ELECTIONS: Tahoe Truckee Unified School District board candidates speak
October 17, 2008
In the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees race Kristen Livak is challenging Monty Folsom for the Area 2 seat. Lisa Mohun is challenging Nancy Gisko in the area 4 seat.
Folsom: I have always advocated in interest-based negotiations and maybe we can work in a more collaborative environment in the future.
Gisko: I am hopeful that the district and the union can seriously explore changing the adversarial approach that is typical in labor negotiations. One approach, called Interest-based bargaining, has been successfully used in many school districts throughout the state. In this approach, each side has “interests” rather than “positions.” While in some cases it can look like typical bargaining, in fact it changes the perspective enough to create a more collaborative problem solving discussion. A multi-year contract, which has been suggested as a solution to the divisive and disruptive negotiations that we have just experienced, must be carefully considered before adoption. There are inherent risks to committing to long-term salary increases when the revenue stream to fund those increases can fluctuate widely from year to year, and in fact can be adjusted by the state legislature mid-year. Understanding these risks, and providing contract language to moderate the impact of unforeseen economic setbacks is critical to maintaining the integrity of the educational program.
Mohun: Short-term contracts create uncertainty between the teachers and the board which result in a tremendous economic waste. Our district is somewhat shielded from the California state budget cuts because of our basic aid status. We need to eliminate uncertainty between the bargaining parties. The process I would purpose is to lengthen the contractual obligation between the board and the union and to create a 2-3 year contract. It would provide certainty to both the board and the teachers. We can limit the exposure or risk of loss by tying the percentage salary increases to certain indexes. In other words, the teachers might be able to create a formula with the board that would be contingent upon certain measures passing, tax revenue and other sources of income, such as monies set aside specifically for budget and salary increases, that would increase or decrease according to the housing market and the cost of living index. This might possibly keep all parties involved from the rigorous, time consuming, expensive and emotionally draining experience of yearly negotiations.
Livak: It is apparent to all concerned, or should be, that yearly contract negotiations are not desirable. This process necessitates a huge expenditure of time, energy and patience for those on both sides. First and foremost, the implementation of any “system” must be in alignment with the overarching vision and mission of the school district itself. A logic model, or strategic “framework” which clearly defines specific goals, objectives, strategies, and outcomes, could effectively guide the decision making process. Without this in place, effective decision making becomes reactionary, emotional, and out of context. That said, several options for contract negotiations can be considered, discussed, and argued, and defended within this model. Some suggest the implementation of a standardized formula to determine the percentage of yearly increase based on proven economic models. Another idea is a three year cycle which rolls out a multi-phased method of negotiation; the first year focused on salary, the second year on benefits, using the third for data evaluation and analysis. Listening to the stakeholders and constituents, through advisory committees of representatives from the teachers and the district, will be the key to designing a process that is empowering and respectful.
Folsom: I am always seeking state funding for school projects to lessen the cost to the district. At this point the community will decide if we will undergo major enhancements to our schools or continue a band-aid approach fixing schools and grounds.
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Gisko: Schools facilities projects in California are generally funded through local bonds. Depending on the type of funding structure, these bonds must be passed by 55 percent of the voters or by a 2/3 majority. Matching monies from statewide school facilities bond programs and local developer fees may be available, which would reduce our local commitment to fund improvements. Since either bond structure would require a super-majority to pass, a concerted effort is needed to educate the voting public about the merits of the bond projects. As with any project that requires support from voters, it is incumbent upon the district to provide on-going, accurate information about the need for facilities improvements; and to engage the community in a process to direct the priorities of the improvements requested. In November, voters will have the opportunity to approve Measure U, a bond measure that will update and renovate Truckee High School and Truckee Elementary School, remodel the former Sierra Mountain Middle School to accommodate elementary students, a growing population. If we approve the bond in November, we will be eligible for matching funds from the state. This is critical, because it is not expected that a new state facilities bond will be passed in the next couple of years due to the economic crisis in the state.
