Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Region needs to re-engage around strong public schools

More than 80 percent of Sacramento County’s 262,000 school-age kids attend public schools in just six districts: Sacramento City Unified, Elk Grove Unified, San Juan Unified, Twin Rivers Unified, Folsom Cordova Unified and Natomas Unified.

More than 90 percent of the region’s workforce comes out of public schools.

All of us should care about the quality of our public schools.

And that is why the business community and larger civic community should be concerned by the midyear departure of Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jonathan Raymond. He announced on Thursday that he and his family will leave at the end of December.

Truth be told, Raymond was pushing a big rock uphill against a prickly and divided school board, a teachers union leadership bent on resistance and a disengaged civic community. The community has failed even to mobilize to replace the two playgrounds arsonists burned down at John Sloat and Caroline Wenzel elementary schools over the summer.

Raymond did accomplish a lot in a short four years, however, and a future superintendent can build on that.

For example, Raymond established an innovative “priority schools” program to devote extra resources and attention to turn around the district’s most academically struggling schools. That, however, met stiff opposition from the teachers union leadership.

Raymond has been a daily presence in schools, observing classes and talking with students, teachers and principals.

Sacramento City Unified schools jumped into a leadership role statewide in developing curriculum and teacher training for the new Common Core standards.

Raymond worked hard to bridge the gap between charters and traditional schools, signing a compact to deal with difficult issues: access for all students; joint teacher and leadership training programs; common enrollment systems; similar data indicators for all schools. Yet we still have people bemoaning the existence of the Sacramento High charter school.

For too long, Sacramento City Unified put off decisions to confront declining enrollment. Raymond took on the unpopular task of closing seven schools in the last year – yet the recriminations continue. In contrast, neighboring San Juan Unified closed 15 schools with stiff opposition, but once votes were taken, people pulled together to make it all work.

Raymond urged the district to go to the voters to pass Measures Q and R to upgrade and refurbish aging schools, preparing a 100-plus-page report on each school. Voters responded, approving both measures in November.

Elsewhere in the region, Natomas Unified is in good shape with new Superintendent Chris Evans, poised to be a high-flier district in a few years. Twin Rivers Unified, despite a still-fractious board, has a promising future with Superintendent Steve Martinez. Elk Grove Unified has restabilized after a period of turmoil with the teachers union. San Juan Unified, despite some turmoil at the top, still has a solid academic program. Folsom Cordova Unified has stable leadership.

So, what next for Sacramento City Unified? The district has come a long way since the 1990s, when it had six superintendents in eight years. But to attract a talented and innovative superintendent to continue the progress of the short Raymond era, the community itself will have to re-engage in a new way.

A good place to look for an example of strong leadership, collaboration with teachers and an effective board is Garden Grove Unified, a district of 50,000 students in Orange County that is predominantly low-income with roughly four in 10 English learner students. That district has a sharp focus on improving classroom instruction, as seen in a new report by the California Collaborative on District Reform.

The Sacramento City Unified school board, teachers union leaders and civic leaders would be wise to arrange a field trip to Garden Grove to see the difference that a collaborative culture can make.

The larger Sacramento region needs to take a stand. This district needs a culture change so it can keep talented superintendents for more than four years.