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In the past decade, California has adopted more than a half-dozen laws intended to prevent bullying, strengthen suicide prevention and cultivate inclusive learning environments for LGBTQ students in the state’s public schools.

But the state’ school districts are implementing these new laws inconsistently, according to a sweeping report-card-style analysis from the Equality California Institute.

As an emotional, hours-long hearing last week on statewide sex-education guidance underscored last week at the state Board of Education, California has been slow in general to fully embrace new laws aimed at deterring discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, along with those questioning their sexual identities.

Public middle and high schools were required to follow the sex-ed laws in the California Healthy Youth Act beginning in 2016, but the state Board of Education just last week approved a new framework for teaching sex education. The state board came up with the framework—teaching recommendations educators are not required to follow—after two years of public deliberation.

Equality California’s analysis, published earlier this week, used a 90-question survey covering school climate, curriculum, teacher training, suicide prevention and transgender students to rate school districts’ LGBTQ policies on a three-tier, color-coded scale.

Of the 130 K-12 school districts that participated in the years-long survey effort, 22 school districts were given “top tier” ratings; 80 were considered “middle tier”; and 28 districts were labeled “priority districts,” the lowest rating.

The two valley school districts that participated—Palm Springs Unified and Desert Sands Unified—were given middle-tier ratings. The Coachella Valley Unified School District is not listed as participating.

Advocates and legislators have heightened their focus on policies that are more inclusive of LGBTQ students, as research generally shows that these students are more likely to drop out. They also experience bullying and attempted suicides at rates higher than the rest of their peers.

“We have worked tirelessly over the last two decades to enact laws and policies that create safer, more supportive learning environments for our LGBTQ students,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of Equality California, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group. “But our work cannot—and does not—stop in the Capitol. For these laws to be effective, they must be implemented.”

Among the survey’s other highlights:

• All of the 130 school districts that responded to Equality California’s survey said they had anti-bullying policies in place, and most explicitly prohibit bullying based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

• 118 school districts said they require students to take sexual health and HIV prevention classes, and three-fourths of those districts said their curriculum “incorporates discussions of relationships other than cisgender heterosexual relationships.”

• 113 school districts said all of their schools allow kids to use restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity.

• The report identified 45 school districts that don’t give employees training “that even generally covers diversity, anti-bias, cultural competency and/or equity and inclusion.”

• A majority of school districts in the survey do not appear to be including LGBTQ-inclusive textbooks in their social studies curriculum, which goes against a 2011 law mandating that schools include “the role and contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans” in their history teachings.

Notably, many of the local school systems identified as “priority” districts are located in rural or conservative-leaning areas that have pushed back against the new requirements, specifically the California Healthy Youth Act, which requires middle and high schools to teach “medically accurate” comprehensive sexual health education.

“We recognize that even the most well-intentioned school districts may feel impeded by a lack of resources, limited staff capacity, difficult local social climates and other barriers, all of which can slow the journey toward a safe and supportive school climate,” Zbur said.

There were 213 K-12 school districts that didn’t respond to the survey, a participation rate that Zbur called “deeply disappointing.”

The Independent’s Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story. CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

So many school districts are struggling to deliver the basics of an equal opportunity for education that one in three statewide has been targeted for special assistance, according to a comprehensive state report card released by the California Department of Education last week.

The state identified 374 school districts out of roughly 1,000 that qualify for additional help—more than 60 percent more than last year, when the state issued its first set of ratings under the new “school dashboard” system.

School districts that qualify for the so-called “State System of Support” show such low scores or so little progress among student groups that they fall into a “red zone” on two or more educational indicators, from test scores to suspension rates and chronic absenteeism. Last year, the state identified 228 such districts, but critics questioned those numbers, noting that test scores pointed to a far more widespread need for assistance. Since then, the dashboard has been tweaked.

None of the three Coachella Valley school districts had any overall ratings in the red zone—but 29 of the 78 schools within the local school districts (37.2 percent) fell into the red zone in at least one of the six categories measured this year.

