New schools chief faces many challenges | SierraSun.com

New schools chief faces many challenges

Andrew Cristancho
Sierra Sun

Steve Jennings may be new to Truckee-Tahoe, but the challenges he’ll be facing as the area’s new school district superintendent aren’t unfamiliar.

The Paradise Unified School District, which Jennings led as superintendent, is experiencing declining enrollment similar to Tahoe-Truckee Unified. However, Paradise, with 4,700 students, is losing children at a faster rate; about 100 students per year, Jennings said. The Tahoe-Truckee district has a student body of about 4,000.

Declining enrollment means less money for any school district, but particularly affects revenue limit districts, like Paradise, he said. Because of looming pressures from the state, Paradise administrators were considering a $2.2 million cut for next year, $900,000 of that linked directly to the state crisis, he said.

“The budget is an issue in all schools in California,” Jennings said.

Tahoe-Truckee is a basic aid district, and Jennings said he is aware that that funding ” from property taxes ” partially insulates the district from statewide cuts. But he said the public should know any state -wide budget cuts would still affect Tahoe-Truckee.

Jennings also faces challenges with the ongoing pay negotiations with teachers, a process that has reached an impasse.

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On Jennings’ first day of work March 31, local teachers and union representatives organized a march outside the district offices in Truckee with painted signs protesting the district’s offers so far.

While daunting, such a situation isn’t new to Jennings, said former Paradise Unified Trustee Fran Main, who served on the Paradise board for 23 years.

“He did a great job with the union groups,” she said.

When asked about teacher salaries, Jennings spoke of his daughter and son-in-law, who are both teachers in California.

“Salaries are always a sensitive issue ” we all wish we made more,” he said. “I want [my daughter and son-and law ] to make more.”

Yet another issue facing Jennings is the state designating Tahoe-Truckee Unified as a program improvement district, which indicates lower-than-standard test scores for some of the schools in the district. The designation will require the district to bring in outside consultants to help with No Child Left Behind testing scores.

With these and other issues currently facing the district, consulting the community in the problem-solving process is top priority for Jennings.

“We have to make sure we involve the community,” he said. “It is best to be proactive instead of reactive. We need to have systems that are visionary.”

Since late March, Jennings has hit the circuit visiting government leaders and attending meetings with local nonprofits, such as the Excellence in Education Foundation.

“We were impressed with his community minded-ness,” said the foundation’s Executive Director Laura Abbey Brown.

“The community owns the schools and it is important that I am present” in the community, Jennings said.

Main, the longtime Paradise Unified trustee, said Jennings is the type of community member who would cook the hamburgers at school fundraisers.

“He is an outstanding person,” Main said.