Gilbert School Board Meeting 1/8/2013. What’s Next?

January 8, 2013, was the first meeting of the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board that included all of the newly elected board members.  Ms. Staci Burk was elected president of the Board.  Ms. Julie Smith was elected Clerk.  It was refreshing to hear Staff and board members refer to all of the board members respectfully by their last, not first, names.  No longer was the lone conservative Ms. Staci Burk routinely called “Staci,” while other board members were addressed respectfully by their formal last names. 

It was refreshing to hear most of the board members, not just Ms. Burk, ask probing questions of their employees:  the Staff.   If the board keeps this up, Staff might take their due diligence responsibility more seriously on behalf of all Gilbert students, and stop slanting data to conform to their own desires.     

I was glad, as a private citizen, to offer a prayer during the public comment portion of the meeting.  This was not on the board-approved agenda.

Board member Humpherys and GCA Principal Dean:  Role Models of Disrespect.

With the audience filled with parents, teachers, administrators, and GPS students, it was disappointing to see Ms. Humphery’s choose to stand far away from the three conservative members of the board when they stepped to the front of the room to present the Volunteer of the Month award to Ms. Lori Bustamante.

I was also put off by GCA (Gilbert Classical Academy) principal Ms. Jodie Dean’s impatient attitude toward the Board.  After every question from the board that she answered, she abruptly asked, “Any more questions”!   (Did you have to catch a plane, Ms. Dean?)

It should also be noted that, as of this writing, Staff has not posted the Minutes from the 1/8 meeting.  The delay in getting the Minutes posted for the public is typical.  If you ask for the Minutes from Ms. Dianne Bowers, Director of Community Relations, you will be told, as I have been told, that you may drive to the District Office to listen to the audio recording.  Or, if you prefer, you can watch the video.  The 1/8 meeting lasted 3 hours and 26 minutes.  Here is the link for your viewing pleasure:   January 8, 2013 Livestream.  Grab some popcorn. 

Gilbert Junior High School Closing – Transition Team Recommendation 

The most critical item on the agenda was the infamous, controversial, bitterly divisive closure/repurposing of the Gilbert Junior High School (GJHS), to make way for Gilbert Classical Academy (GCA).  This decision had been recommended by District officials, and it was approved by the previous Governing Board on October 2.  See Gilbert School Board OKs Gilbert Junior High Closure and Gilbert School District Officials to Displace 645 GJHS Students.

Ms. Staci Burk was the dissenting vote at the October 2, 2012 meeting.  She dissented, stating that "she did not have enough information to warrant closing/repurposing GJHS."  As you will learn from the facts presented below, her remark was an understatement.  I’m not sure, even after tomorrow’s 1/22 meeting, if she will have enough information. 

The recommendation of Gilbert Officials and approval by the previous board to close/repurpose GJHS created a firestorm of controversy, and a “Transition Team” was put together by District Officials.  This 17-member Team was composed of 5 GJHS parents, 5 GCA parents, and 7 staff members, 4 of whom were voting members.  They were charged with making a recommendation to the Board at the 1/8 meeting.

Take a close look at the people who were included in the Transition Team. Why were teachers excluded? Glenn Frakes, a former Gilbert teacher, asked previous board member Helen Hollands (who voted to close GJHS back in October) that question: Her answer? “They weren’t excluded; they just weren’t added.” (I miss hearing highly educated people speak plain English, don’t you?)

One of the GJHS parents, Mr. Mickey Andrie, addressed this issue in a letter to the board:

“The participants on the Transition Committee were not qualified to make this recommendation.  Many questions were asked with answers unknown.  Highly qualified people should have been included on that committee.  Parents of children only represent their children.  School Counselors, Teachers, Psychologists, all should have been included.  I even requested the District Lead Psychologist be brought in for a Q & A session. That request was never fulfilled.”

It should come as no surprise that all GCA parents plus the 4 voting staff members recommended closing GJHS.  One GJHS parent voted to close it.  Another GJHS parent rejected all of the staff-determined options.  Thus, it was a 10-3-1 vote to close/repurpose GJHS.  

Staff Determined that NOT Closing GJHS Was NOT an Option for the Transition Team.

