CVIndependent

Sat05262018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

Three of four African-American boys in California classrooms failed to meet reading and writing standards during the most recent round of testing, according to data obtained from the state Department of Education and analyzed by CALmatters.

More than half of black boys scored in the lowest category on the English portion of the test, trailing their female counterparts.The disparity reflects a stubbornly persistent gender gap in reading and writing scores that stretches across ethnic groups.

The data provide a unique glimpse of how gender interacts with race and class in mastery of basic reading, writing and listening skills tested on state exams. While California publishes separate figures on the performance of various ethnic and economic groups, it does not make public a more detailed breakdown of how boys and girls are performing within those groups. State officials say they do not sort the data that way because of complexity, cost and time constraints.

In math, girls have caught up to boys in California and elsewhere, while female students in general maintain a sizable lead over their male classmates in the language arts. While initiatives to encourage girls to learn math and science have received considerable publicity, the gender reading gap is viewed less as a problem warranting action.

“I wouldn’t put this in the same category of severity or concern as other achievement gaps,” said Tom Loveless, an education researcher for the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “But there needs to be greater awareness of this.”

The gap spans all grade levels. Boys in high school score better than those in grade school, but girls outperform them by consistent margins at every age—and a higher family income does not appear to even things out.

The gap is not unique to California. In states that administer the same standardized exam as California, girls outscore boys by similar margins. In international reading comprehension exams, girls best boys in nearly every country, and at nearly every age.

The phenomenon is nevertheless worrisome because it may compound other educational disparities California has attempted to close for decades, without success.

“If boys don’t read as well as girls, and if that persists all the way through K-12, it means when you reach certain thresholds like college, it places the males at a disadvantage,” says Loveless. “The ability to read well has a lot to do with the ability to get into college and the ability to do well while you’re in college.”


WHAT EXPLAINS THE POOR SCORES?

Scores aren’t the only educational area in which black boys trail their peers. African-American boys are more likely to be suspended and drop out of school than other demographic groups, in California and elsewhere.

But the reading data is sobering. As early as fourth grade, for example, nearly 80 percent of black boys failed to meet state reading standards. Of all ethnic groups for which the state collects data, black boys trailed black girls by the widest margin.

“Part of this may be structural, in having texts that aren’t relevant to the experiences and legacy of African-American boys,” said Chris Chatmon, founding executive director of the African-American Male Achievement program at the Oakland Unified School District. “When a lot of the curriculum you have access to isn’t familiar, or doesn’t acknowledge your past or your present, you have a tendency not to be engaged with it or want to read it.”

While the state makes it relatively easy for parents to look up the test scores of African-Americans at local schools, the data is not broken down by gender. So it may be difficult to identify schools where black boys are performing well, as well as schools that are struggling.

“The state should report this data,” Ryan Smith, executive director of the education reform advocacy group Ed Trust-West, said via email. “One of the consistent things we find in our research is that schools and districts closing gaps for students of color tend to do more with data, not less.”

The data limitation is not unique to California—detail is lacking in many other states’ public-facing test results. A spokeswoman for the California Department of Education said producing more detailed data is under consideration, but “schools and districts already have the capacity to create student results by all kinds of cross-tabulations.”


ARE GIRLS INHERENTLY BETTER READERS?

Education researchers have multiple theories about why girls routinely outperform boys on reading and writing tasks.

Loveless explains three main schools of thought. One longstanding explanation—that some hidden biological difference in development makes girls inherently better readers and writers—still has support in some quarters.

“That there is something about the male and female brains—that we’re just hardwired differently—if that’s really true … at that point, it’s doubtful we’re really going to be able to fix it,” he says.

However, the supposition that “hardwiring” made boys superior in math and science has appeared to fade over time, as girls in California and elsewherehave matched boys on standardized tests.

A second explanation holds that cultural norms involving masculinity and reading may be at play—that it’s not considered manly to read and write or even excel academically. Several studies have shown that boys increasingly see school as a female pursuit and that various cultural cues depict reading and writing as feminine activity.