Carrie Hahnel, interim co-executive director of Education Trust-West, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on closing student achievement gaps, said one-third of the state’s districts “are struggling with equity.”

“(This) should create a tremendous urgency for our newly elected state leaders and local leaders to start to do something dramatically different to support our students so that several years from now, far fewer schools are struggling to create opportunities for all students,” Hahnel said.

The California School Dashboard, intended to offer a more holistic assessment of public-school performance, was created in part to help the state identify low-performing school districts and help them. It also replaces the state’s old standardized-test-based system as a way for communities to see how their schools are doing.

To that end, this year’s dashboard paints a somewhat chaotic picture, reflecting both the California school system’s vast size and its vast mission. Like the aggregate data earlier this year on standardized test scores—which showed a majority of California students underperforming in basic subjects, and little or no progress in closing the achievement gap between affluent and underprivileged children—its color-coded charts are a call for action and dispiriting.

Only 40 percent of California’s public schools received “passing” marks in English language arts last year—and only 33 percent met the state’s targets in math. More than half of the state’s schools were in or near the “red’ zone on chronic absenteeism, and even supposed bright spots, such as graduation rates, were clouded by the state’s widespread use of online “credit recovery” courses and other techniques used by districts to deter dropouts, and perhaps artificially inflate the proportion of students who actually meet requirements to graduate.

The dashboard itself also remains a somewhat controversial work in progress. On one hand, its trove of data on multiple barometers is far more three-dimensional than the old system. Schools no longer receive a single overall rating by the state, and the new system takes into account not only a school’s performance, but whether it improved or declined from the prior year.

But critics complain that it’s confusing, even with adjustments in this second year and the addition of new indicators to deepen the picture. The dashboard rates schools’ performance on an indicator using five different colors. Red is the lowest achieving mark, followed by orange, yellow, green and, finally, blue, the highest rating. A school is considered to have a favorable mark if they are rated green or blue on an indicator, though the state’s rubric does not explicitly spell that out.

In fact, the state’s color labels in general have broad interpretations, to the point that it can be difficult to deduce the significance of a rating. For example, a school that has a middle-of-the-pack yellow rating in math could either have posted very high scores this year that significantly dropped compared to the year before, or achieved very low scores that significantly improved from the previous year.

And a green rating does not necessarily mean that a majority of a school’s students are meeting grade-level expectations. It doesn’t even mean that all of its various student sub-groups aren’t in the yellow, orange or red.

That said, an analysis by CALmatters and the Independent of schools’ performance ratings found widespread room for improvement:

• Chronic absenteeism: About 3,600 elementary schools across the state-—about 47 percent—received red and orange ratings on this indicator, meaning that more than 10 percent of their students missed 18 days or more out of the school year. Officials say this statistic is important, because it helps indicate a student’s engagement and whether they’re likely to drop out of school. Of the 64 schools within the valley’s three school districts receiving ratings in this category (high schools were not measured), 16 were in the red zone, with 34 in the orange zone. That means just 14 received yellow or better ratings.

• School suspensions: More than 5,000 schools, or roughly 53 percent, received green or blue ratings in this indicator (including 56.2 percent locally). About 30 percent were rated red or orange (35.9 percent locally). While school officials are generally optimistic about the state’s direction in this category, many schools continue to have disparities in school suspensions that negatively impact black and Hispanic students.

• Graduation rates: One of schools’ overall top-performing indicators, more than 1,000 high schools, or about 58 percent, were rated green or blue for their graduation rates (including 11 of 17 locally). This backs the state’s record graduation rate touted by many school officials. But there’s the aforementioned credit recovery asterisk, and ...

• On college/career readiness, schools are faring worse. One of the new indicators on the dashboard measures how well California’s high schools prepare students for postsecondary careers. About 675 schools, or 38 percent, were rated green or blue in this category—but just four of 17 local schools were rated green, with no blue ratings. The state gave nearly half, 47 percent, of high schools a red or orange rating.

A closer look underscored the diversity of California, where more than 6.2 million students are enrolled in some of the most elite and most challenged public schools in the nation.

