We are in the midst of an election season filled with messaging aimed at persuading the public to believe in candidates based on their ideology and plan for the future.
With this messaging in full swing, you might have seen full-page ads in the Merced Sun-Star or heard commercials on local radio stations stating, “Hold Our Elected School Board Accountable: They work for us!”
These ads are not part of this election and are sponsored by Building Healthy Communities, which is funded by The California Endowment. BHC is a 10-year-old, $1 billion comprehensive community initiative launched in 2010 to advance statewide policy, change the narrative and transform 14 of California’s communities most devastated by health inequities into places where all people have an opportunity to thrive.
More than two decades ago, The California Endowment was created out of Blue Cross Blue Shield of California and WellPoint Health Networks. The endowment is a private, statewide foundation that focuses on encouraging good health and access to quality health care for all Californians. The endowment is enormous, with some $3.6 billion in assets.
Eight years ago, when I was serving as the superintendent of Planada Elementary School District, the endowment came to Merced because it had identified south Merced, Beachwood, Planada and Le Grand as the focus of their work. The endowment planned to spend $1 million a year for 10 years. At the time, I was very excited to think about how $10 million could change those communities.
However, when I attended the first few meetings I discovered BHC was only interested in “policy change” and not the construction of facilities.
Seven years into implementation, the endowment is on track to have spent more than $7 million in Merced and eastern Merced County. When I tell people this, their reaction is usually: “On what?”
The endowment and BHC are private entities and not subject to public records requests. BHC gives small grants ($500 to $2,000) and has partnered with the Merced County Office of Education on The Parent Institute and has done some restorative justice work with Le Grand High School.
The group says it is collaborative and wants to work with the community, though I find some of its tactics and methods counterproductive. Its current campaign to “Hold Our Elected School Board Accountable” is aimed at getting parents involved with the new Local Control Accountability Plan process conducted by schools. The LCAP is the formal process to collaboratively set school district goals with all stakeholders. Since the process is new to districts, I wonder if this type of confrontational campaign is necessary, especially since BHC never addressed any concerns about LCAPs with the superintendents or board members.
Since I approve all the LCAPs in Merced County for the state Department of Education, I am interested in any conversation involving the improvement of district LCAPs. These district LCAPs were due June 30, 2015. Yet, districts implemented the process and are already seeing results.
For example, Weaver Union School District in south Merced reports implementing a robust English-learner program increasing English proficiency from 18 percent to 33 percent. Weaver also hired more counselors, increasing sessions with students by 20 percent, and provided teachers and staff with positive behavioral intervention and support training, a schoolwide program to increase positive school climate and student behavior. These are a few examples from just one of the county’s 20 districts.
I support increasing parent input but wonder about BHC’s approach. Rather than spending thousands of dollars in advertising, why not work with the school districts and county superintendent to develop positive relationships and give us a chance to address concerns? Implementing the LCAP process in a state with 6.4 million students in 1,000 districts in two years often feels like we’re building the plane while flying it.
History tells us confrontational change didn’t work very well.
When I was superintendent at Planada, we provided coffee and doughnuts to parents as they walked onto campus with their children at the beginning of the school day. At first they were apprehensive, but in time the group grew and eventually they began meeting with the principal nearly every Friday morning and becoming engaged in the school culture.
BHC’s attempt to protest and picket the Merced City Council to provide additional funds for a Youth Council is another example of how BHC prefers to use confrontation rather than collaboration. If I were to start a Youth Council in Merced, I would begin by collaborating with the high schools. I would ask each high school for one representative from their student leadership team and match that number with students selected or elected at-large. The school representative would serve as a conduit between the schools, other students, parents and the city. When I suggested this to Brian Mimura, the local BHC program manager, he told me it was a great idea.
I’m disappointed in BHC because with $10 million it had potential to do some great things and make real changes. This money could have been used on more than divisive advertising campaigns; it should have been focused on enacting real collaborative change with the children in Merced County.
Individually, we can do good things. Together, we can do great things.
Steven E. Gomes, Ed.D., is the Merced County superintendent of schools.