We asked the elves in our newsroom to cover the public meetings the San Juan Unified School District held about the proposed new boundaries for the 3 middle schools and the K-8 schools in the west end of the school district. There were two public meetings held, one at Dyer-Kelly and another at Greer. The elves decided to watch the Warriors v Lakers game that was on when the Dyer-Kelly meeting happened. (What? You didn't see them at the sports bar? Of course not. They're elves, highly skilled at not being seen by humans. That's why we love having them as reporters.) The elves opted for the Greer meeting. Here's their report:
What if they gave a meeting and nobody came? Well, actually, one person did show up - a retiree who self-identified as a taxpayer. There were at least a dozen staffers from the school district, which made it easier for the staff people who made the boundary decisions for you before you even knew about it to intimidate the taxpayer. The conversation went something like this:
District staff: Wanna see our extraordinary PowerPoint slides?
Old guy: No thanks, I did my homework. Just please tell me why you waited so long after you locked in your decision to let the public know about this?
District staff: We have a process. We're following our process.
Old guy: Seems like you put the cart before the horse.
District staff: Not really. We know what we're doing.
Old guy: I'm pretty concerned about unsafe conditions, like kids having to cross dangerous streets twice a day during rush hour to get to and from school. Our community is missing a lot of sidewalks, the sidewalks we do have are unsafe and/or inadequate, and local public transportation is horrible. Parents are going to have to drive their kids to and from school and that's going to be a mess.
District staff: We know. That's why we're working with the County.
Old guy: What does that mean? How in the world is the County going to fix all those problems in time?
District staff: Look, we used to have buses. And when we did, kids within 2 1/2 miles had to walk. There might not be buses now, but the walking distances have been reduced by 1 mile. So we're making great progress.
Old guy: Yeah, right. Well, thank you for holding the meeting. Bye.
What can be concluded from this? To its credit, the school district did kind of carpet bomb parents with mail, email and student-take-home sheets. It is fair to say the public (at least the group of parents with kids in school) was told about the proposed new boundaries. But maybe there wasn't a lack of interest from the public. Maybe the public has instead just given up on trying to tell the school district anything. It's not like there has been any listening behavior from the school district staff or the Trustees. The school district is doing what it wants to do, regardless of what the public wants. So, if you are part of the public, why waste your time?
Keep in mind that the "problem" is a temporary increase of about 300 middle schoolers for which the school district has already said the high school capacity is adequate. 300 middle schoolers is roughly equivalent to 10 portable classrooms that could be sprinkled around to the existing two middle schools and the 3 K-8 schools in the west end. The school district chose instead to commit $120,000,000 to two new brick-and-mortar, permanent middle schools, to stop offering a west-end fundamental middle school, and to walk away from the middle school classroom facilities at Encina. Apparently all of that had something to do with equity for the disadvantaged west end neighborhoods that had been neglected by the school district for so many years. Except, when you look at the proposed boundaries, you notice that the comparatively-privileged neighborhoods around Sierra Oaks and Starr King K-8 campuses seem to be able to maintain their status. And one wonders what the deal is with the Edison Language Institute K-8 school. The campus, once a fully-functional middle school (Jonas Salk) that was closed, was later re-opened as a district-wide school. While it is fine to have district-wide functionality like multi-lingual language immersion, it seems odd that the school district cannot relocate a district-wide school to another location within the district (and there are underutilized facilities throughout the district). So, more and more, we are learning towards thinking the middle schools boondoggle thing is about cozy deals with architecture firms and construction companies that make it look like the school district is doing cool stuff. What do you think?