School district chief: Innovation in a time of scarcity

Posted on March 30, 2016 by Sonoma Valley Sun

By Louann Carlomagno | Superintendent, Sonoma Valley Unified School District — 

The recession was not good for California public schools. While Sonoma Valley schools were able to avoid the massive layoffs that many large urban districts faced, we nevertheless had to reduce personnel through attrition, cut programs, and generally tighten our institutional belt.

Our mantra was to “keep cuts away from the classroom” but as the economy worsened, it seemed like all cuts had a direct impact on our students.  Yet somehow, we managed, in many ways, to thrive during the years of budget cuts.

Looking back, I ponder how it is that this could be so.  First, we had excellent fiscal planning, and we were able to take time necessary to weigh the pros and cons of various options and make cuts gradually rather than drastically.  While we buffered the impact of the recession by carefully planned deficit spending, we always had reserves that made such actions prudent and sustainable.

But more importantly, we found that our community came forward and stepped up in many ways, large and small, to prevent or reduce the extent of the budget cuts.  For example, when we were faced with closing libraries, four community members started the “Love Our Libraries” campaign, and the libraries stayed open.

When we considered reducing money spent on “frills” such as physical education, art, music and extracurricular activities, our parents and staff pulled together to raise money and write grants.  Unlike many districts, we continued to offer a full range of activities to our students.

Moreover, our struggles in these lean years led to new ways of thinking about our priorities.  We had to identify our most critical goals, and then determine how we could move toward them despite our financial woes.

Fortunately, the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation was there to support both our thinking and our programs every step of the way.

Thus, when we reinstituted summer school after downsizing it dramatically, we started our Summer Reading and Writing Academy, with generous support from Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, aimed at the critical benchmark of achieving proficiency in reading by the end of third grade.

When we pondered the difficulties we faced because so many of our kindergarten students were not familiar with school and what it entailed, we instituted Jump Start Kinder, a three-week program that introduced school to these youngsters over the summer, when things were less hectic than they were on the traditional first day of school in the fall.

When we realized that we had students entering ninth grade who were not prepared to take algebra, we introduced Bridge to Algebra, a five-week summer algebra readiness programs.

The funding for these initiatives came from the Education Foundation, its targeted fundraising efforts, and the interest and support of generous local donors.

It was a new way of thinking for me and for many of my colleagues, and it went like this. “We have a very specific and important need.  We have designed a program to address that need.  Here’s what the program will cost.  We will provide you with data to show you the results we were able to achieve.”

Through innovation, collaboration, accountability and community engagement, we were able to evolve in our thinking and our practice.  As we emerge from the recession, I want to remember the lessons learned during the difficult years.  We cannot and will not return to “business as usual.”  We will continue to hone our programs and practices to address the most critical needs facing our students.  They deserve nothing less.

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