But the consistency of the gender gap internationally and over time casts doubt on that explanation. In cultures as varied as those in Finland and Japan, girls still score better on standardized tests.

Finally, many point to how schools are structured—with a lack of sufficient recess to allow high-energy boys to blow off steam, reading materials unrelated tomale interests,and a predominantly female teaching workforce. But Loveless cautions that those arguments stem less from empirical research and more from old-fashioned stereotypes.

And again, the gap persists in foreign education systems, many of which are radically different from ours. In addition, international and state reading tests are routinely tested for gender bias.

That leaves researchers like Loveless without a conclusive answer. 

For its part, the California Department of Education is noncommittal on whether the gender reading gap is worthy of the administration’s attention. Differences between boys and girls still pale in comparison to differences found by race, ethnicity and class.

“There have often been gender gaps in performance,” a department spokesman said by email. “These gaps show up in different ways depending on what is being measured. … Some gender gaps are more noticeable within certain race/ethnicities.”

CALmatters is a non-profit journalism venture dedicated to exploring state policies and politics. For more stories by Matt Levin, go to calmatters.org.

Published in Local Issues

A growing number of young students are eschewing college in favor of vocational or certification programs—and as part of that trend, a new facility in Desert Hot Springs is offering classes that help underprivileged and at-risk men and women take steps toward vocational certification.

The slogan of Smooth Transition Inc., located at 13070 Palm Drive, is “Believe, Achieve, Receive.”

During a recent phone interview with executive director Robin Goins, she talked about the history of Smooth Transition, which has moved into a space where an alternative high school used to be located near Stater Bros.

“We’ve been in Desert Hot Springs providing services for about five years—but on a small scale,” Goins said. “We were working with the Department of Social Services. We started working with the (DHS) Family Resource Center, and we grew into a small class space that was down the road.

“Last August, the mayor said they had this space that was abandoned and suggested I go look at it. The rest is history. The next thing I knew, we had an 8,000-square-foot school. It doesn’t surprise me that nobody really knows about it, because we haven’t really been out in a big way until this past September.”

Goins started what would become Smooth Transition by teaching life-skills classes at a library in Riverside.

“We were founded in 2009 after the housing market crashed,” she said. “Everybody was losing their homes, their jobs and everything else. I’m a professor by trade, and I had about $17,000 worth of seed money. I decided I wanted to start training people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity, because they financially don’t fit the model of continuing education, which I don’t really believe works for everybody. … Even community college doesn’t work for everyone; there are people who just learn differently. It started out with a small life-skills class I taught, and grew and grew and grew. I convinced the IRS that it was an emergency state, which it was at the time, and we received our nonprofit status in three weeks.

“From there, we’ve been growing. We did a lot of services in Riverside, but we’re finally putting our footprint in Desert Hot Springs in a big way.”

The age range of people who seek services from Smooth Transition is quite wide.

“The youngest we’ve ever served is 16,” Goins said. “We’ve had people in their late 70s doing computer training at the Salvation Army. I would say that the average is about 20 to 40. Some are people just starting careers, and others are people trying to start new careers and new paths.”

When I visited the Smooth Transition facility in February, I was shown the new radio-broadcasting studio that is being run by Michelle Rizzio and her local radio station, KDHS. I also peeked into some of the classrooms, where teachers were offering lessons in various programs.

“We start with a basic life-skills class, which teaches financial literacy and how to function on a day-to-day level,” Goins said. “We have GED classes, and everything else is all vocational-focused. We have computer trainings and (classes on) how to use Microsoft. We go as far as six-month certification programs and have the same accreditation as a community college. We offer certifications in radio broadcasting; we have a culinary program; we have the sewing arts; we have interior design, fashion design and merchandising. We have a new (program where) we’re bringing in people to teach how to install satellite dishes. We’re always looking out for programs people can take to get them into the workforce.”

