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Teched off 

A new learning program has Lucia Mar teachers nervous about their own funding

Imagine you’ve just been laid off. You’re spending days scrounging for change in the couch cushions and rationing cold SpaghettiOs. And most of your neighbors are in the same crappy situation, all scrimping where possible with the hope that things will get better. Then a new guy moves into the house next door: a big fancy place stuffed with sports cars and furniture you’ll never be able to afford. To make things worse, the homeowners’ association keeps giving him more money to spiff up the joint while everyone else’s lawn is turning brown.

Now substitute yourself with almost any teacher within the Lucia Mar Unified School District and the neighbor with Nipomo’s New Tech High School, a new multi-million dollar school aimed at giving some students a 21st century learning environment while most other students are lucky to still have basic school supplies.

- ‘THERE ARE EXISTING NEEDS FOR A MAJORITY OF THE STUDENTS IN THIS DISTRICT THAT ARE BEING NEGLECTED SO THEY CAN SERVE AN ELITE SMALL SELECT SEGMENT OF OUR POPULATION.’:  Lloyd Walzer, Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association union president and Oceano Elementary School teacher -
  • ‘THERE ARE EXISTING NEEDS FOR A MAJORITY OF THE STUDENTS IN THIS DISTRICT THAT ARE BEING NEGLECTED SO THEY CAN SERVE AN ELITE SMALL SELECT SEGMENT OF OUR POPULATION.’: Lloyd Walzer, Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association union president and Oceano Elementary School teacher

That’s how they feel.

“Why are we spending all of this money on this special program that’s only going to benefit a small number of students in the district when we’re just slashing to the bone in every other area?” said Donna Kandel, a math teacher at Nipomo High School and the communications liaison for the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association.

The union’s roughly 500 members have been speaking out against what they’re calling an issue of inequity for students and teachers who’ve been in the dumps for years as the economy has drained education budgets. Pink slips are commonplace, some teachers have to pay for supplies out of their own pockets, and class sizes are increasing. Meanwhile, school district officials are charging forward with registrations for New Tech. Teachers worry the funding could bottom out, leaving the district’s general fund as the easiest way to make up the difference.

The district’s Board of Education approved the New Tech proposal in April, followed by a facilities budget in June. The initial cost for construction and the first two years of operation (2012-13) is estimated at $2.5 million. That money will come from developer fees and $500,000 left over from a low-interest loan originally taken out for renovation projects at Arroyo Grande High School.

District officials lifted up a private fundraising campaign under the Lucia Mar Foundation with the intent of raising $500,000 per year. But the newly formed nonprofit is expected to donate only $87,000. And teachers are worried the lack of outside funding will eventually fall in their laps.

“There are existing needs for a majority of the students in this district that are being neglected so they can serve an elite small select segment of our population,” said Lloyd Walzer, the union’s president and a teacher at Oceano Elementary School.

District officials created a proposal for New Tech earlier this year after visiting several learning sites across the nation, including Napa New Tech in Napa. New Tech schools bring in local community members to present real-world problems to students. Under a teacher’s guidance, the students solve those problems in teams and then present their findings to the class using current technology.

The Lucia Mar New Tech will operate autonomously on the Nipomo High School campus, with classes held in a handful of retrofitted and newly constructed buildings.

“We’ve had teachers and people with the union who have said, ‘Well, you kind of snuck that through in the night,’ but that was a publicly posted meeting,” Superintendent Jim Hogeboom said of the June meeting. “It was in the middle of the summer, but that’s our big budget meeting. No union person spoke about New Tech at a board meeting until September.”

Hogeboom acknowledged the concerns that New Tech would channel per-pupil funding and other resources from Nipomo and Arroyo Grande high schools. However, he said having New Tech in the district would make up for those losses.

But Walzer said the teachers and union weren’t notified about New Tech. The budget item was put before the district’s Board of Education when teachers are usually off on the mid-year break and, indeed, only four of the seven board members attended the June meeting when funding was approved.

“We were never, from day one, consulted about this project,” Walzer said. “… It was kind of like in the dark of the night they came through and shoved this down our throats.”

In a big way, New Tech has the potential to create a rift within the district—if it hasn’t already.

“We’re afraid we’re going to create a culture of haves and have nots,” Kandel said.

And it’s not so much the proposal that’s the problem, but the timing really sucks.

“I want my kids to be tech savvy, not just the 100 kids at New Tech,” said Cathe Olson, a parent in the district and the librarian at Nipomo Elementary School. “I’d like to see [district officials] putting energy for innovation and getting grants into the current problems at the other schools.”

For now, New Tech is moving forward as planned. Though the union effectively has no power to stop the program from opening, Walzer said the plan is to make their case to the public: “We really feel that if the public knows what’s going on with this project and realizes that [the district is] spending their money wantonly without any kind of input and taking total hegemony over all these decisions that they’re going to be pretty upset, too.”

Santa Maria Sun Managing Editor Amy Asman contributed to this story. News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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