Monthly Archives: November 2010

Tool for testing Facebook FQL queries

When I first created my Facebook Starter Kit one of the Facebook features I was interested in playing with was $g(FQL). Back then Facebook had an online tool for testing FQL queries which is no longer available from their tools page. Fortunately, one of the features I’d added to my Starter Kit app was an FQL page which allows you to test FQL queries and provides both your UID and a list of all your friends along with their UID.

To access this page simply add my Facebook application to your account and click the FQL link on the main page.

If Facebook has simply moved the FQL test page I’d love to know where it’s hiding. I found another FB app that supported FQL testing but it’s been shut down and I’m curious as to why since that page mentions a change in the API that caused a problem.

Update Dec 12, 2010: I found where Facebook’s FQL test page is “hiding” though I just happened to stumble into it.

Looking for ideas to help Public Schools

Over the last eleven months I’ve focused a great deal of time and energy on issues related to the public schools here in Scotts Valley. Like many districts throughout California, Scotts Valley has suffered years of consecutive cuts pushing the limits of how to deliver the quality of education the district is known for. Having cut practically all but essential services there remains no choice but to reduce the quality of education. The only option provided by California law for raising local funds for schools is a parcel tax and of the 26 such measures on November’s ballot only two passed.  

My reason for posting here is to find parents facing similar problems, share stories and look for ideas. After educating myself on the myriad of challenges facing the district I started a new blog and launched Organizing for Scotts Valley Schools patterned after ideas found in $g(Organizing for America). I’m particularly interested in hearing about experience with $g(Charter Schools).

So, feel free to post comments, contact me or leave me voicemail. I’d like to hear your thoughts.

 

Thoughts on a Parcel Tax

I’ve spent a great deal of time working to understand the issues facing public schools in Scotts Valley and thinking about the options available to the community to mitigate the budget crisis. Throughout the process I’ve gathered and published answers to many questions, attended many meetings, spoken with lots of people and given the variety of socio-economic hurdles we currently face I’m struggling to justify continuing to push forward with a parcel tax proposal. Here are the factors that I see affecting these efforts:

  • Economic Climate
    California voters nearly unanimously rejected new taxes by defeating16 of 18 parcel taxes this past election and neither the economy nor voter sentiment can be expected to improve measurably in the immediate time frame currently under consideration for SVUSD (first half of 2010).
  • State budget crisis
    The state of California is in the midst of a fiscal disaster further complicated by a flawed public school financing and unless the Federal Government comes to the rescue yet again no reasonable person can assume Sacramento is going to “right the ship” any time soon. The situation is further exacerbated by the pending changes in Sacramento where turmoil is likely to rule the day. Forecasting the projected need becomes a dart game which doesn’t help when you’re trying to explain to voters why you need the amount you’re asking for. At the end of the last school year we were discussing a $950K shortfall for two consecutive years, with the new state “budget” that number has decreased by over $100K based on imaginary figures from our governor and legislature.
  • Community Apathy
    Having put in many hours attending a wide variety of meetings, building this website and setting up Organizing for Scotts Valley Schools I’ve come to realize while people are concerned about class sizes my sense is this crisis hasn’t reached beyond a fleeting interest for a majority of people. Over the last two weeks the school district held five very lightly attended community meetings to engage and educate Scotts Valley residents a fact that does not bode well despite district wide email and newspaper advertising. Likewise many, if not most of the meetings I attend draw a small group of usual suspects, an issue often raised, which speaks to people’s overall level of interest.
  • Competing interests
    There are various organizations associated with the district’s four schools essentially competing for the same fundraising dollar. Naturally parents are more likely to donate to their child’s school for supplies and programs like art, music and sports often to the detriment of the SVEF or the District itself.
  • Lack of financial transparency
    With four schools in SVUSD there are, at a minimum, five organizations (PTA’s and SVEF) with five separate balance sheets not readily available to the public via the web or other medium. The lack of transparency makes it difficult at best to understand the flow of dollars at the various schools. One issue this raises is that many times people are confused regarding which organization they should donate to especially when site specific fundraising overlaps with district wide efforts such as Dollar-A-Day (DAD).
  • Guidance from the District
    While I’ve attended numerous meetings where the Administration has laid out a thoughtful and considered presentation on its financial state there seems to be a dearth of guidance as to how the community should or could approach tackling the problems at hand. Public school financing is so overly complicated reliance on those with deep knowledge of the subject seems critical and I’d like to see the district take a more proactive approach to guiding community efforts surrounding a parcel tax or other fund raising efforts. This could be a catch-22 considering the third bullet item above.
  • Ongoing perception of poor communication
    Unfortunately, the perception persists that communication is inadequate. In some cases this is threaded into the fabric of the district as a result of union contracts and things such as adherence to rules dictating decorum at public meetings. Although again, I’d refer back to bullet item 3 above. It’s hard to spark conversation with an apathetic audience.