Goins said education is currently undergoing a shift in the United States—and that shift will likely continue.

“I think the last recession showed us that corporate America cannot be something that you aspire to, and that retirement (is not something) you should aspire to or expect; we need to think of new ways to do things,” Goins said. “I see the return of small businesses and people taking control over their destinies. I also think that corporate America and other organizations realized people coming out with degrees are not always the most-suitable candidates.”

Goins said the community in Desert Hot Springs has embraced Smooth Transition.

“The community has been very supportive and excited,” she said. “You have people who don’t want to do anything with their lives, but then you have people who really do, but don’t have the resources. They don’t have transportation; they don’t have support at home; they don’t have money, or whatever. We have people coming in every day who are really interested and excited.”

Of course, the nonprofit faces obstacles as it grows.

“The biggest challenge we have right now is funding,” Goins said. “We have people who don’t have money, and we know that going in. We’re always trying to fundraise for tuition. … We will not be putting (people) in student-loan debt; I will not do that. I think that’s an atrocious thing to do. So we’re always looking for creative ways to keep our programming going.”

For more information on Smooth Transition Inc., visit www.smoothtransitioninc.com.

Published in Features

Dear Readers: The Mexican is currently in the rancho, scheming about how to get close enough to Donald Trump so I can smear a bean burrito in his face … HA!

But I did want to share two cosas. A couple of weeks back, I published a letter by one Dickhead in Denver, who asked 10 pendejo questions, regarding everything from why Mexicans are so fat to why Mexicans aren’t good in math. Your humble paisa easily knocked him down, but so did many of ustedes in letters sent to me—chingao!

I wish I could quote one directly, but I can’t. Let’s just say an executive from a major American company told me that company hires more engineers from Mexico than the United States, and showed me the numbers to prove it—chingao!

The following letter is one I’m allowed to share in its entirety:

I can’t address some of the B.S. addressed by this individual so aptly named, but here’s something: I taught as an intern and then as a substitute teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., almost exclusively at Dolores Gonzales Elementary by the BioPark for two years. The kids from Mexico were better in math, science and language skills (Spanish, of course) than local kids. In one of the classes where I acted as a teaching assistant, there were five of them who were placed in advanced classes the following year.

Where the kids got screwed up was a three-fold thing: 1. Dealing with “cooperative learning” crap. They were used to traditional, old-school methods with the teacher in front of the class, and the kids listening, taking notes, etc. When you broke them up into groups, that’s when problems began. 2. Learning a new language. 3. Pressures from IDIOT local Hispanic/Latino kids who ridiculed them and sometimes beat them up, because they were diligently trying to learn; and pressures at home from parents who were also dealing with a number of issues.

Le tengo odio a mitoteros/mentirosos como Dickhead: “Todo el dia, tuercen mis palabras …” —Salmos 56.5

’Burque Babe

For those who don’t habla: The maestra said at the end: “I hate nosy idiots/liars like Dickhead: ‘All day long, they twist my words…’ Psalms 56:5.” Biblical retribution? Chingao!

See, America? Mexicans come to this country all perfect and precious—and it’s this country that destroys them by making them become Americans.

BUY THIS BOOK!

#FuckCancer: The True Story of How Robert the Bold Kicked Cancer’s Ass is an awesome new book by Robert Flores, a lifelong butcher who decided to tell his tale after surviving fourth-stage colon cancer. #FuckCancer is not just the latest entry in the lengthy bookshelf of cancer literature; it also belongs in Chicano studies classrooms. In the butcher, you find everything we want our community to turn into: a fighter. A survivor. Someone who’s proud of where he’s from. Brown and down. And a pioneer: Robert is brave enough to tell his story and to become a writer despite being in his mid-50s after never having written a “professional” story, let alone a full-length book. May this book inspire people who want to be writers but are afraid to do so … to do so.

