2009-12-31 / Front Page

Year in review The top Conejo school district story in 2009: Budget worries

By Joann Groff joann@theacorn.com

The parents, teachers and staff of Conejo Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) spent a great deal of time considering budget cuts in 2009, but the district has also been dealing with test scores, start-up charters and a superintendent search during the past year

Pink slips distributed, budget set

In March, CVUSD staff sent out 160 pink slips to district employees as a result of budget shortfalls. Dep. Superintendent Jeff Baarstad called the district’s 2009-10 budget “the most difficult we’ve ever attempted.”

The estimated ending balance for the district was just more than $7 million, which primarily consisted of the state-required 3 percent reserve. Baarstad also acknowledged a “monumental” deficit of $8.45 million.

“That’s the first thing we’re going to have to deal with in the 2010-11 school year,” he said.

In May, the district was able to rescind about 30 percent of its layoff notices, and in June, 40 more teachers were brought back.

“I saw tremendous courage,” CVUSD Superintendent Mario Contini said of the employees who were given notices. “I heard (teachers) saying things like, ‘I can’t worry about this right now. I have kids to take care of.’ That’s a testament to the type of people that work in this district.”

MATES gets

Meadows campus

In May, Meadows Arts and Technology Elementary School was awarded the recently closed CVUSD Meadows Elementary campus to house the new charter.

CVUSD fought the formation of MATES, but it was eventually green-lighted by the Ventura County Office of Education board. After refusing to allow the charter to use the Meadows Elementary campus, the MATES board took CVUSD to court.

Simi Valley Superior Court Judge Worley ruled in favor of Meadows Arts and Technology Elementary School. Because MATES is a “conversion” charter school, meaning the program had already been established, the school has the right to remain at the site, the judge ruled.

The school opened its doors to students on the Meadows campus in the fall.

“We have maintained all along that the law supports the right of a conversion charter to remain on its original campus,” said Marlo Hartsuyker, president of the MATES board. “MATES will provide an outstanding public education for the children of this neighborhood and the larger community.”

Superintendent anounces

that he will retire

As classes got into full swing in September, CVUSD Superintendent Mario Contini announced he would retire in June 2010. Dep. Superintendent Baarstad will replace Contini.

During Contini’s superintendency, CVUSD began a successful junior kindergarten program, opened the Early Childhood Development Center and created a new science-and-technologybased magnet school.

The district has faced difficulties in the wake of the state budget crisis, including layoffs and school closures. The process of shuttering schools entangled Contini’s first couple of years as superintendent.

“You just don’t have the time to do the job the way you want to do it,” Contini said. “You’re always cutting corners to get things done. That’s not my style. It’s not stress, those kinds of problems. It’s more disappointment. But no matter how tough it got, we all stuck together.”

First school goes to

Program Improvement

Also in September, CVUSD saw its first elementary school go into a remedial program for schools with low standardized test scores. Conejo Elementary entered Program Improvement, which requires the school to collaborate with a local educational agency for up to five years to improve school performance.

As a result, 39 children were pulled from the school by their parents. Eleven went to Westlake Elementary and 28 to Westlake Hills.

Conejo entered Program Improvement because two of the school’s subgroups—English learners and Hispanics—didn’t increase their scores by as much as California requires.

Forty-six percent of the students in those groups needed to test at the advanced or proficient levels on their exams and, according to Adequate Yearly Progress scores, they didn’t.

Park Oaks momentarily

considered for closure

As the year approached its end, the CVUSD facilities committee made a surprise recommendation—to close Park Oaks Elementary School. In the previous year the board voted to shutter two elementary schools, Meadows and University.

Park Oaks parents and staff fought the recommendation and suggested the school become a model for other schools with many minorities.

Park Oaks’ English-language learners and other subgroups have higher test scores than those at comparable schools. Almost every grade level has bilingual aides.

“Park Oaks has a legacy for having some of the most outstanding principals, and they are able to attract the best and the brightest teachers,” said board member Tim Stephens.

“I’d like to see us step away from the idea of closing Park Oaks. I’d like to get behind them on this model school idea.”

Other board members agreed, and the possible closure was taken off the table.

Bridges petition

struck down

Also this month, CVUSD’s Board of Education voted against the formation of Bridges Charter School, an outgrowth of the dissatisfaction of parents and staff with Conejo Elementary’s Open Classrooms Program. The group will now appeal to the Ventura County Office of Education.

Trustees voted 4-1 to reject the petition for Bridges Charter School after identifying more than 50 deficiencies in the school’s petition.

Bridges Charter School would be based on the whole child education teaching style, focusing on parent involvement, social development and a wide variety of subjects.

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