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Education Matters: Disrespecting constituents and why it matters

With all the turmoil going on in the world, I’m enjoying reading the New York Times bestseller “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***” by Mark Manson. Yes, the language is raw, but the points in the book, categorized as self-help, are worth the read.

The premise is that we cannot give a “care” about everything in the world or our heads will explode. Also, happiness cannot be had without disappointments and occasional pain and rejection. And not everyone is so special that they deserve a Little League trophy.

Sounds like a downer, but it’s all relevant today.

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Marsha Sutton
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I’m reminded of this as I continue to write about shifty shenanigans at local school districts – and yet, nothing seems to change. But for some reason, I still give a “care” –despite the fact that it often feels like dropping a pebble in the ocean, for all the effect it has.

Obsessed with transparency, the Brown Act and public access to documents and elected officials, I’m distressed that the San Dieguito Union High School District (yes, them again) has set its agendas to start at a certain time for closed session, without a set time for open session.

This might not seem like a big deal, but for people who wish to attend open session and even speak before the board, it means they don’t know when to show up.

Not knowing how long closed session will take – 20 minutes? Two hours? – when should they come?

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I checked the most recent agendas for local school districts and found that San Dieguito alone leaves constituents unaware when open session will begin.

Holding closed sessions at the conclusion of open sessions are the Solana Beach School District, Rancho Santa Fe School District and Cardiff School District.

The following school districts hold closed session before open session but post a set time when open session will begin: Del Mar Union School District, Encinitas Union School District and Carlsbad School District. They then resume closed session, if needed, at the conclusion of open session.

San Dieguito’s latest agenda posts a start time of 5 p.m. with the first three items – Call to Order, Approval of Agenda and Closed Session. The fourth item is Reconvene to Open Session, with no set time.

I asked SDUHSD Supt. Robert Haley about this in an email, and copied board president Beth Hergesheimer. After waiting and hearing nothing from either of them, I sent another email.

Haley finally responded with this email four days later: “Consistent with the Brown Act, and best practice, we publish the start time for our meetings. We cannot predict how long we will need in advance in closed session, which can detract from careful decision making on important topics.

“Occasionally we receive an inquiry and we provide guidance as best as we can. We sometimes receive requests from members of the public asking what time certain item on the agenda will be considered and we let them know that it can be uncertain.

“Please refer anyone you have heard from to us and we will be happy to speak with them.”

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First, it’s not my job to refer people to the superintendent when they complain to me. It would be easy enough to head this off by doing the right thing. Then there would be no complaints (at least not on this issue).

Second, I never suggested this practice was inconsistent with the Brown Act. Go ahead and do whatever you can get away with.

It may be legal, but not very customer-friendly. And it’s disrespectful to the public.

To leave the time for open session unknown discourages people from coming if they don’t know when to be there – which I suppose is the whole point.

This is not a superintendent issue, ultimately. It’s a board member issue.

Haley reports to the five board members elected by the public, and they are the ones who should be held accountable.

Why are board members allowing this insulting practice, San Dieguito alone among all other local school districts, to continue?

We should give a care.

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Illegal fees at Gompers

San Diego lawyer and education activist Sally Smith continues to be a beacon of hope for students unable to afford fees that many school districts illegally charge.

Whether it’s band, cheerleading, sports, cap-and-gown, photography, art or other extra-curricular classes and activities, Smith is the go-to person who challenges districts when they force students to pay illegal fees.

Her crusade for social justice in public education began at San Diego Unified School District but has since spread county-wide and even throughout the state.

I recently received an email from a Los Angeles area parent who wanted to know if it was legal for the school to charge $650 for his son to join the band.

I referred him to Smith who challenged the school and filed a complaint with the state against the school district. The fee for the son to participate in band was eliminated; hopefully, other students having to pay will find relief soon.

Locally, to my great disappointment, Gompers Preparatory Academy, a charter school in San Diego Unified, was forcing students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, to pay upwards of $90 per test to take Advanced Placement tests, in order to receive weighted credit for their AP classes.

In other words, a student receiving an A in an AP class was required to take and pass the AP test to receive a weighted credit of a 5. Those not taking the AP test but passing the class with an A received a 4.

A weighted B grade in an AP class would be a 4, while a non-weighted B grade would register as a 3.

Receiving weighted credit for AP classes can significantly improve a student’s GPA. So forcing students to take an expensive test to get the weighted credit is akin to buying a grade.

For an impoverished community, this expense is overly burdensome, not to mention illegal.

[AP tests and all associated costs are administered by the independent College Board.]

Smith appealed the practice at the state level last year, and it was ruled that Gompers was charging an illegal fee to parents, who will now be reimbursed.

“I appealed. Kids won. Families will get a nice check,” Smith said.

Smith has been a powerhouse in defense of students burdened with illegal fees by school districts, including schools in the San Dieguito Union High School District on several occasions over the years.

Although she’s made many enemies, she’s indefatigable in her fight for fairness, having filed over 1,000 complaints.

“I have a long list of changes that occurred because of my efforts,” she said. “Without the rabble-rousers, districts would be getting away with much more. I remind myself of the list many times. It helps a lot.”

Many parents and school officials vehemently oppose changing their elitist systems, but knowing that she’s helping the less wealthy gives her strength to continue her work.

Sally Smith deserves congratulations and great respect for her ongoing efforts.

Civics education in crisis

The Jan. 8 issue of Education Week reported on U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ annual report on the federal judiciary. The focus was on civics education.

“We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts said, as reported in EdWeek.

“In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.

“Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation. Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.”

To help make civics education more accessible, three students at Torrey Pines High School have created a website to teach U.S. history. At learnushistory.org, viewers can access information on the website from the 1400s to the Obama era.

A cursory look shows the website to be a tad simplistic, but frankly, whatever works to get more young people educated in civics is a step in the right direction.

— Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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