Friday, July 15, 2011

(Plumas County) Grand jury report takes school district to task

Mona Hill
Staff Writer

The 2010-11 Plumas County grand jury devoted the bulk of its 16-page report to investigative findings and recommendations for the Plumas County Board of Education and Plumas Unified School District. A copy of the report is available as a supplement in this week’s paper.

The 15-member civil panel reviews various aspects of county government to ensure accountability or in response to citizens’ complaints.

In addition to schools, this year’s jury selected the probation department, sheriff’s office and county projects funded with federal stimulus money.

District reserve

The district targeted a reserve 45 percent of general fund expenses, as suggested by School Services of California following a financial review of the district in 2009-10, at a time when it seemed possible the district might fall out of basic aid status.

Each year, the state sets a per student revenue amount. The formula incorporates grade level and average daily attendance to arrive at a minimum per student funding figure that each school district receives, known as the revenue limit.

When a district’s property tax income falls below that level, the state tops the district’s revenue to meet the revenue limit.

In Plumas County, property tax revenues exceed the revenue limit amount set by the state, a condition known as basic aid.

In several contentious school board meetings, parents, teachers and concerned community members have complained about a lack of remedial, advanced placement and elective classes, as well as not enough sections of required classes to meet students’ needs. They maintain the money is for current students and challenge the amount of the reserve.

Superintendent Glenn Harris contends the district is in danger of becoming a revenue limit district because of falling tax revenues and enrollment.

In response to questions from board members at their January 2011 meeting, the district’s auditor said while the reserve is higher than any other district’s, the district faces different challenges and that it was a prudent reserve.

The grand jury undertook to determine whether the 45 percent target for the district’s financial reserves was appropriate.

The grand jury concluded the fiscal picture is complicated, grim and that “signs point to maintaining the current budget courses.”

District expulsion and suspension policies

The jury investigated a written complaint that alleged an illegal, improper, dishonest, inefficient and unfair application of policy.

Jurors met with school officials and attended the Dec. 14, 2010, school board meeting where Marian Liddell addressed the board regarding the expulsion of her grandson following an incident in September 2010, as reported in the Dec. 22, 2010, edition of the newspaper.

The grand jury found “school officials did not have a full understanding of the procedures or the purpose of the ‘Zero Tolerance’ ruling.” It also found that district action did not comply with code guidelines and time frames: Liddell was not advised of a hearing even though sheriff’s office deputies were present and the student, with good grades and high test scores, was suspended until the December 2010 board meeting despite the incident being a first offense.

The jury also found this particular case was not an isolated incident. Based on jurors’ conversations with community members and a review of board meeting records, the jury found the district did not comply with time frames set by its own policies, which are adopted from Education Code.

School safety policy reform

Grand jurors also investigated district policy following the April 20, 2010, lockdown at the Quincy Elementary School campus, also reported by this paper.

Two students reported seeing a man with a gun in the school’s entryway. Principal Bruce Williams was at the district office and when attempts to reach him by telephone failed, the school secretary drove to the district office to inform him of the situation.

Williams and Harris went to the campus and ordered all Quincy schools into lockdown, then notified law enforcement officials after a significant delay.

Jurors concluded, given the procedural improvements in place as of Dec. 10, 2010, school officials had acted to improve school safety.

Atmosphere of intolerance

According to the grand jury report, “Examples of intolerance were directly observed by Grand Jury members from interviews, local media, and testimony at public school board meetings.”

Examples cited in the report include the so-called “hate truck” and teachers who felt they worked “in an environment of intimidation, harassment, and retribution if there was any questioning or dissent.”

In addition, teachers felt concerns about students were not addressed by administration. “They reported instances of intimidation of principals to be quiet when parents show up at meetings, and to discourage parents from attending meetings.”

Jurors received reports from witnesses regarding intimidation. According to the report, dissenting teachers received unwarranted poor reviews, underwent evaluations two to three times a week, were placed in uncomfortable positions or given excessive assignments or demands without guidelines to define a “bad teacher.”

The report also said, “Students with behavioral problems were denied behavioral consultations because they were too expensive.”

Federal law requires testing for “students whose behavior affects their learning and the learning of other students to a marked degree or over a period of time.”

The report was critical of the district’s response to the “hate truck” and concluded the public perceives board policy as controversial.

Recommendations included a suggestion the district follow through on its mission statement with regard to tolerance.

In addition, “Hate language should not be visible on school property or from school property.”

Jurors suggested an ongoing program of tolerance schoolwide, as well as specific guidelines and communication of the district’s teacher performance expectations.

Harris, who was on vacation as of press time, commented by email, “PUSD is appreciative of the Grand Jury’s time and effort. PUSD has implemented training dealing with workplace diversity issues. All administrative and supervisory employees have completed this training during 2010/2011.”

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