[Metroactive News&Issues]

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Carol Myers
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Faith No More: After serving 10 years on the San Jose Unified school board, trustee Carol Myers has become an outspoken critic of the way the district has allocated more than $367 million in federal desegregation funds over the past 15 years.

Trustee Sword

School board trustee Carol Myers is accusing San Jose Unified of collecting millions in federal desegregation dollars and giving it to upper-class white kids instead of its neediest Latino students. But critics say that's not why they want her to shut up.

By Mary Spicuzza

THERE'S NOTHING like feeling muzzled to get a person talking. And today, like most days, school board trustee Carol Myers can't seem to stop--at least not when it comes to her battle with the San Jose Unified School District. She shows up early for a Monday morning interview, and eagerly organizes stacks of desegregation funding charts and graphs.

Myers, wearing a maroon sweatshirt and brown corduroy slacks, looks more like a retiree readying for a day of golf than a rabble-rousing activist. But the retired teacher and 10-year veteran of the school board says she's busier now than during her three-decades working in special education.

"The school board isn't happy campers," she clucks, peering out over her glasses. "They think I'm this evil, evil person."

Myers says that since she started speaking up about the way the district spends millions in taxpayer-supported desegregation dollars, fellow school board trustees have stopped inviting her to lunch.

Worse, she adds, they've started attacking her publicly.

On April 5 Gary Rummelhoff, school board president for the district, suggested banning her from private meetings with district staff because her behavior is out of line.

"A continuation of this behavior cannot be tolerated and would be reckless, in my opinion, because we risk destroying the culture we have developed in this district," Rummelhoff said that night. "This is a culture of risk taking, openness and teaming."

She soon fired back with a few pronouncements of her own.

"This district has a policy regarding harassment and clearly, Mr. Rummelhoff," she charged at a following meeting, "you must believe this policy does not pertain to you."

She quickly added, "The style, Mr. Rummelhoff, that you bring to this board would be better suited for Communist Russia. Let no one think for themselves or foster new ideas which are damaging to the state ...What a sad example for our children! Try to discuss the grim specter of desegregation in an honest and open forum and the desegregation attorneys, Dr. Murray, and my fellow board members, who are the main beneficiaries of all the desegregation dollars, go ballistic."

Myers accuses the district of hiding desegregation allocations from parents and from the federal government for many years. And goes on to say that other board members won't support her because their schools have been getting an unfair share of the cash--and they know it.

She in turn has been accused of being a racist. Others says she's bitter that Willow Glen schools don't have magnet programs to draw high achieving kids.

To which she says: "We're losing our white kids and getting poor children with lower test scores [in Willow Glen schools], and they try to keep it as confidential information. But I don't think that how public tax dollars are spent should be privileged information."

Poverty Lines

WILLOW GLEN Elementary sits at the bustling corner of Minnesota and Lincoln avenues, kitty-corner from a Starbucks coffee shop where cops, teens and moms with strollers can be seen happily sipping frappucinos and lattes, in a block of quaint shops, neighborhood delis and stylish boutiques.

The school is ethnically diverse, with a breakdown that nearly matches demographics of the city of San Jose: 57 percent Latino and 29 percent white. The same ethnic breakdown exists at the high school several blocks away: 55 percent Latino, 30 percent white.

Of the Latino students attending Willow Glen schools, 79 percent at the middle school and 77 percent at the high school are identified as economically disadvantaged. And here is where Myers, who represents these schools and four others in this upscale enclave, sees a problem.

She says her schools are suffering because while they have high numbers of low-income Latino students, they don't get a proportionately higher share of the money the federal government gives the district to aid in its desegregation efforts.

Myers says that instead of rewarding Willow Glen's diverse schools with the money they need to educate their ethnically diverse student body, the district funnels the vast majority of the $31 million in federal funds into specialized programs at other schools in the district, which serve predominantly affluent white populations. Since 1985, the district has received $367,043,585 in desegregation funding.

Willow Glen schools are what the district calls "naturally desegregated." Because of their location in the northeastern edge of the district, they are a favorite choice for students who live in the district's East San Jose neighborhoods.

Myers accuses the district of playing a numbers game instead of making sure students have equal access to education. Myers isn't the only trustee in the district talking about closing the achievement gap between white and Latino students. Jorge Gonzales, the trustee for area-one schools like Lowell, Washington and San Jose High Academy, now sits on the board, but was formerly a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the district. The case accused the district of intentionally segregating its schools, and initiated the court order against San Jose Unified in 1985.

"Desegregation has two aims. Desegregating schools, and restoring the plaintiff class to the pace it would have been at if there had been no segregation," Gonzales says.

He feels the district is working hard to achieve its goals. While he agrees that there is room for improvement, he doesn't believe Myers' antagonism is the right way to go about bringing positive change.

