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Divided They Stand

[whitespace] Barbara Palmer & Nancy Bensen
George Sakkestad

Control Issues: Barbara Palmer (left) and Nancy Bensen are the leaders of a movement to carve out a new school district in Aptos.

Students, parents and teachers fight over the future of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District

By Mary Spicuzza

BETTER THAN MOST south county residents, Aptos High School senior Lauren Byrd knows that the Pajaro Valley Unified School District has its flaws. Her school is so overcrowded that the 17-year-old Aptos native has trouble getting into classes--not just popular subjects, but important classes, like those she needs to graduate.

Byrd, associate editor for the school newspaper the Aptos Flagship, is aware that a group of parents wants to restructure the district in the belief that it would improve her education, and she agrees it could be beneficial to her. But she doesn't support their proposal to form a separate Aptos Unified School District.

"I think as an idea it's a good one, but the proposed districts seem to be cut along racial lines," Byrd says pensively. "There's this stereotype that Aptos is white bread, but I feel like the reorganization would hit that idea home. We're already known as the rich kids' school."

Race and class privilege have dominated the long-simmering debate over the formation of a separate Aptos school district from the beginning. Many Watsonville parents, the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, Migrant Parent Advisory Committee and Watsonville Japanese American Citizens League say that by disrupting programs and promoting racial segregation, the proposed reorganization would be most harmful to Pajaro Valley's kids while failing to meet state criteria governing school district reorganization.

Reorganization proponents, meanwhile, reject the race claims, insisting that the main problem is financial mismanagement in a district that is too large and too centered around Watsonville's needs. They believe dividing the 25-school district in two and forming a six-school Aptos district--made up of Rio Del Mar, Valencia, Bradley and Mar Vista elementary schools and Aptos Junior and Senior High Schools--is the solution.

The proposal is nearly identical to a reorganization petition signed by more than 4,000 Aptos residents in 1995. After discussion within the district and examination by the county superintendent and a county committee on reorganization, that proposal went before the California State Board of Education in 1996. The board ordered both sides to form a 12-person reorganization committee and return in a year with a compromise.

Now, after two years of heated debate, several abandoned compromises and divisions within the movement itself, Aptos reorganization proponents have new hope that the next election could be a turning point. Measure E on the Nov. 3 ballot would provide $67.5 million dollars to build new facilities in the PVUSD, including a new high school in Watsonville. The reorganization is not directly linked to the bond, but without it neither new district to be formed out of the old PVUSD would have the adequate facilities required by state law as a prerequisite for that reorganization.

Aptos secession leaders are banking so heavily on the measure's passage that they have already requested to be put on the State Board of Education's December agenda without having to go through the public hearing process again. They argue that because the 1995 Aptos petition has already been through the process, the new proposal should be considered by the state without delay.

As the Aptos reorganization movement enters its fourth year, leaders and opponents have yet to agree on any aspect of the proposal--down to the fundamental issue of what reorganization proponents hope to accomplish in the first place.

Meanwhile, some students complain that their concerns are getting lost in the shuffle.

During a recent classroom discussion at Aptos High, students voiced thoughtful opinions about issues surrounding the controversy over a separate Aptos school district, including class size, overcrowding and racial segregation, even though most seemed ill informed about the status of the reorganization effort itself. Flagship writer Anne Devereux, a senior, spoke for many students when she expressed frustration at being left out of the debate.

"[Reorganization leaders] sent a letter home to our parents a few years ago," Anne says. "It's funny. They never asked us our opinion."

Getting Testy

BARBARA PALMER AND Nancy Bensen are the founders of the movement to create a separate Aptos Unified School District. Local control, they say, is needed to improve low test scores and English proficiency and to lower drop-out rates.

"When you look at the test scores of this district compared with test scores in the entire Santa Cruz County, we have the lowest scores. By far, I mean not even close," Palmer says. "And some of the lowest test scores in the state of California. And logic tells you when you're in the bottom four in the state compared to the United States, that puts PVUSD gloriously in probably one of the lowest school districts in the nation."

