Education Matters: News of all kinds

First, the happy news.

At the Sept. 14 meeting of the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Board of Education, trustees are being presented with a resolution recommended for approval by the district to support Senate bill 328, which mandates that school start times for middle and high schools begin no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

The district deserves major credit for coming out in support of this sensible measure.

If the bill passes both houses and is signed into law by the governor, the new start times would take effect July 1, 2020. Zero periods would still be allowed, for those few teenage early-birds.

According to the backup material in the board packet, the district’s middle schools would be minimally affected, “as all currently start first period between 8:15 and 8:30.”

The board packet states that the district’s high schools start between 7:40 and 8 a.m. If the bill passes, “high school end times would fall between 3:30 and 3:50.”

Later start times will most heavily affect after-school sports programs.

As I’ve pointed out before, mandating this change statewide is the only way after-school athletics programs will adjust sports schedules accordingly.

The union position, which opposes SB 328, is that this decision should be made locally and not imposed by Sacramento. But it won’t work unless all school districts comply.

If random individual districts adopt this policy, those student athletes will suffer the consequences of having to miss their last period classes for athletic obligations because sports schedules will not change. This measure only works if it applies to all California public schools.

Later school start times have been proven in study after study to improve attendance, alertness, academic performance, moods and overall well-being.

And now new evidence suggests that later start times could save society oodles of money.

A timely report by the RAND Corp. released a few weeks ago states that “shifting school start times could contribute $83 billion to the U.S. economy within a decade.”

Estimates show that one extra hour of sleep a night can increase the probability of high school graduation rates by 13.3 percent and college attendance by 9.6 percent.

“These positive effects impact the jobs that adolescents are able to obtain in the future and, in turn, have a direct effect on how much a particular person contributes toward the economy in future financial earnings.”

The gains, RAND says, “would be realized through the higher academic and professional performance of students, and reduced car crashes among adolescents.”

Studies over more than a decade have shown that teens suffer from shifting sleep patterns that cause many unable to fall asleep until late at night.

The UCLA Sleep Center states that when puberty hits, a natural shift occurs in a teen’s circadian rhythms, which is called “sleep phase delay.”

So going to bed earlier does not address the problem. Teens just can’t fall asleep at an early hour.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed later start times for schools serving teens, citing early start times as a contributor to chronic sleep deprivation which can lead to increased auto accidents, poor academic performance, tardiness, absenteeism and depression.

Congratulations to San Dieguito for leading the way and supporting a much-needed schedule change for weary adolescents. Here’s hoping trustees support this resolution unanimously, and that the bill passes.

Less happy news

The board agenda for Sept. 14 includes the unaudited actuals for the 2016-2017 school year, which closed June 30. It shows revenue of $135.2 million and expenditures of $138 million, leaving a deficit of $2.85 million.

Despite statements at the beginning of the school year from trustees Joyce Dalessandro and Beth Hergesheimer that ending balances always turn out rosy despite pessimistic early projections, this year the district was unable to eliminate its deficit.

In a June email, SDUHSD superintendent Eric Dill said it’s unknown until July how big the deficit will be, “but this time the district is certain to have one.”

“I’m not expecting a surplus this year,” he wrote.

On the positive side, the projected deficit in March was a whopping $9.2 million, which by May was revised to a still-whopping $8.5 million.

So the district managed to close that gap considerably, although not fully.

I sound like a broken record, but the staggering 12.5 percent salary raise given to all district employees last year that amounts to an annual expenditure of $6.5 million once again comes to mind.

Confusing news

A board packet item titled “High School Foundation Update” attempts to clarify the role the four high school foundations play in funding programs and services that the district does not, cannot, or refuses to pay for.

The district’s foundations have been under attack recently after complaints have surfaced of pay-to-play for athletics and wording in donation pleas that imply a fee to join teams or programs that by law must be offered free of charge.

Foundation over-reach will be considered when the board decides at the Sept. 14 meeting whether to approve or deny a Memorandum of Understanding for a donation by an anonymous donor who gave $400,000 to the Torrey Pines High School Foundation to build baseball batting cages at the school.

In exchange for the donation, the foundation agreed to allow this person use of the cages and the school’s fields for private non-profit youth teams of his choosing, after receiving clearance from the foundation.

One clause in the MOU states, “The foundation recognizes the contribution of [donor] and applies the funds to the foundation in advance of facility use charges non-profit youth teams would otherwise incur in its use of Torrey Pines High School (TPHS) grounds.”

So in essence the district (i.e., a public agency) in this case gives up its right to income and allows the foundations to profit from the use of public property.

In the agreement, the donor was granted the use of the TPHS baseball field facilities at no charge until Aug. 31, 2019. The MOU does state that school use takes precedence.

This MOU, now available on the district’s website, was drawn up and signed in May 2015, but without school board approval as required by board policy. Now it comes before the board.

Has the district really given its high school foundations the right to offer at no charge public facilities to major donors? Who decides which donors or causes are worthy?

Consider these possible scenarios if this floodgate opens:

A donor who wants to fund a new theater arts center and asks to use it for their own purposes during “off” time.

A donor who funds a new weight room and in exchange for the money is given the right to bring in students for personal training purposes.

A wealthy scientist who funds a new science lab for high school students but asks that the lab be made available for private purposes when not in use by students.

When most people donate to a non-profit, they donate because they are generous and care about the cause – and they expect nothing in return, except a tax write-off.

Arm’s-length news

Recently disclosed emails show that Dill as superintendent was heavily involved in foundation activity, despite his claims for years that the district and foundations operate at arm’s length.

The latest instance of this was the foundations’ coordinated written response to the article in the San Diego Union-Tribune a few months ago about allegations of pay-to-play for TPHS baseball.

Emails uncovered through a public records request by a private citizen show that Dill and district consultant Phyllis Quan worked closely with high school foundation directors to coordinate a response to the story.

Quan has been a consultant for the district for many years, her job is to work with the high school foundations. She suddenly resigned her contract a month ago after the board chose to examine an invoice of hers more closely. That invoice for $1,300 is now on the agenda for Sept. 14.

Interesting news

Another interesting item up for discussion on Sept. 14 concerns sub-dividing the district into five separate areas for school board elections.

Many school districts have been threatened with violations of the California Voting Rights Act which “was enacted to ensure that at-large elections do not unfairly discriminate against protected classes of voters who may reside in the agency’s boundaries,” according to the board report.

Several North County school districts – including Carlsbad, Oceanside and San Marcos – are in the process of making the change, which would identify five distinct areas within the district. Each of the areas would elect its own board member, who would not run district-wide.

The purpose is to give under-represented citizens a voice.

This shift speaks to the need for more social justice in government. People who live in poorer neighborhoods who don’t have the means to campaign or run district-wide would benefit.

On the flip side, the danger is that sub-district board members will be less likely to support the needs of the district as a whole, being beholden only to their individual constituents.

This will be interesting to watch.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at