The three Coachella Valley school districts received decidedly mediocre ratings. The east valley’s Coachella Valley Unified School District—where 91.3 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 46.3 percent are English language learners—received middle-of-the-road yellow ratings in all of the categories, save graduation rate and chronic absenteeism, where the district received even worse orange ratings.

The west valley Palm Springs Unified School District—where 88.5 percent of students are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 32 percent are English language learners—received green ratings in the graduation rate and college/career categories—but orange ratings in the other four categories.

The Desert Sands Unified School District—with 71.6 percent of students considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and 23.8 percent English language learners—earned green ratings for graduation rate and suspension rate; a yellow rating in the college/career category; and disappointing orange ratings in the other three. 

Elsewhere in the state: West Contra Costa Unified, where 72 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and one-third are English language learners—and where California’s new superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, was once on the school board—rated orange in reading and math and orange in student suspensions.

Meanwhile, in Kentfield Elementary, an affluent Marin County district of 1,200 kids whose residents include Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, the dashboard scores were an upbeat mosaic of blues and greens. Only about 10 percent of Kentfield Elementary kids come from low-income households.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district and California’s largest, ranked yellow in both reading and math, with a blue for its low suspension rate of 0.5 percent.

And at all three districts, their wildly different academic performance ratings notwithstanding, the rating for chronic absenteeism was a glaring orange.

Michael Kirst, the president of the California State Board of Education, which developed the school-accountability system, said in a statement that the dashboard “shows us which students have the greatest needs and which areas of our educational system need the most attention, which is exactly what it was designed to do.

“Challenges that once may have been hidden, such as how poverty, homelessness and disability affect student learning, are now in sharp focus,” Kirst said. “Conversely, it also shows us which school districts are succeeding so they can serve as models for others as we build professional sharing networks throughout the state.”

Hahnel, of EdTrust-West, said the new dashboard is “a big facelift” from its first version, but that “there are still issues with accessibility.”

“There’s a lot of data to explore, and that’s great,” Hahnel said, “but it’s not always intuitive, and it does take some digging and deciphering to make sense of it all.”

While this year’s dashboard measures more data than it did the year before, it’s drawn some criticism for what it’s left out. The dashboard now measures schools’ performance in addressing chronic absenteeism, but not at the high school level, where data is more likely to show higher rates of absences among older students.

Samantha Tran, senior managing director for education policy at Children Now, an Oakland-based nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group, said it’s “really unfortunate” that the dashboard lacks chronic absenteeism for high schools. The metric, Tran said, helps you find “kids who are not engaged fundamentally” in school and who would be less likely to graduate.

“You really should have it on the dashboard, color code it and make sure districts are looking at it,” Tran said. “(Chronic absenteeism) is one of those leading indicators where you can really turn around what’s happening for a kid.”

Click on the images in the gallery below to see charts with local school information. For complete information on each school and school district, visit caschooldashboard.org.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story was originally published on Dec. 10 and updated on Dec. 27.

Published in Local Issues

California’s public schools have enjoyed a remarkable restoration of funding since the bone-deep cuts they endured during the recession—but many are now facing a grave financial threat as they struggle to protect pensions crucial for teachers’ retirement.

Over the next three years, schools may need to use well more than half of all the new money they’re projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations, leaving little extra for classrooms, state Department of Finance and Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates show. This is true even though the California State Teachers’ Retirement System just beat its investment goals for the second straight year.

Some districts are predicting deficits, and many districts are bracing for what’s to come by cutting programs, reducing staff or drawing down their reserves—even though per-pupil funding is at its highest level in three decades, and voters recently extended a tax hike on the rich to help pay for schools.

At the same time, some districts are grappling with how to simultaneously afford raises for teachers who have threatened to strike. The situation could become even bleaker if California’s economy doesn’t keep growing.

If there’s another recession—which economists say is increasingly likely, given the record length of the expansion under way now—the higher pension payments scheduled could push some districts deeper into the red, Legislative Analyst’s Office data indicates.

