Let’s Welcome a New Superintendent


It’s the public’s right to question methods employed by our school board and the search firm it hired, but the board soon will choose a superintendent.  Once it does, we owe it to students and parents to look over the horizon to the future for our schools.

The biggest mistake we could make now is failure to manage expectations, and think any new superintendent will have all the right ideas or answers.  Instead, we should expect a superintendent with professional skills to help sustain our public school success stories, and recommend changes needed to make our schools even better.

To do that the new superintendent must be responsive to the character and values of the community.  We elect our school board to be the voice of the community, ensure public participation, give clear policy direction, and duly authorize the actions of the superintendent who is a senior education administrator not a political leader.

We entrusted the school board to act on our behalf, so we should welcome the new chief educator with a generous spirit of good will. We must make this an opportunity to think ahead and move forward.

No matter what our concerns may have been in the past, we need in good faith to support the success of the new superintendent.

A high performing academic leader will be the first to tell us that the long term ideas and solutions to ensure our schools are ready for the future will need to come from the community itself.  Let’s give this new superintendent every chance to bring out the best in a community that is unstinting when it comes to support for public schools.

Of course, any superintendent is only as good as the school board that provides oversight, and directs the superintendent in managing the exceptional human resources and tangible assets with which our schools are so well-endowed. We need a school board that upholds in its legislative role and public deliberations to the same high standard of rigor and excellence we expect of students, teachers and public school employees.

We need a school board and a superintendent who are literate enough in public affairs to understand that every student, teacher, parent, citizen, taxpayer and voter has a civic and moral stake in enlightened public school governance.

Howard Hills, Laguna Beach

Realism Strengthens Schools


The Journal of Educational Psychology recently published a National Science Foundation study on high school science curriculum. Specialists in cognitive studies at Columbia University Teacher’s College found student performance enhanced by realism in instructional narratives. Learning about Marie Curie’s struggles with repeated failure or how Einstein overcame rejection and anti-Semitism dispelled “science-is-for-geniuses-only” myths, making science and math achievement accessible to more students.

When our daughter enrolled as a freshman at Stanford, in parent orientation we heard the university’s students were like ducks on a lake, appearing to glide but paddling furiously under the surface. Cleverness aside, unrealistic expectations for high achievement without revealed struggle contributes to Ivy League student burnout.  Realism in education culture values struggles and failures that enable students to discover their unique individual gifts and pursue sustainable success.

It’s not just Ivy League schools. We are responsible for realism in the narrative of education culture in our local schools, so students can realize potential as valued members of the learning community.  Without realism supporting sustainable achievement, risk of frustration, discouragement, under-achievement and isolation increases.  This can happen even amid the success we support and celebrate in excellent schools generally serving our community so well.

In that context, people are questioning the “good news only” triumphalism of our school district’s so-called “Annual Report” to the community.  This commercial marketing quality publication presents polished images and symbolism of soaring achievement without substantive realism taking into account challenges and difficulties our schools face.

The glossy 12-page color magazine style report arrived at doorsteps packaged with high-end life style and luxury real estate periodicals.  Instead of a balanced rendition of measured strengths and weaknesses, the report omits inconvenient truths and selectively features skewed test scores.

Banished from the slick promotional optics of the document are achievement results confirming an urgent need to give our skilled teachers resources for in-house locally developed curriculum reforms.  That need is most acute for science and math K-12.

The report praises “investments” in schools but omits any semblance of a “balance sheet” showing all known liabilities, including our district’s $30 million share of the state’s unfunded $50 billion teacher pension obligation.  Politically contrived feel-good awards from Sacramento are exaggerated, devaluing far more meaningfully deserved awards for true local heroes.

As such, the report lacks the confident and affirming realism parents and students deserve.  This does not engender broad based community optimism empowering informed local control of our schools.

Howard Hills, Laguna Beach

School Board Split Over Fee Hike


Schools Reject Fee Hike on New Building” (Indy, May 13) suggests our school board “refused to impose a hike on fees,” after “district staff” put the revenue increase for homeowners on the board’s agenda.  But it was the board that set fee hikes in motion last December, by approving a contract for a consultant’s report to “justify” increased school facility fees for homeowners.  Spending thousands in tax dollars for a report to rubberstamp higher fees was buried on the consent calendar for approval without public discussion.

It was the board president’s duty under applicable bylaws to approve or disapprove adding the fee hike on the May 10 agenda, along with a public hearing state law mandates before raising school fees.  The May 10 proceedings confirmed school districts can impose additional fees for new or remodeled homes, on top of local property taxes that pay 90 percent of our community’s local school costs.

However, state law also requires a legal finding of “reasonable relationship” between increased construction fees and evidence-based projections of increased school enrollment.  This fee increase would raise fees to build or remodel a home from an estimated current average around $5,500 to around $8,000, and was set for quick approval on May 10.

But questions arose in the first public discussion of the report.  In addition to calls for more robust public participation and input from the in-coming superintendent, concern was expressed about absence of persuasive locally sourced demographic evidence.

For example, the report implausibly assumes city permits for 3,500 future housing units in Laguna Beach, including 2,300 single-family homes averaging 3,500 square feet each.  The report also failed to address projections for stable if not declining student populations recognized by our school board last year.

