Del Mar school district board members assure parents that communication is a key priority

By Karen Billing

Del Mar Union School District staff and board members recently received a “frantic flood” of emails from concerned parents as rumors buzzed from school parking lots to the bleachers at little league baseball games. Parents were frustrated they could not find out more about the Del Mar Classified Teachers Association’s (DMCTA) meetings and votes on the 2013-16 contract update, and whispers persisted that class sizes were going up and parents would not be given a platform to express their opinion.

At the March 26 board meeting, district superintendent Holly McClurg said she personally answered nearly every e-mail and met with parents in groups on the weekend to ease concerns and share what information she could.

“I was emailed over the weekend that there was a secret board meeting and that upset me because I wasn’t invited to a secret board meeting,” trustee Alan Kholos said.

All jokes aside, Kholos said that he appreciates the fact that parents in the district feel comfortable enough to contact him to ask him what’s going on and he encourages that practice to continue.

“We’re all members of the same community, just call us, let’s go have coffee and we’ll talk about it,” Kholos said.

Parents have asked for greater transparency and the board members said that is their goal too, and that they are always available, even in the grocery store. Board president Doug Rafner joked that as board members they have been instructed to hit the frozen food aisle last, in case their items melt while encountering and talking to members of the public.

“I have realized we belong to a community that really cares about the district. To me, that’s the reason I’m sitting here now, we all care about our kids and the district,” Rafner said.

McClurg agreed that passionate, involved parents are what make the district truly special.

“We always want to do better, any way we can communicate better we definitely want to do that, ” McClurg said. “I thank the parents for letting us know what’s truly valued.”

Parents spoke up in a flurry last week as the initial tentative agreement between the DMCTA and the district went to a vote, with 108 opposed and 105 in favor.

The contract language included the budget solutions agreed on in last year’s one-year memorandum of understanding, giving the district the flexibility to go up to the state’s maximum of 24 in K-3 and 29 in grades 4-6.

McClurg said since the MOU was approved, 108 kindergarten through third grade classes in the district remained at 17-22 students a class, with eight at 23 students and one class with 24 students.

McClurg said the classroom with 24 students was due to a decision made by the school site.

At the fourth through sixth grade level, there are 56 classes at 19-27 students, 17 at 28:1 and one class with 29 students.

McClurg said the classroom with 29 students was required to dissolve a combination class.

“There are significant costs associated with the MOU expiring,” McClurg said, noting that the district would again be required to pay over class size payments (teachers receive $10 to 20 a day depending on grade level for every student over the cap), shared contracts, increase in hours and paid compensatory days and conference days.

McClurg said schools have always had the flexibility of going up in class sizes when the situation dictated, to avoid combination classes or to keep families whole, the district had just always had to pay for it. The numbers are almost the exact same as the previous year before the MOU, McClurg said.

“What the district is trying to do is maintain what we currently have according to this agreement,” McClurg said, noting that the district’s intent is to maintain class sizes at grades K-3 of 22 and grades 4-6 of 27.

“It’s not a matter of loading class sizes, it’s a matter of alleviating the pain associated with class sizes,” Rafner said.

But as the process went on last week, parents and teachers were put at odds with each other, information leaked and parents felt “in the dark” and “deceived.”

“The process resulted in anger from a lot of parents and accusations of a lack of transparency in the district,” parent Suzanne Hall said.

Hall pointed out other districts do it differently, such as the Vista Unified School District, which posts all the contents of meetings between the district and the teachers as they occur, what transpired and aspects each side favored.

Jason Romero, assistant superintendent of human resources, explained that there are two types of bargaining — positional and interest-based.

With positional bargaining, the teachers present their offer and then the district presents its offer and they go back and forth— those are the things that are posted on Vista’s site, he said.

But DMUSD uses interest-based bargaining, where both sides come together as a team, hash out the details and present one joint offer.

“We don’t have offers going back and forth. We talk and explore options and jointly put together one option,” Romero said. “It doesn’t carry any weight until it’s voted on by the teachers and to post before then would be premature and could jeopardize the process. After it’s voted on and ratified, it’s brought to the board to discuss.”

Still, parents said they would like to see more open public discussion.

“I really value transparency,” said parent Amy Sparks. “We should all work together to have the best district possible.”

Rafner said in dealing with collective bargaining, there are limitations on what can and can’t be shared. He said he would be interested to see how far they can push transparency, but he doesn’t want to push too far and venture into something that would be illegal.

McClurg said any time parents want more information they are more than welcome to request it.

“If there’s something not easy to find, let us know,” McClurg said. “We really want to be open with all the business going on in the district.”

At the meeting, parents weighed in on the contract language as it moves forward.

Parent Laura Alper said they would like to see a “hard cap” on class sizes and avoid jumping to 24 students a class, especially during the big changes involved with the new Common Core State Standards.

“Avoid the use of loose language like ‘flexibility,’ ‘average’ and ‘intent’ that could lead to loopholes,” said Alper.

She said she understands that the state standards are 24:1 and 29:1, but said she doesn’t necessarily think those are numbers the district should strive or settle for.

Parent Jen Charat said she wouldn’t agree to a contract with the kind of class size flexibility that is being proposed. She said she feels that the stipend addresses that and treats teachers like professionals in her view.