“Many districts’ budgets would be upside down with expenses growing faster than revenues,” said Michael Fine, CEO of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, the state agency responsible for overseeing schools with financial problems.

School systems that saved money over the last few years will be able to use it to buy time, Fine said, but those reserves “won’t eliminate the impact or make that problem go away.” Tackling it will likely require new sources of revenue or an array of cuts.

“Building maintenance could suffer; grounds care could suffer; class size could suffer; instructional coaches could suffer; athletic programs could suffer; technology could suffer; intervention programs could suffer,” Fine said.

The problems stem from the state Legislature’s reticence to mandate steeper payments into the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. The system was badly underfunded and careening toward collapse four years ago when school districts, teachers and the state all agreed to pay more to reduce its unfunded liability, which now stands at $107 billion

Districts took on the greatest share of those new costs, agreeing to increase payments from 8 percent of their payroll in 2013 to 19 percent by 2020.

No matter how burdensome the larger and larger pension payments may be, actuaries say they’re necessary to protect teachers’ hard-earned retirement and prevent the system from running out of money. Teachers don’t get Social Security, and unlike firefighters or police officers, most retirees earn modest pensions of about $55,000 a year.

The Brown administration has directed an additional $20 billion to the state’s public schools since 2013 and says districts have had plenty of time to plan for the pension payments ahead. But many school leaders and advocates want the state to invest even more, especially since California still ranks near the bottom in per-pupil spending compared to other states.

“Knowing that these liabilities were growing, we provided districts with the resources they needed to plan accordingly,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest teachers union is downplaying the problem and encouraging its members to bargain for raises. California’s teachers may be among the nation’s most generously paid, but they say the money doesn’t go very far, because the state’s cost of living is so high.

School officials are left with a Gordian knot of politically charged problems, forced to make escalating payments into the pension fund while trying to elevate disadvantaged students’ sagging classroom performance, which remains among the country’s worst despite the state’s big investment in their learning through a policy championed by Brown.

“We need to graduate more kids and close academic achievement gaps, but we can’t move the needle when costs are rising like this,” said Dennis Meyers, executive director of the California School Boards Association, who stressed that his group is not seeking to reduce teachers’ retirement benefits.

“We simply need more revenue, and we’re out here waving the white flag, looking for relief.”

Each of California’s school districts is bound to tackle these challenges differently, so CALmatters visited three of them whose circumstances are emblematic of what others across the state are experiencing. During those visits, we spoke with the people working to solve the problem.

Fremont Unified devotes a greater share of its budget to salary than any other district in the state—69 percent. (The three Coachella Valley school districts devote either 55 or 56 percent. See the percentage devoted to salaries at each of California’s school districts here.) So when the largest pension payments are phased in, Fremont will be hit especially hard. That means the district’s budget could face cuts even as enrollment in the Bay Area school system grows.

Sacramento City Unified knew that larger pension payments were coming and saved money to prepare for them. Then the local teachers union criticized the district for hoarding cash and threatened to strike. Now the contested funds are being used to finance a raise that teachers say is long overdue—and that the county superintendent believes the district can’t afford.

In Los Angeles, growing demand for charter schools and a dwindling birth rate has led to declining enrollment in the district’s own schools, which means pension payments will rise even as the district’s state funding shrinks. School officials recently predicted that a quarter-billion-dollar budget deficit was just two years away.


Raul Parungao’s distinctive grin and his cheery demeanor belie his concern about Fremont Unified’s finances.

Situated between Oakland and San Jose in the pricey Bay Area, the school system pays its employees more than most. That makes it a desirable place to work, but also means it will be hit especially hard when the largest payments required under Brown’s pension plan are phased in.

“There’s this sense in the community that we’re flush with cash, but I try to remind people about the other half of the story,” said Parungao, the district’s chief business officer.

Even though revenue is rising because enrollment is growing, the district must hire and pay more employees to serve them. And over the next three years, while Fremont predicts its revenue will grow by $26 million, a 7 percent bump, it also expects its employee pension and health care costs to climb by $14 million, a 23 percent surge.