It’s hard to imagine a more adverse set of circumstances under which to move forward with a parcel tax initiative. Last May/June I was buoyed by the fact a parcel tax could serve as a viable bridge to better times but the last several months have curtailed that optimism. While I continue to believe a parcel tax is the only viable avenue large enough to thwart further cuts the required 66 2/3% seems unfortunately beyond grasp until at least some of the above items are resolved.

Where do things stand

At this point, the district has been asked to price a professional community-centric poll which would run in the range of $10-20K. The results of the poll are intended to help guide the Board in determining whether or not to move forward, test ballot language, set an amount and gauge community sentiment. In addition to polling costs placing a measure on the  ballot isn’t free and would likely run into the thousands if not 10’s of thousands. My understanding is the district would spend upwards of $30-40K to get a measure in front of voters. The number would vary depending on the type of survey conducted and type of ballot used (mail-in vs. polling place) and although these funds could come from outside the district it’s difficult to assume the community could find alternative funding to hit a February 4th cutoff date for the earliest possible vote in 2011.

Community Forum follow-up November 2010

I’d like to thank Board member Jondi Gumz for submitting this post summarizing the recent community forums hosted by SVUSD.

About 50 people attended the Nov. 13 community forum at the Scotts Valley Senior Center. They ranged in age from 18 to 80. The forum lasted nearly 3 hours, with participants hearing a 20-minute presentation on the impact of the state cutting school funding by 19 percent, then discussing the pro’s and con’s of a parcel tax, other alternatives, and suggestions for the district to make a strong case to the voters, who must approve a parcel tax in a two-thirds vote for it to pass. This summary includes those points along with input by phone from people who were unable to attend.

Pro’s

  • The money would come directly to the district rather than going to Sacramento like property taxes.
  • The money would be a guaranteed stream of revenue for whatever term is approved, while fundraising via donations is variable, topping $950,000 last year compared to $850,000 the year before, and not guaranteed.
  • The money could minimize March 15 layoff notices, retaining teachers and improving staff morale.
  • Teachers have larger classes due to funding cutbacks.
  • High school teacher Karin Babbitt teaches a range of students including those with special needs four subjects in one classroom, second-year drama, honors drama, third-year drama, and International Baccalaureate theater arts; there is less time to give individual attention.

Con’s

  • It could be difficult to get 2/3 yes.
  • Many voters in California said no on Nov. 2, and 16 of the 18 parcel taxes on the ballot fell short of two-thirds yes.
  • It is only a temporary solution.
  • Unless the state increases per pupil funding for the Scotts Valley school district, which is in the bottom 10 percent of the state, or restores school revenues statewide to normal levels or the Scotts Valley district makes structural changes to lower costs, it could be difficult to balance the Scotts Valley schools budget without a parcel tax.
  • It is unfair for renters to tell property owners what they should pay in taxes. About 75 percent of the people who live in Scotts Valley are homeowners, and 25 percent are renters, but everyone in the Scotts Valley school district can vote on a parcel tax.

