Opinion: Finding Meaning

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The Tail Wags the Dog

By Skip Hellewell

Two columns ago, we remembered Annaliese Schimmelpfennig, who, with her husband Paul, founded the noted three-campus Anneliese Schools, beloved by thousands of Laguna students and parents. The column noted the benefits of competition in education as institutions, especially those with a monopoly, tend to lose their way over time. Judging by your responses, I touched a raw nerve.

Readers focused on a school district proposal that would mainly expand the aquatics center and district offices, with very little for the classrooms. One option of this plan was said to cost $150 million, which got this taxpayer’s attention. Another reader noted the district was holding a workshop on the topic, termed “Facilities Master Plan Study Session & Workshop.” Having stuck my nose into the subject, I felt a duty to attend.

The meeting followed the formality of local governance: A board of directors on a raised dais in control of the meeting, flanked by staff and consultants to back them up, with the audience limited in their ability to participate. You need this formality to maintain order, one supposes, but it also works to muzzle public input. So while the board was free to interject with questions, some of which seemed designed to show they were on top of the details, the audience was limited to submitting questions that might be answered later but without the back-and-forth real-time dialog that can lead to a better answer.

The architect’s presentation started with the project’s core—options to expand the aquatics center with a bigger pool or even two pools by flipping the six tennis courts to new locations or replacing lost parking with a new parking structure, all in a residential neighborhood. It might be because I attended high schools without swimming pools in a hot climate (without a nearby beach and ocean), but I’ve always thought our current aquatic center was quite nice. But some, it seems, think it’s not grand enough, and the tail appears to be wagging the dog.

Focusing on the real purpose of our schools, another reader noted the recent decline in district test scores, suggesting this should be the real concern. Unaware of this, I took a look (you can see test scores for school districts online at California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress). Imagine my shock to find that over the last three years (comparing 2018-19 to 2021-22), all grades averaged 20% more Laguna students failed the minimal English standards. Even worse, 32% more students failed the minimal math standards. Laguna students do well when compared to poorer districts like Santa Ana Unified, as they should, and the questionable decision to close schools during Covid was undoubtedly an issue. Still, this worsening failure to meet minimal standards has yet to get the attention it deserves.

The notes for the meeting provided information on school bonds. In 2001, Laguna voters generously approved a $39 million bond measure for school improvements. It seemed justified at the time, but who imagined it would create an appetite for greater spending? The notes suggested higher tax rates that could justify new bonds ranging from $80 million to $240 million! In a district with declining enrollment, the school board seems to have lost its way.

After the meeting, some expressed the opinion that perhaps the district had listened and the cheaper of the options would be selected. A better response was those more expensive options were an old ploy, a ‘red herring’ to make outrageous spending seem almost reasonable. The real solution and at least one school board director agrees, is to find our way back to a focus on learning, not spending. There’s meaning in that.

Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ’50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected].

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Well said. We are spending money, time, and energy on the promotion of an expansion that does NOT help student achievement. It might provide a shiny trophy for the current board to show off and take credit for many years, dust, construction inconveniences, etc. later, but this expansion will NOT help students. Thank you, Skip for pulling the test scores out from under the rug. Our board majority and superintendent do not like those “insignificant details” to be set out in the sunlight. We can only hope that the neighboring homeowners and taxpayers are getting a good taste as to how the superintendent and board majority operate: limit public comment, focus everyone away from the bottomless pit of money spent, and act like they are doing everyone else a favor.

  2. I agree with Skip Hellewell, nothing in the meeting focused on academic needs or improvement for students other than those in swimming and waterpolo.

  3. Thank you Skip for mentioning declining scores, and enrollment all while increased facilities spending which does nothing to elevate the quality of our students education. Thank you for shining a light on topics and concerns many of us parents have been “battling on the local front lines of education” for years. Myself over 14. Our board majority and administration leadership has been encouraging, promoting and offering raises to administration that repeatedly shows lack of respect for local community and indeed tried to make people believe our district leadership is doing us a favor. Meantime our kids have less instructional minutes with their teachers in the coming year than ever with their fifth new bell schedule in five years this fall at the high school, yet all data shows that connection with teachers and in person learning is the best solution for education. Our administration leadership dismisses this data and instead pushes forward with a facilities project that ignores experts, still ignores costs and concerns and impact of citizens. Time for major changes in our district and board leadership.

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