“Here’s the bottom line: the extra revenue we expect to get from the state won’t be enough to keep pace with our pension contributions,” Parungao said. “The problem hasn’t exploded big yet, but it will. It’s only a matter of time. I haven’t met another chief business official who isn’t concerned about this.”

Meanwhile, Fremont’s teachers just won a small raise after months of protracted negotiations.

The current pay scale is competitive, with veterans making $114,000 a year, but leaders of the local union say about half of the teachers still don’t make enough to live in the district and must commute from up to an hour away.

But no matter how tough it may be for the district to afford this 1 percent pay hike, teachers deserve one, said Victoria Birbeck, the union’s president

“The series of small raises we’ve received haven’t covered cost of living,” she said. “Besides, the district has known about the governor’s plan for a few years now. There should have been better planning.”

Parungao said planning isn’t the problem. The district stretched to offer teachers a raise last year and even had to shift its budget by millions of dollars to accommodate that 2 percent increase, which came after a 13 percent bump over the prior three years. Plans to upgrade students’ textbooks and computers were postponed, and class size for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students increased slightly.

Given the district’s rising pension and other fixed costs, the new agreement’s $7 million price tag will be tough to accommodate. Still, Michele Berke, one of the district’s board members, acknowledged that for many teachers, $1 spent on pensions isn’t as good as $1 spent on salary.

“As we negotiate with the union, STRS is the elephant in the room,” she said in an interview before the deal was finalized, referring to the acronym for the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. “We’re paying toward your future, but those payments don’t help put food on the dinner table.”

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg only worked with a few key players one weekend last fall when he helped broker a deal to avert a citywide teacher strike, and former school board president Jay Hansen was one of them.

Hansen had tried for months to negotiate the terms of a pay increase for the city’s 3,000 teachers, but the district and leaders of the local teachers union were far apart, and neither side would budge. An acrimonious relationship between the two camps was partly to blame for the impasse.

“It’s like the Hatfields and the McCoys,” Hansen said. “No one remembers why they can’t get along.”

At issue during the talks was the $81 million sitting in Sacramento City Unified’s savings account, a sum the district had built up over several years with spoils from California’s booming economy.

The union said the money should go toward class-size reduction and raises for teachers that would make the district a more attractive place to work. Sacramento educators are paid less than their peers in nearby districts, but they also receive more generous lifetime health benefits, records show. The district said it had saved the money to help cover rising pension and employee health care costs in the lean budget years ahead.

In the end, Steinberg helped craft an agreement that gives Sacramento teachers an 11 percent raise over three years. But just a few weeks after Steinberg announced the deal during a celebratory news conference on the steps of City Hall, Sacramento County Superintendent Dave Gordon delivered some bad news: The district can’t afford it.

“Based on the review of the public disclosure and the multi-year projections provided by the district, our office has concerns over the district’s ability to afford this compensation package and maintain ongoing fiscal solvency,” Gordon wrote in a December letter to the district.

The district’s own budget offers proof of Gordon’s concerns.

Over the next three years, the school system anticipates its revenue will grow by $6 million, a 1 percent increase, while its pension and health care costs grow by more than $18 million, an 11 percent increase. A popular summer program for struggling students has already been eliminated to save money

A second letter Gordon sent in January further underscores his concerns. He called the district’s plan to use one-time money to help cover the cost of the new contract a “poor business practice” that “only perpetuates the district’s ongoing structural deficit.”

“The pension contributions are putting a strain on everyone’s budgets,” Gordon said in an interview.

Even though Hansen had been the union’s adversary during months of stalled contract talks, he defended the district’s decision to offer teachers a raise, calling it “the right thing to do” despite the school system’s escalating pension and health care costs. “We did it anyway,” he added.

Steinberg echoed Hansen’s perspective.

“A strike would have been calamitous for everybody,” he said. And Sacramento isn’t the only place in California where teachers are thinking about a show of force: At least half a dozen other local unions fighting for higher wages have held labor actions in recent months.