Palmer's data is seven years old, covering the years 1981 to 1991, and is based on her own research using a comparative test score analysis report by a San Mateo-based group. The problem, says Diane Siri, superintendent of Santa Cruz County Schools, is that at the time there was no basis for comparison. Prior to this spring's STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting Program), there was no uniform nationwide or even statewide test.

"Before STAR, each district could use whatever test it wanted to assess its students, making it difficult to compare one district to another," Siri explains.

But the way the STAR test was administered created another problem: it lowered district results statewide. The Wilson administration has required all California students--in second grade through high school juniors--to participate in testing, regardless of factors like English proficiency or special education status. California is the only state that doesn't provide a testing exemption for students who have been in the country for less than 30 months.

The policy has had undeniable affects on PVUSD's scores, as 48 percent of the district's students are categorized as Limited English Proficient (LEP). Comparisons with neighboring districts are difficult; a lawsuit filed against the state by San Francisco Unified School District has frozen the release of district scores throughout California. Statewide figures, however, are available.

PVUSD officials released their scores before the lawsuit was filed, and the results suggest that concerns by Palmer, Bensen and others may be misplaced. "English-only" PVUSD students scored consistently higher than national averages in math, while reading scores hovered close to the national average, or NPR (National Percentile Ranking). A majority of the district's "English Only" high school students placed above statewide averages in all five categories--reading, math, language, science and social studies. In Aptos, a majority of elementary students fluent in English scored higher than the national average in all categories except second, third and fourth grade spelling.

"I'd heard the test scores were awful when I got here, but they weren't taking into account that 48 percent of our students are LEP," PVUSD Superintendent John Casey explains. In fact, Casey says that a comparison of LEP students to statewide LEP scores, and a parallel comparison of scores from English-proficient students, reveal that both English and English-limited PVUSD students were competitive with statewide averages.

"I don't think anyone would say we're where we want to be, but our top students competed with top students in the state," Siri says. "Given the new results, definite progress has been made in PVUSD since the early '90s."

Palmer says Aptos kids have "different needs," and her analysis of the STAR scores makes no allowances for LEP students. "We have district people going head over heels over the STAR scores," she says. "They are better ... and they're okay if you accept mediocre. And I do not." But beyond removing the scores of LEP students from the average, there is no evidence that student achievement and test scores would rise if the district splits.

Aptos High students
Social Studies: Aptos High students Angelica Sanchez (from left), Genevieve Ramirez and Valoree Ramirez enjoy their studies in the midst of districtwide controversy.

Money Talks

NO BOND HAS PASSED in the PVUSD since 1964, the year voters approved funds to build Aptos High School. Ironically, voter support in that election came largely from Watsonville. Last spring, Measure A, a $75 million school facilities bond, was defeated largely as a result of allegations from opponents that the PVUSD is mismanaged. Measure E in November is given a better chance of passing, because the district has cut a deal with secession proponents: it will support the reorganization petition to the state if the bond passes and other criteria are met, including that there be no displacement of teachers or students, and that the voters of the district pass a referendum in favor of reorganization.

PVUSD business manager Terry McHenry says that charges of long-term fiscal mismanagement in the district are unjustified. McHenry, who traveled the state as an independent fiscal consultant for 13 years, was hired by PVUSD in 1992 after working to solve the district's 1991 debt difficulties. According to McHenry, the district's fiscal problem was short-lived, due largely to the statewide recession and shared by virtually every district in the state.

"The district was over $1.3 million in the hole," McHenry says. "But it only took us a year to balance the budget. Now we have twice the reserves than the state requires. We're stable and fiscally responsible."

Still, Aptos reorganization proponents continue to insist that PVUSD is too large to manage effectively, and that for this reason the district cannot meet the diverse needs of its students.

"It's about 3 1/2 times the city of San Francisco. We serve over 90,000 residents. It's simply too big to effectively manage," says Doug Kaplan, Aptos representative to the PVUSD Board of Trustees. "The problems we face will not go away [if we form a separate district], but by being smaller we have a chance. ... It's hopeless in a district as big as ours."

At least one California Department of Education official disagrees.

"There are quite a few districts a lot bigger than this one," says Mary Chenier, a Department of Education field representative for the Office of School District Organization.

