Mayor's Race: Foes Have 2 Schools Of Thought

Press Releases

October 6, 2008

(From the Sacramento Bee, October 5, 2008)


Sacramento Mayor Heather Fargo says it's not her responsibility, or her business, to meddle in how the city's school districts educate students.

"Youth is one of my top three priorities, but I don't put schools at the top of my list because it's not the city's responsibility," Fargo said.

Kevin Johnson says that attitude is a mistake. The former basketball star challenging Fargo's bid to win a third term has spent his post-NBA career opening charter schools. And he promises a much more hands-on approach if he's elected.

"I don't think our current mayor has been involved in education in a significant way," Johnson said. "I don't think she's envisioned that as her role, and I think that's a mistake."

Two of Johnson's political mentors, Mayors Michael Bloomberg of New York and Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., have taken over their cities' schools.

Last week, a group called Democrats for Education Reform held a fundraiser for Johnson in New York City. On its Web site, the organization says it supports "empowering mayors to lead urban school districts."

Johnson said he doesn't plan to attempt a takeover of Sacramento's schools from the elected boards that govern them. He has not said specifically how he would interact differently than Fargo does with the city's six school districts, other than to say he wants "more involvement and a partnership."

"I hear him say he wants to be more involved, but I haven't heard any specifics, so I don't know what he wants to do," Fargo said.

"I think I've been very supportive," she added, citing her work on expanding after-school programs, building libraries and sponsoring a summer reading camp. "I just think elected school board members and their very well-paid administrators need to be in charge of running the schools themselves."

Serna's 1996 move cited


Johnson said he views as his model the late Mayor Joe Serna Jr., who in 1996 backed a slate of candidates to take over the board of the Sacramento City Unified School District, which at the time was experiencing infighting, high-level staff turnover and low test scores.

"What mayors are doing around the country all started in 1996 with Joe Serna," Johnson said.

Serna's move ushered in uniform math and reading curriculums and passage of a $195 million bond to repair decrepit schools. Sacramento won attention as a national model for improvement.

The newly constituted board set in motion the opening of six small high schools. It also made a decision that remains controversial to this day: turning over troubled Sacramento High School to Johnson's St. HOPE organization, which in 2003 reopened it as a charter high school with nonunion teachers.

The Sacramento City Teachers Association unsuccessfully sued to stop St. HOPE's takeover. The union now backs Fargo in the mayor's race.

Today, St. HOPE operates Sacramento Charter High School; P.S. 7, a public charter K-8 school; and Triumph preschool, which is privately funded. All the schools are in Oak Park, and serve a largely African American population.

While he cites Serna as an inspiration, Johnson said he has no plans to back a slate of candidates for any of the city's six school boards. The Sacramento City Unified board – which oversees the bulk of the city's schools – is poised for substantial change this fall, anyway. For the first time, candidates will be elected by geographic district.

Since Serna made his move 12 years ago, Sacramento schools have seen test scores rise. But a stubborn achievement gap persists between affluent white students and those from poor neighborhoods, many of whom are African American and Latino.

The comprehensive high school with the highest dropout rate in Sac City Unified is Hiram Johnson, where 35.4 percent of students in ninth grade don't graduate. Sixty-one percent of Hiram Johnson's families are considered disadvantaged.

"Poor and underserved communities are not getting high-quality options for their education, and that determines the rest of their lives," Johnson said.

A pause in progress?


Some community leaders who closely follow the schools said progress at Sac City Unified has stalled since Serna died, the school board turned over and Superintendent Jim Sweeney left.

"It's not that Sac City is significantly worse, but in terms of someone convening people and trying to work on a larger vision, there hasn't really been a leader that has done that," said Jim Keddy, executive director of Sacramento Area Congregations Together, which focuses on youth issues.

Fargo, he said, has taken a more traditional mayor's approach to schools.

Johnson said he wants to bring education once more to the forefront of the mayor's agenda. He said he would raise private funds to award bonuses to deserving teachers, and suggested posting A-F grades for individual schools on the city's Web site.

He said he would like to see high-level college prep programs in all schools, instead of just a few, more vocational programs, and free preschool for all children.

Fargo agrees that free preschool "would be wonderful." But she questions how Johnson would pay for that and his other proposals, especially while keeping his promise to boost funding for public safety.

"I don't know how he does that and never lays off a police officer," she said.