Follow him on Twitter @foxflores, and buy his book at roberttheboldstore.etsy.com!

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

I recently attended a seminar on technological literacy in K-12 classrooms, held at California State University San Bernardino’s Palm Desert campus. It was conducted by one of the five 2014 California Teachers of the Year, Jessica Pack, from our own James Workman Middle School in Cathedral City, along with Derrick Lawson, principal of Colonel Mitchell Paige Middle School in La Quinta.

Soon after, I received an amazing book, Fear and Learning in America: Bad Data, Good Teachers, and the Attack on Public Education, by John Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in Texas, about what he sees as an attempt to destroy public education.

Let me explain how these subjects are connected.

Jessica Pack is one of those teachers we would all remember if we had been lucky enough to be in her classroom. She teaches language arts, social studies and technology to sixth-graders. Her enthusiasm about introducing varying types of technology to her students, and her pride in the results she has seen, is genuine and joyful.

“For me,” says Pack, “anything less than a passionate approach to education isn’t enough. I am a change agent, constantly learning and changing as a professional in order to transform my classroom further, and reach my students more effectively than ever before.”

Pack’s approach to teaching is to establish a “memorable, extraordinary and safe place” for students to learn. She is involved in organizations that promote a technology-rich classroom environment, and acknowledges that in her classroom, the students are often teaching each other.

In Pack’s classroom, students are encouraged to create their own short films, using technology to demonstrate and share what they are learning. “When students use technology, they are absolutely fearless,” says Pack. “Instead of just being consumers of education, they become producers, showing their thinking and reasoning, and demonstrating mastery of subject matter.”

Samples of the short films made by Pack’s students were awe-inspiring, particularly because the students had planned, written, produced, filmed and acted in the films—and the subjects they tackled were substantive and meaningful.

Lawson, speaking in his enthusiastic, rapid-fire style, gave anecdotal evidence showing the difference the effective integration of technology can make in the classroom, particularly for students for whom routine memorization or outdated methods of teaching just don’t work. One example he gave was when eighth-grade students worked in teams to pick a current news event and relate it directly to an issue covered by the Bill of Rights. “The students get more invested in what they are learning.”

“We’re no longer in the Industrial Revolution when it comes to education,” Lawson says. “We have to match the learning tool to the student. We’re looking for evidence of learning and what we can do to enhance that learning. We have to know how to embed learning so it sticks and can be demonstrated.”

After the encouraging view of current educational methods presented at the seminar, I began to read Kuhn’s book. I’ve often talked about what I see as an assault on public education in the “reform” movements of recent years—privatization, charter schools, “choice,” reduced funding, endless testing, teacher-bashing, and depressing statistics about the lack of educational equity, particularly for poor and minority students. Kuhn hits all of that from the perspective of an educator and administrator who is committed to public education and sees it as under attack from the “save the test but not the teachers” approach to education.

“I write this book to warn that the folks spending their leisure time declaring the American public school system an utter failure have an embarrassing number of conflicting interests and ulterior motives. … They tenaciously peddle their remarkably consistent message: Schools are bad. Unions are the problem. The free market is the solution. … (M)aybe they’re misleading us.”

When you witness for yourself the dedication and professionalism of teachers in our local public schools—who have to teach all students and not just those they pick and choose, and who are attempting to reach their students while keeping up with technological changes that happen faster than anyone can anticipate—you realize that Kuhn’s concerns about America’s commitment to public education are valid. Our free public education system is necessary if we are to survive as a culture.

Regarding the concept of testing as the be-all and end-all of evaluating our educational system, Kuhn writes that because “school- and teacher-ranking systems are built on mathematics, they are presented as unassailably objective. … The tests themselves may be objective … but the structures elaborated on the tests are often fraught with subjectivity and perfectly suited for behind-the-scenes manipulation.”

