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S.B. Schools Chief: County Schools Improving; Rough Road Ahead

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State of Education Address touts achievements and warns of more cuts

By Lee Ragin –

In a climate of fiscal uncertainty and turnaround involving several schools, San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools Gary Thomas offered a ray of hope during his annual State of Education speech last week at California Theatre of the Performing Arts.

Before a crowd of hundreds, Thomas touted promises kept in his first full year in office. He used the speech to tell listeners how far, in his view, the county education system has come under his leadership and to propose new directions for the future.

Thomas focused on progress and finances saying, a lot of positive work has been done but that more needs to be done to improve county schools.

“Make no mistake, getting there is not easy, but getting there is exactly what we're committed to do,” Thomas said. “It's what the children of our county deserve.”

Thomas told educators, parents, students and others in the audience that progress in the county’s schools includes an 11 point jump on the Academic Performance Index last year, to 757, and 171 schools have reached the state API standard of 800.

He said nine more schools reached 900 API or better, including Judson and Brown Elementary in Redlands and Fallsvale Elementary in the Bear Valley district. Thomas said, Judson and Brown were nominated, along with Lytle Creek Elementary, to be a National Blue Ribbon school.

He called on school districts to make a renewed commitment to high standards despite the state's financial woes.

“This is the time we need to continue to push forward. Our financial resources cannot be an excuse. Parents and business leaders are most interested in educational outcomes that have relevance to the world our students enter when they leave school,” Thomas said. “They want to know about high school graduation rates, and how our students are scoring on the college entrance tests. They want to know if our students are getting the skills they need to prepare for the modern workforce.”

Thomas’ called for improved graduation rates, higher standards and achievement comes at a difficult time. National reports put California’s per pupil spending among the bottom half of states.

Per-pupil funding in the current school year is $5,281, nearly $1,500 less than the projected $6,742, Thomas said. He warned that funding could be cut an additional $370 per student if November ballot measures to raise taxes for education fail to pass,” Thomas said.

He told reporters during a media briefing that the county’s four-year dropout rate fell to 20.9 percent in 2009-10, down from 26.3 percent in 2006-07.

“We still have a long way to go. Twenty percent obviously is completely unacceptable,” Thomas said.

Four years ago when CALPADS data first came out, the dropout data showed 26.3 percent of San Bernardino County high school students leaving over four-year periods.

“I'm encouraged to see the needle moving in the right direction, but we must continue our steadfast efforts in this area with our Everyone Counts Call to Action initiative, the District Attorney's Let's End Truancy Program, model School Attendance Review Board, or SARBs, and a multitude of other district and interagency initiatives,” Thomas said.

On the subject of finances Thomas struggled to keep a tone of optimism. He said after three years of cutting budgets to “skeleton crew” levels, districts next year could face a mid-year cut of $370 per student in state funding.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed ballot initiative for November could, if approved, provide $6.9 billion in temporary tax increases and $2.5 billion in revenue for public schools.

“Don’t be fooled, this is not new funding. It would only pay back a quarter of the $10 billion in deferrals that the state government owes to public schools,” Thomas said.

He said if voters turn down Gov. Brown’s initiative, districts may have to cut school terms by three weeks.

“That’s the wrong direction. We already have one of the shortest school years in the world, and one of the shortest school days.”

“The result of education on an individual's life has no boundaries. It impacts families, neighbourhoods and communities; our workforce and economy; healthcare and social welfare; our juvenile justice system and prisons. Nothing has the potential to make such a significant difference in the quality of life for an individual, a community and a nation,” Thomas said.

“That's why you cannot have a serious conversation about the economy today, without having a serious conversation about education. They are interconnected; and the strength of one is dependent upon the strength of the other.”

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