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February 25, 2009 > Superintendent confronts unprecedented challenges

Superintendent confronts unprecedented challenges

Managing any organization, public or private is a daunting task these days. School districts in particular are faced with maintaining a delicate and difficult balance between education and the resources necessary to assure their relevancy to society.

School district superintendents are tasked to insure stability and growth within communities through the effective use of an educational system under constant siege from both internal and external pressures. In light of present budgetary restrictions and unprecedented economic uncertainties, strong leadership is required. TCV recently spoke with Dr. Milton Werner, Superintendent of Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) who is grappling with the challenge of guiding the district through this troubling period.

TCV: It is difficult to find a place to begin to discuss this economic environment. How is FUSD doing?

Werner: An initial proposal is to cut $25 million from the district budget of $275 million - about 10 percent. It is difficult to see how we can absorb such a loss. We have reserves but the problem is that these are one-time funds and we are required to replenish them. Fremont Unified School District has been very strong financially, always turning in a positive budget to the county - all school districts must submit a budget to the county on June 30. There are three different ratings: positive, qualified or negative. Our district has always been positive. Only 30-40 districts in the state out of 1,000 have turned in qualified or negative budgets in the last ten years. This year, the prediction is that 500-700 will be in one of those categories. We may end up as qualified for the first time in our history.

TCV: Is the District Financial Advisory Committee helping you deal with the crisis?

Werner: They are very important to us in an advisory capacity. The people on this committee come from unique backgrounds in business, industry and technology; some have managed good-size budgets. We are very fortunate that this committee brings a lot of expertise to give feedback on what we are doing.

TCV: How will budget uncertainty affect staffing?

Werner: We are preparing for the worst but hoping for some relief. As of today, February 18, we have nothing positive to rely on. A cut of $25 million obviously affects a large number of employees since over 80 percent of our entire budget is salaries and benefits. We will, without question, reinstate as fast as possible if the news is brighter in the future. Union personnel are dealing with this incredibly well. I am gratified to see that all employee groups understand the situation.

TCV: What has happened to enrollment with this economic downturn?

Werner: In 2009/10, I believe that we will remain steady at approximately 32,000 students. The district grew in 2008/09 by 200 more students this year than we projected. Checking with site principals, we found that this unexpected growth came from private schools. Going forward, our steady enrollment will probably be due to a combination of factors. In this economic recession, some parents will be unable to afford private school tuition while others will move away from us if they sense the removal of programs and increasing class sizes. In my opinion, this will balance out.

TCV: Will core subjects be dropped or will cuts result in across-the-board reductions?

Werner: We are looking at reductions across-the-board. Obviously, we are trying to minimize any impact on classrooms but this is not possible with a $25 million cut. Every employee group will be affected: secretaries, custodians, teachers, administrators, maintenance and operations. We want to be as equitable as possible while minimizing the impact on teaching and learning. The 'guiding principles' of teaching and learning help keep us focused as we consider the cuts. The question is how to maintain the teaching quality and cultural environment in our high performing district. Eight of the top 100 schools in performance tests in California (10,000 schools) are from Fremont. Another 15 are in the top 300-400 schools. We are being as careful as possible to maintain this quality.

TCV: Are there any proposals to change the physical structure or use of schools?

Werner: Some school districts are looking at the possibility of closing schools during this crisis. We have created a huge list of possible cuts. What is going to the board for consideration is a list of the most reasonable cuts that can be implemented quickly - within the next 18 months. These are on what we call the "A" list. There is also a "B" list which includes facility changes although these are longer term and may take years to implement.

TCV: Is the district considering ballot revenue measures?

Werner: In the past we have been very fortunate. Our community passed a health and safety bond that retrofitted or built new facilities - cafeterias, multi-purpose rooms, playgrounds and so forth. Bonds can help to build new facilities but we need more flexible funding as well. What we are considering and will study is a parcel tax that will need two-thirds approval from the voters.

Recently we were able to slightly increase developer fees and have increased fees for use of our facilities. We are looking for a variety of ways to raise money including grants and foundations. Many local companies and organizations have helped us as well. We will continue to reach out to them. The Fremont Education Foundation and the recently formed Fremont Education Coalition are also working with us.

