New Sacramento schools superintendent seeks to stem falling enrollment

José L. Banda, the newly appointed Sacramento City Unified School District superintendent, said Friday he will work to ensure that the district becomes more competitive in the face of falling enrollment, with an eye toward reversing the trend.

During a press conference at district headquarters in south Sacramento, Banda also said that he will put special emphasis on equality for minority and disadvantaged students – what he called “race and equity.” Minority students constitute about 80 percent of the district’s population, while nearly 70 percent of Sacramento City Unified students qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on low household income.

Banda, 57, arrives after having served for two years as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. He spent the remainder of his career in California, including a four-year stint as head of the Anaheim City School District.

Board members voted 6-1 Thursday night to select Banda for the job. His three-year contract starts Aug. 1 and will provide him $290,000 yearly in total compensation.

Sacramento City Unified is the only district in the region that remains on the state’s fiscal warning list, which officials attribute to a continued loss of students in future years. Enrollment in the K-12 district has fallen from about 53,000 in 2001-02 to 43,000 this year, numbers that exclude independent charter school enrollment, according to state and district data.

Banda noted that the decline that brought about last summer’s elementary school closures has not yet ended. “We don’t want to see the Sacramento school district continually decline and go below the 40,000 student mark,” he said.

In one case, Fruit Ridge Elementary School lost 400 students to a new Spanish immersion charter school two years before it closed in 2013.

To counteract steep competition from private schools and independent charters, Banda said, the Sacramento district has to be a better student draw.

“We’re going to have to make sure we’re very competitive with those around us,” he said. “We have charters that are taking kids. We have private schools that are taking our kids. Part of the approach for us will be (to ask), what are we doing now to maintain students we have now? What can we do to draw our kids back?”

Banda said that equality needs to be part of every budget and operational decision and that he will designate someone to ensure that occurs “so that when we’re making decisions about budget and staffing and programs, we’re mindful about impact.

“It becomes part of everything we do moving forward.”

Banda said he favors more frequent testing of students to guide instructional decision-making and views it as superior to “waiting until the end of the year” for more broad-brush state-mandated tests results.

“If we’re really going to monitor student progress … we need to actually be doing a lot more of the assessment piece,” he said. “ ... Do we need to reset? Are we really being strategic with ... our funding to get the results we need on behalf of children?”

Banda said also that the district “needs to make sure every school site is a hub for the community … that every school site has a welcoming environment for parents and the community,” continuing an outreach theme that he pursued in Seattle.

“Part of my 100-day entry plan will be get out into the community, hold regional meetings, talk about where we’re going and what we’re doing and give (parents) a chance to ask what concerns them the most about the education of their children.”

Only trustee Jay Hansen voted against Banda’s appointment. Hansen said Friday his first choice for the post was Sara Noguchi, who served as interim superintendent after Jonathan Raymond left in December. Hansen said she displayed commitment to the district and had done a “fantastic job.”

“I know that José will be a fine superintendent,” Hansen said. “He’s certainly qualified and there’s no doubt he’s got what it takes. I was looking for dynamism that I really thought (Noguchi) had.”

Raymond had a fractured relationship with the Sacramento City Teachers Association. The union resisted his “Priority Schools” plan that allowed principals to replace teachers at struggling campuses without regard for tenure, and it opposed his attempt to use test scores in teacher evaluations. Banda said he intends to sit down soon with SCTA.

“Meeting with our union partners is going to be very key, to sit down with them,” he said. “They are part of the 100-day plan.”

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