want people who are most affected by the outcome to be involved."

Theresa Creber, Chairperson of the DAC for the past year, filed the uniform complaint against the district on behalf of the DAC. Among the parents' concerns were that the "DAC, school sites, and community did not participate and dialogue with the District about the reduction of Title I or integration of funds" and that the DAC executive board "strongly opposes the use of Title 1 funds" to pay for the Blueprint for Student Success because "not all disadvantaged children would receive the same quality programs to narrow the achievement gap."

Federal law requires "meaningful parent involvement" when it comes to the distribution of state and federal aid based on poverty level, a requirement that the District has traditionally satisfied in the form of the DAC Chairperson's signature on Consolidated Applications. The District sends these grant applications to the Department of Education each year to collect up to $60 million in funding. If the DAC does not to sign off on the 2001-2002 version of the grant, this will mark the third year that the District has gained access to this money without the approval of their parents.

Although Ms. Creber was elected as a DAC representative for Oak Park Elementary for a two-year term, her child graduated from elementary school into middle school. According to the District's interpretation of the bylaws, this change renders Ms. Creber ineligible to complete her final year as Chairperson.

Citing stress and family obligations, Ms. Creber handed this week's DAC meeting over to Sharon Powell, a Vice Chairperson for the DAC and a district employee whose eligibility has not come into question. Before leaving, Ms. Creber held up certificates for perfect attendance for three of the four years that she has been a member of the DAC. She was unable to find the fourth award in the piles of paperwork that have taken over her home since she started to volunteer for the committee.

"I have been in good standing, and I was voted in unanimously to represent the DAC for a two-year term," says Ms. Creber. Along with many of the DAC members, she fears that the SDUSD's sudden "crack-down," the first in more than 25 years, will mean that some of the most knowledgeable parents will be prevented from helping the District's children. "All of a sudden, the District has changed the rules of the game."

Diana Keyes is the Program Manager for the District who began her position in August 2001. Her office assists schools in the implementation of Title 1 guidelines and her responsibilities include serving as a liaison between the District and the DAC. When asked about the timing of the District's December 12 letter and their video taping of and early departure from the DAC's December 19 meeting, she welcomes the opportunity to explain.

"State representatives came to the District and found that many of our School Site Councils were out of compliance," says Ms. Keyes. She states that skeptics have it partly right in tying the uniform complaint to these sudden changes. Had the uniform complaint not been filed, the State Department would not have closely investigated the District's councils and ordered them to make sure that these councils were in compliance with state regulations. "We care very much about the membership issues, and the bylaws are based on representative government concepts ­ many individuals just don't represent a comprehensive education school right now."

District personnel at the DAC's January 16 meeting.

Ms. Keyes explains that to help organize the group, they gave each of the compensatory schools until November 15, 2001 to send in the names of their official representatives. Despite this deadline, the names trickled in until mid-December, giving her office little time to determine which members were officially recognized. Based on this list, the District believes that Ms. Creber, Mr. Pennick and others no longer qualify to hold office or vote.

When asked if other state-required committees, such as the Bilingual Advisory Committee (BAC), the District Migrant Education Program Parent Advisory Committee, the Community Advisory Committee (CAC) for Special Education and the District Advisory Committee for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) have also been instructed to "clean house," the district confirms that this process will begin "within a week or so."

Whatever the reason behind the District's decision to whip their state mandated committees into shape, one question remains: once the dust settles, will "meaningful parent involvement" have a place in San Diego City Schools?

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