The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

A world of difference

By Ed Mendel

San Diego Union-Tribune

February 9, 2003

SACRAMENTO – The 12-building campus of Folsom High School sprawls across 60 acres on a low hill, where the foothills of the Sierra begin to rise from the valley floor east of Sacramento.

In an echo of the terrain, earth-tone color schemes on the buildings give way to blue-green roofs, one covering a gymnasium large enough to seat all 2,450 students or be converted from basketball into 12 badminton courts.

The school, which opened in 1998 after four years of planning by a group that included teachers and parents, is adding a 700-seat performing arts theater and a 5,200-seat stadium.

"We had an opportunity to create our ideal environment," said Debbie Bettencourt, chief financial officer of the Folsom-Cordova Unified School District.

A hundred miles away in Oakland, Fremont High School sits on a 7-acre urban site with one large classroom building. The school was erected about 1907 and was remodeled three decades ago. Thirty-five portable units that provide nearly half the classrooms are clustered nearby.

A reminder of faded prosperity, a grand entryway arch adorned with reliefs of three book-reading cherubs is fenced off because it is earthquake-unsafe. Entry to the school site is now through a gate manned by a guard in a guardhouse.

Principal Brian McKibben, a reformer who took the challenging post two years ago after working in suburban Orinda, installed a sophisticated television surveillance system shortly after his arrival.

"When I got here, you really couldn't tell whether the school was in session or not," McKibben said. "It was anarchy."

The gap between schools such as Folsom and Fremont is the issue in a lawsuit, Williams v. California, filed in May 2000 by the American Civil Liberties Union and other public-interest law firms.

The suit seeks "equal educational opportunity" for all California students by requiring the state to ensure that schools provide textbooks, trained teachers and clean and modern facilities that meet a minimum standard.

"It's about a statewide system of accountability that can monitor and identify these problems, and correct them when they arise," said Katayoon Majd, an ACLU attorney.

The suit is being vigorously opposed by the administration of Gov. Gray Davis, which filed a countersuit to force the 18 school districts (none in San Diego County) cited in the ACLU lawsuit to fix any defects proved in court.

The Davis administration, instead of using cheaper state attorneys, hired the politically connected Los Angeles law firm of O'Melveny & Myers and will have spent about $13 million on the suit by the end of this fiscal year.

The state argues that it has increased funding for textbooks, teacher training and school construction in recent years and that the 1,048 local districts are responsible for providing adequate school conditions.

"We agree with the goal of improving conditions in schools," said Hilary McLean, a Davis spokeswoman. "But we are defending this case because we believe the remedies the plaintiffs are proposing are misguided."

A nine-month attempt to negotiate a settlement, in which the state made several proposals, ended in failure in August. A trial in San Francisco Superior Court is expected to begin this year.

The suit is another round in a decades-old battle for equality in a rapidly changing California public school system, which has a booming population of nonwhite students from low-income families who often speak little English.

The ACLU suit is unusual because it does not focus on equal funding for schools in low-income areas, something that was obtained in principle in the early 1970s through a well-known lawsuit, Serrano v. Priest.

For example, the amount of money spent per pupil in operating the Oakland Unified School District, which includes Fremont High School, is significantly higher than the amount spent per pupil by the Folsom-Cordova district.

Growth pressures

But one difference is that Folsom is a growing area where fees on new houses generate money to build schools, unlike urban areas where open land is scarce and there is little new residential construction.

The $60 million Folsom High School was financed by equal shares from local bonds, state bonds and developer fees. The new theater and stadium at Folsom are being paid for entirely with local bond and developer fees.

Fremont High School, with its portable classrooms and separate gymnasium, has a football field that is 10 yards too short. Home games are played at an elementary school.

The slow buildup of portables led to another problem: Only the main, old building has restrooms. Fremont has a total of six student restrooms, half for girls and half for boys, compared to 28 student restrooms at Folsom.

The Fremont restrooms, built in an earlier era, have polished marble-chip concrete floors, unlike the clear-coated concrete floors at Folsom. But almost every inch of the Fremont restroom walls is covered with graffiti.

In a deposition in the ACLU lawsuit last fall, a freshman at Fremont said the restrooms are "disgusting," often dirty, lacking toilet paper and towels, and with malfunctioning sinks.

"It really smells inside the bathrooms," said Harold Senna, "and so I try to hold it until lunchtime and then I run over to the Albertson's grocery store to use their bathrooms instead of the ones at the school."

Folsom, in addition to the gym and theater, has a large multipurpose building that can be used for community events. Fremont has only the gym, which is served by a single unisex restroom with a sink and a toilet.

Locating land for a new school in an urban area is difficult.

Officials at 1,900-student Fremont say that if a new school were built on their 7-acre site today, it would be suitable for just 600 students under current guidelines.

Less for poor

The state's largest urban district, Los Angeles Unified, obtained a court settlement giving it priority for $450 million from a 1998 statewide school bond, arguing that difficulty in obtaining sites delayed its applications.

