Schools face cloud of uncertainty

Bond issue, number of class days up in air

While many of the region’s students went back to school Monday, their return was one of few certainties for school administrators who — once again — find themselves faced with 11th-hour changes from lawmakers and the governor.

Two years ago, it was a late-breaking agreement on class-size reduction that had schools scrambling for new teachers and space. Last fall, many districts expanded the program to include the first four primary grades.

This year, with a Thursday deadline looming, educators anxiously are awaiting a legislative vote that would place a $9.2 billion school facilities bond on the November ballot.

School officials also are considering whether they can change already set school calendars to include 180 days of instruction and whether they can cut class sizes in ninth grade this winter.

To top it off, schools, faced with the voter-approved Proposition 227 that took effect earlier this month, are in the midst of changing how they teach students who are not fluent in English.

Add to the mix new superintendents in several districts and a rush to complete El Nio-delayed construction projects in others, and it could be a roller coaster fall semester.

“When someone tells you (of a change) a week before school starts, it’s impossible to do it in many cases,” Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Jim Sweeney said of changing his district’s calendar.

State legislation signed last week requires schools to provide 180 days of instruction but allows for a one-year exemption. Previously, schools could use up to eight of those days for teacher training. This year’s budget funds three staff development days outside the school year.

Sacramento City, which now has 174 days of instruction, plans to seek a waiver from the new 180-day requirement because it already has planned staff development — particularly on a new reading program — that Sweeney considers critical.

Some districts took a chance that the longer school year would make it into the final budget and planned for it.

Rocklin Unified, for instance, increased its instructional days from 173 to 180, plus three teacher training days, said Superintendent Frank Mulholland.

It is unclear how many districts now will be able to change their calendars since teachers’ work years are subject to contract negotiations.

Last year, only 51 of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts provided 180 days of instruction, according to the California Department of Education. And when last year’s budget provided funding for an additional school day, only 158 districts took it.

Implementation of Proposition 227 also is adding uncertainty to the start of school. While the initiative, which requires limited-English students be taught “overwhelmingly” in English, was approved in June, many educators still are trying to make sense of the new law.

Hundreds of teachers and administrators recently attended California Department of Education workshops on implementing the law but left without answers to questions as basic as the definition of “overwhelmingly” — which is being left to districts to determine.

The department plans further workshops throughout the fall, and state schools chief Delaine Eastin has created a task force that will issue recommendations this winter.

The initiative, in some cases, allows parental waivers for children to be placed in classes using their native language, but only after a child has been in a class taught in English for 30 days.

Sweeney said his district is notifying parents of the waiver provision, but said he doesn’t have “the slightest idea” how many parents will seek them.

Last minute class-size-reduction incentives also are back, but schools will have more time to plan this year.

The budget signed by Gov. Pete Wilson includes $44.5 million — or $135 per pupil — for schools that reduce two ninth-grade classes to 20 students during the second semester, after Jan. 1, 1999. One of the classes must be English.

Elk Grove Unified Superintendent Dave Gordon said his district cannot decide the issue until there is assurance of a state bond.

Elk Grove voters passed a $205 million bond in March, but Gordon said state matching funds are critical for the district’s “20 projects in the pipeline” — which include four elementary schools and a middle and high school.

The passage of a state bond is also important to districts with bond measures in the works, including San Juan Unified. District voters will decide the fate of a $157 million bond in November.

“Our local effort is designed to use state money, so it’s extremely important as it relates to our plan for repair and maintenance of buildings,” said Superintendent General Davie Jr., the former Natomas Unified superintendent who has taken over at San Juan.

San Juan is one of several area districts that starts the school year with a new leader.

Wayne Padover, former superintendent of Nevada County’s Pleasant Valley Elementary, has replaced Robla Elementary’s Paul Rahe, who retired at the end of the school year after 41 years with the district, 16 of them as superintendent.

And James N. Rutter has returned to head the Grant Joint Union High School District. Rutter was superintendent of the district for four years before leaving voluntarily two years ago.

Natomas is currently seeking Davie’s replacement and hopes to have a permanent superintendent in place by November.

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