Kuhn describes the move toward low-cost fixes along with “investors and CEOs with stakes in educational technology or charter-school management organizations” as “an alliance of the well-meaning and the self-serving … It is ultimately cheaper and faster to cut down unions than it is to dig up our structural inequalities.

“In a young century already noted for brazen corporate malfeasance in fields ranging from energy to mortgage finance to banking to insurance, a ceaseless PR campaign dedicated to the devaluation of our public school system led by corporate lobbyists and billionaire anti-unionists should give us all pause. The crusade to cheapen this public trust is breathtaking for its audacity and its tenacity.”

Teachers need to be supported and valued for the professionals they are, and we need to let them know we recognize and appreciate their commitment to preparing the Americans of the future.

I learned at the seminar that education is about a lot more than preparing students to enter the workforce. It’s about teaching students to create, to work together, to respect differences, and to think for themselves, question everything and share what they learn. Every student is entitled to that, and only public taxpayer-supported education guarantees that for all.

Stop falling for schemes that attempt to shovel tax dollars into private education. Don’t be misled by what sound like quick-fixes or a return to “the good old days.”

Public education is essential for the socialization and citizenship of future generations, and the survival of our collective and ever-evolving culture. In Kuhn’s words: “Reform should be done by educators, not to them.”

The educators I saw at the Cal State seminar prove that Kuhn is right.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

Retirement here in the Coachella Valley is generally a time when you expect to kick back and just enjoy life.

But when my husband died about three years ago, I couldn’t retire. I needed to go back to work.

In spite of a J.D. law degree, several years of experience teaching seminar classes, and having set up and run a training department within a corporation, I did not meet the standards to teach in California. Whatever you may think about our education system, California’s teacher-qualification rules are strict and specific.

It was purely by chance that I saw a small notice announcing a meeting for a program that allows individuals to capitalize on their previous experience to qualify to stand in front of a classroom. It was being offered by the California State University at San Bernardino, at their Palm Desert campus.

It was at that meeting that I met Dennis Larney.

If you saw Dennis Larney on the street, he would seem like all of those other guys you see in the retirement areas of the valley: He’s of a certain age, maybe a former businessman, in pretty good shape. You might assume he plays golf or tennis, likes movies, maybe enjoys classical music or standards, is probably married, and is relatively comfortable. Yet Larney is not what you would expect at all—and he is representative of a whole group of locals who are not content to “just enjoy life,” but instead feel compelled to share what they have learned.

Larney had a successful career in finance, including 16 years at General Electric and a stint heading up commercial lending at Chase. He spent time in Eastern Europe training emerging capitalists, and in spite of degrees including an MBA, Larney found himself lacking the legal credentials teach. That spurred him to enroll in the teaching credential program sponsored by CSUSB.

Now 78, Larney, a Palm Desert resident, is coordinator of the Career and Technical Education program on the CSUSB-PD campus.

“We all know our own subjects, but we don’t know how to teach,” he says. “A program like this really helps you define yourself so you can give back to help a new generation.”

Thanks to Larney’s affable enthusiasm for the program, I was sold. And the kicker was that CSUSB waives tuition for students older than the age of 60!

I expected my fellow students to be mostly like Larney and me: of a certain age, retired, experienced in the “real world” and wanting to share their knowledge. However, I found real diversity in the program—from the classically trained actress to the community organizer to the retired judge to the psychologist to the former U.S. Navy admiral, with a mixture of ages, races and backgrounds.

Among my classmates:

• John, 54, La Quinta, began working at 13, Air Force Russian translator, management background, completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology, volunteers with a local nonprofit support services agency: “My passion is helping others. I’m thinking about the future and retirement, and hope to do something I can carry on with in later years, perhaps as either a teacher or counselor to those coming behind me.”

• Rupert, 66, Rancho Mirage, documentary film producer, previously with NBC: “I think teaching is one of the most constructive things that talented folks with a lot of experience have left to do.”