Participants asked if ideas have been explored to save money and suggested district staff include results in future presentations. These included:

  • Outsourcing services? This could be difficult in a union environment.
  • Merging with another district to save money?
  • Teacher salaries in Santa Cruz and San Lorenzo Valley are higher than in Scotts Valley , so merging with either district could cost more money unless their teachers agreed to lower pay.
  • Switching to a common school calendar to save on training costs? The county Board of Education has discussed this, but each of the 10 districts currently has its own calendar and training days.
  • Teacher furloughs? Other districts have negotiated agreements for five furlough days, including Santa Cruz, Cupertino and San Jose . The Scotts Valley contract calls for a reopener if budget projections three years in the future show a deficit, but projections based on the 2010-11 budget signed Oct. 8 by the governor show a positive fund balance. The accuracy of that budget came in question last week when legislative analyst Mac Taylor projected a $25 billion deficit.
  • What about a charter conversion to attract more students? San Lorenzo Valley has more students because of charter schools and programs catering to homeschooling families; this would have to be researched for Scotts Valley.
  • How about a phone-a-thon to help the education foundation raise money? This might raise more money, although with fundraising at $950,000 it may be difficult to raise much more.
  • Do community members have ideas for savings? One suggestion is to eliminate the 60 hours of community service requirement for graduation, which would save staff time. The board established this requirement before the high school opened.
  • Would a wellness program lower health care costs over time? This would require researching claims history and exploring whether a program with incentives could cut costs.
  • Do employees have money-saving ideas? Board agendas are posted online; board packets are printed on both sides of the paper and copies of newspaper reports on Scotts Valley schools were eliminated to save money and staff time. There may be other suggestions.

Participants suggested ways for district staff to improve communication with the community, such as.

  • Provide a list of expenditures cut in the past three years to provide perspective
  • Include in your presentation the percentage of money spent on district office expenses
  • Include information about enrollment, whether increasing or decreasing, and projections for the future.
  • Give examples of vacant positions reviewed and revamped with an eye to save money
  • Publicize meetings of the ad hoc parcel tax committee so interested citizens can participate
  • Go to senior communities in Scotts Valley and ask to give an on-site presentation
  • Form a community advisory committee of community leaders (similar to the advisory group of leaders from PTAs, parent club and education foundation) and meet regularly
  • Create a link on the district website for community members to sign up for district newsletters
  • Tell donors to the Scotts Valley Educational Foundation where their money went

Participants also suggested strategies for district staff in composing a parcel tax measure that could gain 2/3 support.

  • Allow an exemption for senior citizens 65 and up and the disabled
  • Give a specific end date, such as Dec. 31, 2014
  • Use simple language voters can understand; avoid terms that must be defined or mean different things to different people
  • Earmark the money for teachers
  • Create an audit committee to track the spending of parcel tax revenue
The forum was videotaped by Randy Johnson, who has a show on Community TV. Parents provided cookies, and Coffee Cat donated coffee.
[Updated: Nov 23, 2010] Add link to the District’s presentation

 

Where to from here? Nov 2010

On Saturday I attended one of the five community forum meetings about the fiscal crisis facing the Scotts Valley School District (SVUSD). The District’s Chief Business officer Karen Jelcick gave a now familiar presentation with some updated data based on California’s most recent bugdet effort. The numbers supplied to the district by the state seem somewhat imaginary, at least to me, and rely heavily on unallocated funds coming from the federal government. On balance, it appears the depth of the fiscal crisis remains largely unchanged, by that I mean with some alternative the district will be facing deep cuts in the coming years continuing the dismay of the community.At this point, I as though

SVUSD Facilities FAQ

What caused the SVHS to go over budget and be so poorly constructed?

Has the developer impact fee money been misspent on portables?

How are the developer fees determined and how often?

Here is an article discussing the developer fees.

Why doesn’t the state pay for new school construction? What about matching funds?

What is modernization and can we do that?

If we raised enough revenue to hire back more teachers, is there space for the extra classrooms?

