Poverty isn’t fixed by income, but by education.
California leads the nation in two divergent economic measures: it has more wealthy residents than any other state, and it is home to the most people living in poverty.
And just to be clear, we are not talking about millennials unable to afford the latest iGizmo or soccer moms forced to settle for nose-bleed seats at the Taylor Swift concert. We are talking about parents forced to choose between medicine and food, a father who can’t afford to buy his daughter a Christmas present despite working three jobs, and a mother tearfully searching the second-hand store for a nicer shirt her son can wear to his High School graduation.
Not surprisingly, the steady increase in poverty tracks almost identically with the steady decrease in education performance. At the individual level, we’ve seen that eduction is the surest path out of the cycle poverty, crime, and dependence. On a macro scale it’s a macabre fertilizer: where schools fail, poverty grows.
Cities with the highest incarceration and welfare rates also have the highest drop-out rates. Areas with the lowest employment, have the lowest test scores. Communities with failing schools breed gangs that feed on hopelessness, desperation and despair.
The solution isn’t mandated wages or government regulation. It isn’t more handouts or entitlements. It isn’t even (just) more money, The solution is more opportunity, greater economic mobility, education innovation, and better stewardship of the billions we are already investing in education.
Thousands of dedicated teachers and administrators want to make a difference. Yet their desire is stifled by layers of bureaucracy, mandates, and slavishly silly (yet dangerous) adherence to political correctness. Innovation is smothered by lawyers, unions, formulas and establishment inertia. Parents are managed or isolated by administrators rather than engaged and empowered. And too many Districts tolerate waste or worse for the sake of stability and easy negotiation.
San Juan Unified School District, covering much of the area the Bee refers to as the “uncity”, illustrates this problem: the District is spending over $12 million per year to transport about 1400 children. That’s almost twice what comparable districts pay using any honestly reported metric. Much of that money comes right out of classrooms - money that should be spent on art & music, technology, teacher aides, or even safety officers.
The District has known about the problem for years. In 2012 the School District commissioned an audit that clearly outlined the problem and offered solutions. The results of the audit were quietly shelved.
Among other issues, the audit cited the district’s failure to utilize the computerized routing system it had bought and lack of personnel oversight. But the most glaring problem is a contract that guarantees employees at least 8-hours of pay even if there is only 3 hours of work. In other words, if the district needs a part-time driver, it pays for a full-time driver. The contract is virtually unparalleled by any other district in the state - even those renown for their lack of fiscal responsibility.
The School Board’s own citizen advisory committee took up the issue again in 2014, and despite attempts to silence the conversation, the committee overwhelmingly recommended that Board take action. Administrators and the School Board punted again - despite opportunities at the bargaining table and another year of austerity for students and schools.
During the course of sifting through information in search of solutions, I spoke with a variety of school transportation providers, other districts, even public transportation experts. The response was universal: The district could do better - a lot better. To the tune of millions of dollars better.
To add to the costly problem, an aging fleet, which annually generates tens of thousands of dollars in AB32 fines for emission violations, will have to be replaced. The district has already spent $2 million in this year’s budget for replacement busses - with more than ten times that needed in coming years.
Not only is the system costly, but it’s too inflexible to meet the needs of students.
Administrators and staff have spent hours talking about the issue. Those efforts have generated little more than talk - and an absurd plan to reduce routes that would have trapped disabled children on a bus for up to 55 minutes each way, and forced parents to meet busses 45 minutes earlier. The plan was devised - and later shelved - without talking to single parent who would be impacted by the change.
The problem is not the growing needs of children - most of whom face significant challenges already and are entitled to decent, safe transportation to school. The problem is not miles traveled or fluctuating gas prices. The problem is not even a union fighting to slake its thirst for overly-generous contract terms. The problem is an administration unwilling or unable to face issues head-on, or embrace tough, but obvious, solutions.
The District does deserve praise for recent conversion to a hybrid “pay-go” system for school construction bonds - a move that will save millions and earned praise from watch-dog groups. But that was a relatively easy decision - there are no political forces on the other end to push back.
Neither does it excuse a long-running and well-documented failure by the district to deal with the problem because they could not be bothered to stand-up for a fair and responsible contract or hold employees accountable.
San Juan Unified School District’s busing contract is an unconscionable and inexcusable waste of public resources while parents and teachers are asked to contribute or raise more money to provide supplies for art, music, band, sports, and even computer classes.
The public will soon be asked to the entrust hundreds of millions more dollars for new projects and construction to SJUSD. The district can demonstrate they are worthy of this trust by proving they can be wise and prudent with the funds they already have.
San Juan Unified schools cover a large, diverse area that includes some of the best-performing schools in the region. But our infrastructure is aging, and there is a growing divide between high-performing “haves” and the “have not” schools that serve communities with growing poverty rates. To prevent the spiral contagion of failing schools and poverty, the School Board needs to innovate - and demonstrate better stewardship of the dollars they already have.
Tab Berg is the president of TABcommunications, a political and public policy firm based in Sacramento. Berg worked as Chief of Staff for two different California Legislators. He served on the Facilities Transportation & Finance Committee for San Juan Unified School District from 2013-2014.