• Mel, 91, aerospace engineer, worked on the Saturn moon missions and space shuttle, former contractor to the armed forces, forensic engineer and expert witness: “I would like to finish my working life as a teacher in designing space-mission boosters and vehicles.”

• Marilyn, 62, Palm Desert, recently divorced, running her own business-consulting company, experienced in sales and marketing presentations around the country: “I’m not sure I’ll actually teach, but the credential gives me options as I move forward with a new focus on my life.”

• Arnie, 76, Indio, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who studied culinary arts at College of the Desert and does comedy acting when he can get cast: “I needed to learn how to do a lesson plan and present my package of up-selling skills in a professional way.”

• Tom, 63, Rancho Mirage, a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly, post-grad studies in real-estate development, an urban planner: “I realized how little I really knew and how much there was to learn to be a better teacher. Over the past several decades, I’ve come to realize the importance of the role of higher education in economic development. This credential has given me a foundation to build upon and a focus on future mentoring. My instructors and fellow students are both interesting and inspiring.”

I agree with Tom: The people with whom I’ve shared this program are interesting, inspiring, motivated and committed to doing more than just relaxing and “enjoying life.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) They’ve gone on to teach reading and math in lower grades; teach business, marketing or law to adult students; private tutoring; volunteering; and consulting with local businesses and school districts. They remind me that we don’t always know our neighbors.

I figure if we’re still here, there’s still something we are supposed to do—if we can just figure out what it is. Regardless of one’s age, or perhaps because of it, Dennis Larney and CSUSB are offering the opportunity to help people figure things out.

What are you doing the rest of YOUR life?

For more information, visit pdc.csusb.edu/majorsprograms/careerTechnicalEducation.html. Anita Rufus is also known as "The Lovable Liberal," and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

College of the Desert Superintendent/President Joel L. Kinnamon doesn't have an opinion on legislation that could radically impact 2.4 million students in California's beleaguered community-college system.

The legislation in question, Assembly Bill 955, would permit community colleges to offer self-supporting courses at increased rates during winter and summer sessions, following budgetary cutbacks—to the tune of $800 million systemwide since 2008—that have left many of these institutions incapable of meeting ever-increasing demand.

Under AB 955, students would pay tuition of about $200 per unit for these courses, reflecting the actual costs associated with providing them, instead of the state-subsidized rate of $46. A third of the revenue generated from the courses would go to financial assistance for low-income students.

Critics charge that the bill would create a "two-tiered system," in which those who can afford to pay the increased rates are able to get the classes they want and need. Proponents—including the bill's sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Das Williams—counter that systemic inequality exists now.

"If you fear a two-tiered system, I've got to wake you up: It's already here," Williams told Democratic lawmakers who had objected to the proposal, according to an Associated Press report. "There's one tier that can get in, and one tier that is locked out."

The Assembly passed AB 955 on May 20 in a 50-16 vote; it has received a first reading in the Senate.

Following a request for comment on whether College of the Desert had taken a stance on the bill, it took COD's press office 27 days to issue an awkwardly written non-statement on the legislation, attributed to Kinnamon, and transmitted by email through a "public relations technician."

"Dr. Kinnamon is certainly an advocate of actions that increase student access to the education they desire and the pursuit of the attainment of their goals," the statement read. "Providing a quality education for our students is our No. 1 mission. However, it is important that access be provided in an equitable way that adheres to the values of the community college system."

The intermediary, responding to an emailed follow-up question asking what the statement meant regarding Kinnamon's position, replied that Kinnamon did not, in fact, have an opinion on the legislation. This statement was attributed to Pam Hunter, College of the Desert's executive director, institutional advancement/Title V project director and public relations officer.

In contrast, it took Victor M. Jaime, superintendent/president of Imperial Valley College, precisely 28 minutes to fire off an email detailing his view on the legislation.

"Imperial Valley College serves a very high number of low-income minorities who are also first-generation college students," Jaime wrote. "This bill would negatively impact these students and place us back to a time when higher education was mostly accessible to those who could well afford the cost of higher education, placing low-income, disadvantaged students at the end of the line.