TCV: How are activities such as science camps and field trips affected?

Werner: They will be scaled back but not disappear. We are working from a position of reducing but not eliminating. Once you eliminate something, it is hard to bring it back. If it is reduced, the program remains and can be enlarged at a later date. We are trying to hang on to what we have. In all the meetings we have had with teachers, administrators and labor leaders to evaluate our efforts, 99 percent of the time, the answer has been that these programs are valuable and should be retained.

TCV: When activities are scaled back, will the district continue to fully fund them or require outside underwriting?

Werner: It is not realistic to expect coalitions or foundations pick up the significant cost of programs that may be reduced. They can, however, help in some areas. An example of this is when in 1991-92 music was cut from much of the district, especially the lower grades. The Fremont Education Foundation has picked this up and totally supports elementary music in our district. This is a fantastic resource. We will be looking for similar avenues to backfill. However, in this case, looking at $25 million in cuts and reductions of 20 major programs, the need is overwhelming.

We may be able to partner with some specific industries in the area for particular areas of education such as the technology sector. Our thinking may have to borrow ideas from how private schools raise funds for their capital campaigns. Right now, parents donate at each of our schools to help support forensics, debating, libraries, theater arts, athletics, technology and much more. So this type of support is already in place at a school level but is a bit more difficult at a district level.

TCV: What is your view of the decision to allow participation in graduation ceremonies by those who fail to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE)?

Werner: I have mixed feelings about participation in graduation ceremonies. As students complete their career in high school, they should be allowed certain honors and celebrations. The board has wrestled with this over the past few years. It was decided that we should allow those who have worked hard and passed classes but not CAHSEE to participate in graduation ceremonies. The ceremony is bifurcated acknowledging that those involved are either graduating or participating. This gives recognition to all who have spent four years at high school and completed the coursework necessary for graduation whether they have passed the CAHSEE or not. The vast majority of students pass the CAHSEE and almost all who don't are incredibly close to passing it.

TCV: Will there be summer school this year? Will it change due to the fiscal crisis?

Werner: In the information released so far, nothing has been said about summer school. It looks like this is not being touched. However, things can change rapidly. Last year, we hired teachers, principals, secretaries and began enrolling students in May. In late May or early June, the State sent an 'Oh, by the way' memo that the summer funding formula was being changed and funding reduced. We were forced to close and combine several schools to reduce our cost. This year, we may not know until June if summer school funding will be cut again. We will go forward with a similar plan this year - using four or five schools rather than seven or eight but continue to offer a normal summer school program.

TCV: Has the issue of sex education been resolved?

Werner: This is a sensitive subject so it will be before us for awhile. Some decision points have been reached with much labor from many within the community and the district. What is difficult is that this is one of the few areas in which the State advises us that the curriculum needs to fit the community and parents. There is no clear direction. In many subjects such as algebra, the State gives us a choice of state-adopted textbooks that cover clearly defined lessons. This is not so for sex education. We really want to serve the community and do what is right. What helps is the ability for parents to 'opt out' of specific areas of instruction. There are a variety of firmly held positions so this is not an easy area in which to reach agreement.

TCV: How is the district responding to school boundary issues?

Werner: The boundaries we have are serving most of the city pretty well. This is not perfect but overall, they are okay. Our problems are pockets of overcrowding where students are overloading particular schools. The Mission San Jose attendance area is in this position. Patterson, Forrest Park and Ardenwood areas have intense pressure as well as the Warm Springs area - Leitch and Weibel. The center of our district has remained steady or slightly declined with aging demographics. There was a sense of stabilization in the Mission San Jose area by former Superintendent Doug Gephart and he was right. The board wants to revisit the student housing issue and work to resolve this problem.

This is one of those issues that would have been addressed by now except for the budget crisis which has shifted all attention. Several other important items have been put on the back burner until the budget crisis is resolved. Looking at the current attendance boundaries, it appears that some might be reviewed to determine whether they can be changed to become more efficient. We want neighborhood schools to serve their own neighborhoods. This builds community, camaraderie and strength.

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