Seeking autonomy, Lagunitas Waldorf petitions for charter

04/19/2012

On a sunny late morning earlier this week, a little blonde girl, her class on a break, sat alone at her wooden desk inside a classroom at the San Geronimo School. Her attention was focused downwards, at her carefully moving hands. She was knitting a purple sock.

On the other side of the two-school campus, an energetic group of first graders was beginning a Spanish lesson. “Buen-os dí-as Señ-ora Shea-fe,” the kids chanted in unison. Only a few feet beyond the classroom’s back window were three penned sheep, grazing and amicably tolerating the affections of a few lingering students. The sheep were spending the night in a neighboring barn; they were brought to the school as part of a lesson about tending the land and interaction between humans and animals. 

All were part of Lagunitas School District’s public Waldorf-Inspired Program, one of three unique elementary education programs operated by the district. But next year that number could be down to two: at a district board meeting on Tuesday, Matt Andrews, a parent representative from the Waldorf-Inspired Program (LWIP), submitted a petition for independent charter status, which would allow greater administrative and fiscal autonomy for the eight-year-old program. By law the board has 30 days to conduct a public hearing on the petition and 60 days to make a decision on whether to grant the requested charter status; the hearing is scheduled for May 10, and the board hopes to announce its decision on June 12. State law provides for a possible 30-day extension to the 60-day time limit.   

If granted charter status, the LWIP would remain public, stay in its current location on the Lagunitas campus and likely continue to share the majority of its facilities under an arrangement with the district. The program would also, however, become responsible for its own administrative and personnel decisions and no longer be subject to existing regulations about the number of allowable inter-district transfers. Because its students would not fall under the fiscal umbrella of the district, the move would effectively reduce both Lagunitas District’s operating budget—state-provided funds would fall in accordance with the lower enrollment—and the number of students the district budget is responsible for serving.  

A unique, progressive program Principal Laura Shain oversees 270 students spread among two schools and four programs. Lagunitas School and San Geronimo School are separated only by a short walk through the green, rolling campus the two schools share just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in the San Geronimo Valley. Housed in the two buildings are three kindergarten and elementary-grade programs—the Waldorf-Inspired program, a Montessori program and an Open Classroom program—as well as a middle school program where students who have graduated from all three elementary settings come together for grades six through eight.

With only 44 students, the LWIP is the smallest of all the programs. Eight of the 44, or 18 percent, Shain said, have transferred in from other districts, the highest percentage of incoming inter-district transfers of any of the programs.

The Waldorf-Inspired philosophy emphasizes a holistic approach to education, focusing on development of body, mind and spirit. Each school day begins with some kind of dynamic exercise—for example yoga, or studying math by skip-counting—and then will focus on one topic for an extended period of time. The program is also designed to adapt to the natural rhythms of the school day, implementing more physically or mentally challenging activities at optimal body-rhythmic times: immediately after lunch, when it’s harder to think, the students might work on more physically-geared activities, like handcrafts. Every Friday morning the students go for a hike.  

“I think there’s something about the gentle approach to childhood—there’s almost a purity,” Shain said about the program’s appeal to parents. “The academic pressure is not as stressful I think for some kids. I think it’s the emphasis on arts and nature and the natural rhythms.”  

Kindergarten and first grade LWIP teacher Dorothy Iselin, a longtime Waldorf educator in her first year at Lagunitas, stays in close contact with many former students. The best way to judge the program’s merits, she said, is by looking at the people its graduates have grown up to become.

“I’ve graduated a class who are now having their own children, and another class who are now in the middle of high school,” she said. “They’re extraordinary people. The thing I would say that’s most characteristic is they know themselves—they’re able to speak with confidence and I think many of them choose to make a difference in the world.”

Amid struggles, a life raft?

Yet as popular as the program is among LWIP educators and parents, to many its future is clouded by doubt: Owing to a perfect storm of state and federal funding reductions and a drop in local property tax increases, the district has been treading on unstable financial ground the last several years, wedging a constant uncertainty into budget considerations.