"I was one of those students who greatly benefited from the access provided to me as a low-income, first-generation college student. I have worked very hard for the last 30-plus years encouraging just this type of student to pursue a college degree and become role models for others in their family."

Roger Wagner, superintendent/president of Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree, made himself available for a phone call about an hour after his institution was contacted by the Independent.

"Without a doubt, it's going to be a controversial bill," Wagner said. "I think it serves people in two ways: One, it serves students who otherwise couldn't take classes. So students who can afford it, who otherwise would go to (pricier) private colleges, can take them, and then it would free up courses (during the regular term). And then my understanding is that revenues would go to financial aid for students who can't afford classes."

Perhaps the most thoughtful and nuanced picture of the legislation and its context came from Denise Whittaker, interim superintendent/president of Palo Verde College in Blythe, who was also quick to respond to the Independent.

"I can tell you this is not an easy or simple conversation or topic because of the complex nature in which community colleges are funded," Whittaker wrote in an email.

Funding for community colleges is largely based on a state formula that revolves around the aggregate number of units taken by their students, with an overall "cap." Optimally, colleges maintain enrollment at that cap, and if demand for courses still exists, any additional offerings don't receive funding.

In the past, there was wiggle room for growth, allowing colleges to exceed the cap by as much as 2 percent and still receive financial support for enrollment above that limit. The economic downturn killed that, and now many institutions can't afford to offer intersession or summer courses without state help.

Other factors impose further restrictions. Community-college budgets have been downsized over the past half-dozen years, so cuts have been made to pay ongoing expenses—like utilities—that increase annually.

And then there are "workload reductions," which mean the enrollment caps mentioned above have been cut back—meaning colleges must slash course offerings to meet the lowered caps.

"Reduced course offerings mean students have fewer courses to choose from; fewer students enroll; and slower graduation and transfer rates result, because it takes longer for students to get through when fewer courses are being offered," Whittaker wrote.

In the end, according to Whittaker, demand for classes is greater than what many community colleges are financially capable of offering.

"Fall-and-spring, traditional course offerings have generally been reduced over the past few years due to budget restrictions, shutting students out, and colleges reached their lowered cap levels without having to provide intersession or summer school," she wrote. "It is a vicious cycle."

This is where AB 955 comes in. The question, according to Whittaker, is that when community colleges don't receive funds for summer or intersession courses, "how can access to higher education be provided to students while still remaining financially prudent?" Most community colleges do not have the money to pay for the courses without state support, and AB 955 provides a possible alternative.

"However, the issue or controversy then becomes one of equity or equal access—this option only applies to those who can afford it, and most of our colleges have high-poverty students where this option would exclude them," she wrote. "I see this as being the main issue, although there definitely is a problem in that many community colleges cannot meet the student demands, and there are no good alternatives."

If only Kinnamon and his College of the Desert colleagues were as forthcoming.

Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

Published in Local Issues

When it comes to government these days, maybe, to quote an old Cole Porter song, "anything goes."

Two area school districts, Coachella Valley Unified (the east valley district that runs public schools in Indio, Coachella and points east) and Desert Community College (aka College of the Desert), are among the hundreds in California that have used financing known as capital appreciation bonds, or CABs, to fund construction projects.

These bonds differ from more-traditional cousins in that payments can be put off for years—sometimes decades—allowing districts to save face by not raising property taxes, at least in the short term.

However, interest compounds during those years, and when the bill comes due, many districts—and, therefore, taxpayers within those districts—will be socked with explosive costs.

Repayment of traditional bonds typically runs about $2 to $3 for every dollar borrowed. In contrast, districts using CABs will frequently shell out four to five times what they borrowed in repayment costs, with rare cases extending into the stratosphere at a ratio of 20-to-1.