According to some parents who participated in the Transition Team, the leader of the team, Assistant Superintendent Shane McCord, refused to allow options/discussions that would have included keeping GJHS open.  Mr. McCord stated that the committee was not charged to find a solution that both expanded GCA and kept GJHS open.  He was obviously partial to GCA and against GJHS. 

I’m sure you can understand why the 1/8 meeting was once again packed with parents on both sides of the issue, and why GJHS parents and supporters once again feel railroaded.

However, this time, with a different board, the process is going to start all over.  Why?  Because this time they are going to comply with the law.   

After all these months since that fateful October, will District Officials be able to convince the Gilbert community that they are capable and willing to perform due diligence in making serious recommendations that affect thousands of people?   In fact, their lack of due diligence predates October 2012.  

"After the October 2 meeting, Patterson Elementary parent-teacher organization President Karen Reynolds, said since the board has known for months that Gilbert Classical Academy would need to expand, officials should have been prepared to make a decision.  "With the strategic plan approved in June, one would think that the board members would have had time to come up with the many questions that begged answers last night, long before addressing them for the first time at a meeting scheduled to be the final decision on the matter," she wrote.  See Community Reactions Mixed on Gilbert Junior High School Closure.

Westie Connect has written several excellent blog articles that identify the many valid considerations that GJHS parents have brought forward, and that Gilbert Officials aren’t taking seriously.    Hayley Ringle, a reporter with the Arizona Republic, wrote an article relating to the 1/8 meeting “District Must Re-Do Process for Closing Gilbert Junior High.”

Gilbert Watch will address three items that were brought up at the 1/8 meeting.  These items expose the failure of District Officials to do their job.  Not only did they fail to do their job prior to recommending the GJHS closure, they continue to ignore their responsibilities.  They are determined to close/repurpose GJHS.  Don’t confuse them with facts.

49 Questions

At the 1/8 meeting, five copies, one for each board member, of a list of 49 questions/concerns compiled by GJHS family members were handed to Shane McCord by Mickey Andrie.  The intention was that Superintendent of Gilbert Schools Dave Allison would answer those questions, in their entirety, and communicate those answers to the public. In fact, board president Staci Burk directed Dr. Allison to provide answers at the next meeting, to be held 1/22.  Here is the List of 49 Questions.  Also, Westie Connect has blogged about them.

There was one–potentially deadly serious–question, #49, that was brought to the attention of the Board in letters from several parents, and in person, at the October 2 Board Meeting.  It has been ignored all this time.  

This concern was also brought up by Board Member Daryl Colvin at the 1/8 meeting when he stated that he did not believe that the neighborhood in and around GJHS had the transportation infrastructure to support the increase in traffic that would result from closing/repurposing GJHS.

In contrast, Board Member Lily Tram, stated the following in an email to reporter Hayley Ringle dated Jan.1, 2013 (emphasis is mine): 

"I understand that the progress was a slow start with some committee members who didn’t support the closure of GJHS and have hindered the progress.  It will be unfortunate if the committee does not come to a consensus and delay the recommendation or the closing of GJHS because the ones most affected by this will be the students where they should be the top priority."

So, do you think Question 49, which Ms. Tram has known about since last October, "hindered the progress" of closing GJHS?  Which students are her "top priority"?  All?  Or just some.

49.  The district has still not completed a traffic study through the residential area of Gilbert Jr. High to look in detail at what high school traffic, and student drivers can do. That study must be completed before voting to close a school, and how much will that study cost? That cost must be assessed as part of this proposed closure. 

Here some facts: 

1.    GJHS students don’t drive.  (Neither do Houston Elementary students, ages 5 through 12, who live in the same neighborhood.)  Many walk to school, because they live in the immediate area of their school.  GCA students are older and some will drive to GJHS.  They will be coming from all over the district.  Also, GCA parents will drive their children to GJHS.  In addition, some will be bussed in, and out.  If and when GCA expands to full capacity at the site the amount of automobile traffic in the neighborhood, whether it is parent or student drivers, will be overwhelming.