According to district business manager Amy Prescott, much of the fiscal pain is born from the district’s heavy reliance on property taxes: 55 percent of the annual budget comes from the revenue. When Prescott began working as business manager five or six years ago, she said, the district could expect projected annual property tax increases of six to nine percent. The last couple years that projected rate of increase has been consistently declining—or worse, not increasing at all. 

“All the programs in the last couple years have been suffering from cuts,” she said. “The drop in property tax increases and the downfall of the state budget in general have affected every program on the campus. All the programs in their own ways have struggled.”

Yet perhaps none quite so visibly as the LWIP. This year the program employs 2.6 teachers. The .6 is Kerin Meri, who teaches fourth and fifth grade but can only work part time because of budget limitations. At noon, when Meri leaves, the fourth and fifth grade students join up with the third grade. “It’s not an ideal situation,” Shain said. “And she feels a loss. It’s hard for her.” 

But for many involved with the Waldorf-Inspired Program the real flashpoint came last spring, when two LWIP teachers, coincidentally the two least-senior teachers in the district, were given pink slips because of budget shortfalls. After some shuffling and a resignation by a more senior teacher, the two LWIP positions were reinstated, yet for many LWIP parents the message was shockingly clear: the program they loved could be easily and quickly dissolved because of greater district budget woes.

Andrews said that beginning three or four years ago the LWIP program started losing families. He draws a connection between the drop in enrollment and a lack of reassurance from district decisions, most notably the pink slip incident. “That was sort of one of those watershed moments that everyone said: ‘If they’re willing to do this then they’re not supporting us,’” he said. “They made some decisions that really scared people.”

After lengthy discussions considering a host of possible options for the program, beginning in October, Andrews said, he and other members of the LWIP’s elected parent Administrative Council (AC) began talking seriously about petitioning for charter status. The group later received a donation to conduct an initial fiscal impact study, and after a series of meetings, numerous emails and untold hours of work, the group decided to move forward with the petition. Signatures of support were collected from parents, and the AC announced at a board meeting last month their intention to submit the petition at Tuesday’s meeting.

In addition to granting the program control over its own budget and personnel decisions—LWIP teachers would not fall under district seniority rules and an additional administrator would be hired—the move is intended to attract at least some additional out-of-district residents, which would allow for an immediate switch to three full-time teachers and a gradual move away from the current shared-grade model.

LWIP teacher Bill Kobabe, watering plants at the school on a break from class, emphasized that the LWIP’s motivation in seeking charter status is really about nothing other than trying to ensure the longterm viability of the program. 

“What we see as being one of the problems here right now with being part of the district—our program’s been on kind of a downward spiral and we see that eventually [it could disappear],” Kobabe said. “This is our opinion about it, the people who are involved with doing the charter—eventually the district’s [small size is going to become prohibitive] and we’re going to have to shut down this part of the program, so on a certain level we’re doing this to ensure our own survival, our own future here as a program.”

Andrews was somewhat more pointed. “If we thought we had the support we needed from the district, we wouldn’t be making the move we are making here,” he said. “For us this was the best course for not only the program’s surviving, but thriving in future.”

Big questions

Heather Podoll, whose efforts were behind bringing in the school’s popular temporary animal visitors, is among the most veteran of LWIP parents: besides a first grader and a fifth grader currently enrolled in the program, she has a seventh grader who began with the district’s first Waldorf-Inspired kindergarten class. She was drawn to the curriculum in particular because of its emphases on nature-based learning and development of rich language skills.

“It’s been such a wonderful environment for my kids to learn. It’s been really inspiring on every sensory level—it’s just been so nurturing for them and I see at each of these different ages just how much they’ve gained from that,” she said.

With the potential for a big change on the horizon, she said, she and other LWIP parents are feeling both hopeful and uncertain about the future of their program.

“I feel optimistic but I also feel like there’s a lot we don’t quite know yet about how all the finances are going to work out,” she said, keeping one eye on the children playing with the sheep. “And I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping we can find a way to make this a workable, winnable situation for everybody, and I think there’s kind of still a lot to be done to figure out exactly how that’s going to fit.”