Warning bells were raised last year when the Voice of San Diego website, assisted by retired journalist Joel Thurtell, reported that Poway Unified School District would be shelling out a cool billion over 40 years for $105 million in borrowing to renovate buildings. This set off a flurry of coverage from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times (which published a database of the state treasurer's figures on CABs) and other news outlets.

The fact that things aren't quite Poway bad for our local cases might come as cold comfort. In 2010 and 2012, Coachella Valley Unified School District issued CABs worth slightly more than $35 million. Repayment will set the district back $186.3 million over more than 30 years.

CVUSD officials in Thermal, Calif., didn't respond to multiple requests for comment over the phone. An Independent reporter even made an in-person visit to the district offices, and was told that superintendent Darryl Adams was in meetings and could not speak.

The Desert Community College District, which serves the College of the Desert, issued nearly $96 million in CABs in 2007, with repayment totaling just north of $430 million over 38.6 years.

At first, college spokeswoman Pamela Hunter said it was difficult to find someone who could speak authoritatively about CABs, because the person who would normally do so had quit. A week later, she furnished the Independent with the number for the college's director of fiscal services, Wade Ellis, who has proved almost as elusive; we could not reach him after making several calls. (The Independent did miss the one return phone call Ellis made; follow-up efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. We're sure he has a full plate running fiscal services for an institution with a $45 million annual budget and 15,000 students.)

Hunter also emailed a list of two ways in which the district's use of capital appreciation bonds helped achieve "good government public policy objectives"—justifications for why CABs were such a great idea, the first of which noted how the bonds will help pay for "long-lived assets that will benefit multiple generations of local residents and taxpayers."

These bonds "spread out the tax burden," the email read, "more fairly over those multiple generations of local residents than the alternative, commonly known as Current Interest Bonds."

That’s not necessarily accurate. The more-traditional current interest bonds go into repayment, with periodic servicing, almost immediately, functioning much like a mortgage. Given how CABs work, it's difficult to see how they're fairer. On the contrary, they don't seem to ask much of current taxpayers, instead focusing the pain into something potent for future generations.

The Independent isn't alone in that assessment:

  • On Jan. 17, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, both Democrats, sent out a non-binding letter asking districts not to issue these bonds: "The transactions have been structured with 40-year terms that delay interest and principal payments for decades, resulting in huge balloon payments and burdens on future taxpayers that cannot be justified. Too frequently, board members and the public have not been fully informed about the costs and risks associated with CABs. In some cases, board members have reported they were not even aware they approved the sale of CABs." Lockyer, who has been especially vocal in his opposition to CABs, has called them "irresponsible" and "bad deals," and has even likened them to "payday loans."
  • California Assemblyman Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat who has co-sponsored a bill in the State Assembly that would prevent districts from issuing many of these bonds, told The New York Times, "Right now, if they don't have the revenue, school boards can say, ‘Let's just kick the can down the road 20 years and let them deal with it.’”
  • "This generation will not pay for what it needs, so some of its leaders have decided to saddle future generations with the bills," wrote Floyd Norris, a commentator on economic issues, also in The New York Times.

After hearing these quotes, Hunter said she didn't have the expertise to explain how, exactly, CABs are a fairer way to borrow, adding that Ellis would be the one to talk to on that front. You already know how that turned out.

Hunter provided one final tidbit of information worth noting: When asked where this bogus CAB justification came from—if it was official, etc.—she said it was written by the "bond adviser."

The Independent has been met with silence in trying to confirm if Hunter was referring to the bond counsel for College of the Desert: Stradling, Yocca, Carlson and Rauth, a San Francisco corporation that gets paid for facilitating these deals, and is involved with districts up and down the state.

We've also been unable to determine if these points were made available to district trustees when they agreed to issue the bonds in 2007; the three board members from that time who still have their seats would not return calls from the Independent.

Lockyer told The New York Times that the real beneficiaries of these schemes are the financial advisers, who, according to the state treasurer's office, have received millions in compensation.

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