With almost 19,000 students, PVUSD ranks 66th in size out of the 999 districts in the state, and is the largest district in Santa Cruz County, enrolling about 42 percent of its students.

The proposed Aptos Unified School District would have about 4,000 students, ranking it about 500th statewide. Compared to other unified districts in California, it would be relatively small.

Palmer says that her research indicates that smaller districts across the state have the highest test scores. She insists fewer students means more specific, individualized curricula.

Yet the idea that fewer students equals better education is not widely held among educational professionals. Kathryn Dronenburg has been a member of the State Board of Education since 1990, and has served as the board's liaison to the Curriculum Development and Supplemental Materials Commission. Dronenburg says there is no uniform size-to-success ratio.

"I've seen small districts with outstanding programs. But at a certain point small districts can be limited in terms of program," Dronenburg says. "Discussion of size and curriculum can really go either way."

No Fair Play

REORGANIZATION proponents also believe that PVUSD administrators don't pay attention to the needs of Aptos from their Watsonville offices.

The problem can be seen, they say, in the way facilities are managed and curriculum planned. And the top example of injustice for Aptos parents is what they see as unfair overcrowding.

On the surface, there seems to be unequal overcrowding of Aptos and Watsonville high schools. Watsonville is overcrowded by 38 percent, with 2,500 students attending a school built for 1,800, while Aptos High School exceeds its design limits by 58 percent, with 2,200 pupils attending a school built for 1,400.

"Aptos has always been treated as a colony of Watsonville," Kaplan says.

Business manager McHenry insists that the district has made decisions on where to send students based mainly on which campus has more room to accommodate portable classrooms, which are being used to ease overcrowding.

"We place portables where the students are already enrolled, and where we have room for the trailers. We filled up open areas at both campuses with portables, but the Aptos campus simply has more open space," McHenry says. "The growth from now on will go to Watsonville High."

Retired district teacher Mas Hashimoto, who taught U.S. history for over 30 years at his alma mater, Watsonville High School, points out that although several Watsonville schools are on a year-round calendar to ease overcrowding, none of the Aptos area schools have taken such measures.

Overcrowding has become a statewide concern over the past three years, as class size reduction and a rapidly growing student population have exacerbated problems of limited facilities. Rapidly growing districts like Pajaro's have been hit hardest.

Rhea DeHart & Mas Hashimoto
Separation Anxiety: Rhea DeHart and Mas Hashimoto stand in front of Watsonville High School. Both have taught in Watsonville for 30-plus years and are vehemently opposed to Aptos seceding.

Cut to the Race

LIKE MANY OF THE OPPONENTS of secession, Mas Hashimoto doesn't believe the main issue is student achievement or district mismanagement. He says the whole controversy blew up after the teachers' union proposed changing the district's school calendar to better meet the needs of the district's migrant students. To Hashimoto, complaints about transportation costs of busing Watsonville students to Aptos also reflect a tension among Aptos reorganization proponents toward the large number of Latinos attending Aptos High School.

"Watsonville students had started to run for office, become active in the school. They've changed the look of Aptos High, and I believe a number of parents have resented it. What's the basic issue?" Hashimoto asks. "It's not money. It's race."

Palmer and Bensen insist the reorganization has nothing to do with race, and both express shock and dismay at the charge. They were equally dismayed by allegations that they gerrymandered the proposed Aptos district boundaries to create a whiter, wealthier district--insisting they copied the boundaries of Aptos Junior High School's student area that were created 10 years ago. A trailer park with about 150 migrant students was included in Aptos boundaries, they point out.

"I think when people don't know what to do, and they are fearful of change, they try to attack things from an emotional point of view," Palmer says.

The California State Board of Education will ultimately decide on reorganization based on whether the proposal meets the state Education Code's nine criteria. And state rules specifically prohibit any reorganization that "promotes racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation."

The issue of racial segregation was clearly the most emotional in the 1996 hearings before the state board.

"The clincher for me was the racial segregation issue," says state board member Dronenburg. "I was perplexed during the hearings. The racial make-up would change so much, and surely the county board recognized this. Why did they pass it on to the state?"

Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers asked that same question in a letter to the state board, which challenged the county's decision to pass the petition on to the state. PVFT insists the proposal violates several of the Education Code's criteria, the constitution and both state and federal law.