In an interview with CALmatters that union leaders cut short after refusing to answer some questions, Executive Director John Borsos rejected any suggestion that the district won’t be able to afford the contract it recently signed or that it ever claimed to have needed the money stockpiled in its savings account to cover rising pension costs.

“They have more than enough to cover the pension increases,” Borsos said. “And they didn’t make that argument at the bargaining table.”


Gov. Jerry Brown promised his 2014 funding plan would shore up California’s teacher-pension system, but at least one young Los Angeles teacher, Josh Brown, says he’s not counting on it. The Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School special educator is so worried about the system’s solvency that he has an alternative retirement plan: using a portion of his salary to invest in the stock market.

“I’m a fifth-year teacher. I’m 30 years old, and I’m paying into a pension system that may or may not be around when I retire,” he said. “If I were 65 years old and retiring soon, I would feel differently. Right now, I feel frustrated and worried.”

The largest payments required under the plan will be tough for many districts to manage, but they’re going to be especially vexing for large urban districts like Los Angeles Unified, which lost 100,000 students in the last decade and expects to shed more. (Here's the toll of that under-enrollment, school by school.) That’s a problem, because California’s schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and fewer students means less money.

In Los Angeles, the swift enrollment decline is due to a dwindling birthrate and growing demand for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, meaning their budgets are separate from that of the district.

Over the next three years, the district anticipates its employee pension and health-care costs will climb $90 million, a 5 percent increase, while its revenue dips about $270 million, a 4 percent decline. The result is a $258 million budget deficit in 2020 that the district can no longer paper over, push off or ignore.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belts to save our schools,” said Nick Melvoin, a board member whose stark views on district finances have been criticized by skeptical local union leaders and fellow board members. “We’re in a death spiral.”

The district plans to tackle the deficit with a one-time $105 million bailout from the state and central-office staff reductions. But observers says officials will soon need to consider some painful measures it has so far been able to avoid, like boosting high school class sizes or closing schools with dwindling numbers of students.

At least 55 schools across the district are under-enrolled by a quarter, and 10 of those are half-empty, a CALmatters analysis of building capacity and enrollment data shows.

“Our costs are rising, and as a result, there are hard choices and trade-offs to make each time we look at the budget,” said Scott Price, the district’s chief financial officer.

Parent Paul Robak fears that if the district doesn’t tackle its budget problems soon, it could be taken over by the state. At a recent board meeting, he urged the members to reject a health-care spending plan that would further squeeze the budget. The members listened and thanked him for testifying before approving the agreement.

“It’s as if the board members are prancing down the lane and covering their ears, pretending nothing’s wrong,” said Robak, who has been active on the district’s parent councils for a decade. “Everyone will lose if we fail to act.”

Board member Kelly Gonez also acknowledged the district’s budget woes and the pressure of rising pension and health care costs, but said officials should be trying to ease the pain by finding new sources of revenue, not by making cuts. All but one other board member declined to comment.

Even as a fiscal crisis looms, Los Angeles teachers are negotiating for a raise.

“Everyone who works in the district comes to work with an expectation they’re going to be treated fairly. They need to be treated fairly,” Austin Beutner, a former investment banker and the district’s new superintendent, told the Los Angeles Times. “How we strike that balance remains to be seen.”

United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl declined CALmatters’ request for an interview. However, at a Pepperdine University event held before the state bailout was announced, he pledged to keep pushing for more money and predicted that the state would come through.

“If we take it off the table,” Caputo-Pearl said, “then we are acknowledging that the public district system is going to go off a fiscal cliff, which (is something) I’m not willing to acknowledge.”


Flooded with calls from anxious school officials, Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge and several other Democrats pushed earlier this year for a fix that would boost districts’ funding by $1 billion a year. In the end, Portantino convinced Brown to include about half as much in the state budget he signed a few weeks ago.

He insisted that the money be “flexible,” meaning districts may use it to cover rising pension costs or for anything else. But California’s schools are still underfunded compared to other states, and to better fulfill their responsibility to students and taxpayers, that must change, he said.