And while generally the LWIP parents are feeling grateful for the work put in by their peers and hopeful the proposal will work out, Podoll added, there is one LWIP parent in particular who has been raising a lot of questions.

That parent is Robert Ovetz. A social sciences community college professor, Ovetz runs a blog called Lagunitas School District Watch that “monitors the decisions of the Lagunitas School District to hold it accountable to its students and all the residents of the Valley.” He has posted several entries sharply questioning the LWIP’s proposal for charter status. The latest, from April 14, was titled “Shut Up and Sign”; in it he described the meeting held for the petition signing as essentially a schmoozing event lacking any real debate or discussion about the petition.

Ovetz said he hasn’t in fact made up his mind yet about the merits of the switch, but rather is troubled by what he perceives as a lack of transparency and responsible governance on the part of the program’s Administrative Council, where the main push for the charter petition has come from. “I want to know more,” he said. “I want to be able to have an open, honest and transparent discussion before this is rushed through. It has not happened.”

While the majority of LWIP parents seem to cautiously support the proposal, parents of children in the district’s other programs are far more skeptical.

The concern, of course, is that the move would end up hurting the remaining programs in the district because of diminished financial resources. Rebecca Jenkins, mother of one Open Classroom student and one middle schooler, said she and other parents are scared about the potential impact, especially because of Lagunitas’s status as a basic-aid district, a classification of funding that she understands has traditionally suffered more when it has implemented charter schools.

“At the end of the day I totally believe that everyone involved just wants what’s best for their kids,” she said. “I just hope they don’t take our school district down.”

Andrews emphasized that the AC proceeded with the petition only after concluding that the move would not harm the district financially. “One of the things we were most concerned with was the fiscal impact [on the district],” he said. “That’s something we felt very strongly about because we’re a part of this community. Some of us have kids in the Open Classroom and middle school—it’s not like we wanted to hurt the district.”

And from their initial findings, he said, the move would in fact benefit the district financially. Andrews argues that even as the district would lose two percent of its overall revenue, because it would also be losing 20 percent of its population, district spending per pupil would actually significantly increase as a result of the move, from $10,827 per year to $12,500. Andrews said the switch would certainly mean restructuring, “but there’s no way they can actually look at this and say the district is going to be hurt fiscally.”

Prescott wasn’t convinced. Speaking before Tuesday’s petition submission and emphasizing that she had not yet been able to conduct a proper analysis, she said she anticipated the charter status would indeed have a negative fiscal impact on the district. Measuring only the amount spent per pupil, she said, can be misleading because of the numerous other factors involved: special education students, for example, require much more spending per student.

If the move resulted in a district budget loss of at least $75,000, as was expected before the petition’s submission, Prescott said an impact on the district would be inevitable.

“My philosophy on budgeting is you always want to reduce where you can before it affects actual staffing reductions. I don’t have a reduction of $75,000 to $100,000 of supplies that you can cut out of the budget, so it [would] impact programs in every way.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting, a discussion on the petition process offered a preview of what may be in store for the district as it seeks to answer questions before next month’s public hearing and ultimately reach a decision in June. A flurry of occasionally tense questions for the board and the district’s hired legal counsel, attorney Ed Sklar, surged from the 30 or so concerned and confused parents who crammed into the Lagunitas classroom where the meeting took place. The parents and educators raised questions about everything from the potential impact on transportation safety to the definitions of the five vague criteria that can legally be used to determine the merits of a charter proposal.

At one point trustee Denise Santa Cruz-Bohman appealed for civility and informed decision-making. 

“I’d like to point out—if you hear nothing I ever say, listen carefully—no one in this room should have made up their mind whether this is a good idea or not because this petition has not been read. And there’s been some back and forth, us and them kind of stuff already going on, and I would really appreciate it if that would stop. I would really like us to really take a deep breath, read this [petition] and try to support each other as we go through this.”

For her part, Principal Shain said that she could see potential pros and cons from the charter move.

“I hope that wherever we end up we are able to create a new form of working together that will be positive,” she said. “I just hope it’s not too messy wherever it goes, because I really feel like either way we can make it work. Nobody’s asking for anything horrible.”