2.    There are 620 GJHS students, including about 100 out of boundary, who will be displaced from their neighborhood school.  They will be bussed in and out of the same neighborhood to three different receiving schools:  Greenfield Jr. High, Mesquite Jr. High, and Highland Jr. High.  Some will also be bussed six miles from home. Now, if those students stay for sports, will they be expected to walk six miles home? The majority of GJHS parents have two working parents.

3.    Already, high school students in this area are being bussed to Gilbert High School, special education students are being bussed, and students attending charter schools in the area are being bussed. 

4.    This neighborhood consists of two-lane roads, with driveways and front yards facing these roads, plus an intersection with a 4-way stop sign.  The cross streets are Houston Rd and Burk Street.  GJHS is on Burk Street just south of Houston.  GJHS is smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

5.    About 300 elementary school children, ages 5 through 12, will walk through this area at the same time as all of this increased traffic to Houston Elementary, which is just north of GJHS! 

One parent on Facebook suggested that the District should enlist the services of the Town of Gilbert’s Traffic Engineering Section, rather than an outside contractor.

Here’s another item from the list of 49 questions: 

#4.   If GCA’s standards are so much “better” than other schools, why aren’t other schools using them, and why is their retention rate so low?

GCA includes grades 7 through 12.  The retention rate for the Class of 2013 is less than 50%.  That rate varies, but it isn’t much higher.  Why do they lose so many students?  One reason is that parents pull their kids out of GCA and put them in a regular high school in the 9th or 10th grade, because it looks better to a top, elite college if you have graduated in the top 1% of your class of 250 students than if you graduated at the top 1% in your class of 37.  Elite colleges also want "well rounded" entrants, so this means it’s important to pump up your kid’s high school record with extracurricular activities. 

Don’t you wonder why the District Officials are so headstrong to offer GCA to high school kids? 

Here’s one more item from the list of 49 questions:

#16.  The strategic plan talks of boundary changes district-wide, and the enrollment numbers across the district show a need for those changes.  Why would GPS start with one random school in the mid-age range to close without looking in detail at those boundaries?

According to Karen Udall, a GJHS parent and former school board member (from 1998-2002),  “The district needs to look at boundaries all over because the use of each campus is not being maximized. Some schools are over capacity by 200 or more students, and some under. Let’s balance it out and then determine where GCA can have a home.  Also, GCA needs to define what would make them successful and what they need in a school to help them get there. So far, that is not defined.”

In fact, according to GJHS parent Mickey Andrie, who participated on the Transition Team, "Some GJHS committee members specifically wanted to recommend to the District to complete a district-wide re-boundary before deciding if closing a school is the correct answer, but were told that was not the focus of our committee."

Did District Officials violate State Law? 

At first, Assistant Clyde Dangerfield brushed aside criticism that the District violated laws.  He stated that the interpretation was “up for debate.”

ARS 15-341 (G) states: “A school district governing board shall not take any action that would result in a reduction of pupil square footage unless the governing board notifies the school facilities board established by section 15-2001 of the proposed action and receives written approval from the school facilities board to take the action.”

Regarding this particular law, whether it was technically broken or not, the facts are these:

Upon Dr. Dave Allison’s recommendation, the Board took action to close GHJS on 10/2.  After the action, the District notified the School Facilities Board (SFB) and sought their approval.  It wasn’t until 12/31/2012 that GPS received the SFB analysis.  The SFB made it clear to GPS that “if the district closed Gilbert Junior High, GPS in the future is not projected for growth in junior-high students that would require a request for money to build another junior high.”

GJHS parent Mickey Andrie took notice of that caveat and stated at the 1/8 meeting, “Who here can say that Gilbert will never, ever, expand, again.  Forever is a long, long time.  Gilbert is not built out.  Our community still has land that has yet to be developed.”  Yes, and much of it is zoned “residential.” 

Here’s a law that might not be "up for debate."

ARS 15-341(A)(33).   “Provide written notice to the parents or guardians of all students affected in the school district at least ten days prior to a public meeting to discuss closing a school within the school district. The notice shall include the reasons for the proposed closure and the time and place of the meeting.”

The notice that the District sent to parents did not state that GJHS was closing.  The letter stated it was being “repurposed.”  GJHS parents did not realize that “repurposing” meant that their children would be kicked out of their school.   Neither did the letter state the time and place of the meeting.  Also, the parents at the receiving schools who would be affected by the influx of huge numbers of students weren’t notified.