“In a few months, we’ll have a new governor with a new set of priorities,” Portantino said. “Is there more to do? Absolutely.”

CalSTRS’ first official report on the impact of districts’ growing pension obligations is due to the Legislature in the middle of next year, when school budgets will likely be squeezed the most.

In the meantime, Fine hopes a recession doesn’t strike soon and that districts can manage their budgets without needing to make cuts or send out pink slips. He was a deputy superintendent in Riverside during the Great Recession and remembers how painful it was to carry out round after round of layoffs.

“We lost one of the best counselors and some very bright teachers. I had to layoff someone who years earlier had taught my young children how to swim,” Fine said. “I remember their faces.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Local Issues

The initial East Valley goal of the Agua4All campaign: Bring relief to thousands of students who had no access to safe drinking water by installing 60 bottle-filling stations at the schools of the Coachella Valley Unified School District (CVUSD).

An April 8 rally at Toro Canyon Middle School in Thermal celebrated success: By the end of March, that goal had been eclipsed, as 75 stations had been set up. As a result, students now have free reusable water bottles and on-campus access to one or more Agua4All stations, providing safe drinking water on a continuous basis.

“It’s been an extremely important effort that was initiated by the California Endowment, the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Community Water Center. Now we want to take it statewide,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, of the East Valley’s 56th District, in an interview. “We introduced a piece of legislation (AB 2124) that allocates the resources to enable taking this effort across the state of California.”

The bill is currently in the hands of the state Assembly.

Sarah Buck, the RCAC Agua4All campaign supervisor and rural development specialist, said she hopes the program will be expanded to other Coachella Valley schools.

“One of our goals down the road is to get the interest and attention of the Desert Sands Unified School District to create a partnership and replicate what we’ve done with the CVUSD so that we can install filling stations in all of their schools as well,” she said. Desert Sands operates schools in parts of Bermuda Dunes, Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert and Indian Wells. “But that may be a little ways out. Right now, we’re in the phase of looking for and waiting for funding to continue those efforts.”

Still, a lot of work remains, especially when it comes to the numerous unpermitted trailer parks where so many families live without infrastructure.

“We have installed at least one filling station and up to six at every single one of the schools in the Coachella Valley Unified School District, with the exception of Westside (Elementary School in Thermal),” Buck said. “But we’ve only put a few stations in community access sites. We put two at the Mecca Boys and Girls Club and two at the San Jose Community Learning Center. So in this next phase in Coachella, the goal is to put them in more community places so that not just kids have safe water access … but that their families (do) as well.”

Victor Gonzalez, a Coachella resident, shed more light on the depths of the problem. “I lived in Lake St. Anthony trailer park from 1992 all the way up to 2015, so I grew up in those conditions,” he said. “We were not connected to the (Coachella Valley Water District) system, so a lot of these trailer parks resorted to using wells. For a long time, we were getting water in our homes that had dirt in it. This was the water that we would be drinking. We’d shower in it, and my mom and my dad cooked with it.”

Fortunately, recent actions have improved life for Gonzalez’s sister and friends who still live at St. Anthony’s.

“About two years ago,” Gonzalez said, “Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation established a reverse-osmosis center in the trailer park where people can go to get safe water for cooking or brushing their teeth, for example. But the tap water is still untreated.”

Is it possible to bring about permanent and convenient solutions that would deliver safe drinking water to the homes of all residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley? Garcia said he could foresee such a reality. “I do. In some places far sooner than others, but I really do. I think the Flint, Mich., case has shed light on what I call the smaller Flint, Mich., communities throughout the country—and I’m speaking specifically of those in California.

“California adopted a position that water is a right, and everyone should have access to safe water. Last year, we were successful in getting a bill signed by the governor that would allow very specific point-of-use technologies to be utilized in remote, rural areas to address the high levels of arsenic being found. This bill was directly beneficial to households in the communities of the eastern Coachella Valley, and it was sponsored by Sergio Carranza (executive director of PUDC) and the Pueblo Unido Development Corporation out of the eastern valley.”

