Editorial: Banda needs to hit ground running as school opens

Published: Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014 - 12:00 am

José L. Banda faces his first big challenge as the leader of Sacramento City Unified schools on Tuesday when the district welcomes back students for a new school year.

First days back are always chaotic and hectic, but this will be old hat to Banda. He’s spent more than three decades in California school districts as a teacher, principal, administrator or superintendent. Banda was chief of Seattle’s schools until he was lured back to his home state earlier this summer to replace Jonathan Raymond.

Disappointingly, though, Banda said when he was hired that he took the job to get back to California’s generous retirement system. Nothing about kids or education. Admittedly, it was quite an enticement for a 57-year-old nearing retirement age. This stint could boost his annual retirement pay by $61,400 a year.

The Bee’s editorial board sat down with Banda last week to give him an opportunity to disabuse us of the notion that he’s in town mostly for the money, looking for an easy ride into retirement.

We didn’t hear the excitement or vision we hoped for from someone so exceptionally well-compensated. His annual salary is $290,000.

Yet we remain hopeful. Banda is intelligent, experienced and capable. He can rise to the challenge in Sacramento and instill confidence in parents that their children will receive excellent education in Sacramento’s public schools.

It won’t be easy. To help, we offer five suggestions.

1. Meet the mayor right away.

It’s a bit puzzling that Banda has been in town for nearly a month and has not met with other local school district leaders, with parent groups or Mayor Kevin Johnson. Perhaps the latter is not actually a surprise; Banda dislikes charter schools and Johnson is a big fan. He even founded one – St. Hope in Oak Park, which was challenged by the Sacramento teachers union.

Johnson’s wife is Michelle Rhee, formerly head of D.C. schools and founder and former president of Students First. She is considered one of the foremost advocates of charter schools and educational reform in the country and recently became board chairwoman of St. Hope.

If Banda wants to do well in this job, he’s going to have to make the effort to have a relationship with the city’s celebrity mayor and his wife.

2. Start a teacher advisory council.

Banda hasn’t met with teachers in any real way, either, as school has been in recess. But he has managed to take three meetings with the Sacramento City Teachers Association leaders and one with the classified staff union.

Reaching out to SCTA makes sense; the union may well have control of the Sac City school board after November’s election. But three times in three weeks?

He clearly has orders to repair the damage between the unions and the administration right away, but he can’t continue to have such lopsided priorities.

Banda should know that many teachers don’t feel their union represents them well and should make time and space for them to be heard. One way to do that would be by creating an advisory council that meets with him regularly.

3. Full WiFi by June.

Only half of Sacramento City’s schools have full wireless coverage at the moment. While another 17 percent should be added by the end of the school year, it’s still not enough.

This represents progress from just a year ago, but it is unacceptable that full connectivity is still two to three years away. That may be nothing in government time, but it’s a potentially life-changing span for a student.

The sorry state of Sac City schools’ WiFi is not Banda’s fault, of course, but resolving it can be his credit.

He needs to figure out what it will take to reach full connectivity, round up the support he needs, take it to the Board of Education and get it done.

4. Shake up the traditional school model.

OK, Banda doesn’t like charter schools. As Seattle schools superintendent, he actively opposed an initiative that would have legalized charter schools in Washington state and says he will push back if Johnson wants to take over any more Sacramento schools.

But charters are just one means to an end. The end is flexibility and innovation that would attract parents to the district. There are other ways to achieve this: magnet schools, academies, small learning communities or arrangements that haven’t even been imagined yet.

We suggest Banda look for inspiration at the innovative Public School Choice program in the Los Angeles Unified School District. That program put the district’s academically failing schools and its brand-new schools on the table and took bids for outside and inside operators.

The result is a handful of schools that are fundamentally different and exciting, including teacher collectives, magnets and academies.

Banda also should continue the Priority School program begun by his predecessor. It gives more power to school principals to remove problem teachers. And he should look for more ways to truly embrace the concept of local control for schools.

5. Be a policy leader.

As the superintendent in California’s capital city, Banda has a unique opportunity to shape policy that could help bring excellence to the state’s public schools. Of course, he’ll have to have something excellent to talk about. We suggest that, with his growing relationship with the unions, he take the lead in finding a way to integrate the Vergara ruling on teacher tenure and firing rules in a way that teachers and frustrated parents can support. That alone would more than earn his keep.

We’ve been critical of Banda so far, but hopefully constructively so. If he feels picked on, he must understand that it is necessary. He is in the position of leading Sacramento’s schools during the next crucial years, which include budget challenges, declining enrollment, the rollout of Common Core and local-control funding. The district has no room for a caretaker at the top.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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