"I just think Ms. Myers needs to look at the things she has said and how they've affected other people," he says.

Sofia Mendoza, a member of the district's Latino Advisory Board, says that Myers' attempts are very divisive.

"It seems like one person's issue, not a community issue," Mendoza says. "I feel it's going to divide the Latino and white communities."

Gary Rummelhoff
Czar Wars: SJ Unified school board president Gary Rummelhoff recommended that the board adopt measures to prevent elected trustee Carol Myers from going to the media with her criticisms of district spending. She, in turn, accused him of bringing a bit of "Communist Russia" to the district.

Segregated Funds

MYERS SAYS that her interest in desegregation spending was sparked in August, following a series of meetings last summer. But she says she has long worried about white flight, and the lack of funding for Willow Glen schools.

According to a memo sent by Desegregation Director Sharon Andres to Superintendent Murray on Feb. 16, 2001, Myers' trustee area three receives significantly fewer desegregation dollars than the other five areas of the district. Myers' area, for example, received $2,497,379 in desegregation dollars during the 1999-2000 school year, which was $300,000 less than any other area. Trustee area two, which includes Hoover Middle School and Lincoln High, received 2 million dollars more-- $4,432,405 for the same year, according to district estimates.

Myers presents graphs showing that while Willow Glen High School receives $2408 per "Disadvantaged Hispanic Student," Leland High receives six times that amount, or $12,712 for each student of similar needs.

Still Myers' trustee area, which includes the Willow Glen and River Glen schools as well as Gardner, Booksin and Schallenberger, receives less in desegregation dollars than any other area, even with a special allocation of $220,000 added in funding to programs for low-achieving Hispanic students.

District officials insist that the division of desegregation dollars is completely justified, that Willow Glen schools get less because they are already desegregated. When the federal court found the district to be segregated, Willow Glen schools were some of the few that had large numbers of both white and Latino students.

"Right now upper-middle-class kids are the ones benefiting from desegregation dollars. But they want to label us [in Willow Glen] as racists," Myers says, later adding, "But I'm spending more time advocating for the Hispanic kids than they are."

Speaking Out Loud

WHILE MYERS has been ostracized by district supporters, she is not alone in her protests.

Last summer the Willow Glen Resident (a publication of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, which shares commom ownership with Metro Newspapers) featured a photograph of four grinning women, with Carol Myers, gathered around a school desk. They could have passed as volunteers at a Parent-Teacher Association bake sale or a Girl Scout troop think tank. But the upbeat article accompanying the photograph, titled "An Educational Resurrection," (Willow Glen Resident, Aug. 19, 2000), explains that the foursome began a nonprofit foundation aimed at giving the schools at the district's center a chance to regain their "past glory."

"The campuses of Willow Glen High School and Willow Glen Middle School aren't looking good these days," the article begins. "The grass is yellow and dry. The parking lots are cracked. The paint is peeling."

These neighborhood women call out for educational additions that parents are always asking for--new computers, more class choices and better school facilities.

But halfway through the article, the women's tone shifts and it becomes clear they have other problems with the district.

"[Foundation members] realize the neighboring schools aren't getting their fair share of SJUSD desegregation dollars," the article continues. "While SJUSD board members are beginning to discuss ways to fix the inequity, Myers says it remains a touchy political situation."

Two days later, on August 21, outraged district high school principals drafted a letter to Superintendent Murray complaining about Myers.

"Having one of our Board members pictured on the front page of the Willow Glen Resident supporting both a negative and comparative perception of one of our schools is unacceptable," reads the letter, signed by all seven high school principals. "This is an affront not only to the Principal, teachers, staff and community of Willow Glen High School, but to every high school principal in the district."

Race Matters

KARLA FUKUSHIMA, the president of the school site council for Willow Glen High School, sighs at the mention of Myers.

"It's getting more and more complicated," Fukushima says. "She keeps getting worse and worse."

Fukushima's only daughter graduated from Willow Glen High in 1998, but she has remained active advocating for local schools. When Myers and the foundation's founding mothers asked her to join the board, Fukushima attended several meetings. During those meetings, she recalls desegregation funds being a hot topic. She resigned from the foundation shortly after reading the Resident article.

"What is disheartening is that Carol has such potential to be a real force on the board," Fukushima says. "But everything becomes about white versus Hispanic for her. I'm more concerned about educating the kids who are at the school now."

Myers insists that she wants the same, but says that Willow Glen schools have been hung out to dry by a district that doesn't want to deal with its problems. She thinks Willow Glen should get a magnet program like other schools have--one emphasizing music, drama, or an academic draw. She believes that critics of her crusade are merely "playing the race card" because it frightens people and makes them doubt her cause.

Kim Coleman-Ledwell, the Willow Glen Elementary PTA president, says that questioning district spending has nothing to do with race.