Rhea DeHart, executive director of PVFT, even points out that the county reorganization committee report on the 1995 petition specifically used race and class to define Aptos as a community separate from Watsonville.

If Aptos is allowed to break from the PVUSD, which is 71 percent Latino, the result will be an Aptos district with 85 percent white students and a Pajaro Valley district made up of 85 percent Latino students. The teachers' union calls these "mirror image districts," and says such districts limit student choices by assigning children to schools based on residential segregation patterns.

PVFT attorney Richard Bezemek says this is illegal, citing past state court rulings that said that segregation can also mean "providing different schools for white students because of proximity or convenience."

Kaplan insists that no currently enrolled student will be forced to change schools, but Dronenburg and Chenier argue that grandfathering agreements does not change segregation patterns that will emerge in the future. Kaplan rejects playing the race card, but reacts by playing the class card. "Instead of calling us racists," he says of reorganization opponents, "why don't they just admit they want our money?"

Head of the Class

CLASS HAS ALSO PLAYED an important role in the debate. Nowhere is this more clear than in the battle over district funding, where arguments about property taxes dominate discussions about educating kids.

The state has not decided whether state spending in PVUSD would increase if Aptos seceded. But a separate Aptos district would qualify as a Basic Aid District, meaning the state would provide the district with only minimum funding. The small, affluent community would be able to use its property values to fund the smaller district. Watsonville doesn't have the same real estate advantage, although Palmer says that housing prices in Watsonville are rapidly on the rise.

The question of property values presents another problem for reorganization supporters. The Education Code reorganization criteria prohibit district changes "designed to result in a significant increase in property values ... causing advantage to property owners." Although there is no indication that there would be any direct increases in property values as a result of reorganization, some interesting questions are raised.

Many home buyers place a high value on the quality of neighborhood schools. Some opponents of reorganization have said that homeowners are hoping a better school system will mean higher property values. Both Palmer and Kaplan work for real estate firms with interests in Aptos. A separate Aptos system would not have to include test scores from Watsonville LEP students, which would make Aptos scores appear higher--even though there is no evidence that test scores would actually improve as a result of separation.

Realtor Tom Brezsny says there is no uniform way to judge any district, but he adds: "The easiest thing for a Realtor to do, if you're coming at it from strictly a salesperson perspective, is to look at the easy answers to parents' questions, and just show a district's test scores." In other words, those higher-appearing test scores become a sales tool, which could lead to higher property values.

Teach Your Children

WHILE PALMER BELIEVES a reorganization would help California return to its former glories, retired teacher Hashimoto says it would be a step backward toward California's segregated past.

Hashimoto's family moved to Pajaro Valley 85 years ago. He says that at the time, Japanese-American students were not allowed to attend public schools. They instead held classes in a small building, owned by the Japanese community, near what is now Amesti School.

"Many of our Japanese elders, now in their 80's and 90's, were forced to attend segregated schools and thus were deprived of the benefits of an integrated school system," says Hashimoto. "They don't want it to happen again. They don't want to go back."

Hashimoto believes that if the Aptos reorganization proposal is approved, it will set a precedent for other wealthy, predominantly white schools in other parts of the state that hope to secede from existing districts.

For example, residents of Willow Glen, an affluent, predominantly white enclave in San Jose, recently invited Palmer to speak to them about reorganization. Willow Glen has hopes of seceding from the San Jose Unified School District.

Nothing will be decided until after the Nov. 3 election. Palmer says that, unlike past bond issues, Aptos residents support Measure E, partly due to the deal worked out with the district. Working together with former opponents to pass the bond, which requires a two-thirds majority, is breaking down barriers between north and south county, she says.

"I feel there's a great mutual respect," Palmer says. "Does that mean that we shouldn't reorganize? No."

In the meantime, the district is struggling to keep its focus--on educating kids.

Migrant Parent Advisory Committee secretary Anastacio Andrade voices concern over the lessons the district's children are learning. He feels that although students have mastered playground lessons like cooperation, problem solving, and sharing, the adults are a different story.

He sighs, "It's the parents who can't get along."

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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