Johnson said he supports the creation of more charter schools, like those run by St. HOPE, and that the city has an obligation to address the performance of at-risk kids.

In contrast, Fargo says it's more appropriate for the city to focus on providing positive activities for kids before and after school.

Fargo is backed by the teachers unions in the Sac City, Natomas and San Juan Unified school districts. Linda Tuttle, executive director of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, said she thinks Fargo is right not to get more involved.

"We have an election process," she said. "If the public doesn't like the school board, you get them unelected."

The mayor said she has worked to expand the city's 4th R and START after-school programs. On her watch, the city created the new Office of Youth Development to coordinate and increase youth services. Fargo said she is talking to building trades unions about setting up after-school programs for middle school and high school students that would teach job and life skills.

"It could be wood shop; it could be auto repair; it could be basic things like sewing on a button or frying an egg," she said.

Fargo has supported the new attendance centers at Luther Burbank, McClatchy and Inderkum high schools, which provide intervention services to kids picked up on truancy sweeps. The city allocated $245,000 last year to pay for the centers.

In addition, the mayor sponsors a 10-day summer reading camp each year. This year about 100 kids attended.

"It's been really good, and it's something I'm really proud of," Fargo said.

Johnson says efforts to date haven't been nearly enough to give at-risk kids a chance at a better life. "Our schools are OK; OK isn't good enough," he said. "I have a vision that our schools will become so good that families actually want to live in our city because of the quality of our schools."

He counts among his fans state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who said he admires Johnson's efforts to close the achievement gap between the wealthy and poor. Test scores have ri

sen substantially since St. HOPE took over Sac High.

"We've worked with him over the years on education issues, and he's always been very thoughtful, very insightful and very committed," O'Connell said.

Johnson criticized by some


But locally, some former principals and teachers from St. HOPE question whether Johnson is the right man to tackle education reform.

A trail of disillusioned teachers and administrators who have left St. HOPE say inconsistent and sloppy management compromised Sacramento Charter High's early promise. They complain about feeling disrespected and powerless. Six small academies that were to be the hallmark of Sacramento Charter High never really got off the ground.

I saw a dream team of folks come and go from Sac High, and that concerns me," said former Principal Allen Young, who now runs The Met charter school in Sacramento.

Tom Rudden, former principal of the School of Law and Public Service at Sac High, released a written statement saying Johnson's interference caused him to resign and start the Natomas Pacific Pathways charter high school in North Natomas. Rudden took nearly his entire faculty with him.

"I am very proud of what the students and staff accomplished during the first two years," Rudden wrote. "… But (then) Kevin took the reins of the high school operations and dismissed the knowledge and expertise of experienced educators. Under his leadership the enrollment declined, and academic progress was limited."

In January, Johnson stepped down from his position as chairman of the St. HOPE schools. Staff members at Sacramento Charter High said he hasn't been on campus for a year.

Since St. HOPE took over, Sac High's score on the state's Academic Performance Index has risen from 554 to 686 – including a 50-point jump last year.

"Eighty percent of the seniors got accepted to a four-year college this year; before, it was 20 to 30 percent," Johnson said.

Yet the school is testing and graduating fewer kids than it once did. Enrollment last year was 661, according to state records, compared with 1,283 when Johnson took over.

Standards are stringent. Students must wear uniforms, and receive no credit for grades lower than a "C." The school day lasts until 4 p.m.

Sacramento Charter High co-principal P.K. Diffenbaugh, 31, said the strict standards aren't for everyone, but they're needed to provide a college prep education for kids from all economic backgrounds.

"A lot of kids would just get a 'D' and get pushed along, and by senior year they couldn't apply for the CSU or UC system," Diffenbaugh said.

He said a freshman class of 306 students has boosted this year's enrollment to 1,036. "The word is getting out about the programs we have to offer," Diffenbaugh said.

Teachers are expected to hand out their cell phone numbers. Each student is assigned to a small advisory group that meets daily.

With its elementary school and preschool, St. HOPE has created a pipeline to get kids ready for Sac High. This year, P.S. 7 posted an academic performance index of 802, meeting the state goal for all schools and beating the district average of 734.

"We got an 800 (API) in five years in our elementary school," Johnson said. "These are poor African American kids. … Other people around the country get what we're doing. Sacramento doesn't."