Mohun: Generally we derive funding for future building projects with bonds that have been supported by this community but we have to be careful about over taxing. The informative Measure U quorums are one way to reach out to the community so tax payers can make informed decisions at the polls. We need to prioritize exactly what needs to be done. We are constantly bombarded with bonds, every entity in this town needs help. We have to be careful to keep from turning the community off because of over assessment. Let’s think outside the box. We have successfully provided educational opportunities for our student for decades. What if we create an alumni foundation that would accept donations and provide fund raising events so that we can offset some of the monies derived from taxation. This would afford those who have been educated in Truckee and who have gone out and done well, to give back and strengthen the very school they attended. We need to entertain alternative funding such as corporate or private donations, and pursue “green” grants.
Livak: The key to getting support for school building projects is always the same; “Transparency!” One important component to transparency is to be honest about the difference between NEED and WANT. In the current economic climate, we need to really look closely at this, our own value systems, and how these play out in how we define priorities. Increased family and youth through advisory committees is critical to demystifying how to define priorities. This process can also become reactionary and emotional when the “logic model” is absent. Designing a way to make clear, informed, data-driven decisions in both short term and long term planning will model to our children and youth effective leadership skills, responsibility, and critical thinking skills in action. When this is not in place, the children and youth who are in school to become educated are unwilling participants in a dysfunctional system.
Folsom: To solve any budget reductions, I advocate getting the whole community involved for input in increasing the way we operate and the programs we provide. I would not cut academic programs, but find ways to provide them more efficiently.
Gisko: If faced with budget reductions, I and the board must gather information from our stakeholders (teachers, other school and district staff, parents and the community) to determine the educational needs, values and desires of the community. Over the course of the next couple of months, the district will engage in a process to educate our stakeholders about the issues and constraints that affect our educational program; and to solicit the input from our stakeholders about the programs that they value and feel are critical to a successful educational program for children. Once this information is assembled, the board will be able to weigh various options to balance the budget within the context of legal requirements. It will be imperative that teachers and other district staff, parents, and community members participate in this process from the beginning of information gathering to the packaging of reduction options so that the board can consider all points of view during the decision-making process.
Mohun: I would never advocate “cutting” academic programs to save money. First, we would need to look for other financial sources. Prior to slashing any programs we would need to evaluate the success of or lack thereof. We would evaluate academic programs with the “stakeholders,” the teachers, parents, and students, only then will we search and find alternative programs, if necessary, that are less expensive and more productive for our children. Cutting certain academic programs is a cleansing process that needs to be analyzed without special interest because the program has become nonproductive, archaic or economically wasteful.
Livak: It is very painful to even think of cutting academic programs. We are faced with many changes in the near and distant future, and in order to prepare, educate, empower and support future generations, we need to change the fundamental way in which academic institutions conduct business. Creative thinking and collaboration requires deconstructing certain assumptions upon which our current system was built upon. One such assumption is that schools and communities exist in parallel realities. Formal partnerships with local counties, community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, as well as with Sierra College is one creative way to offset funding cuts at the program level. Across the country, communities and schools are becoming real and active partners in providing safe, healthy, culturally relevant, and empowering learning environments for the future generations. It is time to learn from our neighbors and transform. It is no longer acceptable to be complacent when our current world demands change and resiliency in the ways we approach the educational process.
Folsom: Provide support through staff development and assistance to make a better school environment.
Gisko: This issue of attracting and retaining qualified teachers is one that is faced by every school district in California. Obviously, a fair and equitable compensation package is needed. With the recent 12 percent salary increase granted to teachers, I believe that our salary schedule will be well positioned to compare favorably with rates of pay in other districts (including basic aid districts, those districts in our county, and other districts in California that have similar student demographics). In addition to compensation, I believe that the work environment plays a key role in employee satisfaction. We want teachers to continue to develop and hone their skills through continuing education. The district has secured a three year grant to provide on the job development focusing on the collaborative process. The district also encourages participation on many school committees, including curriculum committees, interview committees (for the hiring of teachers as well as district staff) and after school committees, such as TTRAC (for which teachers were paid a stipend for their time). The district has also accommodated the needs of individual teachers, providing the arrangement doesn’t adversely affect students, by granting flexible work schedules including job sharing and reduced work days. Also, I believe that clean and up-to-date facilities, adequate supplies and materials, and low teacher-to-student ratios contribute to a positive work environment.