The Coachella Valley Water District must play a prominent role in implementing permanent long-term solutions for the communities of the eastern valley it serves. Toward that end, a Disadvantaged Communities Infrastructure Committee was established within CVWD late in 2015. Garcia said the committee came into existence “thanks to the leadership of (CVWD board member) Castulo Estrada, who represents the district that has the majority of these communities being affected by the lack of infrastructure. He’s to be credited for that effort. He’s spearheading the CVWD efforts to address these issues in a timely and responsible way.”

Gonzalez also said Estrada’s election to the board in 2014 is leading to positive change. “For a long time, our area was not really represented by the board members we cast our votes for,” he said. “But in these last elections, we were able to vote for someone who really represented the people of our community. And it came as a result of community input and advocacy to change the voting mechanisms.”

Published in Local Issues

The Palm Springs Unified School District is expected to save more than $6.9 million in energy costs over the next two decades after the installation of solar systems at campuses across the district.

Among the 11 sites, including the district’s service center, is Cathedral City High School, where district officials are planning to hold a “flip the switch” event on Monday, Oct. 28.

Some of the solar systems are already in place, and the rest are expected to be installed by the end of the year, according to information distributed on a district PowerPoint presentation. The district includes schools in Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage and Thousand Palms.

With five different rate tiers between May and October, calculating the district’s power rate is complex, said Julie Arthur, executive director of facilities and planning for the district. However, the district has projected a savings of $6,949,731 over the next 20 years.

That figure assumes a roughly 2 percent annual increase in energy costs. Arthur said the true savings could be as much as $25 million, or even more, because the district has historically seen 3.75 percent increases, Arthur said.

“Just this summer, Southern California Edison had a 5 percent rate increase, so we’ve already saved 5 percent,” Arthur said.

(In an annoying bit of bureaucratic nonsense, Robert Villegas, a Southern California Edison spokesman, referred questions about rate increases over the years to the California Public Utilities Commission. When asked for that information, California Public Utilities Commission information officer Christopher Chow referred us back to Southern California Edison.)

Arthur said the district had explored wind energy as well, but opted for a solar solution with SunEdison, which assumed the installation and equipment costs. The district is only required to pay for the state inspections. Arthur did not know the precise cost, but estimated it would be roughly “a couple thousand” per site.

Because the solar panels will continue to generate power during the summer months when school is out, yet area energy consumption is at its peak, school and company officials called the partnership “a win-win.”

The school board approved a 20-year energy-service contract with SunEdison. It effectively locks Palm Springs Unified in to the 2012 rates the district paid to Southern California Edison.

“Wouldn’t you love to pay the same amount for your gallon of gasoline for the next 20 years?” Arthur said.

Formed in 2003, SunEdison focuses on making and installing solar systems for schools, prisons, commercial buildings and utilities.

“I’d love to have solar panels at every school,” Arthur said. “We just don’t have the parking lots to make it an option.” She said the district is also looking to add two additional school sites: Raymond Cree and Nellie Coffman middle schools.

Palm Springs Unified is one of three school districts statewide with SunEdison contracts.

“It seems to be mostly Southern California schools that are showing interest at this point,” said Dawn Brister, a SunEdison spokeswoman. “Palm Springs is an early adopter for solar. They really are ahead of the game.”

The district’s move to solar was part of its 2010 energy master plan, said Shari Stewart, Palm Springs Unified’s school board president.

“One of our main objectives is to go as green as possible, if we (can) save money,” Stewart said.

As for other valley school districts: Desert Sands Unified, which includes schools in Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Coachella, La Quinta and Indio, is “researching potential projects but (has) nothing in the works at this time,” said Cynthia McDaniel, assistant superintendent of business services.

It is unclear whether Coachella Valley Unified has or is exploring solar power. Anita Meraz, a spokeswoman for the district with schools in Indio, Coachella, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City, did not return multiple emails or calls to her office and cell phone.

“I’m happy we’re one of the first,” said Stewart, of Palm Springs Unified. “We’re going to be saving a tremendous amount of money over the long haul.”

Published in Local Issues