Can the district offices be moved onto an existing campus, to save on rent?

 

Scotts Valley Unified School District Bond Measure FAQ

As of August 2010 there is no school related bond measure under consideration for Scotts Valley. The following questions largely pertain to issues raised from the failed Measure Q bond from 2008.

What’s the difference between a bond and a parcel tax?

Definition of a Bond Measure
Definition of a Parcel Tax

Why can’t bond money be used for salaries?

Why can’t seniors ‘opt out’ of a bond measure?

Why can’t SVMS be sold to pay for a new middle school?

What are the costs to house the students while a new SVMS is built on the same site?

Without funds to build a new school this simple isn’t an option. Since the failure of Measure Q there are no available funds for such a project.

Don’t we need a demographic study to show what size facilities we should include in a bond?

What’s the difference between stick built and prefab?

Why can’t SVMS buy existing buildings and use them for a facility?

Why can’t the elementary sites go to K-6 and 7-8 go to the SVHS campus?

What are the differences in the building programs available today?

Design/bid/build

Construction Management/General Contractor

Design/Build

Lease/Lease Back

What would be the cost of internal furnishings for SVMS? Would that be included in the bond?

Can you carve out the areas of senior population to help the bond pass?

There are currently no bond measures under consideration however, the question is equally valid for a parcel tax. Education on the issues and the challenges faced by the district is the best option for rallying support in any group throughout Scotts Valley.

Can the length of years of bond repayment be lessened? What is the cost differential?

How long between the passage of a bond until move in?

Would the board consider attempting both a bond and parcel tax together (same ballot)?

What kind of savings will happen with new facilities (SVMS and elementary classrooms)?

What would be the cost savings in operating costs between the old SVMS and a new one?

Will a bond measure provide clear information as to what the money will be used for?

OFSVS Update #4 November 2010

Steve Trefethen just sent supporters the following message:

Hi Everyone,
Hope this latest update finds you all enjoying the Fall! The last OFSVS update was August 10th, 2010 and once again there has been quite a bit of activity related to the school district I’d like to bring to your attention. First, John Abel and Art Bubb won their bid for seats on the School Board.

Art Bubb ………. 2,846 votes 38.41%
John Abel ………. 2,710 votes 36.58%
Steve Smith ………. 1,815 votes 24.50%
(38 Total Other Write-In Votes 0.51%)

Community Forum Meetings

The Scotts Valley School District is sponsoring a series of community forums open to the public:

  • November 8 – 6pm Brook Knoll Elementary School Library
  • November 9 – 6:30p Scotts Valley High School Student Union
  • November 13 – 10am Scotts Valley Senior Center
  • November 15 – 1:30p Scotts Valley Middle School Room 8

Parcel Tax Committe Update

The Parcel Tax Committee continues to meet to try and make progress on determining the proper path to a ballot measure. The latest meeting was November 3rd, 2010 and the planning continues to move forward. The committee is in need of community members willing to help the District address the looming financial crisis. Placing a measure on the ballot for next year will require significant effort driven by community members as it is not an effort lead by the School Board. If you are interested in helping please contact me as we are in dire need of getting more people engaged to help save the District over the coming years.

OFSVS Members Update

There are now 34 people (up from 32) throughout Scotts Valley on this mailing! If you can please forward this message and help engage more people throughout our community.

Please let me know if you would like to see specific information posted to the site or if you’re interested in posting items of interest I’d be happy to work with you. As always please feel free to forward this email to anyone who you feel is interested.

OFSVS Blog Posts Since August

LA Times article on value added teacher scoring
SVUSD Itemized List of Potential Cuts for 2011-2012

Personal Note

In the interest of full disclosure it’s important to let you know my wife and I, after considerable deliberation, decided late in August to send our children to a private school. We remain committed to seeing a parcel tax effort move forward as well as working to grow OFSVS and improve communication throughout the District as we feel our Public schools are a vital resource for Scotts Valley.

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