"But when we get bused in the majority of Hispanic students in the district we just ask for the funds to educate them as well as everyone else," Coleman-Ledwell says. "We're fighting to keep our neighborhood kids. The money is leaving here and so are our families. We're carpooling kids out and busing them in."

Murray counters that Willow Glen High School has the third highest retention rate in the district.

But Myers insists that Willow Glen's white flight is real.

"Linda Murray is a master of manipulating statistics," Myers says

She concedes that some Willow Glen parents have always sent their children to local private schools but insists they are now leaving in unprecedented numbers.

"As a result of these student movements to different campuses, Willow Glen secondary schools are 30 percent white and 55 percent Hispanic. It's quite clear why neighborhood students of our community feel the need to leave for greener pastures," Myers writes in a March 28, 2001, letter to the Resident. "Superintendent Murray and the desegregation attorneys are allowing white families to go south to Almaden Valley schools pretending that this is promoting diversity and alleviating racial isolation."

Court Disorder

WHEN I ARRIVE at the school district offices on Lenzen Avenue, Superintendent Linda Murray is waiting in her conference room with Bill Erlendson, director of external programs, and Sharon Andres, the desegregation director for the district. As soon as we are seated, Murray launches into a history of the court case that has shaped district policy for three decades. In 1971, plaintiff Jose Vasquez and others sued the district on behalf of "all Spanish-surnamed students enrolled in the San Jose Unified School District and their parents," alleging that district officials were intentionally segregating schools. The case went on to federal court and, in December 1985, the plaintiffs won. The district was placed under court order to desegregate its schools.

"In the east, busing became the standard method of desegregation. But it was causing a lot of anxiety, angst and white flight," Murray says. "Back then the district was advised to look at choice, and desegregation through strategically placed choice programs."

The district says that choice programs, which create "magnet schools" to draw mixed ethnicities into them, have had enormous success in terms of increasing ethnic mix as well as giving students and parents what they want.

"People liked choice," Murray says. "They liked having the ability to decide."

District officials later realized that choice programs weren't closing the achievement gap between white and Latino students, and in 1993 added a "consent decree" to the lawsuit so that Latino achievement could also be considered. Programs like bilingual education, parent involvement, outreach to families, and a safety net policy for students falling behind were added.

San Jose Unified began receiving money to aid desegregation programs after the court decision, in 1986. It now gets more than $31 million each year in funding. Murray says that the money is given based both on magnet schools' special programs and on aiding student achievement.

"So that's how the money gets there," says Murray. "And once it gets there it can be used for anything."

She believes that the district has been flexible about school spending, and responsive to parent complaints within the district.

Murray says that responding to the concerns of Carol Myers and Willow Glen parents takes time, and that the board has already spent two years studying desegregation. This fall the board passed a resolution concluding that choice programs work, which was confirmed in March. The district recently hired John Grate, a desegregation consultant, who will spend the next year doing an external evaluation of San Jose Unified programs.

Board Stiff

CAROL MYERS speaks quickly, like a person frantic for anyone to listen.

"The district is very concerned that I will cost them their desegregation funding. [It] says that losing desegregation dollars would be devastating," Myers says. "But what they're doing to my [Willow Glen] schools is devastating, too."

Gary Rummelhoff insists that the board's new Rules of Governance, as well as his recent letter regarding Carol Myers, have nothing to do with desegregation spending or some conspiracy to silence Myers. He and Murray both say the California School Board Association initiated and first adopted the new standards.

"Some action needed to be taken," Rummelhoff says. "When I hear rumors that district personnel are ready to leave the district because they can't deal with her anymore, then I get concerned. I certainly warned her about her behavior before."

In one of her published letters, Myers insists that she's only trying to bring about "an honest and open discussion about desegregation/choice."

"Almaden Valley schools enroll 2 percent of San Jose Unified's disadvantaged Hispanic students, yet receive eight times that share of desegregation budget (16 percent)," Myers writes. "Willow Glen has three times as many disadvantaged Hispanic students, and receives about the same amount of funding."

Rummelhoff feels that Myers is merely furious she didn't get the magnet programs she has always wanted for Willow Glen schools, and is now acting out because of it.

"There's a point at which the effort of a board member is to bring public attention to something in such a way that it might mislead and in the long run begin to undermine the credibility of the board and the superintendent," Rummelhoff says. "Carol has begun to cross that line."

Yet the Willow Glen parents rallying behind Myers say she's merely become a scapegoat for the district, and that attacking her is easier than answering questions about desegregation funding.

Mary Schorr, a soft-spoken high-tech worker who has two children in Willow Glen schools, says that San Jose Unified needs to own up to its spending and its methods of handling dissenters.

"It has nothing to do with Carol Myers," Schorr says. "But I've lost faith in the district."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the June 7-13, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.