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Placer County Superintendent of Schools on Issues Facing The Public School System

Back Q&A Feb 11, 2019 By Sena Christian

In 2006 Gayle Garbolino-Mojica was elected Placer County Superintendent of Schools. Her office works in conjunction with 16 local school districts, and is responsible for overseeing the districts’ financial solvency and academic accountability. Comstock’s spoke with Garbolino-Mojica about major trends and issues impacting the county’s school system. 

What is the role of the Placer County Office of Education in working with local districts?

The mandate of responsibilities for a county superintendent is to oversee the school districts in our county. Up until about three or four years ago, we were primarily responsible for the financial solvency of each school district. We had to make sure each school district met their minimum reserve in their current year and in their two out years. If they were projecting they were not going to make their reserve levels, then at that point the county superintendent has a more active role. With the creation of the Local Control Funding Formula and the Local Control Accountability Plan, we now have academic accountability for our school districts, as well. We now have a baseline of where our students countywide achieve, and each school district through their LCAP needs to write goals to eight state priorities, and then measure those goals and show improvement year after year for all students, and then subgroups of students. If they fail to make those academic advances, then the county superintendent can go in intervene and make recommendations. Last year was the first year that we had schools in California identified that needed assistance from the county office, and we only had two school districts [Roseville Joint Union High School District and the Loomis Union School District] out of our 16 that had areas that needed growth and improvement. Our mandated job is also to monitor teachers credentials throughout the county to make sure every teacher teaching in a class has the appropriate credential and is appropriately assigned.

Considering your office serves both school districts in cities like Roseville and rural areas like Colfax, how are the issues or needs within these various districts different or similar?
In the foothills, in Auburn and Foresthill and Colfax on up … you see a decrease in student enrollment. With that, the issue becomes whether or not they can maintain the type of education they have.

A lot of the growth in our population is in our suburban areas: Roseville, Rocklin, Lincoln — they’re seeing increased enrollment [and] there’s a space issue … Whereas, in the foothills, in Auburn and Foresthill and Colfax on up, you see the exact opposite — you see a decrease in student enrollment. With that, the issue becomes whether or not they can maintain the type of education they have.

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One of the things they have in common — which is something every public school in California has — is the drastic increase in the cost of special education. About 8.8 percent of our expenditures come from the federal government to fund special education; it was supposed to be 40 percent. We’ve operated around 17 percent historically.

Another issue is the rising cost of CalSTRS and CalPERS. A couple of years ago, [then] Gov. Brown changed the formula and required school districts and county offices to pay more for individuals’ retirement — school districts and county offices now have to pay upward of 22-23 percent. The burden that has put on the school districts across the state has been phenomenal. So with those two compounding factors … we could see a lot more county offices and school districts become insolvent unless there’s some sort of intervention.

Why has the cost to provide special education services increased?

In the state of California, we’re seeing an increase in the number of students qualifying for special education. In the last 10 years, there are many more children being diagnosed with autism. In order to provide a free and appropriate education, which is what we’re required to do for special education students, there are a lot of services you have to put into place — academic services, behavioral services, occupational therapy services, physical therapy services.

How are Placer County schools doing in closing the achievement gap, and what tools or practices have shown to be most effective?

We’re one of the top-performing counties in the state of California. There are three counties that consistently score at the top — Marin, and then Santa Clara and Placer fight for second and third. Currently, I think we are second for English/language arts and we are third for math.

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Special education, that’s an area of growth. We realized about three years ago we had a gap. Education sometimes is very siloed … [We decided] to tear down the walls [and have] general education talk to special education — and I should be providing the same staff development to both teachers — because special education students are regular education students first, and special education students typically spend great periods of time in a general education setting. So general education teachers need to know how to modify instruction for special education students. The last couple years, we’ve made that a real goal throughout our county. … so collectively, as a team, your special education teacher, your regular education teacher and any other support services that a child may need, all work together, have the same type of training, know what the other one is doing, so I’m not talking apples with one set of teachers and oranges with another set of teachers. We’re all talking the same language.

We know that early childhood education is critical to laying the foundation for a person’s future, so what has your office done to boost these offerings?

That’s actually my largest department right now. We run all the state preschools for the school districts in the county. [We] have a contract to run some of the Head Start programs, as well. Our early childhood education department works with providers … We’re trying to make sure that the children — whether you’re in a state preschool program or a private provider or an at-home setting — have the opportunity to access high-quality materials, high-quality education. For state preschools and Head Start, there’s an income eligibility; in the state of California, our eligibility is quite low. A family of four for Head Start is something like $24,000 or $25,000. So if you make $28,000, you’re not going to qualify. If we could see the income caps raised, realizing that there is a portion of our population that still is having difficulty qualifying but by no means are they able to pay.

Are you doing anything to address teacher shortages?

Given the schools we have here and the reputation our schools have, we are able to draw candidates, but we are still seeing a shortage of qualified individuals in all areas. One of the things we’ve done in the last couple years, which is really exciting, is we have been approved by the California Teaching Commission to offer credentials locally. So now we run credential programs for administration, teacher induction and special education. We have seen a tremendous benefit in the quality of the individuals that we are able to hire from those programs. The universities were just not able to provide us the numbers of individuals who are ready to go into a position. They just couldn’t meet the demand, so we took it upon ourselves and it is growing in popularity.

Charter school enrollment in Placer County has increased 27 percent in the last five years. How has this increase impacted education across the board in your county?

At this point, we have 22 charter schools in Placer County, and they’re a variety of charter schools. We have independent charter schools, which interact with a credentialed teacher anywhere from once a week for an hour to once every 21 days for an hour. With that type of charter school it is pretty clear that there’s a positive correlation to the amount of teacher time to achievement. The children who see their teacher only once every 21 days or every two weeks or maybe only one hour a week do not perform to the level of students who see a teacher three times a week. We also have a handful of charter schools that are classroom-based; they are very traditional with children sitting there in classrooms 180 days a year. Those charter schools typically outperform the other charter schools. We have some very high-quality charter schools in this county and then we have some charter schools that I have concerns about, and we keep tabs on them.

The way that charter schools in California have been structured, is they have created this wide berth for innovation and research, but at the end of the day, if you don’t score as well as your neighborhood peers, we shut you down. Doing that is hard, it’s very emotional, you have parents who show up to public hearings, you have kids crying that you’re taking away their school. But you look at them and say, I can’t allow you to attend a school where the achievement is so poor compared to what your traditional neighborhood school can provide. Here in Placer County, because we have high-achieving schools, charter schools have to make sure they meet that already high standard. Whereas if you go to another county where the achievement is lower, as long as charter schools meet that level they can continue to be reauthorized. So that gets treated very differently in very different places, depending on the quality of their traditional public schools.

What priorities do you want to see at the state level with the new administration?

I think the new governor needs to work with the Legislature [on] some basic reforms to the charter school law. We adopted this law 25 years ago and have made very minimal changes, and across the nation there have been states that have adopted charter school legislation after us — we were the second in the nation — so there are states that have followed us that have learned lessons and have laws that are very different. We have a lot of improvement to make, and I really do hope Gov. Newsom with the State Board of Education and with the Legislature can take on some really hard issues that prior administrations have been resistant to take on that follow national best practices when setting guidelines and policies that affect charter schools. It’s going to be messy, but it’s necessary.

Also Gov. Newsom made a priority throughout his campaign on the importance of early childhood education, which hasn’t been a focus for the last eight years, so I’m anticipating we’ll see some new reforms and some new opportunities.