I will add one more "stakeholder" to the list of "parents of all students affected…."  The parents of students at Houston Elementary School, just a few blocks from GJHS should have been notified.  Wouldn’t you want to know about plans to turn your neighborhood into Grand Central Station before it happens? 

I hope that I live to see the day when highly educated, highly paid government employees learn basic communication skills.

More Parental Concerns

Take a look at more concerns brought forth by Rob Guderian and Mickey Andrie.  Both gentlemen are GJHS parents who served on the Transition Team.  Some of their concerns were brought up at the 1/8 meeting.  Others were sent in a letter to the Board after the 1/8 meeting.

Robert Guderian spoke to the issue of fiscal responsibility.   He noted that before the Oct. 2nd meeting, the Board received an e-mail from Dr. Allison that indicated the transition cost to move GCA into the GJHS campus would be $5,000-$10,000.  That seemed low, so the Transition Committee asked for an updated budget from the District.  Four weeks later, Dr. Allison revised the cost to $32,000 to bring GCA into the GJHS campus.  This budget didn’t include anything about the receiving schools having to accommodate the students that were being displaced from GJHS such as additional portables.  A cost of $2500 was stated to create 2 new classrooms out of 4 existing storage rooms.

Neither did this budget include things like upgrading the GJHS science labs with eye washes and emergency showers, or repairing the leak versus filling in and then landscaping over the swimming pool. 

Mr. Guderian cautioned the board, “If you don’t believe you’re getting an adequate budget estimate, STOP this process until you get a good budget estimate.  In the corporate world where I work, we could never start a project like this without an adequate, viable budget, and it seems that this has been going on with essentially a blank check.”

Mickey Andrie stated, “The committee was fractured at the beginning, and still fractured at the end.  This is a classic example of eminent domain from a school district to its communities.  They’re taking from us because they want to, without recourse to those families affected.  And what do they tell us, the families who have made a life in and around Gilbert Junior High?  ‘Just deal with it.’   As a result, the recommendation the committee came to was NOT in the best interest of Gilbert Public Schools.  It’s actually not even in the best interest of Gilbert Classical Academy (GCA).  What GCA needs, what they deserve, is a location specifically designed to meet their unique needs, to promote the community, to promote the School District… all in one.

Mr. Andrie also noted, “I specifically requested three things that could have helped the Transition Committee come to a more effective recommendation.  These requests were ignored.

1.  Blueprints of the existing Junior Highs, Administration location, and GCA. The purpose was to identify how GCA currently utilizes their location, and how they could potentially utilize a different location.

2.  District Lead Psychologist Advice.  The purpose was for a Q & A with the committee.  The psychologist could have helped the committee understand the potential impact on the GJHS children being forcefully moved from their school to a locally competing school.  The psychologist could also have spoken to the importance of the role that teacher and principal familiarity plays in the students’ success.  There were many issues that were important to consider.  The District Lead Psychologist has the education, knowledge, and experience that would have been a tremendous benefit to the Transition Committee. 

3. Current headcount and capacities of all Gilbert schools. The email I received was only for elementary schools.”

Now you can understand why on 10/2, Board member Staci Burk dissented, stating that she didn’t have enough information to warrant closing/repurposing GJHS.  Far from it.  The board meets again on 1/22.  Gilbert Officials will be presenting more information.  Do you have any confidence that these bureaucrats are capable and willing of providing honest, factual information?

The most serious consideration should have been, from the beginning, what is the District trying to accomplish in introducing a "Gilbert Classical Academy"?  What is the best and most feasible framework?  What is it about GCA that has earned it an academic ranking in the top 15 schools in the state?  In spite of the poor facility in which they are housed, this academic achievement has not been affected.    

Perhaps they should have brought in some successful business people from the corporate world to brainstorm.  Maybe GCA doesn’t need its "own" building.  Maybe the model could be integrated within some of GPS’s existing schools.  What about the long-distance learning potential?  All GCA students have laptops and probably know more about technology than their teachers.  Is it the academics or the athletics?  Should it be for Grades 7 and 8?  7, 8, and 9?

Is it too late to "think outside the box"?