Still, two board members called for approval of new fees even if not justified by the report, despite state law requiring justification.  A majority seemed to favor revising the report then approving the fee increase.  The fee increase was tabled by a close 3-2 vote declared by the board’s clerk amid considerable confusion.

See for yourself.  Go to LBUSD.org, board meeting of May 10, public hearing (Agenda Item 12), facility fee adjustment (Agenda Item 23).  Watch your school board in action.

Howard Hills, Laguna Beach

Trust but Verify ‘Expert’ Advice


Public school governance suffers from “good news” politics, avoiding “negative” issues so we don’t offend, exalting artificially “positive” boosterism.  As long as citizens are not uncivil, our elected school board should respond to criticism on the merits instead of acting like embittered martyrs.

Over the last several months our school board has approved staff recommended math curriculum and budget policy changes that left parents who were questioning board actions feeling alternately misled and stonewalled.  When challenged in public proceedings, the school board became defensive and insisted it was just following advice of staff.

Parents were admonished, “We have to trust the experts.” Then some board members ominously defended the staff as “decent and moral” people, who would “never” act without good intentions.

Instead of owning its actions, board members attributed decisions to staff, then accused its critics of questioning the personal good character and intentions of staff! It was a classic if amateurish and clumsy “triangulation” tactic, playing stakeholders off against each other to evade accountability.

Parents never questioned “decency and morality” of senior staff, only the judgment of the board for acting based on the record staff created to support recommendations parents and taxpayers alike questioned.  The issue was whether the new polices had been presented with full disclosure of facts sufficient for an informed vote by the board.

At one point a board member even complained about not getting paid for attending long meetings as an excuse for being uninformed and needing to rely on staff “experts” in casting a vote!  So much for the spirit of conscientious civic volunteerism.

Meanwhile, staff was allowed to intercede at will during limited time allowed for public participation, interposing with parents who came to address the board.  These and even more serious material procedural irregularities left a cloud over the board’s budget and curriculum actions.

This happens when good people we elect become unduly dependent on career public employee staff, and staff allows itself to be drawn into the vacuum created by weak elected leadership. As a general rule, when staff performance becomes a battle ground issue between the elected leaders and public it means elected leaders are not managing staff work effectively.

These issues deserve to be openly debated without divisive leadership tactics by the board, whose service the public honors by taking its work seriously and caring enough to participate in board meetings.

Howard Hills, Laguna Beach

Guest column: Remembering Dick Jahraus, Fanny Lum

On a misty drizzly Sunday last week we said goodbye to two very different people, remembered and honored by a lot of the same people.

Fanny Lum worked in the front office at Laguna Beach High School. Her daughter Lorna was my classmate at Thurston and LBHS, cheerleader, on student council, a homecoming princess.

I was living a Huck Finn life at the time, helped out by local families after my single mom who was raising me died. There was really no adult I answered to…except Mrs. Lum!  She was a tiny lady, but a woman of great stature, proud of her Chinese heritage.

I was a high achiever in school, but incorrigible. All it took was a word or two from Mrs. Lum, even just a glance, to let me know one adult cared enough to set some boundaries for a kid who needed it. For me and a lot of kids over the years, she was a moral center of gravity in our lives.

Dick Jahraus was a giant of a man, but somehow still even larger than life.  His daughter Jenny was a playmate of mine in Divers Cove in the ‘50s, and later also a classmate at Thurston and LBHS.

I remember Dick as King of the Beach, not because he tried to be, he just was!  He would row his boat out through big surf, come back having speared enough fish to feed whoever showed up for that night’s cook out on the sand.

In the 1930s he and my uncle, Bob Hills, used to go fishing in Dick’s boat or spear fishing inside the reefs, not just in summer, all year long. My grandparents lived on savings in a small, but magical shingle cottage on the rim of upper Boat Canyon and my uncle gave most of what he earned to his parents.  Dick was from a prosperous family with a big house on the bluff.  Let’s just say Bob seldom had as good a day as Dick, but Dick made sure my uncle went home with enough lobster, sea bass, halibut or abalone to put dinner on the table.

When Uncle Bob graduated from LBHS in 1942, he enlisted in the Navy and went to war, served 38 years, got promoted from enlisted seaman to lieutenant commander. We went to see him in Virginia Beach just before he died. My uncle told me memories of those carefree days before the war, when the coves of North Laguna were a private play ground for kids like he and Dick Jahraus, gave him peace at night as his time grew short.

When I was a teenager in my left wing phase, Dick used to ask me if his old friend, my Uncle Bob, “knew his nephew was a smart-ass liberal?”  Then he’d smile, and wink.  In a way Dick was in real life the rugged individualist and old-fashioned business baron John Wayne portrayed in the movies.

Three decades later a frail but still formidable Dick Jahraus would see me on the street and mistake me for my Uncle Bob. Eventually I stopped correcting him. It seemed to make him happy to think for a minute that his cohort from the beach back in the 1930s somehow was back in town.

Two lives well lived in a small beach town by the sea.

Howard Hills lives in Laguna with his Lura and at any given time some or all of their five children and seven grandchildren. He is a constitutional historian and author of the upcoming book “Citizens Without A State.”