Mohun: If you love what your doing you will never leave it, many retired teachers want to give back by volunteering their time to the community. Our retired teachers are one of the greatest assets we have. The cost of living is a real issue, it’s systemic and not limited to Truckee. Retention of teachers is important for the continuity and stability of our educational system. Thus, in order to retain teachers they must first enjoy where they are living and be able to afford to live here. Longer contractual agreements will create certainty and allow our teachers to afford to live here. It’s inevitable that people want to migrate or search for “better life styles,” we cannot prevent this nor do we want to. Truckee is a unique community, it compels students to return as well as others. We need to offer competitive salaries, administrative support and respect.
Livak: An individual who decides to dedicate his or her professional life to educating children and youth is a person of great integrity, honor, and humility. This profession, by definition, is very important to our society at large, to the health and well being of future generations, and to the economic sustainability of this nation. Many are not attracted to the field of education to fulfill the American dream of building personal wealth, rather, it is the heart and soul work, compensated not by dollars, but by the look in a child’s eye each time a learning moment happens. This deeply human connection is what keeps so many teachers motivated to go to work each and every day. Top-down, hierarchical, and centralized power creates an environment that resonates fear and mistrust. Just as children and youth are unwilling participants in a dysfunctional family system when there is chaos, unpredictability, and fear, so are teachers. When educators are respected, celebrated, honored, and empowered, by human nature, they will most likely want to stay employed and do the very best they can. This is imperative to effective teacher recruitment and retention. The diffusion of this value throughout governance, policy and practice level decisions will take on a different look depending on the systemic level and the input from the community and staff. One way to truly send the message to teachers that they are valued is to eliminate temporary teaching positions, because they cannot be effective when they are isolated, poorly motivated, undervalued, and cannot provide instructional continuity from year to year. Recruitment and retention of quality teaching staff is fundamental, because children and youth learn about who they are and who they can become through every day relationships with family, teachers, and professionals, highlighting the importance of this reflective process in our schools.
Folsom: The district has to address declining enrollment by adjusting staffing levels each year to actual students in the district. Staffing is adjusted whether the district grows or decreases in student population. How the district adjusts staffing will depend on retirements and other factors affecting attrition.
Gisko: Declining enrollment can occur because families with children move out of our school district faster than they move into the district; because students choose to attend another school, either private or charter, or home-schooling, rather than attend district schools; or because there is a decline in the birth rate. If our enrollment declines, then it is imperative that we eliminate the appropriate resources directed to those students. However, it is also our responsibility to ensure that we meet the educational needs of our students and address the educational values held by our community. We must continually reevaluate the educational program that we provide, and ensure that it meets the needs of our students. We obviously cannot stem the tide of families leaving the area because of economic conditions or other life-style choices, nor can we affect the birth rate; but we can reassess our delivery system to make sure that the needs of a diverse student population can be accommodated within the restrictions of a publicly funded education.
Mohun: Declining enrollment, compared to what? Declining enrollment can only be established by a census. We need factual information to determine that a decline is actually occurring and, if so, where? Once a census identifies an area of declining enrollment it will allow us to divert funds to where they truly belong. It appears that in the last ten years Truckee’s population has experienced a substantial population growth. School districts with high achievement reputations or that offer alternative education have both parents and students actively seeking them out in the hunt for the best possible education. The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s standards should be no less. There are kids that have graduated from here and who attend the nation’s best colleges. Our population is intelligent, and in this day and age we have to step up to the increasing expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act. Tahoe is recognized throughout the world as one of the nicest places to live. Truckee was recently named one of the top ten dream towns to live in. Shouldn’t we follow that same dream and make our school district one of the top ten in the nation?
Livak: While this is definitely not the case for every school in the school district, and is also contrary to future population projections for the Town of Truckee, it is in fact taking place at some key campuses within the school district. The issue of declining enrollment is caused by the interaction between many different sociological, economical, geographical, and cultural factors, many of which TTUSD has little if any control over. How the school district responds is important, however, because the implications of declining enrollment over time could result in the closing of neighborhood schools, which would impact class sizes and overall efficacy of teachers in the traditional model. For those families who chose charter schools and out of area private schools or Reno, it would be clearly worthwhile to interview these families to gain a deeper understanding of how their experience in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District schools influenced their decision. Information learned from this type of qualitative analysis could shape in inform future policies.