It was also Los Angeles Unified, however, that spent $175 million on a new school, Belmont, that never opened after the belated discovery of not one but two underground hazards: first, oil-well gases, then an earthquake fault.

Local management is always an issue when school facilities are discussed.

Some districts defer maintenance and spend the money on other things. And for various reasons, the conditions of schools can vary within a district.

Oakland Unified seriously miscalculated revenue and spending for years, creating a desperate financial plight. The district has asked for a record $100 million state bailout and faces a state takeover or even bankruptcy.

Many of the most crowded and rundown schools have one thing in common: They are in low-income areas where the student population is largely nonwhite.

"Everyone seems to acknowledge the basic fact, which is that poor kids seem to have fewer resources available to them than wealthier kids," said Kevin Gordon of the California Association of School Business Officials.

How well California educates its booming immigrant population will help shape the future of the state. About 36 percent of students are white, down from 56 percent two decades ago.

Among the 6 million students in kindergarten through high school today, Latinos are 43 percent, Asians 8 percent, blacks 8 percent, Filipino 2 percent, and the other racial and ethnic groups are each less than 1 percent.

A quarter of the students are classified as English learners. Nearly all of the students cited in the ACLU suit are nonwhite, and 30 percent are English learners.

At Fremont High School, the test scores of the students (45 percent Latino, 34 percent black, 17 percent Asian, and 1 percent white) ranked "one" – the bottom of the 1-to-10 scale of the statewide Academic Performance Index.

At Folsom High School, the test scores of the students (82 percent white) ranked "nine" on the index for fiscal year 2000-01.

Role of poverty

A factor that analysts say plays a crucial role in test scores, that struggling students often come from low-income families, gives Folsom a clear advantage over Fremont.

At Fremont, 43 percent of the students are from families on the CalWORKS welfare program, 38 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and 48 percent are English learners.

The similar Folsom numbers are minimal, from 1 percent to 4 percent.

The Fremont students move through an environment that can be threatening as they come to school. One day late last year, a severely sideswiped car sat abandoned at a curb outside the school with a ticket under the wiper blade.

The principal, McKibben, was late for an appointment as he talked to the parents of a girl severely beaten off-campus with brass knuckles. He said the new television surveillance system also monitors an area around the school.

Surprising as it may seem, given the contrast between Fremont and Folsom, the total funding that the Oakland Unified School District receives for each student is about 25 percent more than in the Folsom-Cordova district.

School funding in California is the complicated outgrowth of the Serrano v. Priest lawsuit, filed in 1968, and the Proposition 13 property-tax cut in 1978 that shifted most of the burden from local taxpayers to the state budget.

The main payment to districts, called the "revenue limit," is set by the Legislature and can be spent as districts choose. In fiscal 2000-01, Folsom-Cordova received $4,419 per student and Oakland $4,594 per student.

A second type of payment, "categorical aid," is designated for one or more of about 50 programs, such as class-size reduction, special education, and aid to the disadvantaged, who are often concentrated in urban districts.

The total funding for Oakland Unified, including both types of payments, was $8,093 per student, which was 115 percent of the average. Folsom-Cordova received $6,400, which was 91 percent of the average for unified districts.

The difficulty in using funding levels to improve conditions at schools like Fremont is one reason the ACLU chose the strategy of seeking "equal educational opportunity" in the lawsuit.

Opponents say the ACLU suit is vague and appears to be a move to have the state take some control from school districts, which historically have been run by locally elected school boards.

"Their inability to say what they want has crippled their ability to settle this, which is what all of us in the education community wanted to happen," said Gordon of the school business officials.

The ACLU is gathering testimony from experts and expects the court to decide how the state should maintain standards for the condition of the schools it funds.

"We do know what we want," said the ACLU's Majd. "It's just a matter of the state taking responsibility for it."

Some improvements

Since the lawsuit was filed more than two years ago, Majd said, there have been improvements at some of the schools. Fremont seemed to be generally clean and in the hands of people who care during a brief walk-through last year.

McKibben spoke enthusiastically of plans, with the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, to divide Fremont into five schools this fall, each with no more than 400 students.

The intent is to help students learn and stay in school by developing a personal relationship with a group of teachers and students. Many urban schools in low-income areas have high dropout rates.

Urban schools also tend to have difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers, who have an understandable tendency to prefer a more comfortable life in the suburbs.

Folsom has the full-time equivalent of 94 teachers, and 94 percent of them are fully credentialed. Fremont has the full-time equivalent of 97 teachers, with 75 percent fully credentialed.

McKibben will not be able to add faculty as he prepares, if the cutbacks allow, to create five schools, each with its own name and mailing address. But he is confident that the hardy Fremont teachers can do the job.

"This staff could go out there (suburban Orinda) and get the same results," he said